Dostoevsky in the Time of Discord; or Generation Dostoevsky and Memes from Lockdown

Today we’re excited to share an interview with the organizers of the Dostoevsky Book Club on Discord. Read on to learn more about this vibrant community of Dostoevsky readers!

The images shared in this post are memes created by the book club members. Each creator’s handle is visible on the meme(s) they designed.


Kate: Could you start by telling me the origin story of the Dostoevsky book club? How did it all begin?

Kaitlin: I had started Dostoevsky or doesn’t she on Instagram in late 2019. As COVID started ramping up, lockdown began, and people were social distancing, quarantining, I wasn’t able to do my regular job, which was teaching. I thought maybe a book club would be fun and I put up a post about it. I got a very positive response from the people who followed the account. We had a little vote on whether we should do The Idiot or Demons and The Idiot won. And we started it. I would do an Instagram Live stream and monologue about the book and respond to comments as they came in on the live stream. And then I got some positive feedback, but some people thought a different platform would be better for this. And we switched over to Discord, where I very publicly struggled, and Arkady so gracefully reached out to me and said, hey, do you need any help? And I very, very gratefully accepted it.

Arkady: Yeah, so I was at home during the pandemic. It was between finishing my Master’s program and going into a Ph.D. program. So I had nothing to do. And for the first time, the world also had nothing to do. I was really excited to join this book club. Because everybody finally had time to actually read the book. And I honestly stumbled into the first meeting just by accident because I got a notification that this new Dostoevsky account I just followed had gone live. And then I realized that they were reading a book I’d already read, and I thought, this is really fun. And definitely when Kaitlin decided to switch to Discord, I was able to help to make it more organized, a forum space where people could post in different channels as well as to book discussions.

Kate: And maybe you could tell us a little bit about Discord as a platform, because I’m not sure that everybody who reads The Bloggers Karamazov will know about how that platform works.

Arkady: I don’t know a lot about Discord but I think mostly people who use it are gamers or belong to other small communities with particular interests. There are multiple different channels for practicing reading or discussing how to use Tarot, things like that. There are different servers where the admin and mods are allowed to create different channels that are organized like a forum, except it’s like a continuous stream of chat. It’s organized a little differently than a forum, but the structure of it and how people engage on different topics is similar.

Kaitlin: We have a dedicated section for the book club and questions and theories and quotes. Then we have a lot of off-topic channels like music or pictures of your display of Dostoevsky editions or book recommendations. Or if you want to practice your Russian, we have a russkii channel. So we don’t just do the book club on the Discord server. It’s also this online fan community where we get to engage with each other based on our mutual love of Dostoevsky but also just random other topics as well.

Kate: So how would a typical meeting of the Dostoevsky Book Club go?

Kaitlin: Everyone starts signing in and I ask how the reading is going. It’s structured as a live stream meaning it’s just my voice and everyone types in a text channel so that it doesn’t get too shouty over each other. And I respond to the comments in real time. If someone types something, I interrupt myself and we discuss whatever the participant has typed in, whether it be a question or comment. And then after I’ve asked “how’s the reading going?”, we just kind of dive in. Arkady has put together stellar discussion questions for a lot of the books that we go through. The ones she did for The Brothers Karamazov made the most amazing syllabus for this text. Going through the discussion questions would give a sort of structure. Lately, I have not been as good about that. So we just kind of go through the section that we’ve read for that day, and whatever people want to talk about, I don’t have an agenda when we go in there. It’s really a community-based reading program because it’s about what we all want to get out of it together. I think that the most important part of it is that we’re not studying for a test, there’s no goal other than to enjoy it.

Arkady: I actually took a Dostoevsky class where we did a very in depth reading of The Brothers Karamazov. I tried to bring as much of that as possible into the discussion questions, so that we could get a chance to discuss what I felt were some of the most important things. And the nice thing about Discord is that because you’re doing it in a text format, people have the time and space to construct entire arguments, and they don’t have people interrupting them, they don’t get people trailing off and not listening to them. Instead of everybody raising their hand and saying they agree with that statement, you can just kind of react to it. There are little emojis that you can click. If someone makes a good point, you can just upload their comment. And then add to it if you have something substantive to say.

Kate: Would you say there are actual benefits over an in-person or Zoom-based book club, with face-to-face chat?

Arkady: Definitely, yes. I think a lot of the people are shy and introverted. And especially for people whose native language is not English who feel nervous about speaking up. And I’ve noticed this too, when we have our Zoom meetings that some people are just nervous about using their voice. But if they have the opportunity to kind of flesh everything out and write it down before they can submit it, then they feel better about that.

Kate: So maybe you can tell us a little bit about who’s in your book club. What is the profile of the members? What kind of backgrounds do they have?

Kaitlin: We have a little introductions channel where all new members introduce themselves. We have a younger audience, mostly high school and college students, but also a few older people including a tenured geology professor from Texas Tech! We have people from all over the world from India, Germany, France, Turkey, California. It’s a really diverse group of people. And they have all kinds of backgrounds, not all of them are lit students. We have engineers, business majors, and high school students; it’s really exciting to me that there’s a sophomore in high school who wants to come talk about Dostoevsky with us on their Saturday afternoons! Some members are on social media a lot, and they like making memes, they’re very plugged in in that way, and then we have some people who clearly only created an account to do this one thing.

Kate: What aspects of Dostoevsky’s writing would you say do the book club members relate to the most or what do they find most interesting? What turns people on the most about Dostoevsky as a writer?

Kaitlin: I would say that what turns us all on about Dostoevsky is that he gets into the deep, dark parts of humanity. I always go back to Donna Orwin. In her Consequences of Consciousness she wrote about how the English novel ends with a baronetcy and an estate and a wedding. The Russian novel wakes up after that happens and says, what happens next? And that discomfort with living, that discomfort with self-awareness that we all feel, it draws us to Dostoevsky. I think it’s the question of what happens after you wake up, that’s what a lot of our members focus on and what our discussions center on. As we’re doing Demons this summer, we just did Stavrogin’s Confession. That was quite a session! We ended up making one of my favorite memes about it. It’s the one with the old woman with the knife behind her back while handing some food to the squirrel. The squirrel is “enjoyers of deranged men.” She’s Dostoevsky, handing them Raskolnikov’s redemption arc, and behind her back is Stavrogin’s confession. The coolest conversation we had in that book club was about how in The Brothers Karamazov the question is, who has the right to forgive? Well, in Demons, it seems to us to be, who has the right to condemn? I thought that was so fascinating. And it wasn’t me that came up with that, it was actually an 18-year-old in our book club who was bringing up that question, and I was just mind-blown.

Arkady: Sometimes when we start talking about why we love Dostoevsky, I can just tell that everybody is super-excited, and just shares the same opinion. And it’s the sense in which his work feels so alive. It’s true of other Russian works, too. But there’s this sense of vibrancy to his work, the willingness to dive into the psychological depths that a lot of other writers do not demonstrate. And I feel like, every time I go off about it, and I could talk about it for hours, people always say, “Yes, exactly. That’s why I love him too.”

Kate: I know you guys have a lot of fun with Dostoevsky. You have a certain irreverence towards him together with the reverence. What are some examples of that irreverence? And I also wonder if you think there’s any kind of contradiction here? Dostoevsky is a huge figure who is often held up, especially within Russian culture, but also within the Western canon, as somehow unapproachable. Is there a contradiction there? Or do you see those two things as not necessarily exclusive of one another?

Kaitlin: I definitely don’t see them as exclusive. While I don’t know that Dostoevsky would find what we do funny, I think he’s funnier than people give him credit for. We don’t talk often enough about the humor within his work. And the memes that we make, they resonate with people because they’re kind of true. You know, Dostoevsky, reflection on nihilism: young atheist with an Orthodox Christianity knife behind your back. That’s real, and it’s hilarious, and it’s also true. Dostoevsky will draw in a young atheist, but Orthodox Christianity is right there to back him up and stab you with it. Or hit you over the head with an axe. And so I think they’re not mutually exclusive. And just like in Dostoevsky, you can hold up multiple truths and understand something greater with all of those together. I think we gain a deeper and greater understanding of Dostoevsky with the reverence alongside the irreverence.

Kate: Yeah, absolutely. Recently there was a conference that was held at Dartmouth College about funny Dostoevsky. And in fact, most of the papers were about Demons, which at first sight, you would not imagine would be the case. On the other hand, when you actually think about it, there are so many funny characters in that novel, right? Even though it’s so dark.

Kaitlin: Oh, gosh, Pyotr Verkhovensky and his father are just made for memes!

Kate: Which of the books that you’ve read, together with the book club, have the members responded to the most would you say? Is there a kind of a clear winner when it comes to the number of people who’ve shown up or the passion of people’s responses or, or anything else?

Arkady: Probably The Brothers Karamazov. I think part of it was definitely the prior fame of the work.  People have heard of The Brothers Karamazov much more than The Idiot or Demons, and we haven’t done Crime and Punishment. We also read it in the summer, so a lot of people didn’t have school and we had ramped up enough that people were starting to take notice of the fact that there was a book club going on.

Kaitlin: I would have to agree that it’s The Brothers Karamazov. It was in the summer of 2020, when COVID was obviously at a terrible point, but people didn’t have school and they were at home. And we were meeting twice a week for 10 weeks or something like that. And it just didn’t slow down at all. Whereas sometimes when we did The Adolescent and we’re doing Demons, it’s beginning to slow down a bit as people begin to have other things to do and can’t make every week. And we’re going to be switching to a monthly short story model until next summer, when we’ll probably do another novel.

Kate: I’ve been thinking a lot about Dostoevsky in the pandemic. And I know that your book club coincides with the pandemic. And part of that is because of people having more time and being stuck at home. But I wonder what you think about what Dostoevsky might offer us in this era of Covid-19? What is it in his works that we are reaching for right now? Do you have any thoughts about that?

Kaitlin: I think about Raskolnikov in his room, in a monologue with himself going over and over his idea in his head without being in dialogue with anyone. And I think what Dostoevsky and this book club is offering a lot of people is an escape from that monologue. Someone told me that at the height of quarantine, book club was the only time they were interacting with other people during the week. And that’s so sad. But at least they had one thing to get them talking, something to discuss with a group of people; something else to think about something else to talk about, and someone to talk to.

Kate: I was thinking about, on the one hand, how horrified Dostoevsky would be at the kind of atomization that the pandemic has created, of everyone being stuck in their own house on their own, in their little Zoom box, but at the same time, with the ability to be able to transcend that and actually have some kind of a community on Zoom or on Discord, which is also reflective of the kind of Dostoevskian brotherhood that his works can provide.

Kaitlin: I think about that Russian term sobornost,’ and how our book club and our community is like that. There’s no authority saying here’s what we’re doing. We’re all here of our own free will, of our own volition, just talking about Dostoevsky because we want to.

Arkady: I was actually thinking in a different direction. During the last year, especially, I feel like my political opinions have become a lot more radical, in the light of the pandemic, in light of a lot of racial tensions and current events that have happened in the last year. And I feel like more and more, I appreciate the kind of lampooning of the Western liberals in Dostoevsky, because I feel that he understands in this intuitive way that having these ideals is not enough, doing lip service is not enough. And a lot of his characters demonstrate that in a very visceral way, like, just donating money does not mean that you care about people, and not bothering to follow through and make sure that your actions are actually helping people and that you are paying attention to the suffering and addressing that directly, rather than just doing what you think is best. It’s a very important part of being an empathetic person.

Kate: And also this kind of radical uncertainty of the present with the pandemic, and also the climate, chaos and so on means that we’re reminded of just how, you know, you can lay out your plans for the next 20 years, right. But those plans could be up-ended in a second. And now we’ve actually seen some examples of that. The need to live in the moment right is clearly present here. There are all kinds of philosophical dilemmas that come out of that which Dostoevsky would have related to very much. Because he was also writing in this time of radical uncertainty. Another question: how has the nature of your book club cast light on the reading in ways that a more conventional classroom setting or ordinary classroom assignments may not?

Kaitlin:  People are reading in different languages. The book club is conducted in English, but people read in their native language and then participate in the book club in English. That means there are a lot of questions like how has this word been translated from the Russian or in the English or in the French? Or in the Turkish? And how does that change what I might be understanding from it. It’s very interesting, the way the Turkish edition will be totally different in some certain way than the French edition than the English edition, which are all different from the Russian edition. And then I always go to the Russian find out what we’re actually seeing.

Kate: What are some of the other languages that members are reading in?

Kaitlin:  Turkish, French, Romanian, Korean, Greek, Chinese, Russian, Spanish, Portuguese. It’s a diverse group!

Kate: One of things I’ve been wondering about is whether, because of the nature of your group and the way in which you meet, external events going on in the world contribute to and permeate your experience of reading Dostoevsky?

Kaitlin: Yes, especially last summer, when the BLM protests were going on, and then with COVID, and anti-Asian violence going on, we’ve had a lot of discussions about the way people are feeling. We’re not just a bunch of strangers who meet, we’ve got to know each other. And so we’re asking, “Hey, how are you doing? Can I help you?” We debrief after particularly difficult discussions. With most Dostoevsky texts, you’re dealing with something a little messed up at some point. So we do have those moments to say, “Okay, are we all overly traumatized right now? Do we need to talk about this some more? Should we take a break?” We are constantly aware of the need to be gentle with each other, given the very fraught world we’re living in right now.

Arkady: Yeah, definitely. You know, some people have fun, like bringing in real world events where they see connections, I think there’s been more than one reference to Trump at various points, maybe in reference to Fyodor Pavlovich; people see connections to the real world. And they definitely try to bring that into discussion and talk about how this is very relevant today.

Kate: And I think there’s something very Dostoevskian about that too, right? If you think about Raskolnikov or Arkady as being characters who are also shaped by all the events that are going on around them. And Dostoevsky’s novels are very much set in this whirlwind of events that affect them. Right. So to have the reading experience kind of interpolated by those type of things is also interesting.

Kaitlin: Oh, yeah. Like how he’s writing about in A Writer’s Diary the judicial reforms that were going on in Russia at the time and then he incorporates that discussion into The Brothers Karamazov in the chapter, “Our peasants stood up for themselves.” We have a lot of that within his text. And for us, then, to be modelling that, as you said, it feels very Dostoevskian.

Kate: I have one more question for each of you. Which is your favorite Dostoevsky novel? And why? Which is the one that speaks to you the most, and why?

Kaitlin: My favorite is The Idiot. While I think The Brothers Karamazov is the greatest novel ever written, The Idiot is my favorite. I’m obsessed with narrators and The Idiot’s narrator is the most maddening and confusing. He judges and then doesn’t judge. He’s all knowing and then he’s not all knowing. Especially the scene where Myshkin is wandering around the city and Rogozhin is following him, and he doesn’t quite know, that scene is so brilliantly narrated! I’m obsessed with it. And I love Nastasya Filippovna, she’s my favorite character in all of Dostoevsky.

Arkady: My favorite character is Ivan Karamazov but my favorite book is Crime and Punishment. It was my first Dostoevsky, so it’s always special that way. But it also came during a time in my life where I was just very stressed out. And I felt that nobody really understood the way that I felt. And I picked up this book which was assigned for our senior English class. And I thought, this person who is dead in the ground understands exactly how I feel, like this character who is kind of young and arrogant and believes that he knows what’s best for society and at the same time is struggling with so many things and feels so claustrophobic in so many areas of his life. I felt like someone was reaching a hand to me across time and space saying, you’re not alone in this feeling, actually, you know, in fact, maybe way less alone than I thought, given how popular and how world-renowned Dostoevsky is. People try to read him in all languages, however they can. Even though supposedly, you can only get the true experience in Russian that tells me that there’s something unique and special about the way that he captures human psychology.

Kaitlin: It’s like that James Baldwin quote, where he says, “You read something which you thought only happened to you and you discover it happened 100 years ago to Dostoevsky.” And for the suffering struggling person who always thinks he’s alone, that’s why art is important. And then I always think Virginia Woolf quote, it is directly obvious that Dostoevsky is the greatest writer ever born. Woolf is my second favorite!


Contributors

Kaitlin (aka Katya) has been obsessed with Dostoevsky since she first read the words “I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man.” She earned her PhD at the University of Texas at Austin in 2019 and her dissertation is entitled “Dostoevsky and the Rousseau Trap: Considerations on the Man of Nature and Truth. And on His Proposed Reformation.” After graduating, she started the “Dostoevsky or Doesn’t She?” social media accounts on Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, and TikTok to share fun memes and videos about Dostoevsky and his work. When the COVID-19 pandemic began, she, along with Arkady, started a Book Club and online fan community on Discord dedicated to enjoying the works of Dostoevsky. The server now has about 200 members and together they have read The Idiot, The Brothers Karamazov, The Adolescent, and Demons.

Arkady is a Psychology PhD student by day, Dostoyevsky enthusiast by night. Their first foray into Russian literature was Crime and Punishment, senior year of high school, and they have been chasing that high ever since. In an incredible stroke of luck, they stumbled into the first meeting of what would later become the Dostoyevsky Book Club at the beginning of the pandemic, led by Katya, and quickly seized on creating the Discord server as well as writing discussion questions. You can find them on Twitter @karamazovas.

Kate Holland is an Associate Professor of Russian Literature at the University of Toronto and the President of the North American Dostoevsky Society.

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