Finding Raskolnikov in New York: the portrait of a divided soul

(Photo credit: Sabine Meier)

Sabine Meier’s photography captures the essence of Dostoevsky’s hero

The Russian word “raskol,” meaning a split, or schism, aptly expresses the divided nature of Rodion Romanovitch Raskolnikov, the protagonist of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.  “Am I a trembling creature or do I have the right?”, this is the question that continually torments Dostoevsky’s hero throughout the novel. Does he have the right to cross the boundaries of morality, kill the old pawnbroker for the sake of the “greater good,” and ascend to the status of ubermensch? Or is he condemned to stay an ordinary man and be crushed by the unbearable weight of unlimited freedom?

The contrast between greatness and misery, the vast and the claustrophobic, the macro and the micro are central aspects of the photo exhibition Portrait of a Man (Rodion Romanovitch Raskolnikov) by the French-Swiss artist Sabine Meier, now on display at St Petersburg’s Dostoevsky Museum. The set, counting 86 coloured pictures and a slideshow, forms a portrait of one of  Dostoevsky’s most tormented heroes.  

The pictures were taken in 2011 and 2012 between New York and Le Havre, France, where the artist’s studio is based. Meier started her project guided by her recollections of the novel, which she had read many years earlier:“What I remembered was this man, walking in a huge space, too big for him, not knowing where he was going.” Meier found his Raskolnikov in the middle of a protest in New York. Where, as a friend had told her, “there was a high concentration of  young, idealistic, desperate men.” She decided to replace 19th-century St Petersburg with contemporary New York as the setting for Raskolnikov’s gloomy walks.

Meier’s portrait is, first of all, psychological: a product of the interaction between the character and his surrounding environment. As Dostoevsky did in his novel,  Meier uses convoluted staircases, squalid warehouses, and imposing buildings as a projection of the character’s state of mind and his inner struggle. The pictures show a modern Raskolnikov, all absorbed in his thoughts and wandering across urban spaces; he is a lonely figure, totally detached from the mundane world which surrounds but doesn’t touch him. As Meier points out,  Raskolnikov’s feelings of superiority prevent him from finding his place in society. “Most of the time he is thinking about the whole world and the whole humanity but never about himself as a human among humans,” she says.

While New York’s vast spaces symbolise the freedom of thought that lead Raskolnikov to the crime, the scenes shot in Meier’s studio show him crouched on his bed in a claustrophobic room, tormented by a sense of guilt and paranoia which is his punishment. “Raskolnikov wants too much or nothing […] to be like Napoleon or to disappear,” comments Meier.   

Eventually, only the love of the young prostitute Sonya Marmeladova will save Raskolnikov from spiritual death. In Meier’s work, Sonya is often represented as a film projection, an ethereal presence guiding Raskolnikov towards his spiritual resurrection. “At the end, he accepts it. He accepts to be human,” says Meier.  One photograph shows Raskolnikov at the seaside. A warm light permeates the scene. His eyes look melancholy, as usual, but with a sense of reconciliation in them. “In this picture, there is a quietness and a nice perspective,” says Meier, hinting at the new life awaiting Raskolnikov. But, as in the concluding words of Dostoevsky’s novel, she adds, “that is a matter for another story.”

Event: Portrait of a Man (Rodion Romanovitch Raskolnikov) Exhibition
When: From Friday 14 April to Thursday 27 April
Where: Dostoevsky Museum, 5/2 Kuznechny Pereulok, St Petersburg, 191002
Price: Free
Language: English

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