‘To Uncover the Secret of the Person, While Preserving the Secret as a Secret’ – A Review of the Bulgarian Dostoevsky Society’s International Symposium “The Anthropology of Dostoevsky”

by Peter Winsky

In his letter of August 16, 1839, Fyodor Mikhailovich wrote to his brother Mikhail Mikhailovich that “the person is a mystery…I am studying that mystery because I want to become a person.”[1] In similar fashion, scholars from around the globe gathered for the International Symposium on “The Anthropology of Dostoevsky” to continue Dostoevsky’s quest to understand the enigmas encrypted into the human being. Organized and held by the Bulgarian Dostoevsky Society between October 23-26, 2018 at the Sofia University of St. Kliment Ohridski, the Symposium addressed the question of the person as a problem and subject of investigation in Dostoevsky’s world. The gathering was held in honor of the 150th anniversary of the publication of the novel The Idiot.

According to Professor Emil Dimitrov, the chief architect and mastermind of both the Symposium and Bulgarian Dostoevsky Society and one of the most engaging and passionate organizers of an intellectual gathering one could possibly meet, “the question of Dostoevsky’s anthropology is not ‘What is the person?’ (that is, in the way according to Kant), but ‘What is the person capable of?’ It is the testing of the ultimate foundations of the person and humanity, the testing of the boundaries of this humanity, on the other side of which the person becomes something else – subhuman or superhuman (the Man-God, according to Kirillov)… In the spirit of Heidegger, I can say that the purpose of our Symposium is to uncover the secret of the person according to Dostoevsky, while preserving the secret as a secret.”[2] To achieve this, Professor Dimitrov built a magnificent series of events to compliment the presentations at the conference, and in doing so brought together professionals from varied disciplines, not only literature or philosophy scholars, via the particularly welcoming and friendly Bulgarian culture and lifestyle.

The morning of the first day of the Symposium opened with a panikhida, an Orthodox requiem service, for Fyodor Mikhailovich in the rotunda church of Saint Sofia, constructed between the 4th and 6th centuries. Following the service, the participants transferred to the main hall of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences for the official opening of the Symposium, marked by short welcoming speeches from Professor Dimitrov and Yordanka Fandakova, the mayor of Sofia.

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Opening Remarks from Yordanka Fandakova. Image Credit: Emil Dimitrov

Following the opening greetings, Dr. Sergei Sergeevich Khoruzhy, founder of the Institute of Synergetic Anthropology at the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow and professor, mathematician, and philosopher, delivered the plenary address for the Symposium entitled “The Eschatology of Dostoevsky in the Context and Light of the Contemporary Renaissance of Eschatology.” Over the course of his remarks Professor Khoruzhy mused on the foundations of Dostoevsky’s eschatology as a personal and anthropological question through the lens of certain episodes in the novels such as Marmeladov’s Confession and Versilov’s Dream. The second half of the talk addressed the apparent ‘realizations’ of the apocalyptic situations of which Dostoevsky had prophesied (i.e. the Revolution), and possible connections of his visions and to contemporary manifestations such as global terrorism.

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Plenary Address by Sergei Sergeevich Khoruzhy.  Image Credit: Emil Dimitrov

Following Professor Khoruzhy’s captivating presentation the Bulgarian Dostoevsky Society provided a cocktail reception amid an exhibition of sketches and paintings inspired by The Idiot entitled “I was Happy in a Different Way…” After the reception, the conference began in earnest with two sessions exploring the anthropocentric universe of Dostoevsky. Panels on topics ranging from varieties of philosophical discourse in Dostoevsky, such as through Hegelian influence, to literary evaluations of The Idiot, including this author’s presentation on questions of narrative construction through the lens of Orthodox Personalism, to comparative analyses with novels like Zamyatin’s We or Ivan Bazov’s Under the Yoke, continued for the following two days. These presentations mapped and investigated the macro- and microcosmic pockets of personal being and its reverberations throughout the author’s oeuvre.

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Lazar Milentievich and Emil Dimitrov during Session One. Image Credit: Emil Dimitrov

The Symposium was not confined to the academic sphere of presentation and discourse. Every evening Professor Dimitrov engaged the participants with an assortment of cultural activities, ranging from a performance of Bulgarian Orthodox singing in the Museum of Iconography in the basement of the St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, to a dinner accompanied by Bulgarian folk dancing and singing, and finally the first ever screening of Akira Kurosowa’s film adaptation of The Idiot with Bulgarian subtitles.

The film was presented by members of the Japanese Society of Akira Kurosawa and the Dostoevsky Society of Japan. Select members also spoke during a round table event that showcased rare interviews with Kurosawa on his work translating the novel into cinema. The history of the lost footage from the film, which exists because of the demands of the studio on the director to make the movie under 3 hours, was also discussed. These presentations, which comprised the closing panel for the conference, truly reinforced the universality of Dostoevsky’s art as it penetrates not merely across linguistic and national boarders, but across cultural codes and mediums as well. If the task of the Symposium was, as Professor Dimitrov noted, an engagement with and evaluation of the boundaries of the person and an inquisition into its mystery, then this final discussion showed that the riches of the mines of personal being in Dostoevsky’s work are far from being uncovered.

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Presentation by the Japanese Society of Akira Kurosawa. Image Credit: Emil Dimitrov

On the last day of the conference, the participants of the Symposium set out together for the Rila Monastery, located 73 miles south of Sofia. During the excursion the group wandered beneath the breathtaking frescos of the central church of the Nativity of the Mother of God, the museum of religious artifacts, and were greeted by the Hegumen of the monastery. From the beautifully tree-lined valley in which the monastery is situated the conference ended at a vineyard and winery near the Greek border where Professor Dimitrov toasted the participants, the forthcoming publication of the conference proceedings, and a future International Symposium of the Bulgarian Dostoevsky Society. The curtain was drawn on the conference in the same way in which it was revealed, with the joyful spirit of academic cooperation and exploration into the mysteries of Dostoevsky’s profoundly personal worldview.

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Participants of the Symposium at the Rila Monastery. Image Credit: Katja Winsky

[1] F.M. Dostoevsky, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v tridsati tomakh. vol. 28(I), ed. Bazanov et. al., (Leningrad: Nauka 1972-90), 63. Translations are the author’s own.

[2] Emil Dimitrov, “Osnovnoi voproc antropologii Dostoevskogo- ‘Kak chelovek vozmozhen?’” translated by the author (accessed, 2 Feburary, 2019).


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The author presenting his paper. Image Credit: Katja Winsky

Peter Gregory Winsky is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of California Los Angeles in the Department of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Languages and Cultures. He is writing his dissertation on the poetics of Dostoevsky’s late novels through the lens of Orthodox Personalism, with a particular interest in the relation of beauty, metanoia, and noetic vision to ‘higher realism.’ He presented a paper at the Symposium, titled ‘“I Opened to My Beloved, but My Beloved had Withdrawn” – The Anthropological Foundations of Myshkin’s Failure in Идиот.” 

Teaching Crime and Punishment in Time and Space

by Chloë Kitzinger

The following blog post emerged from a roundtable on “Teaching Dostoevsky in the 21st Century” organized by Daniel Brooks at the 2019 AATSEEL conference in New Orleans. This is the fifth in a series of posts by roundtable participants. The first four posts in the series can be found here: 1, 2, 3 and 4.

Anyone who teaches nineteenth-century Russian (and not just Russian) literature has grappled with the question: how do we go about teaching really long novels? This question has implications that reach from before the beginning to after the end of a course — for syllabus design and recruitment, assignments, grading, and beyond. What kinds of courses will place novels like Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, or The Brothers Karamazov in a frame where students feel free (and motivated) to make the investment of time and intellectual energy they demand? What does one do about all the study guides out there online — from Cliff’s-Notes-style interpretive summaries full of secondhand wisdom, to collections of passages ready-made for common paper topics? And what better tools might there be to help students dig into such exciting and bewildering narratives on a first-time reading, and make some aspects of those narratives their own?

The narrative structure of Crime and Punishment (Prestuplenie i nakazanie, 1866) poses particular difficulties. Crime and Punishment is built as a spiral — a chain of repetitions-with-variations that brings Raskolnikov ever closer to the discovery of his own true motives and identity, but that actually can become more confounding the more slowly you read it — especially in a reading that follows the novel’s own claustrophobic focus on Raskolnikov’s evolving perspective. Linger with the “pro and contra” of Part One[1]—the forces pushing Raskolnikov toward and away from murder— and the debate about consequentialist ethics may last long after Dostoevsky himself has moved on. Emphasize that the question of Raskolnikov’s self is at stake in his crime from the beginning,[2] and it’s hard not to grow impatient with how long it takes Raskolnikov to figure this out. I want to sketch two approaches I have taken to adjusting the pace of classwork to such a deliberately- (and trickily-) paced narrative.

For one approach, in a single-author course on Dostoevsky, I have asked students to think spatially, gathering details throughout their reading of Crime and Punishment that will allow them to draw a “map” (a schematic visual representation) of a key aspect of the novel or a pattern they have noticed running through it. This assignment was inspired by an experiment I recently undertook to trace the character-networks of Crime and Punishment, collating encounters and connections among characters by hand and then graphing them using the open-source, freely available visualization software Gephi.[3] I designed the network graph as a tool for teaching, in the hope that it would defamiliarize the experience of reading the novel and serve as a laboratory for exploring how one side of its fictional world is constructed. However, my students have found the task of making their own “maps” just as useful. Approaches have varied widely — from drawing Raskolnikov’s sequence of dreams in concentrated emblems, to sketching the floorplan of Alyona Ivanovna’s apartment, to designing a modified Meyer-Briggs system to classify the novel’s characters and reveal unexpected lines of affinity or opposition among them. While some students use digital tools, many choose to represent the scenes or patterns they have noticed by hand. The assignment encourages students to choose an aspect of the novel not to read sequentially — or at least, not in the sequence of Dostoevsky’s narrative — and in turn, to take on the challenge of compressing their observations into an image that fellow readers of the novel can grasp in a single glance.

For another course that includes Crime and Punishment, I have taken the opposite approach. The course, entitled “Serial Storytelling Across Media,” asks students to read Crime and Punishment as part of a continuing tradition of serial melodrama that is still evolving in the present day — together with Dickens’s Oliver Twist (1837–39), Season One of David Simon’s The Wire (HBO, 2002), and Season One of Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder’s podcast Serial (2014). The course asks students to draw a connection between an experience that is no longer a common part of daily life (reading Dickens or Dostoevsky in serial installments, and perhaps later as a single-volume novel), and an experience that still very much is (waiting week-by-week for the next episode of a podcast or television serial, or — increasingly — “binge-watching” entire seasons online). Juxtaposing nineteenth-century serial narratives with contemporary ones, what emerges is the enduring power of serial form — to interweave fiction with the course of current events and the rhythms of everyday life, and to draw together (or in some cases, bitterly divide) diverse audiences of readers and viewers over the hard questions that these narratives frame. Assignments follow the divisions of original serial installments whenever possible, and throughout the semester, I ask students to keep “serial response diaries” in which they track their ongoing reactions to these narratives, and reflect on the techniques being used to shape them — from the construction and ending-point of a serial installment, to the manipulation of background music, to shifts in narrative perspective (textual, auditory, and visual alike). The course thus asks students to think about the temporality of reading, watching, and listening as an essential ingredient of the work’s effects on its audience: to analyze narrative in time and sequence, rather than abstracting them away.

Despite the clear thematic convergences across Oliver Twist, Crime and Punishment, The Wire, and Serial (crime, justice, innocence, childhood, the city…), differences of medium, style, place, and time can make their affinities hard to see. What nevertheless strikes home is the idea of serial melodrama itself as a modern forum in which audiences come together around moral, social, political, and existential questions — what Peter Brooks calls “the principal mode for uncovering, demonstrating, and making operative the essential moral universe in a post-sacred era.”[4] The course thus offers an impetus to talk about and compare serial watching, listening, and reading habits, and to think about how ongoing experiences of the dozens of made narratives that surround us are shaping individuals and communities alike. More than any other course in which I have taught Dostoevsky, this one brings Crime and Punishment into the present — not just as a particular text, but as an experience of reading. The spiraling paths of the novel’s installments make a new kind of sense when juxtaposed with twenty-first-century narratives whose serial unfolding — with representational, rhetorical, and commercial motivations — is an intimate part of students’ lives. The sometimes-alienating length and complexity of nineteenth-century realist novels becomes, in this context, entirely contemporary, because serial form itself emerges as part of what there is to grasp.

I don’t think of these two approaches to teaching Crime and Punishment as mutually exclusive. Both strategies are attempts to address a single challenge: without compromising on the attention that novels like Crime and Punishment demand on their own inimitable terms, how do we also translate these novels into the many native languages of present-day readers? Scholars of Dostoevsky have been answering this question for decades, but it’s exciting to think about the evolving tools and cultural resonances that make this such a rich moment to confront it again.

Notes
[1] Cf. R.L. Jackson, “Philosophical Pro and Contra in Part One of Crime and Punishment” in R.L Jackson, The Art of Dostoevsky: Deliriums and Nocturnes, 189-207. Princeton University Press, 1981.
[2] Cf. M. Holquist, Dostoevsky and the Novel. Princeton University Press, 1977.
[3] I describe this project further in my forthcoming essay “Mapping the Networks of Crime and Punishment,Approaches to Teaching Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, ed. M. Katz and A. Burry (MLA “Approaches to Teaching World Literature” series, est. publication 2020).
[4] P. Brooks, The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama, and the Mode of Excess. Columbia University Press, 1984 [1976], 15.


Chloë Kitzinger is an Assistant Professor at Rutgers University. Her research focuses on the Russian and European novel, and she is currently completing a book manuscript entitled Mimetic Lives: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Character in the Novel. She is a member of the North American Dostoevsky Society’s Readers Advisory Board.

Twitterature in the Dostoevsky Classroom

by Katherine Bowers

The following blog post emerged from a roundtable on “Teaching Dostoevsky in the 21st Century” organized by Daniel Brooks at the 2019 AATSEEL conference in New Orleans. This is the fourth in a series of posts by roundtable participants. The first three posts in the series can be found here, here, and here.

My adventure with Twitterature began three years ago, when I began to work with the North American Dostoevsky Society as their social media curator. I began a twitter account for the society, and it quickly took off. Throughout 2015 we had some success with contests that aimed to engage our followers and encourage them to join an online conversation about Dostoevsky. There was a humor contest, a hoodie design competition, a quote competition— and all of these events were great, boosted membership, and really helped us create a kind of community, but there was one issue. We wanted to engage not just with the kind of commercial idea of Dostoevsky, but with Dostoevsky’s works on a deeper level, and these kinds of contests were fun but they didn’t really do that. This is where the question that framed my AATSEEL talk and this blog post really begins: social media is useful for sharing information, community building, and public engagement – but can it enhance the study of literature? And, if yes, how?

In fall 2015, the North American Dostoevsky Society staged an online event. #TheDoubleEvent was centered around Dostoevsky’s 1846 novella, and aimed to get people talking about the text itself. The idea was that we would encourage people to read the novel and post reflections on it to our social media. This group read would lead up to a screening of The Double, the 2013 Richard Ayoade film adaptation of the novel, which would take place on multiple campuses. We wanted to connect people reading the novel and watching the film via Facebook and Twitter. The reflections were kind of a bust – as you can probably imagine, the only people who wrote them were my students, who I bribed with extra credit. Alongside them we had people write posts on Bloggers Karamazov (Gender Trouble in The Double, Gothic Doubling or The Double Gothically, and Golyadkin’s Human Shriek), our then newly launched blog – these were well received, and helped give the event a bit more depth. The film screening and live tweet event was great, and showed us the power of twitter for connecting people in a meaningful way. But perhaps more important to the development of my narrative is the fact that, as a way of engaging with the text and promoting the event, we, Brian Armstrong and I, decided to tweet the novel from its hero, Golyadkin’s, perspective… And this brings us to the topic of Twitterature, that is the creation or representation of a literary text through the Twitter format.

@YakovGolyadkin focused on just Golyadkin’s perspective. The real key to the project was Brian’s finding of Golyadkin’s voice. Brian interpreted the twitter feed to be a kind of monologue, as if Golyadkin had a secret device in his pocket that enabled him to record everything, all his thoughts and events. This enabled him to tweet with some sense of narrative arc, and improvise away from the text a bit, but keep in character. Finding Golyadkin’s voice enabled the feed to emphasize the key ideas of the novel, but, at the same time, to allow them to blend into the mundane everyday details of the feed. It also enabled the separation of Golyadkin’s voice/perspective from that of the narrator, an interesting extraction that enabled new readings of the novel. When I teach Dostoevsky, I assign my students to read the novel, and also invite them to read the @YakovGolyadkin Twitter feed (which is preserved on Wakelet and archived on Humanities Commons). They invariably respond well to @YakovGolyadkin. The singling out of Golyadkin’s voice and the timeline embedded in the preserved Twitter account helps with adding more framework to the confusing novel. However, beyond that, I was interested to learn that @YakovGolyadkin enabled them to read the novel differently. Several students reported that they felt much more sympathy for Golyadkin after reading the Twitter feed; they could see how lonely he was. His loneliness exists in the novel, but is difficult to discern through the voice of the narrator and the antics of his double. Similarly, Brian commented that he hadn’t realized how obsessed with prestige Golyadkin was until working on the project. This project showed us the value of digitally reading and recreating a text through Twitter, and we began planning for a grander twitter project attached to a large celebration of the 150th anniversary of Crime and Punishment that Kate Holland and I were organizing…. And @RodionTweets was born.

We decided to transpose Crime and Punishment into Twitter for the 150th anniversary because we saw it as an exciting new way of reading the novel. To mine the novel for tweets, you have to do incredibly close reading of the text, picking up on nuance and minute shifts in the protagonist’s feelings. Although Dostoevsky originally had begun the novel in the first person, Crime and Punishment is written in the third person, and there are many scenes that Raskolnikov never witnesses. Similarly, some context is required, and so the omniscient narrator’s voice must, at times, be transposed into the first person and into Raskolnikov’s voice. The mediation of these voices in the text makes for an intensive reading experience, and reproducing them into one coherent (or sometimes not so coherent, but always believable) voice was difficult. Assigning a project to students that requires them to mine the text, analyze it on a structural and narrative level, and interpret it to some degree to produce tweets is a wonderful exercise in close reading and one that I will explore closer here with some insight from our own experience doing this.

Our project was complicated by the fact that six different scholars were mining the six different parts of the novel. Even when we are all working from the same translation of the same text, we each approached the task a different way. Kate Holland’s tweets are more sprawling stream-of-consciousness, while Jennifer Wilson’s are very succinct. Kristina McGuirk, my ace RA, had a difficult task in trying to create a single Twitter persona out of them, but found that the Twitter medium helped this task as it required concision and some attention to hashtags. Hashtags seemed somewhat anachronistic, but several of the team members commented afterwards that hashtags proved useful in rendering the text from one person’s point of view. Sarah Hudspith wrote afterwards:

“At the earliest stages of envisaging the novel, Dostoevsky described in a letter to the editor Katkov his plan to write a story about a young man falling under the influence of “strange, ‘unfinished’ ideas afloat in the atmosphere” and committing a murder. I saw that the use of hashtags created a certain emphasis when added to words, and I felt that this would nicely suggest ideas and concepts afloat in the Twittersphere that were preying on Raskolnikov’s mind, even at an unconscious level. In this way, I could highlight the obvious #crime, but also #soul, #sacrifice, #fate and even #deadbody, adding a possibility of a double reading to the exclamation “Over my #deadbody!”

Beyond these questions of voice, there were questions of representation as well, and how the text would best (and most believably) be represented in Twitter format. Sarah Hudspith struggled with whether and to what degree to livetweet the murder, which is minutely detailed in the text, and I was confounded by delirious wandering. Yet, although these moments were confounding, they were also illuminating in that they forced us to think through places in the text in new ways. On livetweeting the murder, Sarah decided to do it in the end, but the decision prompted her to think more about the nature of social media and its meaning for searching for personal meaning:

“We live in an age where many people feel compelled to broadcast their lives online, to create a narrative of themselves which can become more real than the intimate, offline self. Raskolnikov is a character searching for an identity for himself: is he an intellectual, a philanthropist, a pioneer of a new morality, a sensualist, a beloved son and brother, a criminal? What parallels could be drawn between his anguished self-seeking, when put into the context of a Twitter account, and the contemporary mediation of personal identity? Further, social media are increasingly platforms for the propagation of ideologies and their distillation into ever more extreme forms, indeed are sadly the venue for publicising horrific crimes in the name of a so-called ‘new word’.”

These questions of public/private are opened only by reading the novel through Twitter; they are relevant, and important in tying the novel to our 21st-century experience, but they don’t come naturally to a text set in the 19th century.

In addition to reading alongside as I assign my students to do with @YakovGolyadkin and The Double or tweet mining themselves as I have just discussed, Kate Holland has also suggested one classroom activity that would work well with the feed (her students have done this several times): they read a section of the novel and the corresponding section of @RodionTweets, then write a series of tweets from another character that respond to Raskolnikov and the situation. In this way, they are given a small taste of intensive close reading and are encouraged to come to a better understanding of at least one character’s motivations and feelings. For Dostoevsky, who used his characters’ reactions and voices to such good narrative effect, I think twitterature in this sense opens up new avenues to understanding human nature in the classroom and beyond.

And a small public service message: both @YakovGolyadkin and @RodionTweets are preserved as a Wakelet (@YakovGolyadkin, @RodionTweets) and on Humanities Commons (@YakovGolyadkin, @RodionTweets pt 1, @RodionTweets pt 2) for use in the classroom in the future or for interested readers who stumble upon it online.


Katherine Bowers is an Assistant Professor of Slavic Studies at the University of British Columbia. Her publications include the recent co-edited collection A Dostoevskii Companion: Texts and Contexts (2018). She edits Bloggers Karamazov and curates the Society’s social media. She can also be found on twitter @kab3d

Crime, Punishment, and Kanye West

by Caroline Lemak Brickman

The following blog post emerged from a roundtable on “Teaching Dostoevsky in the 21st Century” organized by Daniel Brooks at the 2019 AATSEEL conference in New Orleans. This is the third in a series of posts by roundtable participants. The first post can be found here and the second here.

Last summer I taught a freshman composition course devoted to Crime and Punishment and Kanye West’s later albums.

The idea for the course came from a story someone told me about reading her students’ course evaluations at the end of the semester and seeing that one of them had written, “I wish we had read more stuff like Crime and Punishment.”

“But there is nothing else like Crime and Punishment,” she said to me, somewhat indignantly; “it’s the only book of its kind! What else should I have put on the syllabus for him – Turgenev? Nietzsche? John LeCarré?”

Much later I was listening to Kanye’s 2010 album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and trying to write about the way one of his verses models intoxicated temporality almost in the terms of a trolley-problem philosophical quandary. I was thinking about whether it was uncommon for rap to weave philosophy into a verse about getting trashed, and that exchange with my colleague came back to me. Could this album be the “more stuff like Crime and Punishment” her student had wanted?

The more I thought about it the truer it seemed, that Kanye was the Dostoevsky of our time. Both artists are politically conservative, vocally Christian, renowned for their virtuosic literary innovations, unrelenting in their critiques of the criminal justice system and the institutions of medicine and mental health, and (though this claim is controversial) unexpectedly and radically feminist, especially with regard to sex work. Both are obsessed with whether one man might become so great that he has total permission to do anything, because total power – and both are obsessed with what the personal price for such greatness may be. To my mind, though, their most significant similarity lies in their passionate commitment to the kind of critique that is only possible in literature: the repeated subjecting of persons and ideas to the ironized whims of narrative, or the punch of a perfect rhyme at the end of a verse.

I started the course with Crime and Punishment and halfway through the novel we began listening to Kanye, and analyzing his lyrics and sound together. The first song I assigned had a very specific thematic connection to the novel: we had just read Part IV, section 4 (Raskolnikov and Sonya; the raising of Lazarus), and I asked my students if they thought this was the beginning of a love plot.

“No,” one said, “I know she’s a prostitute, but I don’t think she’s going to want to be with him – I mean, he’s a murderer.”

There was general agreement among the class that in selecting a delusional criminal without a kopeck to his name as the novel’s protagonist, Dostoevsky had effectively carved out a class of citizen that even a sex worker might reasonably turn down. I cued up Kanye’s track “Hell of a Life” and asked my students to focus on the second verse, which features an exchange between a porn star for hire and a frustrated john:

Tell me what I gotta do to be that guy

[She] said her price go down, [if] she ever fuck a black guy

They zeroed in immediately on the crafty device of using a second-class citizen to voice the social unworthiness of another – figured not in terms of what price he can’t afford, but instead in terms of the effect their affair would have on her value.

The unlikely overlap between Kanye’s and Dostoevsky’s sexual politics – and the relation of those politics to each artist’s broader social critique – interested the class. In response to a comparative assignment, one student found moments in each corpus where a male speaker accuses the female object of his desire of being a sinner. Upon close analysis of both passages, she concluded that in each case the man is actually sinning, and projecting his guilt onto the woman. She finished her paper by arguing: “in the contexts of each moment, ‘sin’ becomes a mere buzzword of sorts, and is utilized simply as a tool to commit the horrific misogyny present.”

In response to the same assignment, another student compared Svidrigailov’s comment that he’s “going to America” right before he kills himself to Kanye’s song “Who Will Survive in America,” concluding that “America” indexes a kind of death or even hell in each passage. I found both of these essays remarkable because they used close literary analysis to get at a truth (or at least a trusim) about the way language works in the world: “sin” is a dogwhistle for masked misogyny at work; America is hell for some people.

As the end of the semester approached, we had a class discussion about Dostoevsky’s religious faith and crisis playing out not only thematically but also narratively, shifting between “godlike” omniscience and more subjective modes of knowledge. In response to this discussion, one student wrote a paper about “Ultralight Beam” – a Kanye song which takes faith in God as its explicit subject matter – in terms of its production. The argument was that – remarkably, for the opening track on a much-awaited album, – Kanye never actually raps a verse on “Ultralight Beam,” taking the more “godlike” role of producer, and “benevolently” offering the stage to others. The student concluded: “Yet for a song that directs the spotlight away from Kanye, his production value leaves his signature all over the song. For his influence to be felt without having to rap at all shows the level of power he has reached: perhaps he really is omnipotent.”


Caroline Lemak Brickman is a PhD candidate in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at UC Berkeley, completing a dissertation on twentieth-century Russian lyric and Greek myth. She is currently teaching in the Department of English at the University of Pittsburgh. The course discussed in this article was taught at Berkeley.

This post originally appeared on All the Russias Blog on 11 March 2019. It appears here with the permission of both its author and the All the Russias Blog editor.

The Incels and the Injured: Dostoevsky Against Toxic Masculinities

by Daniel Brooks

The following blog post emerged from a roundtable on “Teaching Dostoevsky in the 21st Century” organized by Daniel Brooks at the 2019 AATSEEL conference in New Orleans. This is the second in a series of posts by roundtable participants. The first in the series can be found here.

No shortage of contemporary horrors were prophesied by Fyodor Dostoevsky’s works: The Brothers Karamazov presages totalitarianism; Demons—terrorism; Diary of a Writer, the author’s ongoing, raw, dialogic polemic—Twitter. Although the author’s shorter, less ambitious texts are rarely accorded such powers of prognostication, few of his writings seem more urgent than the modest novella The Eternal Husband, which presents an object lesson in the toxicity of modern masculinity and homosocial desire.

The plot of The Eternal Husband is simple; its characters less so. Velchaninov, a preening, self-deluded cad, was once involved with the now-deceased wife of Trusotsky, whose daughter, Liza is likely the product of this adulterous affair. Liza’s abuse at Trusotsky’s hands suggests his shameful knowledge of her true parentage; she dies under another person’s care. The widower Trusotsky, eager to remarry, strangely asks Velchaninov to approve of his would-be fianceé. After a night of drinking, Velchaninov awakens to find Trusotsky standing over him with a knife; Velchaninov subdues him, although Trusotsky quietly leaves of own accord next morning. The epilogue finds the two characters repeating the same patterns years later: Trusotsky is married to a woman with a wandering eye, and Velchaninov is on the prowl.

It is the discourse through which this adultery plot is refracted that resonates with our time, and makes The Eternal Husband ripe for discussion. Velchaninov coins the term “eternal husband” to characterize Trusotsky, a perennial cuckold before Velchaninov’s more virile type. With this phrase, Dostoevsky permits his character an idiosyncratic revision of critic Apollon Grigor’ev’s “peacable” (смирный) and “predatory” (хищный) Russian types. The more sexual nature of Velchaninov’s conceptual binary, coupled with his disdain for the women who “bedevil” him, portends modern online communities that trade in gendered male grievance: from Subreddits lambasting those who have been “blue-pilled” (cowed into accepting an unwarranted equality between genders) and lauding those who have been “red-pilled” (steeled against feminism’s insidious evils); to the devotees of Jordan Peterson, who bemoans the worship of “feminine chaos” and celebrates the promotion of “masculine order.” Velchaninov all but proclaims himself an “alpha” and Trusotsky (whose surname tellingly contains the root трус, coward) a “beta”; his coined phrase conceals the disdain expressed quite openly in “cuck,” the alt-right’s preferred epithet.

The passive fatalism suggested by the adjective in “eternal husband” has its echo in the now-ubiquitous term “incel” (a contraction of involuntarily celibate). Notwithstanding its more complex origins, the label has recently been appropriated by misogynist terrorist Alek Minassian, who on April 23, 2018 drove a truck into a Toronto crowd in order to murder women, foment an “incel rebellion,” and spite his alpha superiors—in much the same way that Trusotsky expresses anger at his unfaithful wife and her lover by abusing their daughter. Such violence by “betas” receives more nuance than its victims do: pickup artists claim that training in aggressive, misogynist courting rituals would have garnered incel terrorists sexual partners and relieved their murderous sense of failure; Jordan Peterson claims that their acts represent rebellion against a stingy god, and that society has an obligation to publicly shame the inversely promiscuous women who would deprive these violent men of a rage-soothing mate.

Dostoevsky’s text presents an additional pedagogical challenge in that it is focalized through Velchaninov’s “alpha” point of view. (The penultimate chapter is fittingly titled Анализ, Analysis, expressing the protagonist’s overweening assumption—à la Peterson—that he is the “logical,” “rational” actor in the story, telling hard truths about gender and society.) Trusotsky—by turns pathetic, revolting, and seriocomic—seems a difficult read to Velchaninov (and, perhaps, us). Yet he is not the aporia he seems, and Velchaninov’s puzzlement at Trusotsky’s actions is itself telling of modern-day homosociality’s lacunae.

Via Trusotsky’s seemingly contradictory actions, Dostoevsky’s text repeatedly suggests that the binary hierarchies which structure Velchaninov’s views—and those of Peterson, the “cuck”-obsessed alt-right, and the resultant Venn diagram between them—are flawed. In fact, the text’s twisted romantic dynamic reveals their fallbility. Renowned literary critic René Girard applied his theory of mimetic desire to a number of Dostoevsky’s works, demonstrating that his characters perform desires that have been previously exhibited—and thus preemptively sanctioned—by a third party. Desire becomes contingent rather than direct, expressed by a series of imitative moves that, in practice, destabilize the absolute hierarchy on which Velchaninov’s binary rests. When Trusotsky timidly requests his rival’s approval of his would-be bride, he seems a beta to Velchaninov’s alpha. But doesn’t Velchaninov’s perennial pursuit of married women reveal the same insecure need for prior approval? Isn’t Velchaninov’s incipient desire (“jealous, envious” according to the narrator) for Liza’s affection a sign of how easily Trusotsky turns his hated competitor into an obsequious imitator? Trusotsky’s actions might seem illegible to Velchaninov, but the former’s repeated usurpation of the latter’s dominant position speaks to how readily their fates can be reversed. Why learn pickup artistry and become an alpha if mimetic desire makes cucks of us regardless?

In the novella’s epilogue, Trusotsky abruptly, sorrowfully invokes Liza’s name. The girl has gone all but unmentioned in the chapters since her death—reflecting, at once, her true meaninglessness for Velchaninov and her status as the inscrutable Trusotsky’s secret shame. Dostoevsky asks us to remember Liza’s name in a world where she is treated as an empty object, the collateral damage in a war of revanchist homosocial desire. Trusotsky is not redeemed by his regret, but nor is Velchaninov’s narratively privileged perspective allowed to escape unscathed. In remembering the victim, exploding an untenable hierarchy, and undermining the bad-faith actor who forgets the former and promotes the latter, Dostoevsky presents an antidote to misguided, destructive expressions of sexual desire and competitive masculinity. Anne Dwyer has recently suggested that Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolitacaptures something that is wrong with the time and place in which we live,” and that wresting these wrong things from a novel narrated by a charismatic abuser remains a vital teaching and reading exercise; might not we say the same of The Eternal Husband?


Daniel Brooks teaches Russian language and literature at Franklin & Marshall College. His current research focuses on twentieth-century Russian auto/biography, memoir, and literary criticism. He thinks that, in the 21st century, Dostoevsky would be an Extremely Online individual.

For an explanation of the cover image, click here.

Messy Things Betwixt and Between

by Amy Ronner

The following blog post emerged from a roundtable on “Teaching Dostoevsky in the 21st Century” organized by Daniel Brooks at the 2019 AATSEEL conference in New Orleans. This is the first in a series of posts by roundtable participants. 

With my PhD in literature, I began my first career teaching at the University of Michigan and then at University of Miami.  It is not surprising that when I became a law professor, I instinctively integrated literature – – especially Dostoevsky – – into my classes: the obvious course is criminal procedure and one not-so-obvious is Wills and Trusts.

Because I have practiced law, I have seen what can potentially hobble a lawyer: namely, her insistence that things be tidy and fall within set parameters of unyielding doctrines. In fact, fledgling law students tend to apotheosize the legal system and expect it to bestow order and absolute certainty. Golyadkin, as law professor, tends to jolt these soon-to-be lawyers out of this stultifying mindset.  But what is that nexus between Dostoevsky’s The Double and Wills and Trusts?

After the publication of my article, “Does Golyadkin Really Have a Double: Dostoevsky Debunks our Mental Capacity Doctrine,” Capital University Law Review. 40 (2012), p. 195, Harvard Law Professor Robert H. Sitkoff referenced it in his popular text book, Wills, Trusts, and Estates (New York: Wolters Kluwer Law & Business, 2016).  The article, along with Sitkoff’s nod, gave me to idea to invite Professor(s?) Golyadkin to teach a unit in Wills and Trusts.

One unit in Wills and Trusts is about will contests where individuals seek to invalidate a testamentary document by arguing lack of mental capacity or insane delusion.  These cases involve people who contest wills because they feel that they have been unfairly omitted or slighted. (“Damn it, mom left my good-for-nothing brother more!” “Dad left that step mother, the witch, everything!”).  There are lots of cases like this and they are unsettling. In them, challengers argue that the wills are invalid because the testators have no basis to believe for example that one son was plotting murder, or that spouses were cheating, or that DEA agents were secretly monitoring their lives. When courts invalidate wills by finding that the beliefs behind them are the product of insane delusions, my students typically have a fit: how does that judge know that Smith’s son wasn’t trying to kill him?  How do the jurors know that Honigman’s wife was not smooching with Krauss behind the shrubbery?  How in the world can a jury find that DEA Agents weren’t monitoring Breeden’s life when it turned out that one of his friends was indeed such an agent?  As one student once succinctly put it, “these cases suck.”

In steps Golyadkin.  Despite the many debates over The Double commentators tend to concede that with respect to “hero” Golyadkin that they are never certain what is really happening and what is hallucination.  As Deborah Martinsen once put it, there is “narrative ambiguity around [the Double’s] objective existence.” (“Introduction” in Notes from Underground, The Double and Other Stories (New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2003)). Drawing on my article, I created a class exercise where we read The Double and make Golyadkin a testator in a will contest, one who is charged with having insane delusions.  The students are asked to answer the question, how should a court rule?  In most states, a delusion is not insane if there is any factual basis for it.  Does our Golyadkin walk away with a clean bill of health or an insane delusion diagnosis?

The most aberrant event in Golyadkin’s life is his encounter with the Double and even that is not implausible.  In real life, such a thing happens.  Accounts of identical twins separated at birth who suddenly meet for the first time are plentiful.  In fact, Anton Antonovich even mentions that very phenomenon to Golyadkin: “[D]on’t you worry.  It’s a thing that does happen. Do you know, I must tell you this, the very same thing occurred to an aunt of mine on my mother’s side.  She saw her own spitting image before she died.” And incidentally, CNN has been redundantly pounding it into our heads that Golyadkins can even triplicate.

As in will contests, in The Double, there is conflicting testimony.  Petrushka, for example, takes two coats and serves two meals.  He confuses Golyadkin with his Double and even quits because “nice people don’t have doubles.”  In rebuttal, however, Petrushka, corroborating the contention that the Double is imagined, considers the task of taking Golyadkin’s letter to the Double to be a joke and claims that both Golyadkins have the same address.  Witness Anton Antonovich also speaks to both sides.  After being pressed, he at first admits that he detects only a slight “family resemblance” between the two Golyadkins and then suddenly anoints them two veritable clones: “Yes. Quite right. Really, the resemblance is amazing, and you’re perfectly correct – – you could be taken for one another . . . Do you know, it’s a wonderful – – it’s a fantastic likeness, as they sometimes say.  He’s you exactly.”

My Wills and Trusts students can never reach anything close to consensus.  But they come to realize that the debate and discomfort that The Double engenders replicate the reaction  that they and legal scholars have with respect to mental capacity case law.  Moreover, there are students courageous enough and willing to push further to consider whether it is even worthwhile to relentlessly adhere to the belief in the existence of an objective truth.  That is an uncomfortable place to go: it is the land of messy things betwixt and between, but for lawyers the very act of going there is quite salutary.


Amy D. Ronner, who holds both a law degree and an M.A. and Ph.D in literature, is a Professor Emeritus of Law at St. Thomas University School of Law, where she taught Constitutional Law, Wills and Trusts, Sexual Identity and the Law, and Criminal Procedure. She is the author of five books, including Dostoevsky and the Law (2015) and Law, Literature, and Therapeutic Jurisprudence (2010).

Dostoevsky and Detective Fiction: An Interview with Claire Whitehead

Today we’re sitting down with Claire Whitehead to talk about Dostoevsky, crime fiction, and her new book, The Poetics of Early Russian Crime Fiction, 1860-1917: Deciphering Stories of Detection, published in September by Legenda.

BK: So, first, tell us a little about your new book. What is it about?

M-lgs-p771It’s a book about some of the many brilliant works of crime fiction that were published in Russia during the late Imperial era, from the period of the Great Reforms of the 1860s up to the 1917 revolution. And I guess I wrote it with two main aims in mind. The first is that I wanted to find out more about the history of this genre that doesn’t really appear in the pages of Russia’s canonical literary history: who was writing crime fiction, what sort of works were they producing and were these works like the works we know from the same era in other countries? The second is that I wanted to provide something more than an historical survey: I wanted to look at how these stories, novellas and novels use their narrative structures to manipulate the reader’s access to knowledge, which is what I think of as the key currency of crime fiction. So, there are chapters on questions such as narrative authority, temporal organization, multiple voice, intertextuality and parody that make reference to a host of largely unknown, but really entertaining and interesting, works.

BK: How popular was crime fiction in 19th-century Russia? How familiar would Dostoevsky have been with the genre?

Very, and deservedly so. If you look at Avram Reitblat’s book, Ot Bovy k Bal’montu i drugie raboty po istoricheskoi sotsiologii russkoi literatury (From Bova to Balmont and other works on the historical sociology of Russian literature, 2009), numerous works of crime fiction during this period figured amongst the most widely read publications of their given year. These include: Nikolai Sokolovskii’s Ostrog i zhizn’: iz zapisok sledovatelia (Prison and Life: From the Notes of an Investigator) (1866), Nikolai Timofeev’s Zapiski sledovatelia (Notes of an Investigator) (1872), Aleksandr Shkliarevskii’s Collected Works (1881), as well, of course, as Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Jeffrey Brooks’s When Russia Learned to Read (2003) makes clear that the rise in literacy rates, changes in publishing conditions, including the proliferation of smaller urban presses, ensured that crime fiction was readily available to (and hugely popular with!) Russian readers in the later part of this period, and right up to the 1917 revolution.

I think it’s fair to say that Dostoevsky was very familiar with the various authors who contributed to the birth of crime fiction in Russia. For instance, some of the earliest stories by Nikolai Sokolovskii were published in his journal, Vremia (Time), during 1862 and 1863. In the early 1870s, the aspiring crime writer Aleksandr Shkliarevskii wrote to Dostoevsky to declare his admiration for his works’ ‘deep psychological analysis’. And when Shkliarevskii moved to St Petersburg under the protection of the renowned prosecutor, A.F. Koni, he is said to have moved in some of the same circles as Dostoevsky. Moreover, given the popularity of these authors with a general readership, and Dostoevsky’s interest in all things connected with the law, it seems unlikely that Dostoevsky wouldn’t also have been reading these works.

BK: Crime and Punishment is obviously a text that must be addressed in your study, but it is not commonly read as crime fiction. Why is that?

I think there are a number of reasons. To some extent, it’s a question of the initial reception of the novel that has influenced its reading over subsequent years. When Crime and Punishment was first serialized, crime fiction was only just beginning to appear in Russia, and so there would have been little question of it being categorized in this genre. It was far more appropriate for it to be received as a work of critical realism in keeping with Belinskii’s call to action. And, as the era of the great realist novel in Russia continued to develop, Crime and Punishment, with its ideological, philosophical and existential concerns, fitted in with that particular narrative of literary historical development very productively. I do think it is important, however, to guard against any temptation to argue that Crime and Punishment is not primarily seen as crime fiction because there is so much else going on in the novel. I would suggest that that is, in fact, true of the majority of Russian crime fiction from this era, most of which displays a similar preoccupation with questions of socio-historical environment, individual psychology, determinism and free will, and the role of the law. Russian crime fiction of the late Imperial era is a sophisticated genre that shares many features with its more renowned or canonical literary cousins.

BK: I was intrigued to discover that, after Crime and Punishment, the Dostoevsky text your book discusses the most is Notes from the House of the Dead. This is a work about criminals and penal servitude, but I find it somewhat far from what I think of as crime fiction. What’s the connection?

I don’t claim in the book that Notes from the House of the Dead is a work of crime fiction. However, there are similarities between some of its features and works that do belong to the genre. So, for instance, Sokolovskii’s Prison and Life includes some stories that feature a judicial investigator working on criminal cases, but also others that simply recount his encounters with prison inmates and his knowledge of their habits and traditions whilst incarcerated, which are similar to those found in Dostoevsky’s work. This and other early examples of Russian crime fiction (such as Konstantin Popov’s Vinovatye i pravye (The Guilty and the Innocent) from 1871) make use of the type of physiological/ethnographic sketch that is to be found in Notes from the House of the Dead as well as, for instance, in a work such as V.V. Krestovskii’s Petersburg Slums (1864). And early Russian crime fiction seeks to create a strong sense of realism in part by its use of slang and dialect, which is another feature that is prominent in House of the Dead. So, it’s really a case of shared features rather than a common genre.

BK: Was Dostoevsky influential in 19th-century or later Russian crime fiction writing? What are some of the stories he influenced?

Yes, undoubtedly, although it’s obviously quite difficult definitively to establish influence. I’ve mentioned Dostoevsky’s connection with Aleksandr Shkliarevskii and I think you can see Shkliarevskii echoing a good number of his idol’s preoccupations with questions around criminal psychology, the role of environment and fate as well as with literary techniques related to temporal organisation and narrative voice. More specifically, in Shkliarevskii’s 1872 story ‘Otchego on ubil ikh?’ (‘Why Did He Kill Them?’), the protagonist, Narostov, who has strangled his wife and shot his mistress, refers to himself as a member of the ‘house of the dead’ and expounds on what he sees as the qualities of Dostoevsky’s depiction of the enigma of crime in that work. There are also clear points of resemblance between Dostoevsky’s concern with the plight of the lower echelons of society and Nikolai Timofeev’s plots in stories such as ‘Murder and Suicide’ and ‘The Prostitute’ in his Notes of an Investigator collection. I would also argue that Aleksandra Sokolova’s refusal of an easy explanation of criminal motive in a work such as Spetaia pesnia (The Song Has Been Sung) (1892) reveals the influence of Dostoevsky.

BK: How much influence did other crime fiction from the time have on Dostoevsky?

Again, I think it’s quite difficult to establish this definitively, but there’s no question in my mind that Dostoevsky was aware of the crime writing of the time and that it affected him to some extent. So, for example, I’ve always wondered whether the description in Sokolovskii’s story ‘Skvernye minuty’ (‘Fateful Minutes’), first published in 1863, of a prostitute, Lizaveta, who hides a stolen wallet under the wallpaper near the plinth of her door, might have given Dostoevsky the idea for Raskolnikov’s stashing of what he has stolen from Alyona Ivanovna. More broadly, the depiction of broken family relations that lead to crime, of the type that Dostoevsky illustrates in The Brothers Karamazov, were a staple of Russian crime fiction throughout the 1860s and 1870s. And, the recognition that scenes played out in law courts were ripe with dramatic potential might well have been influenced by other crime writers, such as Semyon Panov and Nikolai Timofeev, who frequently included an account of criminal trials in their work.

BK: Does reading Dostoevsky within the context of 19th-century crime fiction shift our understanding of Dostoevsky’s works?

Yes, potentially. One of the first arguments I make in my book is that Dostoevsky should not be considered to be the first or only author of crime fiction writing in the 1860s. Dostoevsky’s fascination with various aspects of the legal system both in Russia and abroad, expressed not just in Crime and Punishment but also in Notes from the House of the Dead and, later, in The Brothers Karamazov, is far from being unique during this period. Debates conducted in polemical journalism about the proposed legal reforms influenced a good many writers, and these preoccupations found their way into a numerous literary works. Also, to a reader more familiar with the ‘Western’ canon of crime fiction, Crime and Punishment seems at odds with the genre’s conventions because there is no mystery whatsoever about the identity of the criminal. However, when you place Dostoevsky’s novel in the context of works of crime fiction from this early period, you discover that none of them are really interested in the question of ‘whodunit’. Louise McReynolds has written very persuasively about the Russian genre’s greater interest in the issue of ‘whydunit’ and the implications of that focus: she argues that whilst the ‘whodunit’ accuses an individual, the ‘whydunit’ points the finger of guilt at broader, more collective social forces. None of this is to take away from Dostoevsky’s achievements; but it is important to view him as part of a broader literary-cultural movement, many of whose participants have been forgotten.

BK: What is your favourite work of 19th-century crime fiction and why?

Hmmm… that’s a difficult one. Of course, I genuinely love Crime and Punishment and always have such fun talking about its various aspects with my students. But looking beyond that landmark, I would say my favourite author currently is Semyon Panov who wrote five works of crime fiction in the 1870s, all of which are deserving of a much greater reputation. Of his works, I think that Ubiistvo v derevne Medveditse (Murder in Medveditsa Village) (1872) is a very accomplished and rich work, and the dizzying parody Iz zhizni uezdnogo gorodka (From the Life of a Provincial Town) (1876) is well worth a read, not least because I think it might well have influenced Chekhov later on.

BK: Why do you think nearly all of the texts you discuss are not translated into English yet? And do you know of any plans to translate them?

There is still a good deal of ignorance about the existence of many of these works (in spite of my and others’ best efforts) and so they aren’t immediately obvious choices for translators. Many of them have not been reprinted even in Russian since their first publication, or at least not since the late nineteenth century. I would love for someone to translate them and have begun to do some work on trying to find translators with whom I could collaborate. The project that I’m most excited about at the moment, though, is my collaboration with the illustrator and author, Carol Adlam (www.caroladlam.co.uk), on a graphic-novel adaptation into English of Semyon Panov’s Tri suda, ili ubiistvo vo vremia bala (Three Courts, of Murder During the Ball) from 1876. Carol is the artist behind the brilliant cover image of my book and we have just received some seed-funding from the University of St Andrews to produce about ten pages of proof-of-concept artwork to be able to pitch the full adaptation to a publisher. We are hoping that this might be the first step on a longer journey of bringing some more of these works to an anglophone audience, and in an exciting and popular medium.


A specialist in nineteenth-century Russian literature, Claire Whitehead is Senior Lecturer at the University of St Andrews. Her books include The Fantastic in France and Russia in the Nineteenth Century: In Pursuit of Hesitation (2006) and The Poetics of Early Russian Crime Fiction, 1860-1917: Deciphering Stories of Detection (2018). Growing up, she flirted with the idea of becoming a police officer or a forensic scientist, before deciding on the far more glamorous career of an academic.

The cover image at the top of the page is original artwork by Carol Adlam and appears with the artist’s permission.