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St. Petersburg Boasts Literary History

May 30, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) _ The once-squalid square that served as the setting for the classic Russian novel ``Crime and Punishment″ is now home to a McDonald’s.

Nearby, a dilapidated stairwell leads to the dented metal door of what some devotees of Fyodor Dostoyevsky say was, in the author’s mind, the apartment of the book’s protagonist, the ax murderer Raskolnikov.

A glance through a narrow crack between the door and jamb reveals a darkened attic cluttered with detritus, and the walls on the landing outside are covered with graffiti addressed to the fictional killer by his nickname Rodya.

``Rodya, we’re with you,″ one person scrawled.

``Don’t do it,″ another wrote in English.

It’s one of the many literary landmarks in St. Petersburg, a city whose grandeur and grit have inspired Russian writers for three centuries. On Friday, the city will mark its 300th anniversary and host world leaders during the celebrations.

``St. Petersburg is like a magician _ it has a powerful attractive force and fosters creative work,″ said Svetlana Konoplyova, a retired Russian literature teacher who works at a museum honoring the beloved poet Alexander Pushkin in the apartment where he died after a duel in 1837.

``This city is the cultural capital of our Russia,″ said Konoplyova, who minds one of the rooms at the museum, watching schoolchildren and tourists from across Russia tread respectfully through the apartment like the crowds that came to wish Pushkin well as he lay dying.

Pushkin’s epic ``The Bronze Horseman″ took its subject from a statue of city founder Czar Peter the Great that will be the backdrop when President Vladimir Putin greets foreign leaders Friday.

In the poem, a poor clerk imagines that the rearing statue _ which evokes both the creative energy and the ruthless autocracy of the czar who wrenched Russia toward Europe _ has come to life and pursues him through the city during a devastating flood.

Pushkin had complex relations with the autocrat of his time, and the clash between authority and creativity played out in the lives of other writers who lived and worked in St. Petersburg under the czars and later the communists, when it was called Leningrad.

The chaos of the city during the Bolshevik Revolution comes alive in the verse of Alexander Blok.

Anna Akhmatova, a leading 20th century poet whose husband was shot and son imprisoned by the communist authorities, mixed her fierce love for the city with a bitter disdain for its new masters, calling it her ``blessed cradle″ but comparing it to a ``drunken harlot″ under the Bolsheviks.

Akhmatova stayed in Leningrad until her death, but writers who left could not shake the memory of the city. Vladimir Nabokov, who emigrated to America, wrote evocatively of his childhood in an apartment not far from the Bronze Horseman statue.

For Russian writers who mistrusted the West and deplored Peter’s effort to thrust Russia into Europe, St. Petersburg was a monstrous city.

In his apocalyptic novel ``Petersburg,″ set in 1905, Andrei Bely wrote of the city, trapped between East and West, dropping into a hole.

Defenders of St. Petersburg have an explanation for Bely’s animus: He was from Moscow.

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