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 (, 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. 


A New Companion for Readers of Dostoevskii

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A History without a Canon, a Literature with Conflicting Readings

“Long” Trends of Russian Literature: Research Novellas

RusLitHistDenis Larionov, a Moscow-based critic and poet, conversing with Andrew Kahn, Irina Reyfman, Mark Lipovetsky, and Stephanie Sandler – authors of A History of Russian Literature, 2018.

–What prompted the creation of such a detailed history of Russian literature, practically the only one of its kind (particularly now, a moment of new tensions in the relations between our two countries)?  How did this book come into being, and how long did it take?

–The original idea for creating this book was a scholarly one, although it may seem illogical.  We felt that a moment had arrived when the coherence and neutrality of literary histories were being interrogated from various theoretical perspectives, while at the same time practically all of the information had become accessible to anyone with a computer and an internet connection.  This challenge was difficult to resist.

We needed to find a way to create a history of Russian literature which would comprise information on the literary process, on authors and schools, but would offer something more than a collection of facts.  How could we tell the story of Russian literary evolution in such a way that it would make a single whole, while tracing not only the patterns and internal “rhymes” but also the essential differences and moments of rupture?

Our conversations about the future book – on e-mail, on-Skype, and in person – began in 2009.  Oxford University Press’s interest in this project encouraged us from the outset.  Although the original contract was for a short history, Jaqueline Norton, our editor, kept enthusiastically approving our increasingly comprehensive proposals and extending our submission deadline, which allowed us to write a much longer and more detailed history.

Our work was aided by an exceptionally useful symposium at Oxford in 2012, which gathered together historians of various national literatures. Together, we were able to discuss the theoretical and practical difficulties of writing a literary history in the 21st century.  The symposium participants shared their own experience of working on similar projects. They also read through, and commented on, our pilot case studies.  They recommended that we introduce a wider scope of issues in our potential case studies, including discussions of schools of theory and rhetorical tropes. They also suggested unexpected new approaches to individual authors and significant national cultural phenomena.

This advice resulted in the literary historical “novellas” about holy fools, “word-weaving,” duels between writers, and Dmitry Prigov’s “Militsaner” [“P’liceman”].

In 2012, we already had a plan to use case studies and keywords – terms such as Romanticism or “life-creation.” We defined their specific use in the Russian tradition in a “text box” and then used them throughout the volume, as the foundation for the main narrative.  At first, the list of keywords was very long, but gradually it was shortened: some of the words turned into case studies, and others were incorporated into the main text.

We started serious work on the drafts of the main text after the 2012 symposium.  By the fall of 2015, we were close to having a complete draft.  At that point we were helped greatly by a discussion of the history of literature as a genre at a roundtable we organized at the ASEEES (Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies) conference.

Among the round table participants were scholars who had authored their own histories of Russian literature as well as colleagues who devised practical suggestions and articulated their ideas about what kind of history would be helpful for them and their students.  Shortly thereafter we asked several colleagues to read drafts of a few sections of our history, which they did, with generosity and thoroughness.  The publisher also read and commented on the complete draft of the book.  The review by an anonymous reader selected by Oxford University Press as well as detailed comments and corrections by our colleagues guided us in further editing.  At the end of 2017, our manuscript was sent to the printers.  Thus, we spent eight years working on our history, while the most intensive work and revision took place in the last five years.

–Your book is not the first in a series of “histories of Russian literature,” many of which you mention in the Introduction.  At the same time, it seems exceptional in its scope and methodology.  Where in your book do you see a similarity/influence or a distancing from earlier models (for example, Sviatopolk-Mirsky’s classic history, but not only that one)? 

— Histories of Russian literature come in different shapes and sizes; they differ in the amount of detail and in the ratio between close readings of literary texts and broad surveys of the literary process. Of course, they also use essentially different methodologies, which, in turn, result in concrete approaches to the literary canon.  We are not trying to present the existing histories as obsolete, and in order to give them their due and to show that they themselves have become a part of the history of Russian literature, we have included a brief survey of those histories in our Introduction.

You ask specifically about the History by Sviatopolk-Mirsky: this classic, although it follows the methods and interpretations of its time, still deservedly has its readers, due to its profound literary judgments and vivid perspective on the authors discussed.  In addition, we have always valued, and continue to value, the elegant brevity of Mirsky’s History.  Considering the length of our book, it is hard to believe that we also started with the idea of writing a short history of Russian literature.  Our first reviewers, however, strongly recommended that we broaden and deepen our approaches.  While following their advice, we found that focusing on the peripheral areas of the Russian literary tradition, on the one hand, and in-depth consideration of particular works, authors, and literary phenomena in the case studies, on the other, not only gave us great pleasure, but also led us to new and often unexpected discoveries.

Three features characterize all sections of our book and thus define its direction.  They grew out of our individual views and took final shape thanks to numerous collective discussions.

Thus, in our book we emphasize 1) Russian literature’s openness to external influences in almost every period, from the Middle Ages to our time, an openness that even political barriers do not prevent; 2) the important function of narrative in literature itself as well as in literary history; and 3) we are also convinced that the role of poetry in the national narratives and institutions of Russian culture needs to be seriously revisited.

Thus we strove to redefine the accepted view according to which prose and poetry exist in complementary distribution, i.e., when prose rises, poetry declines, and vice versa.  Drama also appears in our history and represents a third type of literature undermining the binary opposition between prose and poetry.  Furthermore, our history includes visual materials and such genres as documentary narrative, memoir, journalistic essays on social and cultural themes, and various types of translations.

–I would like to ask about the structure of the chapters and also about the logic of their composition (practically every chapter includes, besides the scholarly narrative, individual keywords and a case study).  Were individual chapters created jointly or by single authors?

–The structure of the book is quite complex for the very reason that we attempted to combine a chronological with a conceptual approach.  Moreover, we abandoned the “portrait gallery” – a crucial structural feature of all existing histories of Russian literature.  That is, we do not have monograph-style chapters devoted to great writers, although we do include a few case studies which offer a more detailed look at an author’s biography and reputation, or a genre, or a cultural phenomenon, or a text, or a certain aspect of a text.  Those case studies are very important for us.

As was mentioned above, we started the process of writing precisely from case studies and keywords.  We needed some landmarks and orientation points, and it was around them that the narrative was constructed (­­or spooled): some of those case studies later entered the main text, while other case studies had to be added as we went along.

Of course, we distributed chapters among ourselves, but in the process of writing, all of us not only read each other’s work but also completed, corrected, and edited parts written by colleagues more than once.  All of this was, it goes without saying, discussed in our e-mail correspondence, which is probably as voluminous as the book itself: 5,700 messages by one count.  We bear collective responsibility for the whole text.

The book consists of five parts.  The first section is devoted to medieval literature through the XVIth century, followed by sections for each century: seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth, and then, together, twentieth and twenty-first.  It appears purely chronological.  Inside those sections, however, chapters are organized conceptually.

Obviously, each section has its own priorities, but certain themes run through all sections, e.g., institutions, subjectivity, poetics, national narratives – and, of course, their interactions.  For example, the section on the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is structured in such a way that the history is told several times, in several cross-sections.  First, there are institutions, from the Silver Age salons to the modern transformations of the literary field.  Then comes poetics and the subjectivities it engenders – first in poetry, then in prose and drama.  And finally, the narratives in which the culture’s self-awareness takes shape: the narratives of revolution, war, terror, and the intelligentsia.  In each of these chapters, history begins in the 1900s and ends today.

Other sections are similarly organized.  We hope that a multi-level picture emerges as a result.  At the same time, we suspect that only a few people will read our history from cover to cover.  Some will need an individual section; others will need certain chapters or even one chapter.  The structure we have created seems convenient for partial reading: having read even one chapter, a person will receive a picture of the whole century, albeit a somewhat skewed one.

–In the Introduction to your book, a question emerges: how necessary are histories of national literatures today, in the epoch of globalization?  How do you answer that question?  Has your answer changed in the course of working on your History of Russian Literature?

–Our subject is the literary history of Russia; that subject includes many texts written in Russian, but outside of Russia, and texts written by Russians, but in other languages.  Moreover, we see the relations between the Russian literature and literatures of other nations as a history of productive cultural interactions.

We do not assert that there exists a specific set of national traditions; rather, we attempt to demonstrate that the creation of shared national narratives is a constituent part of Russian literature.  What is now called an era of globalization is but a continuation of centuries-long intensive processes that cross national borders.  Russia actively participated in those interactions, despite periods dominated by isolationism and accentuated by Russia’s separateness from the West.

Unquestionably, no great national literature has ever been completely divided from the rest of the world. Russian literature’s “borders” have always been permeable, whether the influence came from close by (such as the South-Slavic cultures or Poland) or from far away (such as Japan or the US).  There is always an international element present in debates on national literature – recall the criticism of French influence evoked by the imitation of French models.  We strove to include a discussion of these debates in our book.

Our ideas on how the history should be written kept changing as we went along, although the basic principles remained unchanged: an overall chronological structure, yet a thematic organization within each section; “case studies” and “keywords” as significant points within the historical narrative; and, instead of lists of isolated facts, a discussion, in every section, of institutions, subjectivities, national narratives, and the role of the intelligentsia — as the unifying imperative of the whole book.  Our emphases, on the other hand, did change as we moved forward.  For example, authors discussed in the later parts of the book would sometimes change our view of how to present earlier periods.  Thus, while working on the sections on poetry and prose of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, we decided to radically expand the discussion of the seventeenth century.  Instead of presenting it as the conclusion of the medieval period, we emphasized its connection with the modern: after all, it was precisely in the seventeenth century that Russian poetry and prose based on fiction emerged.  We also significantly expanded certain parts of the first section in order to show the lasting and formative influence of the Baroque, on the one hand, and of such genres as folk “spiritual verses” (dukhovnye stikhi), on the other.

–To continue the preceding question: do you discuss the problem of the (Russian) (literary) canon in the book, and if so, from what methodological perspective?

–It goes without saying that we had no intention of creating a new canon of Russian literature.  On the contrary, we strove to write into this history as many as possible strange texts and persons who are far from being in any canon.  On top of that, we include contemporary writing, and “canonization” in this area is by definition risky.  We are interested in the “long” trends, ones that cover many decades or even centuries.  Not everything that belongs to those trends necessarily becomes part of the canon.  And in general, what canon are we talking about?  There are many canons, and they belong to the history of literature in the same way as the texts that they contain.  For us, the canon is one of the institutions of literature, along with journals, salons, and the mythology of the national genius.  We write about it in our history.  In other words, the canon is our object of study, and not our goal.

Translated by Svetlana Grenier. The volume A History of Russian Literature was published in June by Oxford University Press. This discussion originally appeared on Gefter on May 16, 2018 and its translation and publication on our site were done with the editor’s permission.

Against Nihilism: Nietzsche Meets Dostoevsky

This summer we sat down with Maïa Stepenberg to talk about her new book, Against Nihilism: Nietzsche Meets Dostoevsky, which is forthcoming in September 2018 from Black Rose Books

Against_Nihilism_Front_Cover_JPG_mediumQ1.How would you describe what Dostoevsky and Nietzsche have most in common?

They`re God-obsessed:  they`re both obsessed by the idea of God.  It`s a tormenting or all-consuming concern for them, whether God is there or not.

The most interesting part is not where they coincide, but where they diverge.  It`s actually like a labyrinth of concerns:  the more you read each of them, the more you realize they would have probably profoundly agreed on practically everything – everything that really matters.  That`s what`s really interesting.  But where they begin to diverge is just as irrevocable as a train going down the tracks:  there`s no turning back at that point:  and so Dostoevsky ultimately chooses to believe (like St. Paul says, “Lord, help my unbelief”), whereas Nietzsche ultimately chooses to reject all legitimacy of faith.

Q2.What questions compelled these two thinkers and writers?

Beauty, truth, goodness – it`s basically these three eternal enigmas that drive their writings.  So I`ve tried to organize them as large overarching themes in the book.  There`s the liberating allure of criminality, for one (a very big one!) – and then there`s the existentialist crisis of meaning (because both men are certainly two of the most influential fathers of existentialism); then there`s the tension between paganism and Christianity (actually an argument between aesthetics and morality), and finally there`s the terrible disease or cultural malaise of nihilism.  It`s the last issue that remains especially urgent and timely, so it appears in the title of the book.

Q3.Why do you think nihilism is so urgent for today’s world?

Nihilism is the number one concern in our world today.  Nihilism is the spectre of nothingness haunting our society.  As I began to teach Dostoevsky and Nietzsche, I could see the rise of the very thing that they both had predicted with such dread:  nihilism indeed, in virtually every expression or experience of modern life.  Technology and globalization have removed all boundaries and reduced and flattened everything that matters, in human terms.

Q4.Do Dostoevsky and Nietzsche provide a remedy for nihilism?

I`d say that each of them definitely do.  They identify the same problem, but they come up with different solutions.  One could say that Nietzsche`s way out of the problem has been tried, but misunderstood or misapplied:  the fascist appropriations of Nietzsche`s “will to power” or “aristocratic radicalism” point to a failure to bring to life his cherished ideal of the individual overcoming “the herd” (or the mediocre majority), alone and untrammelled.  On the other hand, one could say that Dostoevsky`s solution has neither been tried nor understood since it`s all there in his last great novel The Brothers Karamazov – a way to overcome the world while loving it, “watering the earth with your tears,” as he had one character put it – something akin to what Chesterton said about Christianity being the greatest ideal in the world, still not fully tried.

I`d like to add that there is something undeniably hideous about the way the world is turning:  something deeply wrong and sick in our failure to inculcate true values, support living institutions, nourish each other in true fellowship.  There is so much that is wrong in the world today that no one can fail to recognize it.  The question is, can anyone still feel enough love or energy to change it?  For the flip side of nihilism is always apathy and despair.

But the point of reading and thinking alongside Dostoevsky and Nietzsche is that they were anything but apathetic.  They cared deeply and passionately about everything they wrote, and that is surely why fresh readers flock to them generation after generation:  Dostoevsky and Nietzsche wrote with a palpable love and energy, and they each proposed vital solutions that demand individual effort, awareness, and spiritual work.

Q5.Should we take this nineteenth-century remedy just as seriously today?

Well, Nietzsche once thought he`d provided a remedy to the perils of nihilism (or at least been on the road towards providing such a remedy).  But only time can tell whether we can apply it correctly.  Nietzscheans of every imaginable stripe have not in fact moved the world forward:  the cataclysms of the twentieth century all somehow bear the palimpsest of Nietzsche`s signature.  And it`s equally true that a Dostoevskian future has yet to be fulfilled in accordance with Dostoevsky`s own vision.  Will beauty save the world?  Can we ever set ourselves aside long enough to feel truly “responsible to all for all”?  This is all still in potentia:  the truly momentous imitation of Christ en masse has yet to pass.  Clearly, if neither man`s vision has yet succeeded in positively transforming the world, that does not mean it is irrelevant.  Quite the contrary.

Q6.What value lies in reading Dostoevsky and Nietzsche in dialogue?

The beginning of philosophy is defined by dialogue.  You have two of the greatest minds of the nineteenth century whose writings still exist, and they seem meant to be read together because they so naturally complement each other`s voices and amplify each other`s points.  So the actual debate they might have had never happened in time or space, but it can happen for the reader today.

In addition, my own understanding has been infinitely enhanced by approaching Dostoevsky and Nietzsche in tandem.  For me, it started in graduate school.  Nietzsche was the focus of my doctoral dissertation, and Dostoevsky was the focus of the doctoral dissertation of my best friend.  We consequently spent many wonderful hours discussing each other`s chapters together as study buddies.  So the seeds for the book were planted for me back then.

Once I started teaching I thought of combining Dostoevsky and Nietzsche in an original course, and I was immediately struck by the excitement that these two thinkers generated in students when they were presented together, rather than separately.  The success of the course from the very beginning told me that there was a book that needed to be written, not only for the benefit of the students (since a book we could use did not exist in any library), but as a tribute to the students` generosity of involvement with both Dostoevsky`s and Nietzsche`s ideas.

A research essay topic that I regularly assign in this course asks students to imagine a sustained and serious dialogue between Dostoevsky and Nietzsche based on assigned readings from each.  Most students excel at this exercise.  Since so many student scripts of Dostoevsky and Nietzsche turned out to be so refreshing and delightful, a shortlist of ten excerpts are showcased in an appendix to the book. Here’s one example:

I always tell my students that if I could ever go back in time and talk with anyone from the past, there is no one I could imagine wanting to converse with more than Dostoevsky and Nietzsche.  They are without a doubt my two favourite men of all time (with the exception of my husband and three sons, of course!).

Here’s a video my sons made that imagines a conversation between them:

Dostoevsky and Nietzsche could have only talked together in French, by the way – since that was the only language they had in common.

Q7.At the end of your introduction you state that in today`s world there are only two choices:  Dostoevsky`s path or Nietzsche`s path.  What would draw a person to one over the other?

You know, it`s a funny thing:  I`ve noticed in my classes that a lot of young women are drawn to Nietzsche (an irony that he would have found delightful, I`m sure!), just as a lot of young men are impressed by Dostoevsky.  There`s also the factor of religion:  those who are comfortable with religious structure often prefer Dostoevsky.  And then people who like the idea of rebellion tend to find themselves attracted to Nietzsche.  There are all kinds of things that can incline a person more one way than another, and then inclinations can change over time too.

It comes down to a very old divide, I think:  before Socrates there was Parmenides (a philosopher who asserted that changeless being is the one binding law of the universe) as opposed to Heraclitus (a philosopher who claimed that change is the only constant we can know).  Nietzsche and Dostoevsky are like that:  one playing Heraclitus to the other`s Parmenides.  It`s a never-ending argument about what came first and why.

With this book I have sought to infect others with my own enthusiasm for Dostoevsky and Nietzsche because I am convinced that they are deeply good for the world and our possibilities of improving it.  They ask us to confront the hardest questions about ourselves, and we are better for struggling to honestly face and answer those questions.  Whichever one you prefer, there`s no doubt that both Nietzsche and Dostoevsky will speak to you, either together or in turn, about all of life`s most unanswerable preoccupations and questions.

Maïa Stepenberg is Professor of Humanities at Dawson College in Montreal. Her book Against Nihilism:  Nietzsche Meets Dostoevsky is published by Black Rose Books.

Approaches to Teaching Crime & Punishment

We would like to invite all Dostoevsky scholars to complete a survey that is designed to gather information about instructors’ methods and materials for teaching Crime and Punishment. We will use these results for a new volume on the novel that we are proposing for the MLA series Approaches to Teaching World Literature. Please answer the questions at and click Done when you are finished. All respondents to the survey will be acknowledged in the published volume, and the editors may quote anonymously from your responses in their introduction. Please indicate in your answers if you do not give permission to be acknowledged or quoted.

We are also soliciting proposals for contributions to the volume. If you wish to submit an essay proposal (see item 12 for requirements), please send it by e-mail to or You may also send queries, comments, or supplemental materials such as course descriptions, syllabi, assignments, and bibliographies as attachments (doc, docx, rtf or pdf required). Surface mail submissions may be sent to Professor Michael Katz, 1712 Sperry Road, Cornwall, VT 05753 or Professor Alexander Burry, 400 Hagerty Hall, 1775 College Road, Columbus OH 43210].

Proposals and survey responses are due by 1 August 2018, after which the survey will no longer be available online.

Michael R. Katz, Middlebury College

Alexander Burry, The Ohio State University

Image credit: Panda with Oar on Deviant Art

Translating Crime and Punishment: A Conversation with Michael Katz and Nicolas Pasternak Slater, part 3

This past November two new translations of Crime and Punishment were published. Michael Katz’s translation came out with Liveright, a branch of W. W. Norton (link), with an introduction by Katz. Nicolas Pasternak Slater’s came out with Oxford University Press (link), edited and with an introduction by Sarah J. Young. In this series of posts, Bloggers Karamazov sits down with the translators to talk about the experience of translating Dostoevsky’s most famous novel.

This is the last in a series of 3 posts; click here for part 1 and here for part 2.

BK: What is your favorite part of the novel?

katz-coverMK: I have long been a fan of the hero’s dreams. In fact, I wrote a book on dreams and the subconscious in Russian fiction in which I treat those dreams in the context of the novel. I think that the first one, Mikolka and the beaten horse, remains one of the most powerful scenes in all of Russian literature. I read the dream as an allegory of life itself: we are born and have to make our way through the secular world, filled with cruelty and ugliness (Mikolka and the tavern), as we head toward death and ultimate salvation (the church and the cemetery).

NPS: I’m no fan of extreme violence and I thoroughly disapprove of murder. Nevertheless, I am going to choose the account of Raskolnikov’s murder of Aliona Ivanovna and her sister Lizaveta. I think this chapter contains some of the most virtuoso writing not only in the whole of this novel, but perhaps in all that I have read of Dostoevsky. Both the behavior of Raskolnikov – thrown into a state of mental turmoil and confusion by the horror and ugliness of what he has done, and driven more by the inevitabilities of his situation than by any real desire to lay his hands on great wealth – and the reactions first of the old woman and then of Lizaveta when she unexpectedly arrives and is stunned into helpless passivity – are all related with unparalleled psychological insight and a masterly build-up of tension and suspense, culminating in Raskolnikov’s half-crazed bewilderment when he hears steps on the stair and the two visitors start rattling at the door. Dostoevsky dexterously manipulates our feelings so that we are torn between horror at what is going on, some sympathy for the victim (who has never been shown to us personally as wicked or cruel, though described in this way by other characters), unalloyed pity for Lizaveta whom we like – and yet fellow-feeling for Raskolnikov and a desire for him to get away with his deed and not be found out. This last, of course, is achieved by letting us in to the workings of his mind, so that we almost become complicit with him. The whole chapter is a piece of brilliant writing.


pasternakslater-coverBK: Why do you think we should read Crime and Punishment today? Why does this novel still resonate with us?

NPS: The novel is at the same time an incomparably gripping and lively story, with a cast of unique and memorable characters, a study in crime and punishment, sin and redemption as moral issues, a treasury of descriptions of the city of Petersburg and its people, a work of social commentary and a religious tract. And more. So what out of all that still speaks to readers in other countries, a century and a half later? For myself personally, I am very interested in the descriptions of the world and time my Russian grandparents were born into; but for the general Western reader, descriptions of deprivation and social injustice are still so prevalent today, from all over the world, that such topics speak less to us now. Of all the many reasons for reading the novel today, I would put the cast of characters at the top of the list. The brilliant portrayals range from Raskolnikov himself – so complicated, tortured, mentally fragile, flung this way and that by sudden irresistible impulses – through the pitiful, hopeless Marmeladov, the saturnine many-sided Svidrigailov, the mephistophelean Porfiry Petrovich, and on to the virtuous characters, the good-hearted but rather comical Razumikhin, Raskolnikov’s naïve but well-meaning mother Pulcheria Alexandrovna, his practical-minded sister Dunia, and the saintly Sonia. Then there are some memorable lesser characters like the maid Nastasia or Lieutenant Gunpowder, and finally a whole cast of walk-on parts, some of whom are sketched out with skill and care in a few pen-strokes (for instance the street girl Duklida who treats Raskolnikov courteously, the drunken teenage girl stalked by a would-be abuser, or the child Polya). Human nature doesn’t change much over the centuries, and these character portraits remain as alive in our day as they were in 1866.

MK: Dostoevsky raises all the right questions, the most important ones that can be asked: the meaning of good and evil, the existence of God, the nature of love, the power of ideas. Even if we reject some of his answers, those questions remain the ones that we struggle with today. Human love and religious faith are his answers.

Michael Katz is the C. V. Starr Professor Emeritus of Russian and East European Studies at Middlebury College. His published research includes numerous articles and two books, The Literary Ballad in Early Nineteenth-Century Russian Literature (1976) and Dreams and the Unconscious in Nineteenth-Century Russian Literature (1984). A prolific translator, he has made a number of works available for English language readers, including prose by Tolstoy, Turgenev, Chernyshevsky, Herzen, Tur, Druzhinin, Artsybashev, Sleptsov, Jabotinsky, and others. His translations of Dostoevsky’s works include Notes from Underground (1989, 2nd ed. 2001), Devils (2010), and Crime and Punishment (2018).

Nicolas Pasternak Slater has a half-Russian background, was brought up bilingual, and studied Russian at school and university as well as during his military service. He spent most of his working life as a hospital doctor and came to translation after retirement. Besides Crime and Punishment (2017), his translations include Pasternak’s Family Correspondence (2010), Lermontov’s A Hero of our Time (2013), Pushkin’s The Journey to Arzrum (2013), Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories (2015), and, most recently, Chekhov’s The Beauties: Essential Stories (2018).

The cover image for this post is a screenshot from Piotr Dumała’s animated adaptation of Dostoevsky’s novel (Zbrodnia i kara, 2000). You can view the full animation here.

Translating Crime and Punishment: A Conversation with Michael Katz and Nicolas Pasternak Slater, part 2

This past November two new translations of Crime and Punishment were published. Michael Katz’s translation came out with Liveright, a branch of W. W. Norton (link), with an introduction by Katz. Nicolas Pasternak Slater’s came out with Oxford University Press (link), edited and with an introduction by Sarah J. Young. In this series of posts, Bloggers Karamazov sits down with the translators to talk about the experience of translating Dostoevsky’s most famous novel.

This is the 2nd in a series of 3 posts; click here for part 1.

BK: The act of translation puts you in intensely close contact with the text. Did you notice anything while you were translating that you had never noticed before? Did your perception of the novel shift in any way?

pasternakslater-coverNPS: When I came to start my translation I had not read the novel for very many years. What I remembered was the skeleton of the plot, and an impression of a gripping but heavy, depressing, chaotic, episodic story. So translating it now enriched my perception in a great many ways. Let me pick just one – Dostoevsky’s humor. He is a brilliant humorist who sees the ridiculous in almost any sphere of life, and in this novel he plays with humor in the most diverse and unexpected situations. When the German Luisa Ivanovna has a verbal set-to with Lieutenant Gunpowder in the police office, their showdown is pure slapstick farce. The meeting between Dunia’s absurdly pompous suitor Luzhin and Raskolnikov’s family who soundly humiliate him is also richly comical, as well as important for the plot. But even the most tragic situations can be injected with comedy. The drunkard Marmeladov’s lengthy confession at the beginning of the novel is funny, with its swathes of biblical language and then the way he revels in his degrading punishment. Or there is the macabre but absurd scene near the end of the book where the demented Katerina Ivanovna drags her little children out into the street in ragged fancy dress to dance and sing for pennies. Even one of the most horrible moments in the whole novel, Raskolnikov’s dream of the horse being beaten to death, has its grim humor – the drunken peasant Mikolka makes himself thoroughly ridiculous when he desperately flogs and beats his little horse, harder and harder, in frustrated fury that he can’t get the poor beast to die.

MK: The Russian ear tolerates repetition – of long names including patronymics and certain words and phrases. As a translator I noticed the multiple repetitions in the text and had to decide whether they were semantically loaded and needed to be preserved in my translation, or whether they were dispensable and could be replaced by a synonym or a pronoun. Such decisions are not easily made: the translator has to rely on his understanding of the text and his own intuition.


katz-coverBK: Which character do you think is the most misunderstood in the novel?

MK: Without doubt, it’s Arkady Svidrigaylov. He appears out of a dream and his mysterious presence seems to haunt the hero. He is alleged to be responsible for the deaths of three other characters (his wife, his servant, and a young girl). He commits acts of cruelty and generosity, and feels neither compunction nor satisfaction. He seeks a relationship with Raskolnikov, but it is unclear why he does so. All in all, he remains something of a mystery.

NPS: I wondered – misunderstood by whom? The author, the other characters, or the readers? But I thought that the most universally misunderstood, perhaps, is Svidrigailov, the man of mystery with a shadowy past who hangs around Raskolnikov like a nemesis. On one reading, he is so enigmatic as almost to make no sense – is he fundamentally good (clearly not), or fundamentally evil (also not), and how do the good and bad sides in his character coexist? On the bad side, he may (or may not) have caused his wife’s death, he is a self-confessed libertine, he tries (or threatens) to rape Raskolnikov’s sister Dunia, and he plans to marry a child for his sexual gratification. Yet he performs many good actions, including saving Katerina Ivanovna’s orphan children and giving Dunia a large sum of money. Perhaps the last of his moral actions is to commit suicide. I think his character actually hangs together quite well: though repugnant, he is an intelligent man with a philosophical bent and humane instincts of empathy and kindness, who is saddled with sexual appetites that he can barely control. This is a paradox we meet often enough in real life (in this day and age, might he have been a charity worker in a third-world disaster area?).  Dostoevsky, of course, must condemn him because none of his humane motivations come from God or religion: he is an amoral freethinker.


BK: It’s interesting that you both chose the same character! Svidrigaylov is a scoundrel in many of his acts in the novel, and I agree that he remains a mysterious, ambiguous figure. Do you think he is a sympathetic character at all?

MK: He is “charming” and sincere in his despair; I don’t find him sympathetic.

NPS: I have already alluded to the good actions he performs, and while we may suspect his motives when he tries to make a gift of money to Dunia, and certainly when he makes a much more lavish gift to his (no longer) intended child bride, his farewell gifts to Sonia and her little brother and sister are untainted by sinister motives, and the reader is bound to approve of him at those moments. The slug in the lettuce, as it were, is not the action he performs, nor its intended good effect, but his inner thoughts at the time. He is a disillusioned cynic, a moral nihilist, and as a reader I cannot imagine him filled with a glow of virtuous satisfaction even during his most generous acts. No, he is looking at himself almost as an outsider, cynically weighing himself up and devaluing whatever looks virtuous and kind. There is no path he can take now save that of self-destruction. As a reader, I can feel sorry for him, I can feel glad about his good actions, but I cannot have fellow-feeling for such a self-annihilating person.


click here for part 3!

Michael Katz is the C. V. Starr Professor Emeritus of Russian and East European Studies at Middlebury College. His published research includes numerous articles and two books, The Literary Ballad in Early Nineteenth-Century Russian Literature (1976) and Dreams and the Unconscious in Nineteenth-Century Russian Literature (1984). A prolific translator, he has made a number of works available for English language readers, including prose by Tolstoy, Turgenev, Chernyshevsky, Herzen, Tur, Druzhinin, Artsybashev, Sleptsov, Jabotinsky, and others. His translations of Dostoevsky’s works include Notes from Underground (1989, 2nd ed. 2001), Devils (2010), and Crime and Punishment (2018).

Nicolas Pasternak Slater has a half-Russian background, was brought up bilingual, and studied Russian at school and university as well as during his military service. He spent most of his working life as a hospital doctor and came to translation after retirement. Besides Crime and Punishment (2017), his translations include Pasternak’s Family Correspondence (2010), Lermontov’s A Hero of our Time (2013), Pushkin’s The Journey to Arzrum (2013), Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories (2015), and, most recently, Chekhov’s The Beauties: Essential Stories (2018).

The cover image for this post is a screenshot from Piotr Dumała’s animated adaptation of Dostoevsky’s novel (Zbrodnia i kara, 2000). You can view the full animation here.