Passage to Europe: Dostoevskij in the St. Petersburg Arcades

In the little that has been written about Dostoevskij’s short work “The Crocodile” (1865), critics have conventionally emphasized its intertextuality, reading the story as a playful imitation of Gogol′, a satire on the journalistic squabbles of the time, or an “allegorical” attack on the contemporary writer Černyševskij. Indeed, Dostoevskij presents us with a caustic parody of petty styles and grandiloquent debates that occupied the periodical press of the time. It is hardly surprising that the first installment of “The Crocodile” received little appreciation from those same journalists whom Dostoevskij ridiculed. The incomplete text has remained on the margins of Dostoevskij’s oeuvre ever since.

What has been largely ignored in the sparse commentary on “The Crocodile” is the particular context in which the story takes place: the St. Petersburg Passage proper. This is surprising, considering the prominent role that this cultural site played in the Russian capital in the mid-nineteenth century. Modeled after a Parisian prototype, the Passage was the first shopping arcade in Russia to encompass under one roof both commerce and popular entertainment. Following the arcade’s sensational opening in 1848, crowds were drawn to its live music, gas lighting, elegant dining, and curious exhibitions. Whereas the commercial part of the enterprise fully developed somewhat later, show business flourished in the Passage in the 1850s and early 1860s. Here one could encounter an Egyptian mummy, a German giant, and an exotic crocodile. One such crocodile appears in Dostoevskij’s story: as a spectacle and as a vessel for spectacular ideas.

In a peculiar Russian variation on the international theme of the arcades, the Literary Fund was incorporated into the structure of the spectacular Passage as well. There, the Literary Fund organized public readings by esteemed writers and critics; it was within its walls that amateur theatrical productions took place—in which Dostoevskij, among other celebrities, took part.

As has often been the case in Russia, generous borrowings from the West (especially those of a spectacular nature) generated both admiration and discontent, public opinion oscillating between assimilation of, and resistance to, Western culture. Embracing both “high” Russian literature and popular Western entertainment in a single space under its glass roof, the St. Petersburg Passage reflected a disharmonious conjunction of local and foreign, as well as material and literary, elements in the Russian culture of the 1860s. In positioning Dostoevskij’s piece within and against the culture of spectacle, I analyze “The Crocodile” as the writer’s reflection on Russia’s equivocal relation to the West in the nineteenth century.