Albert Camus once declared that the author of The Possessed and not Karl Marx was the greatest prophet for the twentieth century. Dostoevsky’s depiction of the monstrous consequences of ideological fanaticism is equally pertinent to the twenty-first. Yet this great champion of liberty against the tyranny of ideas was himself the proponent of a “Russian idea”: a form of messianic nationalism, coupled in his last years with a virulent anti-Semitism.
Apart from a few specialist studies,1 scholars in the West have been loath to linger on this aspect of his thought. (It is not, for instance, among the topics included in the recently published Cambridge Companion to Dostoevskii.2 ) As Joseph Frank notes in the last volume of his distinguished biography, Dostoevsky’s political ideas have seemed so eccentric that “it was felt necessary to get them out of the way if one were to do him justice as a novelist.”
This separation between Dostoevsky’s day-to-day political writings and his concern with eternal verities would make little sense to his Russian readers. Admirers of his vatic pronouncements on Russia’s special destiny, such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn and the philosopher Nikolay Ber-dyaev, have treated them as an integral part of his message to the world, as have more critical commentators, such as the outstanding Soviet scholars Leonid Grossman and A.S. Dolinin, who emphasized that Dostoevsky’s fiction and his journalism served a common purpose: to shed light on the moral and spiritual meaning of contemporary Russian reality.
According to Frank, it was the work of Russian scholars that, back in the 1970s, inspired his project: to fill the gap in Western criticism of Dostoevsky by approaching his works within the social and cultural milieu to which they were clearly a response. The result is a monumental achievement, part biography, part cultural history. Its fifth and final volume breaks the self-imposed taboo of so many non-Russian critics by paying explicit attention to the ideology of Dostoevsky’s last decade.
Frank’s four earlier volumes have set the evolution of Dostoevsky’s thought and art in the context of the acute clash of values that accompanied Russia’s lumbering transformation from a society based on serfdom into an industrialized state. Among the intelligentsia all received notions of moral and social order became the subject of fierce debate. Westernizers looked to Europe for models of development based on rational principles, while Slavophiles, emphasizing fundamental differences between the historical development of Europe and of Russia, insisted that Russia must follow its own path, relying on native traditions and on the people’s Orthodox faith. Dostoevsky adopted a form of these latter beliefs as a result of his life among the common people during the decade of prison and exile to which he was sentenced in 1849 as a follower of the French utopian socialists.
When he returned to St. Petersburg serfdom was about to be abolished; other reforms were promised, and the…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.