REVIEW ESSAY: Dostoevsky as Political Agitator: Alex Chistofi, Dostoevsky in Love: An Intimate Life (London: Bloomsbury, 2022)

The notion of Fyodor Dostoevsky in familial life, as it were, is wonderfully explored in Christofi’s book, published just about in time for his 200th anniversary of his birth, but, however entertaining, there really is little to be said definitively of the likely effects of his notions of kinship or even romance in his literary works. Nothing could be more secondary among his concerns. More to the bicentenarian point of reappraisal, Dostoevsky as a young man joined the radical Petrashevsky Circle whose founder was a follower of utopian socialist Charles Fourier. In 1849 Circle members were arrested and imprisonmmed. A large group, including Dostoevsky, were sentenced to death. As they stood waiting to be shot, a messenger interrupted proceedings with a reprieve. As part of a pre-planned and taunting deception, the Tsar prepared a letter commuting the death sentences to incarceration. Dostoevsky’s eight-year sentence was later reduced to four.  He returned from Siberia having abandoned the radical ideas of his youth, scornful of the Western enlightenment philosophies of rationalism and socialism. He became committed to the mystic populism of the Russian Orthodox church and to a reactionary Slavic nationalism, or so the familiar tale goes.

So why should radical leftists be interested in Dostoevsky, let alone his love life? The Marxist tradition, for one, stressed that authentic art can and does rise above the class standpoint of the artist. Whatever a talented writer’s conscious beliefs, their work often contradicts their intent by revealing willy-nilly the true social reality. In 1888 Engels notably observed, 

‘Balzac, whom I consider a far greater master of realism than all the Zolas passés présents et a venir, in ‘La Comédie Humaine’ gives us a most wonderfully realistic history of French ‘Society’, especially of le monde parisien, describing… the progressive inroads of the rising bourgeoisie upon the society of nobles… the last remnants of this, to him, model society gradually succumbed before the intrusion of the vulgar monied upstart,          or were corrupted by him… Balzac was politically a Legitimist; [and] his sympathies are all with the class doomed to extinction. But for all that, his satire is never keener, his irony ever bitterer, than when he sets in motion the very men and women with whom he sympathies most deeply – the nobles.” [Engels, 1888, pp.479-480].

Dostoevsky’s early work, with its dense, tense style, is heavily marked by the influence of Gogol’s satirical realism. Poor Folk (1846) and The Double (1846) – also influenced by the sterner realism of Stendhal and Pushkin – are infused with denunciations against the plight of the poor. Dostoevsky’s second novel, The Double (1846), still indebted to Gogol. recounts in an engaging expressive rhythm the story of Golyadkin, a government clerk obsessed with the suspicion that a fellow clerk has stolen his identity. An element of relished cruelty is clear in the humour poked at paranoid Golyadkin. [Mirsky, 1949, p.175]. That same year Dostoevsky published Mr. Prokharchin, closely related to The Double, a Dickensian story (without redemption) of a miser who accumulated a fortune while insistently living in a miserable slum.

Dostoevsky’s middle period (1857-1863) features The Manor of Stepanchikovo and its Inhabitants, (The Friend of the Family in Constance Garnett’s translation), (1859), The Insulted and Injured (1861) and The House of the Dead (1860-2).  This batch ditches Gogol. Mirsky suggests, I think correctly, that The Insulted and Injured is “closely connected in style and tone with the French romantic novel of social compassion and with the later and less humorous novels of Dickens.” The House of the Dead, by contrastrecounts his debilitating Siberian servitude, with an underlying message of sympathy for fellow (and often unsympathetic) sufferers. The heartfelt theme is a tragic estrangement between the educated protagonist and the mass of uneducated convicts. Although sharing identical torments, he is rejected, an outcast by the fact of his social origin. Despite the immense cavalcade of cruelties recounted, the novel somehow manages to radiate an optimistic, idealistic spirit.

 During Dostoevsky’s first trip to Western Europe in 1863 he published Winter Notes on Summer Impressions. There Dostoevsky exhorts Russians to reject the frilly enticements of European culture, asking pointedly what has become of the ideals of the French Revolution – liberte, egalite, fraternite? “…in the European nature, brotherhood is not present. Instead we find… a vigorous …self-assertion…” [Frank, 2010, p.372/pisma, 5,79 in Frank, 2010, pp. 379]. Dostoevsky here unfurls his Pan-Slavism, describing true (if geographically limited) brotherhood as found in the peasant obshchina (commune)in which the land was administered democratically. The lauded individual does not, as in the West, demand exclusive rights but hands them over to the community, which reciprocates by granting him rights to protection and status. [Frank, 2010, p.380].

Dostoevsky’s final period (1864-1880) consists of four great novels offering extraordinary combinations of psychological insight and, no less so, social critique. The memorable characters radiate quirky personal vitalities but are also supercharged with the electricity of subversive social ideas. Dostoevsky was said to have ‘felt ideas’ as others feel cold, heat and pain. Notes From Underground (1864), for instance, which is by no means purely imaginative literature, is on the face of it permeated with his ostensibly regressive vision of a messianic Slavophilism yet, in however crimped a fashion, conveys faith in the ultimate value of the human personality.

Several keynote concerns, adumbrating the ones above, run through his early works, Poor Folk and The Double, and continue through Notes from UndergroundCrime and Punishment (1866), The Idiot (1868-69), The Possessed/The Demons ((1871-72) and The Brothers Karamazov (1879-80): alienation from society, urban misery, the alluring compensatory idea of a superman, the power of ‘goodness’ linked to redemption through suffering, doubt wrestling with faith, the burden of free will, and finally his rather welcome rejection of nihilism. In his first masterpiece Dostoevsky introduces us to his anti-hero thus: “I am a sick man… I am an angry  man. I am an unattractive man. I think there’s something wrong with my liver.” [Notes from Underground, 1972, p. 15]. The unnamed figure refuses to be noble or admirable or likeable – he is one of those oppressed, poverty-stricken, orphaned Bartleby-like clerks of mid-nineteenth century fiction. He is forty, a former government official, who inherited a small legacy and “withdrawn into a seedy ‘corner’, a poor apartment in the suburbs. He defiantly addresses us from ‘beneath the floorboards’.”  Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment embodies the aimless ambition and stark egoism at the heart of bourgeois ideology. He is the obvious heir of Rastignac in Balzac’s Pere Goriot (1835) or Sorel in Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir (1830), characters striving for social advancement in a world dominated by the mouldering slogan of the French Revolution – ‘A Career Open to the Talents’. But he, like they, cannot help but overstep the mark. Raskolnikov eventually conducts what amounts to a self-incriminating experiment, and returns to the pawnbroker to listen again to the sound of the doorbell which terrified him after the murders. Similarly, in Notes from Underground, the protagonist confronts the prostitute Liza in order to test his will versus her feelings, but alienation and loneliness in both cases reduce the characters to a gratuitous and pointless struggle for superiority. [Lukacs, 1949, in Wellek, 1962, pp.150-1].

Here Balzac’s conservative critique of capitalism via the paradigmatic figure of the miser was a striking influence too. Dostoevsky’s novels are intense portraits of distorted individualism, with profoundly unappetizing characters pursuing objectives that only widen the already yawning gap separating them from their fellows. Smetona accurately argues that Dostoevsky deepens Balzac’s materialist analysis with an acute psychological dimension. Eugenie Grandet was Balzac’s unwitting description of reification, whereby the commodity form permeates social relations, becoming for members of society their “second nature.” Lukacs indeed comments that so-called “freedom … of the egoist, of the man who cuts himself off from others, a freedom for which solidarity and community exist at best only as ineffectual ‘regulative ideas’ (hypothetical ideas). To wish to breathe life into this freedom means in practice the renunciation of real freedom.” [Lukacs, 1968/1971, p.315].

 In Notes from Underground a vivid and abrupt instance of reification occurs when the scruffy narrator unknowingly blocks the way of an imperious officer: “He took me by the shoulders and silently – with no warning or explanation – moved me from the place where I stood to another; then he walked past as if he hadn’t even seen me.” Raskolnikov does give money to others whom he perceives as poorer than he (as he might well have viewed the Notes from Underground narrator) so he retained the saving grace to relate to some others in a non-commodified spirit. This modest trait distinguishes him markedly from Rastignac and from Luzhin, his sister’s miserly and narrow-minded fiancé. Dostoevsky is dissecting a society in the process of dissolution, recording the distortion of human relations in a decaying semi-feudal despotism, mostly within Saint Petersburg

In the epistolary novel Poor Folk, Devushkin, an indigent clerk, fantasises idly about becoming a writer and yearns for a young seamstress Varvara. A wealthy merchant proposes to Varvara and dispatches her to a distant manor while the spurned clerk sedates his misery with alcohol. Straitened circumstances and lack of self-esteem leads both Devushkin and Varvara into a fatal dependence on unconcerned authorities, which causes their destructions – hardly an anodyne or apolitical theme. Crime and Punishment saturates us the dark streets of Saint Petersburg, its bars, squalid tenements, paper-thin walls, unlit stoves, fetid stairwells.  It is a diseased place afflicted by fevers, suicides, street accidents and random violence – altogether an external nightmare matching the worst internal one. The once genteel Marmeladov family are brought to grief by the father’s alcoholism. His daughter becomes a prostitute in order to feed the family. Raskolnikov, the egotistical isolate, is drawn into their world, imagining he can redress their wrongs. Not for nothing, Lukacs described Dostoevsky as “the first and greatest poet of the modern capitalist metropolis… in drawing the mental deformations that are brought about as a social necessity by life in a modern city.” [Lukacs, 1943, in Wellek (ed.), 1962, p.153]. 

Raskolnikov considers himself well above this world of dementing degradation, separated from it by his haughty Napoleonic qualities. He is angry, bored, rootless and has no social role, but he believes in his right to defy conventional law and morality and to live by a superior private morality. His own family is heavily in debt and, in order to save the family his sister Dunya is considering a loveless marriage to a vicious employer. Raskolnikov decides to murder an old woman moneylender whose existence seems  worthless. The pawnbroker also is the (extremely petty) bourgeois enemy who symbolises upper class greed. However, his inability to follow through with his Nietzschean ‘will to power’ makes him a failed ‘Ubermensch’ who succumbs to a simpering Christian redemption. [Sanacore, 2015, p.3]. 

In The Possessed/The Devils, by contrast, Stavrogin is a charismatic but narcissistic imposter who aspires to great heights. He commits an ‘outrage’ against Pyotr Gagnov, an elderly man of high rank and also passionately kisses the wife of Liputin, a steward at a literary matinee. Summoned by a distant relative, a provincial governor, he bites the governor’s ear. “All these incidents exemplify Stavrogin’s rejection of any internal or external restraints on the absolute autonomy of his self-will” – a clear affinity with the character of Raskolnikov. However, whereas Raskolnikov achieved redemption, “everything that stems from Stavrogin is… marked with the seal of supreme falsity and deception and leads to death.” [Frank, 2010, pp. 651,652].

Dostoevsky provides us with antidotes to the foregoing obnoxious protagonists in Prince Myshkin in The Idiot, and in Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov. The title of The Idiot is an ironic reference to Prince Myshkin, a young man whose goodness, open-hearted simplicity and guilelessness lead more worldly characters to mistakenly assume that he lacks intelligence and insight, that he is an idiot. Whereas Raskolnikov is the individualistic rebel who rationalizes his right to be a ‘superman’, Myshkin represents an ardent surrender to non-rational, supra-individual values. His naïve, child-like wisdom transcends ordinary intelligence. He obeys certain higher intuitions and is of such goodness that even those who laugh at him are compelled to admire him as a superior if unfathomable being.

Myshkin’s saintly character nevertheless causes interesting ructions. He is always ready to take the blame for the sins of others, a traditional saintly service. The result is to drive his sinful fellow-creatures to more desperate crimes, and so in effect but not intention he becomes a horrid moral hazard. Myshkin’s destructive quality emerges precisely from his meekness: others constantly feel judged, given that he doesn’t miss their slightest failings. He arouses aggression by appearing morally above them, thus intensifying their guilt while depriving them of the opportunity to expiate their own sins. Rogozhin, inheritor of a vast fortune, at first likes Myshkin but soon feels hatred and jealousy towards him. Nastasya Filippovna, the main female protagonist, is beautiful and intelligent but fierce and mocking. Of noble birth, but orphaned at seven, she was manipulated into sexual servitude by her guardian Totsky. Her ‘broken innocence’, her cynicism and feelings of disgrace have produced a highly emotional and destructive personality. Myshkin is moved by her beauty and suffering, and, despite sensing that she is a bit mad, is devoted to her. She is torn between Myshkin’s compassion and Rogozhin’s obsession with her. Myshkin fully realises that she degrades herself in order to avenge herself on him for setting himself up in his saintliness. The distraught Nastasya runs away and is murdered by Rogozhin, Myshkin’s friend. Myshkin’s sanity is now at risk. Dostoevsky with brutal human logic poses the question ‘what is goodness?’ The not so tidy answer, as Rossanda put it, “to give oneself totally to the other. To put the other first. The prince … feels an infinite compassion” [NLR 84, Nov/Dec 2002, pp.103-4].

Raskolnikov’s inner world, on the other hand, is a maelstrom of doubts, delirium, fear and despair. His guilt hits a point where punishment is less terrible than the stress of avoiding it. The detective sizes up Raskolnikov as the killer and, reckoning that guilt-ridden criminals undergo mental tortures, is sure he will confess or go mad. Raskolnikov confesses is committed instead to eight years’ hard labour. Sonya moves to the nearest town, visiting him regularly. Sonya is one of Dostoevsky’s fundamental characters, “the ‘meek’ witness to the need for confession and redemption.” [Bradbury, 1988, p. 50]. Raskolnikov wants to convince her of his ideology of domination, but it is to her that he fesses up that in killing the moneylender he has killed himself. Raskolnikov realises that he truly loves Sonya and expresses real remorse.

The Brothers Karamazov is Dostoevsky’s last and perhaps greatest work,  roiling with free will, God, and morality, and is a wiser continuation of the Raskolnikov versus  Myshkin counterpoints. The action takes place in the provinces, in the Karamazov household, whose head is a libidinous old rake who lives to satisfy his animal lust. His crude personality assumes in three sons different, more complex and refined aspects. Dimitri, the eldest, is as irresponsibly impulsive as his father but his emotional chaos covers a warm and generous heart. Ivan is another Raskolnikov, in whom passion has been channelled into a one-sidedly intellectual or ultra-rationalist route. Alyosha is a Myshkin, concerned, as he is, to benefit his fellow-creatures. An ‘illegitimate’ half-brother, Smerdyakov is a servant of the elder Karamazov. 

The plot revolves the rivalry between the father and his eldest son Dimitri who threatened to kill him because of his advances to Grushenka with whom he is in love. Ivan too hates his father and wishes him dead for his own reasons. So does Smerdyakov who covets the old man’s secret money hoard. On the surface Ivan and Smerdyakov are as different as can be, yet at an unconscious level they have much in common. Ivan, only half-aware of what he’s doing, entices Smerdyakov to murder their father with which Raskolnikovian view that ‘everything is permitted, all things are lawful.’ Smerdyakov murders old Karamazov so cunningly that suspicion falls on Dimitri who is jailed and there undergoes a radical transformation (as does his capricious girl-friend Grushenka). Ivan denounces himself as the instigator of the crime. Like Raskolnikov, he must see ‘the devil in his own soul’ before he could be reborn. Smerdyakov’s vacuous justification ‘all things are permitted’ ultimately terrifies him and he commits suicide. At the other end of the spectrum of ‘good and evil’, of individualism versus solidarity, is youngest brother Alyosha, a novice monk, and his father figure mentor, Father Zossima who recalls his youth before he entered the monastery: “Why, the isolation that prevails everywhere, above all in our age – it has not… reached its limit yet. For everyone strives to keep his individuality as apart as possible, wishes to secure the greatest possible fullness of life for himself; but meantime all his efforts result not in attaining fullness of life but in self-destruction, for instead of self-realisation he ends by arriving at complete solitude… each one holds aloof… and he ends by being repelled by others and repelling them. He heaps up riches by himself and thinks, ‘How strong I am now and how secure’, and in his madness he does not understand that the more he heaps up, the more he sinks into self-destructive impotence… in these days, men have, in their mockery, ceased to understand that the true security is to be found in social solidarity rather than in isolated individual effort.” [Dostoevsky, 1912, pp. 314-5]. Can one think of a stronger indictment of capitalist society?

In their psychic interiors Freud pointed out that three masterpieces of world literature involved parricide: Oedipus RexHamlet (step-paricide?) and Brothers Karamazov. Moreover, the motive for the crime is rivalry for  a woman. In the Russian novel the murderer has the same relationship to the murdered man as the hero, Dimitri, and it is noteworthy that Dostoevsky conferred on Smeryakov his own illness, epilepsy. [Freud in Wellek, 1962, p.107]. Freud argues it is unimportant who actually committed the crime, “psychology is only concerned to know who desired it emotionally and who welcomed it when it was done.” Father Zossima realises that Dimitri is prepared to commit parricide and he bows to him. The holy man rejects the temptation to despise the murderer and, therefore, humbles himself.  For Dostoevsky, a criminal is almost a Redeemer, someone who has “taken on the guilt which must else have been borne by others.” [Freud in Wellek, 1962, p. 108]. Freud argues that any murderer has boundless egoism and a strong destructive urge, which share one necessary condition – the absence of love and a lack of emotional appreciation of human objects. Dostoevsky in his own conduct evidenced “his great need of love and his enormous capacity for love… seen in manifestations of exaggerated kindness and caused him to love and to help where he had a right to hate and to be revengeful, as, for example, in his relations with his first wife and her lover.” [Freud in Wellek, 1962, p.99]. 

In The Possessed/The Demons, Dostoevsky explores atheism as the root of Russia’s deepening social and moral problems. The Russian has lost their true national identity, inextricably bound up for Dostoevsky with Orthodox Christianity. They attempt to fill the void vainly with Western modes of thought: atheism, Catholicism, rationalism, socialism, etc. In 1870 Dostoevsky wrote to the poet Apollon Maikov: “a man who loses his people and his national roots also loses the faith of his fathers and his God.” [in Frank, 2010, p.607]. He also compares the ‘Russian Man’, referring to the sophisticated aristocratic Nikolai Stavrogin as well as Stavrogin’s tutor, to the man healed by Jesus in the parable of the Gadarene swine. Stavrogin is riven by contradictions. He had inspired the engineer Kirillov with an atheistic humanism and, on the other hand, he inspired Shatov with Slavophilism. Dostoevsky depicts the struggle between his worldly self-possession on the one hand and the self-revelation of the suffering soul on the other. He molests the ten-year old daughter of neighbours who subsequently hanged herself. [Dostoevskytrans. Cockrell, 2017, pp.427-428, 433]. He is afflicted with a vision of the girl “shaking her head and brandishing her tiny little fist at me.” Stavrogin “is a victim of the famous mal de siecle, the all-engulfing ennui that haunts the literature of the first half of the nineteenth century and is invariably depicted as resulting from the loss of religious faith.” [Frank, 2010, pp. 660-1]. 

Stepan Trofimovitch Verkhovensky and his son Pyotr Stepanovitch Verkhovensky exemplify successive generations of radical opposition to Tsarist autocracy – Stepan representing the liberals of the 1840s, Pyotr the nihilists or anarchists of the 1860s. Dosteovsky’s portrayal of the conspirators depicts them as idealistic but incompetent revolutionary dilettantes. The nihilist Pyotr relishes Stavrogin’s amoral, power-seeking cynicism while Shatov, the son of a wealthy landowner’s valet, abandoned his former socialist convictions and turned to Russia’s Christian heritage. In one scene Pyotr pleads with Stavrogin to join his cause, which aims at destroying the existing order and seizing power. “You treat everyone as an equal, and yet everyone is afraid of you – that’s good… An aristocrat is irresistible when he goes in for democracy! To sacrifice life, your own or another’s, is nothing to you. You are just the man that’s needed… I am a scoundrel, of course, and not a socialist.” [Dostoevsky, Garnett translation, 2014, pp. 380-1]. Verkhovensky compares himself to Columbus and Stavrogin to America. “…the whole gimcrack show will fall to the ground, and then we shall consider how to build up an edifice of stone…We are going to build it, we, and only we.” [Dostoevsky, Garnett translation, 1914, p.384].

Interestingly, workers from the nearby factory mount a protest about pay and working conditions, but the ‘radicals’ pay no attention. Earlier, Stavrogin inanely complained: “What a pity there’s no proletariat! But there will be…” [Dostoevsky Garnett translation, 1914, pp 381-2]. The novel presents a self-appointed elite bent on destroying the existing power without a vision of a genuine democratic alternative. As Trotsky famously put it: “an anarchist is a liberal with a bomb in his hand.” If the alternatives to the existing order were Stepan, Pyotr and Stavrogin, it is no wonder Dostoevsky had scant faith in their capacity to build an alternative society. When Dostoevsky died in 1881, the Russian working class was nowhere near the point of representing a potential alternative ruling class. 

The contemporaneous reign of Alexander II (1855–81), it is worth noting, was marked by significant reforms, the most important being the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. The measure was part of a strategy to modernise Russia and catch up with Western Europe in the aftermath of Russia’s disastrous military performance in the Crimean War. Towards the Jews he adopted a milder policy to achieve assimilation. Alexander II repealed the severest of his father’s antisemitic decrees, granting various rights — importantly, the right of residence — to ‘useful’ Jews, including wealthy merchants and medical personnel. Their growing influence in Russian society aroused a sharp reaction, including among distinguished intellectuals, such as Dostoevsky. The Jews were accused of maintaining ‘a state within a state’ and of ‘exploiting’ Russian masses. Even the blood libel was rolled out again. The anti-Jewish movement strengthened, especially after the Balkan War (1877–78), when Slavophile nationalism swept Russian society. In The Brothers Karamazov, the father travels to Odessa where he meets “a lot of low Jews, Jewesses and Jewkins… he developed a peculiar faculty for making and hoarding money.” [Dostoevsky, 1912, p.17]. In The Devils, Shatov tells Stavrogin that “A nation can only be a nation so long as it has its own special God and ruthlessly excludes all other gods on this earth… The Jews lived only in expectation of their true God, and left the true God to the world.” Dostoevsky seems, therefore, to suggest that Russia’s messianic idea owes a debt to Judaism. [Dostoevsky, Cockrell translation, 2017, p.243, in Carver, 1996]. Dostoevsky denied that he was antisemitic, for what that’s worth.

George Steiner suggested that the nineteenth century brought forth in Dostoevsky ‘one of the great masters of tragic drama’. Steiner quotes Vyacheslav Ivanov who declared Dostoevsky the Russian Shakespeare. [Steiner, 1959, p. 133]. Irving Howe argued that part of Dostoevsky’s greatness lay in the fact that no character is allowed undisputed domination of the novel. For him, Dostoevsky is “the greatest of all ideological novelists because he always distributes his feeling of identification among all his characters.” [Howe in Wellek, 1962, p. 70]. For Bakhtin the chief characteristic of Dostoevsky’s novels is a “plurality of independent and unmerged voices and consciousnesses, a genuine polyphony of fully valid voices.” [Bakhtin, 1984, pp. 6-7]. Dostoevsky’s novels were bound to no preconceived frameworkh. Rather, the latter’s function is to highlight the self-consciousness of the characters, each participating in their own voice, according to their own ideas about themselves and the world. [Bakhtin, 1929/1984, pp.6-7, 34]. Bakhtin also argues that polyphony is an epiphenomenon of capitalist modernity. “The polyphonic novel could indeed have been realised only in the capitalist era. The most favourable soil for it was moreover precisely in Russia, where capitalism set in almost catastrophically, and where it came upon an untouched multitude of diverse worlds and social groups which had not been weakened in their individual isolation, as in the West, by the gradual encroachment of capitalism.” [Bakhtin, 1929/1984, p.19-20].[1]

One is reminded of Trotsky’s theory of ‘combined and uneven development’ as applied to Tsarist society: an older and less developed society would adopt parts of the culture of a more developed, or more modern society; also, cultural practices, institutions, traditions and ways of life belonging to both old and new epochs and phases of human history were combined, juxtaposed and linked together in a rather unusual way within a single, especially a less-developed country. Sarah Young analysed the manner in which Dostoevsky’s narrators create aambiguity and uncertainty through the use of ‘as if’ phrases. These create an atmosphere of unreality and ‘introduce the imaginative dimension that underlies all fiction’. [Young, Modern Languages Open, 2018]. 

Mirsky notes that however imbued Dostoevsky’s novels are with philosophical ideas, they are also works of mystery and suspense. His readers are familiar with the protracted mystery of the murder of old Karamazov and the magisistrate’s cat-and-mouse game with RaskolnikovIn The Idiot, there is a deliberate absence of description of the lives of Prince Myshkin, Rogozhin and Nastasya Filipovna between parts one and two, and to be exposed at a key moment. Through such devices Dostoevsky creates dramatic tension.  As Young puts it: “the coexistence of radical opposites within man forms the foundation for Dostoevsky’s dramatization of the ‘accursed questions’ of faith and doubt.” His work bypasses the ‘normal’, favouring “the extremes of human experience and behaviour, and develops an experimental style that contrasts sharply with the realism of his contemporaries Leo Tolstoy and Ivan Turgenev” [Young, 2012, p.2]. Similarly, abject poverty and obscene wealth co-exist side by side and “the socially disadvantaged rub shoulders with their exploiters in taverns and slums, monasteries and society salons.” [Young, 2012, p.2]. 

Like Andy Merrifield, I contend that Dostoevsky illuminates an important aspect of  contemporary politics: the revival of the kind of demagogic chauvinism. Unscrupulous political leaders are stoking nationalism. “Borders are getting staked out, walls set to go up, closing in on us, keeping people in as well as out.” The Tory claim that Brexit would save the NHS £350 a year or Trump’s pledge to make America great again became ‘mood-music’ for millions of people. Politicians have no doubt always lied, ‘post-truth’ has always been their bread and butter, but what appears to be new is our willingness to believe them. Merrifield argues Brothers Karamazov has the strongest contemporary ring. The crucial scene is ‘The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor,’ harking back to sixteenth century Seville during the Inquisition, when a humanistic Jesus inadvisedly returns. His concern is freedom of conscience and he is therefore regarded as a subversive, a dangerous threat to the social order. He is condemned to be burnt the following day. At midnight, the Inquisitor visits him. “Now, today,” he says, “people are persuaded that they are freer than ever before, yet they have brought their freedom to us and laid it humbly at our feet. We don’t need somebody like You here, he says, promising them real freedom. It doesn’t take much to control people’s consciences, the Inquisitor says. Promise them bread and they’ll gladly give up their freedom. They’ll throw themselves to the mercy of ‘three powers that are able to hold them captive, a reactionary trinity of ‘miracle, mystery and authority’. Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor emerges as a prophet of fascist and totalitarian movements. The parable resonates and is no longer religious but secular. The main source of the trinity is not the church but the state. Our leaders promise seduce the people by offering them a particular national identity which turns out to be nothing but ‘manufactured bigotry’. At the end of the parable, Alyosha wonders if the parable is just a sick joke, but, says Merrifield, “with Nigel Farage lurking… it’s no laughing matter.” [Merrifield, Marx at His Limits, posted 22nd May, 2019]. 


Is Dostoevsky an irredeemable Slavophile nationalist? Decidedly not.  One detects at a deeper level than the skin a pressing universal call for liberation. In his valedictory speech at the unveiling of a Pushkin monument, Dostoevsky tellingly declared: “the destiny of a Russian is pan-European and universal. To become a true Russian… means only to become the brother of all men, to become, if you will, a universal man… our destiny is universality, won not by the sword, but by the strength of brotherhood and our fraternal aspiration to reunite mankind.”

Dostoevsky, almost despite himself, pleads for liberation from the alienation of then nascent Russian capitalism. Humankind’s unhappiness and ‘divided soul’, our pride, and also our shame flow from a lack of faith, but this overtly reactionary diagnosis ultimately stems from the absence of a society based on human solidarity. Capitalist modernity has driven individualism to the point where unbridled desires threaten an utter social breakdown. Dostoevsky’s overt solution is a subordination to religious authority, to reject modernity, and to recover the traditions of the misty and supposedly golden Slavic past. Nevertheless, what is important for Dostoevsky is to reassert humankind’s social nature.  However backward his expressed political beliefs, the world of his characters dissolves everything objectionable into chaos and “this chaos itself is great in Dostoevsky: his powerful protest against everything false and distorting in modern bourgeois society.” [Lukacs, 1943/1962, p. 158]. In the end, the artist trumps the reactionary thinker – and then some. Dostoevsky identifies with the woeful underdog, never the overlord, and steadfastly believes human beings of all classes, despite immense obstacles, can overcome their dark, destructive sides. Dostoevsky remains a revolutionary novelist, one capable of inspiring democratic socialists fighting today to rid the world of racism, misogyny, class exploitation, climate change and other cumulative crises that late capitalism  heaps upon us. Christofi must be thanked nonetheless for reminding us of the intimate family currents that ran through his life and writing.


Bakhtin, Mikhail, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics(1929), University of Minnesota Press, trans. Caryl Emerson, 1984. 

Berman, Marshall, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, Verso, London, 1983.

Bradbury, Malcom, Fyodor Dostoevsky, in The Modern World: Ten Great Writers, Martin Secker & Warburg, London, 1988.

Carver, Jon, Dostoevsky as an anti-Semite,, 1996.

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Dostoevsky, Fyodor, The House of the Dead, translated C. Garnett, William Heinemann, London, 1915.

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Merrifield, Andy, Grand Inquisitors in Our MidstPosted May 22, 2019.

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Sanacore, Christopher, The Failed Ubermensch: A Marxist Reading of Crime and Punishment, posted April 3rd, 2015.

Smetona, Matthew, Lukács and the Project of a Marxist Literary History: Balzac and Dostoevsky, Interdisciplinary Literary Studies, 20, 3, 2018, pp. 340-370. Published by Penn State University Press.

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Swingewood, Alan, The Sociology of the Novel, Macmillan Press, London, 1975.

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Tihanov, Galin, The Master and the Slave: Lukács, Bakhtin, and the Ideas of Their Time, Oxford University Press, 2000.

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Young, Sarah, Hesitation, Projection and Desire: The Fictionalizing ‘as if…’ in Dostoevskii’s Early Works. Modern Languages Open, (1), p.15. DOI:], 2018.

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[1] I am grateful to Professor Galin Tihanov for pointing this out. His book The Master and the Slave: Lukács, Bakhtin, and the Ideas of Their Time contains a highly interesting analysis of Lukacs and Bakhtin.


Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

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2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

By Zillah Eisenstein: Newest Misogyny/Ies

By Michael Ruse: Anti-Vaxxers And The Covid Crisis: The Sorry Story Of The Pernicious Influence Of A Pseudo-Science

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By Sarah Kamal: Eben Kirksey, The Mutant Project: Inside the Global Race to Genetically Modify Humans Bristol: Bristol University Press, 2021.