by Matilda Hicklin
The North American Dostoevsky Society stands with all the people of Ukraine, Russia, and the rest of the world who condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Our statement can be read here.
On 12 October 2022, the University of Bristol Russian and Czech Department hosted the Bristol Dostoevsky Workshop, a half-day event which focused on new interpretations of Dostoevsky. The war in Ukraine has prompted a re-reading of much classic literature, but Dostoevsky’s complexities – his belief in Russian messianism and his virulent anti-Semitism combined with a world outlook rooted in Christian compassion – means that his work is ripe particularly for revisiting at this decolonial moment for the field. Rather than consign Dostoevsky to the ‘dustbin of history’, the speakers at the Bristol Dostoevsky Workshop explored revisionist approaches to his poetics and polemics. The workshop began with a short introduction by the organiser, Dr Connor Doak (University of Bristol), before moving onto the postgraduate panel. This was followed by talks from the keynote speaker, Dr Sarah Hudspith (University of Leeds), and Dr Greta Matzner-Gore (USC, via Zoom).
Postgraduate researcher Alina Fiorella (University of Bristol) kicked off proceedings with ‘“The Russian Monk” Zosima: Dostoevsky’s Ideal Christian or Dostoevsky’s Archetypal Imposter?’, offering a text-centred reinterpretation of the Elder Zosima as the Russian double of the Grand Inquisitor. Alina’s talk unpicked the familiar view of Zosima as a representation of Christian ideals and the antidote to the Grand Inquisitor’s atheism. Instead, she followed textual clues that hint at Zosima’s fraudulence, evidencing her argument with references to the classic Dostoevskian ‘doublings’ and intertextual clues. Alina identified similarities between the ideas of the imposter in The Brothers Karamazov and Pushkin’s The Captain’s Daughter.
While noting that today’s scholarship on Zosima have emphasized his Christianity, she points out that earlier readings of Zosima highlighted his status a mouthpiece for socialist ideals. Far from reading Zosima as Dostoevsky’s ideal Christian, Zosima is exposed as ‘the devil in disguise’. This reinterpretation of Zosima as a secular and imposter saint puts a new, darker spin on his vision of a utopian world, and by seeing love as an instrument of power, Zosima acts as a double for the Grand Inquisitor. By drawing parallels between Zosima and the Grand Inquisitor, Alina’s research raises questions about the function of his character in The Brothers Karamazov, and the broader implications this revisionist reading has for the interpretation of dichotomous relationships in Dostoevsky’s wider oeuvre.
Next up was Saffy Mubarak Mirghani (UCL-SSEES), who traced the influence of Dostoevsky on African-American writing movements in her paper ‘Who was the African-American Dostoevsky?: From the Harlem Renaissance to the Black Arts Movement’. Rather than just being another ‘Dead White Man’, Dostoevsky instead emerges as a kindred soul for many African-American writers and provided a toolkit for representing their own social reality. Saffy showed that Dostoevsky’s polyphonic discourse provided a shared experience for African-American writers, who saw in this multivoicedness or double-consciousness the contradictory multiplicity of ‘real’ life.
By applying Bakhtin’s internal, formal logic of the Dostoevsky novel to her research, Saffy has formulated a quadripartite, existential framework which has at its core the belief that an individual can overcome social repression, no matter how severe this repression may be. With this in mind, it is easy to see why Dostoevsky’s poetics of double-voicedness and unfinalizability have appealed to African-American writers, as well as musicians: Saffy’s research also expanded ideas of Dostoevskian ‘unfinishedness’ to genres such as jazz. In a world of injustice and discrimination, Dostoevsky’s compassioned portraits of suffering helped African Americans to understand their lived experience and are still of value today. Saffy related her timely research to the countercultural power of Dostoevsky’s work: its elements of double-consciousness deconstruct the concepts of identity and positionality, and this freeing quality allows African-American writers to question social constructs and existing power hierarchies.
Christina Karakepeli (University of Exeter) rounded out the postgraduate panel with her presentation ‘Aspects of Dostoevsky’s Greek Reception Through Critical Writings by Three Greek Authors (1889-1960)’. She introduced us to the perception of Dostoevsky and his work within the Greek context, exploring how well-known and influential Greek critics, writers and translators interpreted and (re)presented Dostoevsky to the Greek-speaking audience. Christina’s paper examined how works by Emmanouel Roides, Nikos Kazantzakis and Ares Alexandrou have functioned to canonise Dostoevsky. Christina’s work highlighted issues of adaptation, translation, and ethics, raising questions of neutrality, identity and agency which, in today’s climate, are highly pertinent.
Christina also drew on literary theory to expand on her discussion of Dostoevsky’s Greek context: for example, the concepts of mythistoria and melodrama in his work, and how these aspects of the texts were carried over translation and subsequently impacted how Dostoevsky was seen by a Greek-speaking audience. While earlier writers such as Roides and Kazantzakis pre-empted and primed Greek readers’ perceptions of Dostoevsky, later works looked more critically at his poetics, allowing for the Dostoevskian novel to find its place in Greek literature, and Christina’s research highlights how this is, and always has been, a position in flux.
The keynote speaker, Dr Sarah Hudspith (University of Leeds), delivered a strikingly personal paper entitled ‘Dostoevsky’s Ideas of Russianness: A Decolonial Critique’. She offered a critical re-reading of her own 2004 monograph Dostoevsky and the Idea of Russianness, and emphasised the urgent need for Western scholars to reflect on their own positionality vis-à-vis Russia, especially their complicity in Russian exceptionalism and nationalist mythmaking. Prompted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Sarah’s presentation was an act of self-reflection, with a focus on decolonisation in research on Dostoevsky and the wider field of Russian Studies. Her paper confronted difficult and complex questions such as how to approach cultural artefacts which have been co-opted by oppressive forces, and how academics can work to reposition and re-evaluate their stance towards Russia. Within the context of decolonisation, Sarah touched on the intellectual paralysis felt by many Russian scholars, as well as the responsibility that they have in potentially replicating and perpetuating nationalist Russian ideals.
The practical implications of this thinking were extended to a critique of her own monograph, which looked at Dostoevsky’s concept of Russianness through the lens of Alexei Khomiakov and Ivan Kireevsky. Sarah explained how the Russia-Ukraine war has allowed her to see the shortcomings of her own approach, which was not sufficiently critical of the exceptionalism implicit within Slavophilism. The paper ended on an optimistic note, with Sarah providing a roadmap for a more critical and self-reflexive approach. By using recent articles by writers such as Oksana Zabuzhko, Anne Lounsbery and Ani Kokobobo as a starting point in breaking down Russian imperialist attitudes, Sarah’s work aims to lay the groundwork for a decolonial future for Russia, a future that is hopefully on the horizon.
The final talk of the day, ‘The Improbable Poetics of Crime and Punishment’ was delivered by Dr Greta Matzner-Gore (University of Southern California) over Zoom. Greta’s fascinating paper examined Crime and Punishment in light of the popular scientific discoveries of its day: specifically, the excitement surrounding the new field of ‘moral statistics’ that gripped Russia in the 1860s. The translations of the quasi-scientific polemics of Adolphe Quetelet and Henry Buckle took Russia by storm, even reaching the upper echelons of the imperial government, and this fascination with ‘social physics’ can be seen in Crime and Punishment.
As well as Dostoevsky’s own interest in newspaper articles and sensationalist headlines, Greta suggests that the novel acts as a partial refutation of such statistically determinist ideas, both in terms of explicit references in its narrative and in its narrative form itself. However, Greta argues that Crime and Punishment is not an outright rejection of moral statistics but rather that Dostoevsky is interested in the statistical outliers, individuals who negotiate the complex relationship between free will and a preordained fate in his novelistic world. Dostoevsky’s use of coincidence, and the frequency of unexpected, extraordinary events or incidences of character behaviour, showcase his view of reality as residing in the fantastic. He resists the average, the predictable and the rational, and in doing so Dostoevsky creates a liminal realm in which the gap between miracles and reality is bridged.
As one of Russia’s most famous literary exports (as Dr Cathy McAteer from the University of Exeter pointed out in her response to Dr Sarah Hudspith’s talk, Dostoevsky’s popularity sky-rocketed during the Covid-19 lockdowns), the ambiguities and complexities of Dostoevsky and his work deserve to be reassessed and re-examined in today’s current political climate. However, Dostoevsky cannot (and should not) be ‘cancelled’ or censored: instead, readers of his work, and of Russian literature in general, need to engage with a more nuanced analysis of Russia and its cultural artefacts. The sheer variety of themes and topics covered by the speakers are indicative of the relevancy of Dostoevsky’s work, and showcased the richness of Dostoevsky’s polemics and poetics in breaking down existing hierarchies, questioning and discovering notions of identity and challenging prevailing interpretations, both in relation to his own novelistic world and to our current social reality.
Many thanks to Dr Sarah Hudspith, Dr Greta Matzner-Gore, Alina Fiorella, Saffy Mubarak Mirghani and Christina Karakepeli for such thought-provoking research, and to Prof Andreas Schönle, Dr Sarah Young, and Dr Cathy McAteer for thoughtful responses. Finally, thank you to the organiser, Dr Connor Doak, and to the BASEES Nineteenth-Century Study Group, Bristol’s Russian and Czech Department, and the North American Dostoevsky Society for sponsoring the event.
Matilda Hicklin is currently a PhD student and Graduate Teaching Assistant at the University of Bristol. Her research focuses on the post-editing and machine translation of contemporary Russian feminist poetry in relation to the translatorial voice and visibility. Reading Crime and Punishment when she was 16 (in English!) is what led her to study Russian, and she maintains an interest in Dostoevsky – thank you, Fyodor Mikhailovich!