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A Writer in His Time

Joseph Frank

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eBook - ePub


A Writer in His Time

Joseph Frank

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A magnificent one-volume abridgement of one of the greatest literary biographies of our time Joseph Frank's award-winning, five-volume Dostoevsky is widely recognized as the best biography of the writer in any language—and one of the greatest literary biographies of the past half-century. Now Frank's monumental, 2, 500-page work has been skillfully abridged and condensed in this single, highly readable volume with a new preface by the author. Carefully preserving the original work's acclaimed narrative style and combination of biography, intellectual history, and literary criticism, Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time illuminates the writer's works—from his first novel Poor Folk to Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov —by setting them in their personal, historical, and above all ideological context. More than a biography in the usual sense, this is a cultural history of nineteenth-century Russia, providing both a rich picture of the world in which Dostoevsky lived and a major reinterpretation of his life and work.

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The Seeds of Revolt, 1821–1849



The last years of the reign of Alexander I were a troubled, uncertain, and gloomy time in Russian history. Alexander had come to the throne as the result of a palace revolution against his father, Paul I, whose increasingly erratic and insensate rule led his entourage to suspect madness. The coup was carried out with at least the implicit consent of Alexander, whose accession to power, after his father’s murder, at first aroused great hopes of liberal reform in the small, enlightened segment of Russian society. Alexander’s tutor, selected by his grandmother Catherine the Great, had been a Swiss of advanced liberal views named La Harpe. This partisan of the Enlightenment imbued his royal pupil with republican and even democratic ideas; and during the first years of his reign, Alexander surrounded himself with a band of young aristocrats sharing his progressive persuasions. A good deal of work was done preparing plans for major social reforms, such as the abolition of serfdom and the granting of personal civil rights to all members of the population. Alexander’s attention, however, was soon diverted from internal affairs by the great drama then proceeding on the European stage—the rise of Napoleon as a world-conqueror. Allied at first with Napoleon, and then becoming his implacable foe, Alexander I led his people in the great national upsurge that resulted in the defeat of the Grand Army and its hitherto invincible leader.
The triumph over Napoleon brought Russian armies to the shores of the Atlantic and exposed both officers and men (the majority of the troops were peasant serfs) to prolonged contact with the relative freedom and amenities of life in Western Europe. It was expected that, in reward for the loyalty of his people, Alexander would make some spectacular gesture consonant with his earlier intentions and institute the social reforms that had been put aside to meet the menace of Napoleon. But the passage of time, and the epochal events he had lived through, had not left Alexander unchanged. More and more he had come under the influence of the religious mysticism and irrationalism so prevalent in the immediate post-Napoleonic era. Instead of reforms, the period between 1820 and 1825 saw an intensification of reaction and the repression of any overt manifestation of liberal ideas and tendencies in Russia.
Meanwhile, secret societies—some moderate in their aims, others more radical—had begun to form among the most brilliant and cultivated cadres of the Russian officers’ corps. These societies, grouping the scions of some of the most important aristocratic families, sprang from impatience with Alexander’s dilatoriness and a desire to transform Russia on the model of Western liberal and democratic ideas. Alexander died unexpectedly in November 1825, and the societies seized the opportunity a month later, at the time of the coronation of Nicholas I, to launch a pitifully abortive eight-hour uprising known to history as the Decembrist insurrection. An apocryphal story about this event has it that the mutinous troops, told to shout for “Constantine and konstitutsiya” (Constantine, the older brother of Nicholas, had renounced the throne and had a reputation as a liberal), believed that the second noun, whose gender in Russian is feminine, referred to Constantine’s wife. Whether true or only a witticism, the story highlights the isolation of the aristocratic rebels; and their revolution was crushed with a few whiffs of grapeshot by the new tsar, who condemned five of the ringleaders to be hanged and thirty-one to be exiled to Siberia for life. Nicholas thus provided the nascent Russian intelligentsia with its first candidates for the new martyrology that would soon replace the saints of the Orthodox Church.
Feodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky was born in Moscow on October 3, 1821, just a few years before this crucial event in Russian history, and these events were destined to be interwoven with his life in the most intimate fashion. The world in which Dostoevsky grew up lived in the shadow of the Decembrist insurrection and suffered from the harsh police-state atmosphere instituted by Nicholas I to ensure that nothing similar could occur again. The Decembrist insurrection marked the opening skirmish in the long and deadly duel between the Russian intelligentsia and the supreme aristocratic power that shaped the course of Russian history and culture in Dostoevsky’s lifetime. And it was out of the inner moral and spiritual crises of this intelligentsia—out of its self-alienation and its desperate search for new values on which to found its life—that the child born in Moscow at the conclusion of the reign of Alexander I would one day produce his great novels.


The Family

Of all the great Russian writers of the first part of the nineteenth century—Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol, Herzen, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Nekrasov—Dostoevsky was the only one who did not come from a family belonging to the landed gentry. This is a fact of great importance, and influenced the view he took of his own position as a writer. Comparing himself with his great rival Tolstoy, as he did frequently in later life, Dostoevsky defined the latter’s work as being that of a “historian,” not a novelist. For, in his view, Tolstoy depicted the life “which existed in the tranquil and stable, long-established Moscow landowners’ family of the middle-upper stratum.” Such a life, with its settled traditions of culture and fixed moral-social norms, had become in the nineteenth century that of only a small “minority” of Russians; it was “the life of the exceptions.” The life of the majority, on the other hand, was one of confusion and moral chaos. Dostoevsky felt that his own work was an attempt to grapple with the chaos of the present, while Tolstoy’s Childhood, Boyhood, Youth and War and Peace (he had these specifically in mind) were pious efforts to enshrine for posterity the beauty of a gentry life already vanishing and doomed to extinction.1
Such a self-definition, made at a later stage of Dostoevsky’s career, of course represents the distillation of many years of reflection on his literary position. But it also throws a sharp light back on Dostoevsky’s past, and helps us to see that his earliest years were spent in an atmosphere that prepared him to become the chronicler of the moral consequences of flux and change, and of the breakup of the traditional forms of Russian life. The lack, during his early years, of a unified social tradition in which he could feel at home unquestionably shaped his imaginative vision, and we can also discern a rankling uncertainty about status that helps to explain his acute understanding of the psychological scars inflicted by social inequality.
On his father’s side, the Dostoevskys had been a family belonging to the Lithuanian nobility. The family name came from a small village (Dostoevo, in the district of Pinsk) awarded to an ancestor in the sixteenth century. Falling on hard times, the Orthodox Dostoevskys sank into the lowly class of the non-monastic clergy. Dostoevsky’s paternal great-grandfather was a Uniat archpriest in the Ukrainian town of Bratslava; his grandfather was a priest of the same persuasion; and this is where his father was born. The Uniat denomination was a compromise worked out by the Jesuits as a means of proselytizing among the predominantly Orthodox peasantry of the region: Uniats continued to celebrate the Orthodox rites, but accepted the supreme authority of the pope.
Since the non-monastic clergy in Russia form a caste rather than a profession or a calling, Dostoevsky’s father was naturally destined to follow the same career as his father. But, after graduating from a seminary at the age of fifteen, he slipped away from home, made his way to Moscow, and there gained admittance to the Imperial Medical-Surgical Academy in 1809. Assigned to service in a Moscow hospital during the campaign of 1812, he continued to serve in various posts as a military doctor until 1821, when, aged thirty-two, he accepted a position at the Mariinsky Hospital for the Poor, located on the outskirts of Moscow. His official advancement in the service of the state was steady, and in April 1828, being awarded the order of St. Anna third class “for especially zealous service,”2 he was promoted to the rank of collegiate assessor. This entitled him to the legal status of noble in the official Russian class system, and he hastened to establish his claim to its privileges. On June 28, 1828, he inscribed his own name and that of his two sons, Mikhail and Feodor (aged eight and seven, respectively), in the rolls of the hereditary nobility of Moscow.
Dr. Dostoevsky had thus succeeded, with a good deal of determination and tenacity, in pulling himself up by his bootstraps and rising from the despised priestly class to that of civil servant, member of a learned profession, and nobleman. It is clear from the memoirs of Dostoevsky’s younger brother Andrey—our only reliable source for these early years—that the children had been informed about the family’s ancient patent of nobility, and looked on their father’s recent elevation as a just restoration of their rightful rank.3 The Dostoevskys thought of themselves as belonging to the old gentry aristocracy rather than to the new service nobility created by Peter the Great—the class to which, in fact, their father had just acceded. Their actual place in society was in flagrant contradiction to this flattering self-image.
Medicine was an honorable but not very honorific profession in Russia, and Dr. Dostoevsky’s salary, which he was forced to supplement with private practice, was barely enough for his needs. The Dostoevskys lived in a small, cramped apartment on the hospital grounds, and living space was always a problem. Mikhail and Feodor slept in a windowless compartment separated by a partition from the antechamber; the oldest girl, Varvara, slept on a couch in the living room; the younger children spent the nights in the bedroom of the parents. It is true, as Andrey notes, that his family had a staff of six servants (a coachman, a so-called lackey, a cook, a housemaid, a laundress, and a nyanya or governess for the children), but this should not be taken as an indication of affluence. From Andrey’s comment on the “lackey,” who was really a dvornik or janitor, we see how eager the Dostoevskys were to keep up appearances and conform to the gentry style of life. His job was to supply the stoves with wood in winter and to bring water for tea from a fountain two versts distant from the hospital, but when Marya Feodorovna went to town on foot, he put on livery and a three-cornered hat and walked proudly behind his mistress. When she used the coach, the livery appeared again and the “lackey” stood impressively on the back footboard. “This was the unbreakable rule of Moscow etiquette in those days,”4 Andrey remarks wryly. Dostoevsky certainly remembered this rule, and his parents’ adherence to its prescripts, when Mr. Golyadkin in The Double hires a carriage and a livery for his barefoot servant Petrushka in order to increase his social standing in the eyes of the world.
The Dostoevskys’ pretensions to gentry status were wistfully incongruous with their true position in society. Dostoevsky would one day compare Alexander Herzen, born (even if out of wedlock) into the very highest stratum of the ruling class, with the critic Vissarion Belinsky, who was “not a gentilhomme at all! Oh no! (God knows from whom he descended! His father, it seems, was a military surgeon).”5 So, of course, was Dostoevsky’s, and the remark indicates what he learned to perceive as the reality of his family’s situation. Dr. Dostoevsky and his offspring would never enjoy the consideration to which they felt entitled by right of descent from noble forebears.
While stationed at a Moscow hospital in 1819, the thirty-year-old Dr. Dostoevsky must have mentioned to a colleague that he was seeking a suitable bride. ...

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