Raskolnikov’s Strange Ideas: How Dostoevsky Predicted Modern Terrorism

by Iman Masmoudi

“While nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer, nothing is more difficult than to understand him.”

– Attributed to Fyodor Dostoevsky in the 1999 report The Sociology and Psychology of Terrorism

​The quotation above is less a reflection of what Dostoevsky actually said —it remains unverified but frequently cited — as it is an indication of what the Russian author’s novels continue to offer us: an understanding of the evildoer. His novel Crime and Punishment is known for its harrowing depiction of the mind of an ideological murderer. Do his predictions about ideological radicalization hold true for the most seemingly-inexplicable crimes of our day, namely suicide terrorism? Dostoevsky attempts to give us answers to three questions that relate to terrorism: what kind of idea can drive a person to murder? What kind of person can be so driven by an idea? And in what kind of social setting can such a process take place? Dostoevsky’s answers, as will be seen, often accurately predict the motivations observed in modern-day terrorists.[1]

The Idea

We learn of Raskolnikov’s utilitarian justification for murder in a flashback scene when he recalls overhearing two men in a tavern discussing the idea that had just occurred to him when he met the old moneylender: that perhaps someone should kill her, take her vast wealth, and distribute it to the thousands of poor throughout the city of St. Petersburg, thereby saving thousands of lives. “Kill her and take the money, so as to devote yourself afterwards to the service of all humanity and the common cause” (80). [2] One of the men in the tavern calls this idea “simple arithmetic.” At hearing this, Raskolnikov is astounded at the coincidence of how “those very same thoughts had just been conceived in his own mind” (81). Months pass and this “strange idea” stews in his mind. He debates with himself, going this way and that until finally, “his casuistry was now as sharp as a razor blade” and he didn’t have a, “single conscious objection” (87-88).

​Several explanatory theories for the modern phenomenon of terrorism exist. The most widespread of these is that Islam itself is the primary cause of such violence. The data, however, shows that religious knowledge and adherence is not a key factor in predicting radicalization, and in fact may be negatively correlated. According to MI5’s Behavioral Science Unit, most British terrorists do not have an in-depth knowledge of religion and are described as “religious novices.” In addition, prior to their radicalization or even after, they often behaved in ways that are contradictory to the Islamic orthodoxy for which they claim to fight, such as drinking, smoking, taking drugs, or visiting prostitutes.

Clearly religion plays some role in uniting members of such organizations and providing a discourse of moral superiority. But it is also plain that, at the very least, religious arguments alone provide insufficient justification. Political scientist Professor Robert Pape compiled the largest database on suicide terrorism around the world from the 1980s to the mid-2000s. He neatly summarizes the terrorist’s utilitarian justification in his 2005 book [3]:

there is little connection between suicide terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism, or any of the world’s religions. […] Rather, what nearly all suicide terrorist attacks have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland.

This is the murderous logic employed by the modern terrorist: that to kill a small number of innocent civilians could motivate world powers to withdraw from conflicts that cost many more lives. Daesh propaganda exemplifies this justification. Their conception of ‘homeland’ is the lost caliphate, an idealized notion of the Islamic world that extended from Spain to Southeast Asia centuries ago. This is the mythic homeland from which they want to expel Western influence. Their consistent use of the term ‘Crusaders’ to describe the West reveals an intent to cast Western governments as active invaders who bring suffering for Muslims. Importantly, as with Raskolnikov’s unplanned murder of Lizaveta, the moneylender’s innocent and kind-hearted sister, such perspectives always lead to harm inflicted on uninvolved innocents, sometimes even the very people the criminals claim to be fighting for.

​The idea, then, that can drive a person to utilitarian murder is one that places the criminal himself in the morally superior position. But importantly, as Dostoevsky scholar Joseph Frank notes, Raskolnikov’s radicalization relied on more than just the superior logic of his justification. Rather, the entire process was only made possible by his “fierce and self-absorbed egoism,” his “innate extremism,” and “a desire for self-sacrifice bordering on martyrdom.”[4]

The Person

​As for the egoism that drove Raskolnikov to commit his crime, Dostoevsky gradually reveals this underlying psychology until even Raskolnikov himself realizes that his supposedly humanitarian reasons were not his true motivators, confessing, “Listen: I wanted to become a Napoleon, that’s why I killed..” He continues, “It wasn’t to [..] make myself a benefactor of humanity. Nonsense! I just killed. I killed for myself, for myself alone.” Raskolnikov was driven by acute insecurity that made him need “to find out [..] was I a quivering creature or did I have the right…?” For if he could bring himself to disregard the most basic human injunctions against murder, then he could count himself among the class of men that Napoleon occupied: men who justified their crimes and were later glorified for them as “masters of the future.” The utilitarian ideals that seemed to motivate Raskolnikov were contradicted both by his unsympathetic thoughts and actions and his underlying egoistic search for self-validation.

Frank adds to this understanding by arguing that Raskolnikov’s nature is inherently extreme and that he has innate desires for martyrdom. One such example of Raskolnikov’s desire for heroic martyrdom is his previous insistence on marrying the daughter of his landlord despite her great disabilities and lower social standing and over the wishes of his family. He saw this as an opportunity for him to act in a way that made him seem the noble hero.

The similarity here to modern terrorists in terms of a culture of heroic martyrdom and a search for self-validation is quite clear. According to Dana Rovang, research director with the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism, Daesh filmmakers mimic well-known narrative techniques, such as the “Hero’s Journey” plot progression, in order to cast their fighters as heroic martyrs. Despite coming from diverse educational backgrounds, most British terrorists work in low-grade jobs suggesting thwarted aspirations that may lead to a loss of direction and a need for validation. Raskolnikov, too, was unemployed and had his student dreams thwarted by economic hardship at the time of his radicalization. The intimate psychology of indiscriminate murder found in Crime and Punishment helps us to understand what may be going on in the minds of some such criminals when innate compassion is gradually made subordinate to distorted ideologies and egos.

The Social Setting

​Dostoevsky’s cautionary tale should prompt us to re-examine the social conditions that contribute to the rise of ideological crimes, as Dostoevsky’s key talent was “this ability to integrate the personal with the major social-political and cultural issues of his day.” Philosopher Jürgen Habermas argues that the modern project will fail, unless we have “an awareness of what is missing” in our societies that leads people to a constant search for meaning and purpose in their lives. This meaning was previously provided by religion, but has been largely pushed out in in the West in favor of Enlightenment rationalism and individualism. Sociologist Max Weber called this process “disenchantment.” This disappearance of meaning in everyday life is a central challenge in modern Western societies.

​The search for personal meaning is also at the heart of Raskolnikov’s crimes and it seems likely that it animates crimes of modern terrorists as well. Despite the tendency to perceive groups like Daesh as backwards or even “medieval,” their projects are actually only made possible by the social conditions, ideas, and technologies — like the internet and modern weaponry— that have emerged during the modern period (a topic previously discussed here). Young, socially-alienated men with little meaning in their lives are particularly susceptible to the heroic narratives told by online recruitment networks. The search for meaning is part of what drives them to such extreme acts. Even Raskolnikov was influenced by a growing sense that the path he was on was what he was meant to be doing. When chance occurrences seemed to point him towards the murder, he thought it was “as if there really were something preordained in it all, some sign…”

​In this way, Dostoevsky manages to weave into his narrative an element of coincidence and unpredictability that is also typical of terrorism. For just as we can’t fully predict who will be radicalized or when attacks will occur, there were often moments when Raskolnikov was spurred on by events of random chance that implied metaphysical purpose. This occurred most prominently just before the murder when he turned away from his “damned dream” and prayed for guidance. ​

And yet what returns him to the path of murder, and perhaps what solidifies the act for many unsure would-be murderers and terrorists, is the sudden appearance of a clear path, an opportunity to carry out their ‘strange’ ideas. This occurred when Raskolnikov serendipitously learned “that the very next day, at such-and-such a time, such-and-such a woman — the object of an intended murder — would be home alone.” And it is this knowledge that eventually leads him to her apartment the next day with a hidden axe and a supposedly humanitarian sanction to murder.

Conclusion

Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment helps us to humanize the experience of radicalization. As readers, we see Raskolnikov struggle with the murderous idea and his own revulsion towards it. The first part of the novel, before the murder, largely follows Raskolnikov’s inner conflict between his “intention to commit a crime in the interests of humanity” and “the resistance of his moral conscience against the taking of human life.”[5] Frank argues that Dostoevsky’s heart-wrenching depiction of “the agonies of a conscience wrestling with itself” has “no equal this side of Macbeth.”[6] Raskolnikov asks himself “but will that really happen? Surely it can’t, can it?” (65). Closer to the murder, he wakes from a nightmare and exclaims, “My God! Will I really — I mean, really — actually take an axe, start bashing her on the head, smash her skull to pieces? [..] Lord, will I really?” (73). Raskolnikov even has moments when he entirely turns away from his “strange idea” asking God for help to “show me my path, while I renounce this damned … dream of mine!” (74). The gradual breakdown of Raskolnikov’s innate humanity and compassion is perhaps the most intimate portrait of the radicalization of a terrorist that we can read today. Reading Crime and Punishment can be an exercise in truly understanding the “evildoer” as our opening quotation has asked us to do.

This analysis may also provide an opportunity for much-needed societal reflection. Although we need not accept Dostoevsky’s social prescription of a return to Christian faith, it is clear that his critiques of modernization endure, as the social problems he warned of persist. This acknowledgement provides an important opportunity to return to the question and finally address “what is missing.” On the heels of the horrific murders of Jewish congregants in a synagogue in Pittsburgh, we cannot ignore the complex interplay of political, socioeconomic, and emotional factors that birth the dark psychological machinations comprising the modern terrorist.


Iman Masmoudi is a guest contributor. She is a student of law and political theory and the President of Tuniq, a cooperative for North African inspired anti-capitalist clothing. Her interests lie in Islamic pedagogy, legal pluralism, and human stewardship of the earth. You can follow her on Twitter here.

This post is an expanded version of a post that originally appeared on the blog Traversing Tradition on Oct 29, 2018.


[1] English-language discourses around terrorism focus on self-professed Muslim groups in the United States and Europe, as does the available research by academic and national security groups. This essay concentrates on these groups also, while noting that white extremist groups have caused more deaths in the US since 9/11 and are cited by American law enforcement agencies as a more alarming threat to national security. Additionally, this essay’s emphasis on attacks that occur in Western Europe and the United States should not indicate that these victims are more worthy of solidarity than others, but rather that attacks that are perpetrated by Westerners are of particular interest to this essay. This is because the social conditions relevant to Dostoevsky’s analysis are more similar than those of other regions that suffer from terrorism, particularly when such regions experience war and other broad social traumas that may contribute to violence.

[2] Fyodor Dostoevsky. Crime and Punishment, translated by Oliver Ready. Penguin Books, 2015. All quotes from the novel are from this translation.

[3] Pape, Robert Anthony. Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism. 1st ed.  Random House, 2005.

[4] Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky : A Writer in His Time.  Princeton University Press, 2010.

[5] Ibid. 486.

[6] Ibid. 487.

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.

 

 

Thomas Atkinson and Dostoevsky

by Nick Fielding

In 2014 a scrappy piece of paper covered with jottings by the great Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky caused a bit of a stir, due to various doodles in the margin.

The page contained notes that were later used by Dostoevsky in his novel Demons, first published in 1871. One of the doodles was of a man’s head – see the picture below – which most experts took to be a portrait of William Shakespeare. However, beneath the little portrait can just be made out (in Cyrillic) the name ‘Atkinson’. Nothing else connects to the name and there is no further explanation. Who was this Atkinson mentioned by the great writer?

dostoevsky-close

The name Atkinson can be made out just below the portrait

According to scholars, it could only be one of two men; either Thomas Witlam Atkinson or the British art critic Joseph Beavington Atkinson (1822-86). Which one was it?

First, let’s deal with the question of whether or not the portrait is ‘Atkinson’. All the experts seem to agree that it is too close to the famous ‘Chandos’ portrait of Shakespeare to be anyone else. That being said, there is a very superficial resemblance to Thomas Atkinson, although it is extremely unlikely that Dostoevsky ever met him. Dostoevsky was imprisoned in Omsk in Western Siberia from 1851-54 and subsequently lived in Semipalatinsk – in what is now northern Kazakhstan – for a while after that, but there is no evidence from either man that they met.

Considering the name alone, let’s look at the case for Joseph Beavington Atkinson first. Dostoevsky expert Professor Nikolay Zakharov notes that in his diary Dostoevsky mentions an anonymous article called “Angliyskaya kniga o russkom isskustve i russkikh khudozhnikakh” (“An English Book about the Russian Art and Russian Artists”) which retells and includes excerpts from J. B. Atkinson’s book An Art Tour to Northern Capitals of Europe (London, 1873). Zakharov assumes Dostoevsky would have been provoked by Atkinson’s claims in the book that “up to now, the Russian school of art has not developed new styles or new themes”.

However, the date of the Atkinson book is a little late, considering that Dostoevsky’s novel was published in 1871.

So what about Thomas? As stated above, Dostoevsky was imprisoned in Siberia for several years and could certainly have heard about the odd English couple and their child roving around the Siberian and Central Asian steppes at that time.

cropped-discussing-the-journey-to-nor-zaisan1

Atkinson asking directions

We also know that when he was living in Semipalatinsk, from 1854-56, Dostoevsky became friendly with Baron Alexander Egorovich Wrangel (1833-1915), an admirer of his books. They both rented houses in the Cossack Garden outside Semipalatinsk and the baron later wrote a book of reminiscences about his encounters with Dostoevsky.

Interestingly, in 1848-9 when Thomas and Lucy were living in Kapal in what is now eastern Kazakhstan – and directly south of Semipalatinsk – they also knew a Baron Wrangel, who was the commanding officer of the small outpost. As Thomas notes in Travels in the Regions of the Upper and Lower Amoor:

The society among which I was thrown was of a mixed character. At the head of the civil department was a German baron, who had won glory in the Caucasus, where he had received a wound from a Circassian sabre, that nearly proved fatal. He was the Priestoff, or political agent, whose duties were with the Kirghis. He was a good soldier, had few scruples, and was a most amusing fellow, believing himself equal to Nesselrode in diplomacy. Were fiction and invention essential in the acquirements of a minister, I would back the Baron against the Count.”

Thomas does not name the Baron, but Lucy does – more than 30 times! She writes many amusing anecdotes about Baron Wrangel, who was clearly a good friend of her husband. She even describes the two men playing duets – Thomas on the flute and the baron on the guitar.

Was this the same Baron Wrangel? Without knowing the full name of the Baron known to the Atkinsons it is difficult to be sure. Thomas’ baron had been wounded in the Caucasus, so that might be a clue. The baron known to Dostoevsky was born in 1833, which might make him too young to have been the same person known to the Atkinsons. If not, he was probably a close relative.

However, there are even more possible connections. We know that Dostoevsky went to live in Barnaul after leaving Semipalatinsk. Again, the Atkinsons were well known there, having spent two winters in the town. It seems very unlikely that Dostoevsky did not hear something of them during the time he spent there.

So, although we cannot prove definitively that Dostoevsky was referring to Thomas Atkinson in his marginalia, the likelihood seems very high. Did he ever appear as a character in a Dostoevsky novel? That is up to you, dear readers, to find out.

baron-a-e-wrangel

Baron A E Wrangel

In his book The Kazakh Khanates between the Russian and Qing Empires, Japanese Scholar Jin Noda notes that the Russian official appointed as Commissary to Kopal in about 1848 – where the Atkinsons were also staying – was Baron A E Wrangel. This is Alexander Egorovich Wrangel, the same person who Dostoevsky met in Semipalatinsk.

David Clay’s book The Grand Spas of Central Europe: A History of Intrigue, Politics, Art and Healing also mentions Baron A E Wrangel. Referring to Dostoevsky’s visit to Wiesbaden in 1863, when he famously lost all his money at the card tables, Clay says that the novelist wrote to “an old family friend” to ask for 100 thalers to help pay off his debts. That old friend was in fact Baron A E Wrangel, who by this time was Russia’s emissary to Denmark! I have also found references to other contacts between the two men.

Thus Dostoevsky was in fact a close friend of the man with whom the Atkinsons had spent nine months in Kopal in the winter of 1848-49. Knowing this, I have no hesitation in suggesting that the Atkinson mentioned in Dostoevsky’s marginalia is undoubtedly Thomas Witlam Atkinson. Was the great writer thinking about creating a character based on Atkinson? We may not yet be at the bottom of this story.

thomas_atkinson-from_Paul_Dahlquist.jpg

Thomas Atkinson later in life; the photograph is courtesy of the Paul Dahlquist Collection

If you had not previously heard of Thomas and Lucy Atkinson, it might be worth mentioning that this English couple spent almost six years exploring and travelling throughout Siberia and Central Asia from 1847-53, covering a distance of more than 40,000 miles, much of it on horseback.

Their son, Alatau Tamchiboulac Atkinson, was born during the first year of their travels and accompanied them throughout, even into the wildest places. Thomas painted hundreds of pictures of his travels and published two books. Lucy also published a superb book, possibly the earliest real travel book by a woman writer.

When I realised that there was a possible connection between the Atkinsons and Dostoevsky I was not entirely surprised. The Atkinsons had a passionate interest in the Decembrist exiles and Thomas planned to write his third book about the exiles of Siberia, dying in 1861 before it could even be begun. All of this must have been apparent to Baron Wrangel, with whom they lived in close proximity for nine months.

Lucy Atkinson

Lucy Atkinson

During their travels throughout Siberia the Atkinsons visited many of the Decembrists, in many cases bringing them gifts from their families. Lucy, who records all this in her book, Recollections of Tartar Steppes (1863), had previously been employed as a governess in St Petersburg in the Muravyev family, many of whose members had been exiled to Siberia as Decembrists and one of whom had been executed. Like Dostoevsky, the Decembrists too loved Dickens and in fact begged Atkinson to visit Dickens on his return to England and thank him on their behalf.

And that is exactly what happened. I have published the correspondence on my blog. In response Atkinson’s message from the Decembrists, Dickens replies:

“If you can see any of them again, pray assure them that I believe I have never received a token of remembrance in my life, with so much sadness mingled with so much gratification. I wish I could do more for them than remain true to the principles which faithfully maintained, would render their wrongs impossible of infliction. Lord help them and speed the time when their descendants shall speak of their suffering as of the sacrifice that secured their own happiness and freedom.”

Bearing in mind all this background, it seems quite likely that Dostoevsky would have been interested in the Atkinsons. Was he looking for material or perhaps for a character? Any thoughts on this or any of the other elements of this story would be much appreciated.


Nick Fielding is a journalist and author. He was a staffer on the Sunday Times and the Mail on Sunday and is the author of several books. For several years he has been retracing the travels of the Atkinsons in Central Asian and Siberia, and in 2016 he published his most recent book, South to the Great Steppe: the travels of Thomas and Lucy Atkinson in Eastern Kazakhstan 1847-1852. He writes the blog Siberian Steppes and lives in Oxford, UK.

This post is a cross-posting of two posts about Dostoevsky and Thomas Atkinson from Siberian Steppes. Please visit the blog to learn more about the Atkinsons and their travels.

Dostoevsky’s Stepanchikovo

by Steve Dodson

I would guess that among English-speaking readers, Selo Stepanchikovo i ego obitateli [translated as The Village of Stepanchikovo and Its Inhabitants] is the least-known of Dostoevsky’s novels — certainly far less known than his works of the 1860s, but also less so than his early novellas, Poor Folk and The Double and so on. (It seems to be well known among Russians, judging from the number of dramatizations available on YouTube.) In a way, this is understandable, since it’s unquestionably a slighter work than the ones to follow, but Dostoevsky was very pleased with it, considering it the best thing he’d done up till then (“I put into it my soul, my flesh and blood”), and I found it well worth reading. It is, though, a very odd novel, and I kept changing my mind about it as I read.

At first, it seems to be structured like a mystery. The narrator, Sergei, an orphan fresh out of college, is urgently invited by his kindly uncle Egor Rostanev to his country estate at Stepanchikovo, where he is told he is to marry a wonderful young woman. He puts off the visit for a while, but finally grits his teeth and goes; on the way, he meets an irascible fellow, Bakhcheev, who has just come from Stepanchikovo and tells him a former hanger-on and fool, Foma Fomich Opiskin, has taken despotic control of the entire family — he himself has quarreled with Opiskin and left in a huff, though he admits he’ll probably be back the next day.

So we are immediately faced with two enigmas: why has Rostanev summoned him to marry some woman he’s never met, and why is he putting up with this Opiskin fellow? When Sergei gets there he tries to investigate, but his uncle keeps telling him “I’ll explain it all later” and running off on one pretext or another. Eventually we learn that his mother and Opiskin are trying to force the poor but beautiful young governess Nastenka out of the house because they’re afraid Rostanev will marry her, so he’s decided if Sergei marries her instead she’ll be able to stay. None of this makes any sense, of course, but it’s told in a highly comic way, through young Sergei’s disillusioned eyes (he sees through Opiskin as soon as he meets him), and it’s a lot of fun to read.

The problem is that Opiskin is too strong a character for the book he finds himself in. He’s a magnificent creation, proud and tortured and humiliating everyone else to make up for the humiliations he’s suffered; to some extent he’s based on Gogol in his late crazed-moralizer phase, and he serves as an exorcism of both Gogol — who had been a strong influence on Dostoevsky, as on all Russian writers of the 1840s — and the high-minded intelligentsia of which Dostoevsky had been a part before he was sent to prison and Siberia. I suspect he is based on people Dostoevsky knew during that time, fellow prisoners who took out their sufferings on those weaker than themselves. He’s unforgettable, but the other characters seem pale next to him, and he’s so vicious it was hard for me to stay in the requisite comic mood. (This may be in part because I’m not Russian.) It’s fine for him to humiliate Rostanev and various fools and hangers-on, but when he is brutal to the faithful old servant Gavrila and the beautiful and somewhat simple-minded boy Falalei, this reader’s smile freezes. Opiskin gets a very satisfying comeuppance, but it doesn’t last long, and he winds up staying on as the evil deity of the household.

Frankly, I found it unbelievable that Rostanev, a former hussar, would put up with endless humiliations from this nasty fellow and continue to regard him as wise and benevolent; in fact, once the plot settled in I didn’t actually believe anything that happened — it has the air of a Moliere play in which you’re supposed to accept all the silliness and laugh at the folly of humanity. But this is Dostoevsky, not Moliere, and he’s thinking not of folly but of good and evil. Before long he’ll figure out how to create plots worthy of his characters and obsessions, but it’s very interesting to watch him working it out as he goes. If you have any interest in Dostoevsky, I recommend giving this book a try; just don’t expect Crime and Punishment.


This post is cross-posted from languagehat.com with kind permission from its author. The original post can be seen here: Dostoevsky’s Stepanchikovo.

Steve Dodson is a linguist manqué, an editor by profession, and a lover of all things Russian.  Having grown up in Japan, Thailand, and Argentina and put down roots in New York City, he now lives in Western Massachusetts with his wife, two cats, and 5,000 books.

Dostoevsky in Europe

by Himadri Chatterjee

Among the many things in life I find myself utterly at a loss to account for is the tremendous attraction I feel for the writings of Dostoyevsky. When his many faults are listed to me, I can do little but nod away in agreement. Yes, his novels are hysterical, irrational – indeed, he seemed to laud irrationality; they are loosely structured baggy monsters. He was also a fervent Slavophile, while I despise nationalism. He was politically conservative, and hated liberalism and liberals with a vengeance, whereas I tend to describe my politics as “liberal”. (Indeed, I was amused to find recently that I had described my politics on my Facebook profile as “Turgenevian liberal”. I don’t remember writing this, and suspect I was drunk at the time and not entirely serious; but I did laugh at what was presumably my own joke, and decided not to change it.) Dostoyevsky hated those Russians such as Turgenev who had adopted the values of Western liberalism, and I can’t help but see my own adherence to these same Western liberal values, despite my Indian background, as a sort of parallel (even though I have, I suppose, the excuse of having lived most of my life in the West). I suspect that if Dostoyevsky had known me personally, he would have despised me, and my values. And, by rights, I should also be repelled by Dostoyevsky, who stood for so much that I do not, and who loathed so much that I do. And yet, I find myself irresistibly drawn to Dostoyevsky. Which, I suppose, demonstrates Dostoyevsky’s dictum that we are far from being the rational creatures we like to imagine ourselves.

Dostoyevsky had not always been a right-wing Slavophile, of course. In his youth, he had been very left-wing indeed. He had been member of a revolutionary group, had narrowly avoided the death sentence (he had, famously, been led out to be executed before it was announced that his sentence had been commuted), and had served many years in a labour camp. His early works had been of a somewhat sentimental nature, focussing on “poor folk”, on the “insulted and the injured”, and lamenting the social injustice that cause so much suffering. But then, in the early 1860s, a very profound change took place in his outlook. As translator Kyrill Fitzlyon (Zinovieff) says in his preface to Winter Notes on Summer Impressions:

His earlier novels aim at the entertainment of the reader; undeterred by considerations of verisimilitude or psychological probability, they glide over the surface of life without stopping to take soundings of what goes on underneath; they shun deep analysis and they lack the later Dostoyevskian eagerness to reconcile the actions of men with their consciences, conceived in terms of spiritual anguish.

It was in the summer of 1862, at what we may see as the turning point between Dostoyevsky’s earlier viewpoints and his later, that Dostoyevsky visited Europe for a few weeks. That winter, he wrote of his travels in Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, and here we may see quite clearly his mature thoughts and ideas taking shape.

The West was what liberals, such as the hated Turgenev, pointed towards: it was in the liberal values of the West that Russia must seek salvation; by looking West, and adopting its values, Russia, so far from the major centres of civilisation, could, at long last, civilise itself. But Dostoyevsky was not having any of this. This is not necessarily because of his Slavophilism: what he saw in the few weeks he spent in Paris, and the week he spent in London, did not suggest to him a Heaven to be aimed for. That Russia was no Heaven he already knew: but salvation did not lie in emulating the West.

Before he goes into all this, he writes a preface, to which he gives the title “Instead of a Preface”. This sense of playfulness is apparent throughout the book. Dostoyevsky tells us right away that he is not a reliable narrator. He has spent only a few weeks in London and in Paris, he tells us, and his views are not only based on limited exposure, but are also, no doubt, biased and jaundiced in all sorts of ways. As he goes on to expand on this, he seems to create an authorial persona that may or may not be himself. At times, he seems almost to present himself as of those Gogolian grotesques who can’t stop digressing into all sorts of irrelevancies. The narrator he presents is, in short, a comic character, the first of the many weird and unreliable voices who come and go in the narration of his later novels. Giving the authorial voice such a persona allows Dostoyevsky to pursue his ideas into unexpected areas, and explore thoughts and concepts that may appear eccentric or whimsical, but without necessarily giving these ideas the seal of authorial approval.

He spends some time in London, and presents it in almost apocalyptic terms. He is shocked by the level of extreme poverty and vice. This may be surprising: as is apparent from his own novels, extreme poverty and vice aren’t exactly unknown in Russia. But perhaps he had expected better from London. What shocked him, I think, was the open acceptance of these things. He gives a description of a pathetic half-starved young girl, a child, openly trading herself in Haymarket, right in the centre of fashionable London. The English are often chided for their hypocrisy, but it seems to be the lack of hypocrisy, the openness of such moral depths, that seemed particularly to strike Dostoyevsky.

He has more to say about France, and, rather interestingly, he seems shocked by the very aspects of Russia that had shocked Europeans of that age – the lack of freedom, adulation of the Emperor, police informers, and the like. And he considers especially the middle classes, the bourgeoisie. The inspiring slogans of the French Revolution – liberty, equality, fraternity – are, he feels, an immense sham: all that has happened is that the middle classes have now taken on the power to exploit the lower classes. All ideals, all morals that people pretend to live by, are sham:

Paris has an unquenchable thirst for virtue. Nowadays the Frenchman is a serious and reliable man, often tender-hearted, so that I cannot understand why he is so afraid of something even now, and is afraid of it in spite of all the gloire militaire which flourishes in France and which Jacques Bonhomie pays so much for. The Parisian dearly loves to trade, but even as he trades and fleeces you in his shop, he fleeces you not for the sake of profit, as in the old days, but in the name of virtue, out of some sacred necessity. To amass a fortune and possess as many things as possible – this has become the Parisian’s main moral code, to be equated with religious observance.

Dostoyevsky keeps probing: what, exactly, are the bourgeoisie afraid of?

Whom should he fear then? The workers? But the workers are all of them capitalists too, in their heart of hearts: their one ideal is to become capitalists and amass as many things as possible.

This is not the solution, Dostoyevsky felt, for Russia. Rational precepts, and noble sentiments – liberté, égalité, fraternité – end up meaning nothing, and not merely because humans are not rational creatures: as he goes on to examine in Notes From Underground (which was written shortly after this book), humans are, if anything, anti-rational creatures, who, far from accepting ideas because they are shown to be rational, would choose, rather, deliberately to reject them in order to proclaim their freedom from the tyranny of reason. All he can see in the great cities of Europe are “anthills”: any attempt from above to bind humans into a unity is bound to fail disastrously, because they misunderstand the essentially paradoxical nature of humanity.

I can understand Dostoyevsky’s argument – at least, up to a point. Our lives have, if anything, become worse in certain respects: they have become “atomised” – to use the word popularised by the title of Michel Houellebecq’s novel – as never before. Not only do we not have fraternité between the classes, solidarity even within the social classes is becoming more problematic. But I don’t really understand what Dostoyevsky’s own solution is. Are we to expect a mystical fraternité to spring up spontaneously?

Of course, Dostoyevsky was not so foolish as to think that. His novels are not didactic novels: they are multi-voiced works, in which many of the voices rebel against their author and speak out against him, unanswered; and where, furthermore, many of the voices articulating some of Dostoyevsky’s own most deeply held beliefs are presented in a ridiculous light. Those great novels are seething cauldrons of ideas and counter-ideas, endlessly contesting and intermingling with each other, never resolving; but never are these ideas presented as something abstract: they are, as Kyrill Fitzlyon (Zinovieff) says in his preface, “conceived in terms of spiritual anguish”.

I still do not know why I am so drawn to the writings of Dostoyevsky, when, all things considered, I shouldn’t be. But there is something about these very strange books of his that has about it the air of prophecy.


This post was originally published on April 17, 2017 on the blog The Argumentative Old Git, and has been cross-posted here by invitation. The original post can be found here: Dostoyevsky in Europe.

All quotes above are taken from the following translation: Winter Notes on Summer Impressions by Fyodor Dostoevsky, translated by Kyrill (Fitzlyon) Zinovieff (Alma Classics, 2016).

The cover image is an 1862 illustration by Just L’Hernault, which in the public domain and has been available from the digital image collection of the John Hay Library, Brown University: Les Boulevards de Paris le Jour de l’An.


Himadri Chatterjee is an operational research analyst, lives near London, and has long had a passion for Russian literature, especially for Dostoevsky. He blogs mainly about books on his site The Argumentative Old Git and can be found on Twitter @hairygit.