Notes from Dostoevsky’s Underground
Text and photos by Katrina Marie
Slick, grey, ominous. Though the author of Notes from the Underground likely never imagined it, the newly opened Dostoevskaya Metro station pays apt if not eerie homage to this poignant force on the Russian heart and soul.
The new station is located on the northern section of the light-green Lublinsko-Dmitrovskaya line and provides a much-needed jumping off point for the Dostoevsky House Museum, the Central Armed Forces Museum and the Red Army Theatre.
Like the celebrated writer, the unveiling of the new Metro station in June came not without controversy, having been delayed due to protests that station’s adorning murals were too violent. Some psychologists suggested that the station’s “negative energy” would at best discourage people from riding the Metro, or at worst, induce suicides.
It must be admitted that mural’s creator Ivan Nikolayev’s work (nearly 20 years in the design and production) does capture some of the darkest scenes of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s greatest works, such as Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Brothers Karamazov, and The Possessed.
One of Dostoevsky’s most famous characters, Rodion Raskolnikov, is observed, hatchet in hand, about to strike down the miserly pawnbroker and her sister. Another mural shows The Possessed character Kirilov with a gun pointed to his temple, as the large, looming face of Dostoevsky stoically looks on.
But the station’s effect is more stimulating than gloomy. Gleaming grey and black marble combine with radiant white lighting and clean lines. Soft white marble is used for some of the more angelic characters, offering a symbolic contrast between good and evil.
Construction of the station began in the 1990s, but halted due to lack of funding, before resuming in 2007. Nearly 60 meters underground, the escalator ride up to the surface is easy-to-miss brilliance. At the bottom is a silvery sky hovering overhead. Further up it changes seamlessly into a forbidding metal wall ready to crush all who approach. Just as panic presumes an air of urgency, it becomes obvious that this is all just a visual effect of a very low ceiling made up of long metal slats. Simple but effective.
The station accomplishes its task: to capture this ever-complex, ever-provoking literary genius. Dostoevsky dealt nakedly and deeply with uncomfortable themes not at all fashionable, yet universally questioned. Depression, class differences, mental disorders, redemption, as well as prostitution, murder, and suicide—all were explored.
As a child, raised quite literally at a social crossroads where wealth and nobility were juxtaposed with poverty, the young Dostoevsky spent sixteen formative years in a small corner of the (former) Moscow Marinsky Hospital, located on what is now called Dostoevskaya Ulitsa, near the station. He was born here in 1821 and lived in the hospital until the tragic death of his mother in 1837. Dostoevsky’s father was a surgeon at the hospital and poor enough that he had to house this family of eight in three small rooms in the hospital. Yet his father sought to keep up the appearance of an aristocrat, creating a family “parlour” by day that was actually the family’s primary living quarters.
The Dostoevsky House Museum has carefully reconstructed these rooms. Opened in the early 1900s, the museum still contains original furniture, donated by Dostoevsky’s widow and brother. Personal items, such as Dostoevsky’s quill pen and the ledger recording his birth, are proudly displayed.
Though the miniscule room he shared with his brother offered no hope of privacy, the small bedroom window overlooking the courtyard was Dostoevsky’s window to every extreme of the human experience. The courtyard now displays a sombre statue of Dostoevsky wringing his hands, as if wringing his soul.
Dostoevsky’s compassion for the poor and the destitute took root here. He regularly wandered the hospital and yard, observing and interacting with the sick, suff ering, and ridiculed. To such a sensitive child, his compassion became overwhelming. The influence of this period of Dostoevsky’s life on his literary exploration into human psychology is profound.
Contributing to this, of course, were his later years spent in a Siberian prison camp. No doubt the “mock” execution, in which Dostoevsky stood before a firing squad just before his sentence was commuted to hard labour, intensely impacted on him. Dostoevsky also suff ered from epilepsy and inherited his father’s addictive gene, though to gambling, not alcohol.
Upon his mother’s death from tuberculosis in 1837 in the family home, Dostoevsky and his brother were packed off to a military academy in St. Petersburg. Two years later, his father died, allegedly murdered by the serfs on his small estate whose daughers he was said to have abused on a regular basis while drunk. One morning, while he was out riding, he was ambushed by a group of enraged fathers who knocked him off his horse, pulled down his trousers and crushed his testicles with their bare hands. Then, as he gasped convulsively in agony, they poured vodka down his throat until he drowned.
Dostoevsky’s post-prison writings made a clear break from his contemporaries, as he explored the psychological hell of the tortured soul. He manages that very rare gift of wholly understanding that hell, while having the presence of mind to create, to envelope, his reader inside the torment. In Crime and Punishment, one not only reads Raskolnikov, one becomes Raskolnikov. Dostoevsky’s most profound contributions to the world literature contain a deep expression of human pain, tragedy, and eventually, hope in redemption.
The Dostoevsky Museum is located at Dostoevskaya
Ulitsa, 2. Tel: 7 495 281 1085