Snow Days: Russian Literature in Winter

By Stuart Mitchner

Rostov … looked at the snowflakes dancing above the fire and remembered the Russian winter with a warm, bright house, a fluffy fur coat, swift sleighs, a healthy body, and all the love and care of a family.

—Leo Tolstoy, from War and Peace

I’ve never been to Russia in winter or spring or any other season. But I’ve been there all year round as a reader ever since the St. Petersburg summer I spent in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. The following spring, I spent my first Russian winter reading The Brothers Karamazov in the Modern Library Giant edition. When you approach the world of Dostoevsky at the tender age of 19, the prospect is more inviting wrapped in an image of striking storybook simplicity: deep blue sky, snow tipped onion-domed towers above a white snowscape pure and clear against the black of a horse-drawn sleigh. So began a sophomore binge that carried me from Karamazov to Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. My fate was sealed. I would graduate as an English major with a minor in Slavic studies.

Everything in a Flower

“A flower fell on the snow and he rushed to pick it up as though everything in the world depended on the loss of that flower.” The “everything in the world depended on it” essence of Dostoevsky is in that sentence, which comes toward the end of “Ilusha’s Funeral,” the last chapter of The Brothers Karamazov. The chaotic life and death intensity of the passage is driven by Ilusha’s crazed father running alongside the coffin, “fussing and distracted,” rushing to pick up the small white flower, as if his dead son’s flower and all the flowers in the world were one.

Gogol’s Overcoat

In “The Overcoat,” from Nicolai V. Gogol’s Tales of Good and Evil (Doubleday Anchor), the St. Petersburg climate is “a great enemy,” along with the “northern frost” that targets “the noses of Civil Servants” and makes “the foreheads of even those who occupy the highest positions ache with frost, and tears start to their eyes.” Gogol pictures the “poor titular councillors … running as fast as they can in their thin, threadbare overcoats through five or six streets and then stamping their feet vigorously in the vestibule, until they succeed in unfreezing their faculties and abilities.” The overcoat of the title belongs to Akaky Akakyevich, who finds on thoroughly examining it at home that “the cloth had worn out so much that it let through the wind, and the lining had all gone to pieces.”

Chekhov in Winter

Chekhov is arguably the Russian writer most attuned to the weather and the seasons, winter in particular. “On the Road,” takes place in “the traveller’s room” at a roadside inn. A man and a woman have bonded, she’s rich and young, he’s poor and middle-aged and has lost everything but his 6-year-old daughter and his gift for spell-binding narrative as he dazzles the woman with the story of his life. “Outside,” in the words of Constance Garnett’s translation, “God alone knows why, the winter was raging still. Whole clouds of big soft snowflakes were whirling restlessly over the earth, unable to find a resting-place. The horses, the sledge, the trees, a bull tied to a post, all were white and seemed soft and fluffy.” The man tucks the young gentlewoman into her sledge; after it goes round a huge snowdrift, she looks back as though she wants to say something to him. He runs up to her, but she doesn’t say a word, she only looks at him “through her long eyelashes with little specks of snow on them,” and it suddenly seems to him “that with another touch or two that girl would have forgiven him his failures, his age, his desolate position, and would have followed him without question or reasonings.” He stands a long while, “gazing at the tracks left by the sledge runners. The snowflakes greedily settled on his hair, his beard, his shoulders,” and though the track of the runners had vanished, “his eyes kept seeking something in the clouds of snow.”

Warmed by Tolstoy

The neurologist and best-selling author Oliver Sacks recounts in A Leg to Stand On the time he was stranded alone on a mountain in Norway with a badly broken leg and night coming on. What helped him through the crisis was the example of Tolstoy’s Master and Man (Penguin) about Vasili Andreyevich, a landowner who undergoes a spiritual awakening after bringing Nikita, a serf on his estate, back from the brink of hypothermia by lying on top of him. Sacks accompanies his memory of the story with a line from the Bible: “Two are better than one … for if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow; but woe to him that is alone when he falleth, for he hath not another to help him up.” For Sacks, the “other” was the belief that Tolstoy was guiding him as he splinted his leg with an umbrella and slid down the precipice.

Christmas with Dostoevsky

Writing in Christmas 1876 in a St. Petersburg journal he edited around the time he was at work on The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky imagines a story about a very poor, very hungry little boy of 6 wandering the streets of “some huge city during a bitter frost.” It’s Christmas Eve, the boy sees “floods of light, light everywhere,” and finds himself gazing through “a huge window and, beyond it, a hall with a tree reaching up to the ceiling. It’s a Christmas tree covered with gleaming lights, with sparkling bits of gold paper and apples, and all around are little dolls, toy-horses,” while “lots of beautifully dressed children are running about the hall,” laughing and playing, eating, and drinking. “And just listen to the music! You can hear it from inside, coming through the window!” In another window he sees tables loaded with cakes, almond cakes, red cakes, yellow cakes, “and in yet another window gaily dressed dancing puppets that for a moment he thought were alive.”

This Dickensian scene as imagined by Dostoevsky does not end well for the little boy. Chased by bullies, he escapes to a strange courtyard, hides behind a pile of kindling wood, dozes off, and dreams he’s in a place where everything sparkles and glitters and shines, and there are many other little girls and boys, who, like him, have died in alleys and on doorsteps of Petersburg officials, and in hospital wards. This being a diary recording Dostoevsky’s impressions apropos of everything that strikes him, the author of “Ilusha’s Funeral” asks himself why he should make up such a story, one that conforms so little to an ordinary, reasonable diary, disingenuously concluding, “I really don’t know what to tell you, and I don’t know whether or not this could have happened. Being a novelist, I have to invent things.”

Three years after the Christmas Eve story was published in The Citizen, Karamazov began its run in another journal, The Russian Messenger, where it appeared from January 1879 to November 1880. Dostoevsky died less than five months after its publication.

In Hollywood

Admittedly, and yet inevitably, two of my primary associations with the Russian winter come by way of Hollywood. From David Lean’s Dr. Zhivago, there’s the moment Yuri (Omar Sharif) and Lara (Julie Christie) share their first view of the frozen mansion at Varykino, like a gigantic sculpture made of snow, with everything inside snow-encrusted, except Zhivago’s desk, which has only a thin veneer of white he clears with his hand, and when he opens the drawer the only white surface is the paper waiting for his poetry. The adoring look on Julie Christie’s face as she watches (those blue eyes!) is worth a thousand words. But I never felt as close to Zhivago as I did to MGM’s Brothers Karamazov. Once I saw Yul Brynner as Dmitri, Richard Basehart as Ivan, and Maria Schell as Grushenka, those were the faces I imagined when reading the book. And for the mad, frenzied joy of Russian winter, it’s hard to top the scene when Dmirti and Grushenka meet at the skating pond. The intensity of that moment — Dmitri’s out of bounds energy and Maria Schell’s rapturous smile — is truly Dostoevskian.