“Dostoevsky is a third rate writer and his fame is incomprehensible.” So said Vladimir Nabokov, the most trenchant critic of literature of the second half of the twentieth-century. His remarks are nothing if not outspoken, designed to shock. Here he is, stripping Dostoevsky of his intellectually hallowed status as a novelist in one fell swoop.
Yet in a way Nabokov’s words are not surprising. Here is someone who entered the guild of the intelligentsia, here is someone who moved away from Russia towards the ‘civilised’ world of America and a place where incorrigible belleslettrists could dispel their views on their homeland with ease. Here is a man who took particular disregard for Sigmund Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis, closely related to Dostoevsky and his constant preoccupation with the unconscious reactions of his characters. The only novel of Dostoevsky’s Nabokov liked was ‘The Double’ his second major work, panned by critics when first published in 1846 and often viewed by modern readers as a discomforting, perhaps rather difficult novel to breach, let alone interpret. Yet he has not misjudged Dostoevsky’s work, he is mainly stating the opposite case, as someone who opposed the deep religiosity, the Slavophilia, the hysteria of his characters and plots. Order, reason and style are Nabokov’s world. Dostoevsky’s, in many ways, are anything but. Dostoevsky’s novels continue to entrance modern readers because they are a battleground for the eternal contest of ideas. Humanity laid bare would be another title for this talk, but the two are related. It is through these, and through his overarching ability for storytelling, that Dostoevsky became the novelist he is today.
Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky was born in 1821 in the Moscow Hospital for the Poor, where his father was a medical physician and doctor. Despite his family’s relatively large amount of inherited wealth, he did not grow up amid the landed aristocracy; the world which Pushkin and Tolstoy evoked in their major works was not available to him. The young Dostoevsky became a reader because of his parents, because of his live-long love for storytelling, and perhaps he became a writer first to expose what he saw around him as a child: huge deprivation, inequality, injustice, poverty. In Russia, the serfs would not be officially liberated until Alexander the Second’s decree in 1861. Czarism, autocracy and militarism were the order of the day all across Russia, a country still then recovering from the Napoleonic Wars, and fighting against the revolutionary forces that had caused such bloodshed in central Europe.
In 1825, the failed Decembrist revolt shocked the current Tzar, Nicholas the First, into action. The ideas that had come across the continent from France had spurred the intellectuals and soldiers to form a revolt against the hereditary power of Czardom. The plan failed, and huge numbers of writers and poets were, like so many dissidents throughout Russia, were exiled to Siberia or executed.
Influenced by the stories of Sir Walter Scott, the poems of Schiller and the plays of Goethe, Dostoevsky forced to join the St Petersburg Military Engineering Institute as a sixteen-year-old with his brother Mikhail, after his mother, who had been instrumental in his introduction to literature, had died of tuberculosis. He was, perhaps predictably, a spectacularly inept soldier, who had little interest in the mathematics, science and daily military rigour of such a place. He became a lieutenant engineer, but then resigned his commission. He had decided that nothing could satisfy him apart from writing, through which he could express himself. He had endured enough torment in life to see the truth in Gogol, the beauty in Pushkin. He decided to enter the literary world of St Petersburg, at the time when it was the swirling centre not just of Russia itself but also perhaps of literate Europe; ideas, Dostoevsky’s main fascination, were at the centre of it all.
Wilfred Owen perhaps captured the national spirit best when he talked of the ‘drawing-down of blinds’, surely the most succinct depiction of English melancholia. The English spirit – distinct form of Britishness, though also a part of it – is one of deep decline under the shadow of former empire. It is the spirit of T. S. Eliot’s line ‘winter’s afternoon | In a secluded chapel’ in ‘Little Gidding’; of the quiet introit sung by an evensong choir, backing away into the cathedrals’ faraway corners: a quixotic country, where nostalgia mingles with dwindling of former hopes and glories. That Edward Gibbon and later Evelyn Waugh should write on the theme of decline and fall is unsurprising. The idea of twilight, of Owen’s gradual closing of the blinds, has captured the English imagination, and remains ever-present in British culture.
Russian literature, on the other hand, is much more dramatic. Characters do not fall from grace so much as destroy their own self-respect in circular fashion. The inert backwardness in Russian society has created the most pitiable figures: Dickensian in their squalor yet Biblical in their idealism. Russian authors write longer stories and their characters are investigated in every way possible; they treat them individually as a social experiment from which the narrative evolves. Realism is the true Russian genre, a combination of philosophy and criticism, often overshadowed by an unerring faith in a divine creator. Every situation and trait is described in minute detail. While Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens introduced the social novel to a growing, educated European readership, Russian writers were instead intent on pursuing an agenda, though at a length unseen in most literature before the turn of the nineteenth century.
Coupled with his desire for intense character investigation, Fyodor Dostoevsky treated the characters of his stories with a contempt superseding that of most authors. There is a distinct lack of empathy for his famous Underground Man in Notes from Underground, let alone for the murdered Fyodor Pavlovich in The Brothers Karamazov (the latter introduced as ‘wicked and sentimental’ by the author before the narrative has really begun). Even his much shorter works, from the earlier stages of his writing career, treat his pitiable figures with little sympathy as they toil through the white nights of St Petersburg. There is, in his first works, however, a definite humanistic trend – a hope for recovery often lacking in his later, more epic novels.
Dostoevsky’s first literary success was his novella Poor Folk (1846), an epistolary novel about a poor civil servant, Makar Devushkin, and his seamstress lover, Varvara Dobroselova, who both suffer financial hardship. Devushkin sends indulgent presents to Dobroselova and fills the pages of his letters with loquacious pleas and expressions of adulation. During their correspondence, Dobroselova gives a lengthy account of her destitute childhood and her tragic relationship with Pokrovsky, an intelligent but impoverished student, whose untimely death is greeted by the most pitiful scene. Pokrovsky’s father runs behind his coffin as it is towed away, ‘his wailing shaken and punctuated by his running.’ The image of the broken student haunted Dostoevsky throughout his life; Raskolnikov, despite his brilliant mind, is held back from pursuing his education and drawn towards extremes remedies (in the form of a supposedly ‘heroic’ murder) by his financial problems.
Dostoevsky was no stranger to personal tragedy either. Having lost both of his parents in his teenage years (his father, a rather brutal landowner, was murdered by his own serfs in 1839, according to legend). Having had a short-lived career as a soldier before trying to enter the literary world of St Petersburg, initially as a translator, Dostoevsky completed an edition of Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet (1843), but he gained little financial security from it and was giving way to an infatuation with gambling (later to be fictionalised in The Gambler, 1866). He started writing Poor Folk in 1844 purely for financial reasons and completed it in a matter of months, telling his brother that he was pleased with his work. When first released in January 1846, the novel was a sensation in St Petersburg.
Later, in his Diary of a Writer (1873-81), Dostoevsky recounted the events that started his literary career. In 1845 his companion Dmitry Grigorovich had passed on his work to influential poet Nikolay Nekrasov, who in turn approached the most important man of early nineteenth-century Russian letters: Vissarion Belinsky. Belinsky was a determined Westerniser who exerted an influence over many and determined the Russian literary scene of the time. After he had read the manuscript for the first time, Nekrasov told him that Dostoevsky was the new Nikolai Gogol, to which Belinsky retorted that ‘With you, Gogols grow like mushrooms!’
Belinsky read the story through the night and was captivated, fulfilling Nekrasov’s sentiment, and declared the author Russia’s first social novelist. ‘Do you, yourself, fully realise what you have written?’ he asked an ecstatic Dostoevsky in the early hours of the morning. Dostoevsky’s name rang out through the city, with high society proclaiming him a genius. He was hailed as a new spokesman for the growing and increasingly radical intelligentsia Dostoevsky would later come to despise. The novel touchingly expressed sympathy for the downtrodden of St Petersburg, empathising with those on the fringes of society, who Dostoevsky so often visited in his psychological critiques.
In 2000 the critic James Wood coined the phrase ‘hysterical realism’ to describe a subgenre in which exhausted literary tropes conventional to realism absurdly (mis)represent their deep social contexts.
Dostoevsky may have hysterical characters in his stories that suit his own agenda and motives, but his novelistic philosophy is not hysterical, and most certainly not a plain depiction of ‘stock caricatures’. His figures are of the time: they represent the deep social ills Dostoevsky he himself saw and are not taken from the proverbial shelf of historical literature. The novels are in no way hysterical in themselves, Poor Folk especially, and the author lets his characters’ anguish centre upon their own actions and words in a narrative rather than through a simple standard basis for objective judgement. His figures are slowly picked apart, demoralised, traumatised, belittled and in some cases saved. They are always scrutinised to the closest degree, and drawn towards the most immoral of situations, exposed to the most pernicious of mindsets and ideas.
In Poor Folk, the slow degeneration of Devushkin’s wealth and character is treated as an inexorable outcome and feels destined to be from the start, from his obsequious tone towards Dobroselova. His love for Dobroselova is wholesome, and his financial salvation (vividly imagined in a scene where he kisses the hand of His Excellency, the head of the department he works in). This contrasts his emotional morass, as Dobroselova goes out of the city to marry a harsh but wealthy landowner named Bykov. Dostoevsky is asking a simple question: What is better for humanity, to be poor and happy, or unhappy and rich? It is for us to assume that he thought the Russian spirit better suited to the former and that it was always suited to it.
It comes as no surprise that Poor Folk was declared as a true successor to the Gogolian, socially aware style of writing. The recurrent themes of deprivation and love are idealistic, although it would be unfair to call Dostoevsky naïve in creating the book’s bitter-sweet ending. Little ground was broken in his first work, but the foundations of his latter theistic worldview were being firmly laid, despite his attachments to the radical Petrashevsky Circle that would lead to his arrest and mock execution in 1849. Despite his early praise, Belinsky fell out with Dostoevsky, with the latter’s growing religiosity creating a sharp dividing line in their political and literary values. Belinsky criticised The Double, which exposed more penetrating psychological features in Dostoevsky’s writing, and was even darker in tone. The critic would continue to lambast his new adversary until his untimely death in 1848.
Poor Folk is not a magnificent novel. It represents Dostoevsky’s first published novel and gives modern readers a backdrop to the later glories after his Siberian exile. Had he been executed as expected, the name of F. M. Dostoevsky would not take a large place in the grand swathe of Russian literature. Nevertheless, his work is a precise product of its time: it responds to the literary desire for representation of the masses, political desire for empowerment and emancipation, and fulfills the modern desire for a historical novel written as a contemporary polemic.
The characters in Poor Folk are perhaps not worthy of the ‘tears’ that Nekrasov and Grigorovich shed when they first read it. And yet the book displays the first inklings of Dostoevsky’s genius, literary prowess and even terror of his later novels that would impress the spirit of the age; not only for a contemporary audience – the ambitions and beliefs Russian readers – but of any who seek his morosely resonant prose.
Dostoevsky is obsessed with ideas; he is also obsessed with his characters. His characters are the way in which he brought forward the ideas; not always the ideas he wanted to portray. In fact, Dostoevsky is most often a polemicist; he exposes, critiques, coruscates. Nihilism, atheism, all three he saw as the symptoms of Russia’s decline. Any number of the three are incorporated into his main characters in Demons, Notes from Underground and The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoevsky fought against them at a time when the radical intelligentsia in Russia was at its pinnacle. Belinsky, Herzen, Nikolay Dubrolyubov, Nikolay Chernyshevsky; they all exerted a large influence over readers, at times more than Dostoevsky, who was most well known for the regular installments of A Writer’s Diary until The Brothers Karamazov was first published in 1879. Their literary criticism doubled up as a social criticism; in a way the novels were the reality, the realism was judged not altogether on its artistic merit but on its veracity and materialist themes. Russian writing, eternally under the frightening hand of the censor, was a battle of ideas under the guise of a mere book review. The social novel, first popularly created by Gogol, was the dominant form, and together with the ‘thick’ literary journals of the day, were the main form of political communication; manifestos and pamphlets were controlled and extinguished by the police state of the Czar, but political activism under the sophisticated pretence of literary criticism was the way that all political allegiances communicated their message. It is this constant battle of ideas, through literature, that was fundamental in creating authors such as Dostoevsky and Tolstoy.
Dostoevsky’s life has often been split into two periods; his early period, with the publication of Poor Folk in 1846 as its highpoint, ending three years later in his arrest and exile; the second afterwards, as he returned to European Russia and his Orthodox beliefs deepened and composed his greatest works. It is not an unreasonable thesis, but it can lead easily to the faulty notion that Dostoevsky’s mind and world view was irrevocably shifted during the years in captivity. His anti-Westernising outlook and his devout Christianity were in no way new phenomenons.
In June 1862, Dostoevsky made his first trips abroad to Europe, recorded shortly after in Winter Notes on Summer Impressions (1863). He visited Cologne, Berlin, Turin, and Florence, but his travelling accounts, in fact a thinly veiled polemic on Western civilisation, concentrated on his time in Paris and London. Dostoevsky espoused a virulent prejudice against the French bourgeoisie, and seems to take pleasure in depicting their supposedly effete nature. France, he thinks, is obsessed by ‘eloquence for the sake of eloquence’, he raves against the worship of the West he saw in Belinsky, recalling his former friendship with him. An avid reader of both Edgar Allan Poe and Dickens, Dostoevsky found London in much the way we might expect him to given his reading, an
Immense town, for ever bustling by night and by day, as vast as an ocean, the screech and howl of machinery … the apparent disorder … in London the masses can be seen on a scale and in conditions not to be seen anywhere else in the world.
Werstern individualism was what seemed to repel him and hardened his anti-European outlook. Both Anglicanism and Catholicism were anathema to him, only the humanistic communion of the Russian Orthodox offered any hope of reconciliation.
The next years of Dostoevsky’s life were to be the most fragile and tragic. In 1864, his brother Mikhail, with whom he had set up the Vremya (Time) that published many of his works, died. The next year another, Epokha, ceased publication owing to a lack of funds. His mistress, Apollinaria Suslova, rejected his marriage proposal, and he continued his dangerous gambling habit in Wiesbaden. In personal disarray, he was also in a financial morass, and had looming deadlines to fulfill.
It was in this time of turmoil that he created Crime and Punishment. At the time, his readers had sensed that, although the work was tumultuous, sometimes unbearably detailed and portraying a distressing narrative, the author had reached a new point in his writing, and that the new work represented the fullest exploration of his belief-system yet seen. The storm of ‘anti-nihilist’ literature that had been issued as a result of the growing trend of a perceived degeneration of moral values had their fullest exposition yet.
Crime and Punishment is unique among Dostoevsky’s ouvre in many ways; one being the emphasis upon the main character, who is the centre of both the reader’s and the author’s mind; Dostoevsky also did this, in some ways, to Stavrogin in Demons. Roman Romanych Raskolnikov is a destitute former student, whose perilous financial situation means that he has little hope of continuing his studies. He lives in a derelict apartment block, supported by a maid, who, unlike Pokrovsky in Poor Folk, cares for him, despite his obvious incompetence as a tenant.
Raskolnikov sees himself as an example of a ‘superfluous man’, an image that entered the minds of many young men in Russia at the time. Deeply tinged by the Romantic ideals of heroism, other-worldliness and undue failure, the superfluous man has many artistic skills, but like the Byronic hero, there is little place for them in society, and so he is forced to waste away for the rest of his life. The idea comes originally from Pushkin, and was employed variously, by Turgenev, Herzen, and Ivan Goncharov. Often seen to be a nihilist himself, and drawn to the riskier, more dramatic escapes, the superfluous man is very different to Dostoevsky’s devout, if flawed, heroes.
Raskolnikov deeply believes that he is a Byronic hero, and creates his own philosophy that he thinks transcends all traditional orthodoxy. In his poverty, he hands his items over to a pawnbroker to get some spare cash. The woman he deals with is spiteful, bad-tempered, and employs her sister in slavish conditions. At the beginning of the novel, Raskolnikov goes to visit her in her decrepit house, is overcome by ‘the sense of infinite loathing that had began to crush and sicken his heart even while had been on his way’, which after seeing her is changed to a hatred that had ‘attained such dimensions and become so vividly conscious that he was quite simply overwhelmed by his depression.’
Raskolnikov, wrapped up in his feelings of destitution and anger, resolves to kill the detested pawnbroker. In doing so, he sees himself as performing a heroic action; he takes himself to be a moral Napoleon, breaking through traditional boundaries in the idea of fulfilling a utilitarian desire. In his head, Raskolnikov is breaking the social conventions which he sees as restrictive. It is perhaps one of the clearest instances in Dostoevsky’s work of the influence of contemporary ideas upon his characters, and the psychological, philosophical, and human consequences of them.
Raskolnikov goes to the old woman’s apartment and brutally kills her with an axe, described vividly by Dostoevsky, in one of the novel’s most captivating scenes.
There was not another second to be lost. He took the axe right out, swung it up in both hands, barely conscious of what he was doing, and almost without effort, almost mechanically, brought the butt of it down on the old woman’s head. At that moment he had practically no strength left. But as soon as he brought the axe down, new strength was born within him.
That last line, I don’t think, implies moral strength, and when Dostoevsky tries to flee, the woman’s virtually enslaved sister, Lizaveta, sees his actions, and he kills her too. The remaining parts of the novel document Raskolnikov’s decline, as he realises the consequences both for himself and for the world around him, of his crime. His previous arrogance, his assurance, are gradually diminished to the point where he is left spiritually alone, and still desperately poor, having stolen very little from the woman’s apartment. Whilst his dark game of cat-and-mouse with the demonstrably vile Porfiry Petrovich further demoralised him as his mental weakness is exposed, he is also tormented by the doting nature of his family. Due to his considerable intellect, both his mother and sister have placed their faith in him as their only hope in the family. Their long, obsequious letters to fill him with a terrible sadness, as his desperate situation propel him to steal the money he needs from the pawnbroker by murdering her. When they come to visit, they inform him of his sister’s engagement to a man she is clearly not in love with, but who offers a hope of financial assistance for Raskolnikov. Despite his Napoleonic intentions, he is having to rely on his sister for financial help, and his almost comic university friend Razumikhin, who comes to his bedside during his illness.
Amidst all this torment, both to the people surrounding him but also inside him, comes a redeemer. Sonya, forced into prostitution by her lack of money and her alchoholic father, befriends Raskolnikov and becomes someone to whom he can relate his deep troubles.
Vladimir Nabokov criticised the creation of Sonya, he saw her a cliché, filling in the part of the helpful saviour; a kind of ‘girl next door’ character that took Raskolnikov slowly back to Dostoevsky’s ideas of brotherhood, religion, and repentance. It’s a flawed thesis, but not completely without basis in fact. Sonya does take Raskolnikov back, she does, through her gradual realisation of his crime and her steadfastness with him, create a new character that is able to re -immerse himself with both himself, eventually, and with humanity.
Yet Sonya herself is sinful. Her postitution is seemingly necessary for her to survive, yet she is ashamed of it. The fact that she has sinned means that Raskolnikov can relate to her, can confess his sins to her, things he cannot bring himself to do with his civilised, or less morally and socially ostracized friends from before his crime.
The book’s two-chaptered epilogue is a rather succinct end to the novel’s seemingly never-ending poverty and hopelessness. Raskolnikov, exiled to Siberia, is not able to speak much to Sonya (who was permitted to go with him) and struggles to communicate with the other inmates, many of which have been interned for far worse crimes. After having spoken so much before, their silence is a form of moral communion and reconciliation to each other; they seem to both know that after all their struggles in the swirling world of St Petersburg, they have found some kind of refuge for themselves in the humbling labour of Siberia.
The epilogue is also autobiographical, after Dostoevsky’s experiences in penal servitude. Raskolnikov’s relationship with the inmates is similar to Dostoevsky’s; the latter was a mere political dissident, far away from the brutal killers he was forced to mix with day and night (Raskolnikov is a brutal killer, but by now it is almost as though he never was).
Coming from a more prosperous social background, Dostoevsky was also chastised for his supposed privilege, as Raskolnikov is. Dostoevsky vividly describes the social divide he had previously lamented, that was hardening the chasm between the liberated peasants and the radical intelligentsia and the upper classes, another example of Dostoevsky’s ability as the primary literary prophesier in Russia. That social divide would only increase after his death and manifest itself in the first Communist revolution that stunned the liberals of Europe.
As for himself, all the other convicts disliked him and avoided him. Eventually they even grew to hate him – why? He could not find the answer. He was despised and laughed at, laughed at for his crime by men who had done far worse things than he.
As a ‘toff’, Raskolnikov, like Dostoevsky, is the representative of the literary circles, the intelligentsia, the bourgeoisie. He is out of touch with the views of the common masses, the muzhiks. It was precisely those peasants whom Dostoevsky eventually discovered to be the real root of the Russian soul. In a way, it seems that we see Dostoevsky at his best when he is encountering the destitute masses with which he had grown up with in Moscow Hospital for the Poor. It is with them that he finds the real human questions and the depth of human nature are found. Raskolnikov experiences them in multiple different ways in this novel, and it is through him that we are able to experience both Dostoevsky’s feelings and his grim outlook for the battle of ideas that was continue apace in Russia for decades more. Raskolnikov is not Russia, but he sees Russia, and is better for it.
In his masterpiece, Enemies of Promise (1938), Cyril Connolly distinguishes between two different styles of writing, which he terms as the ‘Mandarin’ and the ‘Vernacular’. In the former group: Edward Gibbon, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce; among the latter: William Hazlitt, George Orwell, and Christopher Isherwood. Dostoevsky is a writer of neither groups; his works are dialogic, deeply philosophical, and on occasion convoluted. Woolf’s To the Lighthouse is a book not so much driven by plot as by the reflections of Woolf, particularly upon Mrs Ramsay. Dostoevsky lets his characters do the talking, so to speak; they philosophise in their actions, from the consequences of which we are able to find the author’s morals, his own opinions. His tumultuous and sometimes tragic life was reflected in his layered novels, and the culmination of his thought and writing came in his final years with his four political novels. The last of these, The Brothers Karamazov, is a culmination of his recurring ideas and, I think, a supreme human achievement. Set against the troubled atmosphere of late nineteenth-century Russia – a place of great literary and political conflict – it offers a biting reflection on human suffering, crime, punishment, psychological torment, and the eventual salvation of human existence.
One of Dostoevsky’s enduring qualities, most striking in The Brothers Karamazov, is his power to set the opposing case so convincingly that it has the opposite effect to that which he desired. As a coruscating critic of the perils of what he sees as the morally-barren nature of the growing atheism in Russian society, the character of Ivan Karamazov presents a lucid case for his view which is only made redundant, in the author’s eyes, by the mental anguish he undergoes as the swelling crisis envelopes his degenerate family. This deeply endearing characteristic is shared by his saintly brother Alyosha Karamazov (who takes his name from Dostoevsky’s own son who died at two years old) occupies his place in the novel as the possessor of all the principles he held dear: faith, overbearing virtue and meekness – a Christ-like figure.
Ivan is not, as many of Dostoevsky’s atheistic characters were portrayed, a dangerous extremist, but is merely a portrayal of a man whose irreligion is fatally shaken by the horror of his father’s death and the breakdown of his family.
As the story goes on, the rivalry between Dmitry Fyodorovich, or Mitya, and his father Fyodor Pavlovich continues, which places Mitya immediately under suspicion for his father’s murder. Near the end, we are led to believe that the true perpetrator was actually Pavel Smerdyakov, almost certainly Fyodor’s illegitimate child, who acts as his servant and is, like Ivan, an atheist. As in many of Dostoevsky’s portrayals of servants and peasants, Smerdyakov comes across as a sullen and ill-tempered figure, which in some ways resembles the argumentative author despite being a caricature of someone Dostoevsky vehemently disliked.
The plot follows one that many of Dostoevsky’s keenest observers would have been accustomed to when the novel was published as a serial through the conservative The Russian Messenger literary journal in 1879-80. As described most famously in Crime and Punishment (1865-60) and Demons (1871), the book revolves around the motives and consequences of a brutal murder, and how the ideals of nihilism and atheism were, in Dostoevsky’s political eyes, corrupting the younger, radical generation of Russian liberals and socialists which he had once been a part of.
After his first literary triumph, Poor Folk (1846), Dostoevsky became acquainted with the radical thinker Mikhail Butashevich-Petrashevsky, who was a prominent utopian socialist, deeply influenced by the works of the French Enlightenment writers of the decades before such as Charles Fourier, Volatire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Petrashevsky hosted a number of young intellectuals in his St Petersburg house, which contained a library of radical, censored literature. What became known as the ‘Petrashevsky Circle’ was a political and literary discussion group, where its Westernising, radical sentiments – later dismissed by some – brought trouble with the authorities under the reign of Nicholas I, who was eager to avoid the spread of dissenting groups with the sceptre of the 1825 Decembrist revolt, and the widespread revolutions of 1848 Europe still looming. Dostoevsky was criminalised for his public readings of Vissarion Belinsky’s censored Letter to N. V. Gogol of 1847, which viscerally chastised a writer venerated by the Czarist government. In 1849, the leading members of the group were arrested and sent to the Peter and Paul Fortress where they were sentenced to death by a firing squad.
Dostoevsky was taken with the others to be executed, but at the last moment they were reprieved, and instead sent into exile, a fate that has befallen many great Russian writers from Mikhail Lermontov to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. In Siberia, Dostoevsky was permitted only one book; the New Testament. These radical experiences and the harsh conditions of the camp in which he was imprisoned for four years changed Dostoevsky’s ideas and worldview, and his experiences were harrowingly recorded in the experiences of his fictional character, Aleksandr Petrovich, in The House of the Dead (1860). Two of his most important characters, Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment and Mitya in The Brothers Karamazov, are both eventually sent to Siberia as a result of their crimes.
Another central tenet of Dostoevsky’s sprawling narrative is that of free will and the impact that social ideas have on the actions of his characters. Fyodor is branded a ‘voluptuary’ and is infatuated with Grushenka, with whom Mitya has often desired despite being engaged to the bewitching Katerina Ivanovna. Mitya’s father is free to be the gluttonous drunkard he is; and his murderer, who is never fully revealed, is free to murder him. Dostoevsky’s central thesis is that the themes of the time: nihilism, atheism, and moral degradation, are to blame for the increased suicide rate in nineteenth-century Russia, as well as the decline of ethical values and respect for life, religion, tradition, and human values which, in his narrative, results in murder and revolt.
The doctrine of nihilism and its impact is especially pertinent in the time at which Dostoevsky wrote his major novels, of which The Brothers Karamazov is undoubtedly the culmination. In the 1860s, it was the ideas of Dubrolyubov, Sergei Nechaev, and Cherneshevky (whose 1863 novel What Is To Be Done? was a major inspiration for radicals, with the title being used by Vladimir Lenin for a 1901 pamphlet) that provided the basis for popular nihilist thought. Cherneshevky’s novel was attacked in Dostoevsky eerily dark Notes from Underground of 1864, which is narrated by an anonymous ‘Underground Man’ who lives on the fringes of society, away from popular circles, isolated and alone, examining what leads him to reject society. In some ways, this novel marks the beginning of Dostoevsky’s exploration into how ideas turn his characters to seek and promote depravity.
The theme of depravity and cruelness is central to both the plot and overall theme of The Brothers Karamazov, epitomised in Fyodor’s declaration: ‘I’ll lose my temper – and degrade both myself and the cause’. As many of Dostoevsky’s previous characters were inhabitants of the St Petersburg slums, here the brothers are kept in squalid houses and succumb to debauchery.
The main subplot of The Brothers Karamazov involves a frail child called Ilyushechka who has a lamentable and poverty-stricken father, perhaps the most pitiable figure in the sprawling, tragic tale. He is utterly devoted to his son, who becomes fatally ill as the brothers experience their own moral death. This story is a biting portrait of the conditions that people faced in Russia; a country that was often seen by some of its most prominent citizens to be decades (if not centuries) behind the West after the Industrial Revolution. The book ends with Ilyusha’s funeral, where Alyosha, who has assumed the role of the town’s moral conscience following the death of the authoritative Elder Zosima, speaks at the graveyard. Despite the horrifying situation of his family, with Mitya sent to Siberia by the muzhiks (peasants) in the jury, Alyosha presents an uplifting message to his mournful crowd:
Let us, in the first place and above all, be kind, then honest, and then – let us never forget one another (…) Oh, young children, oh, dear friends, do not be afraid of life! How good is life, when one does some good and upright thing!
It is with this that Dostoevsky concludes his colossal chronicle. Ending on a life-affirming note, Alyosha exonerates those who stand against him and unites them all, exhibiting Dostoevsky’s unerring faith in God. however misplaced readers such as myself may see this to be. We can all feel the swelling catharsis at the novel’s finale; the glowing zest for life and love of one’s neighbour, despite the murder, squalor and illness that surrounds all.
In his letter to Gogol, Belinsky states that although the population of Russia may despise the state of their country, they seek refuge in the writing of its myriad journalists and authors under the influential guise of the new social novel:
Only in literature, in spite of our tatar censorship, there is still some life and forward movement (…) The title of poet, the profession of letters has thrown into the shade the glitter of epaulettes and gaudy uniforms.
This is an example of Russian writing at its finest; the ‘Golden Age’ of Russian literature epitomised by Dostoevsky, most poignantly in his last, superlative creation.
The Brothers Karamazov was Dostoevsky’s last novel; and his biggest success in Russia. Derided by many liberals and radicals as simply an embittered reactionary, the book’s haunting, captivating message enchanted literate Russia to an extent that few novelists managed in the ‘Golden Age’ of the second half of the eighteenth-century. Readers had sensed that with Crime and Punishment the author was creating a momentum that could carry through to his major novels; his last was seen, and still is today, as the pinnacle of his achievement.
In June 1880, Dostoevsky and Turgenev made speeches at the unveiling of the Pushkin Monument in Moscow. Turgenev, forever chastised by both the radicals and conservatives for his depiction of Arkady, the nihilist in Fathers and Sons, was really the main event, but disappointed. Dostoevsky’s was the most instant, brilliant success that he had seen since the publication of Poor Folk more than thirty-five years before. I think it is worth quoting, as perhaps the author’s most succinct and direct defence of theRussian spirit.
To become a true Russian, to become a Russian fully … means only to become the brother of all men, to become, if you will, a universal man. … Do I speak of economic glory, of the glory of the sword or of science? I speak only of the brotherhood of man; I say that to the universal, omni-human union the heart of Russia, perhaps more than all other nations, is chiefly predestined; I see its traces in our history, our men of genius, in the artistic genius of Pushkin. … Pushkin died the full maturity of his powers, and undeniably bore away with him a great secret into the grave. And now we, without him, are seeking to divine his secret.
Dostoevsky was speaking to cement Pushkin’s place as the prophetic, people’s poet of Russia. In doing so, he also became a prophet in the eyes of his audience. Through the genius of Pushkin, through upholding it, Dostoevsky had also became like him; despite the attempts of the nihilists to force Pushkin into disrepute, despite the successes of utilitarianism, of all which Dostoevsky foresaw, the poetry of Pushkin still remained. Dostoevsky’s impassioned defence of the Russian serfs, ninety per cent of which had been enslaved when he was bon, and the Russian spirit which he saw within them, were central to his ideas. Despite his many reactionary beliefs, Dostoevsky still held onto the principal of emancipation of the serfs, and the freedom that it brought. It was the defence of that freedom, of that brotherhood, of that apparent unity in the Russian soul, that made his last speech so magnificent in the eyes of his audience.
Unlike Tolstoy, who died in a freezing train station have finally deserted his wife, Dostoevsky died an undramatic death. Sat back in an old chair in a rather undignified study, he passed away just six months after his speech on Pushkin, with his planned four-parts sequels to The Brothers Karamazov unfinished. His funeral was attended by tens of thousands of people in St Petersburg, and on his tombstone lay the same words from the New Testament that opened his last work.
Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone; but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.
Through literature, Dostoevsky expressed his most cherished beliefs, and threw them into the great battle of ideas in the form of novels. It is his unshakeable integrity and evident idealism for which I think his work is always worthy of further exploration.
All of this article formed part of an lecture in Oxford on 20th January. Parts on Poor Folk and The Brothers Karamazov have already appeared in the website of The London Magazine., available here and here.