Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote some of the most exciting novels to be found anywhere in literature, full of unforgettable characters and thrilling plots, and bursting with life. They also address some of humanity’s most fundamental problems, and have acquired a formidable reputation. “Dostoevsky’s Russians” explores the pleasure of reading Dostoevsky and offers guidance to assist readers who are not familiar with the cultural and historical context of his work.
Each chapter is constructed round a group of characters, and the role they play in putting across Dostoevsky’s ideas. Because this book is aimed at those who don’t read Russian, I focus on the four major novels readily available in English (Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Devils and Brothers Karamazov), with some reference to the more significant shorter novels and stories where relevant. Plot descriptions are minimised, to avoid spoiling some of Dostoevsky’s surprises.
A brief introduction to Dostoevsky, the universal relevance of the ideas expressed in his novels, and what makes them so appealing to me, and to others.
Chapter One: The Russians
Beginning with an account of how I became interested in Russia, and how Dostoevsky’s novels formed my initial impressions of Russia, I consider Dostoevsky’s passionate love for the Russian people.
A brief historical review sets in context the great cultural debate about Russia’s position relative to Western Europe, and I discuss how Dostoevsky contributed to that debate through his fiction and journalism. I use Alexey (The Gambler), Ivan Shatov (The Devils) and the autobiographical short story The Peasant Marey to illustrate how Dostoevsky uses his messianic vision for the future role of the Russian people in his fiction.
Chapter Two: Raskolnikov
Raskolnikov, the hero of Crime and Punishment is probably the best-known of Dostoevsky’s Russians, and I explain how Dostoevsky’s narrative technique makes Raskolnikov such a compelling character.
I use Raskolnikov’s story to pick up three strands of Dostoevsky’s interest: crime, madness and radical politics, and discuss how these themes are used in other novels, particularly Notes from Underground and The Double. There is background on radicalism in Russian politics (nihilism), and Dostoevsky’s use of Raskolnikov to expose the futility of this way of thinking. All three themes are linked by the supreme importance for Dostoevsky of free will.
Chapter Three: Prince Myshkin
Prince Myshkin, the central figure of The Idiot, is Dostoevsky’s pessimistic examination of what might happen when a “most perfectly beautiful man”, a Christ-like figure, tries to live in the world. In this chapter I discuss why Prince Myshkin fails, and how, in The Brothers Karamazov Dostoevsky creates a far more positive Christ-figure in the form of Alyosha.
To set Dostoevsky’s Christ-like figures in context, I explain some of the relevant differences between Orthodox and Western theology; I examine the new writing about Christ as a historical figure that was influencing 19th century thought, and the legacy of Hegel, and discuss how these elements influenced Dostoevsky’s Christianity.
Chapter Four: Nastasya Filippovna
In this chapter I consider the role of beauty in Dostoevsky’s novels, and how it can be either a force of terrible destruction, or the source of salvation. Dostoevsky’s novels are full of beautiful women whose bodies become a commodity, and I discuss how they represent the triumph of the human ego, particularly in the case of the unforgettable Nastasya Filippovna (The Idiot).
The prostitutes Liza (Notes from Underground) and Sonya Marmeladova (Crime and Punishment), represent the ultimate distortion of human love, but they possess a spiritual beauty that survives their degradation and offers salvation to the men they encounter. Recognising the power of beauty, Dostoevsky demands that art must first be beautiful before its message can have any power.
Chapter Five: Nikolai Stavrogin
At the bleak heart of The Devils stands the enigmatic figure of Nikolai Stavrogin; he has a charismatic influence on the other characters whilst remaining detached, although as I explain, public sensitivity forced Dostoevsky to rewrite Stavrogin’s role.
Stavrogin is a development of the “superfluous man” figure in Russian literature, and I explain the origins of this phrase, and what this character type means for Dostoevsky. This leads to an examination of Stavrogin in the context of Dostoevsky’s other depraved sensualists, such as Valkovsky (Humiliated and Insulted) and Svidrigaylov (Crime and Punishment), and builds into a discussion of the motifs of lost paradise, suicide and the search for redemption.
Chapter Six: Razumikhin
One of my favourite characters in Dostoevsky’s fiction is Raskolnikov’s rambunctious friend Razumikhin. Despite his reputation for misery, Dostoevsky created a number of hugely sympathetic, and likeable characters, who are distinguished from his monstrosities by their ordinariness and decency. In this chapter I consider why these ordinary people are just as important as the heroes.
Dostoevsky’s narrators, particularly in the later novels, step out from the crowd of normal folk, and I examine why Dostoevsky places his stories in the hands of unreliable and uncomprehending narrators, coming to the conclusion that he is forcing his readers to come to their own judgements, independent of authorial influence.
Chapter Seven: Father Zossima
The Old Testament book of Job, in which God inflicts unimaginable torments on an innocent man, fascinated Dostoevsky from an early age and I use Job as a starting point to consider Dostoevsky’s responses in his fiction to the problem of human suffering.
Ivan Karamazov rebels against God because he cannot bear the idea of paradise being built on human misery, and he becomes paralysed in the face of suffering. Dostoevsky said that whole novel is a response to Ivan, and I look at how he does this through Father Zossima’s idea of mutual responsibility, and how this is put into practice in the subsequent events of the novel.
Chapter Eight: Dmitry Karamazov
For many, Russia is best summed up in Nikolai Gogol’s description of a runaway troika, and I show how this image comes to life in Dostoevsky’s drunkards, gamblers and wild young men like Parfyon Rogozhin (The Idiot) and Dmitry Karamazov (The Brothers Karamazov). Dostoevsky uses these characters to reject the idea that undesirable behaviour can be attributed solely to environmental effects.
The Grand Inquisitor(The Brothers Karamazov) believes that these human weaknesses are a sign that we cannot handle the freedom that Christ has given us, but Dostoevsky uses Dmitry Karamazov as an example of how Father Zossima’s doctrine of mutual love and responsibility for all can bring about change and redemption in anyone.
Chapter Nine: Lizaveta Prokovyevna
Family relationships form an important part of Dostoevsky’s fiction, and he was preoccupied with what he saw as a breakdown in social structures and the disintegration of the family. This chapter begins with an examination of the families, happy and unhappy, in his fiction, and the role of parenthood in his novels. A brief account of Dostoevsky’s own childhood and family situation puts his fiction in context.
Dostoevsky’s treatment of fathers makes wider sociological, political and even religious statements, whereas his accounts of the relationships between mother and child are much more intimate, and I consider particularly his wonderful comic creation, Lizaveta Prokovyevna, the archetypal Russian mother.
Chapter Ten: Kolya
Dostoevsky wrote The Devils in a passionate outpouring of rage at what he saw as his generation’s malign influence on the youth of Russia, who had turned to radicalism and terrorism. In this chapter I show how Dostoevsky fictionalised the consequences of this conflict through the events of the novel, and explain which characters and events were drawn from real life.
I then go on to discuss Dostoevsky’s relationship with the younger generation and how he came to be idolised by the populist movement. This also provides the opportunity to consider Dostoevsky’s portrayals of children and teenagers in his fiction (the chapter title refers to two boys: Kolya Ivolgin in The Idiot and Kolya Krasotkin in The Brothers Karamazov).
Chapter Eleven: Peter Verkhovensky
In this discussion of the demonic in Dostoevsky’s fiction, I explain how Dostoevsky’s view of the Devil differs from what we are familiar with in Western European culture. Dostoevsky uses the Old Testament idea of the devil as trickster, thwarting God’s will, but with divine permission, and I illustrate this with examples from the novels, particularly the supremely nasty Peter Verkhovensky.
Although the Devil attempts to exploit the weaknesses inherent in free will, Dostoevsky shows how attempts to curb freedom through socialism (as expressed in The Devils through Shigalyov’s vision) or organised religion (The Grand Inquisitor’s solution) only end up achieving exactly what the Devil wants.
Chapter Twelve: Ivan Karamazov
The battle between faith and reason resounds throughout Dostoevsky’s fiction, and finds its climax in Ivan Karamazov. I discover that the supposed atheists, Ippolit (The Idiot), Kirilov (The Devils) and Ivan Karamazov are in fact on the frontline of the battle between faith and reason. One of the arguments used against atheism is that without God, society loses all morals, but surprisingly, Dostoevsky repeatedly makes the point that human beings do not need God to create a moral society.
Ivan Karamazov gives us the opportunity to discuss Dostoevsky’s passionate love of life, and I show how this is nourished by aspects of Russian Orthodox Christianity, with its emphasis on Christ’s glory.
I conclude by discussing how my re-examination of Dostoevsky’s fiction has changed my own thoughts, particularly where the question of faith in God is concerned. I had expected Dostoevsky’s Russians to tell me more about modern Russia but find in fact that their message is universal. Free will, mutual love and a delight in beauty seem to be as good a recipe as any for creating human happiness.