Travel Tips with Fyodor Mikhailovich (a summer blog post about a winter exhibition)

by Vadim Shkolnikov

If you’re traveling this summer, and you’re stuck in an airport waiting for your delayed flight, annoyed because there aren’t enough places to charge your phone or because they won’t give you the entire can of soda… Imagine our sensitive, somewhat neurotic friend Fyodor Mikhailovich having to deal with the nineteenth-century Russian railway system!  As he wrote in Diary of a Writer in 1877: “So many stops, changing trains, at one station you have to wait three hours.  And all this on top of all the unpleasantness of the Russian railroads, the inconsiderate and almost condescending attitude of the conductors and ‘the authorities.’”

PuteshestvieA recent exhibit at the Russian Railways Museum in St. Petersburg, however, reminds us of the importance of train travel in Dostoevsky’s life—how it invariably influenced his view of the world and figured in his writings.  Fyodor Mikhailovich considered his time to be “the era of railroads.”  “Railroads,” as one of his characters proclaims, “have consumed all our capital and have covered Russia like a spider web.”  The fateful meeting between Prince Myshkin and Rogozhin in The Idiot, of course, took place on the train, and we cannot forget the hapless governor von Lembke from Demons, who obsessively constructed an entire railway station with a train out of paper: “People left the station with suitcases and bags, children and dogs, and got into the cars.  Conductors and porters walked about, the bell rang, the signal was given, and the train started on its way.”

train car

Train car housing the “Voyage with Dostoevsky” exhibit

The “Voyage with Dostoevsky” exhibit focused particularly on his travels abroad.  Fyodor Mikhailovich went abroad eight times, and in total spent five and a half years there.

His first two trips, in 1862 and 1863, were more traditionally touristy.  FM wanted to see Europe—“the land of holy wonders” (“страну святых чудес”)—for himself: to visit the cities he had known through literary works, to view the masterpieces of world culture, to try to understand how revolution had transformed the Western social order.

FM put a lot of effort into planning the itinerary for his first trip abroad, relying on Reinhardt’s popular travel guide.  In two and a half months he toured about 25 cities!

During his third trip in 1865, he conceived the idea for Crime and Punishment.  At this time he was gambling a lot, hoping that his winnings in roulette could help pay off the debts he took on after the death of his older brother. Not the best plan!

Things were even worse during his next trip abroad in 1867, which he had to make in order to escape his creditors. Without the financial means to return to Russia, Fyodor Mikhailovich ended up living in Europe for more than four years.  This is why the novels of this period, The Idiot and Demons, refer a lot to life abroad.

In the 1870s Dostoevsky made his final trips abroad, to the mineral springs of Bad Ems, for reasons of his health, as advised by his Petersburg doctors.

So now the moment we’ve been waiting for!  What travel tips does Fyodor Mikhailovich have for us?

But, first, a word from our sponsor (not really).  “Travel Tips with Fyodor Mikhailovich” is brought to you by Brothers Karamazov “Ivan” IPA!!


Brothers Karamazov “Ivan” IPA

Everything is permitted.


So where should we go, Fyodor Mikhailovich?

Apparently, not Geneva: “The weather is nasty, the city is boring… this is the most boring city in the world.”

dresden madonnaGermany in general did not make a great impression.

Berlin?  “Berlin resembles Petersburg so much its incredible.  The same cordoned streets, the same smells.  Was it worth tormenting myself for 48 hours in a train car to see the same thing?”

Köln?  “Not much grandeur.”

Dresden?  We know how Fyodor Mikhailovich loved the Dresden Madonna!  But the city itself… not so much: “I just went through Dresden, and I can’t remember what Dresden was like.”

But the casinos in Baden Baden definitely interested him: “There is something extraordinary in that feeling when you’re alone, in a foreign country, far from your home and your friends, you don’t know what you’ll be eating today, but you’ve just bet your last gulden, your very last one!”

1280px-Kristallpalast_Sydenham_1851_aussenShould we go to Paris?  London?  Here Fyodor Mikhailovich is a bit more cryptic in his assessment.

“Oh, Paris is a very boring city, and if it didn’t have so many truly remarkable things, then, really, you could die of boredom!”

On London: “Everything is so grandiose and extreme in its distinctiveness.”

(Of course, Fyodor Mikhailovich has a lot more to say in Winter Notes on Summer Impressions.)

It looks like Fyodor Mikhailovich liked Italy most of all!

venice“Rome astounded me.”

“In Florence it rains too much, but when it’s sunny—it’s almost like heaven.  You can’t imagine anything better than the experience of this sky, this air, this light.”

“Venice is such a delight!”

Well, I’d like to thank you, Fyodor Mikhailovich!  It really has been a long, strange trip!

lenin train

Not the train Fyodor Mikhailovich took!

soviet train

Definitely not the train Fyodor Mikhailovich took!

But they have some pretty interesting stuff at the Russian Railways Museum


Vadim Shkolnikov is a dotsent in the Department of Comparative Literature and Linguistics at the Higher School of Economics in St Petersburg and a member of the North American Dostoevsky Society Readers Advisory Board.  He is currently writing on Dostoevsky and “the birth of the conscientious terrorist.”  He has lived in Zverkov’s house on Stolyarnyi pereulok (mentioned in Gogol’s “Diary of a Madman”)–a block away from Raskolnikov’s house!

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.

Dostoevsky in Europe

by Himadri Chatterjee

Among the many things in life I find myself utterly at a loss to account for is the tremendous attraction I feel for the writings of Dostoyevsky. When his many faults are listed to me, I can do little but nod away in agreement. Yes, his novels are hysterical, irrational – indeed, he seemed to laud irrationality; they are loosely structured baggy monsters. He was also a fervent Slavophile, while I despise nationalism. He was politically conservative, and hated liberalism and liberals with a vengeance, whereas I tend to describe my politics as “liberal”. (Indeed, I was amused to find recently that I had described my politics on my Facebook profile as “Turgenevian liberal”. I don’t remember writing this, and suspect I was drunk at the time and not entirely serious; but I did laugh at what was presumably my own joke, and decided not to change it.) Dostoyevsky hated those Russians such as Turgenev who had adopted the values of Western liberalism, and I can’t help but see my own adherence to these same Western liberal values, despite my Indian background, as a sort of parallel (even though I have, I suppose, the excuse of having lived most of my life in the West). I suspect that if Dostoyevsky had known me personally, he would have despised me, and my values. And, by rights, I should also be repelled by Dostoyevsky, who stood for so much that I do not, and who loathed so much that I do. And yet, I find myself irresistibly drawn to Dostoyevsky. Which, I suppose, demonstrates Dostoyevsky’s dictum that we are far from being the rational creatures we like to imagine ourselves.

Dostoyevsky had not always been a right-wing Slavophile, of course. In his youth, he had been very left-wing indeed. He had been member of a revolutionary group, had narrowly avoided the death sentence (he had, famously, been led out to be executed before it was announced that his sentence had been commuted), and had served many years in a labour camp. His early works had been of a somewhat sentimental nature, focussing on “poor folk”, on the “insulted and the injured”, and lamenting the social injustice that cause so much suffering. But then, in the early 1860s, a very profound change took place in his outlook. As translator Kyrill Fitzlyon (Zinovieff) says in his preface to Winter Notes on Summer Impressions:

His earlier novels aim at the entertainment of the reader; undeterred by considerations of verisimilitude or psychological probability, they glide over the surface of life without stopping to take soundings of what goes on underneath; they shun deep analysis and they lack the later Dostoyevskian eagerness to reconcile the actions of men with their consciences, conceived in terms of spiritual anguish.

It was in the summer of 1862, at what we may see as the turning point between Dostoyevsky’s earlier viewpoints and his later, that Dostoyevsky visited Europe for a few weeks. That winter, he wrote of his travels in Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, and here we may see quite clearly his mature thoughts and ideas taking shape.

The West was what liberals, such as the hated Turgenev, pointed towards: it was in the liberal values of the West that Russia must seek salvation; by looking West, and adopting its values, Russia, so far from the major centres of civilisation, could, at long last, civilise itself. But Dostoyevsky was not having any of this. This is not necessarily because of his Slavophilism: what he saw in the few weeks he spent in Paris, and the week he spent in London, did not suggest to him a Heaven to be aimed for. That Russia was no Heaven he already knew: but salvation did not lie in emulating the West.

Before he goes into all this, he writes a preface, to which he gives the title “Instead of a Preface”. This sense of playfulness is apparent throughout the book. Dostoyevsky tells us right away that he is not a reliable narrator. He has spent only a few weeks in London and in Paris, he tells us, and his views are not only based on limited exposure, but are also, no doubt, biased and jaundiced in all sorts of ways. As he goes on to expand on this, he seems to create an authorial persona that may or may not be himself. At times, he seems almost to present himself as of those Gogolian grotesques who can’t stop digressing into all sorts of irrelevancies. The narrator he presents is, in short, a comic character, the first of the many weird and unreliable voices who come and go in the narration of his later novels. Giving the authorial voice such a persona allows Dostoyevsky to pursue his ideas into unexpected areas, and explore thoughts and concepts that may appear eccentric or whimsical, but without necessarily giving these ideas the seal of authorial approval.

He spends some time in London, and presents it in almost apocalyptic terms. He is shocked by the level of extreme poverty and vice. This may be surprising: as is apparent from his own novels, extreme poverty and vice aren’t exactly unknown in Russia. But perhaps he had expected better from London. What shocked him, I think, was the open acceptance of these things. He gives a description of a pathetic half-starved young girl, a child, openly trading herself in Haymarket, right in the centre of fashionable London. The English are often chided for their hypocrisy, but it seems to be the lack of hypocrisy, the openness of such moral depths, that seemed particularly to strike Dostoyevsky.

He has more to say about France, and, rather interestingly, he seems shocked by the very aspects of Russia that had shocked Europeans of that age – the lack of freedom, adulation of the Emperor, police informers, and the like. And he considers especially the middle classes, the bourgeoisie. The inspiring slogans of the French Revolution – liberty, equality, fraternity – are, he feels, an immense sham: all that has happened is that the middle classes have now taken on the power to exploit the lower classes. All ideals, all morals that people pretend to live by, are sham:

Paris has an unquenchable thirst for virtue. Nowadays the Frenchman is a serious and reliable man, often tender-hearted, so that I cannot understand why he is so afraid of something even now, and is afraid of it in spite of all the gloire militaire which flourishes in France and which Jacques Bonhomie pays so much for. The Parisian dearly loves to trade, but even as he trades and fleeces you in his shop, he fleeces you not for the sake of profit, as in the old days, but in the name of virtue, out of some sacred necessity. To amass a fortune and possess as many things as possible – this has become the Parisian’s main moral code, to be equated with religious observance.

Dostoyevsky keeps probing: what, exactly, are the bourgeoisie afraid of?

Whom should he fear then? The workers? But the workers are all of them capitalists too, in their heart of hearts: their one ideal is to become capitalists and amass as many things as possible.

This is not the solution, Dostoyevsky felt, for Russia. Rational precepts, and noble sentiments – liberté, égalité, fraternité – end up meaning nothing, and not merely because humans are not rational creatures: as he goes on to examine in Notes From Underground (which was written shortly after this book), humans are, if anything, anti-rational creatures, who, far from accepting ideas because they are shown to be rational, would choose, rather, deliberately to reject them in order to proclaim their freedom from the tyranny of reason. All he can see in the great cities of Europe are “anthills”: any attempt from above to bind humans into a unity is bound to fail disastrously, because they misunderstand the essentially paradoxical nature of humanity.

I can understand Dostoyevsky’s argument – at least, up to a point. Our lives have, if anything, become worse in certain respects: they have become “atomised” – to use the word popularised by the title of Michel Houellebecq’s novel – as never before. Not only do we not have fraternité between the classes, solidarity even within the social classes is becoming more problematic. But I don’t really understand what Dostoyevsky’s own solution is. Are we to expect a mystical fraternité to spring up spontaneously?

Of course, Dostoyevsky was not so foolish as to think that. His novels are not didactic novels: they are multi-voiced works, in which many of the voices rebel against their author and speak out against him, unanswered; and where, furthermore, many of the voices articulating some of Dostoyevsky’s own most deeply held beliefs are presented in a ridiculous light. Those great novels are seething cauldrons of ideas and counter-ideas, endlessly contesting and intermingling with each other, never resolving; but never are these ideas presented as something abstract: they are, as Kyrill Fitzlyon (Zinovieff) says in his preface, “conceived in terms of spiritual anguish”.

I still do not know why I am so drawn to the writings of Dostoyevsky, when, all things considered, I shouldn’t be. But there is something about these very strange books of his that has about it the air of prophecy.


This post was originally published on April 17, 2017 on the blog The Argumentative Old Git, and has been cross-posted here by invitation. The original post can be found here: Dostoyevsky in Europe.

All quotes above are taken from the following translation: Winter Notes on Summer Impressions by Fyodor Dostoevsky, translated by Kyrill (Fitzlyon) Zinovieff (Alma Classics, 2016).

The cover image is an 1862 illustration by Just L’Hernault, which in the public domain and has been available from the digital image collection of the John Hay Library, Brown University: Les Boulevards de Paris le Jour de l’An.


Himadri Chatterjee is an operational research analyst, lives near London, and has long had a passion for Russian literature, especially for Dostoevsky. He blogs mainly about books on his site The Argumentative Old Git and can be found on Twitter @hairygit.