A compelling account of the friendship between Alexander von Wrangel and Feodor Dostoevsky
St Petersburg, 21 December 1849, and a man in his late twenties in a white shirt stands in front of a firing squad in the cold. He kisses the silver crucifix held to his lips by a priest, in the sure knowledge that he is about to die. Just before the command ‘Fire!’ is given, a pardon arrives from the Czar. The white-shirted man is the writer Fyodor Mikhaelovich Dostoyevsky. Alexander von Wrangel, a student, eleven years younger, is a witness.
Dostoyevsky’s sentence is commuted to four years’ forced labour in Siberia. There, by chance, he meets Von Wrangel, now Officer of Justice. After Dostoyevsky is freed, Von Wrangel takes him into his own home. In The Cossack Garden, Jan Brokken tells the story of the special friendship that grows between the writer and the young baron.
The book’s title comes from the name of the dacha where the friends spend much of the summers, talking, smoking, discussing Hegel and Kant, reading, and supporting one another in the tragedies of love, both being chronically attracted to the wrong women.
Most importantly, Von Wrangel encourages his friend to write again, specifically about his experiences of forced labour; the result, Notes From Underground, later formed the basis of his famous novels, Crime and Punishment and The Idiot, which show Dostoyevsky’s ability to withstand trials, without bitterness and self-pity, and even at times, with humour.
Jan Brokken has an impressive oeuvre to his name of well-documented, narrative non-fiction, which read as novels. The Cossack Garden arose from his earlier bestseller Baltic Souls, in which he tells the story of fifteen families, one of which was the Von Wrangels; in the course of his research, a Von Wrangel descendant showed him the unpublished memoirs and letters of Baron Alexander.