Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*St. Petersburg

*St. Petersburg. Russia’s capital city and cultural and political center of Russia, where Prince Myshkin arrives, and where much of the novel’s action takes place. The character of the city is very un-Russian. Traditional Russian cities grew up in concentric rings around their central fortresses—a pattern still visible in modern Moscow, with its three ring roads (boulevard, garden, and outer rings), linked by radial avenues to the city center, the Kremlin. By contrast, St. Petersburg is laid out in a Western-style grid pattern that was established by Peter the Great’s decree. Moreover, while traditional Russian cities were built of wood and suffered frequent fires, St. Petersburg is a city of stone. However, it was threatened by frequent floods, particularly when strong winds from the Baltic Sea caused the Neva River to back up.

Because St. Petersburg is near the Arctic Circle, it has an extreme seasonal variation of its day-night cycle. During the winter, the sun scarcely peeks above the horizon, giving only a few hours of daylight each day. By contrast, at the summer solstice the sun barely sets, and even at midnight the sky remains bright, creating the fabled “white nights” for which St. Petersburg is famous. It is significant that Fyodor Dostoevski has Prince Myshkin’s second and third arrivals in St. Petersburg (when he returns from his visit to Moscow and the traditional Russian heartland, and his...

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