Dostoevsky's Democracy

Dostoevsky's Democracy

Dostoevsky's Democracy

Dostoevsky's Democracy


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.


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 had offered 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 real
ity; 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.

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