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Lost in the Fatherland

Dostoevsky’s Russia as curiously modern after-school special

Dostoevsky’s leading characters are essentially adolescents. They share an aura of awkwardness, humiliation, scandal; a habit of transgression, intentional or not; a dedicated, yet also decidedly promiscuous, attachment to ideology; a superabundance of content coupled with an absence of form. His novels are spaces where the usual etiquette has been suspended; the beings inside and underneath them have a disturbing tendency to say what they want, even though they know that it will cost them. Society is lying to them; they do their best not to return the favor. The world is perennially unsafe; they want to save the world. They feel they can do anything if they believe; belief comes and goes. Why state it when you can overstate it? His characters overstay their welcomes, and they do not have careers. They lose all hope that they can lose all hope—or else they’re suicidally depressed.

Is this what it feels like to be—a genius? The future bleeds ecstatically into the present. Everything, for them, is going to happen now.

Such people! They’re always something else—namely, Russian. Dostoevsky’s genius was to recognize the parallel between his country’s condition and that of adolescence. His fictions are states of the imperiled Russian union, dramas of the nation in transition. Halfway between West and East, mediating between modern matter and ancient faith, Russia in the nineteenth century was committed very much in spite of itself to coming of age. A medieval autocracy, its Christian religion adopted from Greek patriarchs, its militarized state adapted from Mongol khans, Russia had nonetheless strained over centuries to keep pace with Europe: a mature, alien continent whose superior science, wealth, and culture could not be denied. To maintain their international power, czars were obliged to imitate foreigners, grafting alien modes of thought onto their subjects. Yet by valorizing reason and freedom, these new mentalities posed an inherent threat to the czarist system. Wakened by liberal education to the cruelties inflicted on the Russian peasant class, certain elements of the aristocracy and middle classes turned against their own society. They dreamed of revolution and acted on their dreams.

The iniquity of serfdom outraged Dostoevsky. The son of a merchant’s daughter and a minor aristocrat who served as a military doctor, his instinct had always been to side with the oppressed. His own adolescent years had seen the death of both parents: his kind mother from tuberculosis when he was fifteen, his grim father two years later under mysterious circumstances. The official cause of his father’s death was a stroke, yet rumors flew that his serfs had murdered him. In either case, Dostoevsky was freed from his father’s authoritarian demand that he work as a military engineer for life. He began to carve out a name for himself as a writer. His first novel, Poor Folk, was a critical favorite and a best-seller; its follow-up, The Double, was neither. Both were saturated with a radical sentimentality that stirred compassion for Petersburg’s most excluded and oppressed readers—clerks and women—while highlighting Russian society’s philistinism and czarist bureaucracy’s callousness.

Shunned by the critical community that had originally embraced him, Dostoevsky sought shelter in a large, liberal-minded reading group where he distinguished himself as a passionate hater of serfdom; not long after, he found himself invited to a secret revolutionary circle within the group dedicated to overthrowing the government by any means necessary. The reading group was soon arrested by the police, and its most incendiary members, Dostoevsky among them, were sentenced to death by firing squad. Only after the men were lined up and the order to shoot was given was it revealed that their sentences had been commuted to prison in Siberia. By the time Dostoevsky was permitted to return to Petersburg and fiction, he was an epileptic nearing forty. He was not long home before, due to reasons beyond his control, he found himself hugely in debt. He evaded his creditors by fleeing to Europe, where he developed a gambling addiction.

There is nothing preventing us from achieving in our time what Dostoevsky achieved in his; furthermore, there was nothing preventing Dostoevsky from failing at his art in the same way that we all can.

Under such auspicious conditions he composed an unbroken series of masterpieces: House of the Dead, a semi-fictionalized account of his Siberian prison years; the novellas Notes from Underground, The Gambler, and The Eternal Husband; the novels Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, and Demons. To be fair, he had some outside help. Anna Snitkina, the young stenographer he hired to help him complete The Gambler before the hardest of hard deadlines—failure to deliver meant surrendering for nine years the rights to all his earlier books—became his wife soon after. Her diligence enabled him to produce quickly, and her care preserved him from total self-destruction. And the times were on his side. Alexander II, the new czar, had not only scaled back his father Nicholas I’s repressions, reforming the legal system, reducing censorship, and permitting exiled revolutionaries to return to Russia; he had also abolished serfdom, a political act that freed Dostoevsky creatively. He became able to criticize the hated institution directly without antagonizing the state; he became able to speak for the nation he had always cherished without shame. As a new generation of revolutionaries emerged (serfdom had gone, but exploitation and inequality remained), he found himself in a unique position as an intermediary, a staunch supporter of a liberalizing czar possessing the most sensitive understanding of the impulses driving the radical youth to revolt.

You could say that despite being physically and materially deprived by debt, epilepsy, and addiction, artistically Dostoevsky possessed all the motive, means, and opportunity needed to create fiction at the highest level. His achievement is less of a mystery than one would think: Joseph Frank’s epic five-volume biography traces something close to all the personal and moral-ideological filaments leading in and out of Dostoevsky’s works. Yet to borrow from the title of Frank’s fourth volume, the Russian author’s achievement seems more “miraculous” now than ever. Reading Dostoevsky’s hellish books, the Romantic (or adolescent) tendency is to assume that their author tore through the inferno on wings of inspiration. A biographer like Frank presents the author’s footsteps in the sulfurous mud, and in doing so deprives us of the comfort of the commonplace that geniuses are more than human. The miracle, it turns out, isn’t that the author survived his journey through hell; everyone does that. It’s that, despite hell being an individuated experience, with each inhabitant wading through a personalized fire, the artist’s particular reflections on a particular underworld can possess a general validity. Quite unlike becoming rich, making great art is something that everyone can do so long as they want to. There is nothing preventing us from achieving in our time what Dostoevsky achieved in his; furthermore, there was nothing preventing Dostoevsky from failing at his art in the same way that we all can.

Cad Dad, Bad Ad

No one quite knows what to make of The Adolescent, the 1875 novel that shattered Dostoevsky’s winning streak in fiction. Smart observers rightly view it as a confounding dud and pass on to the better books as soon as possible. Frank refers to it as the “weakest of his five major novels” while the émigré prince and Bolshevik D.S. Mirsky’s sweeping History of Russian Literature dismisses it as “ideologically on a lower plane than the four great novels.” In his typically thumbsucking introduction to the 2003 translation by Larissa Volokhonsky and himself—part of their decades-long, kudzu-esque campaign to choke out every field of classic Russian literature—Richard Pevear notes it as “the least known of the five novels, the least discussed in the vast critical literature on Dostoevsky,” omitted by most major commentators and scorned by nearly all the rest. Many pages are expended selling the novel’s merits as a “high and serious comedy,” but as with all things relating to Pevear and Volokhonsky, the copy doesn’t match the product. The book is jarringly bad. Still, explaining how it doesn’t come together says more about both Dostoevsky and the present than one might expect.

The book is narrated in retrospect by the titular adolescent, Arkady Makarovich Dolgoruky. Recently graduated from boarding school, he has come to Petersburg to seek out a family that he barely knows. His unmarried but cohabiting parents are Sofia, a peasant woman, and Andrei Versilov, an aristocrat and liberal intellectual; he has a sister, Lizaveta Makarovna. Arkady is a bastard with dreams of getting even. Bullied by his noble classmates, he aspires to wealth, the “Rothschild idea”: an outcast cannot be denied if he represents great capital, and he means to acquire it by consistently eating little, buying cheap, and selling dear.

His greatest possessions are two secret letters. The more important was written by a widowed noblewoman, Katerina Nikolaevna Akhmakov; in it, Katerina asks if it is possible to have her increasingly senile father Prince Nikolai Sokolsky, from whom she stands to inherit much, declared mentally unfit. Revealing the document to the prince would likely cause her disinheritance, an outcome much desired by Anna Andreevna, Arkady’s legitimate half-sister, who seeks to marry the old prince and his money. The other letter revolves around a different, unrelated Prince Sokolsky, who is in the midst of a lawsuit with Versilov; the letter might tip the outcome toward the prince.

The balance of experience does not favor the adolescent. Clueless to the machinations surrounding him (everyone seems to suspect he has the letters), Arkady babbles through encounters with the various noble parties as well as with the plebes: he spills his guts to a group of young radicals; to the brutish Frenchman Lambert, a tormentor from his schooldays; to Stebelkov, a shady moneylender with his hooks deep in the younger Prince Sokolsky. The lawsuit with Versilov is soon settled more or less fairly, yet the plot thickens, and then thickens more. It turns out that Prince Sergei has seduced and impregnated not only a feeble-minded young woman in Germany but Lizaveta Makarovna as well; furthermore, Prince Sergei, having partaken in the forgery of stock certificates in the past, is being blackmailed by Stebelkov, his partner in crime. Unable to bear the pressure, the prince confesses to the police, goes insane in jail, and dies.

Don’t Study Abroad

It may be useful to contrast The Adolescent to The Lady from Shanghai, the classic 1947 noir written by Orson Welles starring Welles and Rita Hayworth. The plots of both are centered on an unwitting young man from a lower-class background as he becomes entangled in the convoluted power plays between several rich elites, some aligned with foreigners; in both cases the audience is skillfully immersed in the protagonist’s disgusted confusion as he gradually discovers their willingness to deceive, abduct, and kill along their paths to obsessive money-grubbing. The key difference between the film and novel is one of positivity: while The Lady from Shanghai holds out no possibility of redemption (“Maybe I’ll live so long that I’ll forget her. Maybe I’ll die trying”), The Adolescent takes pains to clear a path for regeneration. The final section of the novel introduces Makar Ivanovich Dolgoruky, Sofia’s legal husband and Arkady’s legal father, an aging peasant who has spent his life on a constant pilgrimage to and from monasteries. Makar’s last name, identical to that of a famous blueblood clan, is meant to suggest the true untarnished nobility of the Russian peasantry; Arkady’s carrying his patronymic indicates his potential to break, as Makar has, from class resentment and humiliation in the name of a religious ideal valued by the Russian commoner. Makar has arrived in Petersburg on his last legs; he greets his impending death happily and without complaint. In death as in life, he signifies renunciation and reconciliation in the name of Christ.

All love affairs and manic highs aside, being an adolescent sucks; when the despair of formless life feels like it will last forever, it can suck so much you want to kill yourself.

As for Arkady: aiming to preserve his potential for redemption, Dostoevsky was compelled to reduce his protagonist’s character to the dimensions of a shuttlecock. Instead of forcefully acting on, and directly bearing the consequences of, the dark urges for wealth that originally defined him, he must be slowly emptied of intelligence and will, the crime and punishment for his greed outsourced to two characters with foreign complexions, an unremittingly vile Frenchman and a villainous forger and moneylender. (Even if Stebelkov isn’t Jewish, Dostoevsky, whose journalism was becoming steadily more anti-Semitic during the period of The Adolescent’s composition, has made sure he matches the stereotype.) Meanwhile, the figure of Arkady’s father, first convincingly painted as a droll, ironic, well-rounded Europhiliac harboring lofty ideals of spiritual regeneration, reveals an incongruous, maniacal edge in later chapters. By the end of the novel, both his mind and standing with the reader have been debased by too much febrile scheming. Compared with dignified and seemly Makar, Versilov can only seem pathetic; it’s clear there’s only room for one father figure that can offer guidance to the youth of Russia, and it isn’t him.

A Prophet Honored in His Own Country

Beneath the messiness of The Adolescent’s surface narrative a suspiciously pure ideological conception lies. Arkady was imagined by his author as a vessel for the newest generation of young Russian socialists, the Populists of the 1870s that had just supplanted the Nihilists of the 1860s. Unlike the atheistic Nihilists who aspired to European rationality and rigor, the Populists turned from the West and idealized the Russian peasantry, imagining their premodern communal society as a basis for the socialism of the future. Though lacking the compelling debate for which its author had become known, The Adolescent nonetheless works as a kind of narrative lecture delivered by Dostoevsky to the Populists, particularly their leading theoretician Nikolai Mikhailovsky. A perceptive critic of what he described as Dostoevsky’s “cruel talent,” Mikhailovsky had also argued that the novelist had failed to address the ongoing rise of capitalism in Russia. It was an argument Dostoevsky readily accepted. Just as film noir dramatized the moral disintegration of America’s WASP ascendancy, The Adolescent tracks, with a notable lack of cruelty, a Russian ruling class in the advanced stages of irrevocable decadence, aided and abetted by capitalism and the self-serving thought it promoted. Like the Populists, Dostoevsky burned incense at the altar of the Russian peasant. With the figure of Makar Ivanovich, the devout self-sacrificing peasant patriarch, he implied, in effect, that the youth who worshipped the peasantry must respect, and even share, the objects of the peasants’ worship—in other words, the Christ of Russian Orthodox religion and the Czar.

Yet the irredeemable clunkiness of the plot and the deep implausibility of the characters are signs that Dostoevsky had run up against the limitation of his own ideals. What he had achieved in The Idiot, the rigorous and ruthless crash-testing of his Christian convictions against existing social reality, was not repeated in The Adolescent, where his belief in the incorruptible piety of the Russian peasant goes entirely unchallenged. He knew, of course, that the inner life of the uncultured Russian peasantry could be as formless as that of the intelligentsia who were, more often than not, their sons and daughters; that the Russian peasants’ curious, chaotic mixture of volatility and inertia, rectitude and depravity, proto-capitalist greed and proto-communist selflessness, Christianity of conscience and Christianity of pogroms could be led in any direction and would resist any realistic valorization. Having spent years in prison living in their company, he knew it better than any of his contemporaries. But he did not want to believe. Redemption through the peasant and the czar united was his sole ideal, the only concept capable of fending off the specter of total futility.

Through a strange trick of fate, American millennials occupy a historical position strikingly analogous to the Russian generation Dostoevsky intended The Adolescent to reach.

A hint of this desperation peeks through in the earlier, better chapters of The Adolescent: Arkady meets Kraft, a student radical who has convinced himself that the Russian people are second-rate, incapable of originality, destined to be nothing more than raw material molded by more capable races. They have a friendly talk, but the next day Arkady learns that Kraft has killed himself. Even here you see the author insulating himself from his worst suspicions; Kraft is, after all, not a true Russian but a Russian of German descent. But it gives some sense of the terror of national nothingness that drove Dostoevsky to awe-inspiring triumphs as an artist no less than to indefensible bigotries as a journalist. All love affairs and manic highs aside, being an adolescent sucks; when the despair of formless life feels like it will last forever, it can suck so much you want to kill yourself. If this holds true for teenagers in infantile America, how much more so for adolescents in the years of Russian adolescence?

Through a strange trick of fate, American millennials occupy a historical position strikingly analogous to the Russian generation Dostoevsky intended The Adolescent to reach. In both cases the world economy has entered an autumn phase; in both cases the chill of recession gives rise to populist political organizing, however halting and inchoate. And Versilov, in his self-satisfaction, secret disquiet, and ultimate incoherence, resembles nothing so much as the quintessential Boomer intellectual; between boomer parents and millennial offspring lies a narrow, not to say narrow-minded, stratum of edgy nihilists incapable of positive ideals. But there is no elder novelist, no boomer counterpart to Dostoevsky, in close contact with the concerns of younger generations and capable of dramatizing them on a grand scale. As a consolation for their straitened circumstances, millennials now possess a chance to define their own form better than their elders.

Yet Russia is, or was, a different case. By the time of Dostoevsky’s death, his fatherland had become one with his fiction. In a scene more than worthy of those in his novels, his funeral was a grand affair worshipfully attended by every sector of educated Russian society: radical, centrist, and reactionary. In the sequel to The Brothers Karamazov, he had planned for the young radical Alyosha to kill the czar; a month after his funeral, young radicals killed the czar. An anti-Semite in his later years, he had dreamed of uniting the czar and the peasants; the new czar Alexander III (an admirer of Crime and Punishment) instigated pogroms among the peasants, passed anti-Jewish laws, and dealt harshly with radicals. “The influence of Dostoyevsky as a whole and complete phenomenon cannot be exaggerated,” Mirsky wrote. “The pre-Revolutionary generation, especially that born between 1865 and 1880 (that is to say, by a curious coincidence, between the dates of the first and last of his great novels), was literally soaked with his ideas and his mentality.” Think of the adolescent who would become Lenin, swearing vengeance on the czar for the execution of his revolutionary brother; of Rasputin, the true influence of the peasant soul, a dark Makar Ivanovich radiating piousness and big dick energy in equal measure; of Stalin, whose personality and killings were all but prophesied in Demons’s Pyotr Verkhovensky. (Only with Stalin’s death in 1953 would Russia’s Dostoevskian decades reach an end.) Far from mere transcription of ephemera, the form and content of a given novelist can overtake reality, dictate future history—that much has been proven. But whether such a vision has the power to change a nation for the better still remains to be seen.