Dostoevsky’s Stepanchikovo

by Steve Dodson

I would guess that among English-speaking readers, Selo Stepanchikovo i ego obitateli [translated as The Village of Stepanchikovo and Its Inhabitants] is the least-known of Dostoevsky’s novels — certainly far less known than his works of the 1860s, but also less so than his early novellas, Poor Folk and The Double and so on. (It seems to be well known among Russians, judging from the number of dramatizations available on YouTube.) In a way, this is understandable, since it’s unquestionably a slighter work than the ones to follow, but Dostoevsky was very pleased with it, considering it the best thing he’d done up till then (“I put into it my soul, my flesh and blood”), and I found it well worth reading. It is, though, a very odd novel, and I kept changing my mind about it as I read.

At first, it seems to be structured like a mystery. The narrator, Sergei, an orphan fresh out of college, is urgently invited by his kindly uncle Egor Rostanev to his country estate at Stepanchikovo, where he is told he is to marry a wonderful young woman. He puts off the visit for a while, but finally grits his teeth and goes; on the way, he meets an irascible fellow, Bakhcheev, who has just come from Stepanchikovo and tells him a former hanger-on and fool, Foma Fomich Opiskin, has taken despotic control of the entire family — he himself has quarreled with Opiskin and left in a huff, though he admits he’ll probably be back the next day.

So we are immediately faced with two enigmas: why has Rostanev summoned him to marry some woman he’s never met, and why is he putting up with this Opiskin fellow? When Sergei gets there he tries to investigate, but his uncle keeps telling him “I’ll explain it all later” and running off on one pretext or another. Eventually we learn that his mother and Opiskin are trying to force the poor but beautiful young governess Nastenka out of the house because they’re afraid Rostanev will marry her, so he’s decided if Sergei marries her instead she’ll be able to stay. None of this makes any sense, of course, but it’s told in a highly comic way, through young Sergei’s disillusioned eyes (he sees through Opiskin as soon as he meets him), and it’s a lot of fun to read.

The problem is that Opiskin is too strong a character for the book he finds himself in. He’s a magnificent creation, proud and tortured and humiliating everyone else to make up for the humiliations he’s suffered; to some extent he’s based on Gogol in his late crazed-moralizer phase, and he serves as an exorcism of both Gogol — who had been a strong influence on Dostoevsky, as on all Russian writers of the 1840s — and the high-minded intelligentsia of which Dostoevsky had been a part before he was sent to prison and Siberia. I suspect he is based on people Dostoevsky knew during that time, fellow prisoners who took out their sufferings on those weaker than themselves. He’s unforgettable, but the other characters seem pale next to him, and he’s so vicious it was hard for me to stay in the requisite comic mood. (This may be in part because I’m not Russian.) It’s fine for him to humiliate Rostanev and various fools and hangers-on, but when he is brutal to the faithful old servant Gavrila and the beautiful and somewhat simple-minded boy Falalei, this reader’s smile freezes. Opiskin gets a very satisfying comeuppance, but it doesn’t last long, and he winds up staying on as the evil deity of the household.

Frankly, I found it unbelievable that Rostanev, a former hussar, would put up with endless humiliations from this nasty fellow and continue to regard him as wise and benevolent; in fact, once the plot settled in I didn’t actually believe anything that happened — it has the air of a Moliere play in which you’re supposed to accept all the silliness and laugh at the folly of humanity. But this is Dostoevsky, not Moliere, and he’s thinking not of folly but of good and evil. Before long he’ll figure out how to create plots worthy of his characters and obsessions, but it’s very interesting to watch him working it out as he goes. If you have any interest in Dostoevsky, I recommend giving this book a try; just don’t expect Crime and Punishment.


This post is cross-posted from languagehat.com with kind permission from its author. The original post can be seen here: Dostoevsky’s Stepanchikovo.

Steve Dodson is a linguist manqué, an editor by profession, and a lover of all things Russian.  Having grown up in Japan, Thailand, and Argentina and put down roots in New York City, he now lives in Western Massachusetts with his wife, two cats, and 5,000 books.

Dostoevsky and Raskolnikov’s “New Word”

by Deborah A. Martinsen

As we all read and reread, blog, twitterize, and discuss Crime and Punishment in this 150th anniversary of its publication year, I have been struck yet again by the novel’s focus on ethics, its tight structure, and how the two work together. To illustrate this observation, I will cite three passages – from the novel’s beginning, middle, and end.

Passage one (Pt 1): On the novel’s first page, Raskolnikov wonders “what do people fear most? A new step, a new word of their own.” The narrator thus signals that Raskolnikov prizes originality, especially theory. The surrounding paragraph makes it clear that he is anxious about the gap between theory and action. (Attentive readers will note that in the course of the first page, the narrator moves from an outsider omniscient stance, to partial insider status using free indirect discourse – paraphrasing Raskolnikov’s thoughts, to full insider status using direct discourse to quote Raskolnikov’s thoughts verbatim in this passage.)

Ernst-Neizvestnyi

One of Ernst Neizvestnyi’s illustrations for Crime and Punishment

Passage two (Part 3, Ch 5): As Raskolnikov discusses his article on crime with Porfiry and Razumikhin, he claims that only extraordinary people have the gift or talent to utter “a new word.” Five pages later, Porfiry asks him: “when you were composing that little article of yours, well, it’s simply inconceivable – heh, heh! – that you didn’t also think of yourself as being at least a teeny bit ‘extraordinary’ as well, as also having a new word to utter, in your understanding of those terms…Wouldn’t you say, sir?” Porfiry thus voices our suspicion, putting another motive for murder on the table. In between these two fragments of the conversation, Razumikhin identifies Raskolnikov’s new word, his contribution to a current debate on natural law: “what is truly original about it all – and truly belongs to you alone, to my horror – is that, in the end, you permit bloodshed as a matter of conscience, and, if you’ll excuse me, you’re actually quite fanatical about it… This, then, must be the main idea of your article. But the permission to shed blood as a matter of conscience, well…it’s more terrifying, to my mind, than any official permission, any legal permission…” Raskolnikov notes that the idea is “only hinted at,” but now we know that a new word signifies a theory, so we have another theoretical justification for the crime.

Dostoevsky undercuts Raskolnikov’s preoccupation with originality (the “new word”) in a number of ways. First, Raskolnikov himself is a literary cliché: a young man from the provinces who comes to the big city and lives off his family. Second, in Part 1 (Ch 6), readers see that the “strange idea” in Raskolnikov’s head (killing the old pawnbroker and using her money for social good) is actually a commonplace discussed in taverns! Finally, as many of Dostoevsky’s readers would have known, much of Raskolnikov’s theory about extraordinary people comes right out of Louis Napoleon’s History of Julius Caesar, an 1865 literary sensation that was a veiled apology for himself and his uncle.

Passage 3 (Epilogue, Pt 2): As Raskolnikov mechanically takes the Gospels out from under his pillow, he realizes that he had asked Sonya to bring it to him, but he had not even opened it yet: “Nor did he open it now, but a thought flashed in him: ‘Can her convictions not be my convictions now? Her feelings, her aspirations, at least…’”

In his inimitable fashion, Dostoevsky has moved the conversation from abstract theory – “a new word” – to incarnated Gospel truth (“In the beginning was the Word,” John 1.1). Moreover, Dostoevsky debunks the utilitarian calculus with which he has been polemicizing throughout the novel. In the Dostoevskian universe, calculation is the worst sin. In Crime and Punishment, Luzhin is the greatest villain. Luzhin enthusiastically embraces utilitarianism (Pt 2, Ch 5): “If hitherto, for example, I have been told to ‘love my neighbor’ and I have done so, then what was the result? . . . The result was that I ripped my sheepskin in two, shared it with my neighbor and we both ended up half-naked . . . But science says: love yourself before loving anyone else, for everything in this world is founded on self-interest. Love yourself and your affairs will take care of themselves, and your coat will remain in one piece. . . . it is precisely by profiting myself and no one else that I thereby profit everyone, as it were, and enable my neighbor to receive something more than a ripped coat” (a nineteenth-century articulation of trickle-down economics and the prosperity gospel). A few pages later, Raskolnikov claims that Luzhin’s “theory in action” would justify murder: “Take what you were preaching just now to its conclusions, and one could stab people….” In short, Dostoevsky creates a powerful parallel between his sympathetic axe-murderer and the novel’s most despicable character. Just as Raskolnikov exposes the weaknesses of Luzhin’s theory by taking it to its logical conclusion, Dostoevsky exposes the weaknesses of Raskolnikov’s theory. He thus demonstrates that theories have consequences. It matters which “word” we follow.


Deborah A. Martinsen is Associate Dean of Alumni Education and Adjunct Associate Professor of Russian and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, where she teaches classes on Dostoevsky, narrative, and world literature. She is the author of Surprised by Shame: Dostoevsky’s Liars and Narrative Exposure (2003; in Russian 2011), and has most recently co-edited Dostoevsky in Context (2015) with Olga Maiorova. She was President of the International Dostoevsky Society (2007-13) and Executive Secretary of the North American Dostoevsky Society (1998-2013). She is also a managing editor of Dostoevsky Studies.

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