Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky: The Seeds of Revolt, 1821-1849

My introduction to Joseph Frank and his monumental five-volume biography of Fyodor Dostoevsky came more than a decade ago, in a review included in David Foster Wallace’s Consider The Lobster, and the man and his life’s work have been on my list of aspirational reads ever since. Having lately completed Demons, which I consider not only a work of staggering genius and prophetic insight, but a veritable map of contemporary society and its woes, I resolved to learn more about Dostoevsky and his times, and the consensus seems to be that Frank’s work is a peerless introduction. Indeed, the abridged version is subtitled A Writer in His Time, alluding to the fact that Frank’s biography doubles as a history of 19th century Russia and the political and philosophical currents that shaped it. Frank, a lifelong professor of comparative literature, was of the opinion that the key to unlocking Dostoevsky’s particular genius lay in his reaction to – and ultimate rejection of – the vogue theories of Russia’s burgeoning intelligentsia.

We therefore begin with a Prelude, a whirlwind tour of 19th century Russian history that helps set the scene for Dostoevsky’s birth in 1821, and I will ask you, after I summarize Frank’s summary, to consider if there is not an eerie parallel between Russia’s past and the present-day United States. Unlike Western Europe, which had been undergoing an intense and rapid democratizing process, Russia in the 19th century was still dominated by the tsars, who looked upon European liberalism as a threat to their power. Russia’s economy, too, was out of date, less industrial and more agricultural than its European rival states, and this dependency on the plow prolonged Russia’s serf system, under which entire classes of people were born into a form of indentured servitude, bought and sold with the estates to which they were irrevocably attached. The 19th century began with great promise: the overthrow of Tsar Paul I and the ascension of his son, Alexander I, seemed to signal a softening of tsarist authoritarianism and a path to the abolition of serfdom. However the Napoleonic Wars, culminating in Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and eventual defeat, strengthened the position of the tsar and heightened his resistance to reform. At the same time, a new intelligentsia emerged, drawn from the officer class who fought the Napoleonic wars and breathed the free air of Western Europe for the first time, and among these new worthies, Russia’s culture and traditions became synonymous with backwardness. Their children would be educated in Western Europe, would learn to speak and read in French (often before they learned their mother tongue), and would be denied the religious education common to their compatriots. Frank quotes from Alexander Herzen, who noted that “nowhere does religion play so modest a role in education as in Russia.” The anti-tsarist agitation came to a climax in 1825, shortly after the unexpected death of Alexander I, when a group of army officers led an uprising in protest of the ascension of Alexander’s son, Nicholas I, to the throne. Their revolt – the Decembrist uprising – was brutally suppressed, the leading figures executed, and a new series of repressions ushered in, to secure the authority of the tsars. But the execution of the Decembrist plotters also “provided the nascent Russian intelligentsia with its first candidates for the new martyrology that would soon replace the saints of the Orthodox Church.”

Dostoevsky was born into the perfect station to notice this fundamental shift in values among the thinking classes, for unlike every other major Russian writer of the period (Tolstoy, Gogol, Herzen, Pushkin and Lermontov), he was not born into the landed gentry. Dostoevsky’s father was a surgeon, who eventually “won” his nobility through service to the state – a concept inaugurated only recently by Peter the Great. And while Dostoevsky’s father had all of the typical ambitions for his son – he made him learn French, and read the most influential literature of Western Europe – he was also firmly rooted in the Russian peasant traditions. “I came from a pious Russian family,” Dostoevsky would later record. “In our family, we knew the Gospel almost from the cradle.” Culturally, too, Fyodor’s upbringing differed from his eventual literary rivals, for while they were steeped in Western European stories, philosophy and literature, to the exclusion of Russian history and culture, Dostoevsky was raised on Russian folktales, nursery rhymes and history primers, and made to take pride in his nation’s accomplishments. By the time Dostoevsky enrols in the Nikolayev Military Engineering Institute in 1838, offering him his first real exposure to the ideas circulating among the emergent intelligentsia, he can already sense his alienation from his peers. One touchstone for this divide was the historian Nikolay Karamzin, whose 12-volume History of the Russian State gave epic narrative scope to Russia’s history. Pushkin said of Karamzin that he “discovered the Russian past as Columbus discovered America.” But Karamzin had also spent time in France during the Revolution, saw first-hand its murderous excesses, and wrote in a cautionary tone about the influence of Western European liberalism on Russia. His honesty on this subject drew the scorn of the burgeoning radical intellectual circles into which Dostoevsky now found himself.

What Frank teases out, in the remaining pages, are the competing ideologies warring for mastery of Dostoevsky’s heart and soul. On the one hand, he had his Christian upbringing, which located ultimate moral responsibility with the individual, and the influence of a romantic aesthetic theory, descended from men like Friedrich Schiller, that made possible a conception of art distinct from the social realities of the day; and, on the other hand, a kind of social protest vision of literature, advanced by his comrades in the engineering school, and the St. Petersburg literary circles of the day, which necessitated that contemporary writing be foregrounded in the experiences of the Russian people. Literary fads come and go, but this dilemma, it seems to me, is eternal: skew too much towards the aesthetic and your writing is in danger of becoming irrelevant; preoccupy yourself too much with the political, and your writing becomes mere propaganda. Two writers, above all others, helped steer Dostoevsky between these two extremes: Balzac and Gogol, and Frank does an admirable job charting their influence on Dostoevsky’s first published novel, Poor Folk, which was met with immediate praise and made Dostoevsky an overnight sensation.

It was not to last. A combination of Dostoevsky’s vanity – revealed to us in the reminiscences of the literati, as well as, candidly, in Dostoevsky’s own letters to his brother – and his growing preoccupation with the spiritual condition of poverty, at the expense of the material, served to sour the Petersburg critics towards him. “I have a terrible defect: an immeasurable egoism and vanity,” he writes in one letter. It cost him friendships and connections he might otherwise have retained, and though by 1849, on the verge of his arrest for circulating seditious materials, he has already demonstrated some of the psychological acuity that make his late works so memorable, he is still, at this point, immature, as an artist and a person. His psychological and artistic development, Frank insists, necessitates the crucible of his mock execution and Siberian exile – but these are subjects for the second volume.

As an introduction to Dostoevsky’s life and world, The Seeds of Revolt deserves high praise; Frank takes his reader gently by the hand and leads him through a foreign world, a world of suspicions and secrets, in which revolutionaries and reactionaries alike recognize the power of the written word. It was this high-stakes world that birthed one of literature’s best novelists, and Frank brings it vividly to life.