Russian literature is the mainland, and Dostoevsky is an unattainable peak on this mainland
VICTOR LOUPAN, Head of the Editorial Board
Brodsky said that Russian readers are divided into “Tolstoy’s people” and “Dostoevsky’s people”. There is a great truth in this. Because these two authors are not just novelists, writers, fiction writers – they are demiurges, they are the creators of worlds. When reading and especially rereading them, the reader not only realises, but rather feels everything that separates them. Tolstoy is an esthete, a great artist who imagines himself to be a thinker and keeps somehow separate and inappropriate. An example of this is the last part of War and Peace and the ending of Anna Karenina. Innocence, maybe even childishness as shown by Tolstoy, are simply striking.
With Dostoevsky, the opposite is true. Today many Western intellectuals consider him almost the most important Russian spiritual philosopher. Although there is no “philosophy” in Dostoevsky’s novels and stories. At first glance, there are only passions and affect. Because a human is passionate by their nature. Many of the smartest people destroy themselves by falling into love networks. Among them is the unforgettable Rogozhin, the richest, smartest, but a very passionate Russian man, whose unbridled attraction to fallen Nastasya Filippovna leads him to the loss of everything. While she, the principal heroine of The Idiot, rejects Prince Myshkin’s proposal to marry him and leaves with Rogozhin intoxicated by attraction, because she feels defiled, desecrated, and therefore unworthy of the love of a noble man.
And Myshkin himself is so noble and pure that his behaviour seems to everyone to be eccentric, almost foolish. For, as an adult, he managed to preserve the attitude of a child. Unlike other characters of the novel, Myshkin embodies Christian virtue. According to Dostoevsky, the prince’s life purpose is “to restore and resurrect a person”. To some extent, Myshkin is a metaphorical personification of Jesus Christ.
Of course, all this does not appear in any way in the novel. All the characters live their own lives, there is nothing far-fetched in them, of course, there is no theoretical mess there. But Dostoevsky’s experience of suffering is so huge and so tangible, that he does not need any theoretical deviations in Tolstoy’s way. By the way, Myshkin’s name and patronymic are Lev Nikolaevich…
Just a few days ago, the famous French writer Patrick Besson sent me a message with the following content: “I am rereading The Idiot. What a miracle!” I could not have said it better myself.
Dostoevsky’s “philosophy” includes a deep awareness of the tragic nature of life. As if a person has already committed all the meanness and crimes, and simply repeats them endlessly, moreover, without realising the fact or understanding their behaviour.
Raskolnikov decides to hack to death the hated old woman, who, in his opinion, personifies evil. Rodion himself, a former law student, is extremely poor. He is angry with the world, wants to fight for the truth and expresses his thoughts in writing, thereby joining “theoreticians”. But for a long time he does not dare to commit a crime. He is pushed by the letter received from his mother, in which she writes about the upcoming marriage of Raskolnikov’s younger sister with an unloved middle-aged man. He understands that this terrible act is happening because of money, including a desire to help him.
The future victim is an old lady, a collegiate registrar’s widow who loans money for interest. In particular, to him. Rodion decides that “nobody needs her”, that “she is not useful to anyone”. Having hacked the old woman with an axe and robbed her, Raskolnikov also kills an unexpected witness to the crime – the sister of the subject of his hatred, innocent and devout Lizaveta.
Being influenced by the ideas of nihilism and being, in fact, a semi-educated semi-intellectual who imagines himself a numen, Raskolnikov divided people into two categories: ordinary people who float with the flow and exceptional people, like Napoleon, for whom everything is permitted. Before the murder, he ranks himself in the second category. But, having committed it, he suddenly realises that he fully applies to the first one.
Like Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment is an indescribable miracle! That cannot be understood with a mind. Raskolnikov personifies the dark essence of our consciousness, but its light essence is unforgettable Sonechka Marmeladova. Sonya and Rodion are united by the fact that they have violated the Gospel precepts. The purest and kindest, Sonechka is forced to engage in prostitution in order to save her family that has fallen into the darkest poverty after the death of her excessively drinking father.
Having met Raskolnikov, Sonya realises how similar they are, how their souls are related. And when, after the trial, he is sentenced to hard labor, she voluntarily follows him to Siberia, like the wives of the Decembrists.
The “soul mate” concept is figurative and profound. It is associated with love, but not carnal love, but platonic love. In a spiritual sense, a “soul mate” is the most powerful bond one person can form with another.
There is no other writer in the world who, like Dostoevsky, would penetrate into the depths of human existence, into the tragic essence of our earthly life, into what we most often do not know what we are doing.
Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky was born in 1821 in Moscow. The Dostoevsky family is a fairly ancient boyar family. The writer’s grandfather, Andrei, was a priest, and his father Mikhail Andreevich first studied in seminary at the St. Nicholas Orthodox Monastery of Shargorod. But he did not become a priest but entered the Imperial Medical-Surgical Academy and became a doctor. In this capacity he participated in the Patriotic War of 1812, was awarded the title of regimental surgeon, and was appointed resident physician of the Moscow military hospital. There he met Maria Nechaeva and married her.
But in 1820, a year before the birth of Fyodor, Mikhail Andreevich voluntarily leaves a well-paid military post and transfers to the Mariinsky Hospital for poor patients. He does it ideologically, knowing that the salaries are low there, and the working conditions are far from satisfactory. The main rule of the institution was that “poverty is the primary right” to receive aid at the hospital at any time of the day. This alone suggests that the future writer was born into a “special” family.
Fyodor Mikhailovich recalled, “They gave me being only four years old, a book and kept repeating: study! At ten I had already learned almost all the main episodes of Russian history”.
In the spring of 1827 Mikhail Andreevich was granted the right to hereditary nobility. So, the Dostoevskys became a noble family and were recorded in the third part of the genealogy book of the Moscow hereditary nobility. It allowed them to purchase their own estate, where a large family could spend the summer months.
In the summer of 1831, having paid about 30 thousand rubles in banknotes, accumulated and borrowed, Mikhail Andreevich acquired the village of Darovoe in the province of Tula: it included 11 poor peasant households and the “manor house” which was, in fact, a small three-room outbuilding made of wickers tied with clay. Because of the six households remaining in the village but belonging to a neighbor, Gogol-style strife immediately began which turned into a legal procedure. Then in the spring of 1832 a fire broke out through the fault of one of the peasants, the total losses from which amounted to almost 10 thousand rubles. The writer recalled, “It turned out, that everything had burned down, everything had gone to ashes. <…> Due to initial fear, they thought that they were completely ruined”. The distribution of money to the affected peasants contributed to the fact that by the end of the summer “the village <…> was rebuilt again”. But they made it possible to acquire the disputed Cheremoshnya only in 1833, against mortgage of Darovoe.
So, in the summer of 1832, Fyodor gets acquainted with rural Russia for the first time. Impressions of his trips to the village will be reflected later in the novels Poor Folk, Demons, and especially in the fascinating A Writer’s Diary.
Dostoevsky began writing while still a student, mostly stories. His first novel, Poor Folk, was highly appreciated by Nekrasov and Belinsky already in a handwritten form. Belinsky warmly accepted him into his circle, and 24-year-old Fyodor became a literary celebrity even before the publication of the work.
“The truth is open to you and is announced to you as an artist, you got it as a gift, so, appreciate your gift and remain faithful, then you will be a great writer!”, Belinsky wrote to him.
“It was the most delightful moment in my whole life,” Dostoevsky wrote in A Writer’s Diary. “When I was in hard labor, remembering it strengthened my spirit”.
In the spring of 1846, Dostoevsky met Petrashevsky, the revolutionary thinker, and began attending the Petrashevsky “Fridays”, where they discussed the fight against censorship and the liberation of the peasants. There he met Speshnev, who called himself a “communist”, around whom the most radical wing of the Petrashevists soon rallied. It was no longer a circle, but a secret society, the purpose of which was to create an illegal printing house, carry out a coup d’etat, and overthrow the autocracy. Soon after the publication of White Nights, Dostoevsky was arrested along with a group of Petrashevists and imprisoned in the Peter and Paul Fortress.
The court recognized him as “one of the most important criminals”, the military court commission sentenced Dostoevsky to corruption in blood and “execution by shooting”. Literally a week later, Emperor Nicholas I canceled the sentence and replaced it with four years of hard labor followed by military service as a private. But neither Dostoevsky nor any other Petrashevist sentenced to death was informed of this decision.
On December 22, 1849, on the Semyonovsky parade ground, they were read a sentence of “execution by shooting” with a sword refracted over their heads. This was followed by a suspension of the execution and a pardon. In the sadistic staging of the execution, pardon and punishment in the form of hard labor were announced at the very last moment. One of the condemned, Nikolai Grigoriev, went mad.
The feelings that Dostoevsky might have experienced before his execution, were reflected in one of Prince Myshkin’s monologues.
Dostoevsky returned from his Siberian exile as a different person. He became deeply religious and politically conservative. Most likely, the writer’s views began to change even in the Peter and Paul Fortress. Petrashevist Lvov remembered the words of Dostoevsky spoken before the demonstration execution on the Semenovsky parade ground: “Nous serons avec le Christ” (We will be with Christ).
Dostoevsky returned to Saint Petersburg in 1859, but police surveillance continued until 1875.
Due to a long absence, Fyodor Mikhailovich needed a new literary debut. It was the publication of The House of the Dead. This groundbreaking essay stunned readers. Previously, no one has described lives of convicts. According to Herzen, Dostoevsky appeared in The House of the Dead as Russian Dante who descended into hell, and so Herzen compared the literary work with Michelangelo’s fresco The Last Judgment.
The next important stage in the work of Dostoevsky included the publication of Notes from Underground. But the most significant works of the writer will fall on a later period. This is the famous “Great Pentateuch”, which includes his last novels: Crime and Punishment (1866), The Idiot (1868), Demons (1871-1872), The Adolescent (1875), The Brothers Karamazov (1879-1880). And also unique, as a phenomenon in world literature, the philosophical and literary A Writer’s Diary.
In connection with the Diary, I cannot ignore the complicated political views of the writer. He was – and remained – a Russian man, but he also recognised the achievements of Western culture and civilisation. Over time, the former member of the circle of socialists-utopians became a religious conservative, and then a staunch monarchist. He later called his views of the times of the Petrashevists “theoretical socialism”. Dostoevsky filled Herzen’s concept of “Russian socialism” with Christian content. He denied the class struggle, arguing that atheistic socialism cannot replace bourgeoisness, since it does not differ in principle from it. From this alone it is clear that Dostoevsky’s ideas still retain amazing relevance.
Despite the fame he gained during his life in Russia, Dostoevsky’s world-wide fame came to him after his death.
Friedrich Nietzsche himself, who never praised anyone but Wagner, considered Dostoevsky the only writer from whom he could learn, especially in the field of psychology. He wrote about it in his classic work, Twilight of the Idols.
Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, once said in an interview with the BBC Russian Service: “Dostoevsky is a terribly inconvenient author for any politician, even for the left, even for the right: he invariably strips off any arrogance. And, in my opinion, this is important”.
I would like to end this small excursion with the words of Joseph Brodsky: Along with earth, water, air and fire, money is the essence of the fifth element, with which a person most often has to be considered. This is one of many reasons – perhaps, even the main of them, – of what today, many years after Dostoevsky’s death, his works are still relevant. Taking into account the vector of economic evolution of the modern world, i. e. towards general impoverishment and harmonisation of living standards, Dostoevsky can be regarded as a phenomenon of prophecy. As the best way to avoid mistakes in future forecasts is to look at it through the prism of poverty and guilt. It is the optics used by Dostoevsky”.