Travels from Dostoevsky’s Siberia

by Elizabeth Blake

Blake_.inddIn April 1849 Dostoevsky was arrested and imprisoned in the Peter Paul Fortress for his participation in the Petrashevsky Circle.  Before the year was out he and his fellow conspirators had been subjected to a mock execution and then sentenced to either imprisonment or exile in Siberia, the Caucasus, and Orenburg.  Travels from Dostoevsky’s Siberia (Academic Studies Press, 2019) is comprised of archival narratives written by three Polish political prisoners, two of whom shared the experience with the Petrashevsky conspirators, as well as my commentary on each of the three parts (based on over a decade of research). These translations provide the reader with eyewitness testimonies about the life of state prisoners in Western Siberia when Dostoevsky was imprisoned in Omsk and lived in exile in Semipalatinsk.

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A kibitka at the Warsaw Citadel

These famous writer-revolutionaries shared Fyodor Dostoevsky’s experience of living in Western Siberia, after having been imprisoned and exiled by Nicholas I’s regime, and survived to compose their accounts, providing an intimate portrait of their struggle to comprehend the deprivation of their rights and to build networks that helped them to defend against their maltreatment by capricious and abusive authority figures.  The notes to the primary sources include historical information about various conspiratorial groups, agitational activities, and Siberian culture, gathered from archival, print, and digital resources, to provide readers with a sense of the interconnectedness of revolutionary movements across the Russian Empire and beyond owing to shared language, geographical space, nationality, religious identity, and political ideology.

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The confluence of the Irtysh and Om rivers (Omsk)

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A statue of Dostoevsky’s friend Chokan Valikhanov (Omsk)

In the first part, Józef Bogusławski, who lived with the Russian novelist for four years in the Omsk prison fortress, provides additional background information to several characters (Major Krivtsov, Mirecki, Bogusławski, Bem, Durov, Korczyński, Tokarzewski, Żochowski, and Aleksei de Grave) the reader meets in Dostoevsky’s Notes from the House of the Dead. Bogusławski differentiates Dostoevsky from Durov based on the former’s education in the tsar’s military and discusses some of the divisive literary and political debates causing tension between the Russian novelist and the group of Polish political prisoners.  Bogusławski’s memoirs (1898) supplement this most famous text written by any of the five authors (Bogusławski, Dostoevsky, Durov, Tokarzewski, and Żochowski) in the Omsk prison fortress by recording the language, rituals, hardships, and journeys experienced by political prisoners in Dostoevsky’s Siberia.

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The statue “Lyubа” of the wife of the Governor General of Western Siberia (Omsk)

In the second part, a selection from Memoirs from a Stay in Siberia (1861) provides a portrait of several provincial authorities in Omsk (including Aleksei de Grave and Pyotr Gorchakov) based on Rufin Piotrowski’s brief stay in the town before being assigned to work in a factory. His account of the infamous Omsk Affair, an aborted rebellion organized by Father Jan Sierociński, and the brutal flogging of its leadership without mercy supplement various published accounts of the escape attempt that claimed so many victims.

In the final part, Bogusławski’s co-conspirator and prolific writer Bronisław Zaleski, in “Polish Exiles in Orenburg” (1866), reveals the substantial literary and intellectual contributions of the Orenburg circle (whose members included such famous poets as his fellow conspirator Edward Żeligowski, the Ukrainian nationalist Taras Shevchenko, and Dostoevsky’s friend Aleksei Pleshcheev) with references to the Decembrists, the Petrashevsky conspirators, and the Omsk Affair.

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Zaleski’s sketch of the bay at Novopetrovsk

Zaleski’s many portraits of officers and government officials as well as his extensive complaints about the military life of drills, denunciations, and training enhance our knowledge of Dostoevsky’s own service in Semipalatinsk following his prison term.  Moreover, Zaleski, like Piotrowski, provides a connection to the Parisian circle of Polish exiles linked to the Great Emigration following the 1830 uprising––those who gathered around Prince Adam Czartoryski’s circle at the Hôtel Lambert.  The members of this group of Polish exiles supported these unfortunate victims of Nicholas I and Alexander II through direct financial contributions, political advocacy, and the publication of their fates in the Western press.

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A memorial to prisoners at the Warsaw Citadel

The narratives of this generation of unfortunates from the western edge of Imperial Russia contribute to our cultural knowledge about famous Russian exiles, including the Decembrists and the Petrashevtsy both because of their shared experience and common language.  This collection therefore imparts to the reader not only a better understanding of the hardships of the carceral continuum but also enriches one’s encounter with Dostoevsky’s post-confinement writings.


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Dostoevsky statue at the historic Omsk stockade location

Elizabeth Blake is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at Saint Louis University, where she teaches courses on Russian culture, language, literature, and theology that contribute to programs in Fine and Performing Arts, Theological Studies, and Catholic Studies.  Her U. S. Department of State Title VIII and U. S. Department of Education Fulbright-Hays funding through American Councils, a Faculty Research Leave, and a Mellon grant helped fund the secondary research for Travels from Dostoevsky’s Siberia (2019), the culmination of several research trips to Krakow, and are contributing to a monograph on the impact of Dostoevsky’s Siberian period on his oeuvre.  Her research on Orthodox-Catholic exchanges, Russo-Polish conflict, Siberian studies, and the nineteenth-century European novel informed her first monograph, Dostoevsky and the Catholic Underground (2014), and a dozen articles, which have appeared in leading peer-reviewed journals (Dostoevsky Studies, Polish Review, and Slavic and East European Journal) and collections.

Aside from Zaleski’s sketch, the images that appear in this post are the author’s own photographs.

A Chat with Jonathan Paine about Selling the Story

by Jonathan Paine

Today we sit down with Jonathan Paine to talk about his book Selling the Story: Transaction and Narrative Value in Balzac, Dostoevsky, and Zola, out today with Harvard University Press.

Paine_CoverBK: Jonathan, first, please tell our readers a little about your book. What is it about? And how does Dostoevsky feature in it?

JP: Selling the Story is a book about the economics of literature. It asks how writing for money changes what is written, and how we can mine texts for evidence of this process. It concentrates on the 19th-century ‘professional turn’ when authors for the first time began writing for money rather than patronage. It focuses on a 50-year timespan from the 1830s to the 1880s when, and especially in France, publishing in serialized periodicals became far more profitable for authors than publishing in book format, and so catapulted writers into a journalistic context which catered increasingly to a newly developing mass market. The techniques and genres of journalism leach into prose fiction, giving rise to entirely new literary genres – thrillers, detective stories, courtroom dramas.

Dostoevsky, of course, was famously and vocally indigent – hardly a letter goes by without a request for money or a complaint about its lack. Writing for money was an inevitability. But who was his readership? The Russian market was decades behind its West European counterparts – no mass market would develop till the early 20th century, and the ‘thick’ journals , Russia’s book format version of the serious monthly periodical, rarely reached an audience of more than 5-6,000 in Dostoevsky’s lifetime. Yet Russian publishers imported mass market techniques as soon as they were developed in the West – the boulevard newspaper , a precursor of the modern tabloid, took just one year to travel from France to Russia in 1864. Dostoevsky was well travelled, well read, and an enthusiastic follower of French literature, to which his early translation of Balzac’s Eugènie Grandet attests. So should a contemporary Russian author write for the tiny, demographically restricted, actual readership which paid the bills, or for the new mass market which was visibly developing outside Russia? Selling the Story argues that it is impossible to appreciate the literature of the period in Russia, particularly that of Dostoevsky, without an understanding of this publishing context.

BK: Your section on Dostoevsky is called “Who Buys the Story?” and there you specifically discuss the novel as a form. What insight does your research provide on Dostoevsky’s writing practice?

JP: If, as my book argues, the publishing context made it difficult for Russian writers to know whether to write for a very restricted contemporary audience or for a mass market yet to come, it makes sense to hedge your bets. Selling the Story suggests that all of Dostoevsky’s work, from Poor People to The Brothers Karamazov, is an extended experiment in the art of writing for multiple audiences. Did a formula in writing fiction exist which allowed the drama of the courtroom to be combined with the intellectual weight which Dostoevsky found no problem in introducing to his own mono-journal, Diary of a Writer?

Selling the Story offers an extended, book by book and serialized instalment by serialized instalment reading of The Brothers Karamazov which links it closely to its publishing context and shows how the text can be read as a literary ‘reinsurance policy’, attempting to combine the dramatic momentum of the murder mystery at the heart of the plot with the philosophical detours of the Grand Inquisitor or Alyosha’s life of Zosima. It argues that Dostoevsky even turns conventional literary devices, such as iteration, into economic tools in an attempt to broaden the reach of his text to different audiences and shows how the central story of the murder itself is iterated no less than 38 times through the mouths of the in-story characters. It shows how Dostoevsky used his characters to model their own in-text acts of literary creation, tested against in-story recipients who mimic the reactions of real readers.

And finally, it suggests that the increasing frequency of episodes showing a loss of control by the novel’s characters – Dmitry’s dream, Alyosha’s epiphany, Ivan’s madness, and most importantly Smerdyakov’s epileptic fit – mirrors Dostoevsky’s own problems in achieving anything but the most transient equilibrium between these competing forces.

BK: Your book isn’t just about Dostoevsky, though. It also features studies of Balzac and Zola, contemporaries of Dostoevsky’s. How has reading the three together enhanced your understanding of Dostoevsky?

JP: Understanding how the publishing context influences artistic output adds a new dimension to our appreciation of any text, and all the works I have selected contain seminal records of the conditions of their own creation. Balzac’s Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes [The Splendors and Mysteries of Courtesans] took 12 years to write and covers a period from 1835 to 1847 in which the French publishing market changed beyond recognition. Prose fiction migrated from its traditional historical book format to the feuilleton, at the foot of the first page of the newly emerging and popular daily newspapers. Balzac and his contemporary Eugène Sue competed head to head over whose work generated the most subscribers for its publishers. Selling the Story reveals how Balzac’s extended creation can be seen as a commentary on the evolving trends of the publishing industry; he starts with an exuberant celebration of the industry’s new-found freedoms, continues through an experimental disassembly and parody of his rival Sue’s techniques, and finishes in an end-of-career sabotage of his own work to see how far readers could be pushed before they stopped reading.

Zola, by contrast, was writing almost half a century later. The boulevard newspaper, introduced in 1863, had revolutionized journalism, catering to a mass market which industrial revolution, urbanization and the spread of literacy were creating. Roads, railways and canals had changed the French corporate landscape just as much as they had altered its geography. Big business had arrived, and Zola was its archivist. Two of his novels, La Curée [The Killing], 1872, and L’Argent [Money], 1891, deal with the rise and fall of his arch-capitalist, Aristide Saccard. But over the same period Zola had himself become big business. At the time of La Curée he was a literary nobody, forced to follow the dictates of the market to establish himself as a writer. By the time of L’Argent, Zola was the most successful writer of his age with print runs in the hundreds of thousands, publishing in a resurrected book format because he no longer needed the visibility of the feuilleton to promote his output. And his novels, inevitably, record and comment on this, the means and process of their own creation, from the importation of the literary devices of the boulevard newspapers in La Curée to Zola’s assumption of literary control over his readership, as the managing director of his own successful publishing business, documented in L’Argent.

And amidst this publishing revolution sits Dostoevsky, writing in a market far removed from France but acutely aware of the potential of his own literary legacy in the shape of a mass market yet to arrive in Russia. Selling the Story traces the influence of this on Dostoevsky as a writer, not least by adding a new dimension to the constant critical theme of memory and legacy in his works, and at the same time demonstrating that the techniques of economic criticism can be shown to travel across geography, time and culture.

BK: You situate your book within the emerging field of economic criticism. What is economic criticism and how does engaging with it enhance your book’s argument?

Economic criticism essentially asks whether treating a text as an object of economic exchange can generate worthwhile new critical insights. Almost all texts have an economic function in that writers ask readers to exchange their time for the writers’ creative output. This is a genuine transaction and can be considered as such.

In the 19th-century any author writing serialized installments for a periodical or newspaper becomes by default part of the publisher’s sales strategy. So, considering the publishing context is the starting point for economic criticism. The technique I find most useful is what I call ‘point of sale’ analysis. This asks what we can deduce from a text about the author’s perception of the market for which he or she was writing, based on a wide range contemporary evidence from successful (or unsuccessful) literary trends to genres and stylistic devices, from cultural evolutions or constants to the prosaic influence of pay per line of printer’s copy. Understanding how authors might have understood and addressed their markets is an underdeveloped aspect of literary criticism and a necessary element of reception theory.

If an author is indeed part of a transaction with the reader, then we can also apply forms of economic analysis to that transaction. Authors describe transactions in their works, few more so than the three I have chosen. Examining how they represent in-story deals can tell us much about how the author approaches his or her own transaction with the reader. Selling the Story also suggests that all texts fall into one of three categories: prospectus, auction or speculation. A ‘prospectus’ text implies that its value is set by its author- all religious works, for example, follow this pattern. Auction implies a value set by the recipient, in this case the reader, and highlights the importance of the iterative approach, which typifies the serialized works common to 19th-century literature, as a means of establishing value over time. Speculation, a metaphor which Dostoevsky uses repeatedly, implies transient value, and suggests that the strategy of iteration which I identify in The Brothers Karamazov is in fact a way of cumulatively increasing the chances of its success.

Historically, economic criticism has had a bad rap. Even today some scholars still argue that treating works of literature as economic commodities is unacceptable. But of course they are, and to ignore their economic context is to omit an important dimension of scholarship. Equally obviously, they are more than that: economic criticism is a useful new tool of analysis which complements, rather than challenges, aesthetic approaches.

BK: Obviously you’ve spent a long time studying these authors, their works, and their historical context. What’s been the most interesting thing you’ve learned while he researching this book?

JP: One of my investment banking colleagues, learning of my academic plans, said ‘You’ll have to learn to concentrate’. I was a bit miffed: what had I been doing, then, through all those years as a banker? But he was right. Banking meant keeping twenty balls simultaneously in the air, so little time for each. Literary scholarship meant a slow process of unpeeling an onion, layer by layer. In the process I’ve learnt to think in a completely different way. And I’ve discovered lots of new friends in the academic community who I would never have found otherwise. And, best of all, I can enjoy all the good bits of scholarship without needing to earn a career from it!


Dr. Jonathan Paine is a Supernumerary Fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford and Senior Advisor and former Managing Director at the investment bank Rothschild & Co. He serves as the treasurer of the International Dostoevsky Society. He is currently researching the art of authorship in Dostoevsky and on ways of promoting the relevance of the humanities in business.

‘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.

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