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Dostoevsky’s dark genius honoured in city where Putin elite thrives.

Fyodor Dostoevsky was born 200 years ago this week, and Russia is celebrating with exhibitions, plays and even special restaurant menus supposedly inspired by a writer who was anything but epicurean.

In Saint Petersburg, where the young Dostoevsky was sent from Moscow to attend a military academy, people laid flowers on his grave and at sites associated with his novels, and on Thursday’s anniversary a bus bearing his portrait began trundling through the former imperial capital on the Neva river.

It was an unseasonably mild, sunny and un-Dostoevskian sort of day, of a kind that is rare in a city better known for the bitter Baltic rain and wind that hound his characters as relentlessly as their existential angst.

Dostoevsky is cherished here and feels as essential to Saint Petersburg as its grand palaces and graceful canals, but this city that Peter the Great built on swampland and the bones of slave labourers never lost the power to chill him.

Palace Square in central Saint Petersburg, part of the Winter Palace by the Neva river that was a focal point of the 1917 October Revolution, which brought the Bolsheviks to power and ended Tsarist rule in Russia. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin

Palace Square in central Saint Petersburg, part of the Winter Palace by the Neva river that was a focal point of the 1917 October Revolution, which brought the Bolsheviks to power and ended Tsarist rule in Russia. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin

“I admit that Petersburg, I don’t know why, always seemed like a kind of mystery to me,” he wrote. “Right from childhood, when almost lost and abandoned in Petersburg, I was somehow always afraid of it.”

His mother died when he was 15, shortly after he arrived in Saint Petersburg to study military engineering. A decade later his first novel, Poor Folk, was published to great acclaim, yet just five years on he was jailed for alleged subversive activity, sentenced to death and led out for execution; at the last moment, the prisoners were spared and sent to Siberia instead.

When he returned to the city after 10 years of hard labour and compulsory military service, he wrote his greatest novels; but epilepsy, constant debts from his addiction to gambling, and troubled marriages meant Dostoevsky’s life was never easy.

A reconstruction of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s study, which includes a few original items, in the Saint Petersburg flat where he wrote The Brothers Karamazov and where he died in 1881. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin

A reconstruction of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s study, which includes a few original items, in the Saint Petersburg flat where he wrote The Brothers Karamazov and where he died in 1881. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin

The writer stands in gloomy sculpture on a wall of the so-called Raskolnikov house, where he placed the flat of the hero of his 1866 novel Crime and Punishment.

The inscription reads: “The tragic fates of the people of this area of Petersburg gave Dostoevsky the basis for his passionate sermon of goodness for all mankind.”

Political chaos

It is not a poor district now, and like much of the city and country it has benefitted from investment and improving living standards funded by the high world energy prices that have powered Russia during Vladimir Putin’s 21-year rule.

Saint Petersburg was different in the 1990s, when the collapse of the Soviet Union brought unprecedented freedom to Russia, but also political and financial chaos that engulfed millions of families and threatened to destroy the new state.

The scrap for wealth and power in this flux was brutal and often deadly, and pitched people from all strata of crumbling Soviet society into competition and co-operation, from ex-communist apparatchiks, military and police officers and spies, to scientists and engineers who – along with career criminals and countless petty thugs – tried to make it as “biznesmeny” and politicians in the new capitalist Russia.

Putin returned to his native Saint Petersburg from a KGB posting in East Germany and found work in city hall, first as an adviser, then from 1991 as head of the committee for foreign relations, before becoming a deputy mayor in 1994.

As a key link between Saint Petersburg business circles and foreign firms eager to access the city’s major port, Putin surely made many useful and profitable contacts.

The Kremlin denies that he has parlayed political power into a personal fortune, but Russian journalists and media that investigate Putin and his allies are increasingly being blacklisted as foreign agents and “undesirables”.

The Neva river in Saint Petersburg, Russia’s former royal capital founded by Tsar Peter the Great in 1703, and long regarded as the country’s ‘window on the West’. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin

The Neva river in Saint Petersburg, Russia’s former royal capital founded by Tsar Peter the Great in 1703, and long regarded as the country’s ‘window on the West’. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin

A striking number of Putin’s colleagues and friends from Saint Petersburg are now among Russia’s richest and most influential men.

They include Igor Sechin and Alexei Miller, who worked with Putin in city hall and now respectively run Rosneft and Gazprom, the country’s biggest energy firms.

Political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya noted the success of other Putin confidantes: “The Rotenberg brothers, the Kovalchuk brothers, Gennadiy Timchenko, the Shamalov family, and Yevgeny Prigozhin have all secured state contracts and other largesse from the Russian state in recent years,” she wrote for the Carnegie Moscow Centre. “They have also learned the benefits of doing favours for Putin.”

Many members of the Putin-era elite own property on Saint Petersburg’s Kammeny island, an expanse of parkland, mansions, high fences and security cameras, which shares little with Dostoevsky’s cityscape apart from the scudding clouds and squalls of rain.

“All over the world our city is known for Dostoevsky’s books,” governor Alexander Beglov enthused on the writer’s birthday. “In my view, Dostoevsky is in tune with Petersburg even after all these years. Only now, the mood of the city is different.”

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