Dostoevsky Studies     Volume 7,1986

Staraia Russa and Petersburg; Provincial Realities and Metropolitan Reminiscences in The Brothers Karamazov

Gian Piero Piretto, Istituto Universitario di Bergamo

It is by now fully documented(1) and widely accepted that "nash gorodok", the small provincial town where the action of The Brothers Karamazov unfolds, evokes more or less accurately the historical and geographical realities of Staraia Russa, the place where the author and his family spent almost all their time between 1872 and 1880.

The role played by the author's move to the provinces and his new "anomalous" artistic stance in the literary development of the works written during those years, has on the other hand been given less attention and examined less deeply. I shall concentrate on the importance given to the provincial setting in The Brothers Karamazov, both in relation to previous settings in Petersburg and in its own right - taking for granted the biographical evidence and geographical identification of Skotoprigon'evsk as Staraia Russa, which play only a minor part in this kind of analysis.

In novels previous to A Raw Youth, Dostoevsky had accustomed his readers to a Petersburg background. The town had become an essential creative element and was inseparable from the plot and the ethical attitude of the characters in his novels. Petersburg had provided the inspiration for many plots and for countless situations that could only reasonably have arisen in such a context, for they drew so much of their life-blood from it, as to remain radically influenced and even dominated by the place. With Crime and Punishment, which has Petersburg among its main characters, Dostoevsky "introduced the great themes that fill the later books - questions of transgression, guilt and suffering, of freedom and authority, of 'new men', positivism, socialism, the difficulties of belief and the tragedy of unbelief".(2) The chaotic, sprawling city is made a symbol of man's chaotic moral world. For Raskol'nikov, Dostoevsky created the ideal background for the action, so that the reader is left wondering whether the crime was an unavoidable consequence of living in that particular town. Starting from Crime and Punishment, crime becomes an essential component of Dostoevsky's novels, but both in The Possessed and in The Brothers Karamazov the city is no longer needed to introduce a crime.

In Petersburg, crime was bred from isolation, disease, dreams, rootlessness, unnatural environment and poverty. At Skotoprigon'evsk, however, roots are deeper, housing is safer, and dwellings are not (for most of the characters at least) single kamorki or corners closed off by screens, nor are changes of residence or insecure jobs at all common. The chief characters in The Brothers Karamazov are one clan, a sort of family, not individuals torn from their birthplace and totally


caught up in the chaos of a metropolis. The reasons for the crime must therefore be sought elsewhere, in individuals, setting aside the urban and social fabric in which they act.

I intend to analyse the elements of Dostoevsky's poetics which revolve around these actions, and to underline how they develop, when a change occurs, and in what ways they remain the same - maybe merely adapting to different realities.

Staraia Russa does not become a model, because the action in The Brothers Karamazov could have developed in any other town of a similar size and location. Petersburg, though, was necessary as such, the action would have been impossible anywhere else. Skotoprigon'evsk stands for the province, it is the small town typically opposed to the metropolis, to the urban area traditionally well-known to Dostoevsky's readers. The geographical description of Skotoprigon'evsk is deliberately vague, place-names are very general (Bol'shaia ulitsa, Bazarnaia ploshchad', Sobornaia ploshchad'): the town exists as the symbol of an alternative environment to that of the capital, but it has little significance of its own. Conventional references to the inclement weather and other peculiarities of the climate are lacking; the dominant elements are dullness and banality, there are no references to phantasy or myth, no "dreamers" roam the grey and nameless streets or follow the canals which cut across a city that the author will name, with evident embarrassment, only many pages later.

Nature is the only obviously positive element compared with the capital's world; albeit only noticed by Dostoevsky - almost glimpsed -, its existence never becomes a celebration. While in Crime and Punishment we only found the pathetic geraniums in Raskol'nikov's room (in The Brothers Karamazov they recur, less withered and stunted, in Smerdiakov's cottage), Skotoprigon'evsk's berry bushes are all in blossom: currants, raspberries, and burrs grow rankly among nettles and wild flowers along the hedges and fences that will play such an important part in the creation of the structure of the novel; pure touches of Russian nature, a nature which is traditionally positive.

The poor of Petersburg were poverty-stricken human wrecks, the result of despair bred in the metropolis. In the provinces we meet the "liudi bozhie", the fools touched by God, mere victims of individual spite who are accepted and protected by society. The only character who, in the essence of his poverty and behaviour, equals his Petersburg counterparts is Captain Snegirev, the father of Iliusha, who reminds us of the desperate domestic situations of the Marmeladovs or of Nelly: but he is transformed and shaped to fit a new reality, by the "mystical" intervention of Alesha. And so Sonia's hopeless resignation becomes Grushenka's tense and involved anxiety, Liza Khokhlakova's despondent loneliness, Katerina Ivanovna's hurt humiliation.

Poverty, according to Lukācs(3), is the common theme linking the city to the provinces, but the sources and above all the consequences of these two kinds of poverty are entirely different.


The area covered by Skotoprigon'evsk is deliberately described by the author as a limitless, grey and bleak expanse; he stresses the fact that the houses are scattered over a vast area, where distances appear stretched out:

Nash nebol'shoi gorodok chrezvychaino razbrosan, i rasstoianiia v nem byvaiut dovol'no bol'shie."(4)

The town has no boundaries, no historic centre, no particularly relevant or evocative monuments for the action to revolve around. There is only a monastery, but at about a verst or more away, immediately suggesting, in fact, that it belongs to another world, that it is no part of the city but stands apart as an independent and distant entity. The lack of any city walls makes the distribution of each crucial point, and the relevant stages in term of space, not concentrical but linear - as if to stress the idea of open space and distance. The various stages are reached one after the other, they are not contained in each other but we leave behind one and pass to the next with a change of direction. If Fedor Pavlovich Karamazov's house is considered the centre, or rather the starting point, it is evident how the other key points of the action are independent and not contained in it, nor connected to it, in terms of space. The Karamazovs' house is the starting point of a broken line followed by the characters: Skotoprigon'evsk is crossed by it, it branches off at the monastery at a verst's distance, and then again 400 yards further on - beyond the copse - to the hermitage where Zosima's cell is. Each place is one stage, one world, one ethical point of view of the characters' doings. It is not by chance that the narrative begins at both ends of this line, and the two ends come together: Fedor Pavlovich's visit to the "starets".

Each movement of these characters represents a trespass on neighbouring territory, a crossing of frontiers; Alesha is the only character who, as we shall see, is at ease. Karamazov's world, on the other hand, is the enclosed, isolated and protected space of his home, which is made impenetrable and "safe" in every possible way. The red Chinese screen, his striped silk dressing-gown, the red band on his forehead, are the elements nearest to the centre of that space, prepared in the beginning for the arrival of a welcome foreign entity - sought for but still foreign (Grushen'ka) -, but which will provide a setting for the final trespass. (5)

The walls are not the real frontiers enclosing Karamazov's house. Notwithstanding the great number of doors, scuttles and gates, the only real frontier is the zabor encircling the house. The rooms, garden, kitchen-garden beyond this fence merge into one whole, in spite of all old Karamazov's precautions. The real frontier round that territory consists of the "pleten', zabor i izgorod" dividing the town from the space taken up by the garden, kitchen-garden, yard, servants'-quarters, Grigorii, Marfa Ignat'evna and Smerdiakov. Each of these places or characters is an element of the frontier and is connected to and interacting with the others. The several chulanchiki, priatki i neozhidannye lesenki which make up the


essential structure of Karamazov's house, are already a part of the enclosed space and are therefore a further (though useless) belt of defence inside the frontier, more closely related to Fedor Pavlovich who is the centre of that world.

The outside space is supplied by the town, by its alleyways and by other characters who in their turn live in spatial isolation from the other enclosed space in the novel: the carnival-like territory of the monastery. Only for a few characters owing to Alesha's mediation, will the outer space become a deeply significant reality, the symbol of a world which is opposed to the one they live in. For all the others though, this will remain a mysterious and mythical world, separate and remote, but for this reason paradoxically more easily penetrable on the surface, because its frontiers do not form a barrier of them.

The characters' movements are almost entirely confined to the territory of the town: visits to the monastery involve real journeys, visits to Karamazov's house look more like forays. To move inside the town, the key characters choose routes away from the main streets, and which the reader cannot clearly place: paths, alleys, waste land? The author speaks generally of proiti zadami, and soon the reader gets used to such expressions, and walking besides hedges and fences grows familiar. Less common, and therefore more symbolically and semantically significant is the image of climbing over hedges to venture into alien land.

Lizaveta Smerdiashchaia is the first character to be caught in the act, one whose behaviour will be a model and an example almost every time the act is repeated. For such a simple soul, the crossing of fences involves no idea of trespass but is merely a physical exercise (this is repeatedly underlined by the narrator with incredulous precision), a consequence of her mental condition, of her way of life and her state of chelovek bozhii, which only Karamazov's sensuality will turn into that of a victim's.

For Alesha, and especially for Dmitrii, the crossing of the hedge at his father's house will be a crossing of frontiers, a stage on his way to the conclusion of the "psychological experiment" he has set himself to do, which Mitia - owing to his excessive impulsiveness and enthusiasm - will never be able to undertake.

The monastery is with Alesha even when he is walking down the alleys in the town, or along the hedges. He really crosses a frontier when he leaves the copse around the hermitage or returns to it through one of the passages which open only for him. His perelest' cherez zabor remains, like Lizaveta's, purely physical, it implies no change in space. Alesha is the hero of spatial and ethical immobility, who "though moving from place to place to fit the needs of the plot, always carries with him his own locus".(6) He is the hero who has no need to change, and even when he leaves the monastery for "the world" this will not be a change: he will remain the hero of enclosed space, who moves freely ignoring the limits set for the men of "the world".


For Mitia, on the other hand, the hedge around Karamazov's house represents a threshold to cross: effort and violence are needed to get across this frontier. The key moments of his presence in the novel will be connected and revolve round this hedge: his meeting with Alesha, his entry into the garden and the time he passes there on the fatal night, his quarrel with Grigorii, the intervention of the barrister, when he makes his harangue at the trial, up to the declaration of intents to Fenia:

No, Fenia, tut odin zabor, odin vysokii zabor i strashnyi na vid, no... zavtra na rassvete, kogda 'vzletit solnce', Miten'ka cherez etot zabor pereskochit..."(7)

While Alesha does not wander aimlessly through the town but remains motionless within his own space even when he follows the route provided by the plot, Dmitrii travels further than is strictly required by the plot, he crosses barriers and increases his experience even if in a negative sense. Enclosed space suffocates him and he is always in search of chances to break out and trespass.

What in Crime and Punishment was represented by the threshold of the house, a fragile frontier between its walls and the city (the roads, squares and canals around the Sennaia were for Raskol'nikov nothing more than an ideal extension of his kamorka), in The Brothers Karamazov is made to take in a much larger area, even to the extent that other people are introduced into it; this frontier is thus represented by the hedge, which becomes a symbol, in every sense, of the division between two worlds, two generations, two related and yet opposed ethical moments. Mitia lives in an alley (like Grushen'ka, who is symbolically represented by the alley in the two brothers' conversation), his house lacks any details. None of the brothers has a house, a real home known to all: Alesha has nothing but the monastery, Mitia is shown endlessly wandering, Ivan lives in Petersburg (once more according to Lukācs, the main characters in Dostoevsky's novels, like Stavrogin and Ivan Karamazov, live in Petersburg).(8)

The brothers meet in the road, along the fences or at the inn. Their father's home no longer reunites them, it has become an alien space, a stopping-off place. As true dostoevskian characters, the Karamazov brothers have no right to a family space, to biographical attention: they have no right to any kind of intimacy. Only Alesha seeks almost desperately, in the monastery, the intimacy and peace which the "world" denies him; but he will be obliged to leave that haven, cross the frontier and enter the "world".

The almost magical and mythical territory of the monastery is enclosed not by the usual hedge (an element already identified as part of the human and earthly external world), but - in a way reminiscent of fairy tales - is bounded by a wood, or rather several woods which bring to mind those which in fairytales separated a village from the "tridesiatoe tsarstvo"(9) and involved a series of ordeals for the hero intending to pass through them. Zosima's cell is beyond a second copse, which is accessible through a number of doors: a barrier that 


is far more symbolic and impenetrable than the mean little rooms and unexpected staircases in Karamazov's house.

The spiritual barriers of the soul which dostoevskian characters have to overcome are always the same, whether in the city or the provinces. It is the approach, the material obstacles, the solutions the author offers his characters, the narrative technique and the literary artifices which change. It is against this new background in The Brothers Karamazov that Dostoevsky's first entirely positive character is born: honest, steadfast and lacking the background of the misleading mists of Petersburg, the false allure of the capital with its decaying slums swarming with creatures who are tormented by problems the city has worsened. Nevertheless this character has to struggle amidst extreme examples of human depravity and evil, even though he was born and bred far away from Petersburg.


  1.  See V. V. Smirenskii, "Dostoevsky v nashem gorode", Starorusskaia Pravda 1960, 21 maia. G. Kogan, "F. M. Dostoevsky v Staroi Russe", Starorusskaia Pravda 1963, 20 sent. L. M. Reynus, "O prototipe Grushen'ki iz 'Brat'ev Karama zovykh'", Russkaia Literatura 1967, N. 4. Dostoevsky v Staroi Russe, Leningrad 1971. Tri adresa Dostoevskogo, Leningrad 1985. "O realiiakh doma Karamazova" in Dostoevsky. Materialy i issledovaniia. N. 6, Leningrad 1985, pp. 268/270.
  2.  Cf. D. Fanger, Dostoevsky and Romantic Realism, Chicago and London 1965, p. 112.
  3.  See G. Lukācs, "Dostojewskij" in Der Russische Realismus in der Weltliteratur, Berlin 1952.
  4.  Cf. F. M. Dostoevsky, "Brat'ia Karamazovy" in Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, XIV, p. 94, Moskva 1972.
  5.  The recurrence of the red colour in this scene (present also in the berries on the bush lighted by the light coming from the window) is the foreboding (according to N. M. Chirkov) of a forecoming fatal event. Cf. N. M. Chirkov, O stile Dostoevskogo, Moskva 1963, p. 120.
  6.  Iu. Lotman refers this peculiarity to a certain amount of Tolstoy's heroes, but we think that it fits Alesha perfectly. Cf. Iu. M. Lotman, "Problema chudozhestvennogo prostranstva v proze Gogolia" in Trudy po russkoy i slavianskoi filologii. Literaturovedenie, Tartu 1968, pp. 5/50.
  7.  F. M. Dostoevsky, p. 358.
  8.  C. Lukācs, p. 286.
  9.  The mythical space beyond the seas, unknown to the hero, reachable only by making use of the "magical presents".
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