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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.