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.

Finding Raskolnikov on the Dialogic Blog Trail

by Robin Feuer Miller

A young man succumbs to the unfinished ideas in the air; viruses travel through the world in the same way as ideas; words are germs; infections spread in the stifling urban heat; the dirty water cannot cleanse body or soul but instead becomes a breeding ground for more viruses of all kinds. So far I am the oldest person to volunteer to contribute to this blog—a space already positively radiant with postings from some of the most creative Dostoevsky scholars in the world—I am, moreover, even at my advanced age, a Twitter virgin, a Snapchat ignoramus, and an Instagram idiot. But it is abundantly clear that Dostoevsky would hungrily pursue all these forms of communication; he would be a shameless multi-tasker, and he would surely relish reading the postings on “The Bloggers Karamazov.”

Sitting down to read them from top to bottom, thus taking the most recent and reading back to the first—in a weird kind of inverse dialogue—has made Crime and Punishment come disturbingly alive in new ways. The novel has wiggled out of its words on the page and literally entered the air, permeating anew the readers of these blogs; we are re-infected and discover that we have not built up any immunities to the contagion this work can engender. Frankly, @RodionTweets and the subsequent posts are more immediate and effective in conveying the essence of the novel than any visual representations of it, which, however exciting to watch, broadcast a more unified voice than the odd and compelling multi-voiced chorus that sounds out from these virtual collections.

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Velky dialog (1966) by Karel Nepraš

In the virtual space allotted to me here, let me follow the backwards dialogic trail of these Crime and Punishment posts so far, beginning (that is ending) with Robert L. Belknap (the recently deceased and beloved teacher of many of us) and ending (that is beginning) with Katia Bowers, to whom—along with Kate Holland, Brian Armstrong, Sarah Hudspith,Sarah J. Young, Jennifer L. Wilson, and Kristina McGuirk—we and Dostoevsky owe so much. You have collectively reinvigorated (or re-infected) us; the hot summer air of those weeks in St. Petersburg one hundred and fifty years ago are reincarnated in the sweltering summer of 2016 in locales all over the map.

Through the keen lens of Deborah Martinsen’s notes and recollections of Bob Belknap we learn that Bob considered Razumikhin to be “racy, snappy, generous, arrogant, fun” and not unlike Dostoevsky himself. (These adjectives evoke Bob pretty well too.) Both Dostoevsky and his character were given to translations: Dostoevsky’s first work was a rough translation of Balzac’s Eugenie Grandet, and Razumikhin proposes to Raskolnikov that they translate part of Rousseau’s Confessions—a work important to Balzac and with which Dostoevsky polemicized for most of his life, especially within the pages of our novel at hand. Bob, in his posthumous book, Plots, considers the meaning of translation in its broadest possible sense:

Plot summaries deserve serious theoretical attention. . . Like a translation, a plot summary tries to represent a text, a set of black marks on a page . . . Indeed, some argue that the summary of a book is the plot of the book, with all the burden of significance and power that implies; others argue that the only proper summary of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace is the book itself, that summary is impossible (p. 7).

The same argument is frequently made about translation.

Deborah identifies the essence of what made Bob such a great classroom teacher: “He did not tell us or show us what to think, he made us think by making us experience the texts he was teaching.” In this too, Bob reflects the writer to whom he devoted most of his scholarly life. Of all Dostoevsky’s works it is perhaps Crime and Punishment which most irresistibly, most inexorably draws its readers into its vortex. All our blogs so far attest to this fact in one way or another. How many of you, like me, have had a student say that reading the novel allowed him to feel what it was like (or, in one frightening case, to want) to commit murder? We teachers of Dostoevsky’s works frequently find ourselves engaged in startling, atypical classroom discussions when his words are “in play.”

Deborah tackles Dostoevsky’s frequent use of the phrase “new word”, highlighting Porfiry’s chilling insight that Raskolnikov’s “new word” –that which “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.” She highlights Porfiry’s insight, but I, and perhaps others of you, have consistently glided over it, even despite repeated readings of the novel. How does Dostoevsky achieve these repeated instances of having his readers fail to notice the most significant details? Or, rather, we each notice our own significant details. Like Raskolnikov, who expresses his fear of them from the outset, we are undone by “the trifles” looming unseen before us.

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My  tiny edition of Crime and Punishment (RFM)

When Kristina McGuirk describes how twitter provides Raskolnikov a medium for talking to himself, she takes us back full circle, as do a number of the other bloggers, to Dostoevsky’s original conception of narrating his novel in the first person. The tweets she and others forge are bone-chilling, reducing the novel to a distilled new essence Dostoevsky would have savored. I am reminded of a tiny edition (summary really—with black and white drawings; image to the right) that I possess of Crime and Punishment: an edition handed out to soldiers in World War II. It slips into the front pocket of any shirt and is barely noticeable. Katia Bowers describes how she envisioned creating an ending for the twitterized version of the novel to rival another “amazing” twitter account: @MayorEmanuel. Had Dostoevsky been writing his Diary of a Writer today, we can be sure his insights, like Katia’s, would be littered with websites, twitter hashtags, and other such forays into the virtual air. Katia, like Kristina, in trying to tweet Raskolnikov, comes up against narrative truths: “it’s difficult to build narrative force without access to the 3rd person narrator’s tools and tricks.” These tweets allow in the inner experience of [re]creating Dostoevsky’s character.

And something even more significant happens: Katia tells us, as Rodion’s tweets “go out, they mingle with other tweets in readers’ feeds, become lost, are retweeted out of chronology.” A living, vibrating air-born hybrid is created that changes by the moment and becomes eerily close to some kind of . . . dare one say it . . . collective consciousness. Jennifer Wilson’s blog seems to build on Katia’s, though of course, in this inverted dialogue, it actually precedes it chronologically. She describes how poverty fractures the self, and thus Dostoevsky’s “characters rarely use words to say what they mean, but rather to express how they would like to be understood.” Her analysis of “pauper’s pride” shows us how powerfully social contexts are woven inextricably into intimate individual perception. She “shows” us this in a concrete way, because she is describing the challenge of attempting to tweet the pain of the irritating yet tragic Katerina Ivanovna. We are thus boldly and actually confronted by the myriad obstacles that Dostoevsky himself “stepped over” in creating his novel.

Brian Armstrong’s ruminations about “higher twitter realism” seem to encapsulate the experiences others have described above, but of course his post too comes before theirs. Inspired by Carol Apollonio’s address at the International Dostoevsky Symposium earlier this summer, Brian asks, “How do we know that the conversation in Porfiry’s office happens just as the narrator reports?” Or, as Carol asked more broadly in her presentation, “What happened?” The twitter modality seems to highlight these broadly ontological considerations, coaxing them out of the dark corners we generally choose not to discuss with any text.

Kate Holland’s post offers both a trenchant analysis of the challenges of tweeting Part III of the novel as well as some significant theoretical insights into the genre of twitter (if we may call it a genre) more generally.   She describes the project as requiring three different modes of translation: direct transcription, transposition of narrative voice, and creative manipulation of the story by the actual “addition of thoughts which might be conceivable ascribed to Raskolnikov.” For her—for all of us—the hardest part “to get used to was adaptation, or ‘filling in’ gaps which the text intentionally leaves opaque.” What is this but a bold, new, stark way of experiencing the novel and testing out its ideas in a way far more personal than what we do in more traditional critical writing, which is itself, like summary, a form of translation?

Our blog has the title “The Bloggers Karamazov.” How would one tweet that novel? How would we deal with its time (a narrator-chronicler in the present, events, presented somewhat out of chronology, 13 years previously in August, November), its multiplicity of primary characters, its preoccupation with evidence?   Sarah J. Young describes how these virtual projects, whether digitally mapping St. Petersburg or tweeting Raskolnikov, “force us towards completeness and to following our reading to its logical limit.” She points out that traditional forms of interpretation allow us to be less consistent and, basically, more tentative in our conclusions. So the result of this process has been for her, and for other tweeters of Raskolnikov, “closer readings” than they have ever done before. The tweets en masse have forged a new, virtual Raskolnikov, a complex, self-contradictory composite formed by all who participated. Taken as a whole, they constitute Raskolnikov’s actual words and perceptions made “new.”

Sarah Hudspith candidly expressed her excitement that the tweeting project offered her the chance to (re)write part of a novel with which she had had a life-long love affair. Her insight takes reading and writing about what we read to a whole new level. One of my favorite courses that I offer is entitled, “Chekhov’s Stories on Stage.” Students have an opportunity to recast Chekhov’s stories into a dramatic form. But the creation of Raskolnikov’s tweets offers an even more dramatic, intimate challenge and suggests that we would do well, as teachers, to engage our students in similar activities. They would then, in Belknap-fashion, experience the novel more fully. And the responses to it modelled through such a project come close to the inner heart of why we read in the first place and what reading can teach us both as individuals and as members of society.


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).

Raskolnikov in the Fog: Time and the Crime and Punishment End Game

by Katherine Bowers

Katherine Bowers is an Assistant Professor of Slavic Studies at the University of British Columbia. She is working on a book about the influence of gothic fiction on Russian realism and is one of the #CP150 co-organizers. She tweets about books, writers, and other interesting things @kab3d.

“The novels of Dostoevsky are seething whirlpools, gyrating sandstorms, waterspouts which hiss and boil and suck us in. They are composed purely and wholly of the stuff of the soul. Against our wills we are drawn in, whirled round, blinded, suffocated, and at the same time filled with a giddy rapture,” wrote Virginia Woolf in “The Russian Point of View.” For me, this exactly describes how I feel reading Crime and Punishment Part 6. The tension between Raskolnikov’s two paths—Sonya’s way out (resurrection through repentance) and Svidrigailov’s (suicide)—builds to a fever pitch and I get consumed.

I had a vision that I’d create an ending for our Twitterized version of the novel to rival that of Dan Sinker’s amazing @MayorEmanuel, which began as a parody account tweeting coverage of the 2011 Chicago mayoral election, took on a life of its own, and ended up with a narrative arc that was decidedly epic in nature. The feed was even later sold as a standalone novel, and was just as riveting to read in book format as it had been in real time tweets over the course of that year. Following @MayorEmanuel in 2011 showed me what Twitter narratives are capable of doing, and I was eager to see whether I could reproduce Dostoevsky’s taut novel ending in the medium. I excitedly sat down to read and work on the tweets…

… and, well, I wasn’t exhilarated.

This came as something of a surprise to me. For those following the Twitter feed, Parts 3, 4, and 5 of the novel follow closely one after the other, all within the space of about 48 hours. Part 5 takes place entirely during a 2-hour window and ends with an incredibly tense moment when Svidrigailov reveals that he’s overheard Raskolnikov’s confession to Sonya. Dostoevsky leaves us with a cliffhanger… but Part 6 doesn’t pick up that loose end. Instead, the tension drops off, and Part 6 begins the next day… or the day after. As a tweeter, I was confounded by a couple of lines I had never paid that much attention to while reading the novel before:

For Raskolnikov a strange time had begun: it was as if a fog had suddenly descended, trapping him in hopeless, oppressive isolation. Recalling this time much later, he surmised that he’d experienced, now and then, a dimming of his consciousness, and that this had continued, with a few intervals, right up to the final catastrophe. (trans. Ready, p. 527)

Brian Armstrong talked about the reader not knowing what was real or not in his blog post. But, in the beginning of Part 6, one difficulty is that Raskolnikov doesn’t know what’s real. The first pages of Part 6 are confused and confusing as Raskolnikov navigates St Petersburg, trapped in a mental fog that doesn’t lift. My task was figuring out how to express this in Twitter. Would Raskolnikov go completely silent, as he had during July 10-14 when he was ill? I didn’t think so. After all, in the narrative, he’s out and about around town, going places, doing things, trying to meet up with Svidrigailov, actually meeting up with Sonya. Events happen during this foggy period and the novel goes on.

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I hadn’t noticed before that the beginning of Part 6 is told in retrospect, after Raskolnikov has figured out what’s real and what’s not. Some events—like one of the services over Katerina Ivanovna’s body in the Marmeladovs’ apartment, or waking up under a bush—are relatively lucidly described, but others—planned meetings with Marmeladov, visits to some Petersburg locations—blur into his mental fog. Still, if Raskolnikov was tweeting them all along, and unable to distinguish between waking and dreaming, between real and unreal, would the twitter record of this time have the same lucid quality all the time? Or only some of the time? Closely following Dostoevsky’s text meant that only the lucid events feel real, but adding images or Google Street View links lends more of a sense of the real to the tweets that are less concretely sketched out.

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The Part 6 opening period of fogginess seems at first to undermine the narrative arc that has been building up through Parts 3-5; it signals a change in style in the text, a turn to a less fevered, more retrospective voice. In terms of the @RodionTweets project, this shift naturally corresponds to a sudden diminishing of tweet frequency. Part 5, taking place over the course of a 2 or 3-hour period on July 16, includes an intense 80+ tweets, but July 17, the first day of Part 6, has only 8. One would guess that this drop off would result in a less well-defined sense of narrative, as in the text’s described fogginess. Intriguingly, though, through the prism of Twitter, there is no such shift. The small 140-character-or-less snippets of Dostoevskian psyche are published and appear to their audience out of context in most cases. Only through a site like Storify, which allows for curation and preservation of a Twitter story tied to a specified chronology, can the narrative be reconstituted. As @RodionTweets’s anxious, confused, or dreaming thoughts go out, they mingle with other tweets in readers’ feeds, become lost, are retweeted out of chronology (sometimes days later); the result for those following is more a sense of Dostoevskian atmosphere than a tightly narrated retelling of the novel that sucks one into a Woolfian whirlpool.

Partially, this lack of narrative force in Twitter is due to the fact that Part 6’s riveting timeline comes apart at the seams when broken into 140 character bites and set to a Twitter feed’s unyielding schedule. Reading the novel, time seems to contract and expand with the narrative’s excitement level. The four days of fogginess seem to take place instantaneously—we zip by them in just a few pages, and coming off of the rush of the Part 5 ending, they hardly register. They serve merely to slow us down slightly, to give us a moment to catch our breath. We are further slowed, then, by dialogue, and interactions with other characters—in Part 6 various characters’ stories resolve, but these endings take place outside of Raskolnikov’s consciousness. Finally, on July 21st, the fog lifts and the novel concludes. Raskolnikov confesses, but the lead up to the confession takes place over just an hour. Before that hour, Raskolnikov himself doesn’t know whether he will confess (!)

Tweeting Part 6 has taught me that it’s difficult to build narrative force without access to the 3rd person narrator’s tools and tricks for, for example, making the novel time contract and expand in ways that tantalize readers and spur them on to read more. Being tied to a text that’s already written ties our hands in some ways. But, nonetheless, in the final tweets there’s a sense of urgency and purpose that comes through. Where does this come from, then, if not the narrator? It’s through Raskolnikov finally making a decision, putting a plan in motion, and following through in a way we haven’t seen him do on Twitter before, and haven’t seen in the novel since Part 1. In the spirit of that, and closure, I, too, like Brian, indulged in #steppingover and broke one of the cardinal rules of @RodionTweets Club (laid out by Sarah Hudspith in her Part 1 blogpost: Raskolnikov wouldn’t live tweet dialogue, but only report it after): I tweeted the confession. This spoils the realism, but in terms of the narrative, it adds a sense of conclusion that, I think, Dostoevsky, always in tune with what works on a narrative level, would have endorsed.

Once Raskolnikov confesses, then what happens? Like the novel, @RodionTweets will also have an Epilogue. Unlike the novel, which wraps things up in some thirty pages, it’ll be drawn out… the tweets will keep going, scheduled in and spread out over the next 18 months… until Raskolnikov has faded away.


This is part 6 of a series of posts on the experience of creating @RodionTweets. You can follow the Twitter account here. The introduction to the series is here. Click here to read Part 5 or here to go on to the final post in the series. More information about the #CP150 project can be found here.

The illustrations above are from Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s “Imaginary Prisons” series of etchings (1745-1750) and are in the public domain. 

This post has been cross-posted on All the Russias blog.