Tales of the unexpected

Brian Johnston looks beyond the imperial grandeur of St Petersburg to the everyday life celebrated by the great Russian novelist Dostoevsky.

Guidebooks say St Petersburg is the vision of its founder, Peter the Great, or the creation of subsequent empresses Elizabeth and Catherine, who designed sumptuous baroque palaces fit for a fairytale, adorned the city with bejewelled theatres and crammed museums with world-class art. This is one version of the imperial city, and a splendid one.

History and sightseeing, however, aren't only about royalty and aristocrats, no matter what the guidebooks suggest. Fyodor Dostoevsky's novels, full of pimps, thieves and shopkeepers, present a vision of St Petersburg that's the polar opposite.

It's really Dostoevsky who brings me here. He saw the place as a city of shadowy canals and backstreet tenements peopled by ordinary, humble characters, insulted and humiliated by social injustice. On my first visit to this great 19th-century city, I'm hoping his vision will help me transcend its imperial bling.

It's not without a certain irony, therefore, that I check into the posh Grand Hotel Europe. My excuse is it has a themed suite dedicated to Dostoevsky, a frequent guest at the historic hotel. The suite is a modern creation, though I'm pleased to discover it has a corner location, something Dostoevsky always preferred. He liked to sit at windows with different perspectives and observe the street life beneath. His characters invariably live in apartments at intersections.

Clearly the hotel designer knew something about Dostoevsky, though that's no surprise. Everyone in Russia - including my hotel butler, Ludmilla - is acquainted with the nation's literature.

Ludmilla disconcerts me with killer heels and cheekbones you could use to chop wood. She's showing me how my coffee machine works but I'm more interested in a sunken-eyed portrait of Dostoevsky on the wall. Do young Russians still bother reading the classics, I wonder? At once, Ludmilla's polite butlering is abandoned.

"Of course they do!" she exclaims, offended. "Dostoevsky is greatly admired for his language."

Then she leaps to the window and points to a statue of Pushkin outside, bemoaning the fact that the great master is overlooked by foreigners. And how about Chekhov? His short stories are very witty and so appreciated by schoolchildren just starting to read Russia's daunting canon.

"But here!" she cries, high-heeling over to the bookcase. "Here are some Dostoevsky novels that you can read, The Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov, yes?"

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I would have to be a remarkable speed-reader to get through 1000 pages of The Brothers during my stay in St Petersburg. But I read it once, long ago, when I was doing a master's degree in 19th-century literature and hoping to become a poet or anarchist. Now I'm finally in the city that Dostoevsky so famously made his own.

Next morning, a short canal-side walk brings me to the Engineer's Castle, a cheerful orange building topped by a slender spire at Zamkovaya Street in the city centre. Dostoevsky was born in Moscow. In 1821, he arrived in St Petersburg to study military engineering and lived in Engineer's Castle - a former palace turned live-in military institute - for six years.

The square in front, with its equestrian statue and autumn trees, is a typical slice of lovely St Petersburg, though the young Fyodor never saw the romance. He was a loner in an ill-fitting uniform, completely unsuited to military life.

He soon abandoned the service for the "precarious hope" of literature, shabby lodgings and his first novel, Poor Folk. Shortly afterwards, Dostoevsky was arrested for joining a socialist group and hauled off to Peter and Paul Fortress, an easy stroll across a park and bridge from the Engineer's Castle. Most tourists come here on a pilgrimage to the tombs of tsars, tucked into a jaunty, pistachio-green cathedral. But Peter and Paul was primarily a state prison. Trotsky was incarcerated and Lenin's brother executed here, turning the pair into implacable revolutionaries.

Now I find sightseers patrolling the prison walls for its views across the Neva River to the Winter Palace. There's a titillating but mostly unvisited museum of torture tucked into a corner but no mention anywhere of Dostoevsky. Yet it was here that he endured a mock execution devised by Tsar Nicholas I using the court entertainment budget. From here he was sent to Siberia for four years' hard labour, then he was pressed into military conscription.

Eight years later, when Dostoevsky, by then aged 34, returned to his old apartment on St Isaac's Square, he found a statue had been raised in honour of the tsar. Today it's a tourist landmark, immense and imperious, facing the huge dome of St Isaac's Cathedral and surrounded by a swirl of coughing cars.

Dostoevsky rented a series of cheap, austerely furnished apartments in raffish districts, bringing with him few possessions beyond inkwells, books and tobacco. He followed neighbourhood residents - maids and hawkers, shopkeepers, students and prostitutes - and took notes for his novels.

As I wander south of St Isaac's, I track down the building at 7 Kaznacheyskaya Street (called Meschanskaya in the author's day) where Dostoevsky wrote Crime and Punishment. Not far away on Gorokhovaya Street I find Prince Myshkin's house, described in The Idiot as a "large, gloomy, three-storied house devoid of architectural pretension, and of a dirty-green colour". To my delight, it's still the same, though other literary landmarks have been spruced up and turned into shipping offices and law firms.

For my wanderings, St Petersburg's canals are a convenience, providing pretty vistas and easy orientation. Not so for Dostoevsky. In Crime and Punishment, canals are symbols of enclosure and entrapment. Two of the novel's most memorable characters live along Griboedov Canal: the good-natured prostitute Sonya and the malicious old moneylender murdered by the tormented anti-hero Raskolnikov. As I wander along the embankments, there are still hints of Dostoevskian characters leading lives of quiet desperation. Drunks stagger from shabby bars and babushkas, left behind in the capitalist race, haul shopping baskets along cracked footpaths. Outside government offices, guards swing truncheons, bored under peaked caps.

My feet are sore by the time I reach Moika Canal and see the red awnings of the Idiot, a basement cafe frequented by arty locals and expats. It's named after the novel Dostoevsky called his favourite, a damning indictment of aristocratic rule and the impossibility of being a moral person in the society it creates. The cafe captures the moody, smoky atmosphere of pre-revolutionary Russia, its nooks and crannies stuffed with sofas, old typewriters and books in English and Russian. Students sit in woollen hats, playing chess or hunching over laptops.

I brood over whortleberry pie and warm my chilled toes. Dostoevsky was expert at making the banal and ordinary seem fantastical. To me, travel is a celebration of the strangeness of ordinary life in unfamiliar places. I like lurking in coffee houses and along canals, where bald residents let their dogs poop on pavements and babushkas in headscarves look strangely like old Muslim women in Iran. I like to soak up the inconsequential mysteries of foreign life. Why do Russians rarely smile, yet have such wonderful flower shops on every corner? ("It's because Russian men are so romantic," Ludmilla says later, without smiling herself at the thought.)

Two days later - after succumbing to St Petersburg's imperial sights - I set off to visit Dostoevsky's apartment. It, too, is pleasingly ordinary; not only is it a relief from gargantuan palaces but it is in Vladimirskaya, a city district with a charming energy I might otherwise have overlooked. Farmers sell potatoes by the roadside as office workers hurry out of a metro station under the shadow of a giant yellow church with golden domes.

Dostoevsky became fussy about his accommodation. He disliked small rooms and needed a study, which he kept in meticulous order. When he was 57, he relocated to this apartment in Kuznechny Lane, Vladimirskaya, with his wife and two children. He had a lung disorder and was often ill so he found it hard to climb the stairs to his first-floor apartment. But it was large and on a street corner.

The novelist's brass nameplate is still by the door and the doorbell jangles when I pull the handle. Inside, the apartment-turned-museum is a curiously intimate place, as if the family has just walked out for an hour. A grandfather clock ticks, candles flicker and a shorthand page from The Brothers Karamazov lies casually among account books on a desk.

The cheerful bourgeois ordinariness is disconcerting - the crockery staid, the sofa velvet green. There's little hint this was the home of a tormented writer. Here Dostoevsky worked all night, slept in his study until noon, then emerged to hand out dried fruit to his children. The museum's excellent audio guide is rich in such anecdotes and I linger longer than intended.

"I'm sitting here all the time thinking I'm going to die soon," the ever-cheerful Dostoevsky once wrote. His many predictions of his own demise inevitably proved accurate. The writer died in his study in his Kuznechny Lane apartment in 1881 and was buried in Tikhvinskoe Cemetery at Alexander Nevsky Monastery at the far end of Nevsky Prospekt, east of the city centre. Few foreigners go there but many Russians make the pilgrimage to this resting place of Russian greats such as Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. Red carnations wilt on Dostoevsky's rather gloomy monument, just as they do on the statues of notable writers around the city. I wonder who leaves them; perhaps just the ordinary folk Dostoevsky wrote about so eloquently.

That evening, I sit in my suite at the leather-topped desk and browse through a Russian edition of The Idiot. Framed illustrations from Dostoevsky's novels hang on the walls. An oil painting of the man in bearded old age shows him sitting with his hands clasped around his knees.

My room is far more luxurious than any Dostoevsky lived in. Royalty and heads of state stay at this rather fabulous hotel. Tchaikovsky honeymooned here and Tsar Nicholas II held receptions in the ballroom. But when I flick aside the curtain and peer into the darkened square beyond, all I see are a few residents hurrying past Pushkin's statue, collars turned up against the chill. Just ordinary folk but all with stories to tell.

Brian Johnston travelled courtesy of Viking River Cruises and Orient-Express.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Emirates has a fare to St Petersburg from Sydney and Melbourne for about $1910 low-season return, including tax. Fly to Dubai (about 14hr), then to St Petersburg (6hr, 35min); see emirates.com. Australians need a visa for a stay of up to 30 days, requiring a visa invitation letter from a government-registered travel agency.

Cruising there

Viking River Cruises' 13-day Waterways of the Czars cruise from Moscow to St Petersburg (or reverse) costs from $4499 a person, including all meals, onboard lectures and most shore excursions. The cruise includes three nights in St Petersburg and tours of its major imperial-era sights. Phone 1800 829 138; see vikingrivercruises.com.au.

Staying there

Grand Hotel Europe is the city's top property, with beautiful historical suites styled on St Petersburg cultural and imperial themes, including Dostoevsky. Superior rooms cost from 10,500 roubles ($315) and historic suites from 56,200 roubles a night. Phone 1800 000 395; see orient-express.com.

A good mid-range option is Novotel St Petersburg Centre, just off Nevsky Prospect, with comfortable though compact rooms and excellent buffet breakfasts. Rooms cost from 3644 roubles. Phone 1300 65 65 65; see novotel.com.

While there

The F. M. Dostoevsky Museum is open Tuesday to Sunday, 11am-6pm, but is closed on the last Wednesday of the month. Entry costs 160 roubles; see md.spb.ru/museum.

Engineer's Castle (Russian Museum) is open on Mondays, 10am-4pm, and Wednesday to Sunday, 10am-5pm. Entry costs 350 roubles; see rusmuseum.ru.

The Idiot cafe is at 82 Moika Canal. The nearest metro station is Sadovaya; phone +812 315 1675.

More information

See st-petersburg.ru.

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