Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky: The Stir of Liberation, 1860-1865

The third volume of the late Princeton professor Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky pentalogy begins on the heels of the second, with Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky returned from his exile in a Siberian labour camp and released from the subsequent mandatory military service attached to his sentence. He had taken a wife, gaining a son through marriage, and to this immediate family he could count on the friendship and loyalty of his brother Mikhail, but his prospects still seemed bleak: he was penniless, having been unable to write during his long years in exile, and his once-great literary reputation was all but forgotten in the fast-paced world of Russian letters, now blessed by such giants as Ivan Turgenev, Alexander Herzen, and Leo Tolstoy. And yet, whatever the odds, he faced his future with courage, reassured by the experiences of his long Siberian travail: everything was taken from him, he was thrust into the worst of circumstances, and nonetheless he survived. He resolved to face his future with his head held high.

The early 1860s in Russia were a turbulent time, and Dostoevsky quickly found himself in the very warp and woof of the political debates that roiled Russian literary society. The liberation of the serfs in 1861, far from quieting the revolutionary thinkers that had been gathering force, reassured them of the righteousness of their position and the necessity of making a clean break with the past. As Frank puts it:

All the ideals on which previous Russian life had been founded were called into question; influential voices were heard proclaiming that an entirely new moral basis must be sought on which to construct society. Russian culture thus entered an acute phase of crisis; and the ensuing clash of values, dramatized in the Russian literature of the time, forms the indispensable context within which the works of Dostoevsky must be understood.

Dostoevsky had previous flirted with the more radical reformers, those eager to call all into question, particularly the authority of the tsar, but his experiences in Siberia had changed him, perhaps more than he himself understood in the 1860s. Moreover, there emerged on the scene a more radical group of thinkers, led by the philosopher-writer Nikolay Chernyshevsky and the critic-poet Nikolay Dobrolyubov, dubbed the raznochintsy (literally “people of various ranks”) due to their unfixed place in the Russian caste system. They were drawn from the class of merchants, minor officials and clergy, men with educations exceeding those needed to fulfill their previous duties, and they transformed their restlessness into a bitter resentment at Russian society. When Fyodor and his brother Mikhail founded a literary journal of their own, Vrema (Time), they were throwing down a gauntlet and entering the battleground of opinions. In Time, Dostoevsky distinguished himself and his journal not only from the more radical, raznochintsy writers, who sought nothing less than an overthrow of the ancien regime, but also from his more mild-mannered liberal contemporaries, who looked to Western Europe to set the standards for the Russian future. In practice, that contrarian position meant that Dostoevsky maximized his ideological enemies. One of his collaborators in Time, Nikolay Strakhov, who would go on to become an important writer and philosopher in his own right, left this recollection of Dostoevsky for posterity:

Our conversations were endless, and they were the best conversations I was every lucky enough to have in my life. […] The most routine abstract thought very often struck him with uncommon force, and would stir him up remarkably. He was, in any case, a person in the highest degree excitable and impressionable. A simple idea, sometimes very familiar and commonplace, would suddenly set him aflame and reveal itself to him in all its significance. He, so to speak, felt thought with unusual liveliness. Then he would state it in various forms, sometimes giving it a very sharp, graphic expression, although not explaining it logically or developing its content. Above all, he was an artist, he thought in images and was guided by feeling.

Strakhov is recollecting a time long before the publication of Dostoevsky’s major works, but already we can glimpse the habits of thought that make Crime And Punishment and Demons and The Brothers Karamazov so captivating: the comprehensiveness of thinking, ideas pushed to their logical limits, and never merely stated or coldly defined but given flesh and blood and projected onto the feelings with maximum force.

Two major works of fiction emerge from this brief, five-year time period: Notes From Underground and the prison memoir Notes From A Dead House. Neither attain to the brilliance of his later novels, and yet both show, in embryo, their great promise. More importantly, they position Dostoevsky in the midst of these important literary-philosophical debates, for both books are intimately linked to the turbulence of the times. They are Dostoevsky’s early ripostes to materialism and the cramped view of human life that would go on to inspire Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks. But the years between 1860 and 1865 would also be marked by great tragedy for Dostoevsky: his beloved brother and confidante, the man who supported Fyodor both financially and emotionally, would pass away in 1864, at the age of 45, from liver failure, and his first wife, Marya Dmitrievna, would pass away later the same year. Thus, in 1865, when we once again take our leave of Fyodor Dostoevsky, he is in scarcely better shape than in 1859: not only destitute, but burdened by his own and his brother’s debts, and the obligation he owes to support Mikhail’s family, and bereft of the closest friend and ally he would ever have.