Women in the Gulag

I always welcome new contributions to the study of the Gulag, particularly (because it is a dimension that remains much less explored than the history) those that focus on personal experiences of the Soviet labour camp system and the writings associated with it, so I was looking forward to reading Paul R. Gregory’s Women of the Gulag: Portraits of Five Remarkable Lives (Hoover Institution Press, 2013). It’s interesting because the book is related to a documentary project and follows the survivors and their children, but the book itself came as something of a surprise and disappointment as so little of it rests upon experience of the labour camp system. Instead, Gregory informs us, ‘the Gulag refers to a state of mind – to the knowledge that anyone and everyone could be shot, jailed or exiled as the victim of mass insanity and hysteria originating from somewhere above.’ (p. viii) In fact, the Gulag per se forms a central part of only one of the five stories. In two other cases it features only in the ‘aftermath’ chapter (just over one page is devoted to Agnessa’s imprisonment for black marketeering, and Adile’s deportation to Kazakhtstan is covered in two pages), while of the other two women included, Evgeniia Ezhova committed suicide before she could be arrested, and Fekla’s family was deported to a special settlement as kulaks – a traumatic experience that affected her subsequent life in many ways, but in a somewhat different way from that of imprisonment. So the Gulag does not actually appear to be the subject of the book at all, and because of the presentation of the lives specifically as stories rather than objects of research, no space is devoted to comparing the different types of experience.

This focus away from the labour camps may in itself be significant, given the tendency of many memoirists to devote far less attention to the years of hard labour than they do to the months of imprisonment (Evgeniia Ginzburg is a case in point), which can be related to Gorianchikov’s reflection in Notes from the House of the Dead that:

Записывать ли всю эту жизнь, все мои годы в остроге? Не думаю. Если писать по порядку, кряду, все, что случилось и что я видел и испытал в эти годы, можно было, разумеется, еще написать втрое, вчетверо больше глав, чем до сих пор написано. Но такое описание поневоле станет наконец слишком однообразно. Все приключения выйдут слишком в одном и том же тоне (pt 2, ch 9)
Am I to describe the whole of that life, all of my years in prison? I think not. If I were to write down in ordered sequence everything that happened, everything I saw and experienced during those years, I would of course end up writing three or four times the number of chapters I have already written. In the end, such a description would become monstrous. All the events could come out sounding the same. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The House of the Dead, trans. D. McDuff (Penguin, 2003), p. 339

But this at least should be a subject for reflection, not an excuse to avoid the main issue.

Equally problematic is the choice of the five women whose stories make up the book, as all five women came into contact with the Gulag or the Terror because of their husbands or families. ‘Family members’ did indeed account for a significant proportion of women arrested and sent to the Gulag or exile in this period, but far from all, and it surely cannot have been impossible to find at least one woman who experienced the repressions as an autonomous individual. Moreover, three of them were married to or related by marriage to high-ranking party officials and NKVD officers. This is a deliberate choice made in order to explore the consequences of the ‘Faustian bargains’ made by such women (p. x), but the domination of this question over others skews the perspective away from more normal experiences of Stalinism, and while I am very interested in Evgeniia Ezhova (Vasiii Grossman’s story about the Ezhov family, ‘Mama’, plays a central role in a forthcoming article in the Journal of European Studies) I would have preferred a wider variety of subjects, including more that could be counted as typical.

I’m slightly mystified by Gregory’s contention that his book is different because of the focus on women. He claims that ‘most belles-lettres on the Gulag, starting with the classic accounts of Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Varlam Shalamov, explore primarily the travails of the men’ (p. x). This ignores a vast amount of material by women, starting with the classic account of Evgeniia Ginzburg (well known long before the publication of Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales), and more recently including two important collections of memoirs: Simeon Vilensky, ed., Till My Tale is Told: Women’s Memoirs of the Gulag, trans. John Crowfoot (London: Virago, 1999) – a selective translation of Semen Vilenskii, ed., Dodnes’ tiagoteet: Zapiski vashei sovremennitsy (Moscow: Sovetskii pisatel’, 1989) – and Veronica Shapovalov, ed. and trans., Remembering the Darkness: Women in Soviet Prisons (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001), which takes its material from the Memorial archives in St Petersburg. Neither of these books makes it onto Gregory’s bibliography, but they offer a far wider perspective on the Gulag experiences of women and will remain my first recommendations.

Remembering the Darkness contains perhaps the most unusual individual story of life in the Gulag, the memoir of Valentina Grigorievna Ievleva-Pavlenko (pp. 317-53). It’s a text that I love teaching because it confounds all my students’ expectations and makes them confront all sorts of questions that many traditional narratives – particularly by women – tend to sweep under the carpet. Eighteen when she was sentenced to six years in the camps, Valentina’s story is one of love and sex in the Gulag. We follow her through a series of affairs as she moves through the camp system, and read of the men who fall in love with her, the thieves and brigade leaders who try to make her their property, the times when she has to pay for favours with her body, or finds ways to avoid doing so, and the jealousy she encounters from other women. It in no way conforms to the standard, uplifting narrative of mutual support and virtuous conduct that we normally associate with women Gulag survivors, which frequently give the impression that sex is an activity the occurs only amongst the most depraved of female criminals but is entirely absent from the lives of political prisoners. The first time I read Ievleva-Pavlenko’s memoir I felt that because it was the most trivial account of the camps I’d come across, she was in fact filling in some of the missing detail from narratives which – as much as I admire them – present self-images of such purity and respectability that one has to suspect they are not telling the whole story. That may well be because of survivors’ reticence about revealing intimate details, rather than any desire to deceive, but in a sense Ievleva-Pavelenko, because she lacks any such scruples, normalizes the Gulag narrative. Hers is not a tale of moral superiority and the triumph of the human spirit, of extraordinary behaviour in extraordinary circumstances, but of the continuation of her normal life; the camp system here is not a space of exception, but simply an extension of everyday life in the Stalin era.

But Ievleva-Pavelenko’s behaviour is unusual in another way, because we repeatedly see her refusal to cooperate – with the interrogation, with the prison rules, and, most strikingly, in refusing to work unless it suited her, even when that resulted in punishment. And while the latter in particular may have derived from a basically self-centred attitude which is hardly admirable in itself, it still demonstrates a spirit of resistance and a startling rejection of the state’s terms of existence that one seldom encounters in Gulag narratives. In a way she remains more firmly outside the system than any prisoner convicted under Article 58 that I’ve come across, and her position perhaps more closely resembles that of the professional criminals (the ‘thieves in the law’). Given the scarcity of sources by members of that fraternity, Valentina’s perspective on labour camp life may be valuable as a proxy that can reveal something of their mentality. So while her memoir may shock my students, and is certainly neither edifying nor moving, in its author’s failure to stick to the rules – of both camp life and survivors’ narratives – it shows aspects of the Gulag that are otherwise largely inaccessible. Sometimes the trivial and ordinary is exactly what we need.

New article: Knowing Russia’s Convicts

This week has finally seen the publication of my article ‘Knowing Russia’s Convicts: the Other in Narratives of Imprisonment and Exile in the Late Imperial Era’ in Europe-Asia Studies. It’s a special issue based on the Villains and Victims workshop which I wrote about previously, and it contains some great articles that really reflect what an amazing event that was.

My contribution, comparing attitudes to peasant convicts in Dostoevsky’s Notes from the House of the Dead, Chekhov’s Sakhalin Island and Kennan’s Siberia and the Exile System, relating particularly to the question of knowledge, represents my first shift backwards from Gulag narratives into pre-revolutionary prison/exile texts, which has subsequently generated a whole new approach to the subject. Some ideas relating to that will appear in an essay in a forthcoming collection based on last year’s workshop on prison experience in Russian culture, and I’m working on a book manuscript that will eventually bring everything together.

For readers who do not have institutional access to Europe-Asia Studies, click here for a free e-print – I have 50 of these to give away and will remove the link once they’ve all gone.

Update (July 2014): thanks to an agreement between UCL and Taylor & Francis, this article is now open access.

“Russians” in Lewes

Last weekend I visited Lewes to give a lecture on Crime and Punishment at the Lewes Little Theatre, ahead of their forthcoming production of the novel, which opens on 12 October. I had a wonderful time, with a very appreciative and knowledgeable audience, and really interesting discussions with the cast and production team, whose perspectives on Crime and Punishment were thought-provoking in all sorts of ways.

Monument to the prisoners of the Crimean War, Lewes

Monument to the prisoners of the Crimean War, Lewes

During our visit, Miles Jenner, the director of the play and head brewer at Harveys (brewer, among other fine products, of the Tsar of all the Beers, Imperial Extra Double Stout), took us into the atmospheric and rather overgrown churchyard next to the Little Theatre to show us the monument erected in 1877, on the order of Tsar Alexander II, to honour twenty-one “Russian” prisoners from the Crimean War who died in captivity in Lewes between 1854 and 1856. The Lewes Naval Prison held around 350 prisoners of war, whilst officers were paroled in the town. Conditions were apparently pretty good for the prisoners, who were allowed to go for walks on the Downs, and took up making wooden toys and puzzles, which they sold to the townsfolk, becoming rather well off – they certainly had enough money to make the Tsar’s easter gift of sixpence each for the prisoners to buy hot cross buns look somewhat insignificant. After the soldiers were repatriated at the end of the war, the Senior Constable of Lewes received a letter thanking the townspeople for their kindness and good treatment of the prisoners.

Plaque on the site of the Lewes Naval Prison

Plaque on the site of the Lewes Naval Prison

It’s an interesting story in itself (and my thanks to Miles for providing the details), but it has another curious aspect, in that the soldiers weren’t Russian at all, but mainly Swedish and Finnish, as the names on the monument attest. Obviously the Grand Duchy of Finland was part of the Russian Empire in the 19th century, and this article from the Telegraph on the recent refurbishment of the monument explains that the prisoners were captured as part of an attack on the Åland Islands in 1854 that was intended to stop the Russian Empire making use of its Baltic fleet during the Crimean War. So it’s both Russian and not. [updated on 29 September 2013 shortly after initial posting.]

The monument was restored by the Soviet government in 1957, “At the instance of the Friends of Lewes Society,” as one of the panels informs us – the slightly antagonistic tone framing this as a minor intervention in the Cold War. So there’s a story there as well, and it makes me wonder how many places have these curious little Russian connections. Time to turn Russians in London into Russians in Britain?

Photographs by John Levin, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

New publications: the spatial turn

I have a couple of recent publications to announce. The first is on Shalamov: ‘Mapping Space as Factography: Human Traces and Negated Genres in Varlam Shalamov’s Kolymskie rasskazy,’ Slavonica, 19.1 (April 2013), 1-17 ) (£). The second, co-authored with John Levin, is  ‘Mapping Machines: Transformations of the Petersburg Text’, The Spatial Turn in Literary StudiesPrimerjalna književnost (Comparative Literature) 36.2 (2013). The latter is the first publication of research from our Mapping St Petersburg project, and you can read a bit more about this and other developments on the site (including some new maps of Crime and Punishment that we discuss in the article) here.

The two articles relate to very different projects, and for a long time the different strands of my research seemed largely unconnected beyond the significance of Dostoevsky to both, or all of them, and I’ve often worried about my research lacking coherence for that reason. But increasingly I see how recurring themes and ideas are bringing aspects of my work together in rather unexpected ways. One such theme is performance, which was fairly central to my book Dostoevsky’s ‘The Idiot’ and the Ethical Foundations of Narrative. In quite a different context, it’s the subject of a forthcoming article comparing the representation of criminals in nineteenth- and twentieth-century prison/hard labour narratives, appearing in a collection of essays based on papers from last year’s conference on Russian prison experience in Uppsala. I’m also currently working on an article about Petersburg narratives that also focuses on motifs of performance, developing a paper I gave at the BASEES conference last year.

That article on Petersburg will also link the question of performance to the spatial dimension, which is another major preoccupation, and central to both new publications. Clearly Mapping St Petersburg is based on ideas about the exploration of space in literary texts, but until recently it hadn’t really registered as a significant aspect of my katorga/Gulag research. That may seem surprising, given the importance of Siberia to the  project, but most of my ideas have in fact dealt with questions of interiority and identity, and geography has generally played a lesser role than I expected.

My Shalamov article changes that somewhat. It addresses two aspects of the spatial dimension of Kolyma Tales that both derive from the loss of the sense of time in the camps: the network created by the non-chronological arrangement of the stories and the connections between tales that are distant from each other in both time and space; and the uses of space as a metaphor for writing, notably in the recurring motif of surveying and mapping the Kolyma region. To develop these questions further (and investigate the connections with my other project in more detail), I’m thinking about network visualizations of the stories, and currently working on a map to interrogate the geography of Shalamov’s stories, However, progress is slow, as some of the camps and places he mentions are proving very elusive (if anyone can provide any information on the location of Chernaia rechka – a camp in Kolyma, not the area in Petersburg where Pushkin had his duel – I’d be enormously grateful).

Two more articles are imminent: one on seeing trauma in Vasily Grossman’s late work, from the Oxford conference marking the BBC’s production of Life and Fate, and a long-awaited one on conceptions of peasant convicts in katorga narratives, from the Villains and Victims conference in Nottingham. More on these when they appear.

Top ten fictional writers in Russian literature

The Guardian’s list of the 10 best writers in novels is so patently rubbish (two each entries for Martin Amis and Stephen King!?) that I feel compelled to respond with my own round-up of fictional writers in Russian literature. The usual rule applies: no more than one work per author. On the basis that he makes it onto the Guardian list, I have excluded Charles Kinbote from Nabokov’s Pale Fire.

10. Elena Gan, The Ideal.  Gan’s 1837 society tale contains a brilliant portrait of a cynical Petersburg poet, Anatoly Borisovich. We see him the eyes of the normally level-headed Olga, as she becomes first infatuated and then disillusioned with him. Gan is one of several female 19th-century Russian writers who deserves to be far better known than she is.

9. Ivan Panaev, The Petersburg Feuilletonist. Included in Nikolai Nekrasov’s famous 1845 almanac The Physiology of Petersburg, Panaev’s sketch is a slightly heavy-handed, but witty depiction of the rise and fall of the most Peterburgian of literary figures. Replete with references to fashionable Petersburg life, it represents the most self-reflexive piece in a collection based on the idea of self-reflection, as the sketch-writer is typified to become the subject of a sketch himself.

8. Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago. I have to admit I’m not a great fan of Pasternak’s prose, which rather too often feels like wading through soup, but one cannot deny that his mystically-inclined poet-hero is a classic depiction of a writer in his time.

7. Nikolai Leskov, Cathedral Clergy. Archpriest Tuberozov’s journal takes up a significant proportion of part I of Leskov’s chronicle. It is a wonderful depiction of his struggles against the various opponents he faces (both old believers and free thinkers), as well as giving insight into his character and to his surprisingly tender relationship with his wife.

6. Kharms, Starukha. Possibly the least successful writer on the list, the narrator of Starukha can write only one sentence of his story: ‘The miracle-worker was tall.’ He also loses the ability to understand time and is incapable of managing the task of narrating the story of what is happening to him. | English translation

5. Evgeny Zamyatin, We. D-503 begins his journal, which forms the entire novel, in order to praise the OneState. As much as it charts his flirtation with rebellion, the journal reveals the development of his imagination, and the process of him becoming a writer.

4. Mikhail Lermontov, A Hero of Our Time. I have in mind Pechorin’s journal, a superb mixture of honesty and cynicism that keeps on playing with our perception of the extent of his self-knowledge. But the novel as a whole is important because of its multiple narrators and chronological shifts, which show remarkable understanding of the potential of the novelistic form before it had properly established in Russian literature. | English translation

3. Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov. As usual with Dostoevsky, there are multiple possible entries here: the underground man’s endless confession; Raskolnikov’s article; Ippolit in The Idiot; the hilarious chronicler of Demons, or the writer Karmazinov, a vicious caricature of Turgenev, in the same novel; Arkady Dolgoruky in The Adolescent... In the end I felt I had to go for Ivan Karamazov, because his story, The Grand Inquisitor, has taken on a life of its own. Has any other story-within-a-story gained so much currency in its own right? Both that text and Ivan’s article on ecclesiastical courts play central roles in framing the novel’s philosophical debates that perhaps ultimately overshadow their author within the text. | Russian text: part 1 | part 2 | part 3| part 4

2. Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita. The Master’s novel about Pilate and Yeshua is itself significantly influenced by Ivan Karamazov’s story, and as in The Brothers Karamazov, the author of the inserted narrative receives little attention in comparison with his work. The Master’s self-effacement means that he is less memorable than many of the other characters in the novel, and that his status as a broken, tragic figure is often undermined.

1. Nikolai Ostrovsky, How the Steel was Tempered. I regularly denounce this book in my early Soviet literature classes as being monumentally badly written and  cliched, and I stand by that. But as a writer-hero, Pavel Korchagin takes some beating: blind and paralysed, but determined to continue to serve the revolution, he dictates his autobiographical novel, only for the sole copy to be lost in the post. So he writes it again. | English translation: part 1 | part 2

From Herzen to Leskov, and back again

Nikolai Leskov (1831-1895)

Nikolai Leskov (1831-1895)

I’ve been re-reading Nikolai Leskov’s Cathedral Clergy (Soboriane) in the excellent recent translation by Margaret Winchell (Slavica, 2010) for a new undergraduate course I’m starting to teach in the Autumn, Identities in nineteenth-century Russian literature. The first part of the course – and in many ways the most interesting for me in terms of preparing new teaching material – is devoted to social estates (sosloviia). The three main texts I’ve chosen are Sergei Aksakov’s Family Chronicle (Semeinaia khronika, also translated as A Russian Gentleman), to focus on the nobility, Alexander Ostrovsky’s The Storm (Groza), on the merchant class, and the aforementioned Leskov text, on the clergy. I think this is going to be quite challenging for the students, as these texts present such an unfamiliar view of Russia, by comparison with the Europeanized space and perspective that tend to dominate in the nineteenth-century works we more usually teach (I would include Tolstoy and Chekhov in that, even when they’re writing about peasants or merchants). But they are terrific and very lively works, and that alone (I hope) should persuade the students that they deserve to be read and studied.

In many ways it is precisely their expression of the tension between “tradition” and “progress,” the past and the future, Russia and Europe that makes these texts so interesting. They’re animated by the same binaries that exercised the Slavophiles (Sergei Aksakov was, of course, very much that way inclined himself, and spawned one of the best known, if least intellectually convincing, of the Slavophiles), but their dramatization brings the issues to life in a way that the rather inconsistent philosophical texts of the Slavophiles seldom manage. So I think this topic will be particularly enlightening for those students taking my Russian Thought course as well (where we’ll be looking at the Slavophiles at roughly the same time), and I’ll be using the two to feed off each other, which I hope will benefit both courses.

A large part of the plot of Leskov’s chronicle revolves around the clash between the clergy and the “free-thinking” school teacher Varnava Prepotensky, a caricature nihilist whose mania for the natural sciences leads to an idiotic tug-of-war with the local priests over a human skeleton he is intent on studying. But, probably because the events I described in my previous post were still fresh in my mind, I was particularly struck by a different aspect of this opposition of the old and new faces of Russia: a couple of references to Herzen’s newspaper The Bell (Kolokol). The novel was published in 1872, but Archpriest Tuberozov’s journal, which takes up a significant chunk of part 1, covers the period from 1831 to 1864 (the present day of the novel, and the year in which – significantly for the skeleton plot – the Russian translation of Darwin’s Origin of Species was published in full). The journal sketches the pre-history of the events that occur in the novel, including their ideological precursors, and includes the following:

Kolokol issue 1

Kolokol issue 1 (1 June 1857)

May 20th [1857]. While visiting the police chief, I read for the first time Mister Iskander’s Russian newspaper the Bell, which is printed abroad. The discourse was lively and highly stylistic, but unaccustomed as I am to boldness, I found it wild. (The Cathedral Clergy: A Chronicle, p. 61)

As the notes to the translation point out, the date given does not correspond with the reality, because Kolokol first appeared on 1 June 1857. Nevertheless, the reference indicates the significance of the newspaper from its earliest editions, while the source of the copy the Archpriest reads – the new chief of police Ignacy Czemernicki – is notable. The latter point is reinforced in the second reference, from an entry dated towards the end of the same year:

December 20th. I am utterly perplexed. The sacristan’s widow unthinkingly sent her son a one-ruble banknote not by registered mail, as required by law but in a plain envelope; at the post office the envelope was unsealed and, after the widow’s crime was uncovered, her missive was confiscated and she was subjected to a fine. It is no news to anyone that letters are opened and read at the post office; but just how is it that they intercept the widow’s banknote but not the Bell, which I get from the police chief? What is this – simplemindedness or theft? (p. 62)

This is interesting for two reasons. The first relates to a question I was asked several times at the unveiling of the plaque commemorating the Free Russian Press: how did Herzen manage to smuggle so many copies of Kolokol into Russia? Given the context we see in Cathedral Clergy, where nihilists and local officials are apparently cut from the same cloth (both representing different facets of Europeanized, modern Russia), and the fact that in reality Kolokol was read in the highest echelons of government, the only possible answer appears to be: with a degree of official complicity that renders the notion of illegality, and even of government and opposition, weirdly compromised. That’s not to imply that the opposition represented by Herzen was anything less than real, or that the banning of publications such as Kolokol was in any way a facade. One is accustomed (and not solely in Russia) to the existence of a gap between the law and what happens in practice, but this does suggest very contradictory behaviour and aims amongst officials at that time. If anyone can advise what best to read on that subject, I’d be very grateful.

The second question is about the boundaries between reality (or history) and literature, and the feeling that such references to a cultural phenomenon in a fiction work paradoxically seem a more significant sign of its importance than discussions in memoirs or even historical studies, precisely because they are mentioned only in passing. They are, of course, a loose part of the same satirical framework that subsequently develops around the emerging generation of radicals, but at the same time the brevity of the references to Kolokol limits the development of the satirical dimension, which in any case is directed here at the town authorities rather than the newspaper. This suggests that the situation described by the Archpriest must have been meaningful to contemporary readers, as it acts as a shorthand for the political context as a whole. And this adds another dimension to the relationship between literature and the real world it reflects (for want of a better phrase) that I seem to keep coming up against in different ways, from the fact/fiction confluence in Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales and its relationship to LEF’s concept of factography (the subject of an article appearing any day now in Slavonica), to the role of real places in Crime and Punishment and other Petersburg texts (see Mapping St Petersburg), and references in The Idiot to criminal cases that happened while Dostoevsky was writing the novel (of significance to my first book)… Somehow I’ve only recently noticed that this is a preoccupation that runs through different areas of my research, but I need to think more about how such elements are incorporated as well.

Herzen’s Free Russian Press: plaque unveiled on Judd Street

It’s not often in my line of work that research has a concrete, physical and permanent (as far as anything can be) public outcome, so it was with great pleasure yesterday that I attended the unveiling of a new plaque commemorating the work of the Free Russian Press at 61 Judd Street in London.

Plaque marking the site of Herzen's Free Russian Press, 61 Judd Street, Bloomsbury

Plaque marking the site of Herzen’s Free Russian Press, 61 Judd Street, Bloomsbury. Photograph by Sarah J. Young (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

I first started researching the Free Russian Press for my Russians in London series, quickly realizing that Alexander Herzen’s twelve years in London were central to the story of many of the other visitors I was tracking down. And his importance as a point of contact was primarily down to the significance of the Free Russian Press and especially the journals The Polar Star and The Bell which, when published from Judd Street in the 1850s (the press moved to a new site across the road after establishing its first independent premises at no. 61, at the time 82 Judd St.), were probably the most influential publications in Russia.

That post led to contact with the Marchmont Association, and further research by myself, Blue Plaque guide Sean Mitchell, Hilary Chapman and Richard Ekins from the Marchmont Association (see the initial discussion thread here) to establish exact locations. I detailed the results in a further post, and today’s plaque is the culmination of the whole process. You can also now find it on Open Plaques.

Unveiling the plaque

Unveiling the plaque. Photograph by John Levin (CC BY-SA 2.0)

What I wasn’t expecting was to be invited to unveil the plaque myself, but here I am, doing the honours (and battling vertigo!) with the Mayor of Camden, Jonathan Simpson. It looks terrific, not least because it’s on a beautiful old terrace, whose 200th anniversary will itself be commemorated next year.

The Marchmont Association plaque scheme is quite new, but growing rapidly. It’s great to see people who are so interested in the history of their local area, and their readiness to mark the work of a figure who, whatever his importance in Russian intellectual and political history, remains quite obscure in this country, is really wonderful. I can only thank them (for being so very friendly and welcoming as well), and hope the plaque will help spark the interest in Herzen that he deserves. I will be doing more research into the Free Russian Press and its journals over the next year, and will keep readers informed about that work. And there remain numerous Russians with London connections to research, when I have time – and who knows where they will lead me…

Crystal Palace (F. C.): Chernyshevsky’s barmy army

Russia at the Great Exhibition, 1851. From Dickinson's Complete Pictures. Author's copy

Russia at the Great Exhibition, 1851. From
Dickinson’s Comprehensive Pictures. Author’s copy

This piece first appeared on the SSEES Research Blog on 30 May 2013.

When one thinks of Russian connections to English football, it is most likely the owners and shareholders of certain premier league clubs that will to spring to mind, or the small number of Russians who have played for English clubs, including Roman Pavlyuchenko and Andrei Arshavin. But as Crystal Palace F. C. reaches the premiership following a tense play-off final against Watford, the status of the club as possibly the only one in the English league to be named after a building – its former nickname the Glaziers emphasizing the connection to the iconic structure, which still features on the club badge – provides a legacy of historical and literary Russian resonances that far outstrip the transient presence of mere players and owners, or indeed football itself.

The Great Exhibition was intended, among other things, to bring together the industry of all nations for the promotion of peace and free trade (whilst, inevitably, demonstrating the superiority of Britain in all regards). The Russian exhibit drew attention owing to its late arrival, and was notable for the malachite products that stood out in a display mainly consisting of raw materials.

Tsar Alexander II at the Crystal Palace, 1874. Author's copy

Tsar Alexander II at the Crystal Palace, 1874. Author’s copy

But in a climate of general xenophobia and fear of foreign revolutionaries who might visit the Exhibition – which took place three years after the 1848 wave of European revolutions – as well as intensifying Russophobia (the Crimean War was only two years away), it is perhaps not surprising that Russians themselves, as much as their manufactures, were seen to be on display. Among the exotic foreigners caricatured in descriptions and cartoons, the fearsome ‘Don Cossack’ always had his place alongside the Chinese mandarin and the African ‘savage’, reminding us how alien and un-European Russians seemed to the British imagination at that time. The notion of the palace as an international space may also have been behind the visit of Tsar Alexander II in 1874. As a later cigarette card commemorating the event indicates, the emphasis on this occasion was reconciliation and sameness – the Russians in the royal entourage pictured here are indistinguishable from the British guests – but the commentary on the reverse reminds us of that ‘other’, alien Russia, ending ominously: ‘The Tsar was assassinated by Nihilists on 13th March 1881.’

But if British views of Russians at the Great Exhibition simply reflected contemporary events and attitudes, within Russian literature the Crystal Palace assumed a particular significance, as it became a touchstone for debates about modernity, westernization and social transformation. Read the full post »

Top ten undead in Russian literature

“The dead are people too.” Andrei Platonov, The Foundation Pit

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the influence on nineteenth-century Russian literature of romantic and gothic sensibilities, and of fantastic writers from ETA Hoffmann to Edgar Allan Poe, the notion of the undead plays a significant role for some of the most prominent Russian writers. Encompassing not only supernatural entities but also out of body experiences (and dreams of these) and other, less fantastic, conceptions of a living death or return from the dead, the theme plays a central role in Russian culture. Apologies for any plot-spoilers, though generally the plot as such is barely the point. Where possible I’ve included links to Russian texts, with the translations of the featured texts that are available online given at the end of the entry.

10. Lev Tolstoy, The Living Corpse (1900) I’m no great fan of Tolstoy’s plays, as the ones I’ve read seem to have a clunkiness he avoids even in his most didactic fiction. The Living Corpse is fairly typical in that respect, but it is interesting in other terms. Not literally a story of the undead, this drama about a debauched man who fakes his suicide to free his wife belongs to the meme of fake deaths in Russian literature, which frequently seem to occur in order to resolve love complications: see also Sukhovo-Kobylin’s Tarelkin’s Death and Chernyshevsky’s What is to be Done? Tolstoy’s play can be seen as a response to the consequence-free fake suicide of Lopakhin in Chernyshevsky’s novel, but it also acts as a commentary on Anna Karenina and questions of love, adultery and divorce.

9. Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita (1928-40, published 1967) Satan’s ball, in which murderers and criminals from across the centuries come back to life, is so exuberantly described it is easy to overlook the horrific side of this scene. It is above all aimed at testing Margarita, and considering the grim physical and emotional ordeal she goes through, one has to question whether the reunion it ultimately achieves is worth it. The Master is so badly damaged that his return – another form of resurrection – cannot restore the past. There is no happy ending here. Bulgakov’s preoccupation with the dead is also apparent in is early feuilleton “Adventures of a Dead Man” and in the subtitle to his Theatrical Novel: Notes of a Dead Man.

The undertaker's housewarming party

The undertaker’s housewarming party

8. Alexander Pushkin, The Undertaker (1830) The Tales of Belkin are extraordinary creations, but The Undertaker usually gets much less attention than The Shot, The Stationmaster or The Snowstorm. It probably isn’t quite as perfectly formed as some of the other tales, but its climactic image of the corpses he has interred turning up to Adrian Prokhorov’s housewarming is a wonderful excursion into the fantastic that adds another layer to Pushkin’s parodies and creates a connection with The Queen of Spades. It also alerts us to how frequently the appearance of the undead is related to alcohol in Russian literature (see also Odoevsky’s The Tale of a Dead Body, Belonging to No-One Knows Whom, and Zoshchenko’s vignette The Living Corpse).

7. Yuri Dombrovsky, The Keeper of Antiquities (1964) My former PhD student Katia (now Dr) Shulga had some brilliant insights into the uncanny imagery of dead brides in Dombrovsky’s dilogy The Keeper of Antiquities and The Faculty of Useless Knowledge, but one related reference stays particularly in my mind because of the coincidence of its discovery. Katia was wondering about an obscure reference to Marusya being shot in the civil war and then returning from the dead, when I published a blog post about the anarchist atamansha, Maria Nikiforovna, who was famous for the legends surrounding her death and multiple returns. The inclusion of Marusya – a startling example of the diversity of Dombrovsky’s knowledge – gives an unsettling additional dimension to the theme of dead beauty haunting the living.

6. Daniil Kharms, The Old Woman (1939) There’s an enormous amount of death in Kharms, so it’s not surprising that a little undead-ness creeps in as well. The old woman who inexplicably visits the narrator’s room, only to die, proves very troublesome. When the corpse starts crawling across the floor the story enters a different realm altogether. Or does it? Does this actually signify that she’s not dead at all? The narrator hasn’t checked that carefully, after all, and given his inability to tell a simple story, he hardly seems qualified to understand or report coherently on this aspect of the incident. In which case, does it become murder when he kicks the “corpse”? If so, it makes one rethink a great deal of the story, particularly the religious theme and the closing prayer. | English translation

Image from Georgi Kropachyov and Konstantin Yershov's film Viy (1967)

From Georgi Kropachyov and Konstantin Yershov’s film Viy (1967)

5. Nikolai Gogol, Viy (1835) From the metaphorical return of the “dead souls” in Gogol’s novel, to the muscular “ghost” of Akaky Akakievich who vengefully steals overcoats from passers by, the undead are a constant presence in Gogol’s work. For me the most memorable occurrence comes in the Mirgorod story Viy, when the philosopher Khoma Brut spends three nights in a church under attack by the beautiful witch he killed, each night more horrifying than the last, and culminating in the appearance of multiple demons and the eponymous monster the Viy, with his all-seeing eyes and iron face. The second cock crow leaves all the demons frozen inside the church, and the image of it abandoned and overgrown with weeds is for me the perfect expression of the clash of pagan and Christian cultures at the heart of Gogol’s Ukrainian stories. | English translation

4. Vladimir Odoevsky, The Live Corpse (1838, published 1844) When Vasily Kuzmich dies, his spirit goes wandering, and discovers that those who ostensibly mourn his passing in fact haven’t got a good word to say about him. As his moral decay and obsession with money in life become ever clearer, he gradually begins to understand that he is in a form of purgatory because he can no longer affect anything, but must merely witness the consequences of his previous greed and corruption, as his sons take his philosophy to its logical conclusion. A remarkably down-to-earth tale of life after death, and not just because of the fairly standard demystifying ending.

3. Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, The Thirteenth Category of Reason (1927) Krzhizhanovsky’s capacity for genius scenarios never ceases to amaze me, and I love this story of a sociable, philosophical corpse who gets so carried away chatting to a gravedigger that he literalizes his ‘lateness’ by missing his own funeral. One chance at being buried is all you get, it seems, and this turns into a more tragic tale of dislocation as the living are unwilling to accept him and the inhuman bureaucracy cannot accommodate him.

2. Dostoevsky, Bobok (1873) For Dostoevsky, the question of death, and life after death, are persistent preoccupations, in terms of how they are experienced and depicted as well as in their philosophical significance. Most of the stories from Diary of a Writer deal with death and the afterlife in one way or another, but Bobok is definitely my favourite despite (or perhaps because of) the much darker picture it paints than The Dream of a Ridiculous Man, with which it is often paired. As the corpses in their graves play cards, abandon all shame, and have no conception of the meaning of their situation, the banality of the afterlife here seems even worse than Svidrigailov’s conception in Crime and Punishment of life after death as a filthy bath house full of spiders. One of my students recently suggested a connection with The Crocodile, in the image of these prone, constricted figures carrying on as though nothing has happened, which certainly gives food for thought. | English translation

1. Intergalactic zombie agriculture! or Nikolai Fedorov’s Philosophy of the Common Task (1906, 1913; published posthumously) I know it’s not literature per se, but Fedorov has to take first place not only because of the sheer brilliance of his idea of reassembling and reanimating the dead, and populating other planets with the resurrected, which influenced the development of rocket science (after my class on Fedorov a couple of weeks ago a student said she was really envious of his imagination, and I feel the same), but also because he epitomizes the extraordinary significance of resurrection in Russian culture, which I hope this list also indicates. For more on his ideas, see my lecture, and some other links, including to the Russian and English texts.

Russian thought lecture 10: Utopias in Russian culture: of palaces and panopticons

Reading: Dostoevsky, “Dream of a Ridiculous Man” (1877)

The Crystal Palace in Sydenham

The Crystal Palace in Sydenham

So we come to the end of this lecture series, and a slightly different focus than previously, as theoretical works take a back seat, and we look instead at Russian literature and culture to explore the utopian theme. There are clearly strong utopian aspects to the work of several of the thinkers we have examined so far, not least in the writings of Vladimir Solov’ev and Nikolai Fedorov that we have studied over the last month, and these did have a significant influence on other writers and thinkers. But it is in literature itself that the utopian theme really comes alive. I’ve already mentioned in previous lectures the utopian dream of the Crystal Palace that features in Chernyshevsky’s novel What is to be Done? (1863), and the response of Dostoevsky’s underground man, and both works indicate the place of literature in the debate about utopianism. Today I want to flesh that question out more, by placing those two works in the larger context of utopian (and dystopian) Russian fiction and cultural reference, and as part of that also to introduce some aspects of Dostoevsky’s “Dream of a Ridiculous Man,” which is the set reading for our final seminar. The reason I’ve chosen that text, out of the many utopian visions on offer, is that it brings together the three key themes for the course, the person, love and utopia, but also I think it’s quite an ambiguous text, which can be seen as both utopian and dystopian, and therefore has the potential to reveal important aspects of this whole theme.

I suggested in my last lecture that the utopianism of Russian thinkers was related to the question of communality; particularly in the radical form Fedorov’s utopia takes, the idea of brotherhood or kinship is so significant that it logically leads to the task of resurrecting the dead. So this already implies the connection between utopianism and love, and because that privileges other people above the self, it entails a particular conception of the person that we might see as being common to Russian thought. Another reason for the popularity of utopianism in Russia is probably the simple notion of faith in a brighter future, so that the present is not perceived in terms of the deferred happiness of the current generation for the sake of what is to come (something that, for example, Herzen repudiates, which indicates his anti-utopian position). Rather, the brighter future becomes an explanation for the torments and trials of the present, and I think the idea that the present is full of suffering, and that the Russian people have suffered greatly for a very long time, is quite a tenacious one within popular perception. The notion that Russia is precisely the place where this future transformation must happen often originates in emphasis on Russian backwardness, but one might also suggest there is an element of belief that Russia is most in need of this transformation, and its long-suffering people are most deserving of this paradise to come. I use terms like “belief,” “faith” and “paradise” deliberately, because I think there is an intrinsically religious dimension to this question, whether it is expressed in its Christian or its revolutionary form. The role of the latter in the communist experiment is another important question.

A utopia strictly speaking is the image of a perfect society, not an argument about society, which is why the literary dimension becomes so crucial (Fedorov stated: “the representation of the world will then become a project for a better world,” p. 29). But I want to start not by examining not a literary work, but by looking at a couple of utopian elements in Russian history. Leonid Heller and Michel Niqueux’s book on Russian utopianism identifies so many aspects of Russian history as utopian (from the colonization of Siberia to the Pugachev rebellion to the Decembrist uprising) that the term threatens to become meaningless. But some of their analysis is thought-provoking, and, for example, the idea of Peter the Great – and his creation, St. Petersburg – as utopian (Heller & Niqueux, pp. 61-2) has a lot of potential. One could relate this not only to the underground man’s characterization of Petersburg as “the most abstract and premeditated city in the whole world” (Notes from Underground [1864], p. 5), which emphasizes its rational origins, but also Dostoevsky’s more ambivalent and irrational image of the city rising up with the mist to disappear in the 1848 short story “A Weak Heart” and, here, in the novel A Raw Youth (1875):

I consider St. Petersburg mornings, apparently the most prosaic on earth, probably the most fantastic in the world. […] On such a St. Petersburg morning – so raw, damp and foggy – I have always thought that the wild dreams of someone like Pushkin’s Hermann in The Queen of Spades […] must be strengthened and receive endorsement. A hundred times over amid such a fog I have had the strange but persistent notion: ‘What if this fog were to disperse and rise up into the sky, wouldn’t the whole, rotten, sleazy city go up with it and vanish like smoke, and all that would remain would be the original Finnish marsh with, in the middle of it, for decoration, perhaps, a bronze horseman on a snorting, rearing steed?’ […] I’ve frequently been struck – and am still struck – by a completely senseless question: ‘Here they are, you see, all rushing and hurrying on their way, but what if this were perhaps someone’s dream, and there wasn’t a single, true, genuine human being, not a single real action among them? If the person dreaming it all were to wake up, it would all suddenly vanish. (An Accidental Family [A Raw Youth], p. 144)

Kitezh, by Konstantin Gorbatov (1913)

Kitezh, by Konstantin Gorbatov (1913)

This image of Petersburg rising from the Neva that Dostoevsky evokes more than once in his work may also have its origins (albeit with the sense reversed) in a story from popular Russian culture that represents one of the best known religious expressions of utopianism: the mythical city of Kitezh, which resisted the Mongol invasion by lowering itself into Lake Svetloyar, near Nizhnyi Novgorod, where it remains submerged, only visible to the pure in heart (the question of the seen and unseen may be a very significant aspect of the subject of Russian utopias; it reappears below in a rather different context). Kitezh is important not only because of its persistence in Russian folk memory (resulting in numerous art works and Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1907 opera The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniia), but also because of its specifically religious dimension, which works in two ways. Kitezh represents a form of peaceful non-resistance to violence that we can relate to Tolstoi’s ideas, and which goes back to the 11th-century martyrdom of Saints Boris and Gleb, the first Russian canonized saints.

But it also plays a significant role in Russian religious history, because although the legend relates to events in the 13th century, it first appears in an 18th-century Old Believer chronicle. The Christian concept of the Kingdom of God on earth – in itself utopian – takes on a more concretely Russian dimension in the idea of Moscow as the Third Rome (Heller & Niqueux, pp. 23-4), but the schism in the Orthodox church in the 1660s entrenches utopian thinking, because the Old Believers and sectarians see the true faith as lying outside the established church, and therefore reject both church and state to seek salvation beyond this world, or attempt to realize ideal apostolic communities on earth (Heller & Niqueux, p. 33). One significant example of this idea in practice was the Vygorskaia pustyn’ Old Believers’ community in Karelia, founded in 1694, which has been seen as a realization of Charles Fourier’s idea of the phalanstery (Heller & Niqueux, pp. 34-5), the self-contained utopian working together for the mutual benefit of all (of which a little more later).

Faddei Bulgarin (1789-1859)

Faddei Bulgarin (1789-1859)

Turning to fictional Russian utopias, probably the first true representative of this theme in Russian literature, following the translation of More’s Utopia into Russian in 1789, is Untrue Un-Events, or A Voyage to the Centre of the Earth (1824), by the Faddei Bulgarin (1789-1859), the conservative writer and self-appointed champion of the autocracy, best known for editing the reactionary journal The Northern Bee. Bulgarin’s reputation for being one of the most unpleasant figures in Russian literature (a title for which there is quite a lot of competition) and his somewhat dubious merits as a writer make this a rather depressing inauguration of the utopian theme – and indeed as an early contribution to the genre of science fiction in Russian literature. His image of three underground lands satirizes the backward peasantry (the “land of Ignorance”) and the middle-classes who pretend to knowledge they do not have (the “land of Beastliness”), and in contrast exults in the self-disciplined subordination to authority of,

the smug, patriarchal country of Enlightedness [that] is an autocratic emasculation of More, silent on his basic insights about property and economics, and propagating an idealized stance popular at the Tsarist court from the times of Peter the Great. (Suvin, p. 140)

Vladimir Odoevsky (1803-1869)

Vladimir Odoevsky (1803-1869)

Of distinctly greater appeal and literary interest is the work of Vladimir Odoevsky (1803-1869), a writer and thinker associated in the 1820s with the Liubomudry (society of Wisdom Lovers), a discussion group devoted to German philosophy (above all the works of Schelling) to which both future Slavophiles and Westernizers belonged. Odoevsky’s unfinished novel The Year 4338 – set in the Petersburg of the future – contains elements of Cosmist thinking such as space exploration to exploit the resources of other planets (so in this sense Odoevsky was a precursor of Fedorov) and other futuristic ideas such as the machine authorship of novels (Suvin, p. 141). While this work belongs more firmly to science fiction, and was one of a number of Russian works at the time depicting the distant future, of more interest to us is another of his stories, from the collection Russian Nights (1844). It is often assumed that Chernyshevsky first introduced into Russian literature a utopia based on a specific ideology (rational egoism), in What is to be Done?, but in fact Odoevsky’s “A City without Name” predates this by over 20 years (it was first published in 1839). Moreover, the earlier story is based on the same philosophical foundations: Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism (Artem’eva’s article makes this connection but does not explore it). But this is already not a utopia but a dystopia: Odoevsky narrator – a stranger surveying the ruins of his fatherland – describes the catastrophic results of the adoption of the theory that “benefit is the essential motive power of all man’s actions! Whatever is useless is harmful, whatever is of benefit is permitted” (Odoevsky, pp. 103-4). Bentham is named as the inspiration for a new society constructed in a new place (although it is neither named nor located, one could probably make an argument that it contains allusions to Petersburg’s rational, constructed character). But gradually this society begins to go wrong. There are disputes about what (or whose) benefit is in question, but eventually it is the fact that benefit is understood solely in terms of financial interest and as only applicable to the Benthamite society that leads to disaster, as the benefit of the “city without name” overrides all others leading to exploitation, war and colonization of its neighbours, and followed by inequality and lack of cooperation at home, which also leads to bloodshed and a dog-eat-dog mentality:

One thing alone was considered necessary – to obtain a few material benefits for oneself by hook or by crook. […] Mothers knew no songs they could sing at their babies’ cradles. The natural, poetic element was long since killed by selfish calculations of profit. The death of this element contaminated all other elements of human nature; all abstract, general thoughts which unite people seemed to be madness; books, knowledge, laws of morality – useless luxury. Only one word – benefit – had remained from former glorious times, but it, too, acquired an indefinite meaning; everyone interpreted it in his own way. (Odoevsky, p. 109)

Eventually the society regresses to savagery and the city is destroyed, its people dying of starvation. It gives a very bleak picture that questions the human capacity for good and presents a strong indictment of the subordination of society to an idea (we might compare this to Herzen’s rejection of abstract principles and institutions only a few years later). And it represents quite a sophisticated view in comparison with Chernyshevsky’s blithely optimistic vision of the Benthamite future in Vera Pavlovna’s dream in What is to be Done?, in which there are no tensions, and everybody living in the Crystal Palace is happily working together in the secure knowledge that they are acting in their own best interests and everybody else’s. Inspired by Fourier’s Phalanstery, a design for collective cooperative living and working in an “balanced harmony of personal and public life” (Suvin, p. 143), and representing one of the earliest literary works to depict Fourier’s idea in practice, Chernyshevsky’s socialist utopia presents a strong, and perhaps facile, contrast to Odoevsky’s capitalist nightmare.

Fourier's Phalanstery

Fourier’s Phalanstery

Whatever its merits (or otherwise), Vera Pavlovna’s dream has significant dimensions – in particular, as we saw last term, in the idea of gender equality and the assumption that there can be no social progress or liberation without equality for women, and in establishing Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace as the primary image of the future utopia. The emphasis on liberty is central to Chernyshevsky’s idea, but for Dostoevsky, such attempts at social reorganization, however well intentioned they may be in their initial inception, always entail unfreedom, because of the loss of individuality. Freedom, as we will remember from Notes from Underground, is the ultimate value, because it is a prerequisite for the maintenance of the individual personality. I do not intend to revisit the arguments in that text in any more detail, but I do want to mention later incarnations of Dostoevsky’s “anthill” theory of social slavery, as he called it, in which again the question of freedom becomes central. In Demons (1872), the revolutionary Shigalev outlines a theory of social reorganization that explicitly leads to slavery:

He proposes, as a final solution of the question [of social organization], the division of mankind into two unequal parts. One-tenth is to receive personal freedom and unlimited rights over the remaining nine-tenths. The latter are to lose their individuality and turn into something like cattle, and with this unlimited obedience attain, through a series of regenerations, a primordial innocence, something like the primordial paradise, although they will have to work. (Dostoevsky, Demons, p. 447)

Beyond this rather ominous final line, one can see here the connection with Raskolnikov’s idea in Crime and Punishment (1866) of the division of people into the extraordinary one-tenth, to whom the law does not apply, and the ordinary nine tenths, who must obey the law. Also significant here is the idea of a return to the original paradise; we will need to think about how these consequences of social reorganization affect our view of the perfect world depicted in “Dream of a Ridiculous Man” (of which more below).

In his final novel The Brothers Karamazov (1880), Ivan Karamazov tells his brother Alesha about his “poem,” the story of the Grand Inquisitor, who confronts the returned Christ to argue that freedom is too heavy a burden for human beings to bear:

You want to go into the world, and you are going empty-handed, with some promise of freedom, which they in their simplicity and innate lawlessness cannot even comprehend, which they dread and fear – for nothing has ever been more insufferable for man and for human society than freedom! (Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, p. 252)

Out of love for suffering and weak humankind, he has replaced the Christian precepts of faith, love and free will with “miracle, mystery and authority,” giving his flock bread and certainty (Brothers Karamazov, p. 255). Thus he restores humanity’s happiness, by removing the burden of freedom for the majority:

Yes, we will make them work, but in the hours free from labor we will arrange their lives like a children’s game [note again the question of innocence here – SJY], with children’s songs, choruses and innocent dancing. Oh, we will allow them to sin, too; they are weak and powerless, and they will love us like children for allowing them to sin. […] And everyone will be happy, all the millions of creatures, except for the hundred thousand of those who govern them. For only we, we who keep the mystery, only we shall be unhappy. (Brothers Karamazov, p. 259)

It represents possibly the greatest literary expression of the tension between freedom and happiness, and it is important because although this is certainly a dystopian view – a warning against attempts to reorganize society on rational grounds (for the Grand Inquisitor has certainly adopted the rational perspective) – it does not in any way deny the significance or validity of the Grand Inquisitor’s argument: freedom is difficult, certainty is comforting; and in many circumstances human beings may be prepared to sacrifice the former for the latter.

We see a similar opposition between freedom and happiness presented, with perhaps just as little resolution, in Evgeny Zamyatin’s novel We (1921), which like Dostoevsky’s works is often seen as a prophetic anticipation of the totalitarian stalinist state. Probably the most fully developed image in Russian literature of the rationally constructed society where all individuality is eradicated for the sake of the collective, the novel is often viewed purely as a dystopia, but I would argue that it is slightly more ambivalent than that suggests, because of this question of happiness. As the story opens D-503 accepts the rational society and his insignificant place within it, but as he grows a “soul” and experiences new emotions (and becomes an artist through the writing of his journal), this is clearly not a route to happiness or contentment – quite the opposite. He never commits totally to this new side of life or to freedom; whatever the excitement he experiences, he remains fearful and misses his former certainty. When he is subjected to the operation to remove his imagination, we recognize horrific significance of this, but at the same time we cannot deny that the restoration of certainty also corresponds to something he craves.

Bentham's panopticon

Bentham’s panopticon

Zamiatin’s novel We is also important for containing another incarnation of the Crystal Palace, in the form of the glass construction of OneState, where everything is “clear” (ясно, D-503’s positive watch-word). The transparent city that removes all concept of privacy and allows its inhabitants’ every activity to be seen, moreover, recalls not only the Crystal Palace, but also another building: Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, the institutional building (usually associated with prisons and asylums, but also designed with schools, hospitals and workplaces in mind) that enables total surveillance through a central inspection point, while the inmates would never know whether they were being watched or not (so the question of certainty is turned on its head here). The panopticon becomes, most famously in Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish (p. 205), an instrument of power, although Bentham himself also perceived it in these terms. Incidentally, Jeremy Bentham’s began writing his famous essay on the panopticon in 1786 whilst visiting his brother Samuel, who was living in Russia and working on a number of projects with Prince Grigory Potemkin. The initial idea for the panopticon or inspection house was, in fact, Samuel’s, and the first (perhaps only true) panopticon was built as a school of the arts in St. Petersburg in 1806, on the banks of the river Okhta on the Vyborg side (Werrett, p. 21); it was burned down in 1817 (see ; Steadman, pp. 5-9, for further details of the building, including plans). So from the earlier Muscovite utopia of the Third Rome, the focus seems to shift, and by the beginning of the nineteenth century, utopian (or dystopian, depending on your perspective) Petersburg seems to be where all these ideas come together.

And St. Petersburg is also the setting for Dostoevsky’s “Dream of a Ridiculous Man” (at least for the action that frames the central dream of the title), a short story published in April 1877 as part of his Writer’s Diary. This was a writing experiment Dostoevsky conducted intermittently in the 1870s, publishing a “fat journal” (Grazhdanin, The Citizen) in which, instead of containing contributions from lots of different writers, he wrote everything himself. It is a strange hotchpotch of different forms of writing, on different subjects, and is very interesting as a source of information on Russian urban and intellectual life, as many of the articles relate to contemporary events. For example, there are articles on court cases and the judicial system, on children who were the victims of violence, and on the position of women (often part of his interest in court cases). There are a large number of articles on the “Russian question” (i.e. on the destiny of Russia) which often incorporated religious questions and praise for the Orthodox church, while in 1877 there is a great deal on the Russo-Turkish war in the Balkans. This is where Dostoevsky’s nationalism and anti-Semitism come most clearly into view, revealing the most unpleasant side of his personality and ideas, but these articles are also notable for the absence of the subtlety and complexity that marks the representation of ideas in his fiction. The Writer’s Diary also contains several short stories in which death and the possibility of life after death are significant preoccupations, including “Dream of a Ridiculous Man.”

This story of a morally indifferent rationalist whose life has lost all meaning, who dreams of committing suicide and is transported in the afterlife to an earthly paradise. The paradise he visits is the fullest development of a recurring image Dostoevsky calls the “Golden Age,” inspired by the painting “Acis and Galatea” by Claude Lorrain (c. 1600-1682). In Demons and A Raw Youth, the central characters, Stavrogin and Versilov respectively, glimpse this ideal in a dream:

It was this picture I dreamed about, though not as a picture but as if it were a kind of myth. […] It was a reminder of the cradle of European humanity, and that very idea filled my heart with a loving fellow feeling. Here was humanity’s paradise on earth, the place where gods would come down from heaven and become as one with men… […] I remember that I was elated. A sensation of happiness such as I had never known filled my heart till it ached. It was a love for all humanity. (An Accidental Family [A Raw Youth], pp. 491-2)

But in both cases the ideal is immediately negated by man’s imperfections – indeed by the very imperfections of those dreaming about it (Peace, p. 62). But in “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man,” the paradise is not simply passively glimpsed; the dreamer participates in the life of its inhabitants, and has an effect on them. Peace argues that the idyll depicted in the story represents a further answer by Dostoevsky to Chernyshevsky’s utopian vision of the Crystal Palace. Certainly Dostoevsky’s story contains formal echoes of his adversary’s utopia. Both “perfect societies” appear in dreams, and, like the Ridiculous Man, Vera Pavlovna is guided through time and space to reach this world by a supernatural being. But the basis of the two utopias is very different:

[Dostoevsky’s] Utopia is based not on the progress of human reason, but on the retention of innocent primal feelings; for him the Golden Age is not in the future but in the past, and its image derives not from a construction of science but from a work of art. (Peace, p. 73)

The shift from future to past, and from reason to pre-rational knowledge, is accompanied by a transformation in the significance of love: while erotic love is central to the sexual equality envisaged in the Crystal Palace, innocent brotherly love governs Dostoevsky’s “Golden Age.”

But I would suggest that far more important than the structure of this society in comparison with the Crystal Palace, is the fact that it is corrupted by the Ridiculous Man. This not only emphasizes the impossibility of this type of perfect society, but also apparently supports the underground man’s assertion that people are more interested in the journey than its goal, and that the destructive urge originates in humanity’s dislike of perfection; the narrator portrays his actions that led to this fall as accidental, but when we compare this story to Notes from Underground, the suggestion must be that this action was on some level deliberate, the result of an unconscious impulse to destroy.

But is the society depicted in the story – prior to its fall – perfect at all? Some critics agree that it is, but one might also argue that it cannot be perfect because of the incomplete nature of the people who inhabit it, while the reduction of human beings to an innocent child-like state in the dystopias Dostoevsky depicts elsewhere should also give us pause for thought. This will be one important question for us to discuss next week. You should also consider how this society is corrupted, the significance of suffering, and where (if anywhere) religion fits into Dostoevsky’s conception. We shall also discuss what the story and its central dream suggest about human nature and the individual.


Artem’eva, T. V., “Stekliannyi dom”, in Filosofskii vek. Al’manak, No. 9: Nauka o morali: Dzh. Bentam i Rossiia (St Petersburg, 1999), 135-52

Bulgarin, Faddei, “Neveroiatnye nebylitsy ili Puteshestvie k sredotchiiu Zemli” (Untrue Un-Events, or a Journey to the Centre of the Earth, 1824)

Chernyshevsky, Nikolai, What is to be Done?, trans. Michael Katz (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989) | Chto delat?

Dostoevsky, Fyodor, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (London: Vintage, 1992) | Bratia Karamazovy, chast’ 1 | chast’ 2 | chast’ 3 | chast’ 4

Dostoevsky, Fyodor, “Dream of a Ridiculous Man,” in A Writer’s Diary, trans. K. Lantz (London: Quartet, 1994), 943-961 | Son smeshnogo cheloveka

Dostoevsky, Fyodor, An Accidental Family [A Raw Youth], trans. Richard Freeborn (Oxford University Press, 1994) | Podrostok

Dostoyevsky, Fyodor, Demons, trans. Robert A. Maguire (London: Penguin, 2008) | Besy

Dostoevsky, Fyodor, Notes from Underground, trans. Michael Katz (New York: Norton, 2001) (2nd edn) | Zapiski iz podpol’ia

Fedorov, Nikolai, “The Question of Brotherhood or Relatedness,” in Russian Philosophy, ed. J. M. Edie, J.P. Scanlan and M.B. Zeldin (Chicago, 1965), 3: 16-54

Foucault, Michel, Discipline and Punish (London: Penguin, 1991)

Heller, Leonid, and Niqueux, Michel, Histoire de l’utopie en Russie (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1995)

Odoevsky, Vladimir, “A City without Name,” in Russian Nights, trans. Olga Koshansky-Olienikov and Ralph Matlaw (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1997), 101-14 | Gorod bez imeni

Odoevskii, Vladimir, The Year 4338, trans. John Kuti | 4338-ii god (1835)

Peace, Richard, “Dostoevsky and the Golden Age,” Dostoevsky Studies, 3 (1982), 61-78

Steadman, Philip, “Samuel Bentham’s Panopticon,” Journal of Bentham Studies, 14 (2012)

Suvin, D., “The Utopian Tradition of Russian Science Fiction,” Modern Language Review, 66.1 (1971), 139-59

Werrett, Simon, “Potemkin and the Panopticon: Samuel Bentham and the Architecture of Absolutism in Eighteenth Century Russia,” Journal of Bentham Studies, 2 (1999)

Zamyatin, Evgeny, We, trans. Clarence Brown (London: Penguin, 1993)

For links to translations of Dostoevsky’s works, click here.