Five Truths from Dostoevsky’s The Devils

Originally published by The Mallard.

Whenever I scroll through the news on Twitter or listen to talk radio, I like to play a game called “Dostoevsky called it.” As one can guess, it consists of identifying events or trends that correspond with those in Feodor Dostoevsky’s novels and letters. Because Dostoevsky devoted so much ink to warning about the motives and effects of atheist-utilitarian socialism from the radical left, the game often points to his most direct attack on those ideas: The Devils.

Published between 1871 and 1872 and written in response to the Nechaev affair, where an underground group of socialist-atheist radicals, planning to ultimately overthrow the Tsarist government through propaganda, terrorism, and assassination, murdered a former comrade who had left their secret society, The Devils (Бесы; also translated as Demons or The Possessed) is Feodor Dostoevsky’s most explicit expose of and polemic against the revolutionary nihilism growing in late nineteenth-century Russia. Although, due to his own participation in a socialist plot aimed at educating and ultimately liberating the serfs, he often gave the benefit of the doubt to the moral idealism of the younger generation of radicals—assuming their hearts, if not their methods, were in the right place—in The Devils he nonetheless skewers the radical ideology and his generation and the next’s culpability for it.

While his main focus is on the characters’ psychologies and their symbolic significance, Dostoevsky nonetheless lays out many of the ideas populating late-nineteenth-century Russia, displaying a thorough understanding of them, their holders’ true motives (which, like those of that other ideological murderer Raskalnikov, are rarely the same as those consciously stated by their loudest advocates), and what would be the results if they were not checked. In several places, Dostoevsky unfortunately calls it right, and The Devils at times reads as a preview of the following fifty years in Russia, as well as of the modes and methods of radicalism in later places and times.

It would be too great a task to cite, here, all the places and times where Dostoevsky’s visions were confirmed; at best, after laying out a few of the many truths in The Devils, I can only note basic parallels with later events and trends in Russia and elsewhere—and let my readers draw their own additional parallels. Nonetheless, here are five truths from Dostoevsky’s The Devils:

1: The superfluity of the preceding liberal generation to progressive radicals.

The Devils is structured around the relationship between the older and younger generations of the mid-1800s. The book opens with an introduction of Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky, father to the later introduced radical Peter Stepanovich. A Westernized liberal from the 1840s generation, Stepan Trofimovich represents the upper-class intelligentsia that first sought to enlighten the supposedly backwards Russia through atheistic socialism (a redundancy in Dostoevsky).

However, despite his previously elevated status as a liberal and lecturer, by the time of The Devils Stepan Trofimovich—and, with him, the 1840s liberals who expected to be honored for opening the door to progress—has become superfluous. This is highlighted when his son returns to the province and does not honor his father with figurative laurels (when such a symbol is later employed literally it is in satirical mock).

Though never the direct butt of Dostoevsky’s satire, Stepan Trofimovich cannot (or refuses) to understand that his son’s nihilism is not a distortion of his own generation’s hopes but is the logical, inevitable product of them. The older man’s refusal to admit his ideological progeny in his literal progeny’s beliefs, of course, enables Peter Stepanovich to mock him further, even while he continues to avail himself of the benefits of his father’s erstwhile status in society. This “liberal naivete enabling radical nihilism” schema can also be seen in the governor’s wife, Yulia Mikhailovna von Lembke, who believes that she can heroically redirect the passions of the youth to more socially beneficial, less radical, pursuits but only ends up enabling them to take over her literary fete to ridicule traditional society and distract the local worthies while agents set parts of the local town ablaze. Stepan Trofimovich, Yulia Mikhailovna, and others show that, despite the liberal generation’s supposed love for Russia, they were unable to brake the pendulum they sent swinging towards leftism.

The same pattern of liberals being ignored or discarded by the progressives they birthed can be seen in later years in Russia and other nations. While it would historically be two generations between Belinsky and Lenin (who was born within months of Dostoevsky’s starting to write The Devils), after the 1917 Revolution, Soviet Russia went through several cycles of executing or imprisoning previous generations who, despite supporting the Revolution, were unfortunately too close to the previous era to be trusted by new, socialistically purer generations.

In a more recent UK, Dostoevsky’s schema can also be seen in the Boomer-led Labour of the ‘90s and ‘00s UK paving the way for the radical, arguably anti-British progressivism of the 2010s and ‘20s (which, granted, sports its share of hip Boomers). In America, it can be seen in the soft divide in congressional Democrats between 20th-century liberals like Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer and “the squad” comprised of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and others who have actively tried (and arguably succeeded) in pushing the nation’s discourse in a left progressive direction.

2: Ideologies as active, distorting forces rather than merely passive beliefs.

“I’ve never understood anything about your theory…” Peter Stepanovich tells the serene Aleksei Nilych Kirillov later in the book, “I also know you haven’t swallowed the idea—the idea’s swallowed you…” The idea he is referring to is Kirillov’s belief that by committing suicide not from despair or passion but by rational, egotistic intention, he can rid mankind of the fear of death (personified in the figure of God) and become the Christ of the new utilitarian atheism (really, Dostoevsky intends us to understand, not without pity for Kirillov, an antichrist thereof). The topic of suicide—rising in Russia at the time of the book’s writing and a result, Dostoevsky believed, of the weakening of social institutions and national morality by the subversive nihilism then spreading—is a motif through the book. Countering Chernyshevsky’s romanticized revolutionary Rakhmetov from What is to Be Done?, Kirillov is Dostoevsky’s depiction of the atheist rational egotism of the time taken to its fullest psychological extent. Like others he had and would later write (Raskalnikov, Ivan Karamazov), Kirillov is driven mad by an idea that “swallows” him in monomania and which he has admitted to being obsessed with—the idea of a world without God.

Though Dostoevsky considered it the central issue of his day (which still torments Western culture), my focus here is not on Kirillov’s idea, itself, but on his relation to it. Countering the Western Enlightenment conceit that ideas are mere tools to be rationally picked up and put down at will, Dostoevsky shows through Kirillov that ideas and ideology (ideas put in the place of religion) are active things that can overwhelm both conscious and unconscious mind. Indeed, the novel’s title and Epigraph—the story of Legion and the swine from Luke 8—already suggests this; for Dostoevsky, there is little difference between the demons that possessed the pigs and the ideas that drive characters like Kirillov to madness.

Of course, a realist-materialist reading of Kirillov’s end (I won’t spoil it, though it arguably undercuts his serenity throughout the book) and the later Ivan Karamazov’s encounter with a personified devil would contend that there was nothing literally demonic to the manifestations, but for Dostoevsky that matters little; for him, whose focus is always on how the individual lives and experiences life, being possessed by an ideology one cannot let go of and being in the grasp of literal demons is nearly synonymous—indeed, the former may be the modern manifestation of the latter, with the same results. In his work, such things almost always accompany a lowering of one’s humanity into the beastial.

The problem with ideology, Dostoevsky had discovered in Siberia, was in their limited conception of man. By cutting off all upper transcendent values as either religious superstition or upper class decadence, the new utilitarian atheism had removed an essential part of what it meant to be human. At best, humans were animals and could hope for no more than thus, and all higher aspirations were to be lowered to achieving present social goals of food, housing, and sex—which Dostoevsky saw, themselves, as impossible to effectively achieve without the Orthodox Church’s prescriptions for how to deal with suffering and a belief in afterlife. Of the lack of higher impressions that give life meaning, Dostoevsky saw two possible results: ever-increasingly perverse acts of the flesh, and ever-increasingly solipsistic devotion to a cause—both being grounded in and expressions not of liberation or selflessness, but of the deepest egotism (which was a frankly stated element of the times’ ideologies).

From this view, Dostoevsky would have seen today’s growing efforts to legitimate into the mainstream things like polyamory, abortion, and public displays of sexuality and increasingly aggressive advocacy by groups like Extinction Rebellion or NOW (he predicted both movements in his other writing) as both being attempts to supply the same religious impulse—which, due to their being cut off by their premises from the transcendent metaphysic required by the human creature and supplied by Christianity, &c, is a doomed attempt.

3: Seemingly virtuous revolution motivated by and covering for private vices.

By the time he wrote The Devils Dostoevsky had seen both inside and outside of the radical movement; he had also depicted in Notes from Underground and Crime and Punishment characters who discover, to their angst and horror, that their actions were not motivated by humanitarianism, but by envy, cravenness, and the subsequent desire for self-aggrandizement. The Devils features the same depth of psychology beneath the main characters’ stated ideas and goals, and the book often shows how said ideas cannot work when applied to real people and real life.

As the chronicle unfolds, characters often speak of the petty vices that undermine the purity of the revolutionaries’ stated virtues and goals. “Why is it,” the narrator recounts Stepan Trofimovich once asking him, “all these desperate socialists and communists are also so incredibly miserly, acquisitive, and proprietorial? In fact, the more socialist someone is…the stronger his proprietorial instinct.” So much for those who seek to abolish property; one can guess to whom they wish to redistribute it! The revolutionary-turned-conservative Ivan Shatov later continues the motif, digging deeper into the radicals’ motives: “They’d be the first to be terribly unhappy if somehow Russia were suddenly transformed, even according to their own ideas, and if it were suddenly to become immeasurably rich and happy. Then they’d have no one to hate, no one to despise, no one to mock! It’s all an enormous, animal hatred for Russia that’s eaten into their system.”

Leftists might accuse Dostoevsky of merely wishing to make the radicals look bad with such an evaluation; however, as addressed by Joseph Frank in his chapter on the topic in Dostoevsky: The Miraculous Years, 1865-1871, the “bad for thee, fine for me” mentality of The Devils’s radicals (if their ideology doesn’t completely blind them to such inconsistency in the first place) was straight from the playbook of men like Nechaev: the Catechism of a Revolutionary. Far from trying to evade contradictory behavior, such a work, and other later analogues (Marcuse’s “Repressive Tolerance”; Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals) advocate being inconsistent and slippery with one’s principles for the sake of the revolution. Indeed, contradicting the rules one was trying to impose on others was and is seen not as an inconsistency but as a special privilege—of which several examples can be found, from upper party opulence in the USSR to modern champagne socialists who attend a $35,000-per-seat Met Gala while advocating taxing the rich.

4: Social chaos and purges as necessary and inevitable in achieving and maintaining utopia.

Perhaps the single most prophetic scene in The Devils occurs in the already mentioned chapter “‘Our Group’ Meets,” which depicts the various the local radicals meeting under cover of a birthday party. A cacophony of competing voices and priorities, the scene’s humorous mix of inept, self-serving idealists is made grotesque by the visions they advocate. Most elaborate of the speakers is Shigalyov, whose utopian scheme for the revolution was insightful enough that Boris Pasternak and Alexander Solzhenitsyn both referred to the Russian government’s post-October Revolution policies and methods as “Shigalevism.” 

While Shigalyov’s whole speech (and Peter Stepanovich’s commentary) is worth reading as a prophecy of what would happen less than fifty years after the book, here are some notable excerpts:

“Beginning with the idea of unlimited freedom, I end with unlimited despotism…One-tenth will receive personal freedom and unlimited power over the other nine-tenths. The latter must forfeit their individuality and become as it were a herd [through re-education of entire generations]; through boundless obedience, they will attain, by a series of rebirths, a state of primeval innocence, although they’ll still have to work…What I’m proposing is not disgusting; it’s paradise, paradise on earth—there can be none other on earth.”

A direct goal of the purges in Soviet Russia, and of the alienation of children from their parents, was to create a new, purely socialist generation unburdened by the prejudices of previous or outside systems.

“[We’ve] been urged to close ranks and even form groups for the sole purposed of bringing about total destruction, on the pretext that however much you try to cure the world, you won’t be able to do so entirely, but if you take radical steps and cut off one hundred million heads, thus easing the burden, it’ll be much easier to leap over the ditch. It’s a splendid idea…”

While hundred million murders may seem like hyperbole in the scene’s darkly comic context, in the end it was an accurate prediction of what communism would accomplish if put into systemic practice; however, we should also not miss the stated method of destabilizing society via conspiratorial groups aimed not at aid but at acceleration—a method used in early 20th-century Russia and employed by modern radical groups like Antifa.

“It would take at least fifty years, well, thirty, to complete such a slaughter—inasmuch as people aren’t sheep, you know, and they won’t submit willingly.”

Besides the time element, the identifying of the individual human’s desire for life and autonomy as a lamentable but surmountable impediment to revolution—rather than a damning judgment of the radicals’ inability to make any humanitarian claims—is chilling.

“[Shigalyov] has a system for spying. Every member of the society spies on every other one and is obliged to inform. Everyone belongs to all the others and the others belong to each one. They’re all slaves and equal in their slavery.”

A corrollary to the section above on freedom-through-slavery, this part accurately identifies the system of paranoid watchfulness in the first half of the USSR, as well as the system currently in place in the DPRK, among other places.

“The one thing the world needs is obedience. The desire for education is an aristocratic idea. As soon as a man experiences love or has a family, he wants private property. We’ll destroy that want: we’ll unleash drunkenness, slander, denunciantion; we’ll unleash unheard-of corruption… [Crime] is no longer insanity, but some kind of common sense, almost an obligation, at least a noble protest.”

Anti-traditional-family advocacy and the flipping of the criminal-innocent dichotomy as a means of destabilizing the status quo all took place in the early years of the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, they are all too familiar today in the West, whether we’re talking about the current argument in the US that children’s education belongs to the community (i.e. teachers, public unions, and the government) to the exclusion of parents, or the argument heard at several points in the 2020 that crimes and rioting committed during protests were an excusable, even “noble,” form of making one’s voice heard (while nicking a TV in the process!).

More recently and ongoing here in California (often uncannily parallel to the UK in certain policy impulses), our current District Attorney George Gascon, in an attempt to redefine the criminal-victim mentality in the state, has implemented policies that benefit criminals over victims by relaxing the definitions and sentences of certain crimes and refusing to try teenagers who commit felonies as adults (among other things); as many expected would happen, crime has risen in the state, with the Los Angeles PD recently advising residents to avoid wearing jewelry in public—which, to this resident, sounds oddly close to blaming the victim for wearing a short skirt by another name, and is certainly a symptom and example of anarcho-tyranny.

To nineteenth-century readers not as versed as Dostoevsky in the literature and ideas behind the Nechaev affair (which was publicly seen as merely a murder among friends, without the ideological significance Dostoevsky gave it), this section of The Devils would have seemed a comic exaggeration. However, to post-20th-century readers it stands, like a clarion pointing forward to the events later confirmed by Solzhenitsyn, as a dire warning not to forget the truth in the satire and not to dismiss the foolishly hyperbolic as impotent. Even in isolated forms, the ideas promoted by Shigalyev are real, and when applied they have been, as Dostoevsky predicted, disastrous.

5: Socialism not as humanitarian reason, but as religious poetry; revolution as primarily aesthetic, not economic.

An amalgam of, among other members of the 1840s generation, the father of Russian socialism Alexander Herzen, Stepan Trofimovich is, by the time of the 1860s setting of The Devils, an inveterate poet. This reflects Dostoevsky’s evaluation of his old theorist friend, whom he nonetheless cites as the enabler of men like the nihilist terrorist Nechaev, despite Herzen’s claims that the terrorist had bastardized his ideas (see truth number 1, above).

The brilliantly mixed critique of and homage to Dostoevsky’s own generation that is Stepan Trofimovich presents one of the book’s main motifs about the nihilist generation: that they are not pursuing a philosophically rational system of humanitarian goals, but a romantically poetic pseudo-religion. “They’re all bewitched,” cries Stepan Trofimovich about his son, “not by realism, but by the emotional and idealistic aspects of socialism, so to speak, by its religious overtones, its poetry.” Later, at the aforementioned pivotal meeting scene, Peter Stepanovich shows he is completely conscious of this fact—and willing to use it to his advantage. “What’s happening here is the replacement of the old religion by a new one; that’s why so many soldiers are needed—it’s a large undertaking.” In the next scene, Peter Stepanovich reveals to Stavrogin his desire to use the enchanting nobleman as a figurehead for revolution among the peasantry, intending to call him Ivan the Tsarevich to play off of the Russian folk legend of a messianic Tsar in hiding who will rise to take the throne from the “false” reigning Tsar and right all the world’s wrongs with his combined religious and political power.

Peter Stepanovich, himself, is too frank a nihilist to believe in such narratives; focused as he is on first destroying everything rather than wasting time pontificating about what to do afterwards, he even treats Shigalyov’s utopian visions with contempt. However, the rest of the radicals in the book are not so clear-sighted about the nature of their beliefs. Multiple times in the book, susceptibility to radical socialism is said to inhere not in reason but in sentimentality; showing Dostoevsky’s moderation even on a topic of which he was so passionately against, this critique often focuses on younger men and women’s genuine desire to good—which ironically makes them, like the naive and forthright Ensign Erkel, susceptible to committing the worst crimes with a straight, morally self-confident face.

It is this susceptibility to the art of revolution that causes Peter Stepanovich to be so sanguine about others’ romanticism, despite its falling short of his own nihilism. His intention to use others’ art for his own advantage can be seen most clearly in his hijacking of Yulia Mikhailovna’s  literary fete to use it, through his cronies, as a screed against the social order and to mock artistic tradition. His doing so is just a follow-through of an earlier statement to Stavrogin that “Those with higher abilities…have always done more harm than good; they’ll either be banished or executed. Cicero’s tongue will be cut out, Copernicus’s eyes will be gouged out, Shakespeare will be stoned…it’s a fine idea to level mountains—there’s nothing ridiculous in that…we’ll suffocate every genius in its infancy.”

Against his son’s leveling of mountains, Stepan Trofimovich, to his infinite credit and speaking with his author’s mouth, declares, with the lone voice of tradition amidst the climactic fete, that “Shakespeare and Raphael are more important than the emancipation of the serfs…than nationalism…than socialism…than the younger generation…than chemistry, almost more important than humanity, because they are the fruit, the genuine fruit of humanity, and perhaps the most important fruit there is!” In this contrast between the Verkhovenskys, it is not different views on economics but on art—on Shakespeare, among others—that that lie at the heart of revolution, with the revolutionaries opposing the English Poet more viscerally than any other figure. This reflects Dostoevsky’s understanding that the monumental cultural shift of the 1800s was not primarily scientific but aesthetic (a topic too large to address here). Suffice it to say, the central conflict of The Devils is not between capitalists and socialists (the book rarely touches on economic issues, apart from their being used as propaganda—that is, aesthetically), nor between Orthodox and atheists (though Dostoevsky certainly saw that as the fundamental alternative at play), but between the 1840s late Romantics and the new Naturalist-Realists.

The prophetic nature of this aesthetic aspect of The Devils has many later confirmations, such as the 20th century’s growth of state propaganda, especially in socialistic states like Nazi Germany or the USSR, though also in the West (Western postmodernism would eventually make all art as interpretable as propaganda). Furthermore, the Stalinist cult of personality seems a direct carry over of Peter Stepanovich’s intended desire to form just such a pseudo-religious cult out of Nikolai Vsevolodovich.

Having written a novel on the threat posed to Shakespeare by the newest generation of the radical left (before reading of Verkhovensky’s desire to stone Shakespeare—imagine my surprise to find that Dostoevsky had called even the events in my own novel!), I hold this particular topic close to my heart. Indeed, I believe we are still in the Romantic-Realist crossroads, and in dire need of backtracking to take the other path that would prefer, to paraphrase Stepan Trofimovich, the beautiful and ennobling Shakespeare and Raphael over the socially useful pair of boots and petroleum. Like Stepan Trofimovich, I believe comforts and technical advancements like the latter could not have come about were it not for the culture of the former—and that they would lose their value were their relative importance confused to the detriment of that which is higher.


There are, of course, many other truths in The Devils that have borne out (the infighting of radical advocacy groups competing for prominence, radicalism as a result of upper-class boredom and idleness, revolution’s being effected not by a majority but a loud minority willing to transgress, self-important administrators and bureaucrats as enablers and legitimators of radicals…). While the increasingly chaotic narrative (meant to mimic the setting’s growing unrest) is not Dostoevsky’s most approachable work, The Devils is certainly one of his best, and it fulfills his intended purpose of showing, like Tolstoy had done a few years before in War and Peace, a full picture of Russian society.

However, while Tolstoy’s work looked backward to a Russia that, from Dostoevsky’s view, had been played out, The Devils was written to look forward, and, more often for ill than good, it has been right in its predictions. Not for nothing did Albert Camus, who would later adapt The Devils for the stage, say on hearing about the Stalinist purges in Soviet Russia that “The real 19th-century prophet was Dostoevsky, not Karl Marx.”


Dostoevsky: The Miraculous Years, 1865-1871 by Joseph Frank—Goodreads Book Review

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The fourth of Joseph Frank’s five-volume literary biography on Dostoevsky, The Miraculous Years covers the time from just after the failure of the writer’s second literary journal, Epoch, (and the financial burdens that failure would incur), through his meeting and marrying his second wife Anna, their exile abroad to avoid debt creditors, and the author’s return to Russia four years later. The works covered, with both context and analysis by Frank, include Crime and Punishment, The Gambler, The Idiot, The Eternal Husband, and The Devils; Dostoevsky’s writing so prolifically, and under such stress as is elaborated in the book, makes the choice of title obvious.

Because the biography’s later volumes deal with Dostoevsky’s heavier masterpieces, and because the book almost immediately approaches Crime and Punishment with the depth of analysis for which, in previous volumes, readers had to wait until the end, The Miraculous Years is, from a literary criticism standpoint, the densest volume so far. With his usual ability to present great literature in generally manageable terms, Frank provides many details of the circumstances and behind the major novels covered (which, often due to writing deadlines and sometimes censorship, Dostoevsky was not always able to lift up to his own standards of expression). While the intervening details of Dostoevsky’s life are, as always, essential (his courting of the heroic Anna is a delight to read, and the context for his famous feud with Turgenev, the Dostoevskys’ travels in Europe, and the explanation of sources behind The Devils are all excellent), the readings of the novels and novellas are in-depth and comprehensive.

While at times Frank’s historicist interpretation tries, in my opinion, to link the books too exclusively to events and literature (essays, letters, etc) contemporaneous to the times, the readings give a solid basis for reading the books in context, and Frank’s explanation of the overall structures (and Dostoevsky’s stated but rarely fulfilled intents therefore) of the books provide an enlightening foundation from which to understand the works. It would have taken several rereads of the works for me to recognize the schema Frank points out in approachable prose. For those most interested in better understanding Dostoevsky’s great works, this volume is worth waiting for (or skipping to).

Dostoevsky: The Stir of Liberation, 1860-1865 by Joseph Frank – Goodreads Book Review

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“[E]verything takes refuge in the flesh, everything is thrown into fleshly debauchery, and, to supply the lack of higher spiritual impressions, the nerves and the body are goaded with everything capable of arousing the sensibility. The most monstrous perversions, the most abnormal acts, little by little become customary.”

Thus Joseph Frank recounts Feodor Dostoevsky’s foresight of what life will become if the radical socialists’ materialist worldview were to be adopted across Russia and Europe. Beginning at Dostoevsky’s return to St. Petersburg after a ten-year exile in Siberia and Semipalatinsk and running until his brother Mikhael’s death and the failure of their second journal, Epoch, The Stir of Liberation focuses less on the events of the Russian author’s life than the previous two volumes of Joseph Frank’s biography on the author. Instead, it follows the journalistic and ideological bouts that formed the core of what would guide Dostoevsky’s later masterpieces.

After recounting the circumstances of Dostoevsky’s return, Frank explores the brothers Dostoevskys’ first literary journal, Time, as well as the values underlying it. While his time in prison had shown Dostoevsky the incompleteness and foolhardiness of utopian socialism, the author still sympathized with the stated goals of the radicals of mid-century Russia. The journal’s alternative method for helping the Russian peasantry raise their standard of living — pochvennichestvo, a broad plan to educate the lower classes by an educated upper class through authentically Russian art and literature — is a major theme in the book, as is Dostoevsky’s initial impulse to conciliate between the other, alternatively more radical and conservative, journals of the time. Subsequently, in this volume readers will find a more theoretical explanation and exposition of Dostoevsky’s view of art, as well as the view of the radical socialists, foremost among whom was Chernyshevsky, introduced in the biography’s second volume. The ideological back-and-forths between the journals — both Time and, after its bungling censorship, Epoch — constitute much of this volume (this may or may not appeal to readers; I found it engaging and, under Frank’s pen, understandable).

Along with recounting the adventures of the Dostoevskys’ journals, Frank follows the key events in Dostoevsky’s life that accompanied and gave him fodder for his pieces, such as his first trip to Europe (which does not line up with his/Russia’s expectations), his affair and travels with the student Apollinaria Suslova, the long-expected death of his wife, and the sudden and completely unexpected (to him) death of his brother. Out of these events Frank explains such works as Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, The Gambler, and, in an explicatory chapter that, alone, makes the volume worth reading, Notes from Underground.

Frank’s long focus on this last work is outstanding — unsurprising, considering its being Dostoevsky’s first GREAT work in his later apocalyptic themes. Giving background sources and influential interpretations since the work’s publication, Frank couches Dostoevsky’s satirizing the socialist-materialist of Chernyshevsky’s What is to be Done? (the polemic that inspired many in Russia to become radicals, and V. I. Lenin’s favorite book) in the underground man’s inability to live out his grandiose creed. Covering each section of the work, Frank presents a unified reading that elucidates Dostoevsky’s most obscure book, placing it squarely within the arguments of its day while showing how it relates to the author’s later timeless novels.

While others might not enjoy this volume as much as the more event-based volumes of the biography. I found it to be the most engaging yet. The Stir of Liberation shows the processes by which Dostoevsky hashed out his worldview and applied it to the Russia of his day, and it shows Dostoevsky in the years when he took the lessons and experiences he had in Siberia and articulated them into full literary understanding. Fans of literary theory and philosophy of art — not to mention political theory — will have much to enjoy in this volume.

Uncle’s Dream by Feodor Dostoevsky—Goodreads Book Review

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“This was what distinguished Maria Alexandrovna from her rivals: at critical moments she never allowed any concern about a possible scandal to prevent her from doing something, on the principle that success justifies everything.”

Dostoevsky’s first work after leaving Siberia for his participation in an illegal socialist printing scheme, Uncle’s Dream follows the attempts by provincial antiheroine Maria Alexandrovna to secure a marriage for her daughter, Zinaida Afanasyevna, to a local aged prince. Drawing on Dostoevsky’s new experience of the provincial life in Semipalatinsk, whence he had been stationed for four years’ military service after leaving the labor camp, Uncle’s Dream provides lighter fare that the author hoped would not run afoul of government censors. The result is a rare glimpse at Dostoevsky the comedian and a work that introduces several things that would become staples of the author’s later work.

From the first page we meet the unnamed omniscient gossip narrator (a type he would later use in Demons and The Brothers Karamazov), whose presentation of events and mixed prescience and lack of self-awarness create a consistently earnest yet ironic tone. Consistently descrying the perniciousness of gossip and rumor in in the intimate terms of gossip and rumor that draw the reader in while maintaining the implicit compliment of dramatic irony, the narrator confesses a soft spot for his protagonist, Maria Alexandrovna, who is herself so adept at gossip and rumor that she exerts an implicitly threatening influence in her community. Indeed, though she is at best of the middling class, Maria Alexandrovna stands as a kind of Napoleon figure in the book, willing to dispense with good form and respect if it means achieving her ends.

This is made clear through the motif of Shakespeare—who, ironically, is brought up by Maria Alexandrovna more than any character in the book. She consistently references doing away with Shakespeare, whom she implicitly blames for her daughter’s romance with her brother’s tutor (a possible lampooning of Heloise and Abelard, with the roles reversed?). Shakespeare becomes a touchstone for how Maria Alexandrovna sees Romanticism, at large; thus Uncle’s Dream shows, if ironically, Dostoevsky’s considering the liabilities of that literary movement, as well as the possible character and motives of some who might want to leave it in the past. And yet, despite Maria Alexandrovna’s supposed desire for Realism, she is consistently shown as the character most adept at weaving Romantic perspectives and dreams to cajole others into doing what she wants.

This is the core conflict of the book: Maria Alexandrovna tries to manipulate others—highest of which being a humorously decrepit prince—to achieve her ambitions, and in so doing she must maintain the balance between her own capacity to deter threat via rumor and her own growing vulnerability to it. The results are hysterical, and Dostoevsky’s exploration of the psychologies involved—not just that of the provincial gossip, the ambitious herridan, or the decrepit prince, but also of the resentful daughter, the foolish suitor, and the hapless husband—underlays the comedy with that which, in my opinion, is best in Dostoevsky.

I’ve previously recommended that people new to Dostoevsky start with Crime and Punishment, but now I might recommend Uncle’s Dream. There’s hardly a page where he isn’t making fun of somebody, including his own narrator, and what the book lacks in philosophical musings by the characters it makes up for in sharp psychological explorations of those who, with almost Austenian irony and despite their banal setting, reveal some of the 19th century’s central questions and conflicts of values.

The Landlady By Feodor Dostoevsky—Goodreads Book Review

Originally posted at

Dostoevsky’s first focused study into the character type of the dreamer, The Landlady follows Vasily Ordynov, an denizen of St. Petersburg whose search for a new apartment and his desire for love find their object in Katerina, landlady and wife to the domineering mystic, Ilia Murin.

Like several of Dostoevsky’s pre- and post-Siberia characters whose inner lives take over and sabotage their real experience, Ordynov is a weakling who nonetheless (or therefore) possesses the tendency to extremize his interpretation of the world in ways that allow Dostoevsky to use the language of the steadily passing Romanticism in a growing Realist context. Thus, though set in mid-19th century Petersburg, the novella features the enigmatic Murin, who, due to both scenes where he obviously controls his co-dependent ward/wife Katerina, as well as scenes where he presents himself as little more than a humble, if much misunderstood, peasant, may or may not be a manipulative old sorcerer.

I enjoyed The Landlady, especially when read among Dostoevsky’s other pre-Siberian works. At times engaging and pathetic, the work shows Dostoevsky exploiting the mid-19th-century move from Romanticism to Realism (not to mention the cultural attempts to move from Old Russian mysticism to a European-influenced enlightenment) in a way that redirects the Romantic forms and tropes into a new, ironic direction. Though it lacks much of his post-Siberia surety and forcefulness, The Landlady also foreshadows many other figures and themes in Dostoevsky’s later works, from Raskalnikov to the Grand Inquisitor.

An approachable and engaging read, and, though unique in its content, indicative of many topics and tropes found in Dostoevsky’s work.

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

Dostoevsky, 19th-Century Socialism, and the 21st Century: Part 1

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 DevilsThe 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.


  1. Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Seeds of Revolt, 1821-1849, pg. 85
  2. Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Seeds of Revolt, 1821-1849, pg. 88
  3. Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859, pg. 88
  4. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. “Chapter II: First Impressions (1).” The House of the Dead
  5. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. “Chapter VI: The First Month (2).” The House of the Dead
  6. Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859, pg. 93
  7. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. “Chapter I: The House of the Dead.” The House of the Dead
  8. Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859, pg. 97
  9. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. “Chapter I: The House of the Dead.” The House of the Dead
  10. Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859, pg. 156
  11. Quoted in Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859, pg. 22
  12. Quoted in Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859, pg. 18
  13. Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859, pg. 19
  14. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. “Chapter IX: An Escape.”The House of the Dead
  15. Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859, pg. 114

The Insulted and Injured by Fyodor Dostoevsky—Goodreads Book Review

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Dostoevsky’s first full novel after his release from the Siberian labor camp and his subsequent attempts to reenter the Russian literary scene, The Insulted and Injured incorporates many of the motifs and tropes popular in the roman-feuilltons of the time. Think Dickens at his most heartstrings-pullingly sympathetic, pathetic, and bathetic; often I found myself remembering Nicholas Nickelby, among others, though often without Dickens’s ironic humor.

A romantic narrator willing to sacrifice himself and his love for a young woman (Natasha), who, herself, is in love with another man (see Dostoevksy’s pre-Siberian “White Nights,” among others, for a similar love triangle plot), a poor gentry father who has cut off his daughter for indecently eloping with a neighboring aristocrat, that aristocrat’s princely father cravenly aiming, from his position of power and wealth, to ruin the honest and innocent around him, and a little girl of unknown heritage brought up in penury—Dostoevsky incorporates all these elements into the novel. With all this, the novel distills the popular trends of the time into a set of dual plotlines—the marriage quadrangle between the narrator, Natasha, the aristocrat Alyosha, and his intended Katerina, and the parentage plot of thirteen-year-old Nellie Smith—that, it is discovered by the end of the novel, are connected in more ways than merely through the narrator.

Rather than being a mere pastiche of the literary trends of the 1860s (which, certainly, it is, though it nonetheless held the attention of its dismissive public to the last installment), The Insulted and Injured shows Dostoevsky growing and experimenting with novelistic elements in ways that presage his later works. One can find in the book embryonic versions of later characters and situations, as well as maturation of previous ones. While it lacks the prescience and depth of Dostoevsky’s later works (he himself said there were only 50 pages in the novel of which he was proud), the novel nonetheless serves as an informative example of the author’s transition into those works. It also serves to show his tackling of the contemporary issue of women’s liberation, especially through the character of Natasha, who is disowned by her father for exercising what relationship autonomy she can; that issue, of course, would be further explored and addressed by Dostoevsky in his later works, form Notes from Underground to The Brothers Karamazov.

While The Insulted and Injured may serve as a good introduction for those coming to him from Dickens, etc, it is not Dostoevsky’s most Dostoevskian work, and one should not approach it expecting similar exploration of psychology, philosophy (there’s a bit of both, but not much), crime, politics, or other major elements that characterize the author’s most-known masterpieces.

Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859 by Joseph Frank—Goodreads Book Review

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The second in Joseph Frank’s biography on Dostoevsky, The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859 picks up where The Seeds of Revolt leaves off. After being arrested for his participation in a printing scheme whose socialist literature was judged seditious by Tsarist censors, Dostoevsky waits in prison for his summary execution. However, in a staged act of magnanimity, the Tsar pardons Dostoevsky et al. at the last moment, sending them instead to different Siberian prison camps.

Dostoevsky’s experiences and revelations in his four-year term in Siberia and his subsequent service in the military following it are the focus of The Years of Ordeal. In prison the still young (late twenties) Dostoevsky meets many peasant convicts, who he learns are nothing like what he and other upper-class intelligentsia assumed, neither needing nor wanting liberation by the Western liberal elite. In his process of discovering the psychology of those around him, Dostoevsky discovers that such things as private property, clear social hierarchy, and the moral metaphysics established by Russian Orthodox Christianity are serious needs that make the peasant convicts stronger, more resilient, and more at peace than those in his own class. Throughout the book, and pointing forward to works like Crime and Punishment and The Devils, Frank tracks Dostoevsky’s growing realization of the revolutionary socialist perspective as both naive and self-destructive.

Following Dostoevsky’s time in prison, Frank depicts the man’s attempts to reestablish himself on the literary scene while fulfilling his obligations as a soldier in the provincial town of Semipalatinsk. Bringing in writing from the time and more recent diagnoses, Frank also examines Dostoevsky’s nascent epilepsy, which runs parallel to the writer’s relationship with his first wife, Marya Dimitrievna. Married to a drunk when Dostoevsky first meets her, Dimitrievna consumes the man and establishes many identifiable themes for in his later female characters.

As in The Seeds of Revolt, Frank follows the biographical chapters with an examination of Dostoevsky’s literature during the respective years. Articulating how the literary scene (often the only place to avoid censors and discuss politics in Tsarist Russia) had developed since Dostevsky’s arrest, Frank describes the ascent of men such as Alexander Herzen, who now occupied the place in Russian culture previously held by Vissarion Belinsky, and seminarian socialist N. G. Chernyshevsky. Dostoevsky finds that the upper class values and self-doubt he previously depicted and lampooned in The Double and other works now under full attack, with a growing divide between “weak” upper class deference to tradition and “strong” willfulness to disregard it. Into this divide (which places the previously gauche Dostoevsky among such writers as Turgenev and Tolstoy, who welcome him) Dostoevsky brings his recent prison realizations about human psychology and ideology, and one can see the development of such ideas as would inform his later works.

Frank ends the book with an examination of Dostoevsky’s writing during the time, namely Uncle’s Dream and The Village of Stepanchikovo. (Because Dostoevsky would not write The House of the Dead until later years, Frank defers examining it, though he has quoted passages throughout to inform the reading of Dostevsky’s prison years.) Summarizing the books, Frank articulates how Dostoevsky’s ideas and themes have grown since Poor Folk and The Double, and he shows how time in prison has tested and nuanced Dostoevsky’s relationship with Romanticism and Naturalism (a major theme in The Seeds of Revolt), consistently hinting forward to Dostoevsky’s larger works.

Covering what Frank argues is the most formative decade of Dostoevsky’s life, The Years of Ordeal provides a fascinating look at not only how Dostoevsky became the writer he did, but also how Russia changed during these years. The work, thus, provides invaluable insight on the cultural, ideological, and political changes that would foreground Dostoevsky’s later masterpieces, as well as the later revolutions in later 19th and early 20th century Russia.

Dostoevsky: The Seeds of Revolt, 1821-1849 by Joseph Frank—Goodreads Book Review

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Not for the faint of heart, Joseph Frank’s series on Dostoevsky reverses the “examine the work to understand the man” approach to biography and instead examines themes in Dostoevsky’s life that might inform our understanding of his work.

The first of Frank’s five-volume biography, The Seeds of Revolt examines elements of Dostoevsky’s childhood, family, early religious life, and initial presence in the literary scene of 19th-century St. Petersburg to inform his earliest works, such as Poor Folk, The Double, The Landlady, White Nights, and others. Leading up to Dostoevsky’s 1849 arrest, Frank identifies the cultural and political conflicts in Russian society at the time—among which are the move in Russian interests from German Romanticism to French Naturalism and the question of whether reform (specifically, the end of serfdom) should come from the Tsar or from the people.

Amidst these conflicts, a young Fyodor Dostoevsky developed his own ideas of Naturalistic social consciousness while maintaining (often to his social detriment) a conviction that Romanticism was not completely meritless. Recounting Dostoevsky’s moves between different social and literary circles, Frank deftly shows how he eventually embroiled himself in a plot to print subversive materials advocating that the liberation of the serfs should come from below. While presenting Dostoevsky honestly as a revolutionary, Frank never removes his eye from the implicit, abstract themes in the man’s work that show his psychological and literary progression as more than those of a simple social radical.

Despite the work’s length and weight of subject, Frank’s prose is eminently readable and his organization compelling. Prefacing Dostoevsky’s St. Petersburg life (the bulk of the book) with chapters about his childhood and then ending the book with a focused look at the early works he has mentioned throughout, Joseph Frank offers a biography that does not read as a simply chronological biography, and he provides a context and jumping-off point that can easily prompt one to read not only Dostoevsky’s early work but also the next volume of the biography.