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Moscow adds Dostoevsky to underground pantheon

A Florentine mosaic of Fyodor Dostoevsky in the new Moscow Metro stop named for him. A Florentine mosaic of Fyodor Dostoevsky in the new Moscow Metro stop named for him. (Mary Ellen Monahan for The Boston Globe)
By Mary Ellen Monahan
Globe Correspondent / November 28, 2010

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MOSCOW — Fyodor Dostoevsky, champion of the downtrodden, can still rattle the bourgeoisie from the underground.

If critics had their way, the newest station in Moscow’s glorious subway system would bear a warning — Beware: darkness, gloom, and violent images may trigger depression, even suicide.

Stop number 181, in the making for 20 years, honors the novelist famous for boring as deeply into the human psyche as engineers tunneled into the earth to build the station. Dostoevsky (1821-81) joins his literary compatriots Pushkin, Chekhov, Mayakovsky, and Turgenev, all honored earlier with stops.

In May, a blogger found and posted photos taken inside the station of the new Florentine mosaics portraying scenes from Dostoevsky’s works. That prompted a prominent psychologist and other critics to denounce the art. The May opening, scheduled to coincide with the metro’s 75th anniversary, slid to late June.

But inside, in contrast to predictions of gloom and my own thoughts of Dostoevsky’s vodka-soaked, murky settings, the atmosphere feels like a minimalist-chic museum. Subtle and elegant, the decor features sleek silver card readers, futuristic lamps, and recessed lighting reminiscent of giant eggs.

It’s a stunning addition to the world’s second busiest (after Tokyo) and most attractive underground. As much an artistic feat as the Hermitage or St. Basil’s Cathedral, the Metro is also a marvel of efficiency: Trains screeching by every minute or two carry about 9 million passengers per day to 182 stations. And a ride costs under a dollar.

On the platform, Muscovites’ reactions alternate between camera-clicking delight and apathy common to big-city commuters.

“I think both new stations are beautiful,’’ a male student says after dismissing the scandal. (Marina Roscha, the other new stop on the line after Dostoevsky, features bright cut-glass mosaics of this old Moscow neighborhood.)

He points out the two controversial images, discreet enough that commuters may miss them altogether. The first portrays Kirill from “The Devils’’ holding a gun to his head. Nearby, Raskolnikov, the tortured protagonist from “Crime and Punishment,’’ wields a hatchet above the pawnbroker who tormented him.

A pensioner with wide brown eyes voices a common reaction: “It’s fine. It’s Dostoevsky, after all.’’ Which echoes the artist, Ivan Nikolayev, who answered his critics, telling Izvestia: “What did you want? Scenes of dancing? Dostoevsky does not have them.’’

Other murals depict the existential themes Dostoevsky wrote about: suffering, love, morality, identity, despair, death. An ethereal quality infuses the chunky, simple designs in shades of gray, white, black, and periwinkle. The effect suits the author’s moral conundrums and spiritual wandering amid Russia’s turbulent history, which mirrored his own battles with poverty, depression, illness, and gambling.

Joseph Stalin unveiled the first underground stations in 1935, declaring them a “palace of the people.’’ Chandeliers, bronze sculptures, marble, and sweeping mosaics as grand as his Soviet Union’s ambitions greeted the commuting proletariat.

Eighty-six years earlier, Dostoevsky endured a mock execution followed by exile to Siberia for revolutionary activities. This experience crystallized a spiritual awakening. But the suffering began with a grim Moscow childhood marked by fits of epilepsy and a father so horrible the servants killed him. No wonder not one of his novels was set here.

After ascending an escalator, a giant, brooding portrait of the novelist glares from the far end of a corridor leading to the exit. Bleary-eyed commuters can’t avoid the penetrating gaze, which appears angry.

But as one gets closer, the face softens to that of a concerned father. It’s as if he’s still trying to reach us, like the unseen narrator of “Notes From Underground’’ who speaks from under the floorboards.

Mary Ellen Monahan can be reached at maremonahan@gmail.com.

If You Go

Russia requires a visa for entry, which requires an invitation. The easiest way to visit is with an organized tour, but for those traveling independently, www.waytorussia.net or www.gotorussia.net can arrange visas, train and hotel bookings, and itineraries.
Moscow Metro
engl.mosmetro.ru
Where to get off when you want to eat
Many otherwise expensive restaurants offer excellent-value lunch menus, often at half the price of dinner. Teatralnaya or Okhotny Ryad stop: Akademiya on Kamergersky street (and elsewhere); good Italian and Japanese food in a trendy setting near the Bolshoi Theatre.
Pushkinskaya: Goodman Steakhouse on Tverskaya Street; excellent service and delicious steaks, seafood, and salads.
Okhotny Ryad: Viet Cafe on Gazetny Pereulok; delicious specialties in the heart of the action. And Teremok on Tverskaya Street (and elsewhere); the city’s best bliny (thin pancakes stuffed with mushrooms, salmon, etc.) starting at just over a dollar.
Chistye Prudy: Coffee Bean on Pokrovka Street (and elsewhere); great coffees, cheerful service, in an arty setting.
Mayakovskaya: Volkhonsky Kaiser Bakery-Café on Bolshaya Sadovaya Street (and elsewhere); one of the city’s best and most popular French bakeries.