Narcotic story of drinking tea with Dostoevsky’s great-grandson

(Portrait of Dmitry Dostoyevsky: Till Rimmele, Graphics: Mykhaylo Bonovskyy)

A dining table. A window. A desk. A cup of tea. A cigarette box.

Is it even possible to tell a story of a man of such stature in five simple objects? Certainly not. Yet these objects shaped the life of one of the greatest writers the world had seen, the life of Fyodor Dostoevsky

By: Mykhaylo BonovskyyShima Vezvaei

A man woke up after a late night’s work, he ate his breakfast at the dining table with the family he loved so dear. He looked out the window and went to his study where he kept writing with a bitter tea on the side. Feeling tired he took a break, sat on a couch and rolled a cigarette, the last cigarette of his life.

It was snowing in St Petersburg on 9 November 2016. We went to Dostoevsky Museum to cover the annual conference of Dostoevsky and World Culture. The apartment just few blocks from Dostoyevskaya Metro station was full of different people. Experts, journalists, literary enthusiasts all came to the Dostoevsky Museum to celebrate the author’s 195th birthday. There was so much said and written about the author’s life that it seems very hard to bring something new to the table. Nevertheless, our experience of discovering Dostoevsky in the house he spent last years of his life was just like his stories: intriguing, unusual and puzzled.  

A chubby, funny and sincere man stood in the hallway far from the talking crowd in the exhibition room. Dimitry Dostoevsky did not talk to us about Dostoevsky’s influence on world culture, his life in St Petersburg or how his writing should be understood in our time. Instead, he brought our attention to interesting details about his great-grandfather, Fyodor.

  1. Dining table
Fyodor Dostoevsky Museum, St Petersburg (Photo credit: Till Rimmele)

Fyodor Dostoevsky loved his family very much. When he married Anna Snitkina they planned to spend four months travelling around Europe for their honeymoon. The honeymoon lasted four years.

Dostoevsky used to work until very late at night. Sometimes, he would fall asleep on a couch he had in his study-room. His children, Lyubov and Fyodor, would slip small notes under the door, writing “Dad we love you” or “Dad bring us some tasty treats.” Dostoevsky would wake up, read the notes and bring delicious treats to the dining table for the family breakfast. At this table, Dostoevsky would find one of the most important things that he cherished in his life: the joy and warmth of a family life.

  1. Window
Fyodor Dostoevsky Museum, St Petersburg (Photo credit: Till Rimmele)

Dostoevsky’s writing was a window to the society of his time. He lived in many different places in St Petersburg and he would always go for corner apartments so he could observe city’s streets and its people. He described what his characters would see through the window in many of his stories. What did he see out the windows of his apartment, injustice and suffering of common people, gluttony and hedonism of the rich; or a soul of the Russian society by looking through a squared opening in a wall.

We asked Dmitry about finding iconic characters from Dostoevsky’s novels in today’s Russian society. He looked at us and smiled. “Let me tell you,” he said. “Once there was a group of French documentarists who came to St Petersburg to film a story about Dostoevsky. Their director came up to me and asked, is it possible to find new Raskolnikov, a character from Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment, in St Petersburg today. ‘I replied to him, you see this window, outside is Sennaya Square, the same square where the actions from the novel took place. Go outside and see for yourself if you can find new Raskolnikov over there.’ He came back after 15 minutes excited and whispered, ‘I think every third person over there is Raskolnikov.’ ’’

  1. Desk
Here the author had worked on his last novel Brothers Karamazov. Fyodor Dostoevsky Museum, St Petersburg (Photo credit: Till Rimmele)

It is not a secret that Dostoevsky was a compulsive gambler. Sometimes he would ask money from his wife saying he needed it to make a small trip to a different town, but instead, he would go to a casino attempting, what he believed, to relieve his family from a heavy burden of financial debt.  

One night, he asked his wife for some money. She said there was not much left and she would have to sell her personal belongings.  At that precise moment, it hit him:  his wife was about to have their second child and he was putting a whole family in danger by asking her to sell her winter overcoat in the midst of a cold autumn. After this moment, Dostoevsky vowed not to gamble ever again and put all of his energy into writing. Dostoevsky worked tirelessly day and night at his desk, writing, composing and creating literary works of art to keep his family solvent. At this very same desk, creative thoughts of the writer made their way into existence, at this very desk Dostoevsky’s will and promises were put to the test, at this very desk Dostoevsky became a person he is known to the entire world today.

  1. Cup of tea.
Fyodor Dostoevsky Museum, St Petersburg (Photo credit: Till Rimmele)

During his exile in a Siberian prison, he picked up a habit of drinking very dense and bitter tea right up to the day he passed away. Many Dostoevsky experts believe that he was a tea addict. Dmitry, his great-grandson told us that he drank his tea in a very special way, he drank Chifir’, a narcotically-strong tea (5 to 8 spoons of tea per person).

“Chifir’ kept him awake and endorsed his creativity while he was working on his novels at nights. Knowing what kind of tea he drank every day makes you understand the intensity and darkness behind his writing,” said Dmitry.

  1. Cigarette box
Dostoevsky’s original cigarette box with his daughter’s handwriting on it. The line reads: “dad passed away today.” Fyodor Dostoevsky Museum, St Petersburg (Photo credit: Till Rimmele)

So many writers and philosophers used to visit Dostoevsky at his house and talk about literature or ask for his advice on their writing. It has been said that they used to make him his special tea and they talked for hours smoking rolled cigarettes around a table placed in the corner of the hall, his favorite spot in the house.

The cigarette box in the picture above originally belonged to Dostoevsky. He rolled his last cigarettes which he never got the chance smoke. His daughter kept them in memory of his father. “Dad passed away today,” she wrote on the box.

Happy birthday Fyodor! As you wrote in the Notes from Underground: let the world go to hell, you shall always have your tea.

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