A History without a Canon, a Literature with Conflicting Readings

“Long” Trends of Russian Literature: Research Novellas

RusLitHistDenis Larionov, a Moscow-based critic and poet, conversing with Andrew Kahn, Irina Reyfman, Mark Lipovetsky, and Stephanie Sandler – authors of A History of Russian Literature, 2018.

–What prompted the creation of such a detailed history of Russian literature, practically the only one of its kind (particularly now, a moment of new tensions in the relations between our two countries)?  How did this book come into being, and how long did it take?

–The original idea for creating this book was a scholarly one, although it may seem illogical.  We felt that a moment had arrived when the coherence and neutrality of literary histories were being interrogated from various theoretical perspectives, while at the same time practically all of the information had become accessible to anyone with a computer and an internet connection.  This challenge was difficult to resist.

We needed to find a way to create a history of Russian literature which would comprise information on the literary process, on authors and schools, but would offer something more than a collection of facts.  How could we tell the story of Russian literary evolution in such a way that it would make a single whole, while tracing not only the patterns and internal “rhymes” but also the essential differences and moments of rupture?

Our conversations about the future book – on e-mail, on-Skype, and in person – began in 2009.  Oxford University Press’s interest in this project encouraged us from the outset.  Although the original contract was for a short history, Jaqueline Norton, our editor, kept enthusiastically approving our increasingly comprehensive proposals and extending our submission deadline, which allowed us to write a much longer and more detailed history.

Our work was aided by an exceptionally useful symposium at Oxford in 2012, which gathered together historians of various national literatures. Together, we were able to discuss the theoretical and practical difficulties of writing a literary history in the 21st century.  The symposium participants shared their own experience of working on similar projects. They also read through, and commented on, our pilot case studies.  They recommended that we introduce a wider scope of issues in our potential case studies, including discussions of schools of theory and rhetorical tropes. They also suggested unexpected new approaches to individual authors and significant national cultural phenomena.

This advice resulted in the literary historical “novellas” about holy fools, “word-weaving,” duels between writers, and Dmitry Prigov’s “Militsaner” [“P’liceman”].

In 2012, we already had a plan to use case studies and keywords – terms such as Romanticism or “life-creation.” We defined their specific use in the Russian tradition in a “text box” and then used them throughout the volume, as the foundation for the main narrative.  At first, the list of keywords was very long, but gradually it was shortened: some of the words turned into case studies, and others were incorporated into the main text.

We started serious work on the drafts of the main text after the 2012 symposium.  By the fall of 2015, we were close to having a complete draft.  At that point we were helped greatly by a discussion of the history of literature as a genre at a roundtable we organized at the ASEEES (Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies) conference.

Among the round table participants were scholars who had authored their own histories of Russian literature as well as colleagues who devised practical suggestions and articulated their ideas about what kind of history would be helpful for them and their students.  Shortly thereafter we asked several colleagues to read drafts of a few sections of our history, which they did, with generosity and thoroughness.  The publisher also read and commented on the complete draft of the book.  The review by an anonymous reader selected by Oxford University Press as well as detailed comments and corrections by our colleagues guided us in further editing.  At the end of 2017, our manuscript was sent to the printers.  Thus, we spent eight years working on our history, while the most intensive work and revision took place in the last five years.

–Your book is not the first in a series of “histories of Russian literature,” many of which you mention in the Introduction.  At the same time, it seems exceptional in its scope and methodology.  Where in your book do you see a similarity/influence or a distancing from earlier models (for example, Sviatopolk-Mirsky’s classic history, but not only that one)? 

— Histories of Russian literature come in different shapes and sizes; they differ in the amount of detail and in the ratio between close readings of literary texts and broad surveys of the literary process. Of course, they also use essentially different methodologies, which, in turn, result in concrete approaches to the literary canon.  We are not trying to present the existing histories as obsolete, and in order to give them their due and to show that they themselves have become a part of the history of Russian literature, we have included a brief survey of those histories in our Introduction.

You ask specifically about the History by Sviatopolk-Mirsky: this classic, although it follows the methods and interpretations of its time, still deservedly has its readers, due to its profound literary judgments and vivid perspective on the authors discussed.  In addition, we have always valued, and continue to value, the elegant brevity of Mirsky’s History.  Considering the length of our book, it is hard to believe that we also started with the idea of writing a short history of Russian literature.  Our first reviewers, however, strongly recommended that we broaden and deepen our approaches.  While following their advice, we found that focusing on the peripheral areas of the Russian literary tradition, on the one hand, and in-depth consideration of particular works, authors, and literary phenomena in the case studies, on the other, not only gave us great pleasure, but also led us to new and often unexpected discoveries.

Three features characterize all sections of our book and thus define its direction.  They grew out of our individual views and took final shape thanks to numerous collective discussions.

Thus, in our book we emphasize 1) Russian literature’s openness to external influences in almost every period, from the Middle Ages to our time, an openness that even political barriers do not prevent; 2) the important function of narrative in literature itself as well as in literary history; and 3) we are also convinced that the role of poetry in the national narratives and institutions of Russian culture needs to be seriously revisited.

Thus we strove to redefine the accepted view according to which prose and poetry exist in complementary distribution, i.e., when prose rises, poetry declines, and vice versa.  Drama also appears in our history and represents a third type of literature undermining the binary opposition between prose and poetry.  Furthermore, our history includes visual materials and such genres as documentary narrative, memoir, journalistic essays on social and cultural themes, and various types of translations.

–I would like to ask about the structure of the chapters and also about the logic of their composition (practically every chapter includes, besides the scholarly narrative, individual keywords and a case study).  Were individual chapters created jointly or by single authors?

–The structure of the book is quite complex for the very reason that we attempted to combine a chronological with a conceptual approach.  Moreover, we abandoned the “portrait gallery” – a crucial structural feature of all existing histories of Russian literature.  That is, we do not have monograph-style chapters devoted to great writers, although we do include a few case studies which offer a more detailed look at an author’s biography and reputation, or a genre, or a cultural phenomenon, or a text, or a certain aspect of a text.  Those case studies are very important for us.

As was mentioned above, we started the process of writing precisely from case studies and keywords.  We needed some landmarks and orientation points, and it was around them that the narrative was constructed (­­or spooled): some of those case studies later entered the main text, while other case studies had to be added as we went along.

Of course, we distributed chapters among ourselves, but in the process of writing, all of us not only read each other’s work but also completed, corrected, and edited parts written by colleagues more than once.  All of this was, it goes without saying, discussed in our e-mail correspondence, which is probably as voluminous as the book itself: 5,700 messages by one count.  We bear collective responsibility for the whole text.

The book consists of five parts.  The first section is devoted to medieval literature through the XVIth century, followed by sections for each century: seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth, and then, together, twentieth and twenty-first.  It appears purely chronological.  Inside those sections, however, chapters are organized conceptually.

Obviously, each section has its own priorities, but certain themes run through all sections, e.g., institutions, subjectivity, poetics, national narratives – and, of course, their interactions.  For example, the section on the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is structured in such a way that the history is told several times, in several cross-sections.  First, there are institutions, from the Silver Age salons to the modern transformations of the literary field.  Then comes poetics and the subjectivities it engenders – first in poetry, then in prose and drama.  And finally, the narratives in which the culture’s self-awareness takes shape: the narratives of revolution, war, terror, and the intelligentsia.  In each of these chapters, history begins in the 1900s and ends today.

Other sections are similarly organized.  We hope that a multi-level picture emerges as a result.  At the same time, we suspect that only a few people will read our history from cover to cover.  Some will need an individual section; others will need certain chapters or even one chapter.  The structure we have created seems convenient for partial reading: having read even one chapter, a person will receive a picture of the whole century, albeit a somewhat skewed one.

–In the Introduction to your book, a question emerges: how necessary are histories of national literatures today, in the epoch of globalization?  How do you answer that question?  Has your answer changed in the course of working on your History of Russian Literature?

–Our subject is the literary history of Russia; that subject includes many texts written in Russian, but outside of Russia, and texts written by Russians, but in other languages.  Moreover, we see the relations between the Russian literature and literatures of other nations as a history of productive cultural interactions.

We do not assert that there exists a specific set of national traditions; rather, we attempt to demonstrate that the creation of shared national narratives is a constituent part of Russian literature.  What is now called an era of globalization is but a continuation of centuries-long intensive processes that cross national borders.  Russia actively participated in those interactions, despite periods dominated by isolationism and accentuated by Russia’s separateness from the West.

Unquestionably, no great national literature has ever been completely divided from the rest of the world. Russian literature’s “borders” have always been permeable, whether the influence came from close by (such as the South-Slavic cultures or Poland) or from far away (such as Japan or the US).  There is always an international element present in debates on national literature – recall the criticism of French influence evoked by the imitation of French models.  We strove to include a discussion of these debates in our book.

Our ideas on how the history should be written kept changing as we went along, although the basic principles remained unchanged: an overall chronological structure, yet a thematic organization within each section; “case studies” and “keywords” as significant points within the historical narrative; and, instead of lists of isolated facts, a discussion, in every section, of institutions, subjectivities, national narratives, and the role of the intelligentsia — as the unifying imperative of the whole book.  Our emphases, on the other hand, did change as we moved forward.  For example, authors discussed in the later parts of the book would sometimes change our view of how to present earlier periods.  Thus, while working on the sections on poetry and prose of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, we decided to radically expand the discussion of the seventeenth century.  Instead of presenting it as the conclusion of the medieval period, we emphasized its connection with the modern: after all, it was precisely in the seventeenth century that Russian poetry and prose based on fiction emerged.  We also significantly expanded certain parts of the first section in order to show the lasting and formative influence of the Baroque, on the one hand, and of such genres as folk “spiritual verses” (dukhovnye stikhi), on the other.

–To continue the preceding question: do you discuss the problem of the (Russian) (literary) canon in the book, and if so, from what methodological perspective?

–It goes without saying that we had no intention of creating a new canon of Russian literature.  On the contrary, we strove to write into this history as many as possible strange texts and persons who are far from being in any canon.  On top of that, we include contemporary writing, and “canonization” in this area is by definition risky.  We are interested in the “long” trends, ones that cover many decades or even centuries.  Not everything that belongs to those trends necessarily becomes part of the canon.  And in general, what canon are we talking about?  There are many canons, and they belong to the history of literature in the same way as the texts that they contain.  For us, the canon is one of the institutions of literature, along with journals, salons, and the mythology of the national genius.  We write about it in our history.  In other words, the canon is our object of study, and not our goal.


Translated by Svetlana Grenier. The volume A History of Russian Literature was published in June by Oxford University Press. This discussion originally appeared on Gefter on May 16, 2018 and its translation and publication on our site were done with the editor’s permission.

Against Nihilism: Nietzsche Meets Dostoevsky

This summer we sat down with Maïa Stepenberg to talk about her new book, Against Nihilism: Nietzsche Meets Dostoevsky, which is forthcoming in September 2018 from Black Rose Books

Against_Nihilism_Front_Cover_JPG_mediumQ1.How would you describe what Dostoevsky and Nietzsche have most in common?

They`re God-obsessed:  they`re both obsessed by the idea of God.  It`s a tormenting or all-consuming concern for them, whether God is there or not.

The most interesting part is not where they coincide, but where they diverge.  It`s actually like a labyrinth of concerns:  the more you read each of them, the more you realize they would have probably profoundly agreed on practically everything – everything that really matters.  That`s what`s really interesting.  But where they begin to diverge is just as irrevocable as a train going down the tracks:  there`s no turning back at that point:  and so Dostoevsky ultimately chooses to believe (like St. Paul says, “Lord, help my unbelief”), whereas Nietzsche ultimately chooses to reject all legitimacy of faith.

Q2.What questions compelled these two thinkers and writers?

Beauty, truth, goodness – it`s basically these three eternal enigmas that drive their writings.  So I`ve tried to organize them as large overarching themes in the book.  There`s the liberating allure of criminality, for one (a very big one!) – and then there`s the existentialist crisis of meaning (because both men are certainly two of the most influential fathers of existentialism); then there`s the tension between paganism and Christianity (actually an argument between aesthetics and morality), and finally there`s the terrible disease or cultural malaise of nihilism.  It`s the last issue that remains especially urgent and timely, so it appears in the title of the book.

Q3.Why do you think nihilism is so urgent for today’s world?

Nihilism is the number one concern in our world today.  Nihilism is the spectre of nothingness haunting our society.  As I began to teach Dostoevsky and Nietzsche, I could see the rise of the very thing that they both had predicted with such dread:  nihilism indeed, in virtually every expression or experience of modern life.  Technology and globalization have removed all boundaries and reduced and flattened everything that matters, in human terms.

Q4.Do Dostoevsky and Nietzsche provide a remedy for nihilism?

I`d say that each of them definitely do.  They identify the same problem, but they come up with different solutions.  One could say that Nietzsche`s way out of the problem has been tried, but misunderstood or misapplied:  the fascist appropriations of Nietzsche`s “will to power” or “aristocratic radicalism” point to a failure to bring to life his cherished ideal of the individual overcoming “the herd” (or the mediocre majority), alone and untrammelled.  On the other hand, one could say that Dostoevsky`s solution has neither been tried nor understood since it`s all there in his last great novel The Brothers Karamazov – a way to overcome the world while loving it, “watering the earth with your tears,” as he had one character put it – something akin to what Chesterton said about Christianity being the greatest ideal in the world, still not fully tried.

I`d like to add that there is something undeniably hideous about the way the world is turning:  something deeply wrong and sick in our failure to inculcate true values, support living institutions, nourish each other in true fellowship.  There is so much that is wrong in the world today that no one can fail to recognize it.  The question is, can anyone still feel enough love or energy to change it?  For the flip side of nihilism is always apathy and despair.

But the point of reading and thinking alongside Dostoevsky and Nietzsche is that they were anything but apathetic.  They cared deeply and passionately about everything they wrote, and that is surely why fresh readers flock to them generation after generation:  Dostoevsky and Nietzsche wrote with a palpable love and energy, and they each proposed vital solutions that demand individual effort, awareness, and spiritual work.

Q5.Should we take this nineteenth-century remedy just as seriously today?

Well, Nietzsche once thought he`d provided a remedy to the perils of nihilism (or at least been on the road towards providing such a remedy).  But only time can tell whether we can apply it correctly.  Nietzscheans of every imaginable stripe have not in fact moved the world forward:  the cataclysms of the twentieth century all somehow bear the palimpsest of Nietzsche`s signature.  And it`s equally true that a Dostoevskian future has yet to be fulfilled in accordance with Dostoevsky`s own vision.  Will beauty save the world?  Can we ever set ourselves aside long enough to feel truly “responsible to all for all”?  This is all still in potentia:  the truly momentous imitation of Christ en masse has yet to pass.  Clearly, if neither man`s vision has yet succeeded in positively transforming the world, that does not mean it is irrelevant.  Quite the contrary.

Q6.What value lies in reading Dostoevsky and Nietzsche in dialogue?

The beginning of philosophy is defined by dialogue.  You have two of the greatest minds of the nineteenth century whose writings still exist, and they seem meant to be read together because they so naturally complement each other`s voices and amplify each other`s points.  So the actual debate they might have had never happened in time or space, but it can happen for the reader today.

In addition, my own understanding has been infinitely enhanced by approaching Dostoevsky and Nietzsche in tandem.  For me, it started in graduate school.  Nietzsche was the focus of my doctoral dissertation, and Dostoevsky was the focus of the doctoral dissertation of my best friend.  We consequently spent many wonderful hours discussing each other`s chapters together as study buddies.  So the seeds for the book were planted for me back then.

Once I started teaching I thought of combining Dostoevsky and Nietzsche in an original course, and I was immediately struck by the excitement that these two thinkers generated in students when they were presented together, rather than separately.  The success of the course from the very beginning told me that there was a book that needed to be written, not only for the benefit of the students (since a book we could use did not exist in any library), but as a tribute to the students` generosity of involvement with both Dostoevsky`s and Nietzsche`s ideas.

A research essay topic that I regularly assign in this course asks students to imagine a sustained and serious dialogue between Dostoevsky and Nietzsche based on assigned readings from each.  Most students excel at this exercise.  Since so many student scripts of Dostoevsky and Nietzsche turned out to be so refreshing and delightful, a shortlist of ten excerpts are showcased in an appendix to the book. Here’s one example:

I always tell my students that if I could ever go back in time and talk with anyone from the past, there is no one I could imagine wanting to converse with more than Dostoevsky and Nietzsche.  They are without a doubt my two favourite men of all time (with the exception of my husband and three sons, of course!).

Here’s a video my sons made that imagines a conversation between them:

Dostoevsky and Nietzsche could have only talked together in French, by the way – since that was the only language they had in common.

Q7.At the end of your introduction you state that in today`s world there are only two choices:  Dostoevsky`s path or Nietzsche`s path.  What would draw a person to one over the other?

You know, it`s a funny thing:  I`ve noticed in my classes that a lot of young women are drawn to Nietzsche (an irony that he would have found delightful, I`m sure!), just as a lot of young men are impressed by Dostoevsky.  There`s also the factor of religion:  those who are comfortable with religious structure often prefer Dostoevsky.  And then people who like the idea of rebellion tend to find themselves attracted to Nietzsche.  There are all kinds of things that can incline a person more one way than another, and then inclinations can change over time too.

It comes down to a very old divide, I think:  before Socrates there was Parmenides (a philosopher who asserted that changeless being is the one binding law of the universe) as opposed to Heraclitus (a philosopher who claimed that change is the only constant we can know).  Nietzsche and Dostoevsky are like that:  one playing Heraclitus to the other`s Parmenides.  It`s a never-ending argument about what came first and why.

With this book I have sought to infect others with my own enthusiasm for Dostoevsky and Nietzsche because I am convinced that they are deeply good for the world and our possibilities of improving it.  They ask us to confront the hardest questions about ourselves, and we are better for struggling to honestly face and answer those questions.  Whichever one you prefer, there`s no doubt that both Nietzsche and Dostoevsky will speak to you, either together or in turn, about all of life`s most unanswerable preoccupations and questions.


Maïa Stepenberg is Professor of Humanities at Dawson College in Montreal. Her book Against Nihilism:  Nietzsche Meets Dostoevsky is published by Black Rose Books.

Approaches to Teaching Crime & Punishment

We would like to invite all Dostoevsky scholars to complete a survey that is designed to gather information about instructors’ methods and materials for teaching Crime and Punishment. We will use these results for a new volume on the novel that we are proposing for the MLA series Approaches to Teaching World Literature. Please answer the questions at https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/5TJHPVC and click Done when you are finished. All respondents to the survey will be acknowledged in the published volume, and the editors may quote anonymously from your responses in their introduction. Please indicate in your answers if you do not give permission to be acknowledged or quoted.

We are also soliciting proposals for contributions to the volume. If you wish to submit an essay proposal (see item 12 for requirements), please send it by e-mail to mkatz@middlebury.edu or burry.7@osu.edu. You may also send queries, comments, or supplemental materials such as course descriptions, syllabi, assignments, and bibliographies as attachments (doc, docx, rtf or pdf required). Surface mail submissions may be sent to Professor Michael Katz, 1712 Sperry Road, Cornwall, VT 05753 or Professor Alexander Burry, 400 Hagerty Hall, 1775 College Road, Columbus OH 43210].

Proposals and survey responses are due by 1 August 2018, after which the survey will no longer be available online.

Michael R. Katz, Middlebury College

Alexander Burry, The Ohio State University


Image credit: Panda with Oar on Deviant Art

Thomas Atkinson and Dostoevsky

by Nick Fielding

In 2014 a scrappy piece of paper covered with jottings by the great Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky caused a bit of a stir, due to various doodles in the margin.

The page contained notes that were later used by Dostoevsky in his novel Demons, first published in 1871. One of the doodles was of a man’s head – see the picture below – which most experts took to be a portrait of William Shakespeare. However, beneath the little portrait can just be made out (in Cyrillic) the name ‘Atkinson’. Nothing else connects to the name and there is no further explanation. Who was this Atkinson mentioned by the great writer?

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The name Atkinson can be made out just below the portrait

According to scholars, it could only be one of two men; either Thomas Witlam Atkinson or the British art critic Joseph Beavington Atkinson (1822-86). Which one was it?

First, let’s deal with the question of whether or not the portrait is ‘Atkinson’. All the experts seem to agree that it is too close to the famous ‘Chandos’ portrait of Shakespeare to be anyone else. That being said, there is a very superficial resemblance to Thomas Atkinson, although it is extremely unlikely that Dostoevsky ever met him. Dostoevsky was imprisoned in Omsk in Western Siberia from 1851-54 and subsequently lived in Semipalatinsk – in what is now northern Kazakhstan – for a while after that, but there is no evidence from either man that they met.

Considering the name alone, let’s look at the case for Joseph Beavington Atkinson first. Dostoevsky expert Professor Nikolay Zakharov notes that in his diary Dostoevsky mentions an anonymous article called “Angliyskaya kniga o russkom isskustve i russkikh khudozhnikakh” (“An English Book about the Russian Art and Russian Artists”) which retells and includes excerpts from J. B. Atkinson’s book An Art Tour to Northern Capitals of Europe (London, 1873). Zakharov assumes Dostoevsky would have been provoked by Atkinson’s claims in the book that “up to now, the Russian school of art has not developed new styles or new themes”.

However, the date of the Atkinson book is a little late, considering that Dostoevsky’s novel was published in 1871.

So what about Thomas? As stated above, Dostoevsky was imprisoned in Siberia for several years and could certainly have heard about the odd English couple and their child roving around the Siberian and Central Asian steppes at that time.

cropped-discussing-the-journey-to-nor-zaisan1

Atkinson asking directions

We also know that when he was living in Semipalatinsk, from 1854-56, Dostoevsky became friendly with Baron Alexander Egorovich Wrangel (1833-1915), an admirer of his books. They both rented houses in the Cossack Garden outside Semipalatinsk and the baron later wrote a book of reminiscences about his encounters with Dostoevsky.

Interestingly, in 1848-9 when Thomas and Lucy were living in Kapal in what is now eastern Kazakhstan – and directly south of Semipalatinsk – they also knew a Baron Wrangel, who was the commanding officer of the small outpost. As Thomas notes in Travels in the Regions of the Upper and Lower Amoor:

The society among which I was thrown was of a mixed character. At the head of the civil department was a German baron, who had won glory in the Caucasus, where he had received a wound from a Circassian sabre, that nearly proved fatal. He was the Priestoff, or political agent, whose duties were with the Kirghis. He was a good soldier, had few scruples, and was a most amusing fellow, believing himself equal to Nesselrode in diplomacy. Were fiction and invention essential in the acquirements of a minister, I would back the Baron against the Count.”

Thomas does not name the Baron, but Lucy does – more than 30 times! She writes many amusing anecdotes about Baron Wrangel, who was clearly a good friend of her husband. She even describes the two men playing duets – Thomas on the flute and the baron on the guitar.

Was this the same Baron Wrangel? Without knowing the full name of the Baron known to the Atkinsons it is difficult to be sure. Thomas’ baron had been wounded in the Caucasus, so that might be a clue. The baron known to Dostoevsky was born in 1833, which might make him too young to have been the same person known to the Atkinsons. If not, he was probably a close relative.

However, there are even more possible connections. We know that Dostoevsky went to live in Barnaul after leaving Semipalatinsk. Again, the Atkinsons were well known there, having spent two winters in the town. It seems very unlikely that Dostoevsky did not hear something of them during the time he spent there.

So, although we cannot prove definitively that Dostoevsky was referring to Thomas Atkinson in his marginalia, the likelihood seems very high. Did he ever appear as a character in a Dostoevsky novel? That is up to you, dear readers, to find out.

baron-a-e-wrangel

Baron A E Wrangel

In his book The Kazakh Khanates between the Russian and Qing Empires, Japanese Scholar Jin Noda notes that the Russian official appointed as Commissary to Kopal in about 1848 – where the Atkinsons were also staying – was Baron A E Wrangel. This is Alexander Egorovich Wrangel, the same person who Dostoevsky met in Semipalatinsk.

David Clay’s book The Grand Spas of Central Europe: A History of Intrigue, Politics, Art and Healing also mentions Baron A E Wrangel. Referring to Dostoevsky’s visit to Wiesbaden in 1863, when he famously lost all his money at the card tables, Clay says that the novelist wrote to “an old family friend” to ask for 100 thalers to help pay off his debts. That old friend was in fact Baron A E Wrangel, who by this time was Russia’s emissary to Denmark! I have also found references to other contacts between the two men.

Thus Dostoevsky was in fact a close friend of the man with whom the Atkinsons had spent nine months in Kopal in the winter of 1848-49. Knowing this, I have no hesitation in suggesting that the Atkinson mentioned in Dostoevsky’s marginalia is undoubtedly Thomas Witlam Atkinson. Was the great writer thinking about creating a character based on Atkinson? We may not yet be at the bottom of this story.

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Thomas Atkinson later in life; the photograph is courtesy of the Paul Dahlquist Collection

If you had not previously heard of Thomas and Lucy Atkinson, it might be worth mentioning that this English couple spent almost six years exploring and travelling throughout Siberia and Central Asia from 1847-53, covering a distance of more than 40,000 miles, much of it on horseback.

Their son, Alatau Tamchiboulac Atkinson, was born during the first year of their travels and accompanied them throughout, even into the wildest places. Thomas painted hundreds of pictures of his travels and published two books. Lucy also published a superb book, possibly the earliest real travel book by a woman writer.

When I realised that there was a possible connection between the Atkinsons and Dostoevsky I was not entirely surprised. The Atkinsons had a passionate interest in the Decembrist exiles and Thomas planned to write his third book about the exiles of Siberia, dying in 1861 before it could even be begun. All of this must have been apparent to Baron Wrangel, with whom they lived in close proximity for nine months.

Lucy Atkinson

Lucy Atkinson

During their travels throughout Siberia the Atkinsons visited many of the Decembrists, in many cases bringing them gifts from their families. Lucy, who records all this in her book, Recollections of Tartar Steppes (1863), had previously been employed as a governess in St Petersburg in the Muravyev family, many of whose members had been exiled to Siberia as Decembrists and one of whom had been executed. Like Dostoevsky, the Decembrists too loved Dickens and in fact begged Atkinson to visit Dickens on his return to England and thank him on their behalf.

And that is exactly what happened. I have published the correspondence on my blog. In response Atkinson’s message from the Decembrists, Dickens replies:

“If you can see any of them again, pray assure them that I believe I have never received a token of remembrance in my life, with so much sadness mingled with so much gratification. I wish I could do more for them than remain true to the principles which faithfully maintained, would render their wrongs impossible of infliction. Lord help them and speed the time when their descendants shall speak of their suffering as of the sacrifice that secured their own happiness and freedom.”

Bearing in mind all this background, it seems quite likely that Dostoevsky would have been interested in the Atkinsons. Was he looking for material or perhaps for a character? Any thoughts on this or any of the other elements of this story would be much appreciated.


Nick Fielding is a journalist and author. He was a staffer on the Sunday Times and the Mail on Sunday and is the author of several books. For several years he has been retracing the travels of the Atkinsons in Central Asian and Siberia, and in 2016 he published his most recent book, South to the Great Steppe: the travels of Thomas and Lucy Atkinson in Eastern Kazakhstan 1847-1852. He writes the blog Siberian Steppes and lives in Oxford, UK.

This post is a cross-posting of two posts about Dostoevsky and Thomas Atkinson from Siberian Steppes. Please visit the blog to learn more about the Atkinsons and their travels.

Rodion Raskolnikov, Your Tweet Archive is Ready

by Katherine Bowers

Two years ago, on May 1, 2016, the Twitter account @RodionTweets sent its first tweet. Since then @RodionTweets has “live-tweeted” the events of Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment, broken into 140-character-or-less snippets, from its hero Raskolnikov’s perspective. The bulk of the novel’s events take place over the course of three intense weeks in the summer, and the bulk of Rodion Raskolnikov’s tweets similarly appeared in July 2016, but the account has continued to tweet the book’s epilogues, which spread over the course of nearly two years. Finally, on April 24, 2018, Raskolnikov’s new life began and the twitter account went silent.
Rodiontweets-end-1

@RodionTweets was the brainchild of myself and Brian Armstrong, a kind of extension of our first experiment with Twitterature, @YakovGolyadkin. Both accounts were created through a process of tweet mining. For @RodionTweets we received permission from Penguin Classics to use Oliver Ready’s translation of Crime and Punishment. Then one Dostoevsky scholar mined one of the novel’s six parts and Kristina McGuirk, my wonderful RA, did a round of edits and loaded the tweets into TweetDeck, scheduling them in to tweet out according to the timeline for the novel that Brian and I had mapped.

Rodiontweets-end-2As each part of the novel was tweeted out, we reflected on our experience in creating the tweets in a series of blog posts. Sarah Hudspith mined Part 1 and reflected on the divide between public and private online and the use of hashtags as a narrative device. In her discussion of mining Part 2, Sarah Young considered the way digital approaches to the novel (tweeting, digital mapping) expand our avenues for understanding and interpretation. Kate Holland’s experience mining Part 3 led to a new perspective on the novel’s narrative structure. Brian Armstrong discussed the insight he gained into empathy in both Crime and Punishment, Part 4 and The Double through the intensely close scrutiny tweet mining requires. Jennifer Wilson’s mining of the scandal scene in Part 5 led to her reflection on social status and projection, and how pain, humiliation and suffering impact them. And my experience mining Part 6 and the epilogues led to a new realization on my part about timing in the novel. The blog post you’re reading serves as the project’s final, final note: one last reflection on what we’ve learned from @RodionTweets.

Of course, the first thing we, as literary scholars, noticed was that twitterifying Dostoevsky raised a number of questions that made us see the novel’s narration and themes in a new light. You’ll notice this from the blog post topics above. We began, however, with a basic question: how do you break a novel that’s narrated in the 3rd person down into tweets in the first person? Where does the narrator’s voice go? The switch from 3rd person narration to 1st reverses Dostoevsky’s own narrative switch from the 1st person he originally planned on to the 3rd person the novel ended up with.

Rodiontweets-end-3One of the conceits of the project is that Raskolnikov tweets as if he keeps a constant feed of everything that goes through his head. This, of course, means that the account presupposes that no one else from the novel world is reading it. For example, Raskolnikov live tweets the murder on @RodionTweets, and if Porfiry Petrovich were to read this in his Twitter feed, the novel would likely have been much, much shorter! – although this point is well taken. This style also renders @RodionTweets more like those Dostoevsky protagonists who monologue or write zapiski and less like most (active) twitter users, who may do this kind of live-tweeting some of the time, but not all of the time. Furthermore, as we mined the novel’s text for tweets, thinking critically about what would be omitted from the twitter narrative and what would be emphasized, as well as what Raskolnikov would be tweeting about, we created a feed that both captures the novel’s tone and renders the work more real-feeling, or, at least, more contemporary.

This contemporaneity was a really unexpected yet rewarding result of @RodionTweets. Beyond the experience of Raskolnikov’s tweets periodically appearing in his followers’ twitter feeds, the serendipity of their timing or placement allowed for connections to be drawn between followers’ lived experiences and Dostoevsky’s novel. Followers remarked on the eeriness of @RodionTweets juxtaposed with twitter updates about the Turkish coup attempt or the odd resonance between @RodionTweets and the mood of many in post-Brexit Britain. One of the strangest coincidences was that Raskolnikov’s monologue leading to his confession took place at the same time as Trump’s speech at the RNC in Cleveland on July 21, prompting a flood of comments from followers experiencing the two feeds – RNC live tweeters and @RodionTweets – together; here are a few examples. While unintended when we conceived the project, these juxtapositions highlight the power of Dostoevsky’s novel and speak to the relevance of his hero’s psychology for the present.

The project, though, was not all serious. Beyond the geopolitical resonances and the literary analysis, it is a project based in Twitter, a medium that’s equally political squabbling and entertaining puns, jokes, and sarcasm. The spirit of the project is one part Dostoevsky, one part Twitterature, and it also encompasses @RodionTweets’s love of strange hashtags and sublime Twitter moments such as when a Dostoevsky account interacting with his creation or a Shostakovich account liking some of @RodionTweets’s tweets. Or this, my favorite follower interaction with the account, which continues to crack me up nearly two years later.

So what now? We have archived the project here: @RodionTweets, parts 1-3; @RodionTweets, parts 4-6 + epilogues. The archives are complete and tweets within them appear in chronological order (so you can read them alongside the book). They have already been used in the classroom by some. Professors assign students to read part of the novel alongside the corresponding tweets and then discuss, or to generate their own tweets from a different character’s perspective (this last idea is an assignment Kate Holland has implemented in her Dostoevsky class). If you are using the project in your class, please let me know!

Rodiontweets-end-4

At the end of my blog post about tweeting Part 6, I concluded by saying that the epilogues on Twitter would be spread across 18 months and then Raskolnikov would fade away. Now, though, I think that statement needs some revising. The spring of 2018 feels far removed in many ways from the summer of 2016. Much has happened since then. But I think the drawn-out nature of the epilogue, and Raskolnikov sporadically appearing in our feeds, has perhaps made it seem more like he is one of us – a Twitter user who is sometimes active (the conceit being he somehow manages to get online from his Siberian prison camp…), but more often not. And perhaps this silence is simply because his life is full and he hasn’t got time for social media. In this sense, although @RodionTweets has gone quiet, I hope he is not forgotten, but lingers on as part of our network, somewhere on the edge of our consciousness.


Katherine Bowers is Assistant Professor of Slavic Studies at the University of British Columbia. She is working on a book about the influence of gothic fiction on Russian realism and tweets about Russian lit and other things on @kab3d. She also edits Bloggers Karamazov and curates the North American Dostoevsky Society’s social media.

This post has been cross-posted on All the Russias, the blog of the NYU Jordan Center.

CFP: XVII International Dostoevsky Symposium

The XVII International Dostoevsky Symposium

The XVII International Dostoevsky Symposium will be held at Boston University in the city of Boston (with the participation of Harvard University, Suffolk University, Wellesley College, Brown University, and the Harriman Institute, Columbia University), 15-19 July, 2019.
Abstracts: Proposals for papers on one of the Symposium themes will be accepted until July 1, 2018. Please send your proposal using the submission form at http://www.bu.edu/wll/dostoevsky-2019/. The Program Committee will review the submissions, and decisions will be announced on the IDS website by October 1, 2018. The Program will be announced on April 28, 2019.
The official languages of the Conference are Russian and English. Presentations should last about fifteen minutes, to be followed by 5 minutes of discussion.
Symposium participants will be limited to about 150 speakers. Membership in IDS is required before registration. Further information about membership can be found here: http://www.dostoevsky.org.

XVII Симпозиум международного общества Достоевского

XVII Симпозиум международного общества Достоевского состоится в Бостонском университете в Бостоне, США. Финансовую и организационную поддержку окажут Harvard University, Suffolk University, Wellesley College, Brown University и Harriman Institute, Columbia University. Симпозиум будет проходить с 15 по 19 июля 2019 года.
Заявки на участие в Симпозиуме будут приниматься до 1 июля 2018 года. Пожалуйста, присылайте тезисы докладов и регистрационные формы в электронном виде через портал hhttp://www.bu.edu/wll/dostoevsky-2019/. Отборочная комиссия рассмотрит ваши заявки и объявит состав участников на сайте Международного общества Достоевского к 1 октября 2018 года. Программа симпозиума будет сформирована и опубликована к 28 апреля 2019 года.
Официальные языки симпозиума – русский и английский. Каждому участнику выделяется 15 минут для доклада и дополнительно 5 минут для дискуссии.
Количество участников симпозиума с докладами – около 1 5 0-ти человек. До регистрации необходимо подтвердить членство в Международном обществе Достоевского (IDS). Дополнительная информацияо членстве в IDS размещена на сайте : http://www.dostoevsky.org.

Symposium Theme:
150 years of The Idiot

The Symposium will celebrate 150 years of The Idiot, with a focus on new and multidisciplinary approaches to the novel. Sessions will include:

  • The Idiot in its time and 150 years later
  • Digital Dostoevsky
  • Late Dostoevsky and The Life of a Great Sinner
  • Dostoevsky and the West
  • Dostoevsky and Translation
Cultural Program
The cultural program will include a visit to Walden Pond, a film screening at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and a tour of historical landmarks.
Housing and Meals
Participants will be housed in air-conditioned dormitories on the Charles River Campus of Boston University (in central Boston, right next to the St. Paul Street subway stop) at a price of $ 86 per person a night.
Buffet-style breakfast and lunch will be served each morning and noon, provided courtesy of a series of co-sponsors, including Boston University, Harvard University, Brown University and Wellesley College. Coffee and refreshments will be served throughout the day courtesy of the Harriman Institute, Columbia University.
The Symposium will end with a celebratory banquet overlooking the Boston Harbor.
Funding
Accommodation and travel expenses will be borne by the participants, but we are dedicated to developing a fund to help defray conference fees and the costs of travel and accommodations for those in need of financial assistance.
Conference Fee
The conference fee will be $150 for participants ($100 for spouses).
Visas
For participants from countries requiring visas to the US, letters of invitation will be issued by the International Students and Scholars Office at Boston University.
Airport and Transportation
Boston Logan Airport is located near downtown Boston. The average time on the subway from the airport to the Boston University campus is under one hour. The average taxi fare from the airport to campus is $35.

Тема симпозиума:
150 лет со дня публикации романа «Идиот»

Симпозиум отметит 150-летие романа «Идиот» и осветит новые и междисциплинарные подходы к изучению романа. Предполагаемые темы заседаний:

  • «Идиот» при жизни Достоевского и 150 лет спустя
  • Достоевский и информационные технологии ( Digital Dostoevsky )
  • Поздний Достоевский и «Житие великого грешника»
  • Достоевский и Запад
  • Достоевский в переводах
Культурная программа
В программу симпозиума будут включены поездка на Уолденский пруд, экскурсия по историческим местам Бостона, а также просмотр фильмов в Бостонском музее изобразительных искусств.
Проживание и питание
Участникам будет организовано проживание на кампусе Бостонского университета. Университет предоставляет кондиционированные комнаты в общежитии по цене 86 долларов в день на человека. Общежитие находится в центре города, на берегу реки Чарльз, недалеко от станции метро St. Paul Street.
Завтраки и обеды (шведский стол) в течение 4х дней будут обеспечены нашими спонсорами — Boston University, Harvard University, Brown University и Wellesley College. Кофе и легкие закуски обеспечит Harriman Institute. Симпозиум завершится «Пиром на пирсе» — банкетом в бостонской гавани.
Финансирование
Большинство участников должны будут сами оплатить проезд и проживание, но мы понимаем, что некоторым коллегам может понадобиться финансовая помощь. Мы постараемся найти средства и обеспечить поддержку тем, кто в ней нуждается.
Регистрационный взнос
Для участников с докладом взнос составит 150 долларов. Для гостей и членов семей – 100 долларов.
Визы
Всем участникам, кому требуется виза в США, будут высланы официальные приглашения из Бостонского университета.
Как добраться из аэропорта
Boston Logan Airport расположен недалеко от центра города. На метро Вы сможете добраться до университета меньше, чем за час. Средняя стоимость поездки на такси (20-25 минут) составляет 35 долларов.
Организаторы / Conference co-organizers:

  • Yuri Corrigan (Boston University)
  • Evgenia Cherkasova (Suffolk University)
  • William Mills Todd III (Harvard University)
  • Svetlana Evdokimova (Brown University)
  • Deborah Martinsen (Columbia University)
  • Carol Apollonio (Duke University)
  • Brian Armstrong (Augusta University)
Спонсоры / Sponsors :

  • The International Dostoevsky Society ( IDS )
  • The North American Dostoevsky Society (NADS)
  • Boston University Department of World Languages and Literatures
  • Harvard University Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures
  • Brown University Department of Slavic Studies
  • Wellesley College Department of Russian
  • Suffolk University College of Arts and Sciences
  • Harriman Institute, Columbia University
  • The North American Dostoevsky Society

For more details, please visit the symposium website.

 

Big Fat Books: Worlds of The Brothers Karamazov

On Saturday April 7, Boston University will host a one-day symposium: “Worlds of The Brothers Karamazov.” The symposium is part of an annual series on “Big Fat Books” run by the Department of World Languages & Literatures in which scholars from various disciplines and literatures present comparative approaches to a major text of world literature. Our keynote speakers this year are Robin Feuer Miller (“Dostoevsky Writ Small”) and Gary Saul Morson (“Six Theses on KARAMAZOV“). Their addresses will be followed by two panels of BU faculty (Comparative Karamazov West and East), and then by a student panel of close readings. Michael Katz (Middlebury College), William Mills Todd III (Harvard University), and Evgenia Cherkasova (Suffolk University Boston) will serve as chairs. There will be breakfast, lunch, and a closing reception. If you find yourself in the Boston area, please feel free to stop by for all or part of the proceedings. (See flyer for place, times, details.)

2018 KARAMAZOV flyer