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Notes From Moscow’s Underground What comes to mind when you say 'Fyodor Dostoevsky'?

What comes to mind when you say "Fyodor Dostoevsky"?

May 14, 2010 A few months back, The Onion news-parody website did a hilarious video story headlined “Prague’s Franz Kafka International Named World’s Most Alienating Airport,” in which bewildered travelers must run a gauntlet of, well, Kafkaesque abuse in an apparently hopeless quest to reach their destination.

At the end of the video, the announcer states that many travelers, in despair, end up checking into the nearby Dostoevsky Hotel, where “a large number of them ended up murdering another guest at the hotel.”

City authorities in Moscow have now delayed the opening of a new subway station named in honor of Fyodor Dostoevsky, the 19th-century novelist whose name has become a synonym for depression, despair, and existential angst.

It seems that some in government and many in the lively Russian blogosphere have taken exception to the planned artwork for the station: a huge black-and-white mural depicting many of Dostoevsky’s most wretched characters at their most depraved moments. The protagonist of “Crime and Punishment” is shown wielding an ax over the head of one of his victims, while the hero of “The Devils” is depicted holding a gun to his forehead in the moment before his suicide.

Apparently, a lot of people feel the mural and the station’s black-and-white chessboard décor might prompt thoughts of suicide among the capital’s overstressed commuters. About 150 people commit suicide each year in the Moscow metro system. Dozens of people were killed in the metro in March when two suicide bombers struck.

The mass daily “Komsomolskaya pravda” asked in an article last month, “But is it worth it to place this image in the metro, where people are already nervous enough?”

And perhaps it is a bit strange the metro managers chose such a literal representation of Dostoevsky’s challenging art. After all, the Mayakovskaya metro station (named after the brilliant Futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, who shot himself through the head on April 14, 1930) is decorated with famous, beautiful, and completely irrelevant murals depicting Soviet achievements in aviation. The Turgenevskaya metro, named for 19th-century novelist Ivan Turgenev, has almost no decoration at all, which is unusual for a central Moscow metro station.

Perhaps it is a bit strange to name a Moscow metro station after Dostoevsky at all. Although he was born in Moscow, he and his art are intrinsically tied to St. Petersburg. Petersburg has long had a Dostoevskaya metro station, but it is also austerely decorated. Moreover, it opens directly onto the Dostoevsky museum, where interested metro-goers can learn more about the messages of love, forgiveness, and redemption that underpin and ultimately trump the desperate scenes for which the writer is best known.

Dostoevsky was a genius of words, so it is a fool’s errand to try to reduce his entire legacy to a few visual images, although the Moscow metro mosaic by award-winning monumental artist Ivan Nikolayev has much to recommend it. However, it is only truly powerful and faithful to Dostoevsky to the extent that the images evoke the great writer’s words.

How different, for instance, would the image of a man with a gun to his forehead seem if it called to mind this quotation from “The Brothers Karamazov”:

“Do you know I’ve been sitting here thinking to myself that if I didn’t believe in life, if I lost faith in the woman I love, lost faith in the order of things, were convinced in fact that everything is disorderly, damnable, and perhaps devil-ridden chaos, if I were struck by every horror of man’s disillusionment – still I should want to live. Having once tasted of the cup, I would not turn away from it until I had drained it.”
Or, if travelers are in too much of a rush to read such a long passage, maybe this quotation will serve:

“We are all happy,” Dostoevsky said, “if we but knew it.”

-- Robert Coalson http://www.rferl.org/content/Notes_From_Moscows_Underground/2042065.html