The Cossack Garden

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.

Original title
De kozakkentuin
Jan Brokken

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families, one of which was the Von Wrangels; in the course of his research, a Von Wrangel descendant showed him the unpublished memoirs and letters of Baron Alexander.

Jan Brokken’s characters are as alive and true, as is his ability to describe the atmosphere of nineteenth-century Russia. Brokken gives a moving image of a special male friendship in Russia at the time.

NRC Handelsblad

Brokken places the tragedy of the writer in the context of nineteenth- century Czarist Russia, in all its corruption, cruelty and suppression.

De Standaard
Jan Brokken
Jan Brokken (b. 1949) has, in a literary career spanning thirty years, written books about a number of exotic and far-off places, including West Africa, the Dutch Caribbean, Indonesia and China, winning acclaim for his adventurous attitude and sensitive style.
Part ofNon-Fiction
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