Originally written for and published by The Mallard.
I know: even in Los Angeles, CA, I can hear my friends in the UK groan. Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky—the dour wing of 19th-century Russian literature, the author whose brilliance is admitted as readily as is the masochism it sometimes takes to read him (which, considering the masochism he explicitly examines in his characters, may not be hyperbole). I, myself, despite my degrees in literature and attendance at Oxford (for Shakespeare, thank God), took several years to enjoy reading Dostoevsky; The Brothers Karamazov took me three attempts, with a couple of years’ convalescence between each.
Nonetheless, over the last few years and accelerated by California’s Covid-19 lockdowns, I have been reading through the Russian Prophet’s corpus while following Joseph Frank’s five-volume biography on the man, and I have been struck by how many elements of his work and life resemble aspects of our culture and its discourse, today. Out of moderation, as well as prudence against being labeled a McCarthyite alarmist, I often hesitate to point out such similarities between 19th-century Russia and broader 21st century culture; blithely predicting a repeat of post-Dostoevsky Bolshevism seems in as bad taste as, say, comparing anyone who does not keep in step with the leftward-moving Overton Window a Nazi.
And yet, I do not think it extreme to note the ways that our broader 21st century seems to be emulating the conditions, excesses, and excuses that energized radical socialists in the 1800s. Indeed, a serious portion of the protest mobs marching everywhere from the Lincoln Memorial to Westminster are actively promoting such a repeat. In my view, to understand state collectivism we should not just read Aleksandr Solzhenitysn: we should also strive to understand the author to whom he was an answering echo, the man who as early as the 1860s saw 1917 coming.
Portrait of Dostoevsky, 1922, by František Foltýn [Photo Credit]
Now, historical and political understanding are not the primary (or even secondary) reasons to read Dostoevsky. One does not plumb the depths for trivia, but to learn what one is and how one is to survive and thrive. Like all great works of literature (indeed, fulfilling one of the requirements for being considered “great”), each of his major works and several of his minor ones bear reading multiple times to fully grasp their subtleties. His depicting the psychology of his characters with so few and such selectively chosen details, his integrating the best elements of 19th-century Romanticism with the Naturalism that would become the gout du jour of modern literature, and his concretization of the greatest questions of his day—many of which we still have not answered, or have not answered sufficiently (perhaps because we have not read Dostoevsky sufficiently)—into plots that are investigative without being didactic, all confirm Albert Camus’s later declaration that Dostoevsky, not Marx, was the real 19th-century prophet.
This piece, of course, lacks the scope to list all the parallels one might point out between the 19th and early 21st centuries and between Dostoevsky’s work and modern events. I will only examine Dostoevsky’s arrest for advocating and his subsequent rejection of socialism—which was, granted, the most significant event in his life, dividing it in half both psychologically and ideologically. If we wish to better understand the cultural impulse to culture- and state-enforced collectivism, especially when it has again become so ascendant in the discourse, we would do well to look to an author who, himself, was arrested for promoting the very revolutionary literature he would spend the rest of his post-prison life advocating against.
Youth, Arrest, Mercy
Never fully able to accept the atheism of early 19th-century socialism, Dostoevsky was not, himself, a socialist. However, allying with the growing socialist movement in the late 1840s in order to promote his main cause of emancipating the Russian serfs, he landed himself too close to a seditious printing scheme for Tsar Nicolas I’s censors’ comfort and was subsequently arrested. After nine months in solitary confinement and a staged execution-mercifully-turned-exile (which paradoxically made him a lifelong pro-Tsarist), Dostoevsky was sentenced to four years’ labor in Siberia. Overjoyed at the Tsar’s seeming act of magnanimity in sparing his life, Dostoevsky looked forward to meeting the serfs, peasants, and convicts whose freedom he and the other members of the Russian intelligentsia had so ardently and philanthropically championed in their salons and literary meetings.
Mock Execution of the Petrashevsky Circle Members [Photo Credit]
Disdain and Disillusionment
Before Siberia, Dostoevsky had assumed that the peasant class necessarily resented the landowning class. One can find a similar assumption of resentment by those collectively labeled oppressed for those labeled oppressors in much of today’s cultural parlance, just as one can see parallels between how Dostoevsky and people today developed that assumption. In the first volume of his biography, Dostoevsky: The Seeds of Revolt, 1821-1849, Frank describes the distress and guilt Dostoevsky experienced upon learning that, while he was away at school, peasants had murdered his sickly father. The event would weigh on Dostoevsky’s conscience, to the extent that, having asked for more funds during a bad harvest and received a despairing letter from his father “almost simultaneously with the news of his father’s death,” the young man blamed himself as a distant accomplice in the murder, as well as the circumstances leading to it. Alleging that this in part motivated his initial passion on behalf of the peasants, Frank claims that, “The existence of serfdom had now become literally unbearable for him because he could never free himself from the sickening feeling that, in helping to foment its worst excesses, he had brought on his father’s death.”
In today’s terms, Dostoevsky had realized he had been an unwitting participant in an oppressive, legally-enforced power structure, and, with the fervor anyone who had a screen device in 2020 can imagine, he aimed his sights at that structure to liberate those whom he believed it pushed to commit crimes. However, rather than landing him an interview on CNN or BBC News, his revolutionary passion landed him in Siberia—where, in purgatorial fashion, his premises would be tested, contradicted, and distilled to produce the content and conviction of his later works.
Upon entering the katorga labor camp, Dostoevsky’s assumptions about the lower classes were soon revealed to be so much fiction. In the second volume of his biography, Frank elaborates:
“It was only when he [Dostoevsky] arrived in the prison camp, and was forced to live cheek-by-jowl with the peasant-convicts, that some of his earlier opinions were directly challenged; only then did he begin to realize to what extend he had been a dupe of illusions about the Russian peasant and the nature of Russian social-political reality.”
In the katorga Dostoevsky found that the peasants were uninterested in being represented or saved by upper-class pretenders like Dostoevsky. “[They] are not fond of gentlemen…especially politicals,” Dostoevsky would later write in The House of the Dead, his semi-autobiographical recounting of the Siberian prisons published six years after his release, “they are ready to devour them; no wonder…you are a different sort of people, unlike them.” Furthermore, the other prisoners considered the French ideals of atheism and egalitarianism that the upper class had so embraced to be a foreign corruption inimical to their sensibilities.
Among the revelations that would dismantle the seemingly humanitarian foundations of Dostoevsky’s early socialist sympathies was the fact that, though the peasants ridiculed him for his upper-class softness, they did not, necessarily, resent his status as such. “According to their ideas…I ought even to keep up and respect my class superiority before them, that is, to study my comfort, to give myself airs, to scorn them, to turn up my nose at everything; to play the fine gentleman in fact…They would, of course, have abused me for doing so, but yet they would privately have respected me for it.” Far from desiring liberation from it, the peasants derived a sense of security from the clearly-defined stations and prescribed behaviors of the social hierarchy of which they were the lowest level. The peasants and convicts Dostoevsky encountered in prison did not experience an all-consuming feeling of oppression under 19th-century Russia’s hard class lines, nor would they, he realized, participate in a socialist revolution, at least not at that time.
This, of course, was only a surprise because of the depth of his implicit paternalism regarding the serfs. The presumption that the lower classes were not only politically but intellectually and morally unable to recognize their plight, and thus needed the upper class intelligentsia to free them, is one aspect of his youth that Dostoevsky would soon shed. As with other forms of such condescension, his view confessed an implicit insult of the very people he presumed to help, and it might have kept him naively blinded to the actual characters, perspectives, and desires of those he wished to save—had he not been forced to live at their level. The insufficiency of socialism to deal with the needs of actual Russians—as well as its implicit bigotry of low expectations for the lower classes—would be one of Dostoevsky’s primary whipping posts after his release, culminating most caustically in the bumbling, short-sighted revolutionaries of Devils.
Crime and Brutality
Another assumption invalidated by Dostoevsky’s time among the convicts involved the origins of crime. In Netochka Nezvanova, his last pre-Siberian novel cut short by his arrest and never resumed afterward, Dostoevsky had already explored the psychology of abusive codependency in the pathologically self-deluding Efimov. The erstwhile-violinist-turned-drunk stands as Dostoevsky’s deepest pre-Siberian exploration of resentful impotence dressing itself up as brilliant genius and presages several later characters who seem to take masochistic pleasure in their own degradation. Yet, even in presenting Efimov’s psychological abuse of his young stepdaughter, the book’s title character, Dostoevsky gives the history and circumstances that led Efimov to be seen by other characters more as a tragic than criminal figure. As can be seen in later characters in that book, any truly vicious characters in Dostoevsky’s earlier works are almost universally members of the depredatory upper class.
However, in prison Dostoevsky would learn that social deviance was not a mere product of circumstance: vice was not a result solely of upper-class decadence, nor were peasants’ crimes mere reactions against an unfair social structure (the assumption of the intelligentsia at the time, and of many today). Like his previous beliefs regarding peasants’ ignorance about their political situation, Dostoevsky would find the view that convicts were mere unfortunates incapable of moral agency (granted, a view he, a still implicit Orthodox Christian, never fully embraced) inadequate to comprehend the reality.
While he was shocked by the violence of some of the guards towards the inmates, Dostoevsky was equally, if not more, shocked by the violence of the inmates toward each other. In his time in Siberia Dostoevsky would find that the crimes that had landed the convicts in prison, as well as many committed after arrest, were volitional acts of evil chosen, in many cases, with knowledge of the fact that—and at times because—they were evil. Describing the effects of the thefts, assaults, and murders that Dostoevsky would depict in The House of the Dead, Frank writes:
“It seemed to him [Dostoevsky] as if some bloody brawl was always about to break loose, though in most cases, to his initial surprise, matters would end after a volley of the most scurrilous abuse…[There] was hardly a moment when the menace of violence was not hanging in the air.”
Among the peasant convicts Dostoevsky would observe, firsthand, the psychology of crime that would so leaven the bulk of his later work. It was there that he would develop the conviction that the human person contained elements that could not be simply ameliorated with Enlightenment ideals of egalitarianism or socialism—that there were people who wilfully sought to needlessly degrade the good and innocent because they wanted to degrade the good and innocent and who could not be contained in simple spectrums of good and evil. “No, it seems crime cannot be interpreted from preconceived conventional points of view…Only in prison have I heard stories of the most terrible, the most unnatural actions, of the most monstrous murders told with the most spontaneous, childishly merry laughter.”
The lowest of Russian society, he would find, were too complex to fit neatly into any broad, class-based view of morality like that espoused by the upper-class socialists of the 1840s intelligentsia. Nor could Dostoevsky follow the broader European view of the lowest classes as too psychologically underdeveloped to be guilty of their actions; rather, Dostoevsky found that the Russian convict and peasant was “quite capable of thinking and had a well-developed, independent outlook of his own.” After Siberia, Dostoevsky would rarely, if ever, present an antagonist as a mere victim of circumstance, as he had Efimov; while he does present self-destructive drunks and even criminals as not unsympathetic side characters (Crime and Punishment’s Marmeladov comes to mind), he would reserve pride of place for characters whose villainy is a direct act of often gratuitous, carnal choice, and he would no longer relegate the worst crimes to those in the upper class.
Evening—Applying Handcuffs by Aleksander Sochaczewski [Photo Credit]
Property and Perspective
Furthermore, Dostoevsky would learn the humanizing and palliating effect of private liberty and property. He describes in the opening chapter of The House of the Dead, “If it were not for his own private work to which he was devoted with his whole mind, his whole interest, a man could not live in prison.” Many of them craftsmen, the men would be free after finishing their penal labor to pursue their own projects, often using illicit tools to which the guards turned a salutarily blind eye. Elaborating on how peasants will often work much harder on their own crops than on others’, Dostoevsky later articulates that the insufferability of the penal labor is not due to its difficulty but to its being coerced, and that the additional voluntary labor paradoxically makes the penal labor bearable. Far from being “the root of all evil,” says Frank, purposeful private work and property “was an important safety valve for the prisoners,” providing both extra money and psychic benefits that constituted for Dostoevsky “a flat rejection of the moral basis of Utopian Socialism (or any other kind)” that would say different.
One wonders at Tsarist Russia’s understanding, if implicit, of the convicts’ humanity, an understanding that would be shared, though used to more efficiently torture and dehumanize inmates, by the Soviets in the next century. In his later work Dostoevsky would often show the psychological amelioration of purposeful work and personal initiative. Raskalnikov’s foil, his friend Razumikhin, provides much of Crime and Punishment’s rare tension relief, in no small part via his excitement and optimism at the prospects of finding translation work and starting a press (both of which Dostoevsky and his brother did after his release). Similar to Tolstoy’s eschewing of upper-class decadence for the honest work of agriculture in his works, Dostoevsky would consistently portray, in action as well as tone, the beneficial effects of purposeful work. Furthermore, in the Underground Man, Raskalnikov, and others, he would warn about the negative psychological effects of being unmoored from some kind of production, often depicting how other intoxications, from alcohol to seemingly charitable meddling to obsession with contemporary politics, can fill the void of a neglected right to pursue private property.
In addition to property’s capacity to alleviate depression, despondency, and outbursts of crime, Dostoevsky would learn the value of others’ perspectives. Among the paradoxes he had already discovered in the months in confinement in St. Petersburg before being taken to Siberia was the psychological boon of reading others’ ideas. In a letter to his brother he describes his joy at receiving “any book” and “the curative effect of having one’s train of thought interrupted by other people’s ideas, or one’s own rearranged on new lines.”
From what had Dostoevsky needed a cure? From ideological solipsism. His later combination of Raskalnikov’s all-encompassing nervous illness and his Napoleonic delusions would be written from experience. In her recounting of Dostoevsky’s later opinion of his participation in the socialist printing circle, his second wife says that “if not for his arrest, which broke his life in two, he should have gone mad.” As Frank says, “The terror under which he was living had been so great that he later believed his sanity might have snapped if not for the providential accident of his capture.” In prison Dostoevsky was able to consider from a distance of time, space, and circumstance the premises that had underlain much of his young adulthood. “In my spiritual solitude I reviewed all my past life,” he would later write, “went over it all to the smallest detail, brooded over my past, judged myself sternly and relentlessly, and even sometimes blessed fate for sending me this solitude, without which I could not have judged myself like this, nor viewed my past life so sternly.”
Even before prison, Dostoevsky had already articulated the dangers of a perspective cut off from different views in Efimov and others (The Double’s Golyadkin is another noteworthy example) who derive their sense of the world by cutting off and ignoring other perspectives that might nuance or contradict their view of reality. Siberia would reinforce the concept. As a means of shaking one out of an idea that may have become an uncritical bubble—of being healed of such a mania—Dostoevsky consistently advocated engaging in the economy of ideas, as much as in the economy of property. Crime and Punishment, which opens months into Raskalnikov’s isolation and subsequent ideological obsession, follows the erstwhile student’s path to healing via the alternate concerns and cares of his sister and mother, Razumikhin, and Sophia Marmeladov—with life in a Siberian prison noteworthily signaling Raskalnikov’s final release from moral turpitude. In this and other works, Dostoevsky would include the plurality of perspectives in his later works as a consistent check on the isolation, depression, and, if the alternate title of Devils—The Possessed—is considered, ideological possession of his characters. The implications of this revelation for today’s cancel culture, which seeks an overarching unity of perspective and, in the most extreme cases, treats alternative opinions to the predominantly leftward-moving discourse as mere apologetics for the worst kinds of oppression, is obvious.
Dostoevsky was ultimately thankful for his time in prison, if only because it shook him out of his early ideology and the madness to which it had pushed him. Perhaps this, as well as the staged magnanimity of the Tsar’s pardon, is why, far from entrenching himself in his ideas against the supposed injustice of his situation, Dostoevsky left prison grateful for the system that had sent him there, ever after advocating Tsarist autocracy as a better means of uplifting the serfs than his early socialism could have been. Tsar Alexander II’s 1861 emancipation of the serfs initially justified this opinion to Dostoevsky, despite its and other reforms’ not being enough to prevent revolution in late-century Russia. Unfortunately, with its worsening of economic conditions for both the peasant and landowning classes, the long process of Russian progressive reforms would arguably exacerbate the conditions used by later radicals to foment revolution in the very ways Dostoevsky had predicted in Devils.
Peasants Reading the Emancipation Manifesto by Grigoriy Myasoyedov [Photo Credit]
Contempt, Despair, Preparation
Although Dostoevsky would eventually consider his exile to Siberia an act of providence, at the time he experienced all the cognitive dissonance of a young zealot learning their ideal is too simple to logically maintain. Amidst the “crisis initially caused by the destruction of his humanitarian faith in the people,” as Frank calls it, “nothing was more emotionally necessary for Dostoevsky than to find some way of reconciling his ineradicable love for his native land with his violently negative reactions to the loathsome denizens of the camp.” Falling into a deep depression, Dostoevsky would avail himself of what solitude he could find in the infirmary through feigned sickness or on his bed through feigned sleep.
While seeking relief from the convicts who daily reminded him of the failures of his previous convictions, Dostoevsky would unintentionally engage in a psychological and metaphysical priming that would culminate in a conversion experience that would affect the rest of his life. In a paradox that would presage many other such revelations in his future characters, it would be in the proven past, not the progressive future, that Dostoevsky would find his way forward, availing himself of memories from his childhood and the truths in the only book allowed Russian prisoners, the New Testament.
Dostoevsky’s earlier works focus on characters who, faced with a reality they had long suspected but never admitted, must choose between a reevaluation of closest-held premises or a sustained, self-destructive delusion. Unlike most of them, when Dostoevsky was faced with his own such contradiction with reality, he thankfully chose the former, and it would open up avenues to psychological relief and to substance and conviction for his subsequent work.
In the sequel to this piece I will examine the experience that would change Dostoevsky’s perspective on his fellow convicts, and I will go through how his revelations in prison—and his rejection of the socialism with which he had allied himself in his young adulthood—would influence the characters, themes, and contentions of his later masterpieces. For now, let it be enough to pause, with Dostoevsky, and consider the political panaceas being pronounced by the elites of his day, to which many of today’s pronouncements sound all too similar. For their humanitarian assumptions and beautiful intentions, the mid-century Russian intelligentsia’s lack of experience with and knowledge of the very Russians they were championing made them inadequate to prescribe ideas that could account for them. We would be fools not to heed the author who, discovering that insufficiency, would stand ever after as a warning prophet and harbinger of the spiritual and physical desolation that would—and did—follow were a better way not divined and considered.
- Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Seeds of Revolt, 1821-1849, pg. 85
- Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Seeds of Revolt, 1821-1849, pg. 88
- Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859, pg. 88
- Dostoevsky, Fyodor. “Chapter II: First Impressions (1).” The House of the Dead
- Dostoevsky, Fyodor. “Chapter VI: The First Month (2).” The House of the Dead
- Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859, pg. 93
- Dostoevsky, Fyodor. “Chapter I: The House of the Dead.” The House of the Dead
- Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859, pg. 97
- Dostoevsky, Fyodor. “Chapter I: The House of the Dead.” The House of the Dead
- Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859, pg. 156
- Quoted in Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859, pg. 22
- Quoted in Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859, pg. 18
- Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859, pg. 19
- Dostoevsky, Fyodor. “Chapter IX: An Escape.”The House of the Dead
- Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859, pg. 114