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.

Russian thought lecture 9: Nikolai Fedorov and the utopia of the resurrected

Reading: “The Question of Brotherhood or Relatedness, and the Reasons for the Unbrotherly, Dis-Related, or Unpeaceful State of the World, and of the Means for the Restoration of Relatedness” (from Philosophy of the Common Task)

So we come to the penultimate lecture for this course, and turn our attention more fully to the question of utopianism that is one of our key themes. We have already seen what might be described as utopian strands in Russian thought in, for example, the Slavophiles’ notion of a golden age of pre-Petrine Russian culture. Chernyshevsky’s depiction of the Crystal Palace as the perfectly ordered society of the future is certainly utopian, although for Dostoevsky’s underground man that same reordering of society becomes dystopian. And there is certainly a heavy dose of utopianism in Vladimir Solov’ev’s idea of the syzygic union of male and female into the figure of the androgyne who returns to God, as we saw in the previous lecture. Solov’ev was, as I said last time, significantly influenced by the work of the subject of today’s lecture, Nikolai Fedorovich Fedorov (1828-1903) – in a letter to Fedorov sent in 1881, Solov’ev stated, “I accept your ‘project’ unconditionally and without any discussion […] I can only recognise in you my teacher and spiritual father.” (Young, p. 8). But they were quite different philosophers, and the utopian dimension of Fedorov’s thinking is of quite a different order.

Fedorov is, I think it is fair to say, both unique and quintessentially Russian. Nikolai Berdiaev described him as:

a characteristically Russian man, a Russian seeker after universal salvation, knowing a way to save the whole world and all mankind. […] in the person of Fedorov this Russian type found its expression with genius. This is indeed truly a characteristic feature of the Russian spirit — to seek after universal salvation, to bear within oneself a responsibility for all. Western mankind readily reconciles itself to the perishing of many. And Western mankind holds in esteem values, other than of an universal salvation. But for the Russian spirit it is difficult to become reconciled not only with the perishing of many, but even of several, or even of one. Each is responsible for the whole world and for all mankind (Berdyaev, “The Religion of Resusciative Resurrection“).

This question is significant, as it highlights an important difference between Russian and Western philosophers: the fact that Western philosophy has for a very long time primarily been concerned with questions of solipsism, or the idea that the only thing one can be sure exists is one’s mind. Although this idea goes back to the Sophists of antiquity, it is cemented in modern philosophy by Rene Decartes’ Cogito ergo sum, which takes for granted the existence of the individual and the individual’s mind, which becomes the first, and indeed only, principle from which to build a philosophical system. The primary need of Western philosophy is therefore to demonstrate the existence of the world and of other people outside the individual’s mind.

For Russian thinkers, on the other hand, this is a false problem, because of the emphasis within Russian thought on unity and community, on sobornost’ or vsetsel’nost’. Therefore we can see that the existence of the other is already established – one might even suggest that in Russian thought it is the individual existence that is questioned – so the relationship to the other, and the primacy of the other, can be seen as the starting point of Russian thought. This focus on the other may be one of the reasons why utopianism is such a persistent force in Russian thought – this is a question we’ll be discussing in our seminars on this topic. What I want to do today is to focus on Fedorov’s ideas broadly speaking, so that we can discuss the specifics of his key essay “The Question of Brotherhood or Relatedness” next week. However, first I want to locate this question within a slightly wider framework of what utopian thinking signifies.

The first aspect of that is to define precisely what we mean by “utopianism.” One of the problems with this term is that it has two meanings. In the general sense, “utopian” is used negatively to mean unrealistic or idealistic. In this sense, I think we could brand practically every thinker we’ve read for this course as utopian in one way or another. But that isn’t a particularly useful starting-point for discussion, so we’ll be concentrating on the more specific, philosophical and (perhaps) positive meaning of utopia that refers to the creation or depiction of a perfect society. This goes back to Plato’s Republic and government by “philosopher kings” that aims to bring order and remove poverty. But its most significant early modern incarnation is in Sir Thomas More’s 1516 book Utopia, which depicts an imaginary society living on an island. The word “utopia” comes from the Greek for “no-place” but may also entails suggestions of “good-place,” so the implication from this starting point is not only that it refers to the perfect society, but also that such a place cannot exist.

And that sense of the impossibility of utopia also quickly transforms into its opposite, the supposedly perfect society that turns into a nightmare of oppression. This is not the place for even a partial survey of the range of utopian and dystopian literature, because this has become a very popular theme, with particular resonances for science fiction. But among the most famous works in this genre, one could mention Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726), which has has elements of both utopias and dystopias, the designer William Morris’s utopian socialist/science fiction work News from Nowhere (1890), and H. G. Wells’s optimistic Men Like Gods (1923), about a parallel universe. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) was written in part as a critique of Wells’s simplistic utopianism, and George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) and 1984 (1948) are probably the most famous examples of the genre in English. Orwell has particular resonances for the study of Russian utopias because Animal Farm acts as an allegory of the Russian Revolution, and 1984 was inspired in part by the reality of the Stalinist regime and in part by the fictional totalitarian state of Evgeny Zamyatin’s novel We (1921).

So this is far from being a uniquely Russian theme, but it is nevertheless true to say that that it has been embraced by Russian thinkers and writers (not that you’d know it from the Wikipedia article on utopia, which does not refer to a single Russian author). Both the religious and the radical traditions of Russian thought contain strongly utopian and dystopian features, sometimes with both featuring in the work of a single author. I’ll examine some these, including Zamyatin, in more detail in the final lecture, but now I want to turn to Fedorov, because I think he represents the pinnacle and the most extraordinary example of Russian utopian thinking, and is able therefore to tell us a great deal about what utopianism means in the Russian context and what its particular features are; it should also become apparent how his utopianism relates to later developments, both in Russia and elsewhere, not only in science fiction, but also in actual scientific advances.

Nikolai Fedorov, by Leonid Pasternak

Nikolai Fedorov, by Leonid Pasternak

Nikolai Fedorvich Fedorov was born in 1828, and was the illegitimate son of Prince Pavel Ivanovich Gagarin and a peasant woman (information on Fedorov’s biography comes from George Young’s Nikolai F. Fedorov: An Introduction,  and from the introduction to the translation of Fedorov’s works, What was Man Created For?). He was a second cousin of the anarchist Petr Kropotkin on his father’s side. His father died when Fedorov was four years old, and this illegitimate family (there were other children) experienced great hardship during Fedorov’s childhood. He did receive a good education (he studied at a lycee in Odessa), but he was an outsider in Russian society, and it was this perspective that he brought to his writing. He taught history and geography in various provincial schools, but never stayed in one place for very long. He later became a librarian at the Rumyantsev museum in Moscow (which became the Lenin Library and is now the Russian State Library). He was extraordinarily well read, and when – as still happens in Russian libraries – readers gave him their book order forms, they would receive not only the books they had requested, but also all sorts of other materials he thought they would find useful. He was renowned for his great erudition; his reputation was for knowing more about pretty much any subject than readers or specialists on those subjects. This was probably because, by all accounts, he would never have left the library if he had been given any choice. He apparently had no personal life whatsoever, and led an ascetic, self-denying existence, for which Tolstoy admired him greatly. (Tolstoy, as we have seen, was incapable of putting his ideas into practice consistently; Fedorov was quite the opposite in this regard.) As Young puts it:

The only coat he wore was more rag than coat, and strangers easily mistook him for a beggar on the streets. He had no furniture, and each time he moved to new quarters he gave away whatever objects the room had accumulated. He spent nothing on entertainment, diversion, or any conveniences, and refused to take cabs even in the coldest winter months. He drank only tea, ate hard rolls, sometimes accompanied by a piece of cheese or salt fish, and lived for months without hot food (Young, p. 35).

The above is the only known picture of Fedorov, drawn surreptitiously by Leonid Pasternak (father of the poet) in the library. Fedorov had a small group of devoted followers, and was considered by those who knew him (including Solov’ev and Dostoevsky) as a man of great wisdom and holiness; N. O. Lossky described Fedorov as an “uncanonized saint,” while Lord notes, “It is too easy to dismiss Fyodorov as preposterous. Yet there must be few who have not been affected by his ‘moral persuasiveness’. Some of his appeal is obvious and fundamental” (p. 409).

So what were his ideas that Solov’ev “accepted unconditionally” and of which Dostoevsky wrote “rarely have I read anything more logical” (A Writer’s Diary, 1876), and how do they relate to this extraordinary lifestyle? Fedorov was not a systematic writer (and that is true to an even greater extent than some of the other writers we’ve looked at of whom this could also be said) and he never gathered his works together in a systematic fashion, or published anything in his lifetime. This was possibly because he was an opponent of copyright, which he saw as detrimental to the spread of knowledge (an important question for Fedorov), but also because he saw writing as simply a prelude to action – albeit a necessary one – and thereafter ultimately as obsolete. As Lord says, this results in a “disconnected, rambling style, with its frequent repetitions and even apparent contradictions, [that] will quickly exhaust any reader’s patience” (409). Perhaps the same could be said of many of the writers we have studied for this course; in any case, this rather ignore a poetic side to his writing that other critics emphasize (see esp. Young, pp. 81-4).

But it is certainly the case that his work was not in a publishable state. After his death, two of his followers, Nikolai Pavlovich Peterson and Vladimir Alexandrovich Kozhevnikov, sorted out his notes, drafts and essays on a wide variety of topics. The resulting book was The Philosophy of the Common Task, and everything in this work, whatever subject he is ostensibly writing about, is aimed in some way at the achievement of this idea of the “common task.” (Note that in the spirit of Fedorov’s belief in what we now call open access, the translators of this work have made it freely available on the web, for which I, for one, am very grateful.)

Put simply, Fedorov defined the “common task” as the abolition of death, and resurrection of the dead – all the dead, from all generations. I said in my last lecture that initially his ideas appear far more eccentric than Solov’ev’s, but I would suggest that is only the case at first glance. And that’s because of the way he approached this idea. The clue here is in the word “task.” Fedorov does not believe that the dead will simply start rising from their graves at some point. Rather, humanity needs to direct its work towards the sacred task of physically resurrecting the dead; this is active resuscitation, not passive resurrection (Lord, p. 410), and his meaning is not figurative, it is literal. You may well now be thinking “in what way is that less eccentric or obscure than visions in the British Library?” but I would argue that it is so, because it is practical project and not some sort of mystical vision. Berdyaev described Fedorov as a “pragmatist” rather than an idealist or mystic, and Fedorov himself was very critical of Solov’ev’s idea of syzygic transformation and reunion with God precisely because it was an infinitely deferred mystical moment, and Solov’ev had no practical plans to work towards its implementation (Young, p. 39).

For Fedorov, as for Herzen, who (perhaps surprisingly, given the latter’s anti-utopian credentials) was probably an early influence, knowledge had to lead to action – hence Fedorov’s ascetic lifestyle, which can be seen as devoted to knowledge with no distractions; Lord states, “he was actually in the first stages of his own ‘project’, according to which individual life is an inferior form of existence” (p. 410). Simply expecting or hoping something will happen without human beings working towards it is an abdication of our responsibilities towards God and ourselves, and others, in Fedorov’s view. Solov’ev envisaged immortality being achieved as the eventual result of a vaguely-defined and gradual improvement of the human spirit; Fedorov insisted that the physical world needed to be changed in order for death to be abolished, and that this could only happen by human action (Young, pp. 57-9).

Fedorov believed that the task of resurrecting the dead was the central purpose of humanity because for him the most important question facing philosophy was: why do people die? (or why does death exist?) As Young puts it:

He believed that all problems known to man have a single root in the problem of death, and that no solution to any social, economic, political, or philosophical problem will prove adequate until men have solved the problem of death (Young, p. 13).

He saw death as disintegration – and therefore a move in the opposite direction from unity (which he, like other Russian thinkers, saw as key), and therefore “the common task is to reverse the natural flow of life” towards death (Young, p. 14); he saw “the victory over death [a]s the only moral solution to the drama of history” (Walicki, p. 387). When this victory was achieved, there would be no more birth or death, and all those who had ever lived would be restored to life. The latter is a essential component of the drive towards unity; if the realization of immortality is achieved only by those who are alive, the exclusion of the previous generations will prevent unity being achieved.

As Dostoevsky asked – for clarification – in a letter to Fedorov’s follower N. P. Peterson on 24 March 1878:

does your thinker intend this to be taken directly and literally, as religion implies, and that the resurrection will be real, that the abyss that divides us from the spirits of our ancestors will be filled, will be vanquished by vanquished death, and that the dead will be resurrected not only in our minds, not allegorically, but in fact, in person, actually, in bodies (Dostoevsky, 30.1, p. 14)

The answer to Dostoevsky’s question is an emphatic “yes.” One should note the connection here with Solov’ev’s conception of sacred corporality – the transformation of the flesh implied by bodily resurrection – and that Solov’ev also saw this victory over death as the ultimate aim of mankind. But in contrast to Solov’ev’s assumption that gradual spiritual changes would eventually lead to this point, for Fedorov, inertia and the entropic forces of nature, which move towards disintegration, meant that was not the case; on the contrary, he insisted, death could only be overcome by changing nature itself. He saw,

“Death [a]s a consequence of our passive relationship to nature. Death, in man, is a manifestation of the blind force of nature that disintegrates whole entities throughout the universe” (Young, p. 94). Human beings “are not divinities,” he emphasized, “and we cannot resurrect the dead by miracles. Christ showed us what was to be done, but not how” (Young, p. 103). The world was created by God with the seeds of perfection. As God created man in his image (and therefore as potentially eternal), man must also be active, a creator himself; therefore must complete God’s work, but instead has become passive and a slave to nature and to death. The repudiation of nature and man’s animal self in order to reveal God’s image is crucial (Lukashevich, p. 213). Fedorov argues:

Our task is to assume control over everything that nature now controls, including the courses of celestial bodies, and the composition of matter. Until we make the universe our project, i.e. until we have reshaped matter to conform with our idea of the universe “as it should be”, the universe will not be a “cosmos”, that is, it will not have meaning and order, but will remain a “chaos” of large and small particles of a disintegrating whole” (Young, p. 90).

What is significant here is that he is not referring solely to spiritual work; his idea is that all branches of knowledge should be harnessed towards fulfilment of the common task, from history and museum studies (learning about our dead ancestors) to biology (understanding the physical make-up of human beings) to physics and technology (everything from controlling the weather and gravity to space exploration – of which more in a second). Walicki (who was not a great fan of Fedorov’s, and thinks his importance has been exaggerated) says on this: “he had an almost magical belief in man’s ability to master the forces of nature and to use them to find a solution to ‘ultimate issues’.” (386) Perhaps that is the case, but I would at least add that Fedorov’s contention was that knowledge/learning/technological advances had been limited in the past because of the disunified nature of society, which meant that those he called “the learned” were not focusing their energies in the right direction; therefore once they were aware of the common task and the role they had to play in it, and all learning was directed towards this aim, technological progress would be made.

The fusion of religious impetus with technological advances is one of the most striking aspects of Fedorov’s conception of the common task. Among other inventions, he envisaged rocket science and space travel as essential developments, because the means to resurrect the dead do not exist on earth due to the process of disintegration:

to recover particles of disintegrated ancestors, Fedorov imagined, research teams [would travel] to the moon, the planets, and to distant points throughout the universe. Eventually these outer points of the cosmos would be inhabited by the resurrected ancestors, whose bodies might be synthesized so as to live under conditions that could not now support human life as it is known (Young, p. 15).

And although this may have seemed rather far-fetched and more suitable for fiction than religious philosophy at the end of the nineteenth century, it is well known that one of Fedorov’s disciples was the father of Russian rocket science Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935), who spent three years studying in the Rumyantsev museum where Fedorov worked, and who later propounded a theory of cosmism that had much in common with Fedorov’s, as it involved space colonization as a route to human perfection and immortality.

So in many ways Fedorov’s utopia contains elements we would more commonly associate with the utopias of science fiction. But it is a religious conception that envisages the restoration of man to God. And as such, it has some features in common with other religious philosophies we have examined this year; as in Slavophilism, and in Dostoevsky’s conception of the God-bearing narod, there is a nationalistic (not to say xenophobic) side that makes a virtue of Russia’s backwardness (Young, p. 137) to propose that this is precisely the place where transformation will happen, because Russian life is based on kinship and communality, and Russia has therefore not advanced so far along the (corrupt) European road that takes man away from God. His critique of capitalism has a particular moral slant that is close to Tolstoy’s ideas on both eros and violence (perhaps an indication of his influence on Tolstoy):

by producing and distributing commodities that were sensually appealing and, consequently, indispensable for the sexual attraction between sexes, capitalist industry promoted and stimulated a struggle for the possession of these commodities and, through them, for the possession of sexual mates. For this reason, it is possible to say that capitalist industry promoted and stimulated struggle for sexual selection (Lukashevich, p. 214).

Moreover, ‘capitalism fathered militarism, which was the capitalist expression of the animal struggle for natural selection.’ (ibid.)

So capitalism is viewed as a form of Darwinist survival of the fittest, but Fedorov was not a radical and did not in any way embrace socialist ideas. In fact, in his privileging of the ancestors, and repudiation of common conceptions of “progress,” he can be seen as the epitome of conservatism. But at the same time, this conservatism is combined with “the most fantastic future prospects” that distance it from other ideologies (I have borrowed that phrase from Dostoevsky, who uses it in a completely different context, in relation to his realism, but it seems most appropriate). It suggests that utopianism in not confined to one ideological position within Russian thought, but is rather connected to the universal significance of particular ideas within the Russian tradition, namely unity and love.

But if you are inclined to dismiss Fedorov as a fantasist because his technological utopia seems rather far-fetched, one should remember not only that some of his ideas, such as space exploration, have already been achieved, but also look at what he says will happen if technology is not directed towards the “common task.” He describes a future “pornocracy” in which people live according to their animal instincts, driven by lust (he wasn’t a great fan of women, and saw sex as counter to our true purpose; Young, p. 69). The goal of technology if this happened will not be not to restore life but to create maximum satisfaction and comfort for the living (Young, pp. 117-8). And even if one disagrees with his judgement on the morality of this, it would be hard to argue that there is not an element of this in the situation we live in today.

So the questions we shall discuss in next week’s seminar are, relating to Fedorov’s ideas as a whole: is his view that death is the most important matter facing humankind a valid one? What counter-arguments can be made? And in relation to the text “The Question of Brotherhood or Relatedness” (one of Fedorov’s most coherent and complete texts, written in response to Dostoevsky’s request for clarification, but not finished before Dostoevsky’s death) we’ll examine the way he constructs his argument, including what he means by “relatedness” and what role the family plays in that, his definition of “progress” (also a significant term for other thinkers), and the oppositions he employs (such as the “learned” and “unlearned”).


N. A. Berdyaev, “The Religion of Resusciative Resurrection: The Philosophy of the Common Task [Philosophiya obschego dela] of N. F. Fedorov” (1915)

Dostoevskii, F. M., Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v tridtsati tomakh (Moscow-Leningrad: Nauka, 1972-90)

Nikolai Fedorov, What was Man Created for? The Philosophy of the Common Task, trans. Elizabeth Koutaissoff and Marilyn Minto (Honeyglen Publishing, 1990)

Lord, Robert, “Dostoyevsky and N. F. Fyodorov,” Slavonic and East European Review, 40 (1962), 409-30

Stephen Lukashevich, N. F. Fedorov (1828-1903): A Study in Russian Eupsychian and Utopian Thought (Newark: Delaware University Press, 1977)

Walicki, Andrzej, A History of Russian Thought from the Enlightenment to Marxism (Stanford University Press, 1979)

George M. Young, Nikolai F. Fedorov: An Introduction (Belmont, MA: Norland, 1979)