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The Lion in Winter

Over dinner at the Café Idiot a few nights later, I was joined by Alexander Borovsky, chief curator of contemporary art at the State Russian Museum, and his friend, a singer of Gypsy songs who let him pour wine into her glass though she did not touch it. When Borovsky was 14, he fell in love with a professor's wife. He would ride his bicycle to her house bringing flowers, only to find that the poet Joseph Brodsky had preceded him. The entire house shook with their passion, Borovsky recalls, and he was so jealous he contemplated suicide. Encountering the despondent young man on the stairs, Brodsky told him kindly, "Don't be sad, there'll be a million women for you one day."

Russian writers and princes neither slept nor bathed, I decided, judging from their flats and palaces. At the Yusupov Palace and at Dostoyevsky's house I could not find a single bed or bath—they are not considered proper displays. Tatyana, a journalist who accompanied me, had gone to school with Dostoyevsky's great-grandchildren. At the time, the writer was banned from the country's official memory. Dostoyevsky's grandson came to the classroom one day and said, "I will take you to see where a great writer lived." He showed the students around, and the next day the teacher who had permitted the excursion was dismissed.

Pushkin never endured such neglect. These days, in his flat on the river Moyka, there are huddles of schoolchildren in each room. In one, on the day I visited, a boy was reciting a poem of Pushkin's by heart. The room, another bedroom without a bed, had high ceilings and wooden floors, and was flooded with light. Next door, overlooking the courtyard, were the study and library lined with shelves of leather-bound volumes. It was easy to imagine Pushkin's effortless prose proceeding from those cheerful rooms, spinning tales of gallant officers sent to deserted military outposts where the daughter of the general happened to be a timid, enchanting creature eager to be swept off her feet just hours before the brutal murder of her parents by a barbarian impersonating the lawful czar. One feels that life might turn out well in the end, in Pushkin's house.

In Dostoyevsky's, I didn't need to read a biography to know that daily life there must have been hellish. I knew it for certain when I stood in Mrs. Dostoyevsky's cramped, airless study, where she also slept. On a little desk was a notebook filled with columns of numbers and a list in her precise Cyrillic script.

Writers' houses are a peculiar fixation of mine, and St. Petersburg has more than any city I know. Even when the Soviets censored and exiled writers, it was a sign of respect—proof that they thought their words could affect people.

I wanted to see where the poet Anna Akhmatova had lived in the years of Stalin's purges. Her son had been arrested for the second time; her husband had already been murdered, though she did not know it then. One day, while she was waiting in line outside the prison in Leningrad (the city's Soviet name) for news of her son, as she did every day for 17 months, a woman "with lips blue from the cold," wrote Akhmatova, recognized her and whispered, "Can you describe this?" Akhmatova replied simply, "I can."

I went to the address on Lityeny Prospekt, behind the Sheremetev Palace, listed in an English guidebook as Akhmatova's. I entered, by mistake, a theater of burlesque. The box office was a cubbyhole in which an old woman sat by a stove. I asked where the Akhmatova Museum might be, and she slammed a flimsy door shut between us, yelling truculently, "Nyet, nyet, nyet." In Russia, nos often come in threes.

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