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In the footsteps of a murderer

In the footsteps of a murderer

Tom Holland uses Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel “Crime and Punishment” as a guidebook to St Petersburg

Tom Holland uses Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel “Crime and Punishment” as a guidebook to St Petersburg

Tom Holland | June/July 2020

The most famous murderer to have walked the streets of St Petersburg never existed. Yet we know exactly where he lived. There is nothing aristocratic about Stolyarny Lane: this is not the grand, wealthy city of great museums and golden domes, of the Hermitage and St Isaac’s Cathedral. Instead the architecture is drab and undistinguished. On the corner of Stolyarny Lane stands a five-storey building with balconies on its lower levels but none at the top; the upper floors are clearly cramped. The apartment block looks  as anonymous as any other on the street. Yet here, at its foot, stands a statue.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, one of Russia’s most famous novelists, once lived close by. And it was here, in 1866, that the darkest, most unsettling novel ever set in St Petersburg opened. “Crime and Punishment” tells the story of Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, a poverty-stricken student lodging on this street: “His garret was right beneath the eaves of a tall, five-storey building and resembled a cupboard more than it did a room.” In that attic he formulates a terrible plan: the murder of a pawnbroker. Why? That mystery lies at the heart of the novel.

After Raskolnikov has hacked an old woman and her sister to death with an axe, he convinces himself that he was motivated by idealism: by an ambition to help the poor with the money he has stolen from his victim. Instead of using the loot, however, he hides it.

Gradually, he comes to realise that his true motivation was something different, a desire to test himself, to measure his own strength. “If such a man needs, for the sake of his idea, to step right over a corpse, over blood, then in my view he may, inside himself, as a matter of conscience, grant himself permission to step over this blood.” Raskolnikov, however, is no Napoleon. Destroyed by his conscience, he ends up confessing. The novel finishes with him in Siberia, repentant of his crime.

There’s nowhere better to read “Crime and Punishment” than St Petersburg. To pore over the book among the very streets in which it was set is to enjoy one of the great experiences of literature. In so many ways St Petersburg remains the city that Dostoyevsky knew: a city of palaces and apartment blocks, of billionaires and beggars, of astounding beauty and no less astounding ugliness.

When I first read “Crime and Punishment”, I found its quality of nightmare and delirium so overpowering that I never imagined that it was set amid streets that one can still walk today. Yet, when I checked into my hotel, I turned out to be only a brisk stroll away from the killer’s home.

The Astoria hotel is central to the history and culture of St Petersburg: Lenin spoke from one of its balconies, Bulgakov spent his honeymoon there and Hitler reputedly fixed on it as the perfect spot to celebrate the triumph of Operation Barbarossa. As I left it, I traced Raskolnikov’s bloody footprints.

Dostoyevsky describes in oppressive detail the route that Raskolnikov takes from his attic room to the apartment block where he commits his terrible crime. On his journey, Raskolnikov walks past the street on which Dostoyevsky himself lived; past the Yusupov Gardens, where he pauses to admire the fountains; through an archway, into a courtyard and up a stairway to the floor on which the pawnbroker lives. “To avoid suspicion he walked along the street with soft, measured steps and without hurrying.” Haymarket, the district in which he lives and kills, is no less well preserved for being off the tourist trail. This is the 19th-century city as few get to see it, with its back alleys, bridges, courtyards and canals.

Many landmarks play starring roles in the novel. In Haymarket Square, Raskolnikov is told by a prostitute to whom he has confessed that he should kneel and publicly proclaim himself a murderer. Going to the square he kisses the ground, but then is laughed at as though he’s drunk; he freezes up and fails to confess. In Dostoyevsky’s time, agricultural produce was sold in Haymarket Square, as its name implied: and not just hay, but cattle, chickens and pigs. The streets endure, but the teeming squalor, filth and poverty that once made the sprawl around Haymarket Square one of the city’s most notorious slums back in the 19th century are long gone; no farm animals are there today.

The area haunted by Raskolnikov’s dreams of becoming a Napoleon also bears the mark of more recent – and more brutally successful – attempts to bend the course of history. In the Soviet era Haymarket Square was transformed into a monument to urban planning. Nikita Khrushchev’s drive against religion in the 1960s saw its church blown up to make way for a metro station. Its 19th-century buildings were demolished and its contours expanded. Though the square remains a rather bleak expanse of concrete, the Soviet period, too, now seems like ancient history.

Other sights have a different legacy. The Griboyedov Canal is know for its series of picturesque bridges. In the book, somewhere along the canal, a drunkard befriended by Raskolnikov is run over by a carriage and his wife coughs up blood, even as she shouts at her children to dance. In contrast to Haymarket Square, the bars and cafés that line that canal today are indicative of the hip, fiercely capitalist cityscape of modern St Petersburg.

All of which makes those trace elements of the 19th century seem even more ghostly. In one corner of Haymarket Square stands a handsome yellow guardhouse with columns and a pediment. Built in 1820, it provides a solitary glimpse of the square that Raskolnikov – and Dostoyevsky – would have known. In 1874, eight years after finishing “Crime and Punishment”, Dostoyevsky spent two days there for violating censorship laws.

Following in Raskolnikov’s footsteps, I inevitably found myself following in Dostoyevsky’s ones as well, in a trail that led me far and wide. Raskolnikov walks and walks through the city, just as his creator did. Desperate to escape the claustrophobia of the slum in which he lives, Raskolnikov repeatedly heads for the bridges that span the Neva, the great river that provides St Petersburg with its incomparably beautiful situation. Yet in this beauty he finds menace: prompts to despair and terrible dreams.

So too did Dostoyevsky. As a young man, shortly after he first arrived in St Petersburg, the spectacle of the Neva in deep winter had given him a vivid sense of the city as something ephemeral, insubstantial. “It seemed as if all that world, with all its inhabitants, strong and weak, with all their habitations, the refuges of the poor, or the gilded palaces for the comfort of the powerful of this world, was at the twilight hour like a fantastic vision of fairyland, like a dream which in its turn would vanish and pass away like vapour in the dark blue sky.”

That “fantastic vision” was one that I too could only marvel at, gazing out at the Neva as wintry twilight began to claim the city. St Petersburg today remains as vivid as Dostoyevsky claimed it to be.

Until 1703 there was nothing but mud, reeds and bog on the site where St Petersburg now stands. Then Peter the Great founded the city to serve as his new capital and a monument to modernity. Yet the metropolis was raised on corpses. Beneath the spreading streets lay the bones of the prisoners and serfs who had built it. The island on which Peter had planted his first fortress serves to this day as a testament to its founder’s power. Here is where the bodies of the tsars lie, and where the city’s most sinister prison still stands.

Dostoyevsky knew it well, for in 1849 he was locked up there. He was sentenced to death, reprieved at the last moment and then sent to Siberia for four years of hard labour: he knew all about crime and punishment.

How much blood is it legitimate to spill in pursuit of a dream? The most famous murderer ever to have walked the streets of St Petersburg was haunted by this question. So Raskolnikov, tossing and turning in his tiny attic, dreams that greatness can justify a man wading through blood. Dostoyevsky knew that the whole of St Petersburg embodied that same conviction. In his darkest forebodings he dreaded that it might come to do so again.

In 1881, when Dostoyevsky died, he was buried in a cemetery outside the city’s oldest monastery and feted as its laureate. Time, though, would prove him a prophet. Decades before Lenin appeared on the balcony at the Astoria, Dostoyevsky had imagined what a future ruler might bring to St Petersburg. “He has each member of society watching the others and obliged to inform. Each belongs to all, and all to each. All are slaves, and are equal in their slavery. In extreme cases there’s slander and murder, but the main thing is equality.”

Everywhere, then, beneath the surface beauty of St Petersburg, dark shadows lurk. If these are cast by men of the kind who inspired Raskolnikov to commit murder – Peter the Great, Lenin and Stalin – then so also are they cast by Raskolnikov himself. “Crime and Punishment” remains what it has always been: a mirror held up to the past and future.