Ivan the Terrible is buried in the Archangel’s Cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin, as is the son whom he killed. In the Tretyakov gallery, Repin’s haunting painting that depicts the murder commands a whole wall. In contrast to the vacant eyes of his son’s corpse, Ivan’s eyes are wide with fear and horror. He pulls the corpse close to him and blood runs over his fingers. The Cathedral is lined with tombs of previous tsars and their mad stories, but the walls of the cathedrals are covered toe to ceiling with life-sized depictions of saints and biblical heroes. These virtuous figures starkly contrast with the stories of the Russian princes.
The prerevolutionary cathedrals are beautiful with their onion domes, spires, gold and vibrant colored paint, and high crosses. Supposedly, they are designed with the round blubs on top to keep off the snow, but the Stalinist, dome-less buildings stay just as free of snow. The “Socialist Classicism” architecture is nicknamed “Steel Vampire” because the buildings look like the fantasy creations of Bram Stoker. For example, Moscow State University has one massive pointed tower in the center with shorter sidekick towers on each side. The second time I saw one of these buildings, I thought it was MSU again: turns out, there are seven of these atrocities. Dostoevsky wrote, “Beauty will save the world.” It seems the Stalinists symbolized their attempts to destroy the world in ugly architecture.
Ironically, Dostoevsky penned those lines when residing in Florence. I lived in Florence for a year and often walked by the plaque dedicated to him on Pitti Palace. Except for this piece of evidence, you would never know Dostoevsky lived in Italy. There seems little Italian influence on The Idiot, and the man himself is so Russian. Up close, the portrait of Dostoevsky in the Tretyakov Gallery seemed less fearsome and more relatable than its reprints. When viewed online or cropped for book covers, his image always seemed fake and distant. Yet the actual painting gives him life: he looks natural, sitting there with his legs crossed, hands clasped around his knee. His childhood home in Moscow has been made into a museum with prints of him framed in every room—the place feels stilted. Visiting his home, I expected to have that sense of his reality. I thought I would know him or understand him better after visiting his home, but just as in Bulgakov’s apartment or Tolstoy’s house, the author’s spirit has been subsumed by the absent years and the breaths of thousands of strangers.
Dostoevsky’s museum was empty, though tours of teenagers crowded the halls of Bulgakov’s apartment. The only souvenir I bought myself was a matryoshka doll with authors’ faces painted on them. It was a difficult item to find, but I had my mind set on it. While nesting dolls of Beatles, presidents, and other celebrities abound, the authors have been overlooked. Yet I found one in a store next to a старбукс кафе (Starbucks).
Solzhenitsyn questioned whether Russia would still exist in the 21st century? He was referring to the demographic problem, but I think of the dissolution of culture. Though not only a Russian dilemma, Stalin hurried along the cultural atrophy. I had wanted to see Dostoevsky’s Russia, but I think that’s best found in the fiction, where “terrible” Ivans mingle with “saintly” Alyoshas.