Raskolnikov’s Strange Ideas: How Dostoevsky Predicted Modern Terrorism

by Iman Masmoudi

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

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

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

The Idea

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Person

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

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

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

The Social Setting

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

[5] Ibid. 486.

[6] Ibid. 487.

Thomas Atkinson and Dostoevsky

by Nick Fielding

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

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

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The name Atkinson can be made out just below the portrait

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

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

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

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

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

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Atkinson asking directions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

baron-a-e-wrangel

Baron A E Wrangel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lucy Atkinson

Lucy Atkinson

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

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

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

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


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

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

Commemorating the 140th Anniversary of “The Dream of the Ridiculous Man” at the Dostoevsky Museum in St Petersburg

by Vadim Shkolnikov

“The Dream of the Ridiculous Man” comprises something like a Dostoevskian genealogy of morals.  When the story’s narrator, who has been driven to the brink of suicide and, as it would seem, utter indifference towards his fellow human beings, realizes that he still cannot extinguish an irrepressible spark of moral compassion for a suffering little girl, he sees a dream that fantastically unfolds the source this moral feeling.  In the process Dostoevsky takes us on a journey through time and space, to a distant planet where a beautiful people live in harmony and bliss—until we witness their shocking descent into the deceit, violence and suffering with which we are so familiar.  Yet in the end the narrator finally understands!

Dost exhibit 9The ongoing exhibit at the Dostoevsky Museum in St. Petersburg, dedicated to the 140th anniversary of “Dream of the Ridiculous Man”—“Фантастические миры Достоевского” [The Fantastic Worlds of Dostoevsky]—presents a wide array of materials that aim to contextualize Dostoevsky’s artistic vision and illuminate its genesis.

Considerable attention is devoted to tracing the diverse forms of “the fantastical” throughout Dostoevsky’s writings: from the schizophrenia of The Double to the frivolity of “The Crocodile”; from Raskolnikov’s dream in Siberian exile to the satirical vision of the afterlife in “Bobok.”

The exhibit is, moreover, divided into visions of “paradise” and of “hell,” reflecting the duality depicted in “The Dream of the Ridiculous Man.”  The story is thus shown to resonate with a multitude of other works: literary, religious, and visual, including Dante’s Inferno, the bathhouse scene in Notes from the House of the Dead, and Hieronymous Bosch’s remarkable 16th-century triptych “The Garden of Earthly Delights.”

There are various historical artifacts from Dostoevsky’s own time, including manuscripts and a scientific brochure on trichina, which Dostoevsky researched before composing Raskolnikov’s Siberian dream.

To top it all off, you can watch the 1992 animated adaptation of “The Dream of the Ridiculous Man.”

The exhibit runs through December 29. You can read a public domain English translation of “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” here.

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The author, enjoying the exhibit!


Vadim Shkolnikov is a dotsent in the Department of Comparative Literature and Linguistics at the Higher School of Economics in St Petersburg.  He is currently writing on Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground and its (unintended) connection to Russian revolutionary terrorism.  And having now lived in St. Petersburg for a year, he feels that he has learned all there is to know apropos of wet snow!

A Chat with Anna Berman on Dostoevsky and the Family Novel

On the blog today Kate Holland interviews Anna Berman about her book Siblings in Tolstoy and Dostoevsky: The Path to Universal Brotherhood.

siblings-in-tolstoy-and-dostoevskyCongratulations on the publication of your book! Siblings in Tolstoy and Dostoevsky joins a venerable series of works comparing the two great nineteenth century Russian novelists. How did you conceive of the idea of comparing the two in this way? And how did you become interested in the problem of the family novel?

Well, I actually came to this all through siblings.  When I was an undergraduate at Brown University I decided to write my senior thesis on siblings in War and Peace because it was a way to focus on all my favorite scenes in my favorite book.  As I started into the project and my adviser pushed me to engage with the scholarly literature on Tolstoy, I noticed that none of the discussions of family in his works dealt with siblings (they were all about husbands and wives or parents and children). I only really started reading Dostoevsky during my MPhil at Cambridge, and I was very surprised when I read The Brothers Karamazov to discover that most people discuss family there in terms of Oedipal struggle and focus on the theme of parricide. Few people had written about the brothers as brothers.  So my MPhil thesis ended up being on siblings in BK… and by the time I finished writing it, I knew that I desperately wanted to write a dissertation that explored the role of siblings in the two authors together.

Tell us a little about your book. What questions are you asking in it? Would you say it has an overarching narrative?

Basically, my book is looking at the role that siblings play in the art and thought of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy.  I start with exploring each author’s conception of the literal sibling bond—for both it plays a very positive role—and then the overarching narrative is exploring how they move from their ideas about siblinghood within the family to their more abstract ideals of universal brotherhood.  I am trying to show that there is a link between these two things; their views of the literal sibling bond shape their broader, philosophical ideals.

One of the main arguments of your book is that vertical family bonds such as parent-child are replaced by lateral ones, such as between siblings. How does this play out in Dostoevsky’s novels?

Scholars have been very right to focus on the importance of parent-child relationships in Dostoevsky’s works and to look at the theme of the breakdown of the transmission of values from fathers to sons in his late works.  What I’m trying to add to this picture is that as the fathers fail, brothers fill in.  So, for example, in The Brothers Karamazov, Zosima gets his ideas from his brother Markel.  And he passes them on to Alyosha, who in some ways is like a son, but whom Zosima sees as his brother come back to him at the end of his way.  He literally tells the story of his life to a group of monks, whom he is calling “brothers.” Fyodor Pavlovich is failing in just about every way imaginable as a father, but Dmitri, Ivan, and Alyosha reach out to each other with love and support.

What role does Freud play in your book? Do you find him helpful in any way as an interpreter of Tolstoy’s and Dostoevsky’s family novels?

Ah Freud… I know many people think it is outdated to write about him, but I studied with a psychoanalyst, Juliet Mitchell, who has done brilliant work on siblings, and under her influence, I have found that Freud still has a lot to teach us.  He was one of the greatest theorizers of the family in the twentieth century and we are still living in a world that was deeply shaped by his views.  So yes, I do find him useful.  What Freud himself wrote about Dostoevsky was wildly inaccurate (Joseph Frank has detailed this quite thoughtfully), but I think his ideas about love and family can still offer insights into Dostoevsky’s fictional worlds.  In my chapter on the first half of Dostoevsky’s career, I look at the way he constructs love triangles, and there we find an interesting slippage between the roles of brother and lover that Freud can speak to.  But I do not only use Freud; I try to put him in dialogue with other thinkers whose works prove relevant to understanding the human problems Dostoevsky is raising.

What do you think is the critical pay-off for thinking about Dostoevsky’s works as family novels? How does it change the way we read them?

A focus on siblings shifts our attention from what I believe is sometimes an over-emphasis on romantic relations and allows us to see the more stable, sustaining kinship love that Dostoevsky actually valued more strongly.  Passionate love is dangerous in Dostoevsky’s works, while sisters and brothers provide each other with true emotional and spiritual support.

What do you think is different about the evolution of the family novel in Russia compared to other national traditions?

This is a GREAT question, and it’s actually the topic of my next book.  For the new project I’m looking comparatively at the family plotlines we find in the nineteenth-century Russian and English novel.  So my full answer to this would probably be several hundred pages long.  The family novel as a genre began in England in the eighteenth century and originally came to Russia from there (broadly speaking, the Russians credited the English with writing the family and the French with writing love and adultery).  Yet as the Russians were reading the English, the differing historical conditions and status of the family in Russia caused them to diverge strongly from their English models and to create radically different family plots.

Just to give one example: the English honored primogeniture, which meant that all property went to the oldest son.  In plot terms, this means that in English novels only one brother can have a marriage plot that culminates in settling down on the family estate and producing an heir (the English family ideal).  And as a result, the English wrote very few novels that feature a significant pair of brothers.  In Russia, estates were split among all the children, and as a result, we find many more significant brother-brother relationships in Russian novels.  One of my arguments is that the Russians think of the family more laterally, while the English are more focused on vertical issues of origin and descent.  And with that, maybe I will save the rest for book number two!

What did you conclude about the similarities and differences of Tolstoy’s and Dostoevsky’s conceptions of universal brotherhood?

For both authors universal brotherhood is the ideal, but how you get there looks different because they have such different conceptions of the family.  Tolstoyan family is rooted in close family bonds and shared associations; his characters have typically grown up together and their connection comes from such shared intimacy.  So the challenge for him is to actually break down the bonds of family a bit to leave room for expansion.  Dostoevsky, on the other hand, had his idea of the “accidental family” (created partly as a response against Tolstoy).  His characters were often raised separately and only come to know each other as young adults.  So for them, the family bond is not something learned in childhood, but requires what he calls “active love.”  In this sense, it is easier for his characters to get from loving a sister or brother they just met to loving someone “like” a sibling to loving all of mankind; all these things require the same active love, which for Dostoevsky is predicated on faith.

In your analysis of brotherhood in The Brothers Karamazov, you differ from many other scholars by affording a principle role in your argument to Smerdyakov. Can you tell us a little bit about Smerdyakov as a testcase of Dostoevsky’s model of brotherhood?

This actually relates to the previous question.  The Karamazov brothers come from different mothers (except Ivan and Alyosha) and they were mostly not raised together.  So they only come to know each other as young adults and their love must be based on the “active love” Dostoevsky calls for in the novel.  Olga Meerson has argued that: “The chief taboo in The Brothers Karamazov is the idea that Smerdiakov is the fourth son of Fedor Pavlovich—or more precisely, an equal to the other brothers in his blood-sonship.”  I am suggesting that it’s not a taboo to see Smerdyakov as a brother, but a test: can other characters—and particularly Smerdyakov’s legitimate half-brothers—recognize him and love him as a brother despite all the negative things we learn about him?  He is the first step from the blood family to a wider, universal brotherhood. When Smerdyakov’s brothers fail to love and acknowledge him, they fail to enter this wider brotherhood. And the reader is implicated in this test as well; the narrator tries to make us believe that Smerdyakov is not worth of our attention or of anyone’s love.  So in a sense, this contributes to Dostoevsky’s point that all are guilty for all. We have all failed to see Smerdyakov as part of our human family, so even we the readers share the guilt for the act he commits.

And finally, just to be mischievous, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky? And why?

Well, I’m slightly embarrassed to say it in this particular blog, but the answer is unequivocally Tolstoy.  Dostoevsky I admire deeply, and I will never tire of studying him, but his psychology is much more foreign to me.  All these characters on the edge of a brain fever fascinate me, but Tolstoy’s characters feel more real and I think I appreciate the fact that they inhabit a world closer to my own.  So I would turn to Dostoevsky for philosophy and ideas, but Tolstoy remains closer to my heart.


Anna Berman is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at McGill University. Siblings in Tolstoy and Dostoevsky: The Path to Universal Brotherhood (Northwestern University Press, 2015) is her first book. She has published articles on Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Russian opera, the relationship of science and literature, and the family novel as a genre. She is a founding member of the North American Dostoevsky Society Reader’s Advisory Board.

Strangers on a Train

by Robin Feuer Miller

Two of the most disruptive works of nineteenth century literature, Dostoevsky’s The Idiot and Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata, begin with strangers meeting in a train compartment and entering into elemental conversation with each other. Confession ensues. Despite Dostoevsky’s and Tolstoy’s shared dislike of the railroads and mistrust of the simple, stop-gap “solutions” they represented to complex problems, the train compartment provided fertile literary possibilities as a random, neutral yet intimate space. Moreover, conversations could be overheard there, interpreted, remembered.  Dickens, Zola, Greene, Christie, Highsmith—numerous writers have found the space of the train to be mysterious, thrilling, darkly redolent with modern gothic potentials or with high comedy—witness the incident Ivolgin later that same day plagiarizes and ascribes to himself from The Independence Belge.

And now it is time to mark the 150th anniversary of Myshkin’s fatal encounter with Rogozhin on the train from Warsaw to St. Petersburg! These two do not, like Highsmith’s characters (rendered so powerfully in film by Hitchcock), plot to switch crimes, but the collaboration, the psychic mutuality which arises between them has equally terrible, although unintended consequences. Years later Tolstoy’s Pozdnyshev describes the act of stabbing his wife with a particularity that could gloss Rogozhin’s off-stage knifing of Nastasia Filippovna: “The moment I was doing this, I knew that I was doing something terrible. . . . having plunged the dagger into her body, I instantaneously drew it out again, anxious thereby to remedy what I had done, to stay my hand.  I then stood motionless for an instant, waiting to see what would happen, and whether it was possible to undo it.”  Pozdnyshev lives to tell his tale, and, like the ancient mariner, to tell it over and over again, including to our narrator, that stranger on the train.  Rogozhin may yet as well, yet he and Myshkin, at the time of Nastasia’s murder, are both deprived of language—one lapses into gibberish, the other into silence–intimate strangers or unwilling brothers by the side of a beloved murdered corpse, her death made even more shocking by the busy antics of a buzzing fly.  The conversation begun so easily on that early morning train had led, through good intentions run amok and chains of causality worthy of Tolstoy, to the ruin and shame of the main characters and the several families connected to them. A dark anniversary for commemoration despite the terrible beauty of Dostoevsky’s novel.

If these two, perhaps fifteen years later with Rogozhin returning from Siberia and Myshkin yet again from Switzerland, were by chance to meet in a train compartment, of what would their conversation consist?  Or would they remain silent?


Robin Feuer Miller is Edytha Macy Gross Professor of Humanities and Professor of Russian and Comparative Literature at Brandeis University. Her most recent books include Dostoevsky’s Unfinished Journey (2007) and The Brothers Karamazov: The Worlds of the Novel (2008).

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.

rasknolnikov

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: 

turgenev and karmazinov

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.

nastasya-and-myshkin.jpg

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.

posters

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. 

katerina ivanovna

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