I took this picture in 1978 in Leningrad, aka St. Petersburg. I knew that Raskolnikov’s flat in Crime and Punishment was on the second floor corner of a yellow brick building, the kind Peter the Great had copied from beautiful 17th and 18th century Brussels, but I hadn’t known that Fyodor Mikhailovich himself had always lived in second floor corner flats. Just down the street, too, in the same neighborhood he peopled with the novel's characters, the pawnbroker, Sonia, Lebeziatnikov, all of them.
The night I took this picture, the bridge to the island in the River Neva with the Druzhba Hotel, where the 25 students from the study abroad tour were staying, had already been halved and lifted up off the river. Stuck on the city side until dawn, my companion and I walked along the channels for hours, finding each of the yellow buildings reflecting purple in the stillness of the frozen canals and midnight snow. Warmth and light beckoned from a basement bar, its arched green windows peeking above the frozen banks, and we joined a group of chain-smoking insomniacs enjoying hot spirits. Towards dawn as we walked back to the river, we saw a blood-red flower on the icy white ground, its velvet petals open and oblivious to the snow. An orchid laying there calm and solitary, a portent of something to come? We did not know.
Several days later my roommates and I left the Hermitage and palace tours to explore the city streets on our own. We met three young students near an ancient church, where I was introduced to every dusty icon and forgotten saint in the sacred hall, one of the few operating Orthodox churches left in the Soviet experiment. I must have compared a face to Mikhail Vrubel's 19th century restorations in the Kiev St. Cyril's, because when we got to the attic room the students rented together, I was given a poster of The Seated Demon by this same icon restorer, this time one of his own work. I'd only collected postcards of Vrubel's enormous wall-sized paintings, which hung in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. Faces with eyes that looked like Coptic death portraits, in stark symbolist landscapes hosting Lermontov's heartbroken demon.
I kept this framed until the paper crumbled, trying to move it one last time from Berkeley back to Minnesota in 2007.
Perhaps the beautiful flower lying open in the snow had been an auspicious warning, like a mesmerizing Grushenka beckoning to her Karamazov lovers...Ignore my blood-red petals and paralyzing enigmas at your peril!
Alas, hindsight is always too late to be of any use.
Years after this trip, when I was in grad school, Second Story was the name of a nightclub in Bloomington, Indiana. I first heard reggae there, by a band out of Chicago called Armageddon. When the bars closed at 3 AM, whoever was still up and dancing would come to the 10th street house where my companion—now husband—and I were living, where we'd make huge breakfasts for everybody, pans of scrambled eggs and mountains of buttered toast and bacon strips. What a group! The Chicago musicians, the weekend partiers from IU's History & Philosophy of Science, Philosophy and Slavic departments, some local Hoosiers, all sharing a meal together before going off to sleep the intoxicating night away.
We did indeed ignore the flower's warning, settling into an academic and purposeful life, completing graduate degrees and perennial planting, in-law visits and holiday trips.
Well, sort of.
I never got the hang of the new wife role, watching myself perform as if it were fiction I could manipulate like a dissatisfied author.
The author is not a character, though, any more than a character can be the author. The Underground Man would have been much too spiteful to ever write Notes From the Underground himself, and Myshkin far too busy being foolishly kind to everyone to ever sit quietly and write The Idiot. Their creator, Dostoevsky, inhabited and enveloped each of his characters, breathing life into their peculiar insanities like the wind through shifting weather patterns, perfectly reifying each human foible and stumble.
Perhaps from the second story one can sit close enough to the street below and yet still observe and speculate, sigh and learn, without having to test the day’s eccentric affairs oneself…though without the actual tears and fears, I doubt one's imagination could fly far.
9 JULY 2022
[Draft October 2021]