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.
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.” more