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Dostoevsky at 200: An Idea of Evil

Radical yet reactionary, the Russian literary giant remains a bundle of paradoxes.
December 31, 2021
Dostoevsky at 200: An Idea of Evil
Subway passengers walk at the Dostoyevskaya metro station in Moscow, on November 15, 2012. A portrait of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, one of the highly regarded Russian writers, is seen in the background. AFP PHOTO / KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV (Photo credit should read KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images)

The life of Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, the towering cultural icon whose two hundredth anniversary was among the past year’s great literary events, would itself have made a remarkable novel—or film, since its pivotal moment was a harrowingly cinematic scene. On December 23, 1849, shortly after his twenty-eighth birthday, the former military engineer was taken to what he believed would be his execution, with twenty other men condemned as dangerous subversives for membership in a clandestine literary circle that trafficked in banned books. The sentence was read out loud, the first three victims were tied to posts before a firing squad, the soldiers took aim; then, drums signaled a retreat and a messenger from Tsar Nicholas I announced a pardon and commutation to hard labor in Siberia. This was not, as some accounts have erroneously said, a last-minute change of heart by the tsar but a pre-planned sadistic charade.

In the remaining three decades of his life, Dostoevsky spent four years in a penal colony (reduced from the original eight-year sentence); had a stormy marriage and an even more tumultuous love affair before finding happiness and stability with his second wife, Anna; overcame a gambling addition that at one point reduced him and Anna to penury; fathered four children and was devastated by the deaths of two of them at a young age; struggled for years to establish himself as a writer and journalist; and finally achieved fame that brought more than 60,000 mourners to his funeral when he died at 59 of a pulmonary hemorrhage on February 9, 1881.

Almost by definition, a great writer is a creature of paradox, containing (as Walt Whitman said) multitudes. Dostoevsky was a bold thinker with radical visions of freedom and justice, and a reactionary defender of the established order; a prophet of human universalism and a militant ultranationalist; a passionate champion of all-encompassing Christian love and the author of shocking passages filled with ethnic and religious bigotry. A Slavophile (or quasi-Slavophile) for whom Russianness was the core of all goodness, he also believed that Russia’s special mission to the world was to be the bringer of universal brotherhood. He scorned the West for its rationalism and materialism, yet was deeply influenced by Western literature, from late eighteenth-century Gothic novelist Ann Radcliffe to Honoré de Balzac and Charles Dickens. Indeed, Vladimir Nabokov (not a fan, to put it mildly) suggested that Dostoevsky was “the most European of the Russian writers.” He had, in turn, an immense influence on Western literature and culture; among other things, he has been described as a forerunner of psychoanalysis, existentialism, expressionism and surrealism. Figures as diverse as Sigmund Freud, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Ayn Rand admired his genius while vehemently rejecting his beliefs, and even detractors such as Nabokov could not quite escape his magnetism.

Dostoevsky first found literary success with his debut, the 1846 novella Poor Folk, a moving tale of the struggles of a kind, sensitive, shy, middle-aged clerk and an impoverished young woman of genteel background making a living as a seamstress. By the time of his arrest in 1849, he had published two more novellas and several installments of a novel, Netochka Nezvanova (which remained unfinished). But his titanic stature rests on four novels written after his 1855 return from the penal colony: Crime and Punishment (1866), The Idiot (1868-1869), The Demons, a.k.a. The Possessed (1872), and The Brothers Karamazov (1880); one could also add to this list the 1864 proto-existentialist novella Notes from the Underground.

In the 2004 book How Russia Shaped the Modern World, Clemson University historian Steven G. Marks describes Dostoevsky’s contribution as “messianic irrationalism.” Obviously, literature had dealt with the irrational before Dostoevsky, but he delves into the subterranean elements of the human psyche with a new, terrifying and riveting intensity, exploring obsession, guilt, self-loathing, love/hate attachments, paranoia, and self-destructiveness. The “man from the underground” rejects rationality as a matter of principle, rebelling against the necessity of accepting that 2+2=4. In The Demons, the brilliant and tormented Nikolai Stavrogin, a sort of Byronic antihero on speed, does terrible things (among them, as revealed in an initially censored chapter, the rape of a child) in a desperate challenge to God and to his own conscience, as well as an attempt to fill his inner emptiness. The most famous Dostoevsky protagonist, Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, sets out to kill an old pawnbroker to validate his theory that a superior individual can sacrifice others to his goals unbound by guilt or morality, then spends the rest of the story in a feverish struggle with the burden of his act.

Artist’s depiction of the “mock execution” by firing squad of Dostoevsky and the other members of his literary organization in 1849.

In all these works, the line between irrationality and insanity is thin and often blurred. (Interestingly, Dostoevsky explicitly disavows such an interpretation in Stavrogin’s case—the novel’s final line states that after his suicide, the medics at the inquest “categorically and adamantly ruled out insanity”—but the reader may beg to differ.) The French writer and critic Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé, one of Dostoevsky’s biggest champions in Europe in the late nineteenth century, nonetheless dubbed him the “Shakespeare of the lunatic asylum” and noted that every one of his characters was a potential case for the neurologist Jean Charcot. Nabokov was much more scathing; in his Dostoevsky segment of Lectures on Russian Literature, he scoffs that one can hardly speak of “realism” or “human experience” when discussing “an author whose gallery of characters consists almost exclusively of neurotics and lunatics.”

Of course, the same charge could be leveled at Nabokov’s own most notable characters, including Lolita’s Humbert Humbert and Pale Fire’s Kinbote. (As Boston University Russian scholar Katherine Tiernan O’Connor has argued, Dostoevsky’s “ghostly shadow” is in fact nearly ubiquitous in Nabokov’s work, and Lolita may be seen as a response to the child rape themes in The Demons and Crime and Punishment—an influence that attests to Dostoevsky’s cultural power.)

Nonetheless, the criticism has some validity; rereading Dostoevsky’s principal novels recently, I felt that, with the exception of Crime and Punishment, the crazy quotient often reached overload. At one point in The Brothers Karamazov, after youngest brother Alyosha is bitten on the finger by a nine-year-old boy seeking to avenge his father’s humiliation by Alyosha’s brother Dmitry, the comical rich widow Madame Khokhlakov anxiously suggests that “the boy could have been rabid” and is mocked by her daughter Lisa, who points out that there’s no such thing as rabid boys; but one might counter that the entire novel is populated by rabid men, women, and children. Shouting seems to be nearly everyone’s default mode; every conversation threatens to erupt into a row; during Dmitry’s murder trial, several witnesses collapse in a nervous breakdown while testifying, and both prosecutor and defense attorney seem on the verge of the same. By the time one gets to the closing chapter describing the funeral of Ilyusha Snegirev, the boy who bit (and later befriended) Alyosha—and who has died of tuberculosis—the wrenching scene of the grief-crazed parents mourning their child may lose some of its impact after 800 pages of near-constant frenzy.

One may list other flaws which infuriated Nabokov and were noted even by many Dostoevsky admirers, from lapses into melodrama to notoriously clunky prose (no, it isn’t just the English translation) and the utter lack of the rich sensory texture one finds in Tolstoy or Chekhov. The physical in Dostoevsky has a certain abstraction, which also accounts for the odd sexlessness of his characters’ sexual lives—be it Stavrogin’s womanizing, the Karamazov romantic obsessions and rivalries, or Sonya’s prostitution in Crime and Punishment. (The few exceptions, such as the repulsive omnivorous sensuality of Fyodor Karamazov, the father, evoke disgust rather than eroticism.)

And yet somehow, it all works. The melodrama transcends itself through its very excess, aided by Dostoevsky’s keen sense of the ridiculous; he is an unsurpassed master of interweaving drama with humor that ranges from warm to very dark to savagely satirical. The roughness of the prose adds both to the frenetic pace of the storytelling and to the sense of a world out of joint. The unrealistic reflects an intensely human reality, with the intensity turned up to the maximum and beyond; the ugly and grotesque is amplified (see Karamazov père, or his wily and sadistic illegitimate son the lackey Smerdyakov, or the crass and pompous Captain Lebyadkin in The Demons), and yet the beauty and goodness shines through. The stripped-down texture evokes a minimalist—and riveting—theatrical production in which cataclysmic clashes play out on a nearly bare stage. What French translator and critic Céleste Courrière wrote in 1875, in Dostoevsky’s lifetime, still holds:

From the very first page, you feel yourself snatched up by an invisible power and set down in a strange and unreal world. All your ideas are turned upside down. You barely have time to ask yourself where you are being hurried off to. The further you go, the more this nightmare weighs on you. You read on and on, panting, aghast, unable to analyze or reflect on your impressions, to such a degree this monstrous, extravagant world grips you and holds you fast.

This grip is not just the result of masterful plotting which has elements of the crime thriller, but of the Dostoevskian world itself. The Brothers Karamazov may on some level be a whodunit, but long before we get to the murder, the story pulls us in with the chronicle of the “nice little family.” Nor does the riveting effect dissipate (as Nabokov claims in his attempted Dostoevsky takedown) once the reader knows all the twists and turns of the plot. The exchanges between Raskolnikov and Porfiry Petrovich, the investigator trying to coax him not only into confession but into moral awakening, remain gripping on multiple rereads; the terse account of the discovery of Stavrogin’s suicide by his mother and a woman who had hoped to “save” him still shocks; Ivan Karamazov’s conversations with the vile Smerdyakov, whom he correctly suspects of being their father’s murderer, are still taut with tension and malevolence.

What’s more, one of Dostoevsky’s literary triumphs is that he manages to make ideas gripping. In Crime and Punishment, the focus of suspense is at least as much on Raskolnikov grappling with challenges to his theory, which separates superior individuals from “trembling creatures,” as on whether he will get caught. In The Brothers Karamazov, the debates about faith, freedom, human suffering, the moral balance of the universe, and whether “everything is permitted” in the absence of God are as fascinating as the family drama and the murder mystery (with which these debates are deeply intertwined). The conversation between the devout Christian Alyosha and the skeptic Ivan about God, suffering, freedom and evil—which includes the justly famous “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor,” Ivan’s tale about a medieval Spanish cardinal who witnesses the return of Jesus and promptly throws him in the dungeon—may well be the pinnacle of philosophical literature.

The ideas have also made Dostoevsky perennially controversial. A socialist early in his career, he came out of the penal colony a conservative Christian. The Demons, his most political work—conceived as a “pamphlet-novel” and fictionalizing an actual incident in which a man who tried to leave an underground revolutionary group was murdered by his former comrades—has been rightly hailed as a brilliant, terrifyingly prophetic portrayal of Russian revolutionary radicalism. (In their new book Minds Wide Shut: How the New Fundamentalisms Divide Us, Northwestern University scholars Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro write that The Demons was “the only nineteenth-century work to have foreseen what we have come to call ‘totalitarianism.’”) Yet the book’s targets also include pro-Western liberals, depicted as well-meaning but foolish accomplices to the radical destroyers. Shatov, the doomed ex-revolutionary who sees the light, is often assumed to channel the author’s own views in a speech articulating a militant religious nationalism: Society can only be founded on faith, with reason and science relegated to a subordinate role; national identity is irrevocably connected to nation’s “own special God,” and a nation can be great only “for as long as it believes that it will prevail with its God and banish all the other gods from the world”; in the end there is only one true God, and the Russian people is the only “God-bearing people.”

It’s not entirely clear, in fact, that Shatov is fully a vehicle for Dostoevsky himself. (Right after the reference to the “God-bearing people,” he breaks off and declares that he knows his words could be either “old, worn-out rubbish, grist for every Slavophile mill in Moscow, or a completely new word, the last word, the only word of resurrection and renewal”; it is also worth noting that his religious-nationalist zeal has been instigated by Stavrogin in a deliberate experiment.) But there is little question that Dostoevsky saw Russia as having a special mission—though, unlike “true” Slavophiles, he believed it should incorporate Western cultural influences—and that Christianity, for him, was at the heart of this mission. To Dostoevsky, the West was mired in godless liberalism and materialism, and it was Russia’s role to save it by bringing it back to spirit of Christ.

This message may seem especially relevant today when the revolt against liberalism, from both the left and the right, is an increasingly popular stance in the West itself while nationalism and populism are ascendant. Dostoevsky’s critique of Western secularism and consumerism, and what Shatov calls “half-science,” “humanity’s most terrible scourge”—probably something akin to what we now call “scientism”—will no doubt strike many social and religious conservatives as startlingly prescient. (They may be chagrined to learn that he regarded Roman Catholicism as the beginning of Europe’s loss of true Christianity and believed that even atheism was preferable—though that didn’t stop him from having a profound appeal for such Catholic thinkers as Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy.)

Detail from Vasily Perov’s 1872 portrait of Dostoevsky.

Dostoevsky’s linkage of religion, nationalism, and populism can also sometimes seem to approach the “national conservatism” advocated in recent years by American-born Israeli political scientist Yoram Hazony. But therein lies a cautionary tale: Dostoevsky’s religious nationalism has a very marked dark side. In 1876-77, it led him to agitate for the Russo-Turkish war, which he believed could unify the people in a sacred endeavor—helping fellow Slavs and Orthodox Christians oppressed by the Ottoman Empire—and to urge the conquest of Constantinople. It also expressed itself, on many occasions, in virulent hostility toward “alien” groups that didn’t fit his vision of a godly Russia united by Orthodox Christianity: Catholic Poles and, notably, Jews.

Dostoevsky’s attitude toward Jews has been the subject of much discussion and contention; but attempts to exonerate him from charges of anti-Jewish bigotry are singularly unconvincing. The anti-Semitism is not limited, alas, to occasional grating passages in his fiction (such as the otherwise superb scene in Crime and Punishment in which the suicide of the ambiguous villain Svidrigailov is witnessed by a bystander with a farcical Jewish accent and a face expressing “the eternal peevish sorrow so sourly stamped on every single face of the Jewish tribe”). It also found a far more explicit voice in his monthly newsletter, A Writer’s Diary, published in 1876-77 and resumed in 1880 shortly before his death.

The March 1877 issue on “the Jewish Question,” in response to criticism from readers (many of them Jewish) who questioned Dostoevsky’s earlier attacks on “Yids” and their malign influence, is particularly revealing. Dostoevsky indignantly rejects accusations of being “an enemy of Jews”—but in the next breath, mockingly notes that Jews are forever complaining about their oppression “as if they’re not the ones who reign in Europe, not the ones who dominate the stock exchanges at the very least, and therefore the politics, internal affairs, and morality of states.” He then goes on to blame Russia’s defeat in the Russo-Turkish war on the Jews—or at least on British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, a descendant of “Spanish Yids” whose policies at least partly reflect “the Yid’s point of view.” There’s a lot more in that vein, including the assertion that Jews had become ruthless exploiters not only of recently emancipated serfs in Russia but of freed blacks in the Southern American states.

As always, Dostoevsky remains a man of contradictions. In the same text, he expresses hope for harmony between Jews and (Christian) Russians, praises the nobility and intelligence of some of his Jewish correspondents, and sees the promise of universal brotherhood in the life of a German doctor in a provincial Russian town who had treated poor people regardless of ethnicity or religion and whose funeral had brought together Jewish and Christian mourners. (He also stresses that this “sincere and moving” account was sent to him by a Jewish woman.) And yet for every positive point, there is a “but”: Yes, we should strive for brotherhood, but the obstacles to that really come mainly from Jews; yes, Jews’ civil rights should be expanded, but there’s always the danger that they’ll use those rights to fleece the Russian peasant even more viciously; etc., etc.

It’s not surprising to learn that, as Marks notes in How Russia Shaped the Modern World, Dostoevsky inspired some far-right intellectuals in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s who saw him as the mortal enemy of decadent liberalism. Equally unsurprising is the fact that today, he is being embraced by Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia. In an essay on Dostoevsky’s 200th anniversary in the online magazine Sobesednik (“Interlocutor”), the eminent writer and critic Dmitry Bykov suggests that Dostoevsky should be “scrubbed clean of [the regime’s] sticky love, which can only compromise the writer and the thinker”; but he also notes that in a sense, Dostoevsky is “the father of Russian fascism.”

Of course, as Bykov acknowledges, Dostoevsky is also much more than that. For one thing, he is too independent and too paradoxical to be a propaganda tool. His cultural conservatism was idiosyncratic enough to coexist with strong sympathy for Russia’s nascent feminist movement. His support for tsarist Russia’s symbiosis of church and autocracy—a stance Bykov regards as a “Stockholm syndrome” response to Dostoevsky’s pardon by the tsar in 1849—inevitably clashed with his passion for human freedom, which is the central theme of “The Grand Inquisitor”: The Inquisitor sees Jesus as a carrier of dangerous heresy for giving people free choice rather than the safety of authority. As Russian religious philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev argued more than half a century after Dostoevsky’s death, Dostoevsky himself may not have understood that, despite its Catholic setting, his story applied equally to Russian Orthodoxy: “In actuality, Dostoevsky in the Legend rose up against every religion of authority, as being a temptation by the Anti-Christ. . .  . This was an unprecedented hymn to the freedom of the Spirit, a most extreme form of religious anarchism.” It is not for nothing that in the 1890s, Russian censors barred The Brothers Karamazov from school libraries and free public libraries as insufficiently, well, orthodox.

Bykov believes that toward the end of his life, Dostoevsky’s views were evolving again: There are tantalizing hints that the planned second volume of The Brothers Karamazov was going to take the saintly Alyosha in the direction of becoming a revolutionary. It is also worth noting that in the acclaimed speech Dostoevsky gave in June 1880—just six months before his death—at the unveiling of the monument in Moscow to Russia’s great poet Alexander Pushkin, he strove to articulate a Russian patriotism that would reconcile the Slavophiles and the Westernizers, emphasizing Pushkin’s Europeanness and “pan-humanity” as an essential part of his Russianness.

Perhaps no Russian writer attained this “pan-humanity” more than Dostoevsky, who has, for a century and a half, inspired people across national, religious and political lines—including members of groups toward which he harbored the strongest prejudices. This is one way in which Dostoevsky’s legacy is relevant to our cultural moment: It is a reminder that great art and literature transcend their creators’ politics and biases and endure long after the polemics of the day are forgotten.

Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a writer at The Bulwark, a columnist for Newsday, and a contributing editor to Reason. Twitter: @CathyYoung63.