Dostoevsky, 19th-Century Socialism, and the 21st Century: Part 2

Originally written for and published by The Mallard.

In the previous portion of this two-part article, I examined Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky’s arrest for participation in an illegal socialist printing plot and the changes of belief and perspective that would result. Entering his Siberian labor camp with all the humanitarian assumptions of the privileged upper class, he discovered that the atheist socialism advocated by the mid-19th-century intelligentsia possessed a woefully inadequate understanding of average Russians and, thus, of how to achieve social progress among them. As he would later write in The House of the Dead

“It was practically my first contact with men of the peasant class…I was surprised and confused, as though I had heard nothing of all this and had not suspected its existence. Yet I had heard of it and knew of it. But the reality makes quite a different impression from what one hears and knows.” 

In this article I will examine how Dostoevsky would surmount his own preconceptions about the convicts around him, as well as how the experience would influence his later works. 

The initial debunking of his naive assumptions about the oppression of the peasants, the origins of crime, and the nature of private property and diversity of thought posed many questions for Dostoevsky, especially regarding his future as a writer. How was he to advocate on behalf of a nation he loved when he possessed such disgust for its people? More importantly, how could he do so when his previous beliefs—those shared by the supposedly most enlightened and educated members of the elite classes—had been so called into question by reality? In what would become a theme in several of his later works, it would be in the tested and established past, rather than in the supposedly progressive future, that he would find the answer.

Cognitive Dissonance and Humbling

More shocking to Dostoevsky than the insufficiency of his beliefs was the transition that took place in himself as his brotherly love turned to a mixed revulsion for and desire to be accepted by the convicts. Still in shock at the irony of casual violence and, he would discover, the convicts’ own desire to be trusted, the turbid state of his convictions pushed Dostoevsky into a dazed depression, and in the katorga he would develop the epilepsy that would characterize him and his work for the rest of his life. 

Among the reasons for Dostoevsky’s initial perturbation was his inability to understand the convicts. When first assigned to labor in his first week, he confesses the role his expectations played in how he saw the other convicts. 

“Everything about me was hostile and—terrible, for though not everything was really so, it seemed so to me…Of course, there was a great deal I did not notice then. I had no suspicion of things that were going on in front of me. I did not divine the presence of consolation in the midst of all that was hostile.”

Shocked into an anxious humility, Dostoevsky spent his early days, “wandering miserably about the prison and lying on the bed.” Unfortunately, even in later years, the author who pioneered the exploration of character psychology did not write much about his own psychological state during this time. In the second volume of his biography on the author, Joseph Frank writes that it is most plausible “to see him, at first, gradually trying to make sense out of his exposure to a whole range of new impressions that had clashed with his preconceived notions, and only subsequently coming to understand in a more self-conscious fashion how his experience had changed his ideas.” However, unlike his previous (and many later) characters who more often dig into and seek to fortify their convictions when faced with their irrationality, Dostoevsky allowed the experience to prime him into a teachable humility which would allow him to see past his preconceived notions about the convicts and Russian politics and spirituality.

Forgiveness, Revelation, Resilience

The foundational discovery that converted Dostoevsky’s condescending view of the peasant class to one of grave awe and respect involved a memory of Marey, a serf who lived on his family’s land while he was growing up. Recollecting prison life in his 1876 “The Peasant Marey,” Dostoevsky describes how one of the most oppressive aspects of prison was the inability to ever be alone. Because pretending to be asleep was the only way to be left in peace, resting behind closed eyes became his primary source of peace and amusement. During his first Pascha Easter season in the prison, Dostoevsky describes, when the reprieve from their labors and the prohibitions on gambling and drinking made the convicts especially and wearisome to him, he availed himself of his bunk. 

As Dostoevsky lay there a memory came to him of himself as a child, spooked out of the forest by an imagined cry of “Wolf!” Fearing for his life, the nine-year-old Fyodor ran from the forest to a nearby field where one of his family’s serfs, Marey, was plowing. Rather than be surly or resentful of his master’s son, Marey welcomed and calmed the child. “Why you took a real fright, you did!…Never mind, now, my dear. What a fine lad you are!” After convincing Fyodor there was no wolf and no danger, the smiling peasant crossed himself and the boy before watching him return to the estate barn. “[Had] I been his very own son he could not have looked at me with a glance that radiated more pure love. And who had prompted him to do that? He was our own serf, and I was his master’s little boy; no one would learn of his kindness to me and reward him for it…only God, perhaps, looking down saw what deep and enlightened human feeling…could fill the heart of a coarse, bestially ignorant Russian serf…” 

The memory made Dostoevsky realize that, like Marey, the convicts and peasants who surrounded him might not necessarily resent him and his status so unforgivingly, and that, far from being provincial and backward, they were better equipped for a happy, tolerant, and contented life than the very intelligentsia seeking to release them from their oppression. This new affinity for the peasant-convicts around him changed Dostoevsky’s experience of prison, allowing him to approach the other convicts neither as mere intellectual children nor as monstrous beasts, but as individuals from whom he had much to learn. “I came at last to distinguish men among criminals,” Dostoevsky describes in a letter. “Believe me, there are deep, strong, beautiful characters among them, and what a joy it was to discover the gold under the coarse, hard surface.” Indeed, he steadily realized they bore his temporary impatience not merely out of lower-class deference (all official class distinctions being erased in prison), but partly out of an understanding of his situation. “They respected the condition of my soul and bore all without a murmur.” In many ways, he would learn, they understood the upper class more than the upper class understood them, and, at least with him, they, like Marey, were magnanimous in their understanding.

The Vision to the Youth Bartholomew by Mikhail Nesterov [Photo Credit]

Perhaps most importantly, the experience showed Dostoevsky that Russian Orthodoxy was not a mere opiate necessary to lift the hopes of and inculcate morality in the lower classes but unneeded by the more enlightened and worldly upper classes. Rather, the faith of the Russian peasants made them stronger and more resilient in the face of existential suffering, as well as more forgiving and hospitable, than any other section of Russian society. Indeed, it was their capacity for forgiveness that made them stronger; magnanimity presupposes a height. Because of their faith in things similarly hidden, long before, from the wise and revealed to babes, it was the peasants, not the intelligentsia, who were equipped to treat members of all levels of society with the solidarity of human brotherhood. 

The memory of Marey reinvigorated Dostoevsky’s Christian faith, which he found could encompass all the aspects of humanity for which his seemingly more humane and enlightened political views had been insufficient. This led to Dostoevsky’s conviction that in both metaphysical and political terms, it was in Orthodoxy and the Tsarist hierarchy tempered and blessed thereby, not atheistic socialism, that Russia’s hope rested. “The salvation of Russia lay precisely in the sturdiness of [the peasants’] moral-religious convictions,” Frank articulates. “The peasants were more truly Christian in their devotions than the arrogant ruling class who shoved them aside so callously.” 

With its offering of redemption after even the worst acts of evil, Christianity maintained belief in moral agency while offering both sympathy for circumstance and, more importantly, forgiveness and amnesty for the guilty and spiritually exiled, and it provided the kind of egalitarian fellowship idealized by the socialists but embodied, for Dostoevsky, in the peasant Marey. Perhaps most important for his later work, Dostoevsky’s new appreciation for the faith allowed him to understand the full humanity of those around him, crimes, suffering, and all, in a more robust and multilayered way than the socialist naturalism of the time had let him.

The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood [Photo Credit]

One may argue that Dostoevsky’s conversion only amounts to just so much betrayal of principle; however, he—notably the only member of the socialist circle not to recant or give up the other members, despite not being a socialist, himself—did not think so. Because he had only joined the printing scheme with the aim of liberating the serfs, and because it was Russia and her people to whom he was loyal (to say nothing of Christ), not to socialist utopianism, as such, Dostoevsky was ultimately able to shed the latter when he (re)discovered a better way to advocate for the former. 

Indeed, after learning what he did about the insufficiency of socialism to actually benefit Russia, it would have been a betrayal of principle not to abandon it. Had he not, it would have placed him among the ranks of his pre-Siberian characters who, faced with the irrationality and impracticability of their presumptions, too often choose to embrace their delusions and cut themselves off from growth, psychological freedom, and relationship with the very people whose community they had wanted to secure. Throughout his arrest and exile, Dostoevsky maintained the justice of his cause on behalf of the serfs, continuing to believe that “his social idealism [should] be an up-to-date version of Christ’s messages of brotherly love,” and “stubbornly [refusing] to be converted to the atheism” advocated by the 1840s upper-class socialists. He would hold, plumb, and advocate this conviction for the rest of his life.

From Progressive to Prophet

It was in the prison camp where Dostoevsky would become Dostoevsky; there he would learn what his Prince Myshkin would later imagine: that “one might find a wealth of life even in prison.” “Man has infinite reserves of toughness and vitality,” he wrote to his brother Mikhail from prison, “I really did not think there was so much, but now I know it from experience.” Not just the convicts he met—many of whose stories would inform virtually all of his later works—but the changes in his perspective would provoke Dostoevsky to stand against the very radicalism that had sent him into exile. He would spend the rest of his career being one of the most vocal opponents of atheism and socialism, the former of which he saw as foundational to the latter, ultimately identifying both in his opus, The Brothers Karamazov, as not new ideas but, rather, among the oldest: the motivating force and method of the Tower of Babel. 

In Siberia, Dostoevsky learned not only socialism’s insufficiency to surmount the problems of 19th-century Russia but its inability to even correctly identify the central problem, itself. Besides having learned that the peasants would not, then, welcome a revolution, Dostoevsky had learned that because each individual is a moral agent, regardless of circumstances, then no broad, class-based moral view of humanity would work. Furthermore, one’s happiness and psychological health paradoxically relied on having productive work and at times being contradicted and humbled in one’s convictions—as did one’s ability to trust one’s convictions at all. The gravity of such revelations—which his younger beliefs and motivations were too shallow and short-sighted to comprehend—would drive his later works’ sense that the real problems at work in the 19th century were not the ones on which the progressive element of the intelligentsia was focused, nor could they be simply fixed (indeed, he foresaw they would be worsened) by sudden external revolution arising from plenary, unconditional interpretations of the socio-political milieu.

Central to Dostoevsky’s work—and central to all implicitly conservative ethics and politics—is the conviction that truly beneficial change happens not through mass social revolution but through private, individual self-audit, and that any pretentions to the former without the latter are at best naive and at worst profoundly dangerous. It is from this conviction that Dostoevsky could burlesque a socialist revolution in Devils as a sorry, if fatal, attempt by characters who, due to their shallow lack of perspective in their radical pretensions, are easily misled by the vicious, disturbed, yet charismatic nihilist, Stavrogin. 

It is also this conviction that would underlie the presentation of Alyosha Karamazov’s learning to love the worst elements of society in The Brothers Karamazov as a heroic achievement. Alyosha is Dostoevsky’s answer to the former would-be revolutionaries—as he is to every other character in the writer’s corpus. More important than lacerating himself for the depredations of his landowning father, Fyodor, or responding to his brother Ivan’s acute criticism of the Russian social structure and church with an equally well-thought-out argument, or proving to young Kolya why his convictions as a fourteen-year-old would-be socialist may be shallower than he suspects, is Alyosha’s mandate to understand and recognize that which is lovely and worthy of cultivation in those around him, despite disapproving of their respective lifestyles and convictions. On more than one occasion, Alyosha’s humble, unassuming willingness to sit with those one might consider his opposites disarms and, at times, redeems them; his effect on Grushenka Svetlov, the capricious tease who torments the rest of the Karamazov men, is a characteristic example, revealing, as it does, a strain of tenderness and love in the woman.

Fyodor Dostoevsky [Photo Credit]

Alyosha’s is an inner triumph—the triumph over the equally shallow impulses to simply flee offense and live in the monastery or to meet the deeper needs of those around him (indicative of all levels of Russian society) with an external fix. Alyosha stands as the maturation of Dostoevsky’s earlier recognition that the social angst and dissatisfaction with the perceived status quo spoke to something deeper than the mere adoption of elements of the European Enlightenment, or the de-landing of the Russian Orthodox Church, or the abolition of the monarchy, or the emancipation of the serfs (which he, nonetheless, continued to advocate). In his four years in prison, surrounded by the very peasant convicts he had believed he was representing in his erstwhile socialism, Dostoevsky learned, among other things, that said peasants were nothing like what he had believed. 

After Siberia, Dostoevsky would treat the revolutionary impulse with deep skepticism, having recognized the need for social improvement to come primarily through individuals and in the context of the Tsarist and Russian Orthodox forms to which they were used. One does not need to be a pro-Tsarist or a Russian Orthodox Christian to recognize the wisdom in Dostoevsky’s reverse approach regarding the moral-social structures that preceded him. Paradoxically, it was a failed attempt to advocate against those structures which ultimately caused him to embrace them (though not uncritically). 

Providing a model for the later introspection of fellow revolutionary-turned-critic, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Dostoevsky used his time in prison to hash through the premises and ideals that had led him there, and he left a changed and much stronger man. That Solzhenitsyn left the Soviet gulags with many of the same convictions as had Dostoevsky the Tsar’s katorga only underscores the truth of those convictions—that there is more to humanity than modern assumptions might allege, that spiritual needs cannot be met with (and may be exacerbated by) broad political or economic fixes, that the potential for good and evil lie in the heart of every person, that the most dangerous thing one can do, ideologically and otherwise, is to unreflectively believe one is in no danger of being the perpetrator of evil, and many others. 

It behooves us, then, confronted by the same questions scrutinized by Dostoevsky, to consider the answers that have made him one of our greatest and most prescient novelists, especially when the same ideologies he spent much of his life warning about are again being advocated. If nothing else, the parallels between Dostoevsky’s youth and the current spirit of the culture should cause us to reexamine his work, the popularity of which was, in Frank’s words, “an astonishing harbinger of the crisis of values that has haunted Western culture,” ever since. As I said in my previous piece, reading Dostoevsky merely to find answers for contemporary politics cheapens the rest of what his works contain, in the same way that reading scripture just to learn about the early zealotry of some of the apostles against the Romans would miss and even obscure the greater messages of the Gospel. However, Dostoevsky did consider such things, from a firsthand perspective and in deeper and more enduring ways than nearly anyone since, and that should prompt us to listen to and take seriously the verdicts he passed, if only to better facilitate our learning the rest of what can be found in his work. 


16. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. “Chapter V: The First Month (1).” The House of the Dead

17. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. “Chapter V: The First Month (1).” The House of the Dead

18. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. “Chapter V: The First Month (1).” The House of the Dead

19. Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859, pg. 87

20. Dostoevsky, Fyodor, “The Peasant Marey,” A Writer’s Diary.

21. Quoted in Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859, pg. 77

22. Quoted in Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859, pg. 77

23. Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859, pg. 115, 120

24. Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859, pg. 33

25. Quoted in Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859, pg. 21

26.  Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Seeds of Revolt, 1821-1849, pg. 379


Author: dustinllovell

Writing professor, literature and US history tutor, previous ESL instructor, and would-be novelist who enjoys/specializes in Shakespeare, 19th century lit, and philosophy (whether in print or via audiobook). Author of the novel Sacred Shadows and Latent Light (Wipf and Stock, Resources Imprint). Member of Heterodox Academy. Columnist for The Mallard.

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