Editing Dostoevsky: Mikhail Katkov and the Great Russian Novel

by Susanne Fusso

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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