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…

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