Though widely regarded as one of the greatest Russian authors, Dostoevsky’s religious, philosophical, and ideological views were problematic during the Soviet era in their total opposition to Marxism. In a 1983 interview with Czeslaw Milosz, Carl Proffer described the problem somewhat simplistically but aptly: “Now [the Soviets] are doing a complete set of Dostoevsky’s works, which began in 1972. In other words, eleven years have gone by and they still have not finished it. There have been all kinds of interruptions due to political and editorial problems…[Dostoevsky] says it quite clearly. When a man writes, ‘The Communists are fools and idiots and will end in disaster,’ it’s very difficult to explain that he meant something else” (Haven 2006).
This problem was not entirely new to the Soviet era. The leftist intelligentsia of Dostoevsky’s time, against whom many of Dostoevsky’s later novels (for example, Devils and Notes from the Underground) were undisguised polemics, had a troublingly ambivalent relationship with the writer as well (Pachmuss 1962; Slonim 1951). In January of 1875, the largely narodnik journal Notes of the Fatherland began serial publication of The Adolescent. Feeling a need to explain how the author of the reactionary Devils had found his way into such a journal, Nikolai Mikhailovsky gave the following preface: “Dostoevsky is one of our most talented novelists; our monthly is impelled to publish works of fiction primarily on the grounds of their authors’ talent; The Adolescent is unlike Devils, in which Dostoevsky revealed his strange and melancholy obsession for utilizing current political cases as the themes for his novels” (Slonim 1951). Later, in 1882, Mikhailovsky would publish his own polemic against Dostoevsky condemning the writer’s work on ideological and psychological grounds as being the fruits of Zhestokii Talant (A Cruel Talent) (Seduro 1957). Despite this principled criticism, however, one cannot ignore the apologetic introduction he had written just seven years prior justifying the publication of The Adolescent in Notes of the Fatherland.
This willingness – and sometimes even eagerness – to overlook problematic ideology in favor of the author’s talent continued well after Dostoevsky’s death in 1881. Despite ideologically based critique from the likes of Shchedrin and Mikhailovsky (Pachmuss 1962), Dostoevsky’s novels were widely read and even adapted for the stage, with the first stage readings occurring in the 1880s (Seduro 1977). Not all members of the radical intelligentsia were willing to accept this duality of opinions on Dostoevsky. In 1913, after attending a staging of Devils at the Moscow State Theater, Gorky criticized Dostoevsky and those who staged his works as “playing the hand of governmental reaction.” On being subsequently rebuked for criticizing Dostoevsky’s ideology without paying proper regard to the writer’s talent, Gorky gave a damning description of his peers’ attitude towards Dostoevsky:
“This is the opinion of the literati, as I understand them: although Dostoevsky is a reactionary, and one of the founders of the zoological nationalism which is strangling us today, although he denigrated Granovsky and Belinsky and is an enemy of that very West by whose works and ideas we live, although he is a rabid chauvinist, an anti-Semite, a preacher of submission and patience – despite all this his artistic genius is so great that it outweighs all his sins against the concepts of justice which the best leaders of mankind have tried to work out. And, therefore, society has no right to protest against Dostoevsky’s tendencies and, in general, against any artist, whatever his preachment may be” (Slonim, 1951).
Gorky’s critique caused some controversy at the time and set the tone Lenin’s opinions on Dostoevsky. Lenin’s published correspondence reveals that he followed the controversy surrounding staging Devils in 1913 and wrote Gorky a letter supporting his view on the matter (Seduro 1975). Similarly, a third-hand account of Lenin’s opinion, given in Meetings with Lenin, relates that Lenin said of Devils “[it is] a nasty, thoroughly reactionary work…and I have absolutely no inclination to waste my time on it” (ibid). The philosophical opposition of Lenin and Dostoevsky is also revealed in their two very different responses to the philosophy of Nikolai Chernyshevsky, revolutionary democrat, materialist, and utopian socialist. Lenin was influenced heavily by Chernyshevsky’s philosophy. The title of Lenin’s political tract What is to be Done is an homage to Chernyshevsky’s utopian socialist novel of the same name. Dostoevsky on the other hand wrote Notes from the Underground as a reaction against Chernyshevsky’s philosophy, and particularly against a passage from What is to be Done, in which the revolutionary hero of the novel states, “Yes, I will always do what I want. I will never sacrifice anything, not even a whim, for the sake of something I do not desire. What I want, with all my heart, is to make people happy. In this lies my happiness. Mine! Can you hear that, you, in your underground hole?” Dostoevsky’s famous Underground Man came into being in response to Chernyshevsky’s challenge (Dostoevsky 1993).
But despite Lenin’s personal views on Dostoevsky, and despite the clear clash between Dostoevskian and Leninist philosophy, early Soviet policy did not censor Dostoevsky or condemn him as a counter-revolutionary. Between 1926 and 1930, Tomahevski and Khalabayev published a thirteen-volume Soviet edition of Dostoevsky’s complete works (Seduro 1957). Furthermore, on August 2, 1918, Izvestia published a list of people to whom monuments were proposed. Among the writers named, Dostoevsky was second only to Tolstoy. The monument itself was built and unveiled in November of that year, accompanied by speeches from the official representative of the Moscow Soviet (Vladimirski) and symbolist Vyacheslav Ivanov. In their speeches, Vladimirski and Ivanov represented Dostoevsky as a prophet of the Revolution and a voice of rebellion against the complacency and compromises of the bourgeoisie (Seduro 1975). According to Czeslaw Milosz, “…after the Revolution even the Communists praised The Possessed [Devils] as a prophecy – not realizing that they were the devils Dostoevsky was trying to exorcize” (Haven 2006).
One must wonder, however, whether the Party was truly unaware of this, or if this was in fact a self-conscious attempt to rework Dostoevsky into a national hero in spite of the obvious philosophical problems, a process Fuelloep-Miller describes as “turning Dostoevsky into a museum piece” (Fuelloep-Miller 1951). Many prominent Soviet literary critics and political figures, including Lenin himself, were very much aware of Dostoevsky’s grim view of revolutionary ideologies. Indeed, even the critics who made this argument did it with some equivocation; Pereverzev, the primary critic proposing Dostoevsky as a revolutionary prophet, wrote that “Dostoevsky was a revolutionary and a reactionary at one and the same time; in him both revolutionary and reactionary strains sounded with equal verve…In [Dostoevsky] revolution is always fraught with reaction, and reaction fraught with revolution” (Seduro 1957). This is perhaps not an entirely honest reading of Devils, which featured unarguably vitriolic fictional caricatures of the likes of Nechayev (Pyotr Verkhovensky) and Granovsky (Stepan Verkhovensky) and has little redeeming to say about revolutionaries in general (Dostoevsky 1992). Nevertheless, Pereverzev’s is by no means an argument made in ignorance of the novel’s reactionary elements. Nor was it accepted uncritically by other Soviet Dostoevsky scholars of his time; Gorbachov and Tseitlin were particularly critical. Tseitlin rejected Pereverzev’s statement that Dostoevsky was simultaneously reactionary and revolutionary, writing in 1931 that “Dostoevsky was always an ideologist of the second group [the reactionary bourgeoisie], never for a moment in the ranks of the first [the raznochi]” (Seduro 1957).
In addition to Marxist-Leninist critique from critics such as Gorky and Tseitlin and revolutionary reinterpretation by the likes of Pereverzev, Dostoevsky was also subject to extensive formalist critique during the time of Lenin and the early Stalin years. This produced arguably the greatest piece of Dostoevsky scholarship to come out of the USSR: Bakhtin’s Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. Bakhtin argued that dialog and polyphony are central to Dostoevsky’s novels, which each character representing a variety of ideas rather than a single personality (Bakhtin 1984). Bakhtin’s criticism was unpopular with many Marxist thinkers such as I Grossman-Roshchin, who saw the work as ignoring the important ideological implications of Dostoevsky’s work and leading Dostoevsky studies down a false “idealistic and anti-class path” (Seduro 1957). Shortly after publication of this work, Bakhtin was exiled to Kazakhstan, officially because of alleged involvement in the underground Vosskressenie movement. Several others continued in his vein of formalist criticism, but this type of critique was less popular than the Marxist-informed ideology criticism and was eventually all but eradicated from Soviet thought due to its “anti-class” tendencies during the era of Socialist Realism.
In 1931, the first film adaptation of Dostoevsky was attempted, based off of Dostoevsky’s House of the Dead. The novel, written in 1861, is a semi-autobiographical work that describes the prison experiences of a young gentleman in Siberia, culminating in his spiritual re-awakening. The filmmaker, Shklovsky, wrote an experimental script, based off of what he saw as the themes of the novel rather than as a straight adaptation of the novel. However, in the end the ideological conflicts involved in making the film, particularly with regards to Gorky’s earlier reception of the stage adaptation of Devils, became problematic. Rather than the experimental film Shklovsky intended, it ended up being a warning on the dangers of turning one’s back on revolution. Dostoevsky’s presence throughout the film, intended by Shklovsky as a commentary of the role of the writer in the work, became a means of showing and condemning the shameful way Dostoevsky had abandoned his early leftist beliefs. Furthermore, a preface was tacked on to the beginning of the film informing the viewer that Dostoevsky, in turning his back on the Petrashevsky circle and revolutionary thought in general, had destroyed himself as a writer (Lary 1986).
The failure of this adaptation proved to be an omen of the impending era of Socialist Realism, which Shklovsky and others would heavily criticize as unartistic (ibid). This era proved to be disastrous for Dostoevsky studies; after all, his work was the polar opposite of the Socialist Realism being promulgated by the party. At the 1934 Writer’s Congress, at which the era of Socialist Realism was officially begun, none other than Gorky gave a critical speech on the danger of Dostoevsky’s ideology, remarking that “I have given so much attention to Dostoevsky because without the influence of his ideas it is almost impossible to understand the sudden turn of Russian literature and of a large part of the intelligentsia after 1906 from radicalism and democratism towards the preservation and defense of the bourgeois order” (Seduro 1957). In saying this, Gorky gave what would be the official Party line on Dostoevsky for most of the Stalin era. The Pereverzev school was censured and dissolved, and critics focused exclusively on Dostoevsky’s problematic ideology. By the end of the 1930s, both schools of Dostoevsky criticism were centered around Gorky’s evaluation of Dostoevsky given at the 1934 Congress; one group criticized Dostoevsky extensively on his ideology and compared it unfavorably to Socialist Realism, whereas the other group justified itself by Gorky’s continued praise for Dostoevsky’s artistry and sought to reinstate him into Soviet favor.
From the first group, Ermilov wrote “Gorky and Dostoevsky,” a quasi-official Party statement unfavorably comparing the ideological writings of the latter to the former. Ermilov also dismissed Bakhtin’s theory of polyphony in Dostoevsky, arguing that Dostoevsky’s entire writing was rather a “monologue in the form of dialogue” (ibid). While Ermilov’s was the prevailing view, others, such as Chulkov, attempted to defend Dostoevsky’s presence as one of the giants of Russian literary history, citing Gorky’s own admission that “Dostoevsky’s genius is indisputable” (ibid). In 1939, in the somewhat more relaxed political environment that came with the fall of Yezhov, he published How Dostoevsky Worked, which emphasized Dostoevsky’s early years in the Petrashevsky circle and argued that Dostoevsky was an unwitting revolutionary: “Dostoevsky, like Columbus, did not know himself what he had discovered. He sailed for India and caught sight of the New World…his creations had already radically changed the ‘face of this world,’…he had initiated a tremendous cultural revolution” (ibid). Despite the attempts of the likes of Chulkov, however, Dostoevsky was held in fairly low regard for most of the thirties in light of Gorky’s comments and the era’s high regard for Socialist Realism. As a consequence, the fourth and final volume of Dostoevsky’s letters, which were in the midst of publication at the time, never appeared. A separate publication of Devils, announced in 1934, was also never released (ibid). Only one film adaptation of Dostoevsky was made between 1934 and 1958, Roshal’s Petersburg Nights. It was loosely based off of two of Dostoevsky’s early (and therefore less reactionary) works, White Nights and the unfinished Netochka Nezvanova. and though he did not remark on it (probably for fear of censure), Roshal also cautiously borrowed from Devils. However, the elements from these works are reworked in such a way as to conform to the standards of socialist realism and are thus divorced almost entirely from their original contexts. Eisenstein put it succinctly “Why use Dostoevsky?...He is specific; he is real. Bits of him from different decades are incompatible. The main failing of Roshal as a filmmaker is that the literature he wants to rethink and struggle with remains out of frame, and before us appears an ordinary film, made fairly grammatically and with some life” (Lary 1986).
World War II saw another shift in attitudes towards Dostoevsky. In an effort to arouse patriotic nationalism, Dostoevsky was again made a national hero and was enumerated with the likes of Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev, Chernyshevski, Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Gorky as one of Russia’s great patriotic writers (ibid). Ermilov himself, in a great reversal of his previous damning opinion on Dostoevsky, wrote an article entitled “The Great Russian Writer F. M. Dostoevsky” describing Devils as a brilliant prophetic portrayal of modern Fascism (Seduro 1975). He justified this in light of his previous criticism of Dostoevsky by saying that “It is said that ‘nothing is given free; fate requires sacrifices in repayment.’ Dostoevsky’s delusions, which brought so much harm, were a sacrifice – a heavy sacrifice! But Dostoevsky’s truth – this is our truth, Russian truth.” Critics and Party members such as D I Zaslavski and Y M Yaroslavski, a high functionary of the Agitation and Propaganda Section, emphasized Dostoevsky’s early involvement in the Petrashevski circle and association with thinkers such as Belinski and Neksarov. Contrasting Dostoevsky with the Nazis, Yaroslavski wrote, “Dostoevsky loved the Russian people and dreamed of their happiness in his own way, although he went toward this happiness by false paths, although his voice was often false…Dostoevsky is full of compassion, full of love for the people, while the Hitlerites are enemies of people, enemies of mankind” (Seduro 1957). Yaroslavski also cited Dostoevsky’s anti-German sentiments, expressed in some of his correspondence, as evidence of the author’s low regard for fascism (ibid).
This high regard for Dostoevsky persisted into late 1947. In November of 1947, the author’s 125th birthday was widely celebrated at universities, theaters, and clubhouses with speeches, stage adaptations, and readings from his works. Dolinin and Kirpotin published important works on Dostoevsky’s life and creative process, and new editions of Poor Folk, The Insulted and Injured, The Adolescent, and The Boys were published. Critics such as Desnitski, Yuzovski, and Yemel’yanov argued that Dostoevsky had been treated unfairly by the likes of Gorky, noting stylistic and thematic similarities between their works. It was something of a return to the freer atmosphere of Dostoevsky scholarship enjoyed before the dawn of Socialist Realism.
However, it was not to last very long; with the beginning of Zhdanovism, Dostoevsky was one of many Russian writers to come under attack. This was instigated by Zaslavski, one of the critics who had just one year before been a staunch advocate of Dostoevsky, in an article entitled “Against Idealization of the Reactionary Views of Dostoevsky”. Critics who had previously written works in admiration of Dostoevsky were forced by Party pressure to acknowledge their mistakes in public confession; in his public self-criticism, Dolinin said, “I must confess that in my long-lasting attraction to this theme [Dostoevsky] I in fact took an incorrect position; I in fact spoke of his reactionary ideology in tones that were too mild…A chronic disease is not cured so quickly…The consciousness of one’s own mistakes puts one under great obligation. Recently I have been concentrating my scholarly interests on the theme of the revolutionary democrats, especially the works of Belinski and Herzen” (ibid). This is reflected in the USSR Ministry of Culture’s 1953 Outline for the Study of Dostoevsky in Soviet Universities, which instructs universities to teach:
“Dostoevsky’s works as an expression of reactionary bourgeois individualistic ideology. V. I. Lenin on Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky’s literary career from the Forties to the Eighties as a journey away from progressive, democratic ideas of the ‘Natural School’ and towards reactionary, religious, protective ideas…Dostoevsky’s split with Belinsky….The struggle of Dostoevsky with the revolutionary democratic ideas of Chernyshevsky and Shchedrin under the conditions of the revolutionary situation in the Sixties. The reactionary criticism of materialism, Utopian Socliasm, and revolutionary enlightenment in the Notes from the Underground…The antihumanistic nature of Ivan Karamazov’s rebellion. The reactionary political program of Dostoevsky embodied in the images of Alyosha and the Elder Zosima…The negative opinion of Dostoevsky in Russian democratic criticism. The struggle of Gorky against Dostoevskyism, in Russian and foreign literature. The political meaning of the cult of Dostoevsky in reactionary circles of Western Europe and the USA. The unmasking by Soviet literary scholarship of the reactionary philosophical and political essence of Dostoevsky’s views” (Dostoevsky 1975).
Despite the censorship in Dostoevsky scholarship – which effectively silenced all pre-Zhdanovism critics who found something redeeming in Dostoevsky, and propagated the erroneous statement that Soviet literary scholarship was the responsible agent for unmasking Dostoevsky’s reactionary views (in fact, this had been fairly obvious to pre-Soviet literary critics and members of the intelligentsia [Pachmuss 1962]), Zhdanov took some pains to assure the West that Dostoevsky himself was not being censored: “[Dostoevsky’s] works are published and republished. But for this very reason the ideological and artistic outlook of Dostoevsky must be clear to the Soviet reader and to Soviet youth, without any embellishments” (Seduro 1957). This was perhaps a more effective strategy than outright censorship; one could not claim that he was not permitted to read Dostoevsky, but the limitations on what one was permitted to think about it were very clear.
This de facto censorship of Dostoevsky persisted through the era of Zhdanovism. Things began to change somewhat when Kruschev took power. The change is evident already in 1955, at which point the USSR Ministry of Culture revised its Outline for the Study of Dostoevsky to include such material as “Dostoevsky’s series of problematically-psychological novels containing on the one hand deeply realistic exposure of antisocial, individualistic tendencies in the life of the bourgeois-raznochinet, aristocratic, and bourgeois strata of Russian society, and of the dissolution of their ideology and way of life, and on the other hand, the reactionary and tendentious proclaiming of the ideals of religious meekness and love for one’s neighbors, ideas intended to conceal and bypass the deepest contradictions of the existing system…The growing hostility of the writer on the one hand to ideas of materialism and socialism and the revolutionary movement (Devils), and on the other hand to the decaying aristocratic class (satirical images of Svidrigaylov, Stavrogin; the novel The Brothers Karmazov)” (Dostoevsky 1975). While this was by no means an ideologically uncritical view of Dostoevsky, it was nevertheless a dramatic change from the Outline published just two years before under the influence of Zhdanovism.
This tendency continued the following year, when a 75th anniversary movement to rehabilitate Dostoevsky began. Similarly to the 125th birthday celebrations, 1956 featured stage performances, museum exhibits, works of art (for example, a statue by S Konenkov called “F. M. Dostoevsky – The Thinker”), and the beginning of publication of a new 10-volume collection of his works that would be published in its entirety by 1958. The Party naturally felt a need to justify this sudden change in attitude towards Dostoevsky, which was somewhat difficulty given how explicitly Lenin had condemned Dostoevsky; to this end, Vladimir Bonch-Bruevich published an article “Lenin on Books and Authors.” The article related accounts of Lenin praising Dostoevsky’s genius and showing an awareness of the circumstances of Dostoevsky’s times: “But by the same token Vladimir Il’ich said on more than one occasion that Dostoevsky was a writer of true genius who had examined the sore spots of the society of his time, and that while one can find much that is contradictory and spiritually disjointed in Dostoevsky, his works also contain vivid pictures of real life…on the whole Vladimir Il’ich had a high regard for Dostoevsky’s talent” (Seduro 1975). He goes on to relate Lenin’s alleged critical opinion of Devils and House of the Dead, which are suspiciously similar to the opinions being espoused by Party critics in 1956. Whether these anecdotes are true or not is impossible to confirm but very questionable given Lenin’s previously expressed opinion of Dostoevsky as “the ultra-repulsive Dostoevsky”. More interesting than the dubious propaganda contained within the article, however, is the several paragraphs leading up to Lenin’s defense of Dostoevsky, which do confirm previous accounts: “Lenin supported Gorky when the latter spoke out against the bourgeois song and dance in connection with the proposed stage production of F. M. Dostoevsky’s novel The Devils. Vladimir Il’ich was an unsparing critic of the reactionary tendencies in Dostoevsky’s work” (Seduro, 1975). Even in a piece of Party propaganda intended to rehabilitate Dostoevsky, the author was unable to escape mentioning Lenin’s previously expressed views on Dostoevsky. Indeed, this uncomfortable duality – well characterized in the 1955 Outline for the Study of Dostoevsky –was typical of the post-Zhdanov era attitude towards Dostoevsky, which continued through the Brezhnev era and produced a large body of critical work on the writer (Seduro 1975, Schneidmann 1975).
Dostoevsky’s artistic skills were particularly lauded and a popular topic for study, probably because one could do so without dealing too heavily with his problematic ideology. Typical essays included Evnin’s “The Pictorial in Dostoevsky,” Grossman’s “Dostoevsky the Artist,” and Chicherin’s “The Poetic Structure of Language in Dostoevsky’s Novels.” There was also a resurgence in film adaptations of Dostoevsky, starting in 1958 with the first part of Ivan Pyriev’s adaptation of The Idiot. He had written the script in 1947 but had been unable to produce it during the period of Zhdanovism. He later worked on two more Dostoevsky film projects (without ever having finished the second part of The Idiot): White Nights in 1959 and The Brothers Karamazov in 1968 (Lary 1986). Other Dostoevsky film projects directed during this period were The Meek One (1960), Nasty Story (1965), and Uncle’s Dream (1966) (ibid). Certainly the most ideologically challenging of these projects was The Brothers Karamazov. While there was obviously no way to take the anti-Socialist philosophy and the profoundly religious ideas out of the story, philosophical debates are minimized, and the Legend of the Grand Inquisitor is dropped completely (ibid). In 1970, Crime and Punishment received a similar treatment, with the entire spiritually redemptive epilog being dropped (ibid).
In his 1975 book Dostoevski’s Image in Russia Today, Seduro wrote, “…the new familiarity which Soviet readers are acquiring with the artistic creations of this Christian-humanist is furthering the process of a freer way of thought in the USSR…[recent events] tend to confirm our predictions that the time will come one day when this great genius of world literature will be rehabilitated in full in his own homeland” (Seduro 1975). Whether the increase in availability of Dostoevsky’s work was in fact responsible for the beginning of the period of glasnost is dubious, but certainly the increased intellectual freedoms enjoyed during that era brought more freedom to Dostoevsky scholars, and the effective end of the era of stifling Socialist Realism allowed new venues for critique.
Bakhtin, M.M. 1984. Problems of Dostoevsky’s poetics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Dostoevsky, F.M. 1975. Crime and Punishment. tr. George Gibian. New York: W. W. Norton.
Dostoevsky, F.M. 1992. Devils. tr. Michael R. Katz. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Dostoevsky, F.M. 1993. Notes from the Underground. tr. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Vintage Press.
Fueloep-Miller, R. 1951. The Lost Dostoevsky Manuscripts. Russian Review 10(4).
Haven, C.L. 2006 Czeslaw Milosz: Conversations. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi.
Lary, N.M. 1986. Dostoevsky and Soviet film: visions of demonic realism. Ithica: Cornell University Press.
Pachmuss, T. 1962. Dostoevsky in the Criticism of the Russian Radical Intelligentsia. Russian Review 21(1).
Schneidman, N.N. 1975 Soviet Theory of Literature and the Struggle around Dostoevsky in Recent Soviet Scholarship. Slavic Review 34(3).
Seduro, V. 1957. Dostoyevski in Russian Literary Criticism 1846-1956. New York: Columbia University Press.
Seduro, V. 1975 Dostoevski’s Image in Russia Today. Belmont: Nordland Publishing Co.
Seduro, V. 1977. Dostoevsky in Russian and World Theatre. North Quincy, MA: The Christopher Publishing House.
Slonim, M. 1951. Dostoevsky under the Soviets. Russian Review 10(2).
ETA: Unfortunately, some of the formatting (italicization of titles, etc) has been lost in the Word-to-LJ transition, but I think it should all be clear enough anyhow. I might go back and fix it later.