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From radical to reactionary

16 December 2016

Judith Gunn explores the paradoxes of Dostoevsky’s faith and politics


Complex character: Dostoevsky, who combined love and judgement for the poor, and deep spirituality and xenophobia

Complex character: Dostoevsky, who combined love and judgement for the poor, and deep spirituality and xenophobia

“DOSTOEVSKY”, John Gray said on Radio 4’s A Point of View (2 October 2016), “was by all accounts a pretty nasty human being.”

“Not by my account,” I shouted at the radio. Why? Because in all the years I have been reading Dostoevsky — his novels, diaries, correspondence, and the many accounts of him — I cannot reconcile the man whose life and thoughts I have come to know with the idea that he was a “pretty nasty human being”.

I have no doubt that Dostoevsky was, in modern parlance, “high-maintenance”. He was ambitious, self-absorbed, and apparently humourless. Money slipped through his fingers: he gambled it, spent it, borrowed it, and even gave it away. He could not resist a hard-luck story, and the injustices of poverty preoccupied him and his work throughout his life. It was this proximity to poverty which enabled him to write such visceral descriptions of urban life, human malaise, murder, and mistrust.


HE GREW up in the grounds of the Mariinsky Hospital for the Poor, in Moscow, where his father worked as a doctor, treating patients who were dying of diseases such as tuberculosis. The young Dostoevsky came to understand all too well that money has a huge effect on every aspect of life — not just the body, in terms of health and survival, but the mind and spirit, too.

In time, Dostoevsky was to shift his political position from radical socialism to reactionary conservatism; but his understanding of poverty, and how it limited his fellow man’s opportunities, never left him.

His first novel, Poor Folk, was an immediate success; it told the story of the lives and love of Devushkin and Barbara. St Petersburg was going through a housing crisis at the time, and many of its citizens were packed into apartments partitioned only by curtains. The characters in Poor Folk are educated — Devushkin has work — but the relationship is sabotaged by their impoverishment.

Poor Folk’s realistic depiction of the grinding poverty experienced by many Russians was hailed as the definitive representation of the urban poor. Vissarion Belinsky, a prominent literary critic, atheist, and a firebrand of socialism, nicknamed the “Furious Vissarion”, was so impressed with Poor Folk that he introduced Dostoevsky to influential literary circles. Dostoevsky said of Belinsky: “He loves me unboundedly.” Indeed, Belinsky was convinced that socialism had found its cultural representative.

Belinsky’s blessing catapulted Dostoevsky to fame — for a fortnight. Then he published The Double, in which he depicted a man’s struggle with an evil Doppelgänger, using this motif to challenge the dominant socialist ideology of the time: that human nature was essentially good. The Double depicts the victory of the evil self over the good self, using magical realism; this was also incompatible with the literary fashion for social realism, and Dostoevsky promptly fell from grace.


DOSTOEVSKY, at his worst, was obsessed with his social standing. He was mortified by his loss of status after The Double, and he worked hard to reinstate himself in the fashionable circles of St Petersburg. Perhaps that was why he took risks in the pursuit of the socialist agenda. It was 1848, the time of the “People’s Spring” in Europe, and the Tsar feared revolution in his country and was unnerved by the socialist cells active in his cities. Undeterred, Dostoevsky joined an esoteric political group known as the Petrashevsky Circle, and was then drawn into a secret inner cell whose purpose was sedition.

By 1849, Dostoevsky was an integral part of the radical scene in St Petersburg, and was soon arrested. But not once during his interrogation did he implicate anyone else. He deftly defended himself, and then demonstrated considerable fortitude in the Peter and Paul Fortress, where he spent nine months before being transported to Siberia, in chains, in an open sledge through the streets of St Petersburg, on Christmas Eve.

And yet, despite his compassion for the poor, articulated in so much of his writing, Dostoevsky seemed appalled by his fellow prisoners: “The majority of the prisoners were depraved and perverted,” he wrote in The House of the Dead (1862), “so that calumnies and scandal rained amongst them like hail.”


IN FACT, even before his time in prison — despite being the darling of social realism, lauded by the radical circles of St Petersburg — he could not quite reconcile himself with the optimism that accompanied this socialist ideology: the idea that humankind is inherently good, and, should humanity be supplied with an equitable social environment, justice and mercy would prevail. Dostoevsky saw nothing in prison to dissuade him of his doubts about this ideology.

It is in The Devils (sometimes known as The Possessed), written in 1871, however, that evidence of Dostoevsky’s move towards a more conservative political stance began to emerge. He begins to criticise directly the flaws of political action informed by dogma. The novel uses as its metaphor the story of the Gadarene Swine, when Jesus casts demons into the pigs, which then run off a cliff. It is also based on a true crime: the murder of Ivan Ivanov in 1869, at the hands of a terrorist cell. Ivanov’s body was found in a block of ice in a Moscow lake; Albert Camus called it “the first crime of its kind”.

The Devils is the tale of disenfranchised youth galvanised by nihilist ideas to usher in change, but without really knowing where this new thinking will lead. The power of the individual characters and their descent into mayhem, often by mistake or misapprehension, is chillingly prescient. In The Devils, the innocent are casually destroyed by carelessness and cruelty, and terrible crimes are committed in the context of a godless philosophy. Dostoevsky offers no solution, only a mirror that reflects a humanity lost without the saving grace and discipline of God.

The Devils exposed the disastrous consequences of some political action, but other novels offer a more straightforward message: that human beings are irredeemable through their own actions, that salvation is in Christ alone. So, in Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov must repent and acknowledge salvation, and Prince Myshkin in The Idiot is unable to redeem those around him, despite his innocence.

For the latter part of his life, the author continued to explore more explicitly the nature of faith and doubt in his work.


THIS increasing religiosity, however, was accompanied by some unpleasant reactionary thinking. By his last decade, Dostoevsky had eschewed his youthful flirtation with socialism, and was espousing xenophobic views. He wrote to his niece that living in Europe was “worse than being in Siberia”, and to a friend that Western Europeans had “lost their Christ”, and that Roman Catholicism was to blame. Indeed, he propounded the superiority of Russian Orthodoxy: the time of the Slav had come, he said, Russia and the Slavic countries were the natural enemy of Europe and its version of Christianity. Only Russian Orthodoxy was pure.

He welcomed Russia’s attempt to push back the Ottoman Empire in 1877, and, when Constantinople looked set to fall, he proclaimed in his journal: “This would be a genuine exaltation of Christ’s truth preserved in the East — a new exaltation of Christ’s cross, and the final word of Orthodoxy, which is headed by Russia.”

His xenophobia was also compounded by anti-Semitism, fuelled by his unquestioning acceptance of anti-Jewish conspiracy theories. He was vitriolic in his essays: “Ask the native population what has been propelling the Jew . . . mercilessness.” One letter in response to Dostoevsky’s writings asks why he targeted the “Yiddisher” and not the “exploiter in general” — a pertinent point, given Dostoevsky’s previous condemnation of the causes of poverty.


IT IS a contradiction, then, that a man so capable of exploring psychological malaise in his fiction was so blighted by unsophisticated prejudice in his later life. But it is too simplistic to define him as a “pretty nasty human being”. He was flawed, indeed, and yet, despite the reactionary views of his final years, his writing never indulged in stereotypes. His characters always wrestled with the concept of human evil and its consequences, and he never forgot the part played by poverty in their motivations and misdeeds.


Judith Gunn is the author of Dostoyevsky: A life of contradiction (Amberley Publishing, 2016).

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