Revolutionary Dostoevsky

by Sarah J. Young

How might we think of Dostoevsky as a radical writer? In his later years he certainly seemed anything but. From his searing critique of nihilist ideas in Notes from Underground and Crime and Punishment, and his scathing portrayal of revolutionaries in Demons, to his increasingly virulent Orthodox nationalism and support for the authoritarian Tsarist regime expressed in his Diary of a Writer, his reactionary views appear to be in no doubt. Yet he understood the depths of human misery and the need for utopian visions and the transformation of society. He always maintained an interest in social justice that seems contrary to his political position, and his death was mourned by thousands of radical students. In his youth he did move in revolutionary circles, and much later acknowledged that even if he might not have found been a leader of such a movement, he was, and remained, capable of being a follower. His novels – typically of their focus on the extremes of human behaviour – show that fanatical atheism and fervent religious faith are two sides of the same coin, something he saw as a particularly Russian trait. Was this then just a reflection of the tensions in his own character and the ideological transition he experienced, or perhaps sought, within himself?

Revolutionary-DostoevskyAs a writer Dostoevsky was anything but traditional. His consistent questioning of reality and of the meaning – and possibility – of realism led him to experiment with novelistic form and made him a major precursor of modernism. He was an important influence on Russian Symbolism, German Expressionism and French Existentialism. Prototypes for many of the narrative innovations in James Joyce’s Ulysses can be found in Dostoevsky’s early novella The Double. Yet he is beyond any particular ‘ism’ himself. His polyphonic technique, identified in the theorist Mikhail Bakhtin’s seminal study The Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, pits voices, characters and ideas against each other. The religious faith the author himself espoused features among those voices, but is frequently challenged and seldom dominates. This multiplicity of contradictory voices is responsible for the proliferation of different interpretations of Dostoevsky over the last century and a half, and continues to give rise to new interpretations across various disciplines – from the humanities to the sciences – to this day.

These questions about Dostoevsky’s novelistic experimentation, the innovative readings he provokes from so many different perspectives, and their relation to the place of the author on the reactionary/radical divide, are at the heart of the conference Revolutionary Dostoevsky: Rethinking Radicalism taking place at UCL-SSEES on 20-21 October 2017. We will see how Dostoevsky reflects the political, social, ethical and religious dilemmas of every age. His own critique of terrorism placed him firmly within the political discourse of his milieu and acted as inspiration for subsequent generations of revolutionaries and their philosophical opponents.  Moving to the present day, Dostoevsky continues to illuminate the political, social and philosophical realms, but perhaps more surprisingly, we will discover his role in negotiating the digitally mediated world and the problems of artificial intelligence. Seeing the world through Dostoevsky’s eyes and novels always offers radical solutions.

It was perhaps inevitable in a new age of upheaval and populism, amidst Trumpism and Brexit, as well as the centenary of the 1917 revolutions, that Demons would prove central to a number of contributions. Speakers will consider, among other things, the role of provocateurs, connections between mental illness and politics, the spectre of mortality and possibility of spiritual revolution. The form and genre of this uniquely weird novel also come into focus, both as an experimental technique for shaping its opposition to political radicalism, and as a mode of narrating the unstable society and self.

That sense of instability – evident from Dostoevsky’s earliest works – underlies new approaches to problems of modern (and postmodern) subjectivity. Questions up for discussion include human vulnerability, radical conceptions of guilt, and the roots of revolt in shame and boredom, and different readings of motifs of death, resurrection, and dying again. Instability is also fundamental to innovative interpretations of Dostoevsky’s narrative strategy. A queer theological reading of Prince Myshkin will shed new light on the ways in which past, present and future might be different in Dostoevsky’s novels, while attention to aborted plot lines and the presence (or rather, absence) of babies provides the key to some of the other extremes of Dostoevsky’s novelistic world. Such radical narrative features and the subjectivities they shape ultimately subvert any conception of reality as stable in Dostoevsky’s works.

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Speakers from the UK, USA and Russia, from those starting out on their research careers to some of the most senior and respected scholars in the field, will debate these topics and others over a day and a half that promises to be thought-provoking and controversial, even, in true Dostoevskian mode, scandalous. Certainly Carol Apollonio’s keynote address, ‘Dostoevsky the Bolshevik’, promises to start proceedings on a provocative note. For information about that, and more details of the conference programme and registration, click here.

The conference will also feature the launch of a new translation of Crime and Punishment, published by Oxford University Press.

The hashtag for the conference will be #Dostoevsky2017.

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Revolutionary Dostoevsky: Rethinking Radicalism is supported by the SSEES FRINGE Centre, UCL’s Institute for Advanced Studies, the UCL Global Engagement Fund, and Oxford University Press.


Sarah J. Young is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at University College London. Her book, Dostoevsky’s ‘The Idiot’ and the Ethical Foundations of Narrative: Reading, Narrating, Scripting, was published in 2004. She blogs about her research on www.sarahjyoung.com and tweets on @Russianist.

This post has been cross-posted from www.sarahjyoung.com.

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Dostoevsky and Elijah the Prophet

by Robert Mann

No one taught you that Raskolnikov confesses on Elijah’s Day, a major holiday in prerevolutionary Russia. On this holiday up to 100,000 people would gather near the Church of Elijah, which was built beside the gunpowder factory to protect it from explosions. Elijah was believed to control rain, fire and lightning, a provenance that he inherited from the Slavic thunder god Perun when ancient Rus’ transitioned to the Christian faith. When more rain was needed for crops, people turned to Elijah. When there was too much rain, again they appealed to Elijah. In some communities Elijah had two hypostases and even two churches: Wet Elijah (needed in times of drought) and Dry Elijah (who could stop excessive rain). As a harbinger of the Last Judgment he was seen as fierce, fiery and ominous, but at the same time he was the generous provider of rain and abundance. All rain, thunder and lightning came from Elijah. Even in the early twentieth century, Russian folk would make the sign of the cross at the sound of thunder. The rumbling was attributed to Elijah’s chariot as it lumbered across the stormclouds. And a thunderstorm was always expected on Elijah’s Day (July 20 on the old calendar, August 2 on the new).

How do we know that Raskolnikov confesses on Elijah’s Day? It really makes little difference whether the spectacular thunderstorm that is the prelude to his confession is precisely the Elijah’s Day storm that was expected each year or just another one of Elijah’s rainstorms. However, we can say with confidence that it is the proverbial storm of Elijah’s Day, July 20, that soaks and batters Raskolnikov as he wanders around the city all night in spiritual torment. The first words of the novel are “in the beginning of July”. One can assume, therefore, that the action begins sometime in the first week of the month. Although the story’s chronology is not explicitly defined, it appears that around fourteen days go by before the confession. This takes us to the period July 15-22. For over two weeks there has been no rain in Petersburg. It is hot, humid and unpleasant. And so, looming behind the storm is the traditional folkloric expectation of a storm on July 20. (“It might not rain today, but surely there will be rain on Elijah’s Day.”) In addition, it is a very special thunderstorm – a spectacular, torrential deluge with lightning that illuminates the sky for five seconds at a time. Ilya Petrovich, to whom Raskolnikov confesses, is a reflection of Elijah as he is perceived in popular belief. His name is Ilya ‘Elijah’. He is fiery-tempered and is depicted with all sorts of imagery pertaining to thunder and lightning. He lets loose “with all his thunderbolts” at one visitor. His nickname is Gunpowder, which elicits associations with the boom of thunder and with the Church of Elijah at the gunpowder factory. (In the water of the Rzhevka, just upstream from the church, you can still see the huge millstones that were used for grinding the powder ingredients.) Thus, beaten down by Elijah’s storm, Raskolnikov confesses on Elijah’s Day to a booming Elijah, who is an assistant superintendent in the police force – much as Elijah in folk belief functions as a sort of policeman at God’s side, reminding mortals of their sins and Judgment with his lightning.

The imagery and symbolic filigree go far beyond the few details I have mentioned here. The discovery of the Elijah leitmotif in Dostoevsky’s fiction is perhaps the most far-reaching of all textual discoveries in his works, although it has been completely ignored among Dostoevsky scholars. Significantly, this symbolism begins in his early works written before his arrest and exile. The enigmatic novella The Landlady is virtually deciphered by the Elijah allusions. Its central, mysterious figure – the gruff old Ilya Murin – is an earthly emanation of the fierce Elijah, not a demonic power as he is ordinarily seen by readers who aren’t aware of Elijah’s role in early Russian culture. And, as with Raskolnikov, Elijah is victorious in the end – the same Christian pattern that we find in Dostoevsky’s later writing. The rebellious young freethinker returns to the flock.

All of the storms that one finds in Dostoevsky’s fiction were associated in the writer’s mind with Elijah. I am always asked why Dostoevsky employed Elijah symbolism so frequently. The answer lies in his overarching theme – his focus on conscience, Judgment, and his belief in a uniquely Russian spirituality, the “Russian soul”. In order to portray that spirituality he needed emblems of a specifically Russian Christianity. Jesus and Mary, as portrayed in the Bible, are universal figures in the Christian faith; there is nothing specifically Slavic about them. By the time he began his writing career, he settled on the Russian folkloric Elijah and all the beliefs pertaining to him as his chosen emblem of an exceptional Russian spirituality.

The storms in The Eternal Husband, The Insulted and Injured, The Little Hero, The Brothers Karamazov, “Mr. Prokharchin” and other works all evoke the Russian folkloric Elijah. However, only in one work does the author lay bare the Elijah associations in an explicit fashion: The Village of Stepanchikovo and Its Inhabitants. In this humorous Christian allegory of good and evil, the kind and magnanimous Yegor Ilyich Rostanev is a reflection of God and Elijah, while the nasty backbiter Foma Fomich Opiskin is a reflection of the Devil. The denouement comes precisely on Elijah’s Day, the nameday of Rostanev’s son Ilya. And it is during the Elijah’s Day storm that Rostanev finally ejects Foma from his home. As he contemplates his decision, he sits down in a corner and says he will now state his final word. There is a moment’s silence and then the most deafening of all thunder strikes overhead. The gathered visitors and spongers make the sign of the cross and exclaim “Elijah the Prophet!” The thunder is Rostanev’s final word, so to speak – the word of Elijah, the voice of Judgment.

For scholars who know little about Russian folk tradition and have difficulty dealing with spiritual symbols and allegory the climactic expulsion of Foma during the Elijah’s Day storm should be a wake-up call – a signal that Dostoevsky attached special value to Elijah as he is perceived in folk belief. The storm at the climax of Stepanchikovo is a precursor of the punishing storm of Judgment that leads to Raskolnikov’s confession. (A thunderstorm also serves as the backdrop to the finale of The Insulted and Injured, which was published in the seven-year interim between Stepanchikovo and Crime and Punishment.)

The Brothers Karamazov is replete with evocations of Elijah. Various details and motifs link the dying boy Ilyusha, his father Snegiryov and Pyotr Ilyich Perkhotin with Elijah. The conflict between Dmitrii and his father can be compared with Ordynov’s and Raskolnikov’s rebellion against God’s order. And, once again, the climactic moment in the novel’s action – that of Dmitrii’s arrest – comes on the background of a rainstorm. In his desperate quest for money Dmitrii has just gone to Sukhoi Posyolok (Dry Village), led there by a priest from a Church of Elijah (Il’inskii batiushka). But the trip is only a hellish purgatory for Dmitrii. The lumber dealer he finds there is drunk and unconscious, and Dmitrii is nearly asphyxiated by a faulty flue as he tries to sleep. This, so to speak, is the punishing ordeal of Dry Elijah. Soon he is arrested at Mokroye (Wet Village) as the rain comes down. On a spiritual, symbolic level this is the retribution of Wet Elijah.

In the first draft of the novel, Dmitrii is named Il’inskii after a real-life prototype whom the writer met in Omsk prison. Il’inskii had been imprisoned for patricide and served seven years but was subsequently exonerated. Given the Elijah symbolism that Dostoevsky had already been using before his arrest, Il’inskii’s surname must have been an additional factor that played with the writer’s imagination along with the horrific circumstances of the elder Il’inskii’s murder.

bookkod jpeg.JPG.opt173x242o0,0s173x242BrothersJPG.JPG.opt169x235o0,0s169x235This blog piece, by necessity brief, is a tiny introduction to Dostoevsky’s Elijah symbolism, which is examined in greater depth in an ebook that I have published with Amazon called Dostoevsky: What They Don’t Teach You in School. Related titles on paper are The Brothers Karamazov: an Unorthodox Guide; The Landlady; and Tainyi kod Dostoevskogo – Il’ia-prorok v russkoi literature.


Robert Mann is a researcher in Russian literature. His interest in early Russian epic and folklore led to his theory of Kievan tales in which Elijah the Prophet destroys the idol of his pagan predecessor Perun. He maintains that the folkloric hero Il’ia, known as Muromets in recent times, derives directly from the prophet Elijah in tales of the conversion period. His study of Elijah in oral lore led to his discovery of the Elijah leitmotif in Dostoevsky. 

September Notes on July Impressions: Dostoevsky Day 2017

by Tomi Haxhi

After nearly eight years spent studying Russian literature, this summer was to be my first time in Russia, and given my affinity for Dostoevsky, naturally I chose to spend my time in St. Petersburg. My goal, as I told my peers, professors, and host mother, was to experience the city through a distinctly Dostoevskyan lens, for better or worse—to find love under the skies of “White Nights,” or perhaps to lose my mind, haunted relentlessly by my “Double.” Needless to say, the eighth-annual Dostoevsky Day was at the top of my list.

Since its inception in 2009, Dostoevsky Day has steadily grown in size and scope to a city-wide event that includes—but is certainly not limited to—a parade, guided tours, readings, screenings, writing and craft workshops, dance and theatrical performances, with the participation of various museums, theatres, and libraries. Looking at the schedule in preparation for the day of the event was enough to make one’s head spin with the sheer number of options. I quickly understood that it would be an undeniably Herculean task to attend even half of the day’s offerings, so I decided to keep it simple.

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A massive Raskolnikov on stilts!

My day began with one of the event’s centrepieces, the so-called “Dostoevsky Carnival,” a performance on Pioneer Square (the very place of Dostoevsky’s mock-execution), featuring actor-dancers dressed as the author himself and various of his characters. A colourful sea of umbrellas spread out before the stage, the large crowd undeterred by the constant drizzle promised throughout the day. (Indeed, does a Dostoevsky Day without gloomy weather really deserve to be called Dostoevsky Day?) Among the crowd were dispersed another set of actors dressed as Dostoevsky characters, most notably Raskolnikov on massive stilts and carrying a similarly massive axe, and his victim, the old moneylender, both of whom gladly posed for photos and chatted with the eager spectators.

I was surprised to see that the performance featured not only Dostoevsky, but also Pushkin, Gogol, and Turgenev, each accompanied by a handful of his characters (Tolstoy’s absence appeared to me conspicuous and a little humorous). The performance was thus not only a celebration of Dostoevsky, but of the nineteenth-century literature of Petersburg at large. Although Turgenev may not have been a Petersburg writer per se, his inclusion was no doubt essential, if only for the face-off between the author and his parody, the highly affected Karmazinov from Dostoevsky’s Demons: 

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Turgenev and Karmazinov face off

Funnily enough, the whole performance reminded me of the literary fête so humorously depicted in the same novel, though decidedly more successful than poor Yulia Mikhailovna’s literary quadrille, likewise inspired by great literature but rather haphazardly planned in comparison.

Each author had his chance to shine, all in a humourous light, with performances set to a mash-up of classical and contemporary music. Pushkin’s Onegin and Tatiana featured in a fantasy scene in which Tatiana has her revenge and shows Onegin just who’s boss. Gogol’s heroes followed, looking a motley crew to say the least. Solokha and the devil, from Gogol’s “Christmas Eve,” did a seductive little number to the beat of Ukrainian folk music mixed with heavy rock, while Akaky Akakievich did an interpretive dance with none other than his beloved overcoat.

The performance took an undeniably somber turn with the appearance of Fyodor Mikhailovich himself, though it goes without saying that he received the largest applause. Raskolnikov, Sonya, and Porfiry Petrovich performed a little game of cat-and-mouse, after which their author stepped in to resolve the conflict, addressing Raskolnikov personally. But the scene stealer, in my opinion, was the heartbreaking contemporary dance by Prince Myshkin and Nastasya Filippovna, set to Regina Spektor’s “Apres Moi,” the pain evident in the dancers’ faces and broken movements, the whole dance leading to a breaking point without resolution.

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Nastasya Filippovna and Myshkin dance

(A video of the dance can be found here, with thanks to Jack McClelland)

I devoted the second part of my day to a walking tour dedicated to Dostoevsky’s early years of activity and his earliest works, “Poor Folk,” “The Double,” and “White Nights” (another walking tour was devoted entirely to Crime and Punishment). The tours took place every 30 minutes, setting off in front of the statue of the author facing Vladimirskaya Church, just steps away from the Dostoevsky Museum, what was once his final place of residence. At each stop, a different high-school aged student, having spent a good part of the year studying the author’s life and works at the Dostoevsky Museum, would explain the relevance of the location to the work in question and to Dostoevsky’s life at the time of writing. As Dostoevsky never had a permanent place of residence, a number of his apartments are spread out throughout the city centre, allowing for a lengthy walking tour.

Dostoevsky Day, as we found out, takes place at the beginning of July in reference to Crime and Punishment, perhaps the most canonical of all Petersburg novels. It is at this time that Raskolnikov commits the murder at the centre of the novel. The tour led us from Dostoevsky’s first apartment, where he composed “Poor Folk,” to the very courtyard corner where Makar Devushkin and Varvara Dobroselova would glance at one another from their respective windows, and to the bank of the Fontanka, where Dostoevsky was first introduced to Belinsky, the famed critic who would guarantee the author’s foothold in the world of literature.

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Event posters

Just as the tour drew to a close, I was lucky enough to stumble onto the Bookstore Courtyard on the Fontanka, where there were hours of activities and performances planned—there was no need to look anywhere else for the third part of my day. Inside the library, a number of artists led their own workshops—from calligraphy, to colour theory, painting, and collage art, all inspired by the works of the author. Outside, meanwhile, took place a reading of the most “enigmatic” passages from The Brothers Karamazov, followed by a discussion between a playwright and a director on the topic of Dostoevsky’s works on the theatrical stage.

My favourite part, however, took place on the main stage: three monologues performed by three different actors from the St Petersburg Philharmonia, each directed by People’s Artist Yuri Tomoshevsky. The first monologue was taken from Dostoevsky’s unfinished first novel, Netochka Nezvanova, and the second from the short story “Bobok,” both of which I have never read, though the first performance, especially, convinced me that I must. 

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Katerina Ivanovna’s monologue

The third and most affecting was taken from Crime and Punishment and performed by an actress in the part of Katerina Ivanovna. The scene in question: chapter III of part V, Marmeladov’s funeral, when Luzhin accuses Sonya of stealing the hundred-rouble note from his room, leading Katerina Ivanovna further into her fragile, semi-lucid state. Performed with great breadth of feeling, the actress brought to life one of my favourite characters of the novel in a scene that was, in all honesty, difficult to watch. She captured not only the pitiful helplessness of the character, but likewise her aspirations to dignity, as well as her earnest love toward Sonya. 

After the monologues followed a short round of trivia (where and how, for example, does Raskolnikov hide the axe on the way to the murder?), and a screening of the 1957 Italian adaptation of White Nights directed by Luchino Visconti followed the trivia—but after six hours of performances and activities, I was wiped. For the latecomers or the truly dedicated, events were planned well into the night.

In the end, I was heartened to notice that Petersburg’s love for Dostoevsky cuts across all generations. Families with children, groups of friends, and many lone spectators of all ages could be seen throughout the day. Not only the spectators, but the participants themselves ranged in age from adolescence to the elderly. And although Dostoevsky has a certain reputation for being undeniably gloomy, the audiences and participants turned to the author not only with great respect, but with great humour.

As I mentioned earlier, I chose to spend my time in Petersburg because of its famed literary reputation. I feared, however, that its literary engagement may have waned in the current day, a trend we have all noticed, at least in the West, in the age of smartphones and immediate gratification in 140 characters or less. I am happy to say that Dostoevsky Day proved all of my fears unfounded. Dostoevsky continues to inspire artists and audiences alike with his unwavering faith in the beauty, goodness, and strength of the human spirit.


Tomi Haxhi is a PhD student in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Columbia University. He received an MA in Slavic Languages and Literatures from the University of Toronto in 2016. He hopes to return to St Petersburg soon, having hatched a madcap plan to make a Napoleon of himself.

All of the images that appear in this post are © Tomi Haxhi

The Petersburg Text in the 21st Century: Dostoevsky Cultural Memory in the Contemporary City

by Ksenia Stepkina

St Petersburg played a central role in Dostoevsky’s works: Poor Folk, White Nights, The Idiot are all set in and around the city, The Double bears the subtitle “A Petersburg Poem”, while Crime and Punishment is commonly referred to as a “Petersburg text”. The city was instrumental for Dostoevsky to convey his ideas to readers. Through the vivid descriptions of the living city Dostoevsky demonstrates the role of the environment on human soul and psychological state.

Dostoevsky played a vital role in building an essential part of the collective symbolico-cultural mythology of the city, which Vladimir Toporov calls “the Petersburg text of Russian literature.”1 The Petersburg text represents an aggregate of the descriptions and the symbols of the city as represented in literary works from the 19th century onward. Each text adds a new layer to the image, while carrying over the meaning of the past accumulated layers. As a result, the Petersburg text has evolved into a mass of symbols, themes, ideas about the city, which continues to inform our understanding and experience of St Petersburg today.

However, as the traveler arrives in modern-day St Petersburg, she feels that the city and its myth are frozen in time, while Dostoevsky and his legacy seem to have become a mere museum artifact. The beauty, luxury and greatness of the “Northern Capital” of Russia are striking:

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However, the city has been criticized for “selective memory”, whereby only the ideologically inspiring images of the glories of the city’s past are chosen to be preserved and highlighted, which results in a sanitized, unnatural image of the city.2 St Petersburg has been described variously as “the city in a Porcelain Snuffbox”, or a “city-museum.”3

The traveler might also suspect that Dostoevsky’s realistic ideas and the challenge they posed to the status quo have now lost their meaningful impact, becoming a source of, mainly, commercial value. After all, Dostoevsky sells really well! He has become a popular product of the city’s “brand”.

 

The great writer Dostoevsky has become an artifact, and many of the Dostoevsky sites have become museums: Dostoevsky’s apartment has been turned into a museum, the writer is memorialized by a statue outside his former apartment, and even Raskolnikov’s house is marked with a granite plaque.

 

Thus, to a casual observer, it might seem that the city has been frozen in time, and Dostoevsky’s memory has been preserved intact with great care, rendering the Petersburg text a relic of the past. Yet, a true Dostoevsky reader would know better than to look at the surface. So, as the original Petersburg text of the 19th century is not focused on the immaculate luxury of royal palaces, but rather presents the contrasts and paradoxes of the city’s vibrant life, let us go beyond the beautiful façades, onto the streets of Dostoevsky’s Petersburg. And once we take off the tourist’s superficial glasses, the true, more complex world appears in front of our eyes. This is the contrasting, conflicting, living Petersburg that holds the Petersburg text together and inspired Dostoevsky. On my trip to St Petersburg I was happy to discover that Dostoevsky’s Petersburg is alive and well, while Dostoevsky’s cultural legacy forms a new layer of the Petersburg text, which, while looking back at the past, reinvents, and adds new meanings.

I invite you to take a closer look at the three most prominent examples of how Dostoevsky cultural memory keeps the Petersburg text alive in the contemporary city: a museum, a street festival, and a theatre project.

The F.M. Dostoevsky Literary-Memorial Museum

Though the first Dostoevsky Museum in Russia was opened in Moscow, boasting a rich collection of personal items belonging to the writer, it is the museum in St. Petersburg that has become the hub of his literary legacy. The F. M. Dostoevsky Literary-Memorial Museum was opened in 1971 – the 150th anniversary of Dostoevsky’s birth – in the house on Kuznechny Lane. The writer rented an apartment in this house twice in his life, and he died there in 1881. This address links the beginning and end of his creative development: in this house, Dostoevsky worked on his early work The Double (1846), and wrote his last novel The Brothers Karamazov (1880). The apartment has been reconstructed based on the memoirs of his wife and contemporaries – museumification par excellence! But let us not judge too quickly.

The Dostoevsky Museum is not just a memorial to the writer’s memory, but a unique center of contemporary literature and arts. It is composed of the following parts:

  • The Writer’s Memorial Apartment – the museum’s main, central part:

 

  • The Literary Exhibit, dedicated to the writer’s biography and creation:

 

  • Exhibit Halls, which feature exhibits of contemporary art
  • The Theatre, home to the White Theatre of the Dostoevsky Museum, as well as the theatre-partners of the museum: theatre “Puppet Format” and “Takoy Theatre”, in addition to hosting performances from other Russian and international theater companies

Over the years, the museum’s collection has increased many times over. At present it includes a large collection of graphic and applied art and a significant collection of photographs. The museum library holds about 24,000 volumes and a small collection of manuscripts. These collections are constantly growing, in large part thanks to the gifts of visitors, friends of the museum, and Dostoevsky scholars.

Tourists flock to the former apartment of Dostoevsky on Kuznechny lane to pay homage to the legacy of the beloved writer. It’s true that as much as one’s imagination and financial resources allow, there is only so much that can be done to make a literary exhibit thrilling and exciting. Nevertheless, I found myself bumping elbows with other literary lovers while perusing the modest apartment of the late writer.

This is not your average tourist agenda. The literary exhibit, a dark cold space, can be rightfully described as a dungeon. In addition, in my experience, the museum-led 2-hour walking tour of Dostoevsky’s Petersburg in atmospheric rain, and the subsequent cold that lasts over a month, make a convincing point about the reality of living in this city, outside the comfort of a tour bus.

 

Vera Biron, the museum’s deputy director, says that the Dostoevsky Museum does not aim for mass market appeal at the expense of diluting some of the complexity of the life and work of the writer to make it more accessible to an average reader, who might be familiar with Dostoevsky’s works only on the surface, but have a weak understanding of the depth of his ideas. In addition to the preserved apartment, exhibit, and tours, the museum fearlessly experiments with art forms to bring the legacy of the writer to the public, and the projects it undertakes attract a wide and appreciative audience. I will discuss two such projects: the first is the increasingly famous Dostoevsky Day, while the second is a theatre project from 2004 called “On the Path to Freedom”.

Dostoevsky Day: Dostoevskian Carnival in the 21st Century

Celebrating its 8th year this year, Dostoevsky Day has become a major annual festival in the city happening every year on the first Saturday of July in Petersburg, around the time that the events of Crime and Punishment took place. Organized by the Dostoevsky Museum, the festival has grown each year. In 2016, multiple museums, libraries and theater companies participated in the 7th annual Dostoevsky Day, which was held simultaneously at several venues. Festivities included a parade, theater performances, film screenings, lectures, workshops, tours and scavenger hunts – all these diverse activities put their own spin on Dostoevsky’s legacy.

 

The festival has received mixed reviews. While some are skeptical, perceiving the festival to be a mockery or joke, no one was left indifferent. Everyone was moved in one way or the other. Both the intellectuals and those far removed from the big Dostoevskian questions of existence found something for themselves.

“Dostoevsky’s characters are alive, they are everywhere – just take a closer look!” reported Ogonek Magazine.

“The trio Katerina Ivanovna – Marmeladov – Dostoevsky was met with silence, which is so praised in the theater, and which is so rare for street performances. Applause was genuine” wrote Saint Petersburg’s Vedomosti.

In my view, a description in Crime and Punishment accurately describes the festival-goers’ experience: “it was dreadfully hot, not to mention the closeness of the air, the crush of people”. The festival is a fun spectacle for a casual observer, while a devoted reader of Dostoevsky will be able to recognize the Dostoevskian themes, still pertinent today, which pervade the festival. Like Dostoevsky, and Petersburg itself, the festival experience is full of contrasts and paradoxes (reminding this Dostoevsky student of Bakhtin’s carnival): serious ideas portrayed on the streets, through humor, while the main theatrical performance was played with no words!

“On the Path to Freedom” Theatre Project: “Finding Human in Human”

2004 marked the 150th anniversary of Dostoevsky’s release from imprisonment in the Omsk ostrog. To commemorate this day, the Dostoevsky Museum initiated a theater project based on Dostoevsky’s Notes from the House of the Dead (1862) involving a number of the city’s prominent screenwriters, directors, artists, actors, musicians… as well as 16 teenaged prisoners from the Kolpinskaya penal colony in St. Petersburg. Vera Biron initiated this project, and involved her family as well. She did not fully realize what she was getting into, and many were very skeptical of her ideas. She describes the experience as extremely challenging. She was exposed to a completely different world, one that lives by its own rules. She had to work with young prisoners, serious offenders (their crimes include armed robbery, rape, murder), whose job in the colony was to make coffins. During the course of the project, Biron was often subject to abusive language, while her son, participating as a violinist in the play, received multiple threats.

The production took 6 months of hard work and rehearsals with the boys, who had never been exposed to theater. Moreover, the final part involved retelling the short story “A Child at a Christ’s Christmas Party” (1876) with puppets, and, not surprisingly, the teens rebelled against “playing with dolls”. Nevertheless, the disagreements were overcome and the project continued. As the preparations progressed, everyone noticed a dramatic transformation in the teens. Mirroring Dostoevsky’s idea of the importance of freedom to the human soul, the prisoner-actors participating in the project were able to escape the realities of their everyday lives, and, arguably, experience a form of moral transformation. Dostoevsky rejected the idea that an offender might have an inherent propensity to commit crime in Notes from the House of the Dead. Biron credits the success of the project to the fact that everyone working with the young offenders treated them at all times with respect and dignity. Thus, one might say with confidence that Dostoevsky’s highest mission to “find a human in a human” was successfully accomplished in this project. This real transformation was echoed on stage: at the beginning of the play the boys were dressed in rough prison clothes, but during the finale they wore white robes and held candles.

 

The production was performed in both the colony and the museum. The audience, skeptical at first, was deeply moved by the performance.

I arrived in St. Petersburg and saw a city-museum, where the ghosts of the past roam the streets. Everything here declares the glory of the imperial past: the beautiful, reconstructed façades of the imperial palaces, the proud monuments, and the preserves of the rich cultural heritage. The legacy of the city’s famous writers is locked in memorial museums and museum-apartments: Pushkin, Nekrasov, Blok, Akhmatova, Nabokov, Zoshchenko. I squeal with excitement when I see a shelf full of Dostoevsky works with lavish covers at the famous bookstore in the Zinger building, and buy an irrational number of Dostoevsky souvenirs. The literary legacy of Dostoevsky is preserved in a shiny jar with a tight lid, and sold at a premium price. I rebel: Dostoevsky is not for sale! I look further.

Dostoevsky’s Petersburg is still there, both artificially preserved, but at the same time organically transformed. Dostoevsky’s legacy is so much more than meets the eye. It seems to be quite a stretch to extrapolate each of the (real life) examples on their own into the representations of the Petersburg text and Dostoevsky’s ideas. How does one read into the experience of visiting a museum or going to a city festival?  It is a challenge to translate or find hidden meaning in every day occurrences. But isn’t this what a devoted Dostoevsky fan is used to doing? There is meaning to be found. And not simply because these experiences uncover the other, contrasting, hidden side of “museumified” Petersburg and “pop” Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky’s cultural memory, while preserving the past, is building a new strand of the writer’s legacy – adding layers to the Petersburg text. The museum preserves the memory of the writer, but constantly reinvents ways to bring Dostoevsky’s ideas to a wider audience. Dostoevsky Day, besides being a quirky, fun tourist attraction, experiments with the ideas, with the characters, adding new depths and layers to Dostoevsky’s original texts. It is interesting that these events keep happening – and there are more of them as well – and they are shifting Petersburg from the city of museums to the city of living texts. While it is not the 19th century, and Dostoevsky has not written anything new in the past 100+ years, nevertheless, Dostoevsky continues to play with our minds, stir up the idealized image, exposing the truth, ugly at times, though necessary to feel the pulse, the pulse of the living city, of the living Petersburg text. One only has to take off the tourist glasses – and remember to put on your rain boots!

 

Images: The images of St Petersburg are © Ksenia Stepkina. All other images are in the public domain. The images of the Dostoevsky Museum – apartment interior and exhibit space – are from the museum’s website. The images of the “On the Path to Freedom” theatre project, Dostoevsky Day, and some of the Dostoevsky merchandise appear on the Museum’s social media.

Notes:
[1] Toporov, Vladimir. Peterburgskii Tekst Russkoi Literatury: Izbrannye trudy. Sankt Peterburg: Iskusstvo-SPB, 2003, 23.
[2] Goscilo, Helena, and Norris, Stephen M. Preserving Petersburg: History, Memory, Nostalgia. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008, xvii.
[3] Stites, Richard. “Cultural Capital and Cultural Heritage: St. Petersburg and the Arts of Imperial Russia.” Preserving Petersburg: History, Memory, Nostalgia. Ed. Helena Goscilo and Stephen M. Norris. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008: 182-196, 183.


The author wishes to thank:

Dr Katherine Bowers, Assistant Professor at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, for opening the doors in the thrilling world of Dostoevsky and continuous support along the way, on the path of exciting new discoveries and life-changing revelations,

Vera Biron, the Deputy Director of the F.M. Dostoevsky Literary-Memorial Museum, St Petersburg, for a warm welcome into Dostoevsky’s home,

Ekaterina Kovina, Research Officer of the F.M. Dostoevsky Literary-Memorial Museum, St Petersburg, for leading the way in the footsteps of Raskolnikov on the Crime and Punishment walking tour,

And her mom for being the greatest partner in Crime (and Punishment) on the journey of discovering Dostoevsky’s Petersburg.


Ksenia Stepkina completed her BA in International Relations at the University of British Columbia in May 2017. Her favorite Dostoevsky novel is The Brothers Karamazov. She is currently working in impact marketing and corporate social responsibility with a local film and video production company, while constantly pondering Dostoevskian questions of existence and the salvation of humanity, which she hopes to address in the near future through graduate studies in Politics and Sociology.

Dostoevsky on the Moscow Metro

by Jack McClelland

In June of 2010, a Dostoevsky-themed station opened on the Moscow Metro’s Green line, displaying marble-paneled depictions of his most memorable works, as well as a stern portrait of the Russian author welcoming Muscovites to their morning commute. Although many of Dostoevsky’s novels, such as Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, and The Double occur in St. Petersburg, it cannot be forgotten that the Russian author was born and spent his childhood in Russia’s capital. The station, named Dostoevskaya (Достоевская), features several murals by Russian artist Ivan Nikolaev, depicting scenes from Dostoevsky’s novels Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, and Demons, among others. The scenes range from Sonya Marmeladova’s retelling of the tale of Lazarus with a frantic Raskolnikov (Crime and Punishment), to (Spoilers!) the suicide of Nikolai Stavrogin at the close of Demons.

The murals stirred up controversy when the station first opened, with concerns that the darker depictions weren’t appropriate for a metro station, as well as fears that this station would turn into a suicide hotspot for troubled Muscovites. Mikhail Vinogradov, the head of a Moscow Psychological Help Centre at the time, appeared on Russian television shortly after the opening of the station, and spoke to Russian news agencies criticizing the artwork, referencing its inappropriate placement in a common setting such as the Moscow underground.

In an NPR piece, then-foreign correspondent David Greene explored some of the negative, as well as positive, sides of these images of death and suicide entering a public sphere in the Moscow Metro. Balancing the opposing sides of criticism, Greene writes, “Like other psychologists who raised concerns in Russia and abroad, [Mikhail] Vinogradov says gripping images can induce violent behavior — and a subway station is the last place for that… But Natalia Semyonova, another clinical psychologist in Moscow, defended the artist and the author, whose books she uses in lectures and to treat patients…Using powerful literature to help overcome challenges in one’s own life, she says, is very Russian”. Surrounded by this controversy in early 2010, the Moscow metro did delay the opening of the station several months ahead to June. However, to this day no suicides or axe murders have taken place in or around the station.

Upon entering the station from the street, one takes a long escalator ride alongside two silhouetted figures drawn on the marble walls, rushing just as you are to catch the next train. Once reaching the bottom of these stairs one enters a long corridor with the large marble mural of the Russian author offering an ominous welcome to the Moscow underground. Following a few additional steps down to the train platform, one can explore the various murals depicting the imagined world of the station’s namesake. One of the more memorable murals depicting Dostoevsky’s 1866 novel Crime and Punishment (Преступление и наказание) features a number of scenes from the novel, including Raskolnikov’s murder of two women by axe. In Greene’s words, the artist Nikolaev says his task was, “to draw out the meaning, creativity, and entire life of Dostoevsky”.

Crime and Punishment subway

The Dostoevskaya metro station. Photo by Lerik Gadskii (2013).

To better understand Nikolaev’s Dostoevskaya station, let us take a moment to imagine ourselves entering Moscow’s historic metro, escaping either the freezing cold of a Russian winter, or maybe the uncomfortable-heat of the city’s humid summer. And as we descend the 3-minute escalator ride, we take ourselves below the tangible surroundings of Moscow’s surface streets, and into the heart of the Russian capital. Stops along this spanning network of tunnels and stations allow us to glimpse into the foundation of this functioning cosmopolitan system, and begin to understand the internal workings of the Russian capital as it exists today.

“Осторожно! Двери закрываются,” warns a fuzzy and familiar intercom, as doors slam shut, and your train accelerates along the green line of the Moscow Metro, now quickly approaching your destination: Dostoevskaya Station (Станция Достоевская). After a short trip through the city’s Soviet-built underground tunnels, you re-emerge into a spacious, marble-walled station, and as the doors open you come face-to-face with a contemplative Raskolnikov, the hero of Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment. The mural in front of you tracks Raskolnikov’s movements through the 1866 novel, from his introspective strolls along St. Petersburg’s Neva River embankment, to his axe-wielding moment of crime in the apartment of Alyona and Lizaveta Ivanovna. As you walk around this station, explore the various murals depicting the imagined world of the station’s namesake. Other titles represented on these marble-panels include Бесы (Demons) and Братья Карамазовы (The Brothers Karamazov), each providing a visual summary of Dostoevsky’s philosophical masterpieces. With the looming face of the Russian author’s massive portrait glaring at you from the exit, muster the courage to continue exploring Moscow’s beautiful underground labyrinth. As each of Dostoevsky’s novels reveal to us their own distinguishable insights into the expansive and nuanced Russian heart and soul, one stop along the Metro’s Green Line will only grant you a fleeting glimpse into the infrastructural beating heart of Russia’s capital city.


Jack McClelland minors in Russian at the University of British Columbia, where a foreign-language course requirement inspired a passion for the language, literature, and culture of Russia. He recently spent a summer studying abroad in St. Petersburg, and hopes to finish reading Crime and Punishment in original Russian before his hair goes grey. 

CFP: Revolutionary Dostoevsky: Rethinking Radicalism

20-21 October 2017
University College London – School of Slavonic and East European Studies
Convenor: Sarah J Young

Deadline for abstracts: 4 August 2017

Revolutionary-Dostoevsky.jpegFrom Notes from Underground to The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky’s work confronts the consequences of the socialist and materialist ideologies that were taking hold in Russia and beyond, and seeks alternatives in forms of spiritual renewal and ethical action that – however reactionary some of his later publicistic writing – are in many ways equally radical. Coinciding with the 100th anniversary of the Russian revolutions and celebrating the publication of a new translation of Crime and Punishment edited by Sarah Young, this conference will reassess Dostoevsky’s legendary status as ‘prophet’ of the revolution and its totalitarian aftermath. Bringing together humanities and social science scholars, it aims to build new understandings of the notion of ‘the radical’ in all senses in Dostoevsky’s writing, and foster interdisciplinary approaches to explore what his work has to contribute to a new era of social upheaval and political and religious extremism. Potential subjects for papers include:

  • Dostoevsky’s critique of terrorism, populism and revolution, in contemporary and historical perspectives
  • radical ethics and Christianity as Dostoevsky’s alternatives to revolutionary thinking
  • Dostoevsky as reactionary thinker and radical artist
  • Dostoevsky and dissidence
  • Radical approaches to researching and teaching Dostoevsky
  • transforming Dostoevsky – in the arts and criticism

Confirmed speakers include Carol Apollonio (Duke University), Stanley Bill (University of Cambridge), Artemy Magun (European University at St Petersburg) and George Pattison (University of Glasgow).

The conference will also feature an exhibition specially curated by the St Petersburg Dostoevsky Museum, and a round table and reception marking the launch of a new translation of Crime and Punishment published by Oxford University Press.

If you are interested in giving a paper, please send a title and short abstract (c. 250 words) to Sarah Young (s.young@ucl.ac.uk ) by 4 August 2017. For more details, see the original CFP at this link.

CFP: International Working Group on Dostoevsky and Religion

In partnership with the Brazilian Society on Dostoevsky, the Center of Religion Studies on Dostoevsky and Tolstoy (NERDT/UFJF) invites the entire academic community–researchers and students of national and international competence in the fields of religion, philosophy and Russian literature, and all the scope of researchers interested in literary and philosophical discussion on religion–to the I International Seminar on Dostoevsky and Religion. The event will take place on August 30th and 31st, at the Institute of Humane Sciences in UFJF, in the city of Juiz de Fora, Minas Gerais.

Connected to the Department of Religious Science and the Graduate Program in Religion Science at the Federal University of Juiz de Fora, NERDT intends to bring together researchers and proponents of international reach around the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky and the texture of his dialogues with the religion. Therefore, we look at this meeting with a view to promoting this environment of reflection, debate and dissemination of the philosophical and religious universe present in the work and in the thought of this author.

There is a significant critical fortune that has focused on the religious dimensions of Dostoevsky’s life and work, ranging from classical commentators such as V. Ivanov and N. Berdiaev, to what Susan McReynolds has classified in the thematic dossier on “Dostoevsky and Christianity “of Dostoevsky Studies, as a global phenomenon of return of religion in the studies on Dostoevsky. In the context of Brazilian criticism, the works of Boris Schnaiderman and Otto Maria Carpeaux were the flowering ground of a critique on the relations between art and thought in Dostoevsky’s work. His work as a translator and critic, and his activity as a teacher and founder of the Department of Russian Literature and Literature of the University of São Paulo, was responsible for the formation of a generation of slavists who today carry out a fundamental activity of criticism and translation of Russian Literature in Brazil.

It is within this context of flourishing of studies on Dostoevsky in Brazil combined with the significant interest in the religious dimension of his work that we invite all those interested to participate in the I International Seminar on Dostoevsky and Religion.

Important names in contemporary research in Dostoevsky make up the lecturers board, such as Susan McReynolds (Ph.D. in Comparative Literature at Havard University, Professor of Russian Literature, Department of Slavic Languages ​​and Literatures at Northwestern University), Maxim Shrayer (PhD in Russian Literature at Yale University, Professor of Russian Literature and Jewish Studies at Boston College), Bruno Barreto Gomide (Doctor of Literary Theory and History at Unicamp, Visiting Researcher at the Górki Institute of World Literature (Moscow), University of Glasgow, Puchskyki Dom (S. Petersburg, Harvard and the University of London) Professor of Russian Literature at the University of São Paulo; Luiz Felipe Pondé (PhD in Modern Philosophy at the University of São Paulo, Professor of Religious Studies at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo) and Jimmy Sudário Cabral (Ph.D. in Theology at PUC-Rio and Université de Strasbourg; Professor of Religious Studies, Department of Religious Sciences at Federal University of Juiz de Fora).

In addition to the lectures, the event will have GTs (Working Groups), whose registrations are already open on the NERDT website (www.ufjf.br/nerdt). Entries for attendees are also available on the same website. Registration and proposals are due by July 31 2017.