It has been said that only in St. Petersburg can a poetry reading still attract a sold-out crowd.
Russians revere their writers. Subway commuters favor hardbacked copies of Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky over magazines. Several of the best Russian writers lived here when the city was known as Petrograd and later, as Leningrad. On a recent visit to St. Petersburg, I decided to seek out the apartments of some of the city's most respected writers: Anna Akhmatova, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Alexander Pushkin.One can tell a lot about a writer by the space he or she occupied. I learned that Akhmatova led a spartan life, keeping only copies of Dante, Shakespeare, the Bible and Pushkin for herself (she referred to these books as her "eternal companions") and giving the rest of her books to friends. I saw pages from Pushkin's manuscripts, the margins filled with doodles of himself, his enemies and his friends. I noted a small icon of Our Lady of Kazan that Dostoyevsky had hung in a corner of his study so he could look to her for inspiration while he wrote.
The local English newspaper, The St. Petersburg Times, I found very helpful. It listed all of the museums in the city, including the out-of-the-way writers' apartments. The Times can be picked up at any museum or at any McDonald's restaurant in the city (at last count there were three), or access it on the Internet at (www.times.spb.ru).
On Kuznechny Lane, on the way to Dostoyevsky's apartment, a farmers' market bustles with activity. The vivid colors of fruits and vegetables are in marked contrast to the gray St. Petersburg streets. Outside of the market we passed a man whose skin was positively blue from a substantial intake of vodka. Ever since St. Petersburg was established in 1703, its people have suffered and struggled to stay alive.
Over the past eight years Russia's leadership has changed, and its ideology has shifted, but the people have remained unchanged. They still retain an indomitable spirit of survival. Russia's authors were not exempt from the struggle. They suffered as their countrymen did.
Following the publication of his first novel, "Poor Folk" (1846), Dostoyevsky was placed in solitary confinement for eight months in the prison of the Peter-Paul Fortress along the banks of the Neva River. He was accused of being a member of the Petrashevsky Circle, a group that plotted to overthrow the czar and establish a republic run by intellectuals.
The prison is open to visitors. The solitary confinement rooms are dark and damp. Several inmates went mad from their incarcerations. Inmates did not leave their cells except for the bath they were permitted out of doors once every two weeks. Dostoyevsky was sentenced to penal servitude in a convict prison in Siberia until 1854. After his release he wrote, visited Europe and published several novels including "Crime and Punishment" (1865-66) and "The Idiot" (1869). In October 1878, he moved into the apartment on Kuznechny Lane.
The first section of the museum is dedicated to his work. The museum's curators created displays for each of Dostoyevsky's novels. Between these displays are first editions of his books, photos and an original notebook brought to Dostoyevsky by Anna Grigoryevna Snitkina.
Snitkina was fluent in shorthand and presented the notebook to Dostoyevsky when she came to work on his novel "The Gambler." She later became his wife. In the living quarters is her office. Snitkina was the marketing genius behind Dostoyevsky's work. She took his novels to publishers and kept him out of debt. Leo Tolstoy said of her, "Many Russian writers would be much better off if they had a wife like Dostoyevsky's."
According to his daughter, Dostoyevsky preferred to work at night by candlelight in his study after his children fell asleep. After writing he retired to the couch beneath the window across from his desk. He reserved daytime hours for his family and for his strolls on St. Petersburg streets.
His contemporaries regarded him as a "teacher of life," not as a cloistered writer. Dostoyevsky died on Jan. 28, 1881. Perhaps seeing the first editions of Dostoyevsky's works or standing in the space he occupied over 100 years ago produce the feeling of his presence, but one can sense his soul in the apartment.
Be sure to get a folder in English at the ticket booth describing the numbered photos and artifacts, unless you read Russian. In the living quarters the plaques include an English translation. A tape in English is available for 10 rubles.
5 Kruznechny Pereulok
Daily 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
The Museum of Anna Akhmatova in Fountain House comprises six rooms. Akhmatova only occupied two, but now they are all dedicated to her work and her time.
Akhmatova was born Anna Gorenko in Tsarksoe Selo in 1889. When she told her father she wanted to become a poet, he refused to let her use his family name, so she adopted her grandmother's maiden name, Akhmatova.
Her first book of poetry, "Evening," was published in 1912. With the rise of the Bolsheviks, Akhmatova was targeted for her verse. During the 1920s her work was banned. Her first husband, Nikolai Gumilev, was shot on direct order from Lenin. Her second husband, Nikolai Punin, died in prison. Her son, Lev Gumilev, was imprisoned for 18 years. She lived in constant fear of arrest.
In "Requiem," composed between 1935 and '40, she wrote of the suffering of the Russian people. She never preserved the poem on paper. Fearing imprisonment if her work was discovered, Akhmatova committed her verses to memory. When a trusted friend visited, she recited the verses. The friend wrote them down, memorized them, then together they burned the paper.
This process was performed in the fifth room of the museum. "It was like a ritual," wrote her friend, L.K. Chukovskaya. "Hands, matches, an ashtray - the ritual beautiful and bitter." "Requiem" was not published in the Soviet Union until 1987.
In 1946, Akhmatova's work was banned once again by a resolution of the Central Committee. A term of the resolution, which later befell her friend, cellist and composer Dmitri Shostakovich, denied her of a ration card - the only means of getting food at that time. But Akhmatova continued to write. One of her final poems, "Poem Without a Hero," which she finished here, bears the motto from the seal of the Fontanka House, Deus conservat omnia or "God save us all."
Akhmatova was a popular subject for prominent artists of her day. In the fifth room - the room she occupied from 1938-41 - hangs a portrait of her by Modigliani. Also in this room she sat for artist A.A. Osmyorkin during the White Nights of 1940 overlooking the garden of Fountain House in an elegant white dress. Osmyorkin titled this portrait, which hangs in the fourth room, "White Night." Another portrait of her created in a modified cubist style by Nathan Altman, "Portrait of the Poetess Anna Akhmatova" (1914), hangs in the Russian Museum, a short walk from Fontanka House.
A sign on the street marks the museum. But one must walk through the palace foyer, exit through the back door, then proceed around the garden to the museum. It's easy to locate. The ticket office is on the ground floor. Nobody speaks English, so when you request the cassette in English that is offered for a small fee, the babushka behind the glass will slide off her stool, emerge from her booth with a ruler, and point to the sign (which is in English) to emphasize the cassette is an additional charge. (I visited the museum twice, and she did this both times.) None of the bookstores in the city carry Akhmatova's poems in English so be sure to pick up a copy before you leave for Russia.
Anna Akhmatova Museum at the Fontanka House
34 Nab. Reki Fontanki
Daily 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Closed Mondays and last Wednesday of every month
On the morning of Jan. 27, 1837, Alexander Pushkin, regarded by his countrymen as the Shakespeare of Russian literature, went out into the cold morning air to defend his wife's honor.
For months rumors had circulated concerning Pushkin's wife and Georges D'Anthes, the adopted son of a Dutch ambassador. Pushkin challenged D'Anthes to a duel. When the guns were drawn and the smoke cleared, Pushkin had sustained a wound to his stomach. His friends brought him to his apartment on the embankment of the Moika canal. They placed him on his couch in his library, surrounded by his books and writings. Pushkin, credited with reforming the Russian language, died two days later.
The apartment where Pushkin lived with his wife, Natalya Goncharova, was restored about 10 years ago. The apartment occupies the first floor, and on the second floor are paintings of St. Petersburg from Pushkin's time and copies of pages from his notebooks with his sketches in the margins. Also, the waistcoat Pushkin wore when he was shot, a lock of his hair and a trunk used by his great-grandfather, Ibrahim Hannibal, are on display. Hannibal was an African prince, sold to a Russian ambassador, who gave him to Peter the Great. Peter gave him the name Hannibal. The czar noted Hannibal's intellect and sent him to Paris to recieve his education. Later he returned to St. Petersburg to join Peter's court.
Since Pushkin was considered a nobleman, he also received an excellent education at a lycee in Tsarksoe Selo. By the time of his death, he could read in 14 languages. The school is open to visitors and is next door to the Winter Palace. Here Pushkin studied science, music and literature. There is even a sheet in the science room listing the grades of Pushkin and his classmates.
The boys slept above the classrooms in small rooms whose walls were a foot shorter than the ceiling. At night he'd visit with his friends by conversing over the walls. On the first floor are statues and busts of Pushkin as well as artwork from his time. It is not known how Pushkin regarded his cultural background. He was proud of his African heritage, but there is evidence he was self-conscious of his features. Regardless of his feelings about his appearance he was and is beloved by the Russian people for his verse.
The museum offers an excellent tour in English on tape. The prices for all of the museums average around six rubles for students, 30 rubles for adults, and 15 rubles for headsets and cassettes, which at Russia's current conversion rate, translates into peanuts.
Pushkin Apartment Museum
12 Nab. Reki Moiki
Daily 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.