Author’s Note: “Dostoevsky, Rubenstein, Mussorgsky—Russia’s titans of literature, music & art—have lain in repose in an antique cemetery in Saint Petersburg since the 19th century. Visitors stroll through, ooh-ing & ahh-ing over the elaborate statuary, and they snap a few pix, but nobody cries. It takes a person with fresh grief to shed tears there. I was that person.”
Alone in the Mist with Tchaikovsky
A COUPLE OF MILLENNIALS WERE TAKING SELFIES with the polished black marble bust of Dostoevsky. I lurked discreetly off to one side of the path so as not to photobomb. It wasn’t exactly like I was waiting in line for my turn to have Dostoevsky all to myself, but the visitors to the Art Masters necropolis in Saint Petersburg seemed to know the drill. They knew to spend a few quiet moments alone before a luminary’s tomb, squarely smack dab standing right there before it, focusing the camera lens or just thinking their thoughts, and then they knew the exact interval of time before they had to move along to allow the next person an uninterrupted chance to snap some pix.
One couldn’t bogart Dostoevsky.
Later, people might post their photo montage to Instagram and say, “Honored to pay my respects,” and it would look like they had had a lengthy and private moment before Dostoevsky’s tomb. It would look like they had had the leisure to indulge in meaningful contemplation. It would look like theirs had been an exclusive pilgrimage to the final resting place of this literary icon. The mad tourist mayhem that swept Saint Petersburg up each summer would not be anywhere near the solemnity they had captured in the photograph.
Not that today was mad.
Today, a soft misting rain had fallen since morning. That alone had driven the cruise ship crowd to indoor delights—the Peter & Paul Fortress, the Cathedral on Spilled Blood, certainly the Hermitage. A cold fog had swirled over the Gulf of Finland, and the Neva River had served as a wick, drawing the fog inland. It was as if all the water bodies of Saint Petersburg were coordinating their mood and moisture level and their look. The day promised an endless palette of wet charcoal gray.
Situated on the banks of the Neva, the Art Masters necropolis was, of course, fog bound. Fine beads of rain stippled the surface of the graves and statuary and intensified the vivid green of the leaves on trees and shrubs. An emerald haze practically saturated the damp air. Trunks and limbs of mature maples were a deep shadowless black in contrast to their clouds of lacy foliage. Lime trees spread a canopy of shade over the necropolis, enclosing the realm of human grief like a second sky, one that had dropped down toward us as if intent on sharing our sorrow.
I was grateful for the companionship.
Summer had not held out to me a trip to Saint Petersburg at all, because Jammy, my miniature schnauzer of nearly sixteen years, had grown very frail. I knew it would be better for us to be together during this final milestone season in our lengthy shared life. So, I didn’t apply for a travel visa at the Russian embassy.
Nor did I make reservations, whether hotel or airline. Jammy declined so precipitously fast, however, as if death were bounding energetically toward her, that soon enough a compassionate veterinarian was helping us say goodbye.
Two syringes lay on the floor near us, the white one, the red one.
Kneeling beside me, the vet picked up the white syringe. “This will bring a twilight sleep, just a drowsy analgesia.” I nodded, and the vet fitted the needle into the Hicks catheter taped to Jammy’s foreleg. Within seconds, Jam’s shoulders settled back just a bit, as if freed of something. Both paws lay outstretched, and she nosed toward them, eyebrows twitching. Her whole body appeared unburdened all at once. No arthritis. No stiffness. No locked joints. Nothing seizing up. She was feeling the first pain- free moments she had known for years. The vet lay the white syringe aside and picked up the red one, the one that would stop the heart.
I held up my hand. The vet paused.
Jammy’s little body, free of pain, looked comfortable and supple. I wanted her to luxuriate in that sensation, to find in it something familiar—the way it had been in our earliest days together. The football, the flippy-flopper Frisbee, the pinkster squeak toy. And certainly, even in our middle years together, when she was ten years old, eleven, twelve, in the thick of our happy halcyon days. She hassled squirrels in the yard and rabbits, played with water balloons. I wanted Jammy to enjoy these pain-free moments before death leapt like something unleashed toward her.
Soon enough, the vet administered the red syringe.
And that was that.
Days of heaviness and heartache followed. Through tears, I could feel Russia calling. “Come. You can feel sad anywhere, da?” I expedited a travel visa at the embassy and soon enough my grief was not merely a single lone solitary thing—my grief only— but my grief plus Saint Petersburg added to the mix.
Saint Petersburg was bonkers. The knockout phase of the World Cup had just commenced when my flight touched down. I jostled among throngs of face-painted fútbol hooligans. My grief shifted, as if to receive not only the distance of 6000 miles but also the delirium of Cup-crazed fans. My grief cleared space for all of that and expanded. All of that forced it open.
I had been to Saint Petersburg a dozen times, and of course I loved Dostoevsky’s writing, loved how he immortalized the city in his books—he was one of my favorite authors—but I had never felt drawn to visit his grave before. There had always been too many other things to do—the opera, the fountains, the canal excursions, the caviar and champagne, the oysters and vodka, the evening walks along the river during the White Nights when the sun never really set. Perhaps I’d saved the necropolis for my summer of inconsolability.
Broken columns were frequent symbols of death here, also prostrate angels, fainting cherubim lying in lamentation and stone urns sculpted with such flourish and skill as to suggest folds of fabric draping from the urns. I needed the outward manifestation of a statue’s prayerfully clasped hands to say what I suffered. I needed the bowed heads of anguished seraphim whose smooth eyes seemed to focus placidly on a peaceful place that settled their loss. Red granite, pink porphyry, white alabaster, and black marble markers defined the specific plots. Each tomb spoke to the weight of attention the living had lavished upon the dead. There were tiers of mourning, too, somewhat like an airline’s Rewards program—Premium Level, Platinum, Diamond Medallion. Glass tile mosaics and gold leaf filigree stood in contrast to rough unpolished rock. The social status of the deceased hardly mattered to me in the least, I was so primed to receive comfort. Every grave I passed served to remind me how to grieve in case I had forgotten somewhere along the way or just never really cultivated the habit very well. A month after saying goodbye to Jammy, I was not surprised to find myself walking in a gray mist through the carved stone wreckage of a city of death.
Like many urban cemeteries in old European cities, this one was an intensely arranged jumble of jutting obelisks, slate crosses, and Gothic tablets—a photogenic landscape of tombs well curated over time. Moss-flocked and vine-shrouded, the tombs were succumbing to summer’s vibrant green. Elsewhere in Saint Petersburg fútbol teams were facing each other across the manicured lawn of a World Cup pitch, but I was in a privileged space, like Russia’s Elysian Fields, quiet and unhurried. I floated under the canopy of wet leafy green. A path of crushed gravel guided visitors among the plots, as if moving scene by scene in an unfolding narrative that would culminate in some big reveal.
Oh, my gosh—Rimsky-Korsakov!
Oh, my gosh—Glinka!
Oh, my gosh—Stravinsky!
It’s not that we didn’t know that Rimsky-Korsakov had passed away, or the others. The revelation lay in the familiarity of these names and the sudden recognition of so many famous Russians lying in repose here. It was like being in a museum that had every Rembrandt. The Rembrandts weren’t scattered among the Louvre in Paris, the Smithsonian in D.C., the Tate in London. The Rembrandts were here, every blessed one of them, every earthen Rembrandt.
These weren’t Rembrandts, of course, but something equally rare—the most distinguished of artists, composers, architects, and authors that Russia had ever known. The necropolis was a cultural one-stop-shopping spree. A beveled pedestal supported the above-ground vault of Pushkin’s widow, for instance. A scroll-faced marker heralded Carlo Rossi, eighteenth-century architect for an eighteenth-century empire. Death was an ultimate organizing device and the necropolis its well-designed container.
The notables catalogued in it had cleared a threshold of renown that stood up to the rigors of time and critical judgment. Those collated here under stone had been mourned over enough centuries that mourning itself had acquired a blurred and blunted quality, a well-handled accustomed feel, like the soft curving slope of a marble tombstone whose engravings had nearly dissolved under many decades’ worth of acid rain.
A bed of rose-colored begonias surrounded Dostoevsky’s monument, and a couple fresh bouquets lay tucked among the bedding plants, too—citrus-colored gladioli clustered with crimson poppies. The author of Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov had drawn his last breath in 1881 and had lain in this place ever since. Think of the snows drifting upon him, the constellations wheeling above. Think of the summers, the long, sun-kissed White Nights. Someone might say, “Wow— we’ll never have another Dostoevsky!” As a result, that person might feel a sad twinge of regret, a strangely distressed mix of loss and longing.
It would be a dry emotion, though.
No one was going to stand before Dostoevsky’s tomb and cry any more than they would stand before a shelf of his books in any library in any country in the world and do so. Literature had already factored Dostoevsky in. He was signed, sealed, and quite literally delivered, six feet under. If there were to be another Dostoevsky, that would be gravy—but there didn’t have to be another. How many Dostoevskys did there need to be? The canon had swallowed up his genius as the grave had swallowed him up. Box duly checked; literature had moved on. Someone could place fresh bouquets before his headstone every day, but there would be no tears.
The perfume of smoldering wax reached me long before I rounded the corner and saw flame tips leaping from candles that burned on a ledge-like altar in front of Tchaikovsky’s grave. A basket of pastel mums, alstroemeria and Shasta daisies stood near the candles. A bronze-cast angel held a tall cross above a carved bust of Tchaikovsky. Another angel lounged against his marker, paging idly through a stone-sculpted manuscript of his music. Not every legendary composer, conductor, or musician interred in the necropolis had a plot cordoned off with a decorative wrought iron railing, but Tchaikovsky did. Moreover, his railing stood atop an elevated dais of gray funereal granite, his prominence supreme.
I glanced at Tchaikovsky’s nearest neighbors—Borodin of the opera “Prince Igor” fame, Mussorgsky of Pictures at an Exhibition and Boris Godunov. This was a priceless quadrant of the necropolis, the zip code of heavy hitters. When I bought my ticket at the entrance a while ago, the cashier had given me a map of the layout, too. I unfolded it and took a look.
Detailed in both Russian and English, it was sensibly laid out. All good maps had a compass rose so that people consulting them could get their bearings, and this map helpfully had one as well. Sometimes called “Rose of the Winds” because medieval cartographers had assigned Italianate wind names to the cardinal directions, the compass rose was a necessary part of nautical charts. This map had an eight-wind compass rose that indicated the four principal directions plus the four equidistant degrees between them.
Even if you ventured to the farthest reach of the necropolis, to the grave of landscape painter Ivan Shishkin, you could align the compass rose properly and easily make your way back to the entrance. No one was going to get lost here, just as no one was going to cry. A breeze shook down through the wet tree branches above me. Candle-fire spit and spattered in the mist.
Some obelisks had sunk over time and begun to lean, their pyramid-pointed granite tips angling skyward, compass needles themselves. Lichen-covered birch bark looked like stone— scored and chiseled. Conversely, a carved white marble tree trunk had the texture of a slender birch and bore a striking resemblance to bark. This was Death transcendent, Death enlarged. When stone looked like living trees and trees looked like stone, Death had phase-changed sufficiently to incorporate another dimension, a dimension placed almost out of reach of the human heart. You could walk surrounded by weeping granite angels and statues of praying supplicants, but nothing in the tonnage would prompt raw spiritual sorrow. There was a levelling effect, Death as leveler—deep Death, long-lying, dignified, vetted. After all, nobody had been buried here since 1889.
The book had closed on this place, just as an obscure collection of Dostoevsky’s essays might stand untouched on a library shelf, uncirculating, forgotten.
Regardless of how continually a misting rain fell, even a griefscape like this could be parched, inert—museumified, in effect, blank and neutral. Nothing about the place would take you out of your depth. Some visitors might even feel bored here, perhaps sneaking quick peeks at their wristwatches while walking toward yet another imposing monument. That old chestnut came to mind, the one people often uttered—that cemeteries are for the living, not the dead. This one seemed for neither. This cemetery seemed to belong only to the ages. It had a Bring Your Own Tears feel.
Fortunately, I had packed plenty along with my passport.
I reached out and gripped a twist of the wrought iron rail encircling Tchaikovsky’s grave. The metal felt cold, its density smoothly forged. It was elegant and strong. Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet, The Nutcracker Suite. How much did we really think about Tchaikovsky, let alone need him? We whiled away long decades, big boundless stretches of our lives, as spacious as an empty soccer pitch, without a thought or care. Eugene Onegin, the 1812 Overture, Sleeping Beauty. You didn’t need Tchaikovsky until you needed Tchaikovsky—and then you really needed Tchaikovsky. I bowed my head.
When we took a walk, that fuzzy girl and I, joy was at both ends of the leash. I bestowed upon my comical little baby no fewer than eighteen different nicknames over the years. On our last day, the day with the compassionate vet, during those splendid final pain-free moments after the white syringe but not yet the red syringe, the vet, kneeling beside me, asked, “What does Jammy like?”
“Popcorn,” I said. “Peanut butter, too. And cheese.” I adored the fact that the vet had phrased her question still in the present tense. What does Jammy like?
The vet smiled and nodded. Any given day of the week for her at the clinic might include first vaccines for a litter of puppies just as surely as it might include the gift of death for one such as Jam. “Yes,” the vet said. “Popcorn, peanut butter, and cheese. Yes, to all of them.”
Standing at Tchaikovsky’s tomb now, anchoring myself to his sturdy iron rail, I felt something catch at the back of my throat. The lace of foliage melted before my eyes into a fog-blurred green, as if the Neva River and the Gulf of Finland had intended something soft like this for me all along.
A couple Millennials waited off to the side, ready for their quiet moment alone with the Maestro. They shifted from one foot to the other on the crushed gravel path, even glancing back to see if other visitors might be approaching from behind or starting to queue up. Smartphones palmed against their denim slacks, they tried to keep the mist off their electronics, away from the device’s camera lens. They were respectful of me and considerate— obviously an emotional experience was underway here—but I could feel a certain selfie pressure building.
Everybody needed Tchaikovsky today for something. It wasn’t like I was the only one.
The compass rose on the map showed True North lying just over my shoulder, and I moved in that direction.
Barbara Haas is a professor in the English Department of Iowa State University. She began as a fiction writer (MFA, University of California-Irvine) and finds that creative nonfiction essays afford her the best way to address topics related to nature and environment. In addition to the Delmarva Review, her recent essays appear in The MacGuffin, Still Point Arts Quarterly, and The Chariton Review. She is a repeat contributor of nonfiction and fiction to The Hudson Review, North American Review, and Virginia Quarterly Review.
Delmarva Review publishes the most compelling new creative nonfiction, poetry, and fiction from thousands of submissions annually. The authors may be well established, like today’s writer, or they may be new writers seeking discovery of their work. The review is an independent, 501(c)(3) nonprofit publication supported by individual contributions and a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. See the website for information: DelmarvaReview.org.
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