I recently finished the first volume of Joseph Frank’s biography on Fyodor Dostoevsky and felt compelled to write about it. What is it that makes this particular biography so special you might ask? Well, like all great biographers, Joseph Frank uses his subject as a vehicle to survey the historical landscape and this is where the work truly shines. As interesting as the details of Dostoevsky’s personal life may be, Frank places that somewhat in the background—only really discussing it to juxtapose Dostoevsky’s unique experiences relative to his peers or as it pertains to the way in which it manifests in his writing—opting instead to place his focus on the current of social-political ideas jostling the radical Russian intelligentsia first to one extreme, then to the other. This focus is critical to our understanding of how it was that Fyodor Dostoevsky seemingly went from ardent socialist revolutionary to arguably history’s most eloquent defender of religious faith following his release from exile in Siberia. What Frank finds is that there was in fact never any contradiction; Dostoevsky was always a devout Christian, his faith and the faith of like-minded Europeans simply manifested itself into the revolutionary socialist politics of the time. Only when the Russian Left began to abandon Christianity following its collective digestion of the works of the Young Hegelians did Dostoevsky begin to question his allegiance to it.
Portrait of Fyodor Dostoevsky in 1872
Dostoevsky was born in Moscow—city of cathedrals, heart of the Russian Orthodox faith—in 1821, just a few short years, as Frank notes, before the Decembrist uprising that began the bloody century-long struggle between Tsarism and Russia’s radical intelligentsia that would entwine this most gifted author and play so prominent a role in his writing. He was raised by an overbearing mother and despotic father. The father, Dr. Dostoevsky, was prone to complaining that the hard work he put into providing for his family was unappreciated and would frequently fly into a rage over the most trivial of matters. Frank observes that such a setting undoubtably seared an ever present guilt-feeling into Dostoevsky’s psyche. Relations between Dr. Dostoevsky and his in-laws were strained, and even young Fyodor’s patience and capacity for forgiveness were constantly tested. However, young Fyodor—already so perceptive—knew that his father’s anger and anxiety stemmed from a deep love for his family and a concern for their welfare. Dr. Dostoevsky, unlike contemporaries, never hit his children and even took great pains to ensure that their education was free of corporal punishment. Importantly, Dr. Dostoevsky—always invested in his children’s education—ensured that they received one that placed an emphasis on Christianity and Russian language and culture. Whereas Dostoevsky’s contemporaries received a secular education based on enlightenment principles and ideals and learnt French and English long before they learned their own native language, Dostoevsky was raised in a manner that placed significant emphasis on Orthodox Christianity and began learning Russian at a much younger age. “‘Our parents were very religious, especially our mother,’ writes [Dostoevsky’s younger brother] Andrey. ‘Every Sunday and every religious holiday we unfailingly went to church for mass and, the evening before, to vespers.’” Foreshadowing his own later views, Dostoevsky was taught that Russian culture was not a source of shame, that it had value, that Russia’s perceived cultural “backwardness” by the West was belittling and wrong. Karamzin’s epic, twelve volume History of the Russian State in particular played a prominent role in shaping young Dostoevsky’s mind: “Andrey tells us that Karamzin was his brother Feodor’s bedside book, a work he read and reread continuously.”
Though both Dostoevsky and his older brother, Mikhail, began to harbor ambitions of having a literary career (by now Dostoevsky and his brother were devouring literature at a voracious rate, in particular the German Romantics Friedrich Schiller and E. T. A. Hoffmann as well as French authors Victor Hugo and George Sand—the kernel of Dostoevsky’s budding socialist conscience—and, of course, that fountainhead of all Russian literature Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin), Dr. Dostoevsky insisted that his sons pursue practical studies and so enrolled them in the Academy of Engineers in St. Petersburg. It was during their trip to Petersburg that Dostoevsky encountered what would ultimately lead to his imprisonment and exile. It was the image of a courier beating relentlessly a young serf driving his carriage: “This little scene appeared to me, so to speak, as an emblem, as something very graphically demonstrating the link between cause and effect. Here every blow dealt to the animal leaped out of each blow dealt at the man. At the end of the 1840s, in the epoch of my most unrestrained and fervent dreams, it suddenly occurred to me that, if ever I were to found a philanthropic society, I would without fail engrave this courier’s troika on the seal of the society as its emblem and sign.” This appalling image put in real terms all that he had been consuming in literature and it explains the otherwise quite impulsive decision to throw his lot in with a proto-Leninist secret society later on. At the Academy Dostoevsky kept mostly to himself (though there was a notable friendship with one other student), classmates called him the monk Photius because of his studiousness and religious devotion. Alone for the first time, Dostoevsky quickly picked up spendthrift habits: he spent lavishly on clothing and other items, discovered a fondness for gambling that would later prove debilitating, and engaged in other activities that Frank euphemistically refers to as “other pleasures readily available to young men in the capital.” While studying at the Academy, Dostoevsky received grim news from his family’s country estate; his father had been murdered by the estate’s peasants. Frank argues that the author’s guilty conscience processed the death as being his fault: his profligacy had strained the family finances and his anxious father must have lashed out at the serfs because of it. This, Dostoevsky believed for the rest of his life. Had he only known the true story—a covetous neighbor made the whole thing up! After all, what better way to lower the property value than to claim it’s inhabited by murderous serfs? The neighbor could then scoop up the plot of land for a pittance.
Schoolwork left little time for Dostoevsky to focus on writing. What little Frank shares of Dostoevsky’s earliest prose is, well, let’s just say it certainly provides comfort for many an aspiring writer. Much later, Andrei would recall he “confessed to [his brother] that I knew of the existence of his Boris Godunov and had read the play. To my question: ‘Has the manuscript survived, brother?’ he only replied, waving his hand: ‘Well, that’s enough! That… that was childish stupidity!” The sophomoric early writing of Dostoevsky was in emulation of the Romantics that he had heretofore been consuming. But it was around the time that Dostoevsky was graduating that the author Nikolai Gogol came on to the scene and set the Russian literary world on fire. Gogol’s thinly veiled comments on Russian social issues and his exploration of the absurd, surreal, and psychotic heralded the beginning of what became known as the Natural School. There was no more ardent a supporter of this new artistic movement than Vissarion Belinsky, chief critic of the bellwether literary journal Notes of the Fatherland. Belinsky lavished praise on Gogol’s masterwork Dead Souls and implored his readers to read between its lines—to interpret it politically—and to build on it. It wasn’t long before Dostoevsky submitted his own politically charged manuscript to Belinsky, titled Poor Folk. “You see this manuscript?… I haven’t been able to tear myself away from it for almost two days now. It’s a novel by a beginner, a new talent… it’s the first attempt at a social novel… what drama, what types!… the artist’s name is Dostoevsky.” The passionate critic quickly took Dostoevsky under his wing and introduced him to his glittering circle of brilliant and influential friends. Belinsky was convinced that he had discovered Russia’s greatest author.
Critic and Father of the Russian Left Vissarion Belinsky
Frank’s prose brings the pomp and self-aggrandizing atmosphere of the Belinsky pleiade to life with many of its members (and Dostoevsky here is no exception) intoxicated by their own celebrity. Turgenev comes off as particularly mean-spirited; despite Dostoevsky’s attempts at courting a friendship, Turgenev constantly mocks him and eventually drives him away from the pleiade (“From that evening, Dostoevsky no longer visited us, and even avoided meeting any member of the circle in the street… Dostoevsky abused us vehemently… , that he had become disenchanted with all of us, that all were envious, heartless, and worthless people.” recalled one of the pleiade). It was under these awful social circumstances that Dostoevsky began experiencing what he called kondrashkas, fainting fits that would later manifest themselves into full blown epileptic attacks during his exile.
To make matters worse for Dostoevsky, despite Belinsky’s (over)enthusiasm for Poor Folk, the novel wasn’t quite the literary earthquake that the overzealous critic claimed it would be. Dostoevsky never received the substantial weight of the critic’s imprimatur that he had hoped would vanquish the otherwise tepid reviews of his work, with Belinsky instead acknowledging the book’s flaws while stating the author showed potential. And, as Dostoevsky’s relations with the pleiade continued to be strained (by now Nekrasov and Turgenev were circulating a pamphlet satirizing Dostoevsky’s inflated ego and neurotic behavior) and as his relationship with Belinsky himself worsened (literary differences and the critic’s [and with him the Russian Left’s] going through an obnoxiously militant atheism phase), there was even more harsh criticism from his subsequent work, which were either experiments into more psychological material (which he had yet to merge so masterfully with the social-political as in his post-Siberian works) or otherwise quickly scribbled screed to pay off his ever present indebtedness. “ … Dostoevsky has written a story, The Landlady—what terrible rubbish! … He’s written something after that too, but each work of his is a new decline. … I really puffed him up, my friend, in considering Dostoevsky—a genius! … I, the leading critic, behaved like an ass to the nth degree.” writes the author’s once most vocal and influential patron.
Dostoevsky in 1847
With worsening literary prospects and an increasingly toxic social life, Dostoevsky looked for new intellectual circles to gravitate towards. One such circle became increasingly radicalized following the events of 1848, when all of Europe was engulfed in the fires of revolution. The Petrashevsky circle, as it became known, began as a lively, albeit politically moribund, socialist debate club in which the guests discussed the latest in socialist literature and argued on behalf of their favored “system” (Saint-Simonism, Fourierism, Cabetism, etc. etc. Dostoevsky, though sympathetic to the socialist cause, found discussions of which utopian system one would like to live in the most ridiculous). But, as news continued to pour in of autocracy’s collapse in Europe, many among the membership increasingly felt that it was Russia’s turn to break the chains of its oppressive regime. One such member was Nikolai Speshnev, a precursor to Bolshevism and the raw material for the psychotic Stavrogin in Dostoevsky’s work Demons. Speshnev was obsessed with the cloak-and-dagger methods of the Jacobins and other secret societies. Worming his way into the Petrashevsky circle, he attempted to incite them into revolutionary action but the cautious and reformist-minded Mikhail Petrashevsky managed to block him at every turn: “[A Speshnevite] suggested that all members of the proposed organization begin by writing their biography (perhaps for purposes of pressure and blackmail?), and that traitors were to be executed. But Petrashevsky engaged in delaying tactics, constantly warned about the necessity for being prudent and practical, and said that… he did not approve of violent revolution…” Speshnev believed that a coordinated peasant uprising could topple the Tsarist regime and that agitating for the abolition of serfdom could bring this about. Dostoevsky was thus a perfect candidate for Speshnev’s secret society, for there was no issue the author felt more passionately about, that would drive him to almost hysteric polemic, than the gross injustice of serfdom. Almost on a whim, Dostoevsky threw in his lot with the Speshnevites and just as soon as he joined the ever paranoid and guilt-wracked author began to regret it. What’s more, the profligate writer may even have owed money to Speshnev, complicating further his desire to extricate himself from the radical group. But by now, the authorities were beginning to suspect the Petrashevsky circle of insurrectionary activity and began rounding up its members. Speshnev’s secret society, astonishingly, never became known to investigators, though they did uncover plans to build a printing press for purposes of distributing anti-serfdom propaganda.
This is where Frank’s first volume ends, with Dostoevsky awakening to find policemen in his apartment and being shoved into a carriage; the has-been author, now political prisoner, awaiting his fate. Now, what does any of this have to do with Teachers College? Well, I don’t think it would be too great a stretch to say that the work covers a great deal that students of the college would find interesting and highly relevant. Pedagogy, philosophy, cultural studies, and, of course, psychology (indeed, an entire appendix is devoted to a summation and critique of Freud’s psychoanalysis of Dostoevsky) abound in Frank’s work. I’d like to end by saying that I am extremely thankful to my boss Jennifer for giving me the opportunity to write this little piece and if you’re interested in reading the book yourself I promise I’ll return my copy to Butler Library as soon as life goes back to normal!
Joseph Edwards is a Service Associate at Gottesman Libraries. He briefly pursued a major in Russian studies before switching to history because it was too hard.
All images courtesy of Wikimedia.