Dostoevsky's Democracyby Nancy Ruttenburg
Dostoevsky's Democracy offers a major reinterpretation of the life and work of the great Russian writer by closely reexamining the crucial transitional period between the early works of the 1840s and the important novels of the 1860s. Sentenced to death in 1849 for utopian socialist political activity, the 28-year-old Dostoevsky was subjected to a mock/i>
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Dostoevsky's Democracy offers a major reinterpretation of the life and work of the great Russian writer by closely reexamining the crucial transitional period between the early works of the 1840s and the important novels of the 1860s. Sentenced to death in 1849 for utopian socialist political activity, the 28-year-old Dostoevsky was subjected to a mock execution and then exiled to Siberia for a decade, including four years in a forced labor camp, where he experienced a crisis of belief. It has been influentially argued that the result of this crisis was a conversion to Russian Orthodoxy and reactionary politics. But Dostoevsky's Democracy challenges this view through a close investigation of Dostoevsky's Siberian decade and its most important work, the autobiographical novel Notes from the House of the Dead (1861). Nancy Ruttenburg argues that Dostoevsky's crisis was set off by his encounter with common Russians in the labor camp, an experience that led to an intense artistic meditation on what he would call Russian "democratism." By tracing the effects of this crisis, Dostoevsky's Democracy presents a new understanding of Dostoevsky's aesthetic and political development and his role in shaping Russian modernity itself, especially in relation to the preeminent political event of his time, peasant emancipation.
"Nancy Ruttenburg offers a major reinterpretation of Dostoevsky's life and work by re-examining the crucial transitional period between the early works of the 1840s and the important novels of the 1860s."Times Higher Education
"Dostoevsky's Democracy brims with surprising insights."Robin Feuer Miller, Slavic Review
"Dostoevsky's Democracy provides a plausible and open reading that challenges us to re-experience familiar texts."Lawrence Mansozo, Slavic and East European Journal
"[A] scholarly and well-written work. . . . Its strengths are its erudition, sophisticated exploration of narrative technique and application of a range of conceptual models to literary contexts. . . . [A]n excellent and original study of Notes from the House of the Dead which makes a real contribution to our understanding of this unique work."Robert Reid, European Legacy
Robin Feuer Miller
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By Nancy Ruttenburg Princeton University Press
Copyright © 2008 Princeton University Press
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Introduction Can something that has no image appear as an image? [Mozhet li mereshchit'sia v obraze to, chto ne imeet obraza?] -F. M. Dostoevskii, The Idiot
The Image of the Beast
Just as he was preparing to write the penultimate book of his last novel, The Brothers Karamazov, and suffering from poor health, F. M. Dostoevsky received an invitation to address the Society of Lovers of Russian Literature at their June 1880 celebration of the poet Alexander Pushkin. The significance of this three-day event was by no means confined to what it purported to be: an occasion to bring together the nation's most prominent writers, artists, actors, journalists, editors, and intellectuals to pay tribute to a celebrated poet of an earlier generation. Instead, as with all such events in nineteenth-century Russia where there was no question of freedom of expression, the literary fête would also provide a platform for public discussion of urgent social and political matters in the guise of literary commentary and interpretation. This occasion, however, was distinctive from its inception for making participants feel, as one expressed it, like "citizens enjoying a fullness of rights." Speakers were not made to submit their addresses to the censor for advance review; indeed, the government of Alexander II, which hadoffered to pay the expenses of invited guests, made no attempt to control the planning, execution, or reception of the festivities. One journalist enthused that "in these festivities everything was the public's: public initiative, public participation, public thought, and public glory." The boldness of the planning and acquiescence of the authorities testified to a collective desire for "freedom of thought, freedom of the press, a greater scope for society's independent activity in the name of the state and the public good," proving, when all was said and done,
that Russian society does not exist only in the imagination but in living reality; that there is cement in it that connects it all together into one inspired mass; that it has matured and grown into manhood; that it thinks, and can grieve, and be conscious of itself; that it counts freedom of expression as one of its natural, inborn needs; and that, via its literature, it has earned itself its diploma.
The expressive latitude permitted first to the organizers and then to the press to cast the event as "epoch-making" was especially remarkable given the volatile political climate. Only months later, in March 1881, the tsar would be assassinated by the revolutionary terrorist group the People's Will, six weeks after Dostoevsky's own death from complications of emphysema. Alexander II, the "Tsar-Liberator," had been extolled for the reforms he initiated soon after his coronation in 1855, particularly the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. Despite precautions taken in the planning and execution of the reforms, they generated social and political unrest across the class spectrum and, with the concomitant rise of a non-noble intelligentsia, anticipated the proliferation of radical thought and activity throughout the 1860s and 1870s. The romantic utopian socialism of the 1840s-the "crime" for which Dostoevsky himself had suffered a decade of Siberian exile (from 1849 to 1859), four of those years in a hard-labor camp-metamorphosed in the 1860s into the revolutionary socialisms which by 1870 had advanced far beyond the Moscow and St. Petersburg intelligentsia and into new demographic, geographic, and ideological terrain. At issue for radicals of whatever stripe, from the populists who spearheaded a "back to the people" movement to the nihilists ambitious to organize terror cells among those same people, was the nation's unconditional liberation from its subjection to the autocratic state. They shared with liberals and conservatives an obsession with divining the significance of the Russian common people (narod) for the realization of their own political aspirations. To do so required the resolution of two related, and perpetually open questions: first, who, precisely, were the people and how could they be known? And, second, what part, if any, might they play in identifying and then helping Russia fulfill its world-historical destiny in relation to the West? These questions begged many others. Did "the people" signify all Russians regardless of class or only the common mass, the vast majority, whose illiteracy, poverty, and (for many) enslavement had kept them innocent of the Europeanization which had long marked the identity of the upper class? In the wake of emancipation, would a viable and genuine Russianness (narodnost') manifest itself to embrace these extremes, and under whose direction would the rapprochement of the classes occur? Was it wishful thinking to imagine that a people largely sunk in poverty and barbarism might nevertheless possess an indigenous culture, almost entirely unknown to the elite but whose expressive forms were inherently worthy of broader attention? Could such a people play any but a subaltern's role in a world consecrated to modernity, and would their inclusion in narodnost' doom the upper classes to assume a diminished role on the world's stage? Or, on the contrary, might the unknown culture of the common people contain the new word destined to bring world culture forward, resurrected from the cultural morbidity which modernity-secularism, individualism, and materialism-all but guaranteed?
Notwithstanding the variety of responses to these questions posed by radical, liberal, and conservative members of the educated class about the identity and destiny of the Russian people, opinion tended to fall into one of two camps. The Westernizers felt that, since the time of Peter the Great, Russia's sole option, for better or worse, had been to embrace its cultural colonization by Europe and commit the nation to adapting and perfecting all aspects of its culture. They confronted the Slavophiles, those who felt that the nation's survival depended on its recognizing and developing indigenous resources of cultural power. At the same time they condemned Europeanization for emasculating Russian culture by substituting foreign forms for its genuine cultural virility whose source lay in the common class, despite their having been cast into the oblivion of perpetual labor. Westernizers imagined that the Europeanized educated elite would eventually succeed in raising the illiterate masses to their level so that Russia might take its place in the family of (Western) nations. Slavophiles prophesied that the common people would lead Russia in pronouncing a "new word" to a moribund West, delivering it from modernity and to a universal (post-national) spiritual truth. Both camps based their programs and prognoses in some more or less theoretical portrayal of the Russian common people who, despite the emancipation and the attention it brought, could still be viewed as "the mysterious God of whom one knows practically nothing." The Pushkin celebration was not conceived as offering some respite from this long-ripened and acrimonious dispute. On the contrary, the burning question to which it was consecrated in the minds of the festival's organizers and participants was whether Pushkin was to be enshrined as the national poet in whose work one might find both the word of national reconciliation and the new word through which Russia would convert Europe to a higher level of global cultural existence. Thus the fête, anticipated to be epoch-making, did not disappoint; one commentator compared its cultural-historical significance to that of Russia's Christianization in the late tenth century or to Westernization by Peter the Great in the early eighteenth. Dostoevsky was asked to give the second of two keynote speeches. The first was given by that other literary lion, I. S. Turgenev, his ideological opponent since the mid-1860s when Dostoevsky began to develop views on Russia's national-spiritual preeminence that ran counter to Turgenev's Europhilism. In his address, Turgenev lauded Pushkin's accomplishment but refrained from crowning him the national poet as Shakespeare was undeniably the national poet of England or Goethe of Germany. He based his judgment not on a failure of Pushkin's poetic merits per se-quite the reverse, he had provided Russian literature with a poetic language and a range of character types-but to the vagaries of his reception over the decades since his death in 1837, suggesting that, however talented Pushkin may have been, his time had not been ripe. In contrast to Turgenev's modulated enthusiasm, Dostoevsky unhesitatingly, ringingly, and, as many testified, "prophetically" pronounced Pushkin the national poet on the grounds, elaborated previously in Diary of a Writer entries, that although of the nobility, this poet had been "a man who was reincarnated by his own heart into the common man, into his essence, almost into his image." Moreover, Pushkin had recognized that only through literature could the feat of his "reincarnation" be transferred to the nation at large through the creation of "a whole series of positively beautiful Russian types he found among the Russian people," in comparison with which our "many experts on the people among our writers [are] merely 'gentlemen' who write about the people." According to a multitude of accounts, Dostoevsky's speech was greeted with hysterical adulation. Joseph Frank attributes his success to the fact that his Russian messianism and exalted view of the people would have harmonized with the sentiments of the "vast majority" of his audience: in other words, unlike Pushkin in Turgenev's estimation, Dostoevsky's time was, indeed, ripe. Dostoevsky elaborated on the claims presented at the fête in the August 1880 issue of Diary of a Writer, the sole issue he would produce that year, by framing the text of the Pushkin speech with two polemical essays, the "Explanatory Note Concerning the Speech on Pushkin" and a four-part reply to a critique of his speech published in the liberal daily Golos (The Voice) by a professor and historian of law, A. D. Gradovsky. In this trio of essays, the problem that I call "Dostoevsky's democracy" emerges, not with the power and complexity it had exhibited previously (it had been a focus of the writer's work since his return from Siberian exile on the eve of emancipation) but yet with the concision and pathos of a valedictory address. The problem of Dostoevsky's democracy is fundamentally a problem of perception which had led even "our democrats"-those among the educated class who believe most earnestly in the apotheosis of the people-to betray them. "Why in Europe," he thus writes, "do those who call themselves democrats always stand for the people, at least base themselves on them, but our democrat [nash demokrat] is more often than not an aristocrat and in the final analysis almost always plays into the hand of those who suppress the people's strength and ends by lording it over them?" (PSS 26: 153/1302). The elite's betrayal of the people is inevitably self-defeating, since, as Pushkin had been the first to track and record in "Eugene Onegin" and elsewhere, the former's existence had been "sickly" and abnormal since they had torn themselves from and elevated themselves above the people. This ultimately fatal malaise could be remedied only by embracing the "people's truth," premised on the acquisition or recovery of "faith" in that truth (PSS 26: 129-30/1271-72). In the dialogical manner with which we are now familiar, Dostoevsky's representative of the elite in his essay responds by protesting in all sincerity that this popular truth, despite the best efforts of members of the upper class, had remained entirely invisible to them. In its place, they see "only an unworthy, barbaric mass which must be forced merely to obey" (PSS 26:135/1279). The hypothetical exchange of views elicits from Dostoevsky not a statement of the people's sublime truth but rather the prosaic truth of his elite speaker who regretfully, but without remorse, insists that "we didn't encounter this spirit of the people and didn't detect it on our path," and for a very good reason: "we left it behind and ran from it as fast as we could." Why flee beauty, truth, national reconciliation, spiritual and social health? Because when we look at the people, say the elite, "we see an inert mass [which we have] to re-create and refashion," a mass "low and filthy, just as they've always been, and incapable of having either a personality or an idea" (PSS 26: 134-35/1277-78).
The Pushkin speech which immediately follows is dedicated to a refutation of the prosaic truth of the elite in the form of a hypothesis concerning the three stages of Pushkin's development. Dostoevsky's claim is that they led the poet to embody unerringly the elusive popular truth in a series of positively beautiful Russian types he found across the class spectrum. In his subsequent response to Gradovsky's critique of the speech, large excerpts of which he includes in the body of his essay, Dostoevsky interjects a dose of realism into his defense of the people and their truth: "But let's allow, let's allow that our people are sinful and rude, let's allow that they still bear the image of the beast"-illustrated by some lines from a popular song: "the son rode on his mother's back / with his young wife in traces"-and again, "But let's allow, in spite of everything allow that in our people are brutality and sin" (PSS 26:152/1300). The hint of acquiescence in the repetition conveys his distress; as always in Dostoevsky, we find no foregone conclusions. He offers several rationales for the people's crude behavior: that all subject peoples behave so and the Russians may not be as bestial as most; that the elites are to blame for bestializing by enslaving the people; and so forth. But his most compelling argument for the existence of the people's truth, paradoxically because to entertain it at all requires a sustained act of faith, refers not to a weakness of character or will on the part of the elite or the people but to a peculiar problem of vision in which both are equally inveigled.
Invoking his experience as a political convict in a Siberian hard-labor camp almost thirty years earlier, a member of the educated elite forced to live cheek-by-jowl with hostile peasant-convicts, Dostoevsky asserts that there are among the people not just crude and bestial sinners or mindless non-entities but "positive characters of unimaginable beauty and strength, whom your observation still hasn't touched." He continues:
There are these righteous ones and sufferers for the truth-do we see them or don't we see them? I don't know; to whom it is given to see, will, of course, see and comprehend them, but who sees only the image of the beast, will, of course, see nothing. (PSS 26:153/1301)
Excerpted from Dostoevsky's Democracy by Nancy Ruttenburg
Copyright © 2008 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Dale E. Peterson, Amherst College
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Meet the Author
Nancy Ruttenburg is professor of comparative literature, English, and Slavic literatures and chair of the Department of Comparative Literature at New York University. She is the author of "Democratic Personality: Popular Voice and the Trial of American Authorship".
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