Joseph Frank writes that an interest in existentialism led him during the 1950s to make a close study of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, and then to undertake his life’s work, a biography of the Russian writer, of which three volumes have now appeared, with two to follow. The work is already established as a classic, not only for its strenuous erudition but also for the depth of insight it reveals into the relation of Dostoevsky to the social and cultural life of his age. Professor Frank’s preface to the first volume claims that “one way of defining Dostoevsky’s genius is to locate it in his ability to fuse his private dilemmas with those raging in the society of which he was a part.” Hence the extensive and detailed reconstruction in his biography of that society and its intense intellectual activity. His new book, Through the Russian Prism, is a collection of twenty essays, most of them connected with his work on the biography.

Dostoevsky is an obsessional writer like D.H. Lawrence, who felt a fascinated revulsion when he came to read the novels during the “Dostoevsky fever” that swept the West at the beginning of this century. But whereas Lawrence is often isolated in his own obsessions, Dostoevsky in his fiction, from Crime and Punishment onward, and in most of his writings on public issues, maintains a lively play of intelligence, a restlessness, a questing passion that make his obsessions irresistible. In the words of Strakhov, the first biographer of Dostoevsky, he was one who “so to speak, felt thought with unusual liveliness” [Strakhov’s emphasis].

Strakhov said that “the best conversations I was ever lucky enough to have in my life” were with Dostoevsky. It seems no accident that Frank’s lead essay in the collection (which originally appeared in these pages) should review the “dialogues” of the philologist Roman Jakobson, with his wife, Krystyna Pomorska, who published them in 1980 (English translation, 1983). Frank’s original study of how Jakobson sought to reveal the concealed inner structure of literary works and language is followed by an essay on “The Voices of Mikhail Bakhtin,” in which Frank describes Bakhtin’s inventive way of reading Dostoevsky. He cites not only Bakhtin’s well-known notion of the “dialogic” or “polyphonic” novel but especially his idea of “double-voiced discourse,” or language affected by awareness of the discourse of others:

By focusing on the acute sensitivity that each Dostoevsky character exhibits toward the others, and exploring how each echoes and vibrates in the others’ psyches, Bakhtin hits on the secret that distinguishes Dostoevsky…from other novelists working in the same [realist] tradition.

Frank speaks of the necessity “to carry on…’the great dialogue’ ” with Bakhtin, and with Jakobson also. Through the Russian Prism is entirely conceived in the spirit of dialogue—with Dostoevsky himself; between Dostoevsky and his contemporaries at a time when Russia seemed on the verge of vast changes; between Dostoevsky and the novelist Ralph Ellison, who shares something of his predicament, as Frank suggests by juxtaposing Invisible Man with Notes from Underground and The House of the Dead; and between Russian thinking of the nineteenth century and revolutionaries of the third world, particularly since 1945. No topic could be more apposite today, when so many of Dostoevsky’s warnings against the dangers of utopian revolutionary optimism have come true, at the cost of much human suffering.

The epigraph to Through the Russian Prism is a passage from Diary of a Writer (1873), in which Dostoevsky talks about the “Russian aspect” of doctrines expounded by “all those high European teachers, our light and our hope—all those Mills, Darwins, and Strausses.” Doctrines, that is, in which utility is made the criterion of moral value, and natural selection is defined as the mechanism of evolving nature, and for the sake of a religion based on humanity alone, revelation is expelled from the modern consciousness. In the increasingly stormy atmosphere of Russia in the early 1860s, Russian radicals extracted from the “unshakable axioms” of contemporary English and German philosophers their own inferences about the shape of future society. Russia became the nursery of a political dogmatism, rigorous and reductionist in the extreme.

Its tenets, however, could not be openly stated in print, or in any public meeting; they had to be expressed in veiled or “Aesopian” terms, until in the next decade the radical movement called Narodnaya Volya (the People’s Will) threw off its disguises in terrorism. Dostoevsky foresaw with dreadful clarity the consequences of this dogmatism for future generations. The attainment of truth by suffering is part of the Russian tradition, and Dostoevsky himself had been drastically affected by his own encounters with suffering. While he was planning Crime and Punishment he noted one incident to bear in mind for the novel: “My first personal insult, the horse, the courier.” At sixteen he had witnessed a government courier beating his young peasant driver regularly on the back of his neck to make him whip up the horses. “This sickening picture remained in my memory all my life.” He wrote in 1876 that the shock inclined him “as it were involuntarily” to account for “much that was shameful and cruel in the Russian people” thereafter “in an obviously much too one-sided fashion.”


Dostoevsky was a man of the 1840s, of the generation dominated by the brilliant and outspoken liberal critic Vissarion Belinsky, who praised Dostoevsky’s first novel, Poor Folk, without reservation when it was published in 1846, interpreting it as a protest against social injustice. During the decade that culminated in the uprisings of 1848 in many European capitals, Dostoevsky committed himself to the revolutionary cause by joining the inner conspiratorial core of the so-called Petryashevsky Circle in St. Petersburg.

The outcome is well known: his arrest, confinement in the Peter and Paul fortress, the mock execution with a last-minute prearranged reprieve, four years of penal servitude in Siberia, followed by a spell of military conscription, until the new tsar, Alexander II, allowed him in 1859 to return to Russia. He had come very near to suffering the same fate as the five leaders of the Decembrist conspiracy in 1825, who were hanged in the following year; he was spared only to endure an experience scarcely milder than the Gulag. Among common criminals, many of them murderers and most of them peasants, he was derided as a gentleman who had been brought down to their level, and he lived in constant fear of being flogged with the knout.

Dostoevsky might have been crushed altogether by this ordeal, but it was to prove his making. He had seen a world in which good and evil were terms without meaning, even though occasionally the convicts’ degradation would be relieved by a brief moment of redemption when an instinctive Christianity shone through. When he returned to the world, Dostoevsky was a man set apart by this experience. He used his formidable talents to dramatize not only his personal sufferings but also the predicament of Russian society during the critical years after defeat in the Crimea. Change now seemed inevitable: it must come either by reform from above, or, if that should falter, by revolution from below.

The scene that unfolded before Dostoevsky’s eyes Frank sets out in “Overviews,” the second group of essays in the collection, leading up to the third, on the novelist himself. He comments mainly on three important studies—Andrzej Walicki’s A History of Russian Thought (1973; English translation, 1979); Rufus Mathewson’s The Positive Hero in Russian Literature (1958; revised, 1975); and Franco Venturi’s Roots of Revolution (1952; English translation, 1961). Frank is an exemplary reviewer. Although he always has something to add from his extensive knowledge of the period, or a fresh connection to make, he gives every work of scholarship its due, and sometimes a little more. Even with books that he finds for the most part unsatisfactory, such as, “the very personal, very idiosyncratic and very aggressive” Dostoevsky by John Jones, he is balanced and fair. While he finds Nabokov shamefully high-handed in his treatment of Dostoevsky in his Lectures on Russian Literature, Frank sees this partly as the result of Nabokov’s irritation at being so indebted to him:

[Nabokov] rates The Double, an early and relatively uncomplicated story, as Dostoevsky’s finest achievement, no doubt because so many of his own characters are haunted by doubles both real and imaginary. And he praises the strain of furious grotesquerie in Dostoevsky, his “wonderful flair” for a “humor always on the verge of hysterics and people hurting each other in a wild exchange of insults.” Grotesque comedy is also Nabokov’s forte, though usually in a more restrained key.

The influence of Vissarion Belinsky, who died in 1848, just before the upheavals in Europe is, to Frank, central to understanding Dostoevsky. To some extent Belinsky belongs to the prehistory of the radical movement that Dostoevsky came to resist. Only in Russia could the views of a literary critic as radical as Belinsky have achieved, to the government’s dismay, such success among the educated class. Belinsky’s eye for new talent was remarkable: he saw at once the value of the first work not only of Dostoevsky, but also of Turgenev, Goncharov, Herzen, and Tolstoy. He was passionately concerned with German philosophy of the time, which he had learned about from friends more highly trained than himself—Belinsky knew no foreign languages. His countrymen, living without free institutions, and always aware of Russia’s backwardness, watched the headlong developments in Europe and were divided between Westerners and Slavophiles. With political action itself suppressed, many Russian writers thought that modern ideas could be mediated chiefly through literature, above all through prose fiction. Belinsky came to see literature as essentially a political instrument. He eventually decided that the art of the novelist was required only insofar as it could prevent a story “from degenerating into allegory or taking on the character of a dissertation…the chief thing is that it should call forth questions, that it should have moral effect upon society,” thus promoting political action.


Thereafter for many decades Russia would be at the mercy of ideas, and it is the place of ideas in Dostoevsky’s fiction that concerns Frank especially. Dostoevsky’s scheme for Crime and Punishment centered upon a young man, desperate in his poverty, who had, as he put it, “given way to certain strange ‘unfinished’ ideas that floated in the atmosphere.” Dostoevsky in his novel tried to imagine what would happen if such ideas were carried to completion. His method of “fantastic realism” revealed the awful potentiality of what common sense dismissed as abnormal or merely eccentric. His logic drove him to conclude of the perverse hero in Notes from Underground that such a being “not only may, but must, exist in our society.”

The “new men” who took up Belinsky’s ideas in the late 1850s and early 1860s simplified his doctrine. They were radical agitators first, and critics of literature by convenience. Chernyshevsky, the presiding figure, a former seminarist like his younger associate Dobrolyubov (and like Joseph Stalin as well), was a laborious and single-minded advocate of “rational egoism”—a surprising development of Mill’s utilitarian creed that Frank acutely analyzes. The rational egoist is never really unselfish, however altruistic his actions may appear. But he knows that the individual is best served if he takes account of other people’s needs. So he is led by the kindly light of self-interest, even when he makes an apparent sacrifice.

Chernyshevsky demonstrated—to his own satisfaction, and to that of countless readers at the time—the workings of this infallible system in his novel What Is to Be Done? (1863). It tells the story of the emancipation of a young woman, who makes use of rational egoism to free herself and to manage her relations with her lover and her husband. But rational egoism can do more than remove personal problems of love and guilt. It also inspires the austere and fanatical Rakhmetov, who trains his body as unsparingly as any East European gymnast today, to become the superb instrument of his revolutionary will. Only one weakness does Rakhmetov allow himself—smoking cigars. Lenin never outgrew his admiration for What Is to Be Done? No novel ever had such an eager reception in Russia; in its “power to make history,” Frank rightly compares it with Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Early in his career, Chernyshevsky had thought of George Sand, then widely admired in Russia, as a beloved sister in whom he could tenderly confide. There was scant trace of this sentimentality in a much younger critic, Pisarev, spokesman of what he called “the thinking proletariat,” the group of intellectuals who had no stake in the established order. Frank, in his sharp portrait, recalls that Pisarev wrote a celebrated essay glorifying Bazarov, the plebeian doctor of Fathers and Children. Turgenev, half in awe of Bazarov, half repelled, had seen his surly materialism as a portent of the times. For Pisarev Bazarov was a rational egoist to be praised without reservation. Bazarov, he insists, stands above morality—“a monumentally proto-Nietzschean image” in Frank’s description—who claims the right to do what he pleases just as Raskolnikov did before his regeneration. “Nothing but personal taste stops him from murdering and stealing, and nothing but personal taste incites people of this temper to make discoveries in science and social life.” The road was now open for a new and more terrible portent. It is revealed by the appearance in Dostoevsky’s fiction of Peter Verkhovensky, the evil genius of The Devils, and in Russian political life by the appearance of the wholly sinister Nechaev, the arch-terrorist.

Dostoevsky presented a copy of The Devils to the future Tsar Alexander III, then mistakenly supposed to have liberal and humanitarian leanings, explaining that the book was “almost a historical study, in which I wanted to explain the possibility in our society of such monstrous phenomena as the Nechaevite movement.” Nechaev, a former comrade of the anarchist leader Bakunin, whom Bakunin later repudiated, had been tried in 1871 for having arranged the “liquidation” of a fellow conspirator in order to bind more closely together the rest of the revolutionary cell. “Our Belinskys and Granovskys [the latter an idealist friend of Belinsky] would not believe it,” Dostoevsky said, “if they were told that they are directly the progenitors of the Nechaevites.” In The Devils Peter Verkhovensky is the son of a liberal poseur, Stepan Trofimovich.

The Devils, once described by Dostoevsky as a “pamphlet novel,” has been much criticized for its tendentiousness. Dostoevsky the publicist often displays ugly attitudes: Great Russian chauvinism, inveterate hatred of Poles and Catholics, anti-Semitism. The Devils may seem a malevolent lampoon, exactly suited to the taste of Dostoevsky’s ill-chosen friend, the reactionary Pobedonostsev, the tutor, and later, counselor of Alexander III. In his essay on the novel, Frank finds historical support for virtually every detail in the appalling characterization of Peter Verkhovensky, and he shows how Verkhovensky can be understood as a faithful disciple of Nechaev, whose precepts were set out in the Catechism of a Revolutionary and in the propaganda issued in 1869 by Nechaev and Bakunin. Nechaev’s biographer Steklov (whose books, published between 1916 and 1927, have been put to excellent use by Frank) writes of Nechaev’s “characteristic system of terror and deceit.” The efficacy of these methods led to their adoption by the Cheka, its successors in Russia, and its many other descendants elsewhere.

Dostoevsky could never himself have become a monster like Nechaev, though “perhaps, possibly…in the days of my youth” he admits he might have been a Nechaevite. Frank emphasizes what some commentators of The Devils have failed to appreciate: that Dostoevsky’s indictment of Verkhovensky at least allows some honorable motive for what he does: “Listen. I’ve seen a child six years old leading home his drunken mother, while she swore at him with foul words. Do you suppose I am glad of that? When it’s in our hands, maybe we’ll mend things.” Bakunin, too, admitted that Nechaev felt a “genuine ache for the people’s age-long suffering.”

The fiction of Dostoevsky is a neverending dialogue between opposites. “With the moral impulse inspiring the various Socialist systems,” Frank observes, he was “whole-heartedly in accord.” But he adhered to none of them. His knowledge of human psychology alerted him to the dangers of any system, however benevolent, that seeks to limit personal freedom, and in his sympathies for religious Orthodoxy, he felt he was defending the system that had the deepest insight into human weakness.

Frank praises Alexander Herzen, as “the only great radical” in Russia “who refused to accept the politicization of man.” He is alluding here to Herzen’s account in My Past and Thoughts of a “symbolic encounter” between him and Mazzini. They had been discussing the poetry of Leopardi, which Mazzini rejected since it “could not be used, of course, as propaganda.” Herzen was deeply disturbed by this “repression of personality,” this reduction to categories—“as though historical development were a corvée to which village constables drive the weak and strong, the willing and unwilling.” Herzen and Dostoevsky were in many respects ill-matched, but sharing this insight, they diagnose an evil seemingly ineradicable in our time as well—the intolerance to which revolutionaries and political militants have often been prone. One merit of Frank’s work is to make us see that Shigalyov in The Devils, who proposed a scheme of “unlimited freedom,” the inexorable result of which was “unlimited tyranny,” is a prophetic figure.

This Issue

January 17, 1991