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Conversations with Dostoevsky

The first time I visited St Petersburg, nearly thirty years ago, I stayed not far from the area in which Dostoevsky set the action of Crime and Punishment. The tenement blocks were, for the most part, those that Dostoevsky himself would have seen—indeed, one friend lived at Grazhdanskaya 19, a possible location for the coffin-like garret inhabited by Raskolnikov, the novel’s homicidal anti-hero. The area borders the Griboedov canal, along which Raskolnikov frequently walked and where the house in which he murdered the miserly old pawnbroker and her innocent sister is situated—I could even imagine that the dark figure emerging from the dingy entrance was the pawnbroker herself. Further away was the Haymarket, still crowded with gypsies, peddlers, beggars, and cheap food stalls, and—despite the old Church of the Assumption having been pulled down by the Soviet authorities to make way for a Metro station—still an atmosphere heavy with poverty and the crimes of poverty.

During those long walks, it was easy to feel that ghosts of Dostoevsky’s city lingered on in the mostly unvisited and run-down streets of the late twentieth century. There wasn’t so much traffic back then, and in the late afternoon sun, with only the distant shouts of some unseen workmen breaking the silence, there was a sense of timelessness, as if this is what it had always been like.

Sheer imagination, of course—and much more important is what Crime and Punishment and Dostoevsky’s other great novels (Notes from Underground, The Idiot, The Possessed, The Brothers Karamazov, and more) can mean for us today. We live in a material and social world very different from that of Dostoevsky’s characters but, like them, we still have to struggle with the challenges of finding a place in a competitive society that is endlessly generating economic insecurity, social injustice, family breakdown, and the fragmentation of religion and other value systems—as well, of course, as the eternal questions as to who and how to love, and whether, in the end, there is a God who cares.

The historical study of Dostoevsky addresses these questions by taking us back to Dostoevsky’s world—less to the canal-side streets and back-alleys of St Petersburg and more to the literary and intellectual culture of his time, placing him in the context of contemporary debates about literature, politics, faith, and, not least, the future of Russia itself. Historical scholarship goes a long way towards reconstructing Dostoevsky’s world and showing the detail of his involvement in contemporary issues of art and society and his approach to fundamental questions about the ultimate purpose of human life—and what a lot of detail there is! Even apart from the dramatic events of his mock execution, his imprisonment and exile in Siberia, his gambling addiction and often chaotic love life, Dostoevsky was extraordinarily active in the literary world of his time, editing a succession of journals that published both Russian and foreign literature, from Mrs Gaskell to Edgar Allan Poe (he admired both). He was interested in philosophy and at one point planned on translating Hegel, while Russian identity and the fate of Russia in the modern world elicited some of his most intemperate and controversial statements—and, of course, there was God! As Dostoevsky himself put it, the question of belief plunged him into a ‘crucible of doubt’ as he confronted the seemingly irresolvable clash between the Christian God of love and the reality of a world scarred by poverty, injustice, gratuitous cruelty, violence against women, child abuse, and much more—all addressed in his novels.

Historical study is one way of exploring these questions, but Conversations with Dostoevsky attempts the opposite approach. Instead of going back to Dostoevsky’s world, the Conversations bring Dostoevsky into ours, specifically into a series of conversations with a mid-career academic going through a rather average mid-life crisis—‘average’, that is, until, while he is reading one of Dostoevsky’s short stories, the writer himself appears. Thus begins a series of conversations that cover many of the themes of Dostoevsky’s fiction and non-fiction, focussing especially on the ‘eternal questions’ of God and that mysterious creature we call the human being.

History cannot be ignored, of course, and the Conversations are accompanied by a set of commentaries that explore the issues raised in a more conventional manner. Nevertheless, a fictionalizing approach can help to profile the existential questions at issue in his work and to help us reflect on how we, as readers, bring our own concerns and—inevitably—biases into what we read. In the century and a half since his death, Dostoevsky has been read in many ways—as a prophet of the Russian Revolution, as a spokesman for protest atheism, or as representative of Orthodoxy Christianity, and more. Today, his work is necessarily exposed to the critical rereading of the Russian literary and intellectual tradition provoked by the invasion of Ukraine that is taking place across Russian Studies. More than ever before, it is important to be conscious not just of what Dostoevsky wrote but of how we are reading him.

Featured image credit: Portrait of Fedor Dostoyevsky by Vasily Perov. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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