The new Dostoevsky biography totals more than 800 pages. Dostoevsky’s Moscow childhood and the 500-year history of the writer’s “decayed family” have never before been so thoroughly described. There are pages about Apollinaria Suslova, the prototype of Nastasya Filippovna, on Nikolai Speshnev and his strange kinship with Stavrogin that were taken from previous books by Lyudmila Saraskina. But what’s new and offbeat are the portraits of Katkov, prince Meshchersky and Pobedonostev. The obscure image of Nekrasov adds up to the picture. There are chapters on what Aglaya Epanchin owes to the mathematician Sofia Kovalevskaya, and what the brothers Karamazov own to the brothers Solovyov, the philosopher Vladimir and novelist Vsevolod.
The reader, however, will figure all of this out himself. The conversation about Dostoevsky, however, as has been customary in Russia for 150 years, turned into a conversation on ideas, diagnoses and prophecies.
— Ms Saraskina, it seems that we are no longer a nation of Dostoevsky. Holy men are scarce these days, sins have become less intricate. Boris Akunin has played around Dostoevsky’s given names in his new book on the writer by entitling it FM. Has the prophet crossed in his homeland to the status of a literary memorial?
— I don’t think so. The 20th century is a very recent memory, and you cannot understand it without Dostoevsky’s formula that he came up with while at a hard-labour camp: “Man grows used to everything”. Without Dostoevsky’s answers, one cannot understand the most important question for him on the possibility to restore the human soul after the worst of sins: pondered murder.
— But Raskolnikov…
— Speaking about him, the author’s idea was for Rodion Romanovich to repent and resurrect his soul: “God’s law and the law of the Earth take their own”. Here’s where the puzzling part comes in. Yes, Dostoevsky strives to discover the way to resurrection for the hero; however, being faithful to the truth, he says in the very end: there are no such ways. The hero understands this himself: “I murdered myself […] I crushed myself once for all, for ever…”
Let us never forget that fatal “for ever”.
Even when reading the text with a magnifying glass, we won’t see the repentance. All there is to be seen is the hero eating his heart out in gloomy shame and blaming himself for being weak. He doesn’t show any mercy toward victims whose skulls he split open with an axe. In the end, the author says: “that is a beginning of a new story”. But that story has never been written; it isn’t in this novel, and it won’t be in the next ones.
Ten years later when he was working on The Adolescent, the writer would come to the conclusion that “Real underground dissenters don’t mend their ways”. There are some crimes where the line of humanity has been crossed, and there is not return.
I believe that this is the most important, fundamental conclusion for the 20th century. Dostoevsky thirsted to believe in God’s forgiveness, but as an artist he was unable to cross through spilled blood and felt that a person on the course of evil irreparably destroys himself.
— And not just one person is destroyed here; there are more. We entertain ourselves all we can, but behind our backs there are millions of those who have not repented and have not been mourned. And if one were to believe the Russian proverb “God is patient, but when He hits, it hurts badly”…
— We live under the mantra, “there is a God and everything is allowed”. It’s a very abnormal and strange situation. Dostoevsky’s characters argued about the existence of God and were tortured by the emptiness they felt was out there instead of the heavens. Meanwhile, today it’s declared officially: God exists, so the Church celebrates. Piety is encouraged and paraded. Not one civil servant would say that he is a non-believer. But behind this facade are bribes, theft, sham trials or drunk racing in oncoming traffic. The situation is much more terrifying that when the 19th century atheist permitted himself to do “anything”.
There are no guiding principles whatsoever. The omnipresent confusion is reflected by the statistics: on the one hand, I hear all over that the country is 80% Russian orthodox; on the other hand, I hear that two thirds of the adult population wants to move abroad and obtain permanent residence. Are these the same people or different ones? What’s more, more than half of Russia’s youth today believes that Stalin did more good than bad. Moreover, Russian is the world’s leader in drug usage, and now in paedophilia: the sever sin of Stavrogin has grown snugly into everyday life.
“The destruction of men” that Dostoevsky predicted is right before our eyes.
— You are strangely and unexpectedly strict toward “brother Alyosha” in your new book.
— I have been arguing about this with my colleagues for a long time. Alyosha traditionally is read as the brightest of Dostoevsky’s characters. Alyosha is Russia’s future. He is pure at heart, has good intentions and was raised in a monastery… I treat him more cautiously.
Alyosha directly disregarded his obedience vested in him by the elder Zosima: live a secular life and be around both brothers. He should have gone to his father and become inseparable with him, no matter how hard and disgusting it was for the fragile young one to be in the Karamozov house; besides, Alyosha did not have any other home to go to. If he fulfilled his duty, Smerdyakov would be unable and would not dare raise his hand on his father.
We don’t notice shocking things in the novel! Dmitri Karamazov is also a character well-liked by the reader: he’s a faultless sufferer with a wide Russian soul. But according to Alyosha and the reader, Dmitri, in coming to his father, beats him with his legs and stamps on his face with his feet. Then he makes off with the words, “If I haven’t killed him, I’ll come again and kill him!” How was it possible to not notice that scene or to see within Dmitri the image of the large Russian soul?!
— Well… not everyone knows how to beat someone in the face with their feet, but any Russian would hardly be surprised with a family uproar. It seems quite mundane even in the Brothers Karamazov. It is like a natural part of the background.
— It is as if Dostoevsky would scream his last novel: “Look at your house! Get things in order: you have been giving to own and take responsibility for a tiny plot of this Earth. It is yours! Guard you father and brothers first, and leave the unresolved cursed issues and prophetic dreams for later. Get a handle on your family, and only then will you find God! Start small to then be entitled to think big.”
Being Alyosha is frightening…your profession is predetermined for you and instructed by the holy elder: get everything in order in your family, no matter how loathsome it is. But he missed his true fate while dreaming with his head up in the clouds, confused as to how tell right from wrong.
Dostoevsky screams about this in the Brothers Karamazov. The readers do not hear it to this day. The lack of desire to sweep up the floor, serve one’s father and mother, untangle the abominable, troublesome knot in one’s family, and then think big. This is all honourable today.
… Besides, I have been told many times very strictly: “Lyudmila Ivanovna, your interpretation of the novel is very protestant-like!” I do not think so. It’s just that they adversely understand Russian orthodox Christianity sometimes…
— The Brothers Karamazov seems to be an historical allegory. A non-pacified Smerdyakov whose was able to start acting nasty due to Alyosha’s idealism… The pathetic death of the father – terrifying by all means, no matter what kind of person he was or how many sins he had. It is as if one needs to search in The Red Wheel by Solzhenitsyn for the true key to the Brothers Karamazov.
— Look: the father died, and there was not a word about the funeral. The trial, investigation, uproar, lofty speeches of Alyosha to the students… and not even a few words on how these deep, talented, intelligent people buried the father! They are not there. These are significant things, and the author did not forget them. It is customary to mourn the murdered father; one way or another, it’s a must. The Brothers Karamazov saw everything combine into one day, and the Wheel got rolling…
The Brothers Karamazov for me is an omen of the soon-to-be fall of the Russian Empire. The house that Hecate’s Dogs will break into and tear to pieces. Dostoevsky wrote novels that send a message on how sick the Empire has been, with all its ligaments, strings, and cloths worn out and dilapidated.