Some readers gravitate toward Tolstoy, others toward Dostoyevsky. It is fun to assign camps to your friends and even more fun to argue in favor of your own inclination. The choice takes on a special resonance in Russia, however, where the arts are a central part of the national identity.
Recently I flew to St. Petersburg, Russia, with my husband, Ian Frazier, and our daughter, Cora. We were meeting our son, Thomas, and his girlfriend, Olesya Elfimova, both of whom had flown in from Yekaterinburg, Russia, the “gateway to Siberia,” where Olesya grew up and where Thomas teaches English.
We are all writers (except for Olesya, who is a translator), and we have strong literary opinions. My husband has visited Russia many times. Even so Thomas has outstripped him in number of days spent there. He gave the rest of us a reading list that was heavily weighted toward Dostoyevsky.
Cora and I are no less partisan. We have read Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina” countless times.
Olesya, fittingly, joins Thomas in Dostoyevsky’s camp. When confronted, my husband cheated and claimed to be for Nikolai Gogol, but later admitted to being partial to Dostoyevsky.
The two great Russian authors make a good contrast because of their similarities as much as their differences. Their lives overlapped. They had wild youths, yet they settled into strong moral positions. Their astonishing literary output attracted fanatical followers.
In his late teens, Tolstoy inherited an estate called Yasnaya Polyana, three villages, and about 320 “souls,” i.e., male peasants; women and children didn’t count. Dostoyevsky, on the other hand, was on his own when, as a young man, he was arrested for participating in a Fourierist secret society, thrown into solitary confinement for eight months, sentenced to death, and then — at the last minute — sent to Siberia instead.
It’s not that Tolstoy was unfamiliar with suffering. After joining the military in a burst of romantic enthusiasm, he got stuck fighting in the Crimean War. But his novels, which are peopled with both emperors and peasants, encompass an explosive range of sensation and emotion. Dostoyevsky’s novels seem to me physically and emotionally claustrophobic, even if spiritually far-reaching.
On our first day in St. Petersburg, the split was laid down along these lines. Thomas grumbled that all he associated with Tolstoy was teeth: the much-remarked-upon teeth of Count Vronsky, the rich and handsome lover in “Anna Karenina.”
Cora jumped on Dostoyevsky’s “Brothers Karamazov,” asking why no waiter shows up at the table during the 35 pages in which Ivan Karamazov relates the anguished tale of the Grand Inquisitor.
Two days later we had the chance to visit the place where this book was written — Dostoyevsky’s last apartment, now a museum. He moved there after his literary success so that he could have a study as well as rooms for his family. He kept his desk in strict order, working from 11 at night to 4 or 5 in the morning.
Tea was always kept hot in the samovar, and he thought only he could make it right. When he drank tea made by his wife, he would say, “Oh, how wretched I am.” He died on the couch, gazing at the Bible given to him by the wives of the Decembrists who had been imprisoned with him.
Across the landing from the apartment was a stylish exhibition where spot-lit materials about Dostoyevsky glowed in the dark. The writer was locked up in the Secret House, which was the worst section of one of the most terrible political prisons, the Alekseyevsky Ravelin. It was torn down over a century ago, and little trace of it remains at the Peter and Paul Fortress where it once stood. Now in the exhibition was a glowing architectural rendering of the place.
For a more visceral approach, Thomas, Olesya and I went on a pilgrimage to the Sennaya Square area, where Dostoyevsky wrote “Crime and Punishment” and where the novel is set. Thomas, who had studied in St. Petersburg, looked with a reverential air for major addresses while Olesya reminisced about a visit a decade earlier. “There were these mysterious spots that everyone knew,” she said. “You walked by imagining what happened.”
People still seek out these mysterious spots. Across the street from the courtyard of the building where Raskolnikov, the main character of “Crime and Punishment,” was supposed to have lived is a store named Raskolnikov Grocery. Painted on its window is an ax, a reference to the murder weapon.
In Russia, courtyard gates are usually left open, but this one was locked. We slipped in behind an exiting car, and the driver yelled at us. After gazing at Raskolnikov’s entryway, we left the courtyard at the same time as a woman and her young daughter. The mother told Olesya the gate was locked because every day tour groups came by.
Meanwhile an older Russian woman led eight high school students up to the gate and started pressing buttons. When the mother objected, the group broke up and drifted away. But by the time the woman and her daughter were down the block, the teacher was back with her flock of T-shirted and flanneled teenagers. As we moved on, they were buzzed in.
The area was poor when Dostoyevsky lived there, and the canals that surrounded it on three sides stank. I had reread the beginning of “Crime and Punishment” the night before, and part of the magic of looking at the place now was how it made you see through its middle-class present into its more rugged past.
Thomas, Olesya and I retraced Raskolnikov’s footsteps on the day of the murder. When we walked into the somewhat dilapidated courtyard of the murdered pawnbroker, Olesya said: “Ah, this is more like the old yellow these buildings were painted. Sick, dirty yellow. Asylums were always painted yellow. Dostoyevsky’s references to yellow immediately brought this to mind. In class they told us to count the yellows.”
Next was Moscow. In the Tolstoys’ 16-room winter house were many objects: books, a chess set, a piano, a tiger skin, a closet of clothes. On the landing an upright stuffed bear held a plate for visiting cards.
Tolstoy was a man of obsessive enthusiasms. At the back of the house was a workroom with his cobbler tools, which he used to make shoes, including a pair for his oldest daughter Tatyana’s future husband. Next to it was his study, where he wrote by the light of a single candle and received the “common” people through the backstairs, which he also used to come and go unnoticed. Kitty-cornered was the room of his valet, whose job was to take Tolstoy’s wife and children to balls, since Tolstoy refused to go.
The Tolstoys moved there after his spiritual awakening. He and his wife, Sophia, were soon quarreling furiously over his desire to give his money to the peasants. Sophia wanted it for their children. Their compromise was rancorous. Their son Vanya, a prodigy who had already dictated a story published in a children’s magazine, died of scarlet fever at 6 at their home. By the end of Tolstoy’s life, the couple’s bedroom had been moved into a sort of foyer between the dining room and nursery.
Sophia preserved 6,000 objects for posterity, in homage to her husband’s genius.
After our visit Thomas said, “Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky were on different paths to the same destination.” What was that, I wondered. “God, faith,” he said. “You choose the paths that match your brain. I prefer Dostoyevsky because that’s the way I think.”
He and I took the metro back to our hotel and got off at the Lenin Library stop. Waiting for us above ground was a statue of Dostoyevsky, bigger than life, grimly slouching, eyes cast down, tension in his legs and in the hand resting on his thigh.
The five of us went on a day trip to Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy’s country estate. You get a sense of expansiveness and ease as soon as you walk through the towers at the gate and up the birch-lined walk. The family wanted beauty to be natural looking, said our young, serious-minded, English-speaking guide. There were orchards, a greenhouse and a large pond. Like Levin in “Anna Karenina,” Tolstoy reaped and sowed alongside the peasants here.
The main house is one of several estate buildings. The public may view nine of its 20 rooms. The library consists of 23,000 volumes in 39 languages. Tolstoy read five hours a day, underlining, folding corners and grading. He gave bad marks to Shakespeare, George Sand and Oscar Wilde, and good marks to Homer, Dickens and Dostoyevsky.
We gave the study special scrutiny. Cora was taken with the deep, boxlike black couch where Tolstoy and most of his 13 children had been born. She remembered a scene in which Levin is in his study with his new wife, Kitty. Levin is writing at his table and Kitty embroidering on the sofa. He turns her head to admire a curl of her hair, and their work ceases. Cora speculated that this black couch was where the Tolstoy children were conceived as well as born.
My husband recognized a portrait of William Lloyd Garrison, the abolitionist. Olesya noticed that Tolstoy had the same copy of Raphael’s Sistine Madonna that Dostoyevsky did.
Outside is a chinning bar dating to Tolstoy’s day. Down the path is a small house he used as a school for peasants’ children. Later Tatyana, a model for Natasha in “War and Peace,”stayed there often with her husband. Now it showcases facsimiles of manuscript pages, photographs of other people on which Tolstoy’s characters were based and other items.
He claimed he never made up a character, our tour guide said. She spoke with respect for his pacifism and Christian simplicity.
When she was finished, Cora asked her what she thought of Tolstoy.
“I like the Sevastopol tales,” the guide replied carefully.
“Who do you prefer: Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky?” Cora pressed.
The tour guide said, “I prefer Dostoyevsky.”
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