What Can Prince Teach Us About Dostoevsky?

by Fiona Bell

Prince was not a fox.

Well, he was sexy. But within Isaiah Berlin’s paradigm, at least, he was an unmistakable hedgehog. And his big idea – that Christian love will save us – is Dostoevsky’s.

But their paths to God could not have been more different. For Prince, spirituality entails the uninhibited expression of the ego. Dostoevsky, however, views the ego’s destruction as a prerequisite for spiritual progress. This essential difference explains the artists’ contrasting narrative styles and approaches to sexuality. Dostoevsky offers many voices but only supports one self-abnegating vision of spirituality. Prince shares only his own voice but reveals countless – often erotic – paths to God. This strange comparison is (besides the obsessive preoccupation of a Prince superfan) an exciting way to reexamine the role of the self in sexuality, spirituality, and authorship.

For Prince, “funk is about rules.”[1] It’s ordered, harmonic, and – in his case – undeniably monologic. In his first five albums, Prince played every instrument on each track. And while he needed a band for live performances, he was not exactly known for his musical dialogism. In fact, Prince’s resistance to teamwork is a subplot of the movie Purple Rain. Having alienated his band with his diva behavior, The Kid descends into depravity and performs the sleazy single, “Darling Nikki.” Though The Kid learns his lesson by the end of the movie, reuniting with the band and performing a triumphant “Purple Rain,” Prince himself apparently didn’t. Throughout his career, he cycled through dozens of bands, constantly inviting and ousting members, appreciating virtuosity but rarely permitting another artist to rival his own supremacy. The result is a body of work that is stamped with Prince’s voice, touched by others but never defined by them.

Even on a lyrical level, when Prince simulates dialogue, he simply emphasizes his ingrained monologic tendencies. The outro of his 1987 song “If I Was Your Girlfriend” is a great example:

Can I see you?
I’ll show you
Why not?
You can think it’s because I’m your friend I’ll do it for you
Of course I’ll undress in front of you!
And when I’m naked, what shall I do?
How can I make you see that it’s cool?
Can’t you just trust me?
If I was your girlfriend you could
Oh, yeah, I think so
Listen, for you naked I would dance a ballet
Would that get you off?
Then tell me what will!
If I was your girlfriend, would you tell me?

Several times in this excerpt – “Oh, yeah, I think so,” or “Then tell me what will!” – the speaker supposedly responds to a comment his love interest has just made. But by omitting her voice, Prince privileges his own monologic desire over the lovers’ dialogue. Such moments are reminiscent of Dostoevsky in A Writer’s Diary or the Underground Man in Notes from the Underground, when the narrator imagines a skeptical reader’s response and responds to his criticisms preemptively. “If I Was Your Girlfriend” leaves the listener with a similar impression of the speaker’s desperation.

Yet, as Bakhtin noted, it makes sense for love songs to be monologic. What else can the poet do but describe their own desire? Prince hinted at this truth – with his characteristically sly smirk – in a 2004 performance of “Cream,” telling the crowd: “I wrote this while looking in the mirror.”

Of course, Dostoevsky’s work is famously dialogic. His prose, unlike Prince’s music, is characterized by a cacophony of unorchestrated voices. For that reason, any expressions of intimate experience – either sexual or spiritual – belong to his characters, not necessarily to him. Thanks to this dialogism, Dostoevsky is able to describe unconventional sexualities without directly endorsing them.

Still, the author saw a moral danger in writing about sexuality. He once attempted to solve this problem by suggesting that art neutralizes reality, and therefore nullifies the threat of sexuality: “Here reality has been transformed, having passed through art, having passed through the fire of pure, chaste inspiration and through the poet’s artistic thought.”[2] Part of art’s value is its ability to sanitize the world’s depravity.

Prince certainly doesn’t pretend that the eroticism in his music isn’t his own. His characteristic monologism leaves no room for doubt. That’s what makes Prince’s music so uniquely vulnerable. It’s also what prompts some people to wrinkle their noses: they’re encountering someone’s naked sexuality, unable to attribute the strangeness to anyone but the artist himself. The intensity of listeners’ responses – discomfort and awkwardness or, equally, excitement and arousal – demonstrates that sexuality isn’t always neutralized when it’s turned into art, as Dostoevsky suggested.

In his oeuvre, Prince gives us a vivid, realistic portrait of sexuality, with its sanctity, its unpredictability, and its contradictions. Even though his music itself is monologic, within this single perspective he manifests a type of dialogism that Bakhtin would appreciate. Prince adored love without sex, but he also saw the beauty of sex without love, or, rather, sex as an expression of universal love. In his view, the selfishness of erotic love was not at odds with the selflessness of Christian love. Both were sacred, and they fed into one another. In his 1996 cover of the Bonnie Raitt song, “I Can’t Make U Love Me,”  Prince adds this recitative interlude: “In this bedroom/church, U can guess the offering.”

Some of Prince’s dirtiest lyrics appear alongside his most heartfelt religious appeals. In “Controversy,” he recites the entire Lord’s Prayer. “Darling Nikki,” the fifth track on the 1984 album Purple Rain, was the impetus for the creation of the Parents Music Resource Center, which censored music deemed unsuitable for children. The song is sultry and raw, with unambiguous lyrics about masturbation and a one-night stand. But the track ends with gospel-style vocals, which, played in reverse, are: “Hello, how are you? / Fine, fine, ’cause I know that the Lord is coming soon / Coming, coming soon.”

Unlike Dostoevsky, Prince doesn’t believe that suffering improves the soul. Instead, he views sex as a healing force for the “I,” the “you,” and the world. This force is chaotic, joyful, powerful, and – to draw on another Bakhtinian idea – carnivalesque. Prince channels this force in his music, joyously challenging the established understanding of sexuality in American culture. Though music composition was an Apollonian act for Prince, his dancing was an unconfined, Dionysian release of energy. Zadie Smith has written about the ephemerality of Prince’s style: “It was the greatest thing you ever saw and yet its greatness was confined to the moment in which it was happening.”[3]

Bakhtin formed the idea of the carnivalesque in opposition to monologism. And indeed, Prince’s belief in the ordered nature of funk is at odds with the carnivalesque mode, which necessitates the renunciation of order and assimilation into the crowd. Still, Prince managed to evoke the carnivalesque in his monologic music, just as a street performer is both a leader and member of the crowd. The best example is his performance of “Gett Off” at the 1991 VMAs, where he appears in a Boschian, pornographic hellscape, clad in a lace-patterned, assless suit. Prince flaunts his backside with self-assurance and a smirk, seeming to acknowledge the ridiculousness of it all, the silliness of sexuality in general. At one point in the song he promises to “Strip your dress down / Like I was strippin’ a Peter Paul’s Almond Joy.” Yes, the candy bar. To my mind, there’s no better evocation of the carnivalesque’s obsession with the body, its mixture of satanic and Christian elements, its riotous humor, than this performance.

According to Bakhtin, the carnivalesque mode generates fearlessness, as the crowd laughs in the face of the establishment. This is exactly the spirit of Prince’s music: he laughs at racism, at homophobia, at all the world’s evils. He gives his audience permission to do the same. But his collaborators and his listeners are only free to defy convention because Prince has already bared himself. And his greatest wish is that others would follow suit, as he expresses in the famous lines from “Controversy”: “People call me rude, I wish we were all nude / I wish there was no black and white, I wish there were no rules.” Prince was the leader of a widespread carnival, empowering others – especially the Black and queer communities – to be just as vulnerable as he was. This is the enduring power of his music.

Although dialogism is associated with tolerance, Dostoevsky’s overall depiction of sexuality is not very accepting. He portrays the simultaneous holiness and sinfulness of a single human being, but rarely celebrates it. In fact, Dostoevsky’s most indisputable heroes – Prince Myshkin, Alyosha Karamazov, and children – don’t even experience this dissonance. His characters’ sexualities are ultimately at the service of his greater point about salvation.

By contrast, Prince’s work suggests that the ideal discourse on sexuality is an unabashed, monologic expression of a “Dirty Mind.” In his own way, Prince makes an even stronger argument about God than Dostoevsky does. By accepting all the aspects of his consciousness – through a monologic exploration of the self – Prince learns how to accept everyone else. His vision of Christian love relies on the construction, not the destruction, of the self.

Later in life, Prince’s self-acceptance was shaken and, consequently, so was his tolerance for others. After becoming a Jehovah’s Witness in 2001, he stopped singing swear words and erased many sexual lyrics from his oeuvre. The queer community was understandably upset in 2008 when he denounced gay marriage.[4] Many Dostoevsky scholars experience a similar disappointment upon reading the author’s writings on Jewish people and women. Yet, we continue to cherish these artists for the same reason that they believed God wouldn’t give up on humanity: their striving is so heartfelt.

Prince’s unfinished memoir is being released by Penguin Random House on October 29th. I’m so excited for another chance to witness his joyous, fervent, smirking struggle for transcendence.

Notes

[1] Piepenbring, Dan. “The Book of Prince.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 9 Sept. 2019, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/09/09/the-book-of-prince.
[2] Fusso, Susanne. Discovering Sexuality In Dostoevsky. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2006. Page 6.
[3] Smith, Zadie. “Zadie Smith: Dance Lessons for Writers.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 29 Oct. 2016, www.theguardian.com/books/2016/oct/29/zadie-smith-what-beyonce-taught-me.
[4] Hoffman, Claire. “Soup with Prince.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 16 Nov. 2008, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2008/11/24/soup-with-prince.


Fiona Bell recently completed an MSt degree in Russian at Oxford University, after earning her B.A. in Slavic Languages and Literatures at Princeton University. She is currently working as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Ulyanovsk, Russia. In Fall 2020, she will enter Yale University’s PhD program in Slavic Languages and Literatures, where she plans to focus on Russian theater and performance studies.

Novokuznetsk: A Love Story

by Carol Apollonio

The blog post below is cross-posted on Bloggers Karamazov from Chekhov’s Footprints, a travel blog by Carol Apollonio documenting her journey tracing Chekhov’s journey from European Russia to Sakhalin this fall. You can read the original post here.

The thing about exile is that it is far away.

Dostoevsky was sent to Semipalatinsk as a common soldier after his release from the Omsk fortress  on March 2, 1854. The city is now called “Semey,” and it is now in Kazakhstan.  Find Omsk in the map (under the “A” in “Russian Federation”) and slide down to the southeast until you see the second little red airplane. Like Omsk and other key locations on our journey, Semipalatinsk is on the Irtysh River.

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Outside Dostoevsky circles, Semipalatinsk is best-known as a nuclear weapons testing facility, and the location of the first Soviet nuclear bomb test in 1949. For us Dostoevsky fanatics, though, its key attraction is its Dostoevsky Museum. In normal circumstances (whatever that means), this would put the town squarely on my itinerary.  But not only do you need to veer wildly off the main route (whatever that is); you also have to get a visa to enter Kazakhstan. I am not proud of this, but I chickened out.

Instead, I decide to follow a love story.

This means a significant detour from the Trans-Siberian, also, I might say, not for the chicken-hearted, to the city of Novokuznetsk (formerly Stalinsk, and before that, Kuznetsk).  A nice straight line would take me from Novosibirsk to Krasnoyarsk. But down to Novokuznetsk it is quite the zig-zag: a night train from Novosibirsk, a few hours in Novokuznetsk, and then  back on the next night train to Novosibirsk. Seems arduous, but compared with Dostoevsky’s travel from Semipalatinsk to Kuznetsk by dusty horse carriage, it’s nothing.

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Your train arrives at 6:00 am.  Too early for breakfast. You’ve figured, OK, let’s get oriented and find the museum, then we can sit and have some coffee nearby for a couple of hours before our date with the muzeishchiki after the museum opens at 11:00.

There’s plenty of time, so why not walk? A half-hour on the hoof down a long, chilly, gray avenue makes it clear that Novokuznetsk is larger in reality than it seemed to be on the map.  So you subject your cell phone to a vicious beating, and then set to learning about public transit. It’s not that hard, really.

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Personally, I love transit systems that include conductors who take coins and can answer questions.

Eventually, after a very long spell of gazing out the window at the broad gray avenues of Novokuznetsk (a landscape ominously devoid of eating establishments), I am deposited near this church.  Turn your back to it and look across the street:

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Progress! Now for that coffee, a muffin, a dose of wi-fi, the New York Times on my iPad, a nice little dip into the WC….

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HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA!

There are some industrial facilities, a couple of storage lots, a bit of what could be called traffic at 7:30 a.m. (trucks, and and a couple of guys walking on the side of the road in weathered work clothes, carrying what appear to be lunch bags). A car or two. The barking of invisible dogs.

It dawns on me that there will not be coffee, or food. Nor will there be even a place to sit down, for it is muddy on Dostoevsky Street. I try not to think about what I must look like to the natives, train-disheveled, bespectacled, bewildered, scowling at my cell phone.

One good thing; my (OK, all right, our) navigation is good:

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Looks pretty closed up–after all, it is 8:00 on a Saturday morning.  Three hours to opening. I could kind of lean on the wall for a couple of those hours, I guess. Or do a Dmitry Karamazov.

I choose the latter. Right about where you see my big-city gray bag hanging on the palings, I make my move. A person of my age and dignity level really shouldn’t be clambering, but after some huffing and puffing and a couple of snags, it works. I’m in!

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I dust myself off, neaten things up on my person, prowl the yard, and reconnoiter.

Footsteps…

A man walks through the gate. It was not locked.

It is Alexander Evgenievich. Alexander Evgenievich is the night guard.  He does not shoot me. Instead he gently walks me into the (unlocked) door of the museum and introduces me to Olga, who is sitting quietly there behind the reception desk. He says to Olga, “feed her.”

Olga doesn’t seem to notice my bedraggled state, nor the fact that I have just broken into the Dostoevsky Museum. She takes me by the hand and walks me to her cozy house down the street. Oladi, fresh ham, vegetables, and hot tea magically appear. I have fallen down the rabbit hole. Time, which 15 minutes ago was a terrible burden, opens up infinite possibilities at the place Russia does best: the kitchen table.

Once calm has been restored, and we have shared life experiences, and I have savored this sublime breakfast, Olga walks me back to the Museum.

selo-stepanchikovo-dress--300x225There she hands me over tenderly to the museum’s Deputy Director for Research Elena Dmitrievna Trukhan, who takes me through a couple of special exhibits in the main building. One of these displays artifacts and photographs of theatrical productions of Dostoevsky’s work done here by visiting directors. I am lucky to catch the exhibit, which is to be taken down TODAY. vl.semyonovich-with-camera-676x901Even better, I meet the photographer, Vladimir Semyonovich Pilipenko, a kind and very alert observer who has traveled all over Russia taking pictures. He’s not about to stop today. Indeed, Vladimir Semyonovich’s photos will soon appear in a report about our day together with Elena Dmitrievna at the museum.

The other exhibit is a charming collection of children’s art inspired by the great children’s writer and poet Kornei Chukovsky. The children have done collages and paper sculptures of Chukovsky characters.

Here, as elsewhere on my travels, I’m deeply impressed with the Russian emphasis on arts education, and with the ways museums are reaching out to children, not just as places where they can learn about famous people, places and events, but where they can interact with history and literature, and, importantly, create art themselves.

Yes, science is important. Art is equally important, and you need it for your soul.

marias-house-number-225x300Dostoevsky made three trips to (pre Novo-) Kuznetsk, spending a total of 22 days here, all in pursuit, and finally conquest, of Maria Dmitrievna Isaeva, whom he married in Kuznetsk in February of 1857. He had met her previously in Semipalatinsk, before her husband was transferred here. Then her husband died here….

1st visit: 2 days in June 1856: during this first visit to Kuznetsk, Dostoevsky learned that he had a rival for her hand (Nikolai Vergunov);

2nd visit: 5 days in November 1856: having received his promotion to the rank of ensign (praporshchik)– he came to make an official proposal of marriage to Maria Dmitrevna;

3d visit: 15 days in January-February 1857: during this visit he married Maria Dmitrievna in the Odigitrievskaya Church, and spent the first days of his married life before returning with her and her son to Semipalatinsk.

Just down Dostoevsky Street from the museum’s main building, you can visit the house of the tailor Dmitriev, where Maria and her first husband Alexander Isaev rented a room.  Wonder what she would have thought if she could have known her house was going to be on Dostoevsky Street? Wonder if anyone thought of naming it Maria Dmitrievna Street?

After posing this question, I received a fascinating answer from Elena Dmitrievna. Turns out, since the house technically did not belong to Dostoevsky, for years officials refused to allow a museum to be opened here. Only with the devoted efforts of local enthusiasts, with the support of the Dostoevsky Museum in Moscow, not to mention the sheer force of historical memory, did the museum finally open in 1980. The curious can read the full story here:

«Додумались» (в плохом смысле) чиновники, работающие в культуре. Очень долгое время они не давали открыть музей Достоевского в Новокузнецке, всячески препятствовали этому, называя дом не «Домиком Достоевского», как зовут сейчас его жители Новокузнецка, а Домом Исаевой, Домом портного Дмитриева. Их аргумент был «железным» и непробиваемым: «Не в каждом доме, где у писателя случился роман, надо открывать музеи».

Такой узкий краеведческий подход к событию (без культурного и литературного контекста) сделал своё грустное дело: открыть музей в Новокузнецке удалось только в 1980 году – то есть спустя 130 лет (!!!) после событий в Кузнецке.   Вообще удивительно, как это удалось сделать! Если бы не помощь руководства музея Достоевского в Москве, если бы не местные энтузиасты-краеведы Новокузнецка, если бы не человеческая память, этого бы вовсе не случилось.   И тогда еще одно место, связанное с жизнью Достоевского в Сибири, навсегда было утрачено.

Anyway, the house–the museum–is beautiful.

-и-кэрол-4-e1570074333229-249x300Elena takes me through the house.

It is not an ordinary museum; rather it offers a kind of adventure, a three-dimensional experience or even performance that loops in the story of Dostoevsky’s courtship of Maria with the larger story of the way his time with her influenced his writing. Novokuznetsk is a Dostoevsky city because of Maria’s story.

Elena tells me this story, leading me from room to room. Vladimir Semyonovich is with us.

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The diorama shows what Kuznetsk looked like when Maria lived here. The different rooms each offer a part of her story, display documents and artifacts related to her relationship with Dostoevsky, and offer connections to his works.

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Here, for example, are copies of documents registering witnesses to their wedding ceremony, and Dostoevsky’s own scrawled lists of wedding expenses he had to cover. Elena is an active scholar herself, and works in archives to fill out the pictures relating to these years. For example, she found a document recording that Maria Dmitrievna had served as godmother of a baby (of the local citizen Petr Sapozhnikov) during her time in Kuznetsk. And, it turns out (as other scholars discovered), Maria Dmitrievna served as godmother to another child in that family AFTER her marriage. So the question stands; did Maria Dmitrievna and her husband (?!) make another visit to Kuznetsk?! The research continues.

The displays remind us of the ways Dostoevsky drew upon Maria Dmitrievna’s personality when creating characters such as Crime and Punishment‘s Katerina Ivanovna Marmeladova, and even Nastasia Filippovna of The Idiot. I take a quiet minute to ponder what it is, anyway, that writers do with life experience… Back in the museum, Dostoevsky’s famous meditation on the impossibilty of shedding the ego–written by his wife’s deathbed–“Masha is lying on the table,” is exhibited here on the wall.

One emerges from the museum full of impressions and thoughts about what life was like for Maria, and about why this person, time, and place were so formative for Dostoevsky’s life and works.

Elena then walks me around Novokuznetsk, to buildings that were standing during Dostoevsky’s time,

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and to the town’s major attraction, the hilltop fortress, which in addition to its historical value, offers a beautiful view over Novokuznetsk:

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We visit a newly renovated church (glimpsed in the photo above), and a newly built chapel by the train station.

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Tolstoy fans will appreciate the fact that Valentin Bulgakov, the writer’s secretary during the last year of his life, was from Kuznetsk. The name is familiar to anyone who saw the recent movie about Tolstoy’s last year, The Last Station, which draws on Bulgakov’s memoirs. On a longer visit I’d definitely visit the district school where Bulgakov’s father served as inspector–now a branch of the Novokuznetsk Ethnography Museum. Elena shows me the monument to him and Tolstoy: “Teacher and Student” (Учитель и ученик).

But let us not get distracted. Check out the Novokuznetsk Dostoevsky Museum’s website and many activities, including a virtual tour of an earlier iteration of the museum. And recently specialists in 3D graphics have produced a new virtual visit to the museum’s permanent exhibit, “A Guide to Novokuznetsk”: read about it here.

Here’s the actual tour: http://vrkuzbass.ru/muz/nvkz/fmd/

And more! Check them out:

Take my word for it, Novokuznetsk has a lot to offer, and not just to Dostoevsky fanatics like me.

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I am nurtured, mind, body and soul. But I cannot stay….there is a train to catch.


Carol Apollonio is the President of the International Dostoevsky Society and a Professor of the Practice of Slavic and Eurasian Studies at Duke University. Her publications include Dostoevsky’s Secrets: Reading Against the Grain (2009) and The New Russian Dostoevsky: Readings for the Twenty-First Century (2010). 

The Ways That You Know: A Point of Translation in Brothers Karamazov

by Steve Dodson

For quite a few years now, one of my main interests has been reading Russian literature in the original, and I often report on it in my blog Languagehat.  Back in 2012, after a spate of 20th-century reading, I wrote that I had decided to reverse course and go back to the beginning of modern Russian literature, the most basic motive being “a desire to get to Dostoevsky sooner rather than later.”  I got to Dostoevsky and read my way through all his novels and stories, and I have finally reached The Brothers Karamazov — a real thrill!  I am a detail-oriented reader, and I often find myself spending a fair amount of time trying to get to the bottom of a word or allusion.  This one, I think, has implications beyond the specific usage.

At the end of Part One (Book Three, Chapter 11), after a hard day of dealing with difficult people Alyosha offers up a prayer asking God to have mercy on them all that includes the words “У Тебя пути: ими же веси путями спаси их.” Most of this seems clear enough: ‘Thine are the ways (or ‘paths’); by them … by the paths save them.’ But the word веси is impenetrable; in modern Russian it represents various declined forms of the noun весь ‘village,’ which makes no sense here.

However, the text in prerevolutionary spelling has вѣси, and if one has any acquaintance with Old Church Slavic, that is the vital clue: it is the second person singular of the irregular OCS verb вѣсти/вѣдѣти ‘to know,’ whose present-tense forms are вѣмь, вѣси, вѣсть, вѣмы, вѣсте, вѣдѧтъ (modern Russian, of course, has replaced it with the regular знать).  And the preceding ими же is the instrumental plural form of the OCS relative pronoun иже, and is equivalent to modern которыми. So the final clause of the quoted sentence means ‘by the ways that you know, save them.’

Unfortunately, Constance Garnett misunderstood веси as a form of весь ‘all’ and translated “All ways are Thine”; David Magarshack followed her lead, as did Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (“All ways are yours”). David McDuff has “by those same paths then save them”; apparently he chose to ignore веси altogether. Ignat Avsey has “You know the true path and will lead them all to salvation,” which is even farther from the Russian.  (I have not been able to check the versions by Andrew R. MacAndrew or Julius Katzer.) None of them seems to have noticed that веси could not possibly be a form of the word for ‘all.’  And even Victor Terras in his magisterial Karamazov Companion, which goes practically line by line through the novel and explains many difficult aspects of the Russian, completely ignores this, and I have to think he didn’t notice it.

Of course, this would be trivial if it were just a matter of the one phrase; the translations may be incorrect, but they don’t materially change the sense of the original.  But it is a reflection of a larger issue.  Similar phrasing is found in a number of traditional prayers, e.g. “Единый, Ты Сам точию можеши, аще восхочеши, спасти нас ими же веси путями и судьбами,” and it was used, for instance, by Leskov in Некуда (Господи! ими же веси путями спаси его) and Соборяне (Господи, ими же веси путями спаси!).  And in general, OCS forms are common in prerevolutionary literature, especially when it deals with the Orthodox church; any Russian with a religious education was steeped in the psalms, gospels, and prayers read in church, and they were in Church Slavic.  In The Brothers Karamazov, even the gleefully irreligious Fyodor Pavlovich throws around OCS terms like вознепщеваху (‘they thought’) when he feels like it, and Alyosha and the monks frequently use Slavonicisms.  It seems to me that any translator working on authors like Dostoevsky and Leskov, who deal with religion at every turn, should make a point of acquiring at least a basic knowledge of OCS so that they will not be bewildered by passages like the one I deal with here.

As a dramatic example of ignorance on that score, I discovered that Terras in his Companion says of the title of Book Six, Chapter 2, “the whole title is in Church Slavonic.” Here’s the title: “Из жития в бозе преставившегося иеросхимонаха старца Зосимы, составлено с собственных слов его Алексеем Федоровичем Карамазовым.” It is not in Church Slavonic, though bits of it are OCS in origin; for example, the phrase “в бозе” is taken from OCS (бозе being the locative case of бог), but the phrase is familiar and frequently used in modern Russian, usually in the fossilized phrase почил в бозе, and it’s just as much a part of Russian as, say, “à la carte” is of English.  Real OCS is almost as incomprehensible to Russian speakers as Old English is to English speakers, and it needs to be studied, not just treated as equivalent to “archaic-sounding Russian.”


Steve Dodson is a linguist manqué, an editor by profession, and a lover of all things Russian.  Having grown up in Japan, Thailand, and Argentina and put down roots in New York City, he now lives in Western Massachusetts with his wife, two cats, and 5,000 books.

Live Tweets from the XVII International Dostoevsky Symposium

by Vladimir Ivantsov

Below are summaries of selected papers. These summaries are based on live tweets from the IDS 2019 conference and only partially reflect the content of the papers delivered. All the tweets were collected from the hashtag #ids2019, with thanks to prolific conference livetweeters Dr Katia Bowers (on the Society account @DostoevskySoc) and Dr Brian Armstrong (tweeting on his personal account @wittstrong).

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Robin Miller and her Double!

Robin Miller gave a wonderful keynote on “Dostoevsky Writ Small.” (She was the first speaker of the first plenary session). Miller: The “raw life” of the animals, large and small, come to represent “the totality of the universe.” In The Brothers Karamazov “each small thing opens a portal … that creates an aura of the mystical, the fantastic,” into the whole of the universe … “these are the building blocks of Dostoevsky’s fantastic realism.”

Related to Miller’s talk was Zora Kadyrbekova’s paper on animal studies approach to The Idiot. She has argued that animals in the novel help lead or illuminate key themes in the novel and reveal or clarify a character’s moral/spiritual standing. Kadyrbekova: by calling a donkey a human Dostoevsky does not challenge the donkey’s species identity, rather he elevates that donkey to the level of a human, both capable of kindness and selfless service. Dostoevsky does not let the animal’s utility in the novel overtake their animalness, he respects animals’ subjectivity.

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Bakhtin on Love, from Emerson’s slide

Caryl Emerson’s keynote entitled “Bakhtin’s Dostoevsky and the Burden of Virtues” reconsidered the reading of Bakhtin in the Creation of a Prosaics book (co-authored by Emerson and Morson) predicated on Bakhtin’s theoretical understanding of the grace virtues faith, hope and love.

In his keynote, Vladimir Zakharov discussed the beautiful digitization project of Dostoevsky’s notebooks and manuscripts that is underway right now (you can check it out here: http://dostoevsky-archive.ru). Zakharov shares the great resource site from Petrozavodsk State University that has the digitized corpus of the Dostoevskys (not just FMD but also his brother, wife, daughter, etc.) as well as other Russian writers: http://philolog.petrsu.ru.

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Vladimir Zakharov’s keynote

In her paper “Metaphors in the House of the Dead and the Discourse of Peasant Liberation,” Cecilia Dilworth, drawing on Paperno, has made the point that the discourse around emancipation is characterized by particular narrative markers, including Christian imagery and resurrection from the dead. The emancipation language of resurrection did not just apply to the serfs being freed from slavery, but also to the Russian nation being freed from the barbarism of the past; and Notes from the House of the Dead should be read in this context, against the backdrop of emancipation discourse and its contemporaneous Russian cultural context.

Greta Matzner-Gore spoke on “Dostoevsky’s Poetics of Improbability and the Ending of Crime and Punishment.” Matzner-Gore: “the language and logic of statistical theory plays a significant role in the poetics of Crime and Punishment.” Greta has claimed that Dostoevsky chose so many coincidences precisely because they violated statisticians’ norms and laws. Hence, the controversial epilogue of Crime and Punishment does accord with the novel’s aesthetic structure because of its improbability.

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Satoshi Bamba’s paper

Satoshi Bamba’s paper placed the faces of The Idiot in the context of the physiognomic tradition. As Bamba observed, Bakhtin claims that Dostoevsky began not with ideas but with idea-heroes of dialogue (with voices), but we might add he also began with idea-faces.

Bilal Siddiqi spoke on “Materiality in The Idiot and Brothers Karamazov.” Siddiqi: Ivan Karamazov’s slipping away of reality is described through objects that are immaterial, imagined everyday objects. The breaking, missing, failure of everyday objects precisely by virtue of their everydayness signals to Ivan that he is losing his grasp on reality. The obtrusive object can be a source for awakening future events in Myshkin; examples: the pistol, the Chinese vase, and the knife. These objects and their function suggest that Dostoevsky is weaving into that novel a premonitory Myshkin who can see the future to some extent. Does this mean Myshkin carries with him an ability to see an unknown future truth? Perhaps.

For the full twitter narrative, click here. This Wakelet was created by Katia Bowers.


Vladimir Ivantsov is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Russian at Williams College. His research interests include Dostoevsky, his perception in Russian and world culture, and literature and philosophy (especially existentialism and posthumanist criticism). He is a member of the North American Dostoevsky Society Readers Advisory Board.

Reflections on the XVII International Dostoevsky Symposium

compiled by Vladimir Ivantsov and Katya Jordan

The XVII International Dostoevsky Symposium took place at Boston University in July 2019. The Symposium is the triennial meeting of the International Dostoevsky Society; scholars gathered from all over the world for 5 days of papers and discussions of all aspects of Dostoevsky’s works. More information about the XVII Symposium can be found here and you can view the program here.

Here are some reflections collected from participants of the XVII Symposium:

Thanks to the two Russian museums that provided the exhibition. Feinberg’s colourful breakfast scene (1948) could be a Hollywood design for Little Women or Washington Square (no harm in that), while recent artists (Guriev and Zykina) envision Myshkin as a Byzantine Christ and St Petersburg as the desert of temptation. Khruslov’s shimmering Myshkin dominates Rogozhin like a powerful resurrection figure. From now on, Nastasya Fillipovna is Vil’ner’s proud, defiant, child! Thanks again.

– George Pattison

 

A luminous gathering, evidence that Bakhtin was right (!) — those who learn their basic vocabulary from great literature will never be entirely without hope or the ability to express it.   A huge thanks to the tireless organizers.

– Caryl Emerson

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An impromptu toast to Vladimir Zakharov during the opening remarks

This was the most intellectually stimulating Symposium I have ever attended. The plenary talks demonstrated the full range of possibilities for Dostoevsky scholarship: meticulous analysis of drafts; engagement both with the great moral questions and with the tiny detail; digital publication and textual analysis; the writer’s biography; the problem of paradox. The talks about digital analysis reminded me of how much fun this can be, and how much potential it offers for future readings.  And I am in awe of the resources that our Russian colleagues have posted online.

The book presentations were memorable—the authors had to talk extremely fast to share over twenty books within one short hour. Everyone left Thursday’s session smiling, in a congratulatory mood and with a long reading list. As is often the case, the most exciting parts of the Symposium were those animated exchanges during the question-and-answer period and the longer, deeper conversations that they led to.

Tuesday’s plenary session featuring Caryl Emerson and Gary Saul Morson made me recall why I chose to study Dostoevsky, and inspired me to keep on reading, thinking, and talking to people about his works. Well actually, when I think about it, everyone did that. Fortunately, it is a job that will never be done.

– Carol Apollonio

 

The six days with colleagues in Boston have been fabulous; It is difficult to put hierarchy among so many good things that we have experienced during the days of the conference: conversations between us, presentations, smiles of complicity, toasts, good food, pub, Alumni Boston University castle the first evening, our last night in the restaurant on the top of the hub with all so radiant faces … And then Museum Of Fine Arts -Egypt, China, Renaissance, Impressionists, and even a corner with an entire chapel of Catalan Romanesque. My heart still vibrates from all these lovely impressions. Thank you for everything and CONGRATULATIONS for such a wonderful organization.

Warmly,

~ Tamara Djermanovic

 

Besides all those wonderful sessions and events, I would like to mention our tour to the MFA Boston. I was astonished not only by its wonderful collection of European art, but also by its terrific Asian collection, which is competable with Chinese national museums. I want to thank all colleagues, who organized this tour, and especially Anna Weinstein, who answered so many our random questions on our way there (cf. Sergey Kibal’nik’s anecdote about the drowning boy at the closing banquet).

Best regards,

~Xuyang Mi (Сюйян Ми)

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Robin Feuer Miller introduces a panel thinking about economics in Dostoevsky’s works: Vadim Shneyder, Jillian Porter, Jonathan Paine and discussant William Mills Todd, III

I would like to single out a particularly interesting paper I heard during Session 3A: Dostoevsky the Thinker (unfortunately I missed the first two presenters). Olena Bystrova of the Drohobych Ivan Franko State Pedagogical University gave a paper titled “‘На мгновение’ и ‘вдруг’ как слова-фиксаторы фотографического мышления Ф. Достоевского” [“For an Instant” and “suddenly” as Fixer Words in Dostoevsky’s Photographic Thought]. Dr. Bystrova prefaced her paper with a brief presentation about the city of Drohobych in Ukrainian Galicia near the Polish border, in which she discussed the city’s multiethnic and multiconfessional history and its traditional economic basis in salt production (the name of the region of Galicia may come from the Greek word for salt–halas). Among the famous people who called Drohobych home were the Polish Jewish writer Bruno Schulz and the Ukrainian poet Ivan Franko.

The main argument of Bystrova’s paper was that Dostoevsky’s responded to photography in his techniques for representing vision and time. To develop her concept of photographic thinking, Bystrova drew on the ideas of the Ukrainian poet and critic Maik Iohansen (1895–1937), who argued that the significance of photography lay in its capacity to fix an instantaneous moment in time.

Decades before Iohansen, Dostoevsky showed an interest in the capacity of the photograph to capture what is hidden, unnoticed, and momentary. At the same time, Dostoevsky contrasted the rarity with which a photograph—a fundamentally analytical technique—managed to capture a realistic likeness to the work of representational art, which could synthesize from a mass of impressions to reveal the truth of the whole.

Describing the scene in The Idiot where Myshkin breaks the Chinese vase, Bystrova claimed that Dostoevsky’s narrative technique consists of a series of verbal snapshots, sometimes tellingly divided by ellipses. Both “Suddenly” and “for a moment” are lexical markers of Dostoevsky’s photographic thinking according to Bystrova: “suddenly” marks the succession of individual photographic images, while the intermittent stillness of “for a moment” refers to the photograph’s capacity to fix an individual moment in time and break it out of the continuum of duration.

I thought this was a thought-provoking and compelling argument that demonstrated the sensitivity of Dostoevsky’s poetics to the most variegated historical developments.

Best,

~ Vadim Shneyder

 

At the opening reception, Bill Todd reflected with Gary Saul Morson on his review (nearly four decades ago) of two seminal monographs in the history of Dostoevsky scholarship: Gary Saul Morson’s own The Boundaries of Genre: Dostoevsky’s Diary of a Writer and the Traditions of Literary Utopia (from U of Texas P in 1981) and Robin Feuer Miller’s Dostoevsky and The Idiot: Author, Narrator, and Reader (from Harvard UP in 1981). It’s amazing to think of the sustained engagement with Dostoevsky’s work and with each other’s work that they and many other scholars exhibit; it’s also an excellent source of inspiration. 

~ Brian Armstrong

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Armstrong’s photo of Morson and Todd in discussion

I was particularly moved by Professor Caryl Emerson’s keynote address. With her customary eloquence and grace, Caryl offered generous reflections on Bakhtin, virtue, and that difficult and necessary attitude toward love espoused by Dostoevsky’s Zosima—деятельная любовь. Caryl reminds us that dialogue requires patience, and her carefully measured words encourage us to “slow down to better see what’s there.” In times of unchecked aggression and unbridled violence, Caryl’s wisdom remains balm for the living.

~ Justin Trifiro

 

The International Dostoevsky Symposium in Boston was one of the great joys of the summer. Thanks to all who made it such a success. I learned much from each presentation. I was especially intrigued by Anna Bermans’s insight into the paucity of descendants in Dostoevsky’s fiction. Yet I couldn’t help thinking of a wonderfully imaginative and moving poem by Robert Hass in which he imagines “the great-grandson / Of the elder Karamazov brother who fled to the Middle West / With his girlfriend Grushenka.” The poem is entitled, “I Am Your Waiter Tonight and My Name is Dmitri.”

You can hear Hass read the poem here.  And can read the poem here.

~ Paul Contino

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Old and New Presidents of the International Dostoevsky Society: Vladimir Zakharov and Carol Apollonio

Я совершенно согласен с теми словами, которые произнёс Вильям Тодд в завершающий день Симпозиума: из всех прошедших именно этот отличался наиболее высоким научным уровнем. Я был впечатлен и докладами высокого научного уровня, и острыми, но благожелательными дискуссиями, и самой замечательной интеллектуальной атмосферой в Бостоне, которая сопровождала все дни конференции. Особо же мне хотелось поблагодарить Кэрол Аполлонио, за очень деятельную помощь и Юрия Корригана, который очень чутко откликался на пожелания (в том числе, технического характера), как и в целом американских коллег за проявленное ими замечательное гостеприимство. Было бы очень хорошо издать (в том числе, и в «устаревающем» бумажном формате) хотя бы избранные материалы этого Симпозиума.

~ Иван Есаулов (Москва)

 

ХVІІ Конгресс IDS был третьим форумом (после Неаполя и Гранады), на котором я присутствовал.

Могу с уверенностью сказать, что организация, выбор докладов и сопутствующая программа были безупречны.

Я чрезвычайно горжусь и доволен возможностью общения с представителями американской русистики и русской достоевистики. Я знал многих из них раньше, но познакомился с некоторыми из моих коллег сейчас.

Я искренне надеюсь, что наши встречи и сотрудничество продолжатся. Спасибо всем!

С уважением,

~ Проф. д-р Людмил Димитров (София)

Presenters (clockwise from top left): Denis Zhernokleyev, Benamí Barros
Garcia, Zora Kadyrbekova, Bilal Siddiqi, Katya Jordan

 

17 симпозиум IDS был замечательно организован, царила тёплая атмосфера дружбы и любви. Именно такие взаимоотношения между людьми проповедовал Достоевский. Их выразил и тост на прощальном банкете – «За любовь!».

Хорошо то, что каждый день начинался с пленарных заседаний: можно было прослушать много докладов ведущих достоеведов. Особенно понравились доклады Р. Фойер Миллер, К. Эмерсон, В. Захарова, Б.Тихомирова, Ю. Корригана, С. Алое, К. Аполлонио, Б. Барроса.

Очень понравились экскурсии.

Такие встречи вдохновляют на новые творческие достижения и открытия.

~ Галина Федянова, Тамара Баталова

 

Дорогие коллеги!

Бостонская конференция была действительно прекрасной, рабочей и дружеской. Программа была замечательной и секции организованны очень хорошо. Нам, конечно, открылась возможность поговорить со старыми знакомыми и, одновременно, познакомится с новыми коллегами. Техническая поддержка была на высоком уровне (напитки, еда, Интернет связь, экскурсия, музей и проч.). Новое прочтение романа «Идиот» показалось плодотворным (разные взгляды на один роман или на одну тему – это и есть суть симпозиума!). Мне очень понравились дискуссии, которые велись после каждого доклада, а общения и комментарии к докладам не раз продолжались в течение обеда и кофе брейка.

Спасибо организаторам!

~ Ясмина Войводич

 

More presenters (clockwise from top left): Deborah Martinsen, Greta
Matzner-Gore, Justin Trifiro, Sarah Hudspith, Cecilia Dilworth

 

[…] Особый интерес вызвал доклад К. Эмерсон, который ознаменовал существенные изменения в восприятии северо-американскими учеными концепции творчества Достоевского, выдвинутой в ранней книге М.М. Бахтина «Проблемы поэтики Достоевского» (1929): интерпретация произведений писателя вне религиозно-этических категорий была со стороны русского философа, как это явствует из его собственных позднейших свидетельств, вынужденным шагом, который, следовательно, напрасно добровольно повторяют некоторые современные исследователи, слишком доверившиеся постмодернистским представлениям о безусловной относительности бахтинского «диалога».

Больше всего секционных заседаний было посвящено, естественно, проблемам интерпретации романа «Идиот», и в центре внимания докладчиков зачастую оказывался его главный герой, князь Мышкин. В докладах была представлена и первоначальная тенденция восприятия этого героя как безусловного представления писателя о «положительно прекрасном человеке», и тенденция к дегероизации Мышкина, отчетливо проявившаяся в последние десятилетия изучения творчества Достоевского.

Все же в большинстве докладов звучало, как представляется, своего рода новое и во всяком случае более взвешенное представление об этом одном из загадочных образов Достоевского как о «положительно прекрасном человеке», который, тем не менее, все равно, хотя бы вследствие своей человеческой природы, не в силах разрешить трагические противоречия жизни, мучительно переживаемые другими его героями. Кое-что князь Мышкин все же оказывается способен сделать: заронить в душу каждого из них частицу добра и света, которые согревают их в минуты этих переживаний, – причем не только при личном общении с ним.

[…] Охарактеризовать все доклады, заслуживающие упоминания, к сожалению, невозможно, потому что все, что было в программе Симпозиума […] в том или ином отношении заслуживало внимания. Однако поскольку некоторые секционные заседания проходили одновременно, то и возможности прослушать их все не было. И это, может быть, единственный, хотя и исключительно вынужденный, недостаток Симпозиума.

Впрочем, если попытаться взглянуть на него критически, чтобы более целенаправленно работать на совершенствование этого замечательного форума в дальнейшем, то, наверное, далеко не все было так радужно и безоблачно. Очевидно, по-прежнему сказывалась во время работы бостонского Симпозиума одна и та же застарелая проблема в деятельности Международного общества Достоевского. Англоязычное и русскоязычное изучение его творчества – это, как и раньше, во многом параллельные миры. […]

Выступавшие с заключительными словами участники Симпозиума единодушно отметили, что он был организован великолепно и прошел на высоком научном уровне. Были высказаны также надежды на то, что грядущий в 2021 году 200-летний юбилей Достоевского будет отмечен и в России, и за рубежом достойно и содержательно.

Full text is forthcoming in Russkaia Literatura.

Полный текст будет опубликован в журнале Русская литература.

~ С.А.Кибальник

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Dostoevsky authors with their books!


Vladimir Ivantsov is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Russian at Williams College. His research interests include Dostoevsky, his perception in Russian and world culture, and literature and philosophy (especially existentialism and posthumanist criticism). He is a member of the North American Dostoevsky Society Readers Advisory Board. 

Katya Jordan is an Assistant Professor of Russian at Brigham Young University. Her research centers on cultural underpinnings of silence in Russian literature. She is a member of the North American Dostoevsky Society Readers Advisory Board.

The photographs that appear in this post are from the personal collections of Carol Apollonio and Katherine Bowers, unless specified otherwise, and appear with the photographers’ permission.

Travel Tips with Fyodor Mikhailovich (a summer blog post about a winter exhibition)

by Vadim Shkolnikov

If you’re traveling this summer, and you’re stuck in an airport waiting for your delayed flight, annoyed because there aren’t enough places to charge your phone or because they won’t give you the entire can of soda… Imagine our sensitive, somewhat neurotic friend Fyodor Mikhailovich having to deal with the nineteenth-century Russian railway system!  As he wrote in Diary of a Writer in 1877: “So many stops, changing trains, at one station you have to wait three hours.  And all this on top of all the unpleasantness of the Russian railroads, the inconsiderate and almost condescending attitude of the conductors and ‘the authorities.’”

PuteshestvieA recent exhibit at the Russian Railways Museum in St. Petersburg, however, reminds us of the importance of train travel in Dostoevsky’s life—how it invariably influenced his view of the world and figured in his writings.  Fyodor Mikhailovich considered his time to be “the era of railroads.”  “Railroads,” as one of his characters proclaims, “have consumed all our capital and have covered Russia like a spider web.”  The fateful meeting between Prince Myshkin and Rogozhin in The Idiot, of course, took place on the train, and we cannot forget the hapless governor von Lembke from Demons, who obsessively constructed an entire railway station with a train out of paper: “People left the station with suitcases and bags, children and dogs, and got into the cars.  Conductors and porters walked about, the bell rang, the signal was given, and the train started on its way.”

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Train car housing the “Voyage with Dostoevsky” exhibit

The “Voyage with Dostoevsky” exhibit focused particularly on his travels abroad.  Fyodor Mikhailovich went abroad eight times, and in total spent five and a half years there.

His first two trips, in 1862 and 1863, were more traditionally touristy.  FM wanted to see Europe—“the land of holy wonders” (“страну святых чудес”)—for himself: to visit the cities he had known through literary works, to view the masterpieces of world culture, to try to understand how revolution had transformed the Western social order.

FM put a lot of effort into planning the itinerary for his first trip abroad, relying on Reinhardt’s popular travel guide.  In two and a half months he toured about 25 cities!

During his third trip in 1865, he conceived the idea for Crime and Punishment.  At this time he was gambling a lot, hoping that his winnings in roulette could help pay off the debts he took on after the death of his older brother. Not the best plan!

Things were even worse during his next trip abroad in 1867, which he had to make in order to escape his creditors. Without the financial means to return to Russia, Fyodor Mikhailovich ended up living in Europe for more than four years.  This is why the novels of this period, The Idiot and Demons, refer a lot to life abroad.

In the 1870s Dostoevsky made his final trips abroad, to the mineral springs of Bad Ems, for reasons of his health, as advised by his Petersburg doctors.

So now the moment we’ve been waiting for!  What travel tips does Fyodor Mikhailovich have for us?

But, first, a word from our sponsor (not really).  “Travel Tips with Fyodor Mikhailovich” is brought to you by Brothers Karamazov “Ivan” IPA!!


Brothers Karamazov “Ivan” IPA

Everything is permitted.


So where should we go, Fyodor Mikhailovich?

Apparently, not Geneva: “The weather is nasty, the city is boring… this is the most boring city in the world.”

dresden madonnaGermany in general did not make a great impression.

Berlin?  “Berlin resembles Petersburg so much its incredible.  The same cordoned streets, the same smells.  Was it worth tormenting myself for 48 hours in a train car to see the same thing?”

Köln?  “Not much grandeur.”

Dresden?  We know how Fyodor Mikhailovich loved the Dresden Madonna!  But the city itself… not so much: “I just went through Dresden, and I can’t remember what Dresden was like.”

But the casinos in Baden Baden definitely interested him: “There is something extraordinary in that feeling when you’re alone, in a foreign country, far from your home and your friends, you don’t know what you’ll be eating today, but you’ve just bet your last gulden, your very last one!”

1280px-Kristallpalast_Sydenham_1851_aussenShould we go to Paris?  London?  Here Fyodor Mikhailovich is a bit more cryptic in his assessment.

“Oh, Paris is a very boring city, and if it didn’t have so many truly remarkable things, then, really, you could die of boredom!”

On London: “Everything is so grandiose and extreme in its distinctiveness.”

(Of course, Fyodor Mikhailovich has a lot more to say in Winter Notes on Summer Impressions.)

It looks like Fyodor Mikhailovich liked Italy most of all!

venice“Rome astounded me.”

“In Florence it rains too much, but when it’s sunny—it’s almost like heaven.  You can’t imagine anything better than the experience of this sky, this air, this light.”

“Venice is such a delight!”

Well, I’d like to thank you, Fyodor Mikhailovich!  It really has been a long, strange trip!

lenin train

Not the train Fyodor Mikhailovich took!

soviet train

Definitely not the train Fyodor Mikhailovich took!

But they have some pretty interesting stuff at the Russian Railways Museum


Vadim Shkolnikov is a dotsent in the Department of Comparative Literature and Linguistics at the Higher School of Economics in St Petersburg and a member of the North American Dostoevsky Society Readers Advisory Board.  He is currently writing on Dostoevsky and “the birth of the conscientious terrorist.”  He has lived in Zverkov’s house on Stolyarnyi pereulok (mentioned in Gogol’s “Diary of a Madman”)–a block away from Raskolnikov’s house!

Travels from Dostoevsky’s Siberia

by Elizabeth Blake

Blake_.inddIn April 1849 Dostoevsky was arrested and imprisoned in the Peter Paul Fortress for his participation in the Petrashevsky Circle.  Before the year was out he and his fellow conspirators had been subjected to a mock execution and then sentenced to either imprisonment or exile in Siberia, the Caucasus, and Orenburg.  Travels from Dostoevsky’s Siberia (Academic Studies Press, 2019) is comprised of archival narratives written by three Polish political prisoners, two of whom shared the experience with the Petrashevsky conspirators, as well as my commentary on each of the three parts (based on over a decade of research). These translations provide the reader with eyewitness testimonies about the life of state prisoners in Western Siberia when Dostoevsky was imprisoned in Omsk and lived in exile in Semipalatinsk.

Kibitka Citadel

A kibitka at the Warsaw Citadel

These famous writer-revolutionaries shared Fyodor Dostoevsky’s experience of living in Western Siberia, after having been imprisoned and exiled by Nicholas I’s regime, and survived to compose their accounts, providing an intimate portrait of their struggle to comprehend the deprivation of their rights and to build networks that helped them to defend against their maltreatment by capricious and abusive authority figures.  The notes to the primary sources include historical information about various conspiratorial groups, agitational activities, and Siberian culture, gathered from archival, print, and digital resources, to provide readers with a sense of the interconnectedness of revolutionary movements across the Russian Empire and beyond owing to shared language, geographical space, nationality, religious identity, and political ideology.

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The confluence of the Irtysh and Om rivers (Omsk)

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A statue of Dostoevsky’s friend Chokan Valikhanov (Omsk)

In the first part, Józef Bogusławski, who lived with the Russian novelist for four years in the Omsk prison fortress, provides additional background information to several characters (Major Krivtsov, Mirecki, Bogusławski, Bem, Durov, Korczyński, Tokarzewski, Żochowski, and Aleksei de Grave) the reader meets in Dostoevsky’s Notes from the House of the Dead. Bogusławski differentiates Dostoevsky from Durov based on the former’s education in the tsar’s military and discusses some of the divisive literary and political debates causing tension between the Russian novelist and the group of Polish political prisoners.  Bogusławski’s memoirs (1898) supplement this most famous text written by any of the five authors (Bogusławski, Dostoevsky, Durov, Tokarzewski, and Żochowski) in the Omsk prison fortress by recording the language, rituals, hardships, and journeys experienced by political prisoners in Dostoevsky’s Siberia.

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The statue “Lyubа” of the wife of the Governor General of Western Siberia (Omsk)

In the second part, a selection from Memoirs from a Stay in Siberia (1861) provides a portrait of several provincial authorities in Omsk (including Aleksei de Grave and Pyotr Gorchakov) based on Rufin Piotrowski’s brief stay in the town before being assigned to work in a factory. His account of the infamous Omsk Affair, an aborted rebellion organized by Father Jan Sierociński, and the brutal flogging of its leadership without mercy supplement various published accounts of the escape attempt that claimed so many victims.

In the final part, Bogusławski’s co-conspirator and prolific writer Bronisław Zaleski, in “Polish Exiles in Orenburg” (1866), reveals the substantial literary and intellectual contributions of the Orenburg circle (whose members included such famous poets as his fellow conspirator Edward Żeligowski, the Ukrainian nationalist Taras Shevchenko, and Dostoevsky’s friend Aleksei Pleshcheev) with references to the Decembrists, the Petrashevsky conspirators, and the Omsk Affair.

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Zaleski’s sketch of the bay at Novopetrovsk

Zaleski’s many portraits of officers and government officials as well as his extensive complaints about the military life of drills, denunciations, and training enhance our knowledge of Dostoevsky’s own service in Semipalatinsk following his prison term.  Moreover, Zaleski, like Piotrowski, provides a connection to the Parisian circle of Polish exiles linked to the Great Emigration following the 1830 uprising––those who gathered around Prince Adam Czartoryski’s circle at the Hôtel Lambert.  The members of this group of Polish exiles supported these unfortunate victims of Nicholas I and Alexander II through direct financial contributions, political advocacy, and the publication of their fates in the Western press.

Memorial Citadel

A memorial to prisoners at the Warsaw Citadel

The narratives of this generation of unfortunates from the western edge of Imperial Russia contribute to our cultural knowledge about famous Russian exiles, including the Decembrists and the Petrashevtsy both because of their shared experience and common language.  This collection therefore imparts to the reader not only a better understanding of the hardships of the carceral continuum but also enriches one’s encounter with Dostoevsky’s post-confinement writings.


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Dostoevsky statue at the historic Omsk stockade location

Elizabeth Blake is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at Saint Louis University, where she teaches courses on Russian culture, language, literature, and theology that contribute to programs in Fine and Performing Arts, Theological Studies, and Catholic Studies.  Her U. S. Department of State Title VIII and U. S. Department of Education Fulbright-Hays funding through American Councils, a Faculty Research Leave, and a Mellon grant helped fund the secondary research for Travels from Dostoevsky’s Siberia (2019), the culmination of several research trips to Krakow, and are contributing to a monograph on the impact of Dostoevsky’s Siberian period on his oeuvre.  Her research on Orthodox-Catholic exchanges, Russo-Polish conflict, Siberian studies, and the nineteenth-century European novel informed her first monograph, Dostoevsky and the Catholic Underground (2014), and a dozen articles, which have appeared in leading peer-reviewed journals (Dostoevsky Studies, Polish Review, and Slavic and East European Journal) and collections.

Aside from Zaleski’s sketch, the images that appear in this post are the author’s own photographs.