Yesterday I took a walk along the Griboedov canal, following the route that Raskolnikov took, in Crime and Punishment
, when he went to kill the pawnbroker. Along the way, I crossed the corner where Gogol's nose intersected with Raskolnikov on his errand, and I saw an astonishing street-level carved wooden door, huge and ancient, that had been slowly beaten into the sinking foundation of the building by the periodic floods in St. Petersburg.
But the most remarkable part of the walk was this: In that neighborhood, despite the rampant crime and general lawlessness of St. Petersburg, two buildings stand wide open -- no locks on the gates or the front doors: the building that contain, or may contain, Raskolnikov's apartment, depending on whose scholarly interpretation of C&P you happen to believe.
Isn't this amazing? A fictional apartment in a wholly dreamed-up city, Dostoevsky's St. Petersburg, stands, in real life, wide open to pilgrims of all sorts, any day of the year.
In the stairwells, pilgrims have left lots of graffiti, much of it speaking directly to Raskolnikov: "Crime doesn't pay," "Don't do it!" and similar sentiments. Other visitors -- who probably would not be caught dead leaving a graffito anywhere in their own neighborhoods - take the opportunity to leave some testament to their arrival: "Skateboarding is not a crime." Or: "Sono stata qui," remarks "Sylvia da Brindisi." Others, more competitive souls I guess, compete with Dostoevsky's genius by adding remarks whose sheerly arbitrary and gnomic character seem like efforts at something like literature, an effort to participate in a discourse that is "literary," whatever that means: "Shine on you crazy Napoleon."
Our tour guide does not invite us to leave a spoor, but he does not discourage us either. No one does. Instead, some people take pictures; I am distracted, then annoyed, by the whine of digital cameras, the dizzy way the flash goes off. A man appears on the landing and slips behind a door, then the bolt clangs home. We have no real business here, what we've come to transact is only imaginary, and it's still a transaction, an experience of unfair exchange: one takes a picture, or a bit of space on the wall. What, though, are we giving in return? On the way home, one of our group, an American girl, bumps into a Russian passerby and says, in English, "Excuse me." I tell her, as gently as I can, that the Russian word is izvenitye
, but the effort is bootless, for the horse has already left the barn, and in the end I just feel out of place in the presence of characteristically American goodwill -- clumsy monolingual bonhomie and casually misdirected good intentions.