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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.

Dostoevsky’s so-called “transformation” in Siberia was essentially the process by which this crisis was overcome. But before going on to analyze its resolution—depicted implicitly in The House of the Dead, and explicitly twenty-five years later in the article on “The Moujik Marey” published in The Diary of a Writer—there are still other important aspects of Dostoevsky’s situation in the prison camp that must be mentioned. One such was a relationship which, though generally scanted, seems to me of crucial importance.

There were, of course, upper-class convicts in the prison camp with whom Dostoevsky was on more or less good terms; but none seems to have been able to relieve his sense of desolation and terrible isolation. If we are to judge from the cordial terms in which he speaks of them, Dostoevsky was closest of all to the small group of Polish political prisoners who shared his fate. He calls one of them “a very kind-hearted and even great-hearted man”; of another he remarks, “I never ceased to love him.” Dostoevsky, we may presume, did not use such words lightly; and they indicate that, at least for a brief period, the Poles were his only true friends in the camp. But we know that he eventually quarreled with them for reasons he does not explain.

For further information, though, we have the memoirs of Szymon Tokarzewski, one of the men in question, which supplement Dostoevsky’s own account with valuable details. He tells us that Dostoevsky and the Polish prisoners broke relations because, as a Russian patriot, Dostoevsky furiously rejected the Polish claims to independence from the Russian empire; and he was also repelled by the Polish prisoners’ contempt for the Russian peasant convicts, whom they refused to regard as anything but criminal riffraff. “They saw in the convicts nothing but their brutality,” Dostoevsky writes sadly, “could not discern any good quality, anything human in them, and had indeed no wish to do so.”

What is important here is to understand that Dostoevsky’s own attitude toward the peasant convicts, before his “conversion,” was exactly the same as that of the Poles, of which he later speaks with such reprobation. Ultimately, as we shall see, what supplied the psychic-emotive spark for his “conversion” was the recognition of this identification—the recognition that he himself was looking at these representatives of the Russian “people” through exactly the same eyes as the implacable Polish enemies of his homeland.

William James, in his classic The Varieties of Religious Experience, has pointed out that those who undergo conversion are inevitably people with a “divided self,” beset by inner emotional confusion and caught in a tangle of conflicting loyalties that must be untied if they are to continue to function. Such a description applies perfectly to Dostoevsky, whose old faith had been shattered by his disillusioning encounter with the peasant convicts, and who now found himself, to his horror, allied in feeling with those who looked down on the Russian “people” with withering disdain. Nothing was more important for him than to find some way of over-coming his repulsion for the peasant convicts, and to bring his intensely patriotic sentiments as a Russian into harmony with his reactions to the flesh-and-blood Russians who shared his existence in the camp.

This is the context in which it is necessary to place Dostoevsky’s own account of his “conversion,” which is contained in his famous article on the moujik Marey; and certain details of the article take on a greatly increased significance once we view them as part of this larger context. Before recalling its main points, however, we must first turn back to The House of the Dead and cite some of Dostoevsky’s description of the preparations for Easter made in the camp. The Marey incident occurred on the second day of Easter Week, and would thus have been immediately preceded by the events Dostoevsky depicts. “I very much liked the week of the preparation for the sacrament…,” he writes. “It was long since I had been to church. The Lenten service so familiar to me from the faraway days of my childhood in my father’s house, the solemn prayers, the prostration—all this stirred in my heart the far, far-away past, bringing back the days of my childhood.” Dostoevsky recalls having imagined that the peasants standing at the church door, where the convicts always stood during the ceremonies, “prayed humbly, zealously, abasing themselves and fully conscious of their humble state.”

Dostoevsky’s most exalted religious feelings were thus aroused by the preparations for Easter; and he was all the more horrified when the “holiday” in the camp, as he portrays it in the Marey article, led to an orgy of drunkenness and general debauchery. Never had the peasant convicts been more revolting and unbearable, and Dostoevsky rushed out of the barracks in an uncontrollable impulse of rage and indignation. “My heart was inflamed with rancor,” he writes. While walking outside he encountered one of the Polish prisoners, who was also seeking to escape from the repugnant spectacle. “He looked at me gloomily, his eyes flashed and his lips began trembling. ‘Je hais ces brigands‘—he muttered through his clenched teeth, in a half-strangled voice, and passed by.”

The effect of these words was to make Dostoevsky abruptly turn on his heel and go back to the barracks, even though he had bolted out in a frenzy just a quarter of an hour before. He does not explain why the remark should have had this effect; but it is clear, from everything said so far, that the Polish comment had stung him to the quick, and that he wished to demonstrate his solidarity with his fellow Russians. It was in this state of mind, with his heart beating “agitatedly” as a result of the words he had just heard, that he lay down on the plank-bed to dream of the past and recalled an incident of his youth.

One day, he writes, while taking a walk in the woods on his father’s small estate, Dostoevsky was frightened by what he thought was the sound of someone shouting that a wolf was roaming in the vicinity. Dashing out of the woods, he rushed to one of his father’s peasant serfs, whom he knew only as Marey, plowing in a nearby field. The surprised peasant halted work to comfort the trembling child “like a mother,” blessed him with the sign of the cross, and sent him home. The memory of this incident swept over Dostoevsky, at this instant, like a revelation, and made him aware of something he had never grasped before. “The encounter was isolated, in an empty field, and only God, perhaps, saw from above what deep and enlightened human feeling, what delicate, almost womanly tenderness, could fill the heart of a coarse, bestially ignorant Russian peasant serf, not yet expecting, or even suspecting, that he might be free.”

And Dostoevsky attributes to this recollection a total transformation in his attitude toward the peasant convicts. “I suddenly felt that I could look at these unfortunates with quite different eyes, and suddenly, as if by a miracle, all hatred and rancor vanished from my heart [italics added]. I walked around, looking attentively at the faces that I met. That despised peasant, with shaven head and brand-marks on his face, reeling with drink, bawling out his hoarse, drunken song—why, he must be that very Marey; after all, I am not able to look into his heart.” Later that day, Dostoevsky met the same Pole again and could now confront him with a quite different feeling of inward security and even a twinge of pity. “He could not have had any memories of any Mareys, and any other opinion about these people than: Je hais ces brigands! No, those Poles had much more to endure than we did.”

Dostoevsky’s sudden shift, which he himself compares to “a miracle,” bears all the earmarks of a genuine conversion experience; and it also involves a recovery or rediscovery of faith. But it is not religious in the strict sense, though it has strong religious associations and overtones. For what Dostoevsky has been converted to is a belief in the Russian people as being, in some sense, the human image of Christ, capable of inwardly overcoming and forgiving all the injustices committed against them by their masters from time immemorial. Dostoevsky thus resolved his own moral and spiritual crisis by what can be called, using Kierkegaard’s term, a “leap of faith” in the moral beauty of the Russian peasantry; each peasant was a potential Marey, and each had managed to preserve in his soul—at least to Dostoevsky’s suddenly cleansed vision—the highest and most sublime of the Christian virtues.

It may seem, at first sight, that this renewal of Dostoevsky’s faith in “the people” simply returned him to his point of departure, and that he had just gone back to his “humanitarian” and “philanthropic” convictions of the 1840s. But if this were so, then no “conversion” would really have taken place. In fact, however, the circumstances of Dostoevsky’s recovery of “faith” gave it an entirely new significance, even though it may seem superficially similiar to his past beliefs. For one thing, the focus of his faith was now the Russian common people, and it thus became charged with a new and intense nationalistic passion; the virtues of “the people” were no longer seen as simply a function of their status and class condition, but as a distinctly national characteristic.

For another, these virtues reverse the old “humanitarian” attitude, based on the pity and condescension of the upper classes for the weak and the inferior; it was now “the people” who had the right to pardon and forgive, and who were the unique repository of this sublime spiritual attribute. And finally, Dostoevsky’s recovery of his faith in “the people” had been made under the beneficent influence of the religious emotions of his childhood, and was indissolubly linked with the Orthodox faith that he shared with the peasant convicts. Hence his new “faith” was divorced from, and was indeed in sharp opposition to, his previous “progressive” Christianity, which he now saw as the source of all his earlier errors and illusions.

Long ago, in the days of his youth, Dostoevsky had written a boyishly enthusiastic letter in which he had spoken of Christ as having been incarnated by God and sent to earth in order to provide the world with “the organization of its spiritual and earthly life.” And he had singled out, as the destined temporal embodiment of Christ’s message in the early nineteenth century, “the childish Christian tendency” in the poetry of Victor Hugo. Now, after his “conversion,” he would abandon this cosmopolitan allegiance and, in the future, discover the true teaching of Christ only in the world of the peasant Marey.

(This essay is based on a lecture given in French at a Colloque International, organized by l’Institut National d’Etudes Slaves, and convened to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of Dostoevsky’s death (1821-1881). The conference took place in July, 1981, under the auspices of the Fondation Sophia Antipolis, Valbonne, France.)

  1. *

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

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