For half my life now, I’ve wanted to go to Russia. In less than a month, I’ll be heading to St. Petersburg for a four-week program on museum studies and the history of Russian art. The first question most people ask me when I tell them I’m learning Russian is, “Why Russian?” I find this question incredibly irritating (I’ve never heard anybody question why any other language) but that’s a rant I don’t need to get into here and now….
Anyway, the answer is, because I love Russian literature. It’s what got me started being interested in Russia, starting with Dostoevsky and expanding to Lermentov, Bulgakov, Chekov, Gogol, Pushkin, and Turgenev. No, I’ve never managed to really get into Tolstoy, in case you’re wondering. And though Dostoevsky and I disagree on some major philosophical points, he remains one of my all-time favorite authors. His ability to make thoroughly despicable people into heartbreakingly sympathetic characters and his intense portrayal of the fragility, beauty, and horror of the human psyche at the height of his literary career is impressive in itself, but his growth and change as an author is possibly even more admirable. In his early works, he writes like an awkward, dreamy young man (not unlike many of his early narrators). After his arrest, mock-execution, and exile, his writing flourishes – all his early skill with writing beautifully-crafted words from the heart bursts out of his dream-state youth into full awareness of the realities around him, and his full strength as a writer, as a social commentator, as an observer of human behavior, finally came through.
As a writer, I find the intensity of his development inspiring. I can’t say that I ever want to experience a last-minute pardon from execution or a decade’s imprisonment in Siberia, but I can say that I hope that any difficult, frightening, awful times in my own life (because, let’s face it, everybody experiences some hard times) will push my writing to new levels, open me up to new and profound possibilities, and strengthen my creativity into something with real power behind it. A good writer is a nice thing to be, but to be a great writer takes not just ability, but growth.
The Dostoevsky Museum isn’t on my program’s list of sites, but I’ll definitely go on my own to see it, and his grave site nearby. I’m sure I’ll have plenty to say about that visit when the time comes!