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Dostoevsky v Putin

June 24, 2010

Photo courtesy of Marga Macdonald

In the Volga canal, some days’ barge ride from Moscow, a spire of a cathedral rises in the middle of the river.  It leans, a little like the Tower of Pisa, drunkenly, and certainly it is in the middle of the drink.  Tourists take pictures from the barges of the exquisitely carved thing rising like a jut of coral, a work so intricately patterned that it could be a work of nature rather than man.

Stalin created the canal.  He relocated about 100,000 people from their villages to do it.  He moved them with their priests and their cattle to the cities.  He drowned their houses, farms and churches.  He built the canal and the dams that feed it with gulag labour.  Most of the relocated villagers and the workers who sent them packing died.

Now Putin is talking about the glory of mother Russia again.  He says that people should not forget the greatness of Stalin in remembering the shame.  And one of the greatnesses is the Volga.  Foreign tourists – who never knew in the first place in order to forget – photograph the spire as a symbol of what’s become of the greatness.  The spire bobs like a buoy.  Barges weave around it.  It’s almost comical.

In the gardens of Moscow, locals dress up in nineteenth century finery, a little tawdry, a little Dostoevsky – although it’s the wrong city for him – and charge the tourists to take photos of them too.  Who are they, these locals?  Works of man or nature?  Stalin would have had them be works of man, and he the man.

Back in St Petersberg, Raskolnikov stalks the streets still, not thinking of himself as a murderer, but as a superman.  He is chilly, although it is summer, and he pulls his great coat close around his ribs.  It irritates him that his body breaks into his consciousness with its petty complaints.  He is dizzy too, but imagines that this is a lofty sensation brought on by his expanding thoughts, not hunger.  It is not circumstance, he thinks, not the fact of being a poor and lazy student, bored as well, that has brought him to this extreme, but fate.  His head buzzes as if he’s been drinking vodka or at least beer.  There is a pain in his temple, an insistent pricking, and his great coat is scratchy on his thin arms.  Occasionally, when he shrugs or adjusts his trousers on his crotch, a stable stench wafts to his nostrils, and he has to frown and focus not to be overwhelmed by disgust with himself.

The killing of the old woman will be the start of his unshackling from this animal closeness that he detests.  It will be the extreme act that propels him away from his smallness to his true fate.  After that, he will be his own creature, a mind flying free, a bird uncooped.  Another tiny part of him, a fearful sobbing part, is hasty to give him reassurance too that the old woman is a pawnbroker, a witch and deserves to die.  No one will miss her, let alone wish to avenge her death.  This weak and craven part of himself, he believes, is no more than the animal stem left over from primitive generations, and will be exterminated along with the woman by the axe.

Not to be, not to be.  For the axe is a work of man and cannot entirely destroy a work of nature.  There it is, rising like an accusing finger from the river, like Raskolnikov’s blood-stained clothes that he hides in the corner of his fetid room.  That weak, cowardly spirit that brings a person down to the level of the stable is intelligent.  It has a soul, and the evidence of it will be outed.

In panic at possible discovery, once he has hacked the old woman to death, Raskolnikov grows even sicker and shakier.  He is desperately afraid of being found out, scared to death of prison and worse – the sorrow in his mother’s eyes.  He has no hope now of being a superman.  He knows nothing of greatness.  He cowers in his garrett, fretting to himself, uselessly regretting both the past and the regret.  He hates himself, for the deed and for not matching up to it.

But he is destined to be saved.  In the end, with a monumental human sigh, he gives in to his own sadness and the love of good people, who refuse to believe this superman nonsense.  In the end, he lays his head in his Sonya’s lap and weeps and begs forgiveness.  And gains it.

At the entrance to St Petersberg, Peter the Great rears on his steed to protect the citizens, but Raskolnikov is the true hero of the city.  Putin would do better to ask the people to remember Dostoevsky than Stalin.

This was a piece of writing I wrote in a Freefall workshop last year.  I must tell you about Freefall next time.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Marga Macdonald permalink
    June 26, 2010 6:00 am

    Wonderful. I shall be reading my Dosteovesky again. Great photo!!!! love

  2. Tricia Bertram permalink
    June 29, 2010 10:28 am

    Great story, I don’t remember hearing it. Is this my sometimes memory or was it not read out?

    • June 29, 2010 11:16 pm

      Thanks, Tricia. Yes, Barbara read out this story – but it was two years ago now.

      F xx

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  1. Freefall writing – a quick and unexpected story « Staying on Story

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