Window on Russia

In 1873, Fyodor Dostoevsky sat down at his desk to write a few impressions of everyday life in his home town of St. Petersburg. Read today, these sketches come as something of a shock. Few of the great figures of Russian literature are so closely identified with Petersburg as Dostoevsky, and yet, as his observations demonstrate, he was far from being a booster for the city. In his youth, as his biographer Joseph Frank points out in Dostoevsky: The Mantle of the Prophet, 1871–1881, Dostoevsky had regarded Petersburg’s mélange of architectural styles as inspiring proof that the Russian capital had succeeded in absorbing the best of European culture. But now, as his mental eye roams over the cityscape, all he can see is the “lack of character of the idea and all the negativity of the essence of the Petersburg period from its very beginning to its end.” The architectural aspirations of generations of aristocrats and emperors, tirelessly striving to imitate the best European models, Frank writes, have resulted in nothing but

an enormous, modern hotel…. Here we see the businesslike approach, Americanism, hundreds of rooms, an immense commercial enterprise; one sees immediately that we, too, have railways and we have suddenly found ourselves to be businessmen.

Then as now, needless to say, accusing something of American commercialism was not exactly to award it one’s vote of confidence. Elsewhere around the same time, in his letters and in his magnificent serial self-exploration called Diary of a Writer, Dostoevsky expands on his diagnosis of his city’s fundamental alienation from “Russianness.” He rails against the “corrupted Petersburg intelligentsia,” a sorry lot who stand at odds with “incomparably more genuinely Russian people.” He recalls his youthful sighting of a government courier, clad in Western clothes and “polished Petersburg boots” as he sat in his carriage on a Petersburg street, brutally beating his peasant driver. “The son of such a courier may be a professor, perhaps—a patented European,” notes Dostoevsky sarcastically. Again and again he obsessively circles back to the primal cause of this fatal schism in Russian national life, which turns out to be embodied in a single man, the eponymous founder of the imperial capital. It was none other than Peter the Great, Dostoevsky argues, who struck the fatal blow against the nation’s cultural continuity with his decision to impose European-oriented modernization on traditional society.

In so doing, Peter opened up a profound divide between the peasantry and an upper class who adopted the accoutrements of European culture and society as a way of sealing their own claim to rule. It was Peter’s institutionalization of serfdom that made peasants the property of their masters, stripped them of their freedom of movement and action, and provided the precondition for the comfortable life of the social elite. “We lack culture (which exists everywhere),” Dostoevsky writes in a letter, “and we lack it because of the nihilist Peter the Great.” The nihilist Peter the Great? Small wonder that …

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