One year old today: where do I go from here?

Today is the first anniversary of my blog, and I’ve been reflecting on what I’ve done so far and what I’m planning to do in the coming months. I’ve made a couple of discoveries over the last year. I’ve realized that cats, the Crystal Palace, and Merthyr Tydfil all attract a more readers than Russian literature (that’s hardly a surprise, although on the basis that some of my growing readership must be interested in the latter, I’ll stick to my guns). And certain themes have turned out to be unexpectedly prominent — women first amongst them. Continuing that thread, I’ll be writing more about the role of the female characters in Crime and Punishment in the next few days.

The real revelation, though, is that my blog has helped me find a new direction in my research, which had been feeling a little aimless. Suddenly I’m starting three new projects, of varying sizes, all of which have in one way or another developed out of work on my blog, and which I’m finding interesting and enjoyable. The first is a small research project, inspired by my posts on Dostoevsky and Chernyshevsky’s discussions of the Crystal Palace, on famous Russians in London — not today’s billionaire football-club-owning types, who bore me senseless, but mainly the writers and radicals who lived in or visited London in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (but I’ll include Peter the Great as well). I’m currently having fun reading the correspondence of Bakunin, Stepniak-Kravchinsky and so on, and visiting some of the places associated with my subjects (though I will have to go to Bromley at some point…), and I’ll be presenting the project as a series of posts in the Autumn.

The second is my first real digital humanities project (aside from my blog). I’ll be working with John Levin on a pilot project funded by SSEES (to which many thanks) to develop and analyse digital visualizations of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and I’m really excited about this. We’re aiming to have the pilot completed and on-line by mid-December, and I’ll be writing on my blog about the process and results around that time. We’re also currently discussing ways to develop this into a larger project.

Finally, there’s my work to catalogue the digitizations of nineteenth-century Russian journals on Google Books, of which regular readers will already have seen the first fruits — again, I apologise, because they’re not the most interesting posts, particularly if you don’t speak Russian, but hopefully the rest of this post will go some way to explaining why this is a worthwhile project.

Russian literary journals are an extraordinary resource that have the capacity to tell us a great deal about Russian cultural and intellectual life in the nineteenth century. Journals were popular in other countries too, but they acquired particular significance in Russia as the main, if not only, print forum for debate on literary, social and political topics. Not only did all the great works on nineteenth-century literature appear in these journals, but so did the most influential philosophical and literary-critical works, from Chaadaev’s First Philosophical Letter in Teleskop (The Telescope) to Herzen’s Dilettantism in Science and Letters on the Study of Nature in Otechestvennye zapiski (Fatherland Notes) and Sovremennik (The Contemporary) and Dobroliubov’s What is Oblomovism? (also in Otechestvennye zapiski). At a time when open discussion of politics was forbidden by the censorship (its rather haphazard and inefficient application notwithstanding), essays like these, alongside literary texts, historical works, and studies of politics and sociology (which generally focused on countries other than Russia) provided implicit or explicit commentaries on Russian life and have great value in documenting the era.

In other words, there’s a richness to this material that is hugely enticing, but the sheer amount of it puts it beyond the capacity of any individual to read — even if we just take Russkii vestnik during its heyday, when it was edited by Mikhail Katkov (1856-87), we’re talking about at least 150,000 pages. And there were somewhere between 100 and 150 journals with various emphases and representing different ideological positions published in Russia from the mid-18th century to the 1917 revolution. Some only appeared for a year or two, but some lasted for decades. This enormous volume of material is probably the reason why these journals have not been the subject of much scholarly attention, and why the work on them that does exist tends to deal more with the history of the journals, their editors and major contributors, than the actual contents. The major source in English, Deborah Martinsen, ed., Literary Journals in Imperial Russia (Cambridge University Press, 1997) contains essays largely of this type — it’s very useful background material, but there remains a great deal of potential for analysis.

The posts I’m publishing at the moment, sorting out the metadata (I thought Russkii vestnik was a mess, but Otechestvennye zapiski, which I’ve just started trawling through, is even worse) and compiling lists of contents for the journals on Google books and, represent the first steps towards interrogating that content. But there is another issue: gaining access to the volumes that do not currently seem to be available from these sources. The Tsarskoe selo online library has digitized volumes of Russkii vestnik and Otechestvennye zapiski, and the ones I’ve looked at were digitized by Google, but if they’re on Google books, I can’t find them. It ought to be good news that they’re available somewhere, but unfortunately, the downloading conditions for the Russian site are so restrictive as to make working with these volumes en masse totally impractical. I’m planning to make enquiries about this, and hopefully at some point I will have more or less complete sets to work with, but for the moment what’s already accessible is keeping me pretty busy.

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  1. Tom Cairns

     /  August 23, 2010

    For what it’s worth, I do enjoy reading the blog although I admit I have skimmed some of the cataloguing. I came to it via Transpontine, when you were talking about the Crystal Palace, and although I don’t speak Russian, I enjoy getting a flicker of a subject I would otherwise rarely read about. Keep up the good work.

  2. Oliver Ready

     /  September 10, 2010

    Sarah, belated congratulations on a year of your blog. Your ruminations are always very stimulating and informative and I’m glad you choose to share them in this way. I actually wanted to leave a comment on the most recent post on drunkenness, but for some reason there is no Comment option there. Your point about how FMD opposes the nihilist viewpoint while challenging the notion of a deserving poor seems just right, but I can’t help thinking that seeing the question in terms of, Do we or don’t we sympathize with the Marmeladovs, Do we or don’t we forgive them, is a bit limiting (how do we feel about Raskolnikov in that case, who has rather greater sins on his conscience). But I agree that the whole topic of drunkenness in the novel – and the fact that it lay at the novel’s origins – certainly does require more attention than it’s been given by scholars (as far as I know). Dostoevsky seems to start the whole vodka vein (both thematic and stylistic) in Russian literature in C&P and the ramifications are indeed very numerous. One suggestion is that Marmeladov is not in fact responsible for what he’s doing. His addiction is stronger than his best intentions, even after he is given a second chance and gets his job back. I imagine this is why many readers (unlike the innkeeper) find his speech in the tavern too moving to laugh off. Dostoevsky is showing us the tragedy of the one addiction he didn’t seem to suffer from; he would be echoed 100 years later by Venedikt Erofeev, who did suffer from it. In Moskva-Petushki Erofeev continues the paradoxical stylistic and philosophical direction started by Dostoevsky here. Drunkenness becomes a way of opposing rationalism, objectivity and other favourite bugbears. This is made clear by Razumikhin, also a drinker despite his name . His comments on drink and truth and lies later in the novel (3.1) cast retrospective light on what Dostoevsky is doing in Marmeladov’s speech. Razumikhin goes further than merely restating that in vino veritas (though he says that too). He uses the experience of drunkenness to argue that you can only get to the truth by lying your way to it: Sovresh’ – do pravdy doidesh’ – opposing this to the falsity of the ‘objective truth’ of people who have no thoughts of their own. The implications of all this for Dostoevsky’s quarrels with nihilists and utilitarians, and equally, for his ideas about forgiveness and universal guilt are surely profound – though I can’t pretend that I have fully worked them out.

  3. Many thanks for this, Oliver, there’s plenty of food for thought here… I’ll reply properly in a couple of days on why I think the question of sympathy/forgiveness is important and needs to be considered – but it is only part of a larger theme that becomes very complex, as your comments show.

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