A Chat with Yuri Corrigan about Dostoevsky and the Riddle of the Self

dostoevsky-and-the-riddle-of-the-selfToday we sat down with Yuri Corrigan, and asked a few questions about his new book, freshly out last month with Northwestern University Press, Dostoevsky and the Riddle of the Self.

First, your title. The idea of a “riddle of the self” is such an evocative way of considering one of the core themes in Dostoevsky’s works. How would you articulate the “riddle of the self”? And what led you to this phrase?

For me, the riddle is: how was it that Dostoevsky could be so passionately for and against the idea of individual selfhood? And so passionately for and against the idea of collectivism? This is often taken as a paradox, but I prefer to think of it as a practical problem that Dostoevsky wanted to solve. So I start with a more visceral version of the riddle: namely, why are the borders between selves so porous in Dostoevsky’s writing? I look at the intense and invasive intimacies shared by his characters – the sense you get that these characters are both discrete selves and aspects of each other’s personalities – as a way of getting at the larger philosophical problem of individualism and collectivism that extends through Dostoevsky’s career.

I’m struck by your approach, excluding chapters focused on the two bulwarks of Dostoevsky’s oeuvre of self, Notes from Underground and Crime and Punishment. Do you find that focusing more on the question of self in the other works changes the perception of selfhood in Dostoevsky as put forward in those two iconic texts?

It’s not so much that I exclude these works from my study (they both figure centrally in my analysis), but I find that if you use them as a point of departure in exploring Dostoevsky’s view on the self, they tend to draw you toward a specific narrative of Dostoevsky (as critic of the modern condition) that has been well established in scholarship and that I wanted to avoid. In my classes, I always start with the “ideological Dostoevsky” who belonged to a specific historical moment, to Russia’s cultural identity crisis amid the influx of European culture. This is the Dostoevsky who experienced a religious conversion in Siberia, who came back to Petersburg eager to find a cure for the various ailments of modernity – positivism, materialism, atheism, rationalism, and political radicalism – that were so prevalent in his day. And Notes from Underground and Crime and Punishment are the go-to texts that bring these questions most readily to life, that show us the agony of the “modern self,” divided between its empirical and reflective dimensions, debilitated by self-consciousness and uprooted from all foundations.

There’s much truth to this narrative, but there are also a few problems with it that I kept running up against. First, I didn’t find the notion of modern mind/body dualism to be a robust enough paradigm, on its own, to illuminate the question of selfhood in the later novels. Another problem was that I didn’t fully believe the story I was telling students about the dramatic breach between early (psychological, social) Dostoevsky and mature (philosophical, ideological) Dostoevsky, with Siberian imprisonment and exile being the turning point. For one, Dostoevsky was always a champion of the inner dynamism of the self and was always an enemy to materialism and rationalism, which would become the galvanizing doctrines of the Russian revolutionary movement. So, in my book, I wanted to defamiliarize Dostoevsky’s meditation on selfhood by starting not with the ideological or philosophical concerns, but with the affective paradigms of selfhood from the early works, and then by watching these paradigms evolve as they take on philosophical breadth and resonance. This allowed me, I hope, to suggest new interpretations for both Crime and Punishment and Notes from Underground, by placing them in the context of the project that Dostoevsky began in his twenties.

Your book spans the whole of Dostoevsky’s career, from his earliest works to his final novel. Did you find writing a book with such scope to be challenging? How did you approach the task?

It happened against my will and against my better judgment (to quote Mr. Darcy). After graduate school, I was reworking my dissertation on Chekhov into a book, and I started a side project – reading Dostoevsky from early to late and making notes as I went. A nice thing about reading Dostoevsky chronologically is that you get to watch him feeling his way forward, thinking aloud from work to work without being able to erase his steps. After a while, I started to see all the works as one big canvas on which he was thinking experimentally about the structure of the self, using variations on image, character, and plot. At the end of about a year and a half, I had a large word document full of raw impressions. Then I started reading the secondary literature, and then my argument started taking shape. And by then I was hooked.

What new insight can be gleaned from Dostoevsky’s early works? And which would you recommend for a new reader of them (and why)?

For me, the early works are the experimental laboratory where Dostoevsky built the psychological and narrative infrastructure for his later, more philosophical writing. For my specific approach, what makes the 1840s so important is the paradigm of collapsed interiority that he developed during this time (of characters engaged in desperate attempts to suppress the “howling” of the unconscious, the waves of “something” that keep lapping up unwantedly onto the shores of consciousness), and the kinds of intimacy that emerge as a result of the willful suppression of the inward. The key psychological insight we can draw from early Dostoevsky is that the suppression of an interior architecture leads to its externalization, to a process in which the geography of the personality becomes turned inside out and other selves become drawn in as substitutes for what can’t be accessed inwardly. Dostoevsky’s early works are populated by characters who can’t regulate themselves administratively from within, and who thus seek to lose themselves in the administration of another person (as Vasia does with Arkady in “A Weak Heart”), or who find themselves overwhelmingly drawn to someone whose memories and emotions they can substitute for their own (as Ordynov does with Katerina in “The Landlady”). In his early writing, Dostoevsky was learning how to build plots from these mechanisms – the collapse of the inward and the externalization of the self – that allow him to turn his stories and novels into exploratory maps of the psyche. It’s only in the later writing that the fear of the inward (the traumatic memories that send his early characters fleeing outward) gives way to a deeper, more overwhelming terror of something within and beyond the self, the indwelling energies of the “living God” that haunt and oppress the waking minds of Raskolnikov and Ivan Karamazov, among so many other characters.

As for recommending early Dostoevsky to a new reader: there are some great reads from the 1840s – especially Poor Folk, and “White Nights,” and Netochka Nezvanova. And from the early post-Siberian period, I love The Insulted and Injured, for its amazing characterizations, readability, and unabashed sentimentalism.

Of all your chapters on the major novels, covering The Idiot, Demons, The Adolescent, and Brothers Karamazov, which has served to give you the most new insight into a text through your analysis (and how or why)?

An exciting moment for me was when my chapter on The Idiot started coming together after multiple failed attempts. I’d been working on Dostoevsky’s amnesiacs in his early works – especially Ordynov and Netochka Nezvanova – characters violently at odds with their own memories, who want to avoid the “something” that haunts them from within, and who thus turn the architecture of the personality outward, drawing others in as fragmentary dimensions of a collective self. With this in place, when I started reading The Idiot again, I was paying less attention to the philosophical trappings – “Prince Christ,” the “perfectly beautiful person,” etc. – and began to see Myshkin as the apotheosis of that same paradigm from the early works: a noble amnesiac haunted by suppressed thoughts and memories, who goes into convulsions when reminded of his childhood, and who is drawn to specific kinds of wounded and susceptible interlocutors as projective stand-ins for the parts of himself that he cannot bear to encounter inwardly. And these wounded interlocutors are drawn to him for the same reason. The whole of the novel, in this sense, becomes divided between the real world of others (the world of light, or “svet,” of Aglaya and the Epanchins), and the darker, projective world of the self where it’s impossible to distinguish between the faces of others and the suppressed undercurrents of one’s own inner life.

If you read the novel as a meditation on what happens to people and societies whose most intimate memories have been suppressed and lost, The Idiot can be seen as a major moment of convergence for Dostoevsky’s psychological, philosophical, political, and theological projects. The Prince’s heroic journey, in this light, becomes his attempt to move inward beyond the terrors of memory to encounter the menacing divine sources that are almost unbearable for consciousness to behold – as the only way to release Rogozhin and Nastasia Filippovna, and Myshkin himself, from being imprisoned in each other’s minds. Holbein’s painting of the abused and dead Christ, in this context, is both a personal and communal memory. It touches on something horrific in Myshkin’s own past while haunting and oppressing an entire civilization. The revolutionary desire to “execute the past” and “walk boldly on” (to quote Herzen) is therefore also a desperate flight from a traumatic memory that keeps being reenacted because of its suppression (and Nastasia Filippovna’s corpse becomes the latest victim of cultural oblivion). When Myshkin journeys into the tomb at the end of the novel in the hope of bringing the dead body in its depths to life, the psychology of collapsed interiority meets with Dostoevsky’s mystical and idiosyncratic version of Christianity (at the very back of our unconscious, beyond all our other memories, lies a brutalized and unredeemed Christ; and because we are in flight from that image, we cannot resurrect it, cannot draw on it as an infinite inward source), which meets in turn with his interest in Russia’s tormented position within modernity, as suffering from a collectively enforced amnesia.

Your conclusion situates Dostoevsky’s evolving discussion of the self within the broader context of late 19th-century Russia. Do you find that your study of Dostoevsky’s conception of the self has shifted your perception of self in other Russian novels? If yes, how?

It’s a great question, and I feel that there’s a bigger answer to it that would probably take some years to figure out and articulate. The major Russian writers of the 19th century share an interest in the “inner life,” the notion that so many of the problems that at first glance seem social, historical, political are actually, at root, symptoms of an inward malaise, dilemmas of personality. And yet there seems to be no agreement among these writers on what actually constitutes an “inner life.” Coming back to Tolstoy and Chekhov now, I’m struck by how little they shared Dostoevsky’s obsession with the unconscious. For Dostoevsky, the self, at its most capacious, is born from a wound in the mind that breaks and expands the personality from within, that allows for the possibility of a soul – an inner realm that opens up in its depths to something universal and transcendent. Tolstoy, it seems, was interested less in questions of depth and immanence, and more in questions of balance and authenticity, of fusion of self and world. For Chekhov, similarly, the self is less of an ocean and more of a balancing act of unresolvable dimensions, a perpetual contradiction that requires cultivation, grace, intelligence, and compassion to sustain. Tolstoy, who couldn’t accept perpetual contradiction as an ideal, wanted a unified and harmonious self that could be engaged in useful work, and one always feels with Tolstoy that there’s about to be some kind of moral realization that will rescue the self from its anguish. Dostoevsky, though he is so important to the psychoanalytic and medical tradition, was never much interested in health and balance. His goal is the excruciating reorientation of the self toward the good, the building of a self that could be robust enough to give voice to the exuberant, transcendent sources that lie in its depths – all of which can be hard to reconcile with daily life.

In your introduction you make the point that, “it would be difficult to find another writer so unanimously celebrated by hostile schools of thought” than Dostoevsky. You call for a new approach to understanding the concept of “self” in Dostoevsky’s works as so many disparate voices have muddled the waters. How do you situate your work within this critical paradigm (or perhaps mélange would be a better word)?

The vastness and richness of Dostoevsky scholarship does present us with a problem. So many brilliant thinkers have engaged with Dostoevsky over the years in discovering their own systems, adapting and twisting his novels in wonderful and creative ways (as was the case with Bakhtin, or Camus, or Berdyaev, or Girard, among many others), and this can be paralyzing for the contemporary scholar. If you feel that you have a new reading, how do you contextualize it in a vast sea of voices and perspectives? If you want to publish something and get a job, you probably have to focus on one current, build your argument around the psychoanalytic Dostoevsky, or the existentialist Dostoevsky, or the Russian Orthodox Dostoevsky, or Dostoevsky the literary innovator, or Dostoevsky the postmodernist, etc. But then scholars start to talk past each other, to develop discrete idiomatic vocabularies that articulate similar insights without intersecting. So in my project I wanted to see how you could bring some of these currents together in addressing the question of selfhood, and I found that they intersected well around the problem of memory. All of Dostoevsky’s major novels are about going home, about confronting the distant and dreaded past. The underground man’s unhappiness turns to dramatic crisis when he stumbles disastrously into a meeting with his old “comrades” from school; Raskolnikov goes into hysterical panic mode when he finds out his mom and sister are coming to visit; Myshkin comes home to Russia after years away; Stavrogin comes home to stay with his mom; Arkady moves to Petersburg to be reunited with his family; the Karamazov brothers come home to see their dad. As a novelist, Dostoevsky worked with the energy emitted from these kinds of unwilling reckonings, which point his characters toward “something” inward that they would prefer not to encounter – something that, when faced head on and drawn upon actively, can also be redemptive and generative. Here the proto-psychoanalytic Dostoevsky (as pioneer of systems of repression and suppression, and of trauma avant la lettre) touches on the political or ideological Dostoevsky (as prophet of irrationalism, champion of cultural memory), who in turn touches on the religious Dostoevsky (for whom God, or Christ, was an infinite divine source that lies beyond what is innermost in the self).

What’s next for you and Dostoevsky studies? Has this book opened up any new avenues for you to pursue?

While working on the book, I kept thinking of contemporary writers who draw on Dostoevsky in exploring questions of selfhood in the post-religious world – writers like David Foster Wallace, Donna Tartt, Elena Ferrante, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, Marilynne Robinson, Michel Houellebecq, who are asking what is the inner life and how do we sustain and preserve it. So a second book came out of the first, looking to Dostoevsky as a guide for our own time. And it has felt more and more recently as if we’re living in a sci-fi version of one of Dostoevsky’s novels. The architecture of the self is actively being turned outward. Google searches are replacing our ability to remember things, and Google wants into our brain, is actively working on inventing an implant that would make the internet a literal extension of our cognition (which could seriously affect our minds’ ability to store memory). Mark Zuckerberg, having probably never considered Dostoevsky’s meditation on the nightmare of collectivism, of selves bound together without inward dimensions, works tirelessly with his corporate army to keep you (your depthless outward persona, your “face”) from leaving his network. Young people who’ve been over-parented and addicted to social media, and to the chemical surges that the “dings” from our phones generate in our brains, have not been given a chance to develop their own inward resources and therefore feel debilitating anxiety in trying to face the real world head on. These same people, lacking inward defenses, become easily coopted by ideologies, find themselves all too happy to repeat “other people’s words,” are drawn into the security of twitter mobs, and the most strident – pious and self-righteous – voices on Facebook and Twitter are the ones that enter most effectively into people’s bloodstreams.

And meanwhile, we in the humanities (if you’ll allow me to overgeneralize in a potentially obnoxious way), we who should have been the torchbearers for the “inner life of the mind,” have always been bound by a kind of unspoken allegiance to positivism, a discomfort with the metaphysical, an embarrassment even to use the phrase “the inner life,” which feels outdated and unfashionable. So who is going to help young people navigate and discover their inward geographies when many of them have lost recourse to the community-based or religious resources that used to address this terrain, and when their humanities professors keep telling them to look to external power relations for answers? That’s why I think we need the Russians more than ever, since, in watching the world around them hurtle toward violent cataclysm and civil war, they felt the crisis of nihilism and the corresponding thirst for a practical doctrine of selfhood – the question of what is the inner life, and how, and on what, can I build my own personality. Dostoevsky thought deeply and productively about what happens when the self is turned inside out, when external agencies invade our mind and think for us. And he gave us practical descriptions of how a self can acquire inward ground and breadth so that it won’t simply be taken over and commandeered by any stray force or agency that comes along. But as I mentioned above, Dostoevsky doesn’t really offer us a path to health; what he wants for us is a grounded and exuberant form of brokenness that is oriented toward the good. I don’t know how many of us are ok with being exuberantly broken, but I think it’s an option to consider, especially if it helps us manage the howling terror that longs, dangerously, to be anesthetized and replaced by something external.


Yuri Corrigan is Assistant Professor of Russian and Comparative Literature at Boston University. Dostoevsky and the Riddle of the Self is his first book, published by Northwestern University Press in October 2017.

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Dostoevsky Panels at ASEEES 2017

by Vadim Shneyder

Autumn is a rich season for Russian literature. Readers of Dostoevsky might recall the vivid evocation of September in the Russian countryside in Poor Folk. Fans of Pushkin perhaps recite his famous verses about the beauty of October days. Those who identify with Baratynskii’s “tiller of life’s field,” now join him in reflecting on the meager fruits of their ill-spent years. And those who are lucky enough not just to read Russian literature, but to study it, pack their bags for the annual ASEEES convention. This year’s conference in Chicago brings with it an abundance of Dostoevsky-related panels, which we have collected here for the convenience of our readers. The following two-part list features, first, entire panels focused on the works of Dostoevsky, and second, panels that include individual papers covering some aspect of Dostoevsky’s life, work, thought, or legacy. We hope you can make the most of this impressive lineup!

 

Panels on Dostoevsky

Thursday, November 9

Fictional Trials, Real Transgressions: Dostoevsky, Bunin, Nabokov

Thu, November 9, 1:00 to 2:45pm, Marriott Downtown Chicago, 6th, Illinois

The panel examines the ways in which Dostoevsky, Bunin, and Nabokov mobilize the trope of the jury trial as a means to think through a range of legal, social, and aesthetic questions. Amy Ronner argues that viewed together, Dostoevsky’s fictional and non-fictional representations of the jury trial reveal his understanding of earthly justice and its salutary potential. Anna Schur explores how Bunin’s fictionalization of a real-life trial in The Case of Cornet Elagin reworks the jury trial trope to reconceptualize the relationship between law and literature in light of the changing conceptions of truth, reality, and literary character. Erika Donner discusses Nabokov’s interpretation of Tolstoy’s Pozdnyshev in a mock-trial production of The Kreutzer Sonata as a lens on the evolution of Lolita’s Humbert and considers both texts as participating in the tradition of constructing the reader as the juror.

 

Dostoevsky and Metaphor

Thu, November 9, 3:00 to 4:45pm, Marriott Downtown Chicago, 6th, Illinois

This panel considers the use of metaphor in Dostoevsky’s novels of the 1860s-70s. Focusing on metaphors of the house and the city, the railway and money, we discuss how they function on a local and global level, how they relate to Dostoevsky’s use of allegory, how they reflect contemporary scientific and historical discourses, and how they contribute to realist representation more broadly. Melissa Frazier’s paper compares Dostoevsky’s use of metaphors in Crime and Punishment with George Eliot’s in Middlemarch, focusing on the shared reliance on Lewesian physiological psychology underlying their strikingly similar conflation of physical and mental space. In their literary rendering of Lewesian “dual-aspect monism,” metaphor in Eliot as in Dostoevsky works not to elevate concrete instance or abstract referent, but to show substance and idea as always interdependent. Kate Holland’s paper examines how in The Idiot Dostoevsky uses a comic character, Lebedev, to raise the problem of the railway as metaphor for modernity. Given that the railway is a central metaphor for this novel, what does its self-referential treatment tell us about metaphoricity and modernity in Dostoevsky’s novels more generally? Vadim Shneyder’s paper examines how monetary operations—in particular, pricing and exchange—serve as a kind of metaphor for metaphor itself in Dostoevsky’s novels. It focuses on several scenes from The Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov to show how, at certain key moments, quantities of money posit the identity of non-identical things, gestures, and persons and how this quasi-metaphorical operation breaks down at other moments in the novels.

 

Dostoevsky and Philosophy

Thu, November 9, 5:00 to 6:45pm, Marriott Downtown Chicago, 6th, Illinois

This is the third annual Dostoevsky and Philosophy ASEEES panel. Then panel series was established in honor of Joseph Scanlan’s claim that the “idea of treating a great writer as a philosopher will be unsettling to both writers and philosophers.” It may seem that taking a philosophical approach will do injustice to the literary text; it may also seem that working with a literary text cannot possibly be philosophically rigorous. Nonetheless, the influence of philosophy on Dostoevsky and of Dostoevsky on philosophy remains. There is also much of philosophical worth to be discovered in Dostoevsky’s fiction. These panels aim to further investigate those influences and unearth those discoveries in an attempt to do justice to both Dostoevsky’s thought and writing.

 

Friday, November 10

Dostoevsky and the Representation of Russian Identity

Fri, November 10, 10:00 to 11:45am, Marriott Downtown Chicago, 6th, Illinois

In his journalism Dostoevsky voices a strong sense of a re-born Russian national identity. But his self-acknowledged attempts to represent aspects of this in his fiction reveal a much more nuanced, even confused, picture. He seems to realise that over-promoting such aspects in his heroes, from Myshkin to Zosima, risks damaging reader credibility. He depicts in his fiction how this very process can alienate other in-story characters. The contradiction suggests that Dostoevsky’s concept of national identity is at odds with his perception of real reader response. His conflict reflects the wider contemporary tension in Russian society between imperial policies designed to help Russia engage with the West and at the same time to reinforce a sense of national ‘otherness’. This panel will explore how Dostoevsky’s portrayal of national identity and empire varies between his journalism and his fictional works, and investigates how his promotion of a separate Slavic destiny was tempered by his perception of the realities of the readership for which he wrote.

 

Dostoevsky and The Sacred

Fri, November 10, 3:45 to 5:30pm, Marriott Downtown Chicago, 6th, Illinois

Presentation: “‘Prince Christ’: Myshkin vs. Jesus, or Petersburg vs. Peleganianism” – Maxwell Parlin

Presentation: “Laughter, Spectacle and Violence in Dostoevsky’s Notes from the House of the Dead” – Cecilia Dilworth

Presentation: “Sacred and Desecrated Spaces in Dostoevsky’s The Possessed” – Olha Tytarenko

 

 

Saturday, November 11

Dostoevsky: Narrative, Ethics, Poetics

Sat, November 11, 10:00 to 11:45am, Marriott Downtown Chicago, 6th, Illinois

This panel brings together new narratological and theoretical approaches to reading Fyodor Dostoevsky’s works. All three papers seek insights into Dostoevsky’s ethical and aesthetic concerns by grounding their analyses in the formal plane, and particularly by looking at the ways in which novelistic form exceeds itself, breaks down and tests its own limits. Greta Matzner-Gore’s paper explores the ethical implications of narrative indeterminacy through an analysis of the notebooks for The Adolescent. Irina Erman’s presentation traces Dostoevsky’s frequent use of stage curtains to analyze theatrical interventions into the formal plane of his novels. Sarah Ruth Lorenz’s paper argues for a reevaluation of Dostoevsky’s realism “in the higher sense” in favor of a more empirical understanding of his realist aesthetics.

 

Heroes, Tragedy, and Victims: Rhetoric, Moral Insight, and Narrative Technique in Dostoevsky’s Fiction

Sat, November 11, 1:45 to 3:30pm, Marriott Downtown Chicago, 6th, Illinois

Affiliate Organization: North American Dostoevsky Society

This panel proposes to put together three papers which explore Dostoevsky’s most enduring achievements in the narrative presentation of moral issues. The first paper charts Dostoevsky’s treatment of the “wounded hero” in historical contexts. The second addresses how the negative passions of resentment, vengefulness, and hatred overwhelm the moral virtue of forgiveness in The Idiot. The third paper joins the legal notion of victim impact statements and the narrative technique of free indirect discourse to explore Dostoevsky’s complicated treatment of moral responsibility in Crime and Punishment.

 

Sunday, November 12

Illness in Dostoevsky: Addiction, Obsession and Trauma

Sun, November 12, 8:00 to 9:45am, Marriott Downtown Chicago, 6th, Illinois 

Illness, physical and mental, is a pervasive theme throughout Dostoevsky’s work and merits scrutiny from a variety of perspectives. As the title indicates, this panel will explore three types of illnesses predominant in Dostoevsky; each paper will approach its illness from a different theoretical framework. One paper will examine the illness of alcoholism from the perspective of the medical discourse of Dostoevsky’s era. Another paper will address the issue of trauma, and the ways in which Fyodor Dostoevsky creates distance between his experience being imprisoned in the Omsk fortress and the imagining of this trauma in his autobiographical novel Notes from the House of the Dead. The final paper will take on the topic of obsessive thinking, and how it manifests itself as both a mental illness and a sign of ideological discipline.

 

A Genealogy of Dostoevsky’s Underground

Sun, November 12, 10:00 to 11:45am, Marriott Downtown Chicago, 6th, Great America 2 

This panel traces the evolution of Dostoevsky’s “underground” mentality in “The Double”, “Notes from Underground” and “Brothers Karamazov”. The panel’s papers, each devoted to one or more of Dostoevsky’s works, explore their protagonists’ subjectivities from philosophical and psychoanalytical perspectives, emphasizing the interpersonal dimensions of empathy, desire, and recognition. The panel diagnoses the predetermined failure of “underground” protagonists to realize their desire for self-definition and links it to their failure to acknowledge another person’s autonomy and freedom. The panel’s theoretical interpretations are informed by works of Mikhail Bakhtin, Friedrich Nietzche, Max Scheler, and Jacques Lacan.

 

Panels Featuring Presentations on or related to Dostoevsky

Thursday, November 9

Crime in Late Imperial Russia

Thu, November 9, 3:00 to 4:45pm, Marriott Downtown Chicago, 4th, Grace

Presentation: A Murder Most Siberian: ‘Crime and Punishment’ in 1909 Tomsk

This paper is an in depth examination of the 1909 murder of the monk Ignatii Dvernitskii, a reactionary school headmaster and newspaper editor strangled by two of his pupils. An investigation of the press coverage of the crime, as well as its perpetrators and its victim, reveals an event intimately connected to key historical themes of late-Imperial Tomsk: antisemitism, Orthodoxy, conservatism, education, revolution, and even the influence of Dostoevsky’s writings. The paper uses local Tomsk archival materials, the liberal and conservative press, contemporary publications, and Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment in order to unpack the symbolic and direct historical significance of this particular murder and its aftermath.

 

Transgressing Borders: Artistic Collaboration and Co-Authorship in the 20th Century and Beyond

Thu, November 9, 3:00 to 4:45pm, Marriott Downtown Chicago, 6th, Michigan State

Presentation: A Cure or a Self-Medication?: The Anti-Dialogical Collaborations of Inspection: ‘Medical Hermeneutics’

Founded in 1986, the practice of Inspection: ‘Medical Hermeneutics’ represents the last chapter in the anti-dialogical revolt as staged by the key Moscow Conceptualists. In the early 1970s, Ilya Kabakov creatively reinterpreted Mikhail Bakhtin’s Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (1929) to capture the alienating effect of Brezhnev-era stagnation. As a result, instead of giving rise to self-aware heroes who were capable of withstanding objectification by providing their own authorial viewpoint upon themselves and their worlds, which is what Dostoevsky did, Kabakov made paintings with multiple consciousnesses that actively resisted any dialogical exchange. In the late 1970s, Collective Actions expanded upon these experiments via performance art, by staging purposely incoherent, semantically nonsensical happenings that sought to affect and manipulate the viewers’ perception.

Inspection: ‘Medical Hermeneutics’ conflated these two different approaches. The members Pavel Pepperstein, Yuri Leiderman and Sergei Anufriev posed as inspectors who examined and interpreted the momentous changes brought upon by perestroika, hoping to find a ‘cure’ for the ‘attacks of the Western market’. This they found in their ‘analytical’ method of ‘psychedelic realism,’ an impenetrably convoluted style of writing that behind the facade of a critical enquiry arbitrarily coupled disparate but notably intellectual concepts, both real and made-up. The ‘cure,’ more precisely, was the bafflement, or the ‘intoxication,’ that one felt when attempting to grasp this spurious but not entirely implausible goulash of ideas. In the early 1990s, the group sought to popularise this ‘cure’ by recruiting ‘junior inspectors’ and establishing closer relations with the Leningrad-based artists, who prior to perestroika has been isolated from the Muscovites.

 

Friday, November 10

Florensky, Tarkovsky, and the Icon

Fri, November 10, 8:00 to 9:45am, Marriott Downtown Chicago, 10th, Huron

 Presentation: Icons, Dostoevsky, and Tarkovsky’s ‘Mirror’

Dostoevsky is explicitly mentioned once in Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Mirror,” in addition to numerous other references and echoes of the author’s works. This paper will explore the relationship between the writer and the director, in particular their attempts to recreate icons and iconic vision, through the prism of Florensky’s theories of reverse perspective, art, and representation.

 

Transgressions, Relationships, and Transformations

Fri, November 10, 8:00 to 9:45am, Marriott Downtown Chicago, 6th, Illinois

Presentation: A Bug’s Life in the Novels of F.M. Dostoevsky: Insects, Arachnids, and Zoomorphism as Indicators of Debasement and Transgression

Characters in the novels of F.M. Dostoevsky express curious commentary ascribing likenesses between human subjects and a variety of different bugs, including beetles, spiders, lice, cockroaches, centipedes, and mosquitoes. This paper surveys memorable examples of zoomorphic imagery in the writings of Dostoevsky, tracing the extended trajectory of such metaphors in different literary styles and works, and evaluates the role of these connections in the development of key themes and interpersonal relationships.

 

Sincerity, Authenticity, and Satire in Post-Soviet Russia

Fri, November 10, 8:00 to 9:45am, Marriott Downtown Chicago, 6th, Purdue

Presentation: Vladimir Tuchkov’s Intertextual Transgression: The Parody of the Russian Classics as Post-Soviet Social Criticism 

The post-Soviet Russian writer Vladimir Tuchkov has authored novels and mostly shorter narratives. His short fictions are marked predominantly by the grotesque, hyperbole, humor, intertextual parody, grotesque monstrosity and social satire. His critical engagement with post-Soviet realities is achieved through the creation of ahistorical, anachronistic, even mythological and archaic, narrative spaces, and all too often characterized by repugnant plots. The characters’ abnormality in his fictions is a function of the grotesque and its implicit recognition that the world is changing too fast for man to comprehend what is going on; their heteronomy appears to be a result of the loss of wider meaning and humanity. Tuchkov’s intertextual parody invokes the ideas represented by names such as Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Turgenev, and his often dark plots against the background of the end of a specific world and insecurity about the future, are contrasted with the ideas of Russia’s literary giants, concerning ultimate meaning and moral and social responsibility. Tuchkov’s stories thereby appear to ultimately facilitate the critical coming-to-terms with the past, and the finding of one’s new bearings amongst the loss of cultural and social values effected by the end of communism and the Soviet system.
The suggested conference paper will analyze and discuss the above outlined features in Tuchkov’s works, as represented in several of his short stories. It will also reflect on why such grotesque and parodic transgression against the venerated Russian literary tradition may serve as social criticism.

 

Ethics and Religion in Tolstoy: Navigating Self and Other

Fri, November 10, 10:00 to 11:45am, Marriott Downtown Chicago, 6th, Wisconsin

Presentation: Tolstoy’s Resurrection

This paper considers how Tolstoy, in his late novel “Resurrection,” is responding to ideas about moral resurrection, ethics, and relations with others put forth by Dostoevsky. It focuses on “House of the Dead” (which Tolstoy claimed was his favorite work by Dostoevsky), and “The Brothers Karamazov,” which he claimed not to have read but was found on the night stand in his bedroom at Yasnaya Polyana after his death.

 

New Perspectives on Russian Religious Thought

Fri, November 10, 10:00 to 11:45am, Marriott Downtown Chicago, 5th, Miami

Presentation: The Influence of Russian Religious Thought on Western Theology in the Twentieth Century

This paper will address some of the signal developments in the influence of Russian religious thought on Western theology since 1945. These include 1) the making of the Ecumenical Movement; 2) the renewal of patristics; 3) the making of the Second Vatican Council; 4) the impact of Russian religious thinkers on some of the most influential Western theologians of the 20th century, such as Hans Urs von Balthasar (Soloviev), Yves Congar (Berdyaev and others in the Paris emigration), Jaroslav Pelikan (Florovsky), Kallistos Ware (Khomiakov), John Milbank (Bulgakov) and Rowan Williams; and 5) the enduring hold of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and other modern Russian literary figures (including Bakhtin) on the Christian theological imagination. The paper will conclude that Western theology, through its encounter with Russian religious thought, has become something more than Western: Certainly it has become more cosmopolitan and arguably it has become more ecumenical.

 

Promoting Reading in Putin’s Russia: The Cult of Serious Literature Restored?

Fri, November 10, 1:45 to 3:30pm, Marriott Downtown Chicago, 6th, Purdue

Presentation: Guardians of Russian Literature. Vladimir Tolstoy, Dmitrii Dostoevsky, and the Kremlin’s Cultural Policies

The paper explores how surviving relatives and descendants of famous Russian writers are used and present themselves in the media as embodying and guarding the spiritual heritage of their ancestors. By examining, amongst others, the National Literary Convention of November 2012 (with the participation of president Putin and several descendants of famous Russian writers), the paper will argue that the Kremlin enlists the classics of Russian literature to promote its nation-building agenda.

 

Saturday, November 11

Florensky’s Vision of the Human Condition

Sat, November 11, 10:00 to 11:45am, Marriott Downtown Chicago, 6th, Lincolnshire II

Presentation: Reading the Russian Novel through Florensky’s Anthropology

In this paper I will argue that 19th-century Russian authors (such as Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov), because they were brought up in an Orthodox Christian culture, imbibed from the air, so to speak, and expressed in their works an understanding of the human being — or to be more precise, of the human person — that is rooted in Orthodox theology. Those authors’ works, in turn, figured among the roots and spawning grounds for the ideas of Russian religious philosophers of the turn of the 20th century, including perhaps especially Pavel Florensky. That is why Florensky’s anthropology, the Trinitarian vision of the person (lichnost’), provides a very useful interpretive lens for understanding certain common features of these works.

 

Florensky and the Problem of Seeing

Sat, November 11, 1:45 to 3:30pm, Marriott Downtown Chicago, 6th, Purdue

Presentation: Using Florensky’s ‘Reverse Perspective’ to see The Dead Christ in The Idiot

This paper uses Floresnky’s article “Obratnaia perspectiva” to explain three different ways of looking at Holbein’s Dead Christ in The Idiot. Florensky’s articulation of realist art illuminates both Ippolit’s and Rogozhin’s different interpretations of the painting, while Floresnky’s articulation of reverse perspectival art illuminates Myshkin’s. I contend that for Dostoevsky, as for Florensky, ways of seeing reflect ways of thinking.

 

Translating Race in Eurasia III: Race and the Canon: New Approaches to 19th-century Russian Literature

Sat, November 11, 1:45 to 3:30pm, Marriott Downtown Chicago, 6th, Ohio State

Presentation: Racial Signifiers in the Russian Canon

This paper examines tendencies within the Russian literary classics of the 19th-century to inscribe race onto characters through coded language (for example, references to dark features and kinky hair) in order to signify instability and unreliability. Through close readings of key scenes in works by Dostoevsky and Chekhov, this presentation works towards understanding how race, though by definition a matter of exteriority, came to be a marker of psychological and even medical deficiencies in the Russian context. This project incorporates recent scholarship from the medical humanities and critical race studies to investigate how the psychology (not merely biology) of race became instilled in 19th-century Russian cultural practices.

 

Family Novel Variations: Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy

Sat, November 11, 3:45 to 5:30pm, Marriott Downtown Chicago, 6th, Illinois

Presentation: Incest and the Limits of Family in the Nineteenth-Century Russian Novel

In “I’m in Love with My Brother,” Anna Berman explores the way Russian authors avoided the sibling incest obsession of the English, while still honoring the intense power of the first-family bond. Focusing on the novelistic families of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, the paper examines the use the sibling bond as a model for romantic relations and the pattern of falling in love with one who is “like” kin, tracing their roots in the wider European tradition.

 

Presentation: Brothers (Karamazov)

In “Brothers (Karamazov),” Chloë Kitzinger considers Dostoevsky’s Karamazovs (1879-80) as a reimagining of Konstantin Levin’s family in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1875-77). Working with both novels, as well as Dostoevsky’s comments on Anna Karenina in “The Diary of a Writer,” her paper reexamines contrasts and parallels between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky as realist writers in terms of the differences between these two similarly-structured families. She argues that in rewriting Levin and his brothers, Dostoevsky picked up specific techniques of characterization from Tolstoy that served their shared — though disparately pursued — aim of transforming the Russian reading public.

Sunday, November 12

Cognitive Approaches to Russian Literature II: Reading, Memory, and Transformation

Sun, November 12, 12:00 to 1:45pm, Marriott Downtown Chicago, 6th, Wisconsin 

Roundtable: The second roundtable on “Cognitive Approaches to Russian Literature” will take us on an alternative tour of Russian literature, by investigating the cognitive states of characters, the process of reading, and the workings of memory in Russian texts. Jerry Piven will explore what cognitive psychology can tell us about the experiences of Dostoevsky’s characters, as they go through fugue states, religious crises, and transformations. Sarah Mohler will then focus on the process of reading and examine how the immersive reading of Tolstoy can affect his readers by enhancing empathy and promoting moral elevation (altruistic acts). She will also discuss Tolstoy’s use of visual techniques for promoting readers’ simulation of a fictional world, to be contrasted with Dostoevsky’s polyphonic techniques. Katherina Kokinova will continue the exploration of the reading process and the role of context in Nabokov through the double lens of cognitive science and reception theory. Amina Gabrielova will next examine the intersection of cognitive linguistics and memory studies and explore how Dmitry S. Likhachev’s “conceptospheres,” which can both shrink and expand, find a parallel in A. Assmann’s theory of “canon” and “archive” in cultural memory. Finally, Denis Akhapkin will discuss conceptual blending in Brodsky’s poetry. Engaging with the annual ASEEES theme of Transgression, this cognitive roundtable investigates how transgressing the boundaries between literary studies and cognitive science can engender fertile possibilities for intellectual inquiry and cross-pollination.


Vadim Shneyder is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Languages and Cultures at UCLA. He is writing a book called  Russia’s Capitalist Realism: Historical Change and Narrative Form in Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov.

 

 

Happy birthday, Bloggers K!

Today we celebrate 2 years of the Bloggers Karamazov, the polyphonic blog-speriment of the North American Dostoevsky Society. Over the past two years, our blog has grown from something quite small to something with many readers (thank you, readers!).

Over the past two years we’ve worked to serve our community of Dostoevsky readers by: hosting online multimedia events (like #TheDoubleEvent), highlighting member research through book interviews (like these by Lonny Harrison or Deborah Martinsen and Olga Maiorova) and special research posts (like our most recent, by Susanne Fusso), cross-posting guest book bloggers (like Himadri Chatterjee or Steve Dodson), hosting thematic clusters (like this one about creating @RodionTweets or a series last summer where students discussed Dostoevsky cultural memory in the Dostoevskaya metro, Dostoevsky’s Petersburg, and Dostoevsky Day), reporting on special events (like this student production of The Crocodile, the epic Dostoevsky Games, or the Toronto library exhibit on Crime and Punishment), and more… this is just the tip of the iceberg, which ranges broadly from Ivan Karamazov weighing in on Dostoevsky’s writing to a how-to guide on 3D printing Dostoevsky bobble-heads.

BloggersK_birthdayAs our blog embarks on its third year, we are celebrating our work so far through social media posts that #tbt old content highlights.

We are also celebrating with a new design: birthday cards for sale to benefit NADS! Check them out here. 4 designs and each one sold helps support our outreach and scholarship initiatives.

And! We are also sending out a general call for posts on anything related to Dostoevsky.

  • Do you have an idea for a post or a post cluster?
  • Is there a movie based on a Dostoevsky novel you’d like to watch or revisit and write on?
  • Do you have some engaging Dostoevsky classroom exercises you’d like to share?
  • Are your students writing interesting papers on Dostoevsky?
  • Has reading Dostoevsky prompted you to make connections between things you hadn’t connected before?
  • Have you been to a play or reading or screening or exhibit related to Dostoevsky?

Let us know! You can always contact us with new ideas for posts.

Members, do you have a new Dostoevsky book out? Or are you planning a Dostoevsky event? We are glad to highlight members’ research and work. And if you’re not a member, but you’d like to be, you can always join up here.

Happy birthday, Bloggers K! Here’s to many more!

Editing Dostoevsky: Mikhail Katkov and the Great Russian Novel

by Susanne Fusso

What Russian literary figure competed with Belinsky for a young woman’s affection, traded public insults with Evgeniia Tur, indirectly gave Turgenev the idea of making a Bulgarian the hero of a Russian novel, called Dostoevsky “a fop perfumed with patchouli,” and prompted Tolstoy to summarize Anna Karenina as the story of “a certain lady who abandoned her husband . . . got angry at various things and threw herself under a railroad car”?

FussoKatkovCoverThe answer is Mikhail Nikiforovich Katkov (1818-87), the editor and publisher of the Russian Herald and the Moscow News. My book, Editing Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy: Mikhail Katkov and the Great Russian Novel, published by Northern Illinois University Press, is a study of the role Katkov played in the creation of some of the most significant works of Russian literature. My goal is to provide as dispassionate an account as possible of a man who inspired vehement passions, both positive and negative. Katkov was demonized in the Soviet era because of his conservative political activity in support of Russian nationalism and the autocratic state; in the Putin era he is being lionized as the “savior of the fatherland” (the title of a 2013 article on him). My study strives to offer a view of his literary activity that avoids these two extremes, giving him his due as the important figure he was, without vilification or canonization.

The study traces Katkov’s literary (and sometimes personal) relationships with Belinsky, Tur, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy. Of all the editor’s connections with Russian writers, his association with Dostoevsky was the most important and lasting relationship of Katkov’s literary career. Dostoevsky published all his most celebrated novels in Katkov’s Russian Herald: Crime and Punishment (1866), The Idiot (1868), The Devils (1871-72), and The Brothers Karamazov (1879-80); his seminal Pushkin speech was published in Katkov’s newspaper Moscow News in June 1880, six months before Dostoevsky’s death.

Chapter 4 of my book traces a kind of dialogue between Katkov and Dostoevsky in their journalistic polemics of 1861-63, a dialogue that preceded a long and productive working relationship. In this chapter I consider the issues that Katkov and Dostoevsky clashed over, as well as the points of inner, fundamental agreement that can help us understand what made possible their fruitful, if sometimes contentious, partnership. Chapter 5 deals with the famous episodes of Katkov’s interference in the artistic realization of two of Dostoevsky’s most important novels, Crime and Punishment (1866) and The Devils (1871-72). In this chapter I revisit Soviet literary historiography of these moments of conflict and attempt to restore a more balanced view of Katkov’s interventions.

The final chapter describes the Pushkin Celebration of 1880, in which Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and Katkov all played prominent roles, from the viewpoint of its status as a kind of summing-up of Katkov’s literary career.  The Brothers Karamazov, the last important literary work to be published in the Russian Herald, was appearing in installments at the time of the Pushkin Celebration, and it was a major factor in the way that Dostoevsky’s Pushkin speech was received. In particular, I read Turgenev’s and Dostoevsky’s Pushkin speeches, as well as Katkov’s own 1880 essay on Pushkin, against the background of the appreciation of Pushkin by the German critic Varnhagen von Ense that was translated and published by Katkov in 1839.

The conclusion considers the nature of Katkov’s role as both editor and patron. As a writer of articles and editorials, Katkov presented a clear program for Russian literature, which was to affirm the political and historical importance of the Russian nationality as expressed through its language. As a powerful and entrepreneurial publisher, he also sought, encouraged, and paid for the writing of the works that were to embody that program, the works we now recognize as among the greatest achievements of Russian literature.


Susanne Fusso is Professor of Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies at Wesleyan University. She is the author of Designing Dead Souls: An Anatomy of Disorder in Gogol (1993) and Discovering Sexuality in Dostoevsky (2006; paperback 2007). She contributed articles on Dostoevsky to the recent collections Before They Were Titans: Early Works of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy (2015) and Dostoevsky Beyond Dostoevsky: Science, Religion, Philosophy (2016), and to the forthcoming Oxford University Press volume Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment: Philosophical Perspectives. She translated Sergey Gandlevsky’s autobiographical novel Trepanation of the Skull (2014), and is now completing a translation of his novel IllegibleEditing Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy: Mikhail Katkov and the Great Russian Novel was published in September 2017.

Revolutionary Dostoevsky

by Sarah J. Young

How might we think of Dostoevsky as a radical writer? In his later years he certainly seemed anything but. From his searing critique of nihilist ideas in Notes from Underground and Crime and Punishment, and his scathing portrayal of revolutionaries in Demons, to his increasingly virulent Orthodox nationalism and support for the authoritarian Tsarist regime expressed in his Diary of a Writer, his reactionary views appear to be in no doubt. Yet he understood the depths of human misery and the need for utopian visions and the transformation of society. He always maintained an interest in social justice that seems contrary to his political position, and his death was mourned by thousands of radical students. In his youth he did move in revolutionary circles, and much later acknowledged that even if he might not have found been a leader of such a movement, he was, and remained, capable of being a follower. His novels – typically of their focus on the extremes of human behaviour – show that fanatical atheism and fervent religious faith are two sides of the same coin, something he saw as a particularly Russian trait. Was this then just a reflection of the tensions in his own character and the ideological transition he experienced, or perhaps sought, within himself?

Revolutionary-DostoevskyAs a writer Dostoevsky was anything but traditional. His consistent questioning of reality and of the meaning – and possibility – of realism led him to experiment with novelistic form and made him a major precursor of modernism. He was an important influence on Russian Symbolism, German Expressionism and French Existentialism. Prototypes for many of the narrative innovations in James Joyce’s Ulysses can be found in Dostoevsky’s early novella The Double. Yet he is beyond any particular ‘ism’ himself. His polyphonic technique, identified in the theorist Mikhail Bakhtin’s seminal study The Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, pits voices, characters and ideas against each other. The religious faith the author himself espoused features among those voices, but is frequently challenged and seldom dominates. This multiplicity of contradictory voices is responsible for the proliferation of different interpretations of Dostoevsky over the last century and a half, and continues to give rise to new interpretations across various disciplines – from the humanities to the sciences – to this day.

These questions about Dostoevsky’s novelistic experimentation, the innovative readings he provokes from so many different perspectives, and their relation to the place of the author on the reactionary/radical divide, are at the heart of the conference Revolutionary Dostoevsky: Rethinking Radicalism taking place at UCL-SSEES on 20-21 October 2017. We will see how Dostoevsky reflects the political, social, ethical and religious dilemmas of every age. His own critique of terrorism placed him firmly within the political discourse of his milieu and acted as inspiration for subsequent generations of revolutionaries and their philosophical opponents.  Moving to the present day, Dostoevsky continues to illuminate the political, social and philosophical realms, but perhaps more surprisingly, we will discover his role in negotiating the digitally mediated world and the problems of artificial intelligence. Seeing the world through Dostoevsky’s eyes and novels always offers radical solutions.

It was perhaps inevitable in a new age of upheaval and populism, amidst Trumpism and Brexit, as well as the centenary of the 1917 revolutions, that Demons would prove central to a number of contributions. Speakers will consider, among other things, the role of provocateurs, connections between mental illness and politics, the spectre of mortality and possibility of spiritual revolution. The form and genre of this uniquely weird novel also come into focus, both as an experimental technique for shaping its opposition to political radicalism, and as a mode of narrating the unstable society and self.

That sense of instability – evident from Dostoevsky’s earliest works – underlies new approaches to problems of modern (and postmodern) subjectivity. Questions up for discussion include human vulnerability, radical conceptions of guilt, and the roots of revolt in shame and boredom, and different readings of motifs of death, resurrection, and dying again. Instability is also fundamental to innovative interpretations of Dostoevsky’s narrative strategy. A queer theological reading of Prince Myshkin will shed new light on the ways in which past, present and future might be different in Dostoevsky’s novels, while attention to aborted plot lines and the presence (or rather, absence) of babies provides the key to some of the other extremes of Dostoevsky’s novelistic world. Such radical narrative features and the subjectivities they shape ultimately subvert any conception of reality as stable in Dostoevsky’s works.

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Speakers from the UK, USA and Russia, from those starting out on their research careers to some of the most senior and respected scholars in the field, will debate these topics and others over a day and a half that promises to be thought-provoking and controversial, even, in true Dostoevskian mode, scandalous. Certainly Carol Apollonio’s keynote address, ‘Dostoevsky the Bolshevik’, promises to start proceedings on a provocative note. For information about that, and more details of the conference programme and registration, click here.

The conference will also feature the launch of a new translation of Crime and Punishment, published by Oxford University Press.

The hashtag for the conference will be #Dostoevsky2017.

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Revolutionary Dostoevsky: Rethinking Radicalism is supported by the SSEES FRINGE Centre, UCL’s Institute for Advanced Studies, the UCL Global Engagement Fund, and Oxford University Press.


Sarah J. Young is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at University College London. Her book, Dostoevsky’s ‘The Idiot’ and the Ethical Foundations of Narrative: Reading, Narrating, Scripting, was published in 2004. She blogs about her research on www.sarahjyoung.com and tweets on @Russianist.

This post has been cross-posted from www.sarahjyoung.com.

Dostoevsky and Elijah the Prophet

by Robert Mann

No one taught you that Raskolnikov confesses on Elijah’s Day, a major holiday in prerevolutionary Russia. On this holiday up to 100,000 people would gather near the Church of Elijah, which was built beside the gunpowder factory to protect it from explosions. Elijah was believed to control rain, fire and lightning, a provenance that he inherited from the Slavic thunder god Perun when ancient Rus’ transitioned to the Christian faith. When more rain was needed for crops, people turned to Elijah. When there was too much rain, again they appealed to Elijah. In some communities Elijah had two hypostases and even two churches: Wet Elijah (needed in times of drought) and Dry Elijah (who could stop excessive rain). As a harbinger of the Last Judgment he was seen as fierce, fiery and ominous, but at the same time he was the generous provider of rain and abundance. All rain, thunder and lightning came from Elijah. Even in the early twentieth century, Russian folk would make the sign of the cross at the sound of thunder. The rumbling was attributed to Elijah’s chariot as it lumbered across the stormclouds. And a thunderstorm was always expected on Elijah’s Day (July 20 on the old calendar, August 2 on the new).

How do we know that Raskolnikov confesses on Elijah’s Day? It really makes little difference whether the spectacular thunderstorm that is the prelude to his confession is precisely the Elijah’s Day storm that was expected each year or just another one of Elijah’s rainstorms. However, we can say with confidence that it is the proverbial storm of Elijah’s Day, July 20, that soaks and batters Raskolnikov as he wanders around the city all night in spiritual torment. The first words of the novel are “in the beginning of July”. One can assume, therefore, that the action begins sometime in the first week of the month. Although the story’s chronology is not explicitly defined, it appears that around fourteen days go by before the confession. This takes us to the period July 15-22. For over two weeks there has been no rain in Petersburg. It is hot, humid and unpleasant. And so, looming behind the storm is the traditional folkloric expectation of a storm on July 20. (“It might not rain today, but surely there will be rain on Elijah’s Day.”) In addition, it is a very special thunderstorm – a spectacular, torrential deluge with lightning that illuminates the sky for five seconds at a time. Ilya Petrovich, to whom Raskolnikov confesses, is a reflection of Elijah as he is perceived in popular belief. His name is Ilya ‘Elijah’. He is fiery-tempered and is depicted with all sorts of imagery pertaining to thunder and lightning. He lets loose “with all his thunderbolts” at one visitor. His nickname is Gunpowder, which elicits associations with the boom of thunder and with the Church of Elijah at the gunpowder factory. (In the water of the Rzhevka, just upstream from the church, you can still see the huge millstones that were used for grinding the powder ingredients.) Thus, beaten down by Elijah’s storm, Raskolnikov confesses on Elijah’s Day to a booming Elijah, who is an assistant superintendent in the police force – much as Elijah in folk belief functions as a sort of policeman at God’s side, reminding mortals of their sins and Judgment with his lightning.

The imagery and symbolic filigree go far beyond the few details I have mentioned here. The discovery of the Elijah leitmotif in Dostoevsky’s fiction is perhaps the most far-reaching of all textual discoveries in his works, although it has been completely ignored among Dostoevsky scholars. Significantly, this symbolism begins in his early works written before his arrest and exile. The enigmatic novella The Landlady is virtually deciphered by the Elijah allusions. Its central, mysterious figure – the gruff old Ilya Murin – is an earthly emanation of the fierce Elijah, not a demonic power as he is ordinarily seen by readers who aren’t aware of Elijah’s role in early Russian culture. And, as with Raskolnikov, Elijah is victorious in the end – the same Christian pattern that we find in Dostoevsky’s later writing. The rebellious young freethinker returns to the flock.

All of the storms that one finds in Dostoevsky’s fiction were associated in the writer’s mind with Elijah. I am always asked why Dostoevsky employed Elijah symbolism so frequently. The answer lies in his overarching theme – his focus on conscience, Judgment, and his belief in a uniquely Russian spirituality, the “Russian soul”. In order to portray that spirituality he needed emblems of a specifically Russian Christianity. Jesus and Mary, as portrayed in the Bible, are universal figures in the Christian faith; there is nothing specifically Slavic about them. By the time he began his writing career, he settled on the Russian folkloric Elijah and all the beliefs pertaining to him as his chosen emblem of an exceptional Russian spirituality.

The storms in The Eternal Husband, The Insulted and Injured, The Little Hero, The Brothers Karamazov, “Mr. Prokharchin” and other works all evoke the Russian folkloric Elijah. However, only in one work does the author lay bare the Elijah associations in an explicit fashion: The Village of Stepanchikovo and Its Inhabitants. In this humorous Christian allegory of good and evil, the kind and magnanimous Yegor Ilyich Rostanev is a reflection of God and Elijah, while the nasty backbiter Foma Fomich Opiskin is a reflection of the Devil. The denouement comes precisely on Elijah’s Day, the nameday of Rostanev’s son Ilya. And it is during the Elijah’s Day storm that Rostanev finally ejects Foma from his home. As he contemplates his decision, he sits down in a corner and says he will now state his final word. There is a moment’s silence and then the most deafening of all thunder strikes overhead. The gathered visitors and spongers make the sign of the cross and exclaim “Elijah the Prophet!” The thunder is Rostanev’s final word, so to speak – the word of Elijah, the voice of Judgment.

For scholars who know little about Russian folk tradition and have difficulty dealing with spiritual symbols and allegory the climactic expulsion of Foma during the Elijah’s Day storm should be a wake-up call – a signal that Dostoevsky attached special value to Elijah as he is perceived in folk belief. The storm at the climax of Stepanchikovo is a precursor of the punishing storm of Judgment that leads to Raskolnikov’s confession. (A thunderstorm also serves as the backdrop to the finale of The Insulted and Injured, which was published in the seven-year interim between Stepanchikovo and Crime and Punishment.)

The Brothers Karamazov is replete with evocations of Elijah. Various details and motifs link the dying boy Ilyusha, his father Snegiryov and Pyotr Ilyich Perkhotin with Elijah. The conflict between Dmitrii and his father can be compared with Ordynov’s and Raskolnikov’s rebellion against God’s order. And, once again, the climactic moment in the novel’s action – that of Dmitrii’s arrest – comes on the background of a rainstorm. In his desperate quest for money Dmitrii has just gone to Sukhoi Posyolok (Dry Village), led there by a priest from a Church of Elijah (Il’inskii batiushka). But the trip is only a hellish purgatory for Dmitrii. The lumber dealer he finds there is drunk and unconscious, and Dmitrii is nearly asphyxiated by a faulty flue as he tries to sleep. This, so to speak, is the punishing ordeal of Dry Elijah. Soon he is arrested at Mokroye (Wet Village) as the rain comes down. On a spiritual, symbolic level this is the retribution of Wet Elijah.

In the first draft of the novel, Dmitrii is named Il’inskii after a real-life prototype whom the writer met in Omsk prison. Il’inskii had been imprisoned for patricide and served seven years but was subsequently exonerated. Given the Elijah symbolism that Dostoevsky had already been using before his arrest, Il’inskii’s surname must have been an additional factor that played with the writer’s imagination along with the horrific circumstances of the elder Il’inskii’s murder.

bookkod jpeg.JPG.opt173x242o0,0s173x242BrothersJPG.JPG.opt169x235o0,0s169x235This blog piece, by necessity brief, is a tiny introduction to Dostoevsky’s Elijah symbolism, which is examined in greater depth in an ebook that I have published with Amazon called Dostoevsky: What They Don’t Teach You in School. Related titles on paper are The Brothers Karamazov: an Unorthodox Guide; The Landlady; and Tainyi kod Dostoevskogo – Il’ia-prorok v russkoi literature.


Robert Mann is a researcher in Russian literature. His interest in early Russian epic and folklore led to his theory of Kievan tales in which Elijah the Prophet destroys the idol of his pagan predecessor Perun. He maintains that the folkloric hero Il’ia, known as Muromets in recent times, derives directly from the prophet Elijah in tales of the conversion period. His study of Elijah in oral lore led to his discovery of the Elijah leitmotif in Dostoevsky. 

September Notes on July Impressions: Dostoevsky Day 2017

by Tomi Haxhi

After nearly eight years spent studying Russian literature, this summer was to be my first time in Russia, and given my affinity for Dostoevsky, naturally I chose to spend my time in St. Petersburg. My goal, as I told my peers, professors, and host mother, was to experience the city through a distinctly Dostoevskyan lens, for better or worse—to find love under the skies of “White Nights,” or perhaps to lose my mind, haunted relentlessly by my “Double.” Needless to say, the eighth-annual Dostoevsky Day was at the top of my list.

Since its inception in 2009, Dostoevsky Day has steadily grown in size and scope to a city-wide event that includes—but is certainly not limited to—a parade, guided tours, readings, screenings, writing and craft workshops, dance and theatrical performances, with the participation of various museums, theatres, and libraries. Looking at the schedule in preparation for the day of the event was enough to make one’s head spin with the sheer number of options. I quickly understood that it would be an undeniably Herculean task to attend even half of the day’s offerings, so I decided to keep it simple.

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A massive Raskolnikov on stilts!

My day began with one of the event’s centrepieces, the so-called “Dostoevsky Carnival,” a performance on Pioneer Square (the very place of Dostoevsky’s mock-execution), featuring actor-dancers dressed as the author himself and various of his characters. A colourful sea of umbrellas spread out before the stage, the large crowd undeterred by the constant drizzle promised throughout the day. (Indeed, does a Dostoevsky Day without gloomy weather really deserve to be called Dostoevsky Day?) Among the crowd were dispersed another set of actors dressed as Dostoevsky characters, most notably Raskolnikov on massive stilts and carrying a similarly massive axe, and his victim, the old moneylender, both of whom gladly posed for photos and chatted with the eager spectators.

I was surprised to see that the performance featured not only Dostoevsky, but also Pushkin, Gogol, and Turgenev, each accompanied by a handful of his characters (Tolstoy’s absence appeared to me conspicuous and a little humorous). The performance was thus not only a celebration of Dostoevsky, but of the nineteenth-century literature of Petersburg at large. Although Turgenev may not have been a Petersburg writer per se, his inclusion was no doubt essential, if only for the face-off between the author and his parody, the highly affected Karmazinov from Dostoevsky’s Demons: 

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Turgenev and Karmazinov face off

Funnily enough, the whole performance reminded me of the literary fête so humorously depicted in the same novel, though decidedly more successful than poor Yulia Mikhailovna’s literary quadrille, likewise inspired by great literature but rather haphazardly planned in comparison.

Each author had his chance to shine, all in a humourous light, with performances set to a mash-up of classical and contemporary music. Pushkin’s Onegin and Tatiana featured in a fantasy scene in which Tatiana has her revenge and shows Onegin just who’s boss. Gogol’s heroes followed, looking a motley crew to say the least. Solokha and the devil, from Gogol’s “Christmas Eve,” did a seductive little number to the beat of Ukrainian folk music mixed with heavy rock, while Akaky Akakievich did an interpretive dance with none other than his beloved overcoat.

The performance took an undeniably somber turn with the appearance of Fyodor Mikhailovich himself, though it goes without saying that he received the largest applause. Raskolnikov, Sonya, and Porfiry Petrovich performed a little game of cat-and-mouse, after which their author stepped in to resolve the conflict, addressing Raskolnikov personally. But the scene stealer, in my opinion, was the heartbreaking contemporary dance by Prince Myshkin and Nastasya Filippovna, set to Regina Spektor’s “Apres Moi,” the pain evident in the dancers’ faces and broken movements, the whole dance leading to a breaking point without resolution.

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Nastasya Filippovna and Myshkin dance

(A video of the dance can be found here, with thanks to Jack McClelland)

I devoted the second part of my day to a walking tour dedicated to Dostoevsky’s early years of activity and his earliest works, “Poor Folk,” “The Double,” and “White Nights” (another walking tour was devoted entirely to Crime and Punishment). The tours took place every 30 minutes, setting off in front of the statue of the author facing Vladimirskaya Church, just steps away from the Dostoevsky Museum, what was once his final place of residence. At each stop, a different high-school aged student, having spent a good part of the year studying the author’s life and works at the Dostoevsky Museum, would explain the relevance of the location to the work in question and to Dostoevsky’s life at the time of writing. As Dostoevsky never had a permanent place of residence, a number of his apartments are spread out throughout the city centre, allowing for a lengthy walking tour.

Dostoevsky Day, as we found out, takes place at the beginning of July in reference to Crime and Punishment, perhaps the most canonical of all Petersburg novels. It is at this time that Raskolnikov commits the murder at the centre of the novel. The tour led us from Dostoevsky’s first apartment, where he composed “Poor Folk,” to the very courtyard corner where Makar Devushkin and Varvara Dobroselova would glance at one another from their respective windows, and to the bank of the Fontanka, where Dostoevsky was first introduced to Belinsky, the famed critic who would guarantee the author’s foothold in the world of literature.

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Event posters

Just as the tour drew to a close, I was lucky enough to stumble onto the Bookstore Courtyard on the Fontanka, where there were hours of activities and performances planned—there was no need to look anywhere else for the third part of my day. Inside the library, a number of artists led their own workshops—from calligraphy, to colour theory, painting, and collage art, all inspired by the works of the author. Outside, meanwhile, took place a reading of the most “enigmatic” passages from The Brothers Karamazov, followed by a discussion between a playwright and a director on the topic of Dostoevsky’s works on the theatrical stage.

My favourite part, however, took place on the main stage: three monologues performed by three different actors from the St Petersburg Philharmonia, each directed by People’s Artist Yuri Tomoshevsky. The first monologue was taken from Dostoevsky’s unfinished first novel, Netochka Nezvanova, and the second from the short story “Bobok,” both of which I have never read, though the first performance, especially, convinced me that I must. 

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Katerina Ivanovna’s monologue

The third and most affecting was taken from Crime and Punishment and performed by an actress in the part of Katerina Ivanovna. The scene in question: chapter III of part V, Marmeladov’s funeral, when Luzhin accuses Sonya of stealing the hundred-rouble note from his room, leading Katerina Ivanovna further into her fragile, semi-lucid state. Performed with great breadth of feeling, the actress brought to life one of my favourite characters of the novel in a scene that was, in all honesty, difficult to watch. She captured not only the pitiful helplessness of the character, but likewise her aspirations to dignity, as well as her earnest love toward Sonya. 

After the monologues followed a short round of trivia (where and how, for example, does Raskolnikov hide the axe on the way to the murder?), and a screening of the 1957 Italian adaptation of White Nights directed by Luchino Visconti followed the trivia—but after six hours of performances and activities, I was wiped. For the latecomers or the truly dedicated, events were planned well into the night.

In the end, I was heartened to notice that Petersburg’s love for Dostoevsky cuts across all generations. Families with children, groups of friends, and many lone spectators of all ages could be seen throughout the day. Not only the spectators, but the participants themselves ranged in age from adolescence to the elderly. And although Dostoevsky has a certain reputation for being undeniably gloomy, the audiences and participants turned to the author not only with great respect, but with great humour.

As I mentioned earlier, I chose to spend my time in Petersburg because of its famed literary reputation. I feared, however, that its literary engagement may have waned in the current day, a trend we have all noticed, at least in the West, in the age of smartphones and immediate gratification in 140 characters or less. I am happy to say that Dostoevsky Day proved all of my fears unfounded. Dostoevsky continues to inspire artists and audiences alike with his unwavering faith in the beauty, goodness, and strength of the human spirit.


Tomi Haxhi is a PhD student in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Columbia University. He received an MA in Slavic Languages and Literatures from the University of Toronto in 2016. He hopes to return to St Petersburg soon, having hatched a madcap plan to make a Napoleon of himself.

All of the images that appear in this post are © Tomi Haxhi