Congratulations to our Graduate Essay Contest Winner, Chloe Papadopoulos!

The Readers Advisory Board of the North American Dostoevsky Society is excited to announce the winner of our Graduate Student Essay Contest: 

Chloe Papadopoulos, for her essay, “Speaking Silently in Fedor Dostoevskii’s ‘Krotkaia.’”

 Chloe is a third-year Ph.D. student in the department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Yale University. She received an H.B.A. and M.A in Russian Language and Literature at the University of Toronto, where she specialized in nineteenth-century Russian literature with a focus on Dostoevsky. Her current research focuses on the reception of historical fiction, drama, and sculpture in newspapers and the periodical press of the 1860s, as well as gendered models of communication in nineteenth-century Russian literature.

A hearty congratulations to Chloe and the entire Yale Slavic Department!

Dostoevsky at ASEEES 2018!

This year, ASEEES is holding its 50th annual convention and celebrating 70 years since its founding. Dostoevsky scholarship remains a crucial part of scholarship in Slavic, East European, and Eurasian studies, as the following list attests. Once again, the convention offers a rich selection of panels, roundtables, and individual presentations on Dostoevsky’s works and thought. The list below is divided into two parts: Part I features panels and roundtables that focus primarily on Dostoevsky; Part II lists panels and roundtables where Dostoevsky features prominently in at least one presentation. We hope you can join us in Boston to hear about the fruits of another year’s work on Dostoevsky!


Panels with a Principal Focus on Dostoevsky


Thursday, December 6

Perversity in Dostoevsky

Thu, December 6, 2:00 to 3:45pm, Boston Marriott Copley Place, 4th, Grand Ballroom Salon I

Perversity is a central concept for Dostoevsky studies. It entails an internal dialogism – where a discourse is deliberately contradicted, subverted or mocked in the perverse act. A perverse discourse is thus parasitical as it depends on a host narrative to manipulate and transform. Perversity can often be an act of provocation and also goes hand-in-hand with performativity, as the deliberate desire for contrariness implies the presence of an audience one is being perverse for. There are thus natural connections in Dostoevsky between perversity, performativity, provocation and parasitism. The papers in this panel will explore this rich seam of ideas in Dostoevsky’s work, focusing largely on novels he wrote after his return from Siberian exile, but also, in one case, discussing it in the context of his polemically-inclined, journalistic writing. These papers will largely seek to build on Bakhtinian Dostoevsky, exploring the existential, epistemic and ethical consequences of radical dialogism and polyphony.

Papers: 

“Lebedev as Anti-Saint: A Study in Dostoevsky’s Negative Anthropology” – Denis Zhernokleyev, Vanderbilt University

“The Perverse Mysticism of Dostoevsky’s Westernizers” – Bilal Siddiqi, University College London

“The Imp of the Perverse and the Oxygen of Publicity” – Lynn E. Patyk, Dartmouth College

Discussant: Carol Apollonio, Duke University

 

Friday, December 7

Dostoevsky’s Unstable Narratives: Self, Narrators, Discourse, Form

Fri, December 7, 8:00 to 9:45am, Boston Marriott Copley Place, 4th, Grand Ballroom Salon I

This panel examines three of Dostoevsky’s works, with an eye towards narrative instability. The protagonists, narrators, spaces, discourses, and even the narrative structures of Dostoevsky’s works are distressingly unstable. Pervasive across his oeuvre is an acute sense of an unstable self, confronting the moral, spiritual, and historical disintegration occurring in 1860s and 1870s Russia. This emerges at the level of structure via conflicting discourses, unreliable narration, ambiguous information, and an impulse towards fragmentation both in perspective and form. Our interdisciplinary panel brings together psychology, narratology, discourse analysis, and sociology to shed light on the instability – of self, narrative, and reference – central to Dostoevsky’s poetics.

 

Papers:

“Dostoevsky’s Narrative Suicide Etiology: Egoistic, Altruistic, Anomic, and Fatalistic Paradigms” – Amy D. Ronner, St. Thomas University

“Problems of Narrative Irregularity in Dostoevsky’s Demons” – Kornelije Kvas, University of Belgrade

“Serving Dostoevsky: Myshkin as Servant and Counter-Narrator in The Idiot” – Inna Kapilevich, Columbia University

Discussant: Deborah A. Martinsen, Columbia University

 

Dostoevsky’s Podrostok (Roundtable)

Fri, December 7, 10:00 to 11:45am, Boston Marriott Copley Place, 4th, Grand Ballroom Salon I 

Dostoevsky’s critically neglected novel, The Adolescent [Podrostok] (1875), has long been considered an artistic failure. The scholars on this roundtable disagree. They argue, by contrast, that The Adolescent contains the keys to understanding Dostoevsky’s work as a whole. They will explore problems ranging from Dostoevsky’s reinvention of the bildungsroman genre, to Versilov’s changing role in the novel (from the notebooks to the final version); from the gender dynamics of speech and silence, to illegitimacy as a metaphor for Dostoevskian modes of characterization. By bringing a wide range of new interpretations and approaches into dialogue, this roundtable aims to spark new critical interest in The Adolescent, while treating it as a test case for mediating diverging approaches to and perspectives on Dostoevsky’s art.

Participants:

 Yuri Corrigan, Boston University

Kate Rowan Holland, University of Toronto

Chloë Kitzinger, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

Chloe Simone Papadopoulos, Yale University

 

Dostoevsky in Space

Fri, December 7, 12:30 to 2:15pm, Boston Marriott Copley Place, 4th, Grand Ballroom Salon I

This panel explores Dostoevsky’s engagement with and depiction of the built environment and the natural world. From the sensory to the imagined, from Siberian prisons, the streets of St. Petersburg, to the mountain of Switzerland, consideration of space in Dostoevsky’s work is essential. As the presentations on this panel show, a place as apparent and solid as Russia’s capital city may quickly give way to other ways of understanding and experiencing space in Dostoevsky.

Papers:

“The House on the Ditch with a Stairway to Heaven” – Katya Jordan, Brigham Young University

“Sacred Space in The Idiot: The Case of Alexandre Calame” – Amy Singleton Adams, College of the Holy Cross

“From Street Theatre to Dramatized Interiors: Performing Spaces in Crime and Punishment” – Sarah Jean Young, University College London

Discussant: Greta Nicole Matzner-Gore, University of Southern California

 

Saturday, December 8

Emotional and Physical Trauma in Dostoevsky

Sat, December 8, 3:30 to 5:15pm, Boston Marriott Copley Place, 4th, Grand Ballroom Salon I 

Papers:

“A Comparison of Dostoevsky’s Reported Medical Trauma Resulting from his Imprisonment with Those of Fellow Survivors of the Dead House” – Elizabeth Ann Blake, St. Louis University

“Performative Victimhood: The Right to Be Unhappy in Dostoevsky’s Idiot” – Milica Ilicic, Columbia University

“Stavrogin, the 1840s and 1860s, and the Non-Euclidian and its Limits in Dostoevsky” – Maxwell Parlin, Princeton University

Discussant: Brian R. Johnson, Macalester College

 

Sunday, December 9

The North American Dostoevsky Society: New Readings in Economic Criticism

Sun, December 9, 8:00 to 9:45am, Boston Marriott Copley Place, 4th, Grand Ballroom Salon I

 These three papers offer stimulating new readings of economic factors in Dostoevsky’s novels, tightly embedding the theme in the writer’s complex poetics. The flow of money determines plot dynamics; conveys moral messages; throws characters of different social classes into connection and conflict; reflects rapidly changing realities in Russia during a time of economic and political reform; and undermines ostensibly neutral and rational systems of value by turning money into an artistic symbol fraught with danger. These readings offer a typology of economic elites in “The Idiot”; expose the speculator’s trading strategies in narrative in “The Adolescent”; and reveal money as the author’s most cherished generator of narrative interest over the sweep of his writing career.

Papers:

“Becoming a Rothschild: Trading Narratives in Podrostok” – Jonathan Paine, University of Oxford

“The Tie that Breaks: Money and Plot from Poor Folk to The Brothers Karamazov” – Jillian Porter, University of Colorado

“Forms of Money and Narrative Form in The Idiot” – Vadim Shneyder, University of California, Los Angeles

Discussant: William Mills Todd III, Harvard University

 

The Interaction of Science and Literature: The Case of Fyodor Dostoevsky

Sun, December 9, 10:00 to 11:45am, Boston Marriott Copley Place, 4th, Grand Ballroom Salon I

Literary scholars have long explored the engagement between science and literature in the 19th century, not only on the level of theme but also through the shared use of metaphor, narrative structure, and plot. How do literature and science actually interact? Taking the example of Fyodor Dostoevsky, the panelists will trace different aspects of the novelist’s engagement with science at the time, focusing on the developments in Victorian physiological psychology, the adoption of Darwinian evolutionary plots and metaphors, the performance and spectacle of epileptic pathology, and Darwinian-inflected models for representing the workings of the brain.

Papers:

 “Mind and Material World: Dostoevsky and a Science of Realism” – Melissa Frazier, Sarah Lawrence College

“Performing Narratives of Illness: Dostoevsky’s Epileptics” – Brian R. Johnson, Macalester College

“Narrative and Science of the Brain: Dostoevsky’s Idiot” – Brian Egdorf, UC Berkeley

Discussant: Riccardo Nicolosi

 

Scripted Failures: Performance, Repetition, and Rupture in Dostoevsky, Turgenev, and Experimental Theater

Sun, December 9, 12:00 to 1:45pm, Boston Marriott Copley Place, 4th, Grand Ballroom Salon I

This panel seeks to examine performative failure and interrupted communication by discussing attempts to communicate through temporal aporias, linguistic breakdown and repetition. The papers focus on the works of Dostoevsky and Turgenev, both in their 19th century context, as well as through later 20th-21st century theatrical performances. Monika Greenleaf’s paper analyzes the role of stuttering and repetition in Turgenev’s “Month in the Country” and two works by Dostoevsky to show that the texts constitute experiments in performative failure and prescient break-throughs in theatrical form, which thematize interrupted communication and contribute to their own postponed performances. Irina Erman’s paper traces a link between the excessive use of diminutives and repetition in Dostoevsky’s “Poor Folk” to the decomposition of language in “Bobok” to examine both texts as performative experiments in communication through failure. Anna Muza’s paper explores the performative treatment of Dostoevsky’s extreme, desperate emotionality and incoherent or inarticulate states – hysteria, hallucination, terror, nadryv – in the staging of “The Brothers Karamazov” (1910) and “The Possessed” (Nikolai Stavrogin, 1913) by the Moscow Art Theater.

Papers:

“The Stutter of Time: Failed Plays and Postponed Performances” – Monika Greenleaf, Stanford University

“Diminution, Repetition, and Decomposition in Dostoevsky’s Poor Folk and ‘Bobok’” – Irina M. Erman, College of Charleston

“Ivan’s Nightmare, Hamlet’s Madness: The Performance of Rupture” – Anna Muza, UC Berkeley

Discussants:

Elena Glazov-Corrigan, Emory University

Alexander Mihailovic, Brown University

 


Panels Featuring One or More Papers on Dostoevsky


Thursday, December 6

Russian Fictional Responses to Darwin

Thu, December 6, 2:00 to 3:45pm, Boston Marriott Copley Place, 1st, Columbus II

Several scholars have gathered for a project on the Russian Reception of Darwin. The plan is to produce a collection of translations of the most important responses to Darwin to be followed by a volume of essays. Two panels are being proposed for ASEEES 2018 as part of the project. This first panel focuses on fictional responses to Darwin.

Papers:

“Beyond Social Darwinism: Positive Heroes’ Engagement with Science and Progress in Russian Conservative Novels of the 1860s-1870s” – Victoria Y. Thorstensson, Nazarbayev University

“Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and the Early Reception of Darwin in Russia: 1860-65” – James Frank Goodwin, University of Florida

“On Learned Neighbors and Philadelphia Naturalists: Mapping Chekhov’s Darwinist Parodies” – Melissa Lynn Miller, University of Notre Dame

Discussant: Yvonne Helen Howell, University of Richmond

 

The Performative Icons and the Arts

Thu, December 6, 2:00 to 3:45pm, Boston Marriott Copley Place, 4th, Grand Ballroom Salon D

The work of Alexei Lidov defines “spatial” icons – including churches, sanctuaries, and cities – in terms of their performativity, which forms and describes the perception of the space as sacred. Lidov and other scholars like Boris Uspensky, Bissera Pentcheva, and Marie Gasper-Hulvat approach the performativity of icons through three dimensionality and movement through space and through the materiality of icons themselves. But does our understanding of the performative icon change when it is encountered in literature rather than in a three-dimensional space? This panel considers the performative icon in the context of literature and representational arts of the nineteenth century, the workings of the literary icon, and the meaning of its performativity to the work(s) themselves.

Papers:

“Icon, Art, and Performance in the Works of Vsevolod Garshin” – Benjamin Jens, University of Arizona

“A Haymarket Khozhdenie na Osliati: Raskolnikov’s Donkey Walk and the Failure of Iconic Performativity” – Kathleen Scollins, University of Vermont

“How the Inmates’ Polyphonic Play in Dead House Performs the Nativity Icon” – Michael Mikailovitch Ossorgin VII, Fordham University

Discussant: Judith Deutsch Kornblatt, University of Wisconsin-Madison

 

Friday, December 7

Music and Theatricality in Dostoevsky, Bulgakov, and Kharms

Fri, December 7, 12:30 to 2:15pm, Boston Marriott Copley Place, 5th, Maine

Papers:

“The Unsung Melody: Performance Practice in The Eternal Husband” – Eva Troje, Princeton University

“Towards the Sacred Banks of the Nile: Allusions to Verdi in Mikhail Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog, 1925” – David Gomiera Molina, University of Chicago

“Performing the Cupboard: Daniil Kharms and the Eroticisation of Opacity” – Mariia Semashyna, Central European University

Discussant: Emily Frey, Swarthmore College

 

Dostoevsky and Tolstoy Starting from Their Psychology

Fri, December 7, 4:30 to 6:15pm, Boston Marriott Copley Place, 4th, Grand Ballroom Salon I

This panel looks at the ethical consequences of Dostoevsky’s and Tolstoy’s visions of human psychology, with a view to bringing out the differences in their psychologies and ethics. Yet despite those differences, each writer’s vision of how people should live is not free-standing but depends on an anterior vision of how the human psyche is constructed. We therefore attempt to chart some of the connections between the shape of human nature and the shape of morality in the two bodies of fiction.

Papers:

“Whose Unconscious is it?: The Role of Dreamlike Experiences in Dostoevsky’s Existential Moral Psychology” – Evgenia Cherkasova, Suffolk University

“Nihilism as Refuge: Rethinking the Philosophical Dostoevsky” – Yuri Corrigan, Boston University

“Tolstoy’s Three Ethical Systems” – David M.B.L. Herman, University of Virginia

Discussant: Irina Paperno, University of California, Berkeley

 

Saturday, December 8

Russian Dialogues with Critical Theory: Adorno, Arendt, and Russia

Sat, December 8, 8:00 to 9:45am, Boston Marriott Copley Place, 4th, Orleans

This panel explores affinities and points of dialogue between Russian culture and German philosophy of the twentieth century, building on the work of recent volumes such as Critical Theory in Russia and the West (BASEES/Routledge 2010) and Arendt and Adorno: Political and Philosophical Investigations (Stanford 2012). There has been a surge of interest in the philosophy of Hannah Ardent in Russia, where her ideas have emerged from the “zone of silence” in the Soviet Union to a central place in intellectual discourse today. Diana Gasparyan’s paper takes a key theme in the work of Arendt and the twentieth-century Russian-Georgian philosopher Merab Mamardashvili–the relationship between thinking and ethics—and shows that in studying this relationship, both writers recognize the necessity of clarifying the social and political nature of the individual, and the distinctiveness of the citizen. Svetlana Klimova shows that both Tolstoy and Arendt were building on the foundation of Kant’s philosophical anthropology; this common heritage, she argues, led them to identify a fundamental failure of thinking and judgment in their societies. For both, Klimova argues, the struggle against the dictatorial state turns out to be a struggle for the “Kantian” individual, capable of overcoming external and internal evil through reason and the moral law. In his paper, Brian Armstrong brings Dostoevsky’s familiar concerns with beauty and its socio-historical potential into dialogue with the explorations of beauty, the sublime, and their potential for social change in modernity in the work of Adorno, and behind him, Kant.

Papers:

“Hannah Arendt and Merab Mamardashvili: On the Possibility of Political Judgement” – Diana Gasparyan, NRU Higher School of Economics

“The Philosophy of Evil in the Work of Lev Tolstoy and Hannah Arendt” – Svetlana Klimova, NRU Higher School of Economics

“Can Beauty Save the World?: Dostoevsky, Adorno, and the Challenges of the Beautiful and Sublime” – Brian Arthur Armstrong, Augusta University

Discussant: Susan McReynolds, Northwestern University

 

Rewriting the Russian Literary Canon in the 20th and 21st Centuries

Sat, December 8, 10:00 to 11:45am, Boston Marriott Copley Place, 5th, Connecticut

This panel puts diverse twentieth-century reinterpretations of nineteenth-century Russian literature in dialogue with one another in order to rethink the canon. Elizabeth Geballe reads Constance Garnett’s English translations of Dostoevsky’s passages about corpses as a form of rewriting. She demonstrates how the translations help to theorize and expose poetics already at work in Dostoevsky. Erica Drennan examines mock trial versions of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment that were performed in the 1920s and compares them to the original novel. She reads these performative reinterpretations in order to interrogate the role of the reader and the relationship between dialogue and authority in Dostoevsky’s novel. Sophie Pinkham’s paper shifts the focus from Dostoevsky to Pushkin. She argues that the recent “canonization” of Sergei Dovlatov, particularly in relation to his connection with Pushkin’s estate, reveals post-Soviet efforts to establish a sense of cultural continuity across the centuries. By connecting these different readings and rewritings of Dostoevsky and Pushkin, this panel examines how nineteenth-century works were appropriated and transformed in the twentieth century, and considers how these reinterpretations of the canon affect our understanding of both nineteenth and twentieth-century Russian literature.

Papers: 

“Unwanted Afterlives: Translating Dostoevsky’s Corpses” – Elizabeth Frances Geballe, Indiana University, Bloomington

“Performing Crime and Punishment: Raskolnikov on Trial” – Erica Stone Drennan, Columbia University

“Canonizing Dovlatov in Putin’s Russia” – Sophie Pinkham, Columbia University

Discussant: Milla (Lioudmila) Fedorova, Georgetown University

 

 

Cognitive Perspectives on Classic Russian Prose (Roundtable)

Sat, December 8, 10:00 to 11:45am, Boston Marriott Copley Place, 4th, Grand Ballroom Salon I

Our roundtable will consider the bilateral study of Russian prose and cognitive science. On the one hand, recent discoveries in the functions of the mind point out how writers like Dostoevsky, Nabokov and Tolstaya exploit deep-set mental proclivities. On the other, sensitive readings of their prose works not only tests received science, they may also indicate directions for further clinical inquiry. Madelyn Stuart will apply blending theory and neurological memory work to Nabokov’s early short stories and novellas. Katherina B. Kokinova asks to what extent the collaboration of cognitive narratology and reception theory can unravel the mirroring cyclic recurrence of rereading and narrating in Nabokov’s “The Circle.” According to Amina Gabrielova, characters in Tatiana Tolstaya’s stories often make sense of the surrounding world by interpreting sounds, or by hearing; she will ponder the cognitive differences between visual and auditory perception. Examining the public circumstances of Raskolnikov’s confession in Crime and Punishment, Tom Dolack suggests that conscience conveys prosociality in individual consciousness. Looking at narrative innovations in that same Dostoevsky novel, Brett Cooke wonders what role classic prose plays in the development of our cognitive potential. Inasmuch as we will be discussing shared human capabilities, an important question for our ending discussion will be to what extent cognitive findings with one writer can be exported to the study of another.

Participants:

Brett Cooke, Texas A&M University

Tom Dolack, Wheaton College

Amina Gabrielova, Purdue University

Madelyn Stuart, University of Virginia

 

Crime, Punishment, and Bureaucracy: Dostoevsky, Saltykov-Shchedrin, and Early Russian Crime Fiction

Sat, December 8, 1:30 to 3:15pm, Boston Marriott Copley Place, 3rd, Arlington

Papers:

“Dostoevsky’s Adventure in the French Language (1880-1930)” – Svetlana Cecovic, NRU Higher School of Economics

“Bureaucratic Mythologies: Folktale as Critique in Gospoda Golovlevy” – Michaela Telfer, University of Southern California

“Performing Criminal Investigations: Scenes of Confrontation and Interrogation in Late Imperial Russian Crime Fiction” – Claire Whitehead, University of St. Andrews

Discussant: Irina Reyfman, Columbia University

 

Folklore and Performance

Sat, December 8, 1:30 to 3:15pm, Boston Marriott Copley Place, 4th, Grand Ballroom Salon A

The three papers in this panel pose questions about performative folk genres in Russian literature and culture: songs and food. Oxana Vorobyova’s “The Study of Folklore in the “Russkoe slovo” Magazine: Performing Identity” presents fragments of folklore, found in different materials of the “Russkoe slovo” magazine, for example, the sad folk song “Na gore-gore tatar’yo stoit.” The author aims to determine the region, approximate time of origin, and the performer of fragments of folklore by context. In “Enacting the Folk Song in Dostoevsky’s “Akulka’s Husband:” Comic and Tragic Texts,” Cecilia Dilworth argues that the pattern of a comic folk song about cuckoldry is grafted onto the events related, skewering the perception of actors, narrator and audience, and moving the story towards its catastrophic conclusion. She notes that “Akulka’s Husband” also analyzes how draws on a different, tragic folkloric genre – the Russian folk ballad—and that piecing together motifs from a number of classic ballad plots centered on the act of wife murder, Dostoevsky creates a “ballad in prose.” She analyzes how comic and tragic trajectories of the two genres intersect and clash, the former partly functioning as a catalyst for the latter. In her paper, “Ritual, Recipe, Representation (or From Ritual to Recipe ): About Carrying On Culinary Traditions,” Amina Gabrielov approaches culinary recipe description and propagation through the theoretical background of Olga Freidenberg theories of folklore and of food and ritual as source of genres. She will also incorporate Sergei Nekludov’s ideas of folkloric genres.

Papers:

“The Study of Folklore in the Russkoe Slovo Magazine: Performing Identity” – Oxana Vorobyova, Lomonosov Moscow State University

“Enacting the Folk Song in Dostoevsky’s “Akulka’s Husband”: Coming and Tragic Texts” – Cecilia Dilworth, Stockholm University

“Ritual, Recipe, Representation (of From Ritual to Recipe): About Carrying on Culinary Traditions” – Amina Gabrielova, Purdue University

Discussant: Viktoria Bashman, Hampden-Sydney College

 

Sunday, December 9

Internal Colonization: Gogol, Dostoevsky, and Hemlin

Sun, December 9, 12:00 to 1:45pm, Boston Marriott Copley Place, 1st, Boylston

The panel explores Alexander Etkind’s concept of “internal colonization” and Martin Buber’s notion of “I and thou” as essential for understanding both colonial and post-colonial relationships. The three papers examine how authors position themselves towards the “other” in a colonial, post-colonial, and philosophical sense through examinations of the works of Gogol, Dostoevsky, and Hemlin. Nadja Berkovich’s paper investigates Dostoevsky’s position towards the colonial “other” through his relationship with two prominent ethnographers of his time, Petr Semenov Tian-Shanskii and Chokan Valikhanov, in light of Buber’s and Bakhtin’s theories of dialogue, as well by viewing his novel The Notes from the House of the Dead as an example of the “imperial imaginary.” Alexander Droznin’s paper engages with Bakhtin’s and Buber’s reading of Gogol’s Dead Souls and Inspector General, whose main picaresque characters exemplify both a homo interior and a homo exterior. Yuliya Minkova’s paper addresses the plot of internal colonization in Margarita Hemlin’s novel Doznavatel’ which presents an opportunity to discuss the issue of otherness in both historical and contemporary contexts.

Papers:

“The Imperial Imaginary in Dostoevsky” – Nadja Berkovich, University of Arkansas

“Participation and Experience: Martin Buber’s Intersubjectivity and the Gogolian Picaresque” – Alexander Droznin, Harvard University

“The Vagaries of Internal Colonization in Margarita Hemlin’s Doznavatel’” – Yuliya Minkova, Virginia Tech

Discussant: Taras Koznarsky, University of Toronto


With thanks to Vadim Shneyder, Assistant Professor at UCLA, for compiling the list! 

A New Companion for Readers of Dostoevskii

Today we’re sitting down for a chat with Katia Bowers (KB), Connor Doak (CD), and Kate Holland (KH), the editors behind the volume A Dostoevskii Companion: Texts and Contexts, which is out this month with Academic Studies Press.

9781618117267_fcBK: Tell us a little about the volume. What kind of companion is it?

CD: It’s a volume for students of Dostoevskii, aimed at illuminating his works. But whereas most companion volumes—say, the Cambridge Companion series—provide a selection of new essays on different topics, our book brings together a selection of sources from Dostoevskii’s own time as well as the best critical writings, both classical and contemporary. So, for example, we have put in excerpts from Dostoevskii’s rather cranky letters about his row with Turgenev alongside the chapter in Demons where he pokes fun at Turgenev, as well as a classic critical essay from Robert Louis Jackson about how Dostoevskii and Turgenev might have more in common than either man might have wanted to admit!

KH: Near the beginning, we agreed that our volume should not advocate any one single interpretation of Dostoevskii’s works. Of course, the three of us have our own views about Dostoevskii and his worksometimes quite strong views!but we always tried to refrain from privileging one view over another. Instead we deliberately included critical voices that disagree with one another. Our goal here was to enable students to look at a critical discussion or historical evidence and form their own judgments based in their understanding of the material.

KB: We do provide a kind of introduction to each chapter of the volume, but this is to help students see the bigger picture or put together a web of themes rather than to guide students to a specific understanding. For example, in Chapter 7, called “Captivity, Free Will, and Utopia,” we collect a number of texts that are related to these themes, but students are invited to form their own judgments. (and to add to this conceptualization of a larger theme from their own explorations of Dostoevskii’s works).

BK: Tell us a little about the series the book appears in. What support did you have from the press and other sources?

KH: All three of us were already aware of the excellent Cultural Syllabus series at Academic Studies Press, and we knew they hadn’t done a Dostoevskii volume yet. The series is designed with undergraduate students in mind, for use in the classroom or for the general reader with an interest in the topic. Typically their books are collections of primary and secondary source materials on specific topics in Russian literary studies. Our book is the first in the series to focus on a nineteenth-century topic.

CD: Academic Studies Press have been wonderfully supportive of the project. They also provided part of the funding for the permission to reprint published work that isn’t out of copyright. These permissions can run into thousands of dollars for a volume like this…

KB: Outside of Academic Studies Press’s resources, the work on this volume was supported through funding from the University of British Columbia, where I’m based, and a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Connection Grant that Kate and I received for our project Crime and Punishment at 150.” We are also grateful to Robert Louis Jackson, Igor Volgin, and Vladimir Zakharov and the Yale Review for giving us some permissions for free. Our wonderful team of student Research Assistants did great work in producing the volume: Anton Nonin, who also did a lot of new translations for the volume; Hanna Murray; and Kristina McGuirk. This project would not have been possible without them.

BK: There’s a huge bibliography on Dostoevskii. How did you decide which works to include?

KH: All three of us have taught Dostoevskii, so first of all we put our heads together and shared our ideas about what worked with students. We also asked other colleagues to share their syllabi, and looked at how they teach Dostoevskii…

KB: …And people teach Dostoevskii not just in Slavic departments, of course, but in philosophy, political science, theology, and other fields. The theologian George Pattison, for example, used to teach a graduate seminar on Dostoevskii at Oxford, so we looked at his syllabus, too. Our own volume is written primarily with students in literary studies in mind, but we hope it will be useful for folks in all disciplines.

CD: After we had a working draft of what we wanted to include, we circulated that to some of our most trusted colleagues in Russian Studies. And we met up with them at the International Dostoevsky Society Conference in 2016, which happened to be in Granada, Spain that year… So we had lunch on a sunny summer’s afternoon, with wine aplenty, and discussed. We’re very grateful to those who participated in this initial, extremely helpful discussion: Carol Apollonio, Deborah Martinsen, Robin Feuer Miller, Bill Todd, and Sarah Young.

BK: What were the most challenging aspects of creating the volume?

KB: Striking a balance between what is often taught and what would be valuable for further study took quite a lot of thought and revision. Our survey of syllabi revealed that the most popular works taught in class are, not surprisingly, Crime and Punishment, Notes from Underground, and Brothers Karamazov. However, including the full text of Notes from Underground, for example, would be redundant, as it is widely available elsewhere. We also decided not to have a chapter focused on each text as we felt this would encourage siloed reading. We conceived of this volume as a companion that encourages deeper thinking and exploration, so we focused instead on broad themes or topics for our chapters. The works we include are shorter texts and excerpts that we find revealing or provocative to think about when reading these longer novels. We also made a point of including critical scholarship about these more commonly taught texts, but as an organic part of the exploration of themes or topics. The one exception to this is the inclusion of an entire issue of the Writer’s Diary (the April 1877 issue, which includes “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man”). I wanted to add it because I assign it in my class and I think reading through a single issue is an important part of understanding how Dostoevskii’s journalistic fiction functions.

KH: One of my goals was to include some material from Dostoevskii’s penultimate novel, The Adolescent, which has historically been neglected by readers and critics but which engagingly articulates some of the questions of form that Dostoevskii struggled with. The novel itself, as well as its preparatory notebooks, contain some of the richest meditations on the novel and history anywhere in Dostoevskii’s works and can richly inform readings of his other works. Yet it’s hard to find manageable excerpts of this work and the criticism that deals with it. The Adolescent is a particularly messy, inconsistent work, and it’s rarely taught, yet it is narrated by a twenty-year old and I’ve found that it engages students on an emotional, visceral level even more than other of Dostoevskii’s novels. We hope that the volume might also inspire readers to go beyond the Dostoevskii of Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov.

CD: I did most of the work on the chapter called Dostoevskii’s “Others,” which looks at his representations of ethnic and religious minorities, as well as women. I find it very challenging to deal with Dostoevskii’s xenophobia and his anti-Semitism. We didn’t shy away from including some of his most controversial works, such as his essay “The Jewish Question” from A Writer’s Diary. I find that piece repugnant: by some twisted logic, he ends up blaming the Jews for the crimes perpetrated against them. It’s a horrible piece of intellectual gymnastics, and yet it remains one of the most topical things Dostoevskii ever wrote, as it’s the same kind of victim-blaming that we see among the radical right today. Gary Saul Morson writes somewhere that he felt a sense of betrayal when he first discovered Dostoevskii’s anti-Semitic writings, as if a long-standing friend had revealed some hidden part of his nature that he couldn’t fathom. I, too, find it hard to reconcile Dostoevskii’s empathy and his preaching of forgiveness with this xenophobic side of his nature.

BK: Is there anything you wanted to include in the book that you didn’t have space for?

CD: I was keen to include a section discussing the different translations of Dostoevskii. Students aren’t always aware of how much of a difference translation actually makes, and often opt for the cheapest one, or the one that happens to be available online. But whether you read Crime and Punishment in Garnett’s translation, or Ready’s, or Pasternak Slater’s, or Pevear & Volokhonsky’s, really makes a substantial difference to the reading experience. However, it proved difficult to include discussion of this issue in a succinct way: we would have had to provide extensive quotation of all the different versions, and add a lot of new commentary ourselves, as there’s not a lot of serious scholarship to draw on when it comes to comparing the translations that has been done. I think, then, the translation comparison is probably a separate project.

KH: I would have liked to have included more Russian scholarship. The story of Dostoevskii’s reception in Russia throughout the twentieth century, during the glasnost’ years, and following the fall of the Soviet Union is a fascinating one, yet it would have required significantly more space to contextualize this scholarship as well as more resources to translate it. Another fascinating topic would have been to look at “Global Dostoevskii.” Dostoevskii’s influence looks different in different parts of the world, and recent loose adaptations of his novels in literature and film have served to highlight his importance in the Philippines, in Latin American countries, in Korea and Japan, and in South Africa.

KB: One aspect of my Dostoevskii class is some engagement with contemporary approaches to the text like film adaptations and digital media. I originally wanted to include an excerpt from one of the Twitter projects that I’ve worked on, either @YakovGolyadkin or  @RodionTweets. While I do assign these, in part, to my students to read, there wasn’t space for them in the volume as they would require significant contextualizing. Similarly, adding some discussion of film adaptations of Dostoevskii would have been interesting, but this also would have required significantly more contextualization, and a dedicated section on film adaptations would have unbalanced our volume. These are valuable ways of experiencing the text, particularly for our twenty-first century students, but in the end we stuck with the text, which, in the case of Dostoevskii, is already a huge undertaking!

BK: Dostoevskii is one of the few ‘classic’ writers who can still attract significant undergraduate enrolment numbers. Why do you think he still appeals to readers today?

CD: We live in a world that can be pretty nasty. But students aren’t used to talking about that nastiness, or rather, they tend to project it onto others, and can’t recognize it in themselves. We live in an affirmative, self-help culture, in which we’re told to love ourselves for who we are… and that means we’re very reluctant to recognize the dark side of our nature, to admit just how nasty human beings can be. Reading Dostoevskii is like going into a frightening hall of mirrors, where we see ourselves reflected, but it’s an exaggerated version of ourselves, with all our faults magnified… That’s why Dostoevskii is perennially rewarding—but also frightening—I guess.

KB: The aspect of Dostoevskii my students are most drawn to is his message of compassion. The kind of ethical interactions he puts forward as an ideal but also as a possible outcome appeal to students who see injustice, suffering, and cruelty in the world and want to do something about it. That being said, this message comes, in Dostoevskii, cloaked in the most amazing, sensationalistic melodrama with larger than life characters. Reading Dostoevskii is harrowing and fantastic, but in the end the thing that sticks with students is the larger message that change is possible.

KH: Dostoevskii is a novelist of ideas, and readers and students alike are still drawn to his works for the revolutionary ways in which they express ideas, as well as for those ideas themselves, which can still shock and fascinate after almost 200 years. The ways in which his works address the power relations that foreground all human relationships, the fraught and messy nature of all emotional connections, and the divided nature of selfhood all seem to strike particular chords with students and readers at the present moment.

A Dostoevskii Companion: Texts and Contexts is available now from Academic Studies Press (20% off with code COMPANION). A sampler from the volume is available for download here.


Katherine Bowers is an Assistant Professor of Slavic Studies at the University of British Columbia. A specialist in nineteenth-century Russian literature and culture, she is currently completing a monograph about gothic fiction’s influence on Russian realism. She is the editor of Bloggers Karamazov and sits on the Executive Board of the North American Dostoevsky Society. 

Connor Doak is a lecturer in Russian at the University of Bristol. He works primarily on nineteenth- and twentieth-century Russian literature, with a special interest in gender and sexuality in Russian culture. He has authored articles on authors including Dostoevskii, Chekhov, Petrushevskaia and Pushkin, and is currently working on a study of masculinity in Maiakovsky’s poetry.

Kate Holland is Associate Professor of Russian Literature at the University of Toronto. She is the author of the monograph, The Novel in the Age of Disintegration: Dostoevsky and the Problem of Genre in the 1870s (2013), as well as articles on Dostoevskii, Tolstoy, Herzen, Saltykov-Shchedrin and Veselovsky. Holland sits on the Executive Board of the North American Dostoevsky Society.

Russian Culture in Landmarks: Dostoevsky’s Memorial Plaque in St Petersburg

by John Freedman

I’m coming to you with Dostoevsky today because I have been inside of Dostoevsky’s head all morning and afternoon. I began my day at my computer early this morning as my wife slept and I translated (portions of) Dostoevsky’s The Idiot into English on an empty stomach. It was one of the most memorable few hours of my life not only as a translator, but of my life, plain and simple. By the time Oksana came out and we shared our breakfast of oatmeal, I felt as though someone had plugged me into an electrical outlet. I think my eyes were giving off light. I think my skin was twitching. I could feel the air move through the hairs on my arms. I was as alive as one gets on a Sunday morning before breakfast. When she got up, Oksana asked me the usual question, “Did you have your glass of water?” I said, “No. I’m translating Dostoevsky. I’ve never felt so alive.”

Dostoevsky has followed me my entire adult life. He came quickly after Tolstoy when I was in high school. It was War and Peace then Anna Karenina then Crime and Punishment. I don’t remember the order anymore, but the next three reads were: The Brothers KaramazovThe Demons (The Possessed), and The Idiot, whatever the order was.
As I said, I was with The Idiot this morning. One of the segments I was translating (for supertitles for a theatre production of The Idiot) was the famous description of a condemned man waking in the morning, thinking he has a week to live – a whole, long week – and he finds out he has hours left to live – whole, long hours. It’s one of the great passages in world literature and I was privileged to have it pass through me today and emerge in English of some kind.

Dostoevsky is surely the most crooked, whacked-out, unorthodox, clumsy, prolix, confusing writer that ever put pen to paper. And therein, of course, lies his greatness. He is one of the chosen few who trusted his own instincts to the very end and went with them. Nobody ever wrote like Dostoevsky, clunking, tripping, stumbling, slogging along with interjections, bare naked adverbs, truncated thoughts, U-turns in logic, ellipses run amok, feverish exclamations, sentences jammed into one another that seem never to end, falling over commas, semi-colons, colons, dashes and whatever other signs he could conjure up and throw in between his words. And every trip and every stumble and every whip-around back in the opposite direction drives deeply into your heart, your soul and the soft matter of your brain. That man, that writer, was plugged into the truth. The truth is messy and complex and Dostoevsky, writing the truth, wrote messily and complexly. He is hell on steroids for a translator, and I’ve never enjoyed hell as I have done translating large excerpts from The Idiot these last weeks. Today was an epiphany, it was fireworks, it was the piece de resistance, the cornerstone of the work I’ve been doing. It was as if I climbed Olympus and Homer was there to greet me. Only Homer had Dostoevsky’s beard. It was joy, sheer, unadulterated joy.

In honor of this splendid day I have spent, I am showing you ground zero in St. Petersburg: the building in which Dostoevsky lived when he wrote Crime and Punishment. Surely when you think “Dostoevsky,” you think Crime and Punishment. As I say, it was the first Dostoevsky novel I read, and it was my third Russian novel in a youthful, drunken literary spree that – thank you, Lord – took me in different directions from Brett Kavanaugh. But my connections to Crime and Punishment are deeper than that, for I have lived the last quarter century with one of the seemingly peripheral characters of Dostoevsky’s great novel of suffering, discovery and redemption. By that I mean to say that Oksana Mysina, my wife, has, for 25 years, played Katerina Ivanovna, the wife of the drunkard Marmeladov, in Kama Ginkas’s great (the word is used properly here) production called K.I. from ‘Crime’, which, in its two and a half decades, has performed in some 20 countries even as it continues to run in Moscow. I could write a book about what it’s like to live with a character shaped not only by a genius writer, but by a genius theater director, but I won’t say a single other word about that now. That’s a whole other can of worms.

The building pictured here (now a light pink – I don’t know what it was like 150 years ago) stands at the corner of Stolyarny Lane 14 and Kaznacheiskaya Street 7. (Kaznacheiskaya was called Malaya Meshchanskaya Street when Dostoevsky lived there.) The plaque hanging on the wall on the Kaznacheiskaya side declares: “Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky lived in this house from 1864 to 1867. Here was written the novel Crime and Punishment.” But that only tells one quarter of the story of this street crossing. Dostoevsky lived or spent time in all four of the buildings that stand on this corner!  Two have plaques, one has information put up by a cafe proprietor, and the other was under reconstruction when I photographed it this summer. I couldn’t tell if anything was written there. But the point is, when you stand in the middle of this intersection, Dostoevskian winds blow at you from all sides – rather like they do in his novels.

When Dostoevsky lived here the building belonged to Ivan Alonkin, a merchant, tea-seller, and apartment-house owner. Dostoevsky occupied Apt. 36 on the second floor. In addition to Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky wrote the novellas Notes from Underground and The Gambler while living here. The building was originally erected in 1822 and was rebuilt/restructured several times since.

This is the place where Dostoevsky declared his love for his stenographer Anna, who subsequently became his wife and, quite probably, saved his life. Thanks to Anna’s memoirs, we even know a little about Alonkin and the apartment. According to an online Dostoevsky encyclopedia, Anna recalled Alonkin describing Dostoevsky as a “great worker. When I go to morning prayers and I see the light on in his study, it means he is working.” Anna went on about Alonkin: “He never bothered reminding us about the rent, knowing that when money would come in, Fyodor Mikhailovich would pay him. Fyodor Mikhailovich loved talking to the venerable old man. In my opinion, Fyodor Mikhailovich relied on his [Alonkin’s] physical appearance to shape the merchant Samsonov, Grushenka’s patron, in The Brothers Karamazov.”

The rent for Apt. 36, Malaya Meshchanskaya was 25 rubles a month. Dostoevsky paid two months in advance (without signing a rental contract), plus a 10 ruble deposit the day before he officially rented the space.


John Freedman is a translator and writer based in Moscow. An expert in Russian drama and theatre, he has written or edited and translated 11 books on the subject. He was a theatre critic for The Moscow Times for 25 years and now is Assistant to the Artistic Director of the Stanislavsky Electrotheatre. An archive of his writing can be found here and his personal website is here.

This blog post first appeared on his blog Russian Culture in Landmarks on Sept 30, 2018 and appears here with his permission. The images are his and also appear with his permission. He has written a number of other posts there about cultural landmarks related to Dostoevsky’s life including on the Dostoevsky Bust and Plaque in Wiesbaden; the Dickens and Dostoevsky Non-Meeting and Dostoevsky at Haymarket in London; the Dostoevsky Monument (Part 1 and Part 2) and Birth Plaque in Moscow; and Dostoevsky on the Moika.

 

 

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