Ilinca Tamara Todorut
Dostoyevsky’s novels are the most staged works of literature in the Western canon. This can be baffling, considering that the epitome of his writing career, his four masterpieces – Crime and Punishment (1866), The Idiot (1869), The Demons (1872), and The Brothers Karamazov (1880) – are also some of the lengthiest novels ever written, and by this simple fact would resist dramatization. A first component of this paper attempts to understand theater’s masochistic attraction to Dostoyevsky, and evaluate the strategies commonly employed to adapt the gargantuan novels for the stage. In the effort to discover my own dramaturgical solutions, I found invaluable the still unmatched, brilliant analysis of Mikhail Bakhtin’s Problems of Dostoyevsky’s Poetics (1929; 2nd ed. 1963). An incursion into Bakhtin’s concept of the polyphonic novel will help articulate my own approach to adapting Dostoyevsky. As you might have guessed, I too am trying to write a stage version of The Brothers Karamazov, and this paper arose out of the selfish need to understand both why I thought it’s a great idea to write an umpteenth adaptation , and how in the world am I going to do it.
1. The crime scene: Dostoyevsky in the theater
The number of theater adaptations of Dostoyevsky’s novels and novellas, spanning from the 19h century to today, is overwhelming. Noting a fresh upsurge of Dostoyevsky mania in a March 2011 issue of the Moscow Times, John Freedman mentions an untranslated book Dostoyevsky and Theater, in which the (unnamed) author had dutifully listed no less than 200 productions between 1846 (!) and 1983 in Russia alone . The Moscow Art Theater versions of The Brothers Karamazov in 1913 and The Demons (under the title Nikolai Stavroghin) in 1914 are the first noteworthy historical productions. Since then, the Dostoyevsky fashion has spread to European and American stages like wild fire. Some directors entertain a true love affair with Dostoyevsky throughout their careers: Frank Castorf adapted three of his novels, Andrzej Wajda no less than four. A sampling of some major Dostoyevsky productions in the last two years include German director Peter Stein’s The Demons, Frank Castorf’s The Player at the Volksbühne, Eimuntas Nekrošius’ Lithuanian version of The Idiot and Robert Woodruff’s Notes from the Underground at the Yale Repertory Theater. Even American regional theaters haven’t been spared: Baltimore’s Centerstage advertises a 2011 Crime and Punishment, following the modest success of The Brothers Karamazov at the Lookingglass Theatre in Chicago in 2008.
What is it then about Fyodor Dostoyevsky that lends itself, or that makes theater people think it lends itself, so well to the stage? When there are plenty of good novels to choose from, why this obsession for a 19th century Russian novelist? Michael Billington, The Guardian’s theater critic, puts it quite candidly:
I normally detest adaptations of classic novels. Indeed my idea of theatrical hell would be to watch one of those poke-bonneted, cut-and-paste versions of Pride and Prejudice that used to crop up everywhere. But there is one great novelist who frequently does make fine theatre: Dostoyevsky.
Why Dostoyevsky bypasses the usual weaknesses in attempts to theatricalize the novelistic genre, Billington doesn’t explain, and moves on to reviewing the Dostoyevsky adaptation he had recently seen.
2. The culprit’s defense: Dostoyevsky on adaptation
Dostoyevsky never wrote a play. Devoted to writing novels, he was very conscious of the choice of genre and its specificities. In fact, he didn’t believe his novels could be staged. In 1872 Dostoyevsky wrote a response letter to a certain Princess Varvara Dmitrievna Obolenskaya who had asked permission to stage Crime and Punishment:
As regards your intention to extract a drama from my novel, I of course quite agree to it, and have even taken it as a rule never to hinder such attempts, but I cannot help pointing out to you that similar attempts have almost always failed, at least rather badly. There some secret of art on the basis of which the epic form can never find a correspondence for itself in the dramatic form. I even believe that for various forms of art there exist series of poetic ideas corresponding to them as well, so that a certain idea can never be expressed in another form, one that does not correspond to it.
Dostoyevsky formulates the basic argument against adaptation: a novel is a novel and not a play. The concept of the “poetic idea” employs the word “poetic” in its classical sense, derived from the ancient Greek word poesis meaning“to make”, referring to all forms of artistic creativity – visual arts, music, poetry, and drama. The poetic idea, the aesthetic communication of significance, is simultaneously bound to and conveyed by the structural and formal requirements of the novel as an art form. Form and content are inextricably linked. The “epic forms”, known for their length and boundless action in time and space, cannot be translated into “dramatic forms”, limited by their nature in both time and space. Ultimately, Mrs. V.D. Obolenskaya, it is impossible to stage Crime and Punishment, because my novel cannot be reduced to a story line that can be lifted and decanted on stage into a plot. I insist: at the core of my art is a poetic idea, expressed through and shaped by the novel.
3. Crime reconstruction: some problematic solutions
In the continuation of the same letter, Dostoyevsky gives his own, rather cryptic dramaturgical suggestions:
It will be another matter if you redo the novel as much as possible and change it, saving from it just one episode or another, for reworking it into a play, or, taking the original idea, will you completely alter the plot?
Since it’s impossible to extract the sprawling action of the novel for the purpose of play-acting, you could use just one episode of the story, narrowing the focus for the time and space limitations of theater. This has become one of the tested and approved approaches to staging Dostoyevsky. One favorite episodes has been the “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor”, lifted The Brothers Karamazov. Amongst directors who have tried their hand at just this single episode are Peter Brook, Patrice Chereau, and Kama Ginkas.
Dostoyevsky’s second suggestion is less clear. What does it mean to keep the (poetic) idea but change the subject? Is it to forge an original story, entirely different from the one in the novel, suited and designed for the medium of theatre, yet conveying the same poetic idea? How can the particular story be so expendable?
In The Making of Modern Drama, Richard Gilman forms a theory about how novelists such as Pirandello and Beckett approach writing drama:
Neither his [Beckett’s] nor Pirandello’s plays are theatricalized or histrionic versions of the themes of the fiction, but represent a natural and necessary movement of imagination, the extension of a single voice that had been speaking in the monologues of which at bottom all fiction is composed, into dialogue, embodied conversation.
Beckett or Pirandello did not simply begin staging the subject of their novels, writes Gilman. The different art form of theater enforced a radical structural change, having to transition from the monological form of the novel to dramatic dialogical narrative. With this consideration, the story is not just simply told in another way, but becomes an altogether new story. In the case of Beckett for example, one can point to the similarity of characters in Mercier and Camier and Waiting for Godot, even though the story line is different. The worldview though – the poetic idea – is the same in both the novels and plays. Staging Dostoyevsky therefore, like staging any other novel, means transposing into dialogical narration an inherently monological form.
This seems almost reasonable. But it doesn’t hold for Dostoyevsky. Beckett writes about Dostoyevsky: “No one ever caught the insanity of dialogue like he did” . A structural reason why theater-makers are drawn to Dostoyevsky’s novels is because they are already dialogue heavy. The narrator is not a puppet master, but takes the role of one of the numerous characters populating hundreds of pages with conversations. Dostoyevsky’s authorial positioning is on equal footing with the other fictional voices. He does not describe his protagonists in omniscient third person narration, but lets them take on life through the words they speak themselves. The dialogue is so vivid, that one can easily imagine it played on stage. The “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor” for example is 90% dialogue, and the staging of the episode often becomes a simple matter of stenography.
The heavy use of dialogue is an obvious formal element that invites dramatization. The second culprit is ideological: a perceived major philosophical import. If asked why are you staging Dostoyevsky, the general reply evokes “kind of” big questions like “the meaning of life”: “the ideas swirling around and within the plot have to do with the existence of God, the meaning of life, the broadness and contradictions in human nature, and the interconnectedness of humanity […], in other words, kind of all the biggest, deepest life questions” . The allure of heavy, deep ideas made readily available through dialogue that can be directly lifted from the book is to blame for too many poor stagings.
Things get tricky when you have to deal with the dozens of characters and action sprawling over hundreds of pages piling incidents over incidents. This is the main reason why Dostoyevsky gave the advice to extract a single episode. It is certainly the easy way out, but it also conveys little of the poetic idea. The multitude of episodes, contrasted against or resonating with each other, forms the basic texture of Dostoyevsky’s novel. The isolation of one episode entirely changes its intended function. Yet staging the whole novel is impossible, although there have been those who tried. Peter Stein’s eight hour long The Demons struggled to stay faithful to the original. Even in eight hours, many episodes and characters had to be left out. The result was not fully realized, conveying little of the range of emotive apperception the novel instills in the reader.
A paradox: the closer a staging aims to stay to the novelistic plot, the production is a disappointment. The more successful stagings are those loosely based on the source, conceived to function theatrically. How much the poetic idea is conveyed in such stagings differs from production to production.
Dostoyevsky’s prediction that no dramatization would be able to fully realize his novels looms large. Yet there is hope. Because his conception of theater is a rather limited one, rooted in the 19th century forms of theater. The historical tragedies, domestic dramas, melodramas, and boulevard comedies playing in European theaters at the time grounded themselves on mimetic action and a linear plot, usually revolving around solving an intrigue. The episodic structure, sprawling action, and multitude of characters were not part of the 19th century theater aesthetic. The novel, a literary genre in its infancy, is also less theorized, and indeed notorious for its formal elusiveness. There are no rules of what is the proper way to write a novel, which on the other hand allows freedom to experiment. In contrast to the novel, drama is the most theorized genre, notoriously rigid, and haunted by the specter of Aristotle. It is no wonder that Dostoyevsky doubts its expressive capacity.
Bakhtin’s analysis of Dostoyevsky’s craft and poetic idea demonstrates the Russian author to be an innovator not only of the novelistic genre, but of the European world view. Bakhtin’s proto-postmodern conceptual framework makes it clear why only a post-Aristotelian theater can get close to Dostoyevsky.
4. The motive: the poetic idea
There are hundreds of books written about Dostoyevsky, in literary studies, Russian history, psychoanalysis, religious studies, philosophy, all exposing a side of the multifaceted Dostoyevsky. He has been hailed as an Orthodox mystic by prominent religious thinkers such as Berdiaev, and as a nihilist by profound philosophers like Lev Shestov and Nietzsche. He is applauded for his populism and accused of anti-Semitism. In some accounts, he wrote classical 19th century realist novels, while others maintain he is modernist to the marrow. His works are treated both as crime novels and philosophical tracts. But as to why Dostoyevsky allows for such broad and often opposing characterizations, only Bakhtin tries to explain, touching on the core of the Dostoyevsky phenomenon.
Bakhtin notes the superficiality of the structural analysis of Dostoyevsky’s aesthetic: “the literature on Dostoyevsky has been devoted chiefly to the ideological problems of his work, and the transcient currency of those problems has overshadowed the deeper, more timeless structural aspects of his artistic vision” (vii). Criticism of Dostoyevsky usually takes the form of ideological responses to some philosophical theory delivered through a protagonist’s voice in the book. And given that there are many characters and many theories that the heroes debate amongst themselves, “literary criticism […] has been broken down into a series of independent and self-contradictory philosophical positions, each defended by one or another of his heroes” (3). Bakhtin finds this approach flawed since “the plurality of independent and unmerged voices and consciousness’s and the genuine polyphony of full-valued voices are in fact characteristics of Dostoyevsky’s novels” (4). The essence of the novels is situated in the many characters, each embodiments of an idea, debating amongst themselves, without any particular point of view being given priority. The plot itself plays a secondary role, and functions as an arena where embodied consciousness of equal value can be pitted against each other and reflect one another.
This pluralism makes Bakhtin affirm that Dostoyevsky not only goes beyond the established form of the monological or homophonic European novel (as it is still though of by critics like Richard Gilman), but he created “a new artistic model of the world” (vii). Prior to Dostoyevsky, “European rationalism with its cult of unified and exclusive reason, and particularly the Enlightenment, abetted the consolidation of the monological principle and its penetration into all spheres of ideological life” (66). Unity of meaning, the singular point of view, the monolithic culture are replaced by pluralism, lack of completeness and dialogical openness. Dostoyevsky’s Weltanschauung becomes “the principle of his artistic vision of the world and of the artistic construction of a linguistic unit” (8): the polyphonic novel. This is the poetic idea. Literary criticism however remained enmeshed in the rationalist paradigm throughout that century, and hence it lacked the tools to deal with polyphony, instead falling into philosophical monologization.
Bakhtin’s concept of the polyphonic novel is extremely rich, being both an ideological and a structural principle. Polyphony is defined as “the unification of utterly heterogenous and incompatible materials, and the plurality of consciousness” (13). Formally, Dostoyevsky’s novels are a pastiche of genres, inscribing themselves in the tradition of carnivalized literature. Its trademarks are the multiplicity of tone, and mixture of high and low, sacred and irreverent, serious and comic. In the fabric of its narrative, Dostoyevsky constantly switches literary genres, styles, and tones, ranging from adventure novel, feuilleton, boulevard novel, socratic dialogue, diatribe, soliloquy, or confession. The joining of such varied and incompatible elements in narrative construction leads to “the destruction of the organic unity of material required by conventional canon, [and] of the unified and integral narrative fabric” (11). Hence the overall impression of chaotic narrative branching interminably in singular interconnected episodes. The result is a narrative texture, not a plot line. Bakhtin describes the polyphonic novel as multi-syled and multi-accented, embracing contradictory values and merging opposites at all times (11-12).
As already mentioned, character interests Dostoyevsky “only as a particular point of view in relation to the world” (38), describing “not the hero’s life, but the life of the idea in him” (18). The dialogue, the struggle of ideological voices is at the core of Dostoyevsky’s novels. The term “polyphony” is taken from music theory, where it refers to two or more melodic voices singing together. If they are independent, they are also interdependent. If a certain ideology is presented in the novel, its opposite appears too. This leads Bakhtin to believe that “no other author concentrated in himself so many contradictions and mutually exclusive concepts, judgments and evaluations” (14). In Dostoyevsky’s novels “everything lives on the very border of its opposite. Love on the border of hate, which it knows and understand […], faith on the border of atheism […],loftiness and nobility on the border of degradation (Dimitri), purity understands vice (Alyosha)” (148). The basic structure could be expressed thus: “opposites meet, look at one another, are reflected in one another, understand one another” (147). The multitude of characters and the multiplicity of ideologies “know one another and know about one another, must enter in contact, must talk.”
Hence the exceptional significance of dialogue. Bakhtin goes so far as to say that “Dostoyevsky’s novels are brilliantly staged dialogues” (27), and have a “strong inclination to the dramatic form” (23). Centered on dialogical oppositions, Dostoyevsky dramatizes contradictions. Yet Bakhtin traces the novel’s affinity to drama to a single dramatic element: the narration is conceived “chiefly in space, not in time”. Putting an accent on simultaneity, coexistence and interaction, the action of the novels sprawl not so much across a large span of time, but through space, attempting to choreograph a symphony, and not to trace though time a single melodic line. The first five hundred pages of The Brothers Karamazov relate events in the course of three days. Compared to other novels, Dostoyevsky’s present an almost Aristotelian unity of time. Despite this affinity to drama, Bakhtin, like Dostoyevsky and for the same reasons, does not believe the novels can be staged. For Bakhtin, “the drama is by nature alien to genuine polyphony […]; the drama can be multileveled, but cannot contain multiple worlds […]; it allows for only one, not several, systems of measurements” (28). As opposed to polyphonic dialogue, dramatic dialogue is “enclosed in a solid and unshakable monological framework” (13). More than the novelistic genre, which does not have strict rules of the unity of tone and sequential narration, or of the unity of time, space, and action, the drama enforces “the monolithic unity of the world” (13), Aristotelian rationalism.
5. The postdramatic solution: case closed?
I don’t think Bakhtin liked theater very much. But at the time when he was writing his book, drama was just as he described it, bound to linear plot and singular narrative perspective. Recent forms of theater though have delved into explorations of non-Aristotelian means of expression, and is better equipped for staging the polyphonic novel, focusing not on the primacy of plot, but on the poetic idea. Many of the characteristics of the polyphonic novel described by Bakhtin – the lack of resolution and synthesis, plurality and non-hierarchy of voices, simultaneous events and panoramic expression in space, bypassing the narrative in linear time – are all concepts currently employed to describe post-dramatic theater. Hans Thies Lehmann describes the textscape of much post dramatic theater as embodied text where “a polyphony rather than a dialogue develops: the individual speakers contribute only stanzas, so to speak, to a collective chorus” (129). The term “dialogue” is used here to mean what Bakhthin would call monological dialogue or dramatic dialogue, where a single voice gains predominance over the others. The “dissemination of voices” (148) and simultaneous embodiment of conflicting ideologies can only be achieved through polyphonic dialogue.
In theory, it sounds good. Theory though behaves no different than Knowledge in Everyman’s journey through practical life: it is bound to say I can’t help you anymore, and wave goodbye. At most, it can offer some parting advice:
- Do not focus on an episode and do not attempt to stage all the episodes. The first one does not do justice to Dostoyevsky’s poetic idea, the second one is impossible to do.
- Embrace the fragmentary structure and free yourself of the linear plot. Create instead a texture of action.
- Do not assign individual actors to single roles. First, because it’s again impossible to represent all the characters in the novels, and second because they represent ideological rather than behavioral psychologies. The only way to recreate the multiplicity of characters in the novels is to allow one actor to embody a larger number of characters, enriching the plurality of voices in the performance.
- Make the author (Dostoyevsky) a character of equal status with the rest.
- Whenever an ideological position is stated, follow closely with its opposite.
- Allow for a variety of tones and styles that mirror and undermine each other. For example, a hieratic moment must be immediately undermined by a clownish moment.
- Don’t bother with naturalistic representations of time and space.
Good bye, Theory. “Find yourself a good muse to take care of you,” she pats me on the back, encouraging so to speak, but all her gestures are invariable condescending. She can’t help it.
Bakhtin, Mikhail. Problems of Dostoyevsky’s Poetics. Trans. R.W. Rotsel. Ardis, 1973.
Berdiaev, Nikolai. Filosofia lui Dostoyevsky. Iaşi : Institutul European, 1992.
Dostoyevsky, F.M and Dostoievskaia, A.G. Corespondența.Trans. Alexandru Calais. București: Editura
_____. Jurnal de scriitor Vol. I-III. Trans. Adriana Nicoara. București: Polirom, 2006
_____. Complete letters. Ed. and trans. David Lowe and Ronald Meyer. Ann Arbor : Ardis, 1991
Holquist, Michael. Dostoevsky and the Novel. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1977
Ivanov, Leonte, ed. Marele inchizitor : Dostoyevsky – lecturi teologice : Konstantin Leontiev, Vladimir
Soloviov, Vasili Rozanov, Serghei Bulgakov, Nikolai Berdiaev, Semion Frank. Trans. Leonte Ivanov. Iasi : Polirom, 1997.
Jackson, Robert Louis. Dialogues with Dostoevsky: The Overwhelming Questions. Stanford: Stanford
University Press, 1993.
Shestov, Lev. Filosofia Tragediei. Trans. Teodor Fotiade. București: Univers, 1999.
Complete Letters, vol 4, pg. 15
Gilman, Robert. The Making of Modern Drama. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974. Pg. 236
Quoted in Dan Gunn’s essay Until the gag is chewed, TLS, April 21, 2006, pg. 14
Web site to visit: http://campuspress.yale.edu/
Author of the text: indicated on the source document of the above text
Dostoevsky, Populism, and Vera Zasulich
The Brothers Karamazov (in contrast to The Devils) cannot be seen simply as an attack on revolutionary socialism; Ivan Karamazov’s rebellion is shown by Dostoevsky with profound understanding, although the author himself was anxious to refute the motives that he portrayed with such insight. This can be explained partly by the fact that The Possessed was written under the influence of the Nechaev trial, whereas The Brothers Karamazov was written under the influence of the heroic struggle of the Populist terrorists, whose personal nobility and purity of motive Dostoevsky did not question. The essential difference, however, is that Ivan Karamazov’s struggle no doubt reflects a conflict Dostoevsky had once experienced himself. He found himself adopting different positions from those expressed in The Devils.
Populism: In the late 1870s, idealistic young Russians gave up abstract arguments in favor of “going to the people.” At this time, Dostoevsky became editor of The Citizen and offered his next novel to Notes of the Fatherland, edited by Nikolai Nekrasov, which was the leading Populist journal. Dostoevsky continued to believe that socialism, and Populism, were ultimately misguided because, in his view, they were essentially atheistic and relied on flawed reason. But he found the Populists, with their respect for the "Russian people's truth" and Christ's teachings, less repugnant than the scientific atheists and anarchists, like Turgenev's Bazarov, in Fathers and Sons, or his own Raskolnikov and Stavrogin. His great ambition had always been to reconcile the refractory and radicalized younger generation, if not to the existing conditions of Russian life, then to the government that, as he was convinced, offered the only possibility of changing such conditions for the better. This new basis for dialogue thus offered him an unrivaled opportunity, which he sought to utilize by publishing his next work in Mikhailovsky’s own journal, Notes of the Fatherland. The weakest link in the Populists’ ideology was their willingness to revere “the Russian people’s truth” while refusing to accept the root of this “truth” in the people’s inherited belief in Christ as the divine God-man. How could the Populists idolize the people without also adhering to the religious faith from which all the people’s moral values sprang and which for Dostoevsky provided their only firm anchorage? The theme of the necessity for religious faith takes on a new importance and intensity in the novels of this last period and is conspicuously placed in the foreground. To be sure, it had always been present, but subordinated to a defense of the Christian ethics of love and self-sacrifice against Nihilist onslaughts.
Dostoevsky and the Populists would continue to diverge on this fateful question of religious faith, although enough points of contact remained for him to acquire a unique status as someone who, despite his loyalty to the tsar, managed to transcend a narrow factionalism. And he tried to use this eminence, as the 1870s wore on, to ward off the catastrophe that loomed closer and closer for his country as the once peaceful, apolitical Populists turned to terror out of despair.
We see similar ideas about the Russian peasantry, for example, in Dostoevsky’s writing (albeit placed in a Christian context of the God-bearing people who will bring salvation to Russia and the world), and, more generally, in Slavophile thinking, which resembles Populism in some ways, but is very different in others: both the Slavophiles and the populists cherished a sincere love for the Russian peasant masses, as well as for such of their time-honored institutions as the village commune on the one hand, and the Russian the artisan co-operative on the other. In the commune in particular, with its collective ownership of land, they both saw an institution of a unique social and moral significance. But while the Slavophiles were looking for their ideal in the pre-Petrine past, the Populists kept turning their eyes towards a future which, in their opinion, had much to do with the commune but very little with the sentimentalized monarchism of the Slavophiles. Populism, moreover, rejected the Orthodox dimension that was central to Slavophile thinking; this was a secular doctrine of radicals who rejected traditions of church because they saw it as an institution of authority that supported the state and therefore denied freedom to individuals.
Their emphasis was on liberty and democracy, but the Populists’ primary goals (in the early stages at least) were generally social rather than political, focused on the welfare of the peasantry. This changed later with the development of the revolutionary movement and terrorist organizations, and indeed even as a starting point their political convictions were essentially revolutionary: they followed Herzen, Bakunin and Chernyshevsky in viewing the autocracy as the main source of evil and suffering because it entrenched inequality and the absence of freedom, and they advocated the abolition of the state as the only possible solution to this.
The events of 1874 were important because they led to a change in tactics among the radicals. Even many who had previously rejected violence came to the conclusion that nothing in Russia would change through peaceful activity alone, there would be no mass movement among the peasantry, and revolution would have to come from above. As a result, the second, secret “Land and Freedom” society was formed 1876, and was very broadly based, including figures we would not normally associate with Populism, such as the anarchist Pyotr Kropotkin (1842-1921), and the Marxist theoretician (and later founder of the Social Democrats), Georgy Plekhanov (1856-1918). Some factions turned to terrorism, leading to the attempt by Vera Zasulich (1849-1919) on life of governor of Petersburg in 1878.
Vera Zasulich: By July 1877 the atmosphere in the prison had already reached boiling-point when Trepov, Governor-General of St Petersburg, made his tour of inspection. The political detainees watched from their cell windows as Trepov, who was in a particularly vicious mood that day, examined prisoners in the yard below. Suddenly, over-reacting to some imagined misdemeanor of Bogolyubov's, he ordered him to be flogged savagely. Bogolyubov went insane as a result of the beating... That night the prison resounded to the shouts of the detainees.
When Zasulich heard the news she went to the local prison determined to assassinate Trepov. She later recalled that she went to Trepov's office with a revolver hidden under her cloak: "The revolver was in my hand. I pressed the trigger - a misfire. My heart missed a beat. Again I pressed. A shot, cries. Now they'll start beating me. This was next in the sequence of events I had thought through so many times. I threw down the revolver - this also had been decided beforehand; otherwise, in the scuffle, it might go off by itself. I stood and waited. Suddenly everybody around me began moving, the petitioners scattered, police officers threw themselves at me, and I was seized from both sides." Zasulich was arrested and charged with attempted murder. During the trial the defense produced evidence of such abuses by the police, and Zasulich conducted herself with such dignity, that the jury acquitted her. When the police tried to re-arrest her outside the court, the crowd intervened and allowed her to escape.
Dostoevsky’s response to the sensational trial: He was firmly opposed to convicting Zasulich, preferring instead somehow to admonish the young woman not to sin again. In his diary, quoting Zasulich’s statement that “it is difficult to raise your hand against another in order to shed blood,” Dostoevsky comments: “This hesitation was more moral than the shedding of blood itself.” He shows a willingness to accept the existence of moral scruples in someone who represented a cause to which he so often expressed hostility. We know more examples of Dostoevsky’s sympathetic attitude toward the radical movement.
Dostoevsky had been present at the trial of Vera Zasulich, which, he felt, revealed the deep fissures splitting Russian society apart, and which surely filled him with gloomy forebodings. Zasulich was a determined young woman, twenty-eight years of age, who had moved in revolutionary student circles and had been arrested in connection with the Nechaev affair in 1871. She had acted as one of his couriers after he went abroad, but had no connection with the group that murdered Ivanov.
Her open trial, presided over by Dostoevsky’s friend, A. F. Koni, was conducted with scrupulous impartiality, despite pressure from official circles. Koni, whose later career suffered as a result, allowed the defense to introduce detailed testimony about the relentless flogging. The result was a triumphant acquittal of the defendant, to the wild applause of a courtroom packed with high government functionaries and notables from the most select Petersburg society. Admission to the courtroom was limited, but Dostoevsky was present with a card falsely declaring him to be a member of the legal profession.
During the course of the trial, other Populist prisoners, called as witnesses by the defense, unanimously testified to the constant brutalities they had been forced to endure, and those frightening glimpses into the reality of the prison world produced a shattering effect. Elizaveta Naryshkin-Kurakina, a lady-in- waiting to one of the grand duchesses (and an acquaintance of Dostoevsky’s), was scarcely to be suspected of revolutionary sympathies. But she wrote in her Memoirs, “The appearance of a number of young political prisoners created quite a stir. They had been brought into the courtroom from the Peter-and-Paul Fortress merely as witnesses to the incident in the prison. Their pale faces, their voices trembling with tears and indignation, the details of their depositions—all these statements made me lower my eyes with shame.” As the testimony of these youthful defense witnesses unrolled, not Zasulich but he himself and all of Russian society stood accused and were standing trial. Dostoevsky had raged against flogging in House of the Dead. Like so many others at the tribunal, he could not suppress sympathy for the vengeful Zasulich, who during her testimony had said: “It is terrible to raise one’s hand against a fellow man . . . but I decided that this is what I had to do.” The clash between her moral conscience and her social-political convictions made a deep impression on Dostoevsky, who felt that no formal legal judgment would be the best solution. If found guilty, she would become a martyr; if acquitted, her act would be given a legal sanction, and the authority of the Russian state would be undermined.
His prediction that Zasulich would become a heroine was soon all too dramatically borne out. On emerging from the courthouse, she was carried on the shoulders of a celebrating crowd, and this militant rejoicing led to a demonstration that ended with a splattering of gunfire and one death. When the police arrived to arrest Zasulich again, she had vanished into the throng and was later smuggled out of the country. Once abroad, she continued a notable revolutionary career in Switzerland, eventually aligning herself with Plekhanov and the Mensheviks against Lenin and the Bolshevik Revolution. The shot fired by Zasulich echoed throughout Russia, and her example spurred on others to take up arms against tsarist officials.
Conversation with Suvorin (handout): Nothing shows more glaringly the moral discredit into which the tsarist regime had fallen by this time and the torturing moral-political dilemma that confronted all thinking Russians as they observed from the sidelines the attempts to kill the Tsar-Father. No wonder that every installment of The Brothers Karamazov was snapped up and read with such passionate intensity, as if the literate classes were hoping the novel would help them find some answer to their quandary. There can be no doubt, in any case, that Dostoevsky felt the dilemma he and Suvorin were contemplating to have the most intimate connection with the themes of the novel.
In the last years of his life, Dostoevsky became a sort of mentor and prophet to the progressive youth of Russia, who despite of his conservatism, regarded Dostoevsky’s Diary of a Writer as a source of truth about the country’s future. In his next novel, The Adolescent, Dostoevsky will show a connection between Populism and the Christian faith. Through his Diary of a Writer, Dostoevsky became arbitrator and conciliator between the dissident intelligentsia and Populists driven to despair and terrorism by the prosecution of the government and the lack of response to their peaceful propaganda among the peasants and the Russian society on the whole. The conflict was tearing the country apart.
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