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Dostoevsky’s Conversion

No period of Dostoevsky’s life is more mysterious and enigmatic than the four long years that he spent in the prison camp at Omsk between 1850 and 1854. Everyone is aware—and of course, Dostoevsky said so himself—that these years produced a profound “transformation of his convictions” which reshaped his ideas and values for the remainder of his life. He had gone into exile as a determined opponent of the regime of Nicholas I, sentenced for having taken part in a revolutionary conspiracy aimed at eliminating serfdom. But the post-Siberian Dostoevsky, just a few years after his return from exile, became for the remainder of his life one of the most determined and effective opponents of Russian radical ideology. And it was this opposition—transposed to a metaphysical level, and exploring the ultimate moral foundations of modern culture—that provided the inspiration for his greatest works.

It is one of the most striking aspects of the abundant material available about these years that Dostoevsky never gets any farther than referring to the fact that such a transformation has taken place. Not once does he ever say anything, except in the vaguest terms, that would help us to grasp the nature of what occurred; not once does he make any attempt to illuminate the complex of causes, both psychic and cultural, that impelled his conversion from one set of beliefs to another. This lack of what might be called ideological specificity is characteristic, not only of The House of the Dead (where it might be attributed to a fear of the censorship), but of Dostoevsky’s correspondence as well, even though some of it was sent by personal courier to people like his brother Mikhail with whom he was accustomed to speak freely.

No one, so far as I am aware, has remarked on this curious reticence of Dostoevsky, the great psychologist of the power of ideas, to make any attempt at depicting the inner process of this epochal event in his own life. Once or twice in his letters, to be sure, Dostoevsky approaches the brink of such a self-analysis and self-avowal; but he always retreats at the very last moment. “But my soul, heart, mind—what has grown, what has ripened, what has been discarded together with the weeds, that can’t be communicated and set down on a sheet of paper…. In general, prison has taken away many things from me and brought many others.” This is as far as he chooses to go in baring the secrets of his soul; and it leaves the curious reader more baffled than enlightened.

As a result, most accounts of Dostoevsky’s life and career do little more than make a perfunctory stab at explaining his “transformation.” Usually, they content themselves with giving more or less extended variations on the epilogue to Crime and Punishment, in which Raskolnikov finally throws himself at Sonya’s feet and accepts her Christian faith in preference to his mélange of rational utilitarianism, romantic Titanism, and socialist humanitarianism. But only the last of these ideological components can be attributed to the Dostoevsky who went to the prison camp; and in my view he had never ceased to be a Christian.

Confirmation of this latter opinion may be found in the little-known and strangely neglected testimony of F.N. Lvov, who stood side by side with Dostoevsky on the platform in Semyonovsky square awaiting execution, and who later left some memoirs that turned up among the files of Herzen’s Kolokol (The Bell), in London. According to Lvov, during what Dostoevsky believed would be his last moments on earth he turned to Nikolai Speshnev and said in French, “Nous serons avec le Christ.” Speshnev replied, with a gesture toward the ground, “Un peu de poussière.” Nothing could better illustrate the difference between a convinced atheist and materialist such as Speshnev and a tormented believer like Dostoevsky, who refused to surrender the Christian hope and whose words, at such a time, indicated that he scarcely needed a Sonya to return him to the fold of faith.

More recently, a Freudian view has become very popular; and whether one agrees with Freud or not, at least he has the merit of attempting to provide a consistent explanation. Dostoevsky’s “transformation,” as he sees it, was from revolutionary rebel to reactionary supporter of czarism; and the emotive dynamism for this change was the well-known “masochism” of his personality, which accepted the punishment inflicted by the czar-father as a way of relieving the intolerable guilt feelings caused by his own murderous Oedipal impulses. This is not the place to discuss my objections to Freud’s famous article, “Dostoevsky and Parricide,” which I have done in a special appendix in my book.* Suffice it to say here that the so-called “facts” on which Freud believed he could construct Dostoevsky’s case history turned out, on closer inspection, to be either nonexistent or lamentably in error.

In the present context, the theory of “masochism” is inapplicable simply because Dostoevsky does not exhibit any trace of such a reaction during the entire period of his imprisonment in the Peter and Paul fortress and the investigation of the Petrashevsky circle. On the contrary, he defended himself and others courageously, did not buckle under pressure, and succeeded in concealing the existence of the Speshnev secret society—a genuine revolutionary organization—to which he belonged. The Freudian hypothesis, as I see it, cannot account for the anomaly that his “masochism” was displayed only in relation to “the people,” i.e., his fellow convicts in the prison camp, and not at all when he was face to face with the authority figures on the investigating commission, who represented the full power of the czar.

No, what happened to Dostoevsky in the prison camp cannot be explained in such terms, and it is time to go back and re-examine this question. In doing so, we have one important clue furnished by Dostoevsky himself—the famous passage in The Diary of a Writer in which he speaks of the “transformation of his convictions” as having been motivated by “direct contact with the people,” by “the brotherly merger with them in a common misfortune.” Such words, of course, cannot be taken too literally; every reader of The House of the Dead, not to mention the correspondence, is well aware that Dostoevsky’s “merger” was far from being as brotherly as he pretends. But, as he so often does in The Diary of a Writer, Dostoevsky here accurately points to a key element in his own experience while interpreting it, not in terms of strict historical veracity, but rather in the light of whatever ideological or polemical purpose he happened to be advancing at the moment of writing. Hence we can overlook the interpretation in this case or, better, see it as the laconic summary of a long and difficult process whose intermediary links have to be supplied before we can properly understand what sort of “merger” actually took place. It is these links that I shall try to outline in the remainder of this essay.

Nothing is more obvious, as has been said, than that Dostoevsky’s initial “contact with the people” was anything but “brotherly.” Quite the contrary, The House of the Dead clearly demonstrates that such “contact” threw Dostoevsky into a state of profound moral and spiritual crisis, or, to speak in clinical terms, a state of psychic shock. One should not, in the first place, underestimate the effects on Dostoevsky of the sheer physical strain of adapting to prison-camp life. And the result for his physical self may be compared to that of more recent prison-camp inmates subjected to brainwashing techniques. Hunger, fatigue, illness, acute tension caused by fear, physical and mental abuse, extreme humiliation—Dostoevsky was subject to all these, and a trained brainwasher could not have conditioned him more effectively. Above all, there was the shock of discovering the deep, instinctive hatred of the peasant convicts for all members of the upper class in prison, and the impossibility of even explaining to them the significance of his “crime.”

Even worse, however, was the appalling fact that at first he could find nothing redeeming among the peasant convicts, nothing to justify the opinion of “the people” that we find reflected in his early works. There “the people” had been depicted as victims suffering from a sense of guilt so excessive that it could even be considered pathological (and it was so considered by contemporary critics like V.G. Belinsky and P.V. Annenkov). But Dostoevsky could find no traces of guilt among the peasant convicts for crimes much worse than any committed by the characters in his stories of the 1840s. The result, as he confessed, was to make him believe initially that the peasant convicts were all of the same ilk as Aristov—an upperclass criminal sent to prison for embezzlement and false denunciation, who acted as a spy and informer on his fellows for the infamous camp commandant Major Krivtsov.

Dostoevsky speaks of Aristov with loathing as “a lump of flesh with teeth and a stomach and an insatiable thirst for the most degenerate pleasures.” He also calls him “a monster, a moral Quasimodo,” whose complete absence of any moral sense Dostoevsky could only compare with something outside the order of nature. “I was terrified,” he writes, “at the awful baseness and degradation into which I had been cast…. I imagined that everything here was as base and degraded [as Aristov].”

This was Dostoevsky’s state of mind during the first period of his imprisonment, and the source of his moral and spiritual crisis. For Dostoevsky’s whole imaginative world, the fundamental basis of his deepest values, had been rooted in that “divinization of the people” (the phrase refers to Lamennais) which Maxime Leroy, in his definitive Histoire des idées sociales en France, has noted as the dominant idea of the period between 1830 and 1848. Dostoevsky had been deeply affected by the expression of this “divinization” in the literature of the time (Victor Hugo, George Sand, the humanitarian and utopian socialist French novel). And it should be remembered that this whole current of ideas had strong overtones of that nouveau Christianisme proclaimed by Saint-Simon. It was the loss of faith in this complex of values that threw Dostoevsky into a state of deep depression, and inspired a hatred of others as well as of himself for what he now realized had been an unutterable innocence and naïveté.

My own analysis of Dostoevsky at this point coincides with the conclusions reached long ago by Leo Shestov in his justly famous Philosophy of Tragedy. Shestov also stresses the importance for Dostoevsky of this crisis of faith in his earlier “humanitarian” values and beliefs, and his emphatic words have lost none of their relevance. “Dostoevsky not only burned all that he had formerly worshipped,” Shestov writes, “he trampled it in the dirt. He not only hated his earlier faith; he despised it.” Such a characterization of Dostoevsky’s response does not seem to me exaggerated; but I differ from Shestov in his conviction that the crisis was never truly surmounted, and that whatever is valuable in Dostoevsky’s work stems from the negativism of his embittered reaction against his previous ideals. Shestov’s point of view accurately highlights a crucial aspect of Dostoevsky’s motivation; but it sacrifices too much of Dostoevsky’s complexity to Shestov’s desire to place him under the aegis of Nietzsche.

  1. *

    Dostoevsky: The Seeds of Revolt, 1821-1849 (Princeton University Press, 1976).

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