Dostoevsky’s Democracy

Dostoevsky’s Democracy
By Nancy Ruttenburg
Princeton University Press – £24.95

Never one to rest on his literary laurels, Fyodor Dostoevsky grappled with both the artistry of his writing and immediate surroundings/society at large, throughout much of his troubled life. Sentenced to death in 1849 for (utopian) socialist political activity, the twenty-eight tear old writer was subjected to a cruel and callous mock execution, after which he was exiled to Siberia for the best part of ten years – a time which also included four years in a forced labour camp, wherein he experienced a crisis of belief.

The result of said crisis has widely been acknowledged as having been influential in Dostoevsky’s conversion to Russian Orthodoxy and reactionary politics. But in this seemingly controversial and challenging book Dostoevsky’s Democracy, Professor of Comparative Literature, English and Slavic Studies, Nancy Ruttenburg, disputes this assumption.

By way of close analysis of Dostoevsky’s Siberian decade and its literary consequence – the autobiographical novel Notes from the House of the Dead (1861) – Ruttenburg’s polemic is such that Dostoevsky’s crisis of belief was unfailingly triggered by the social trajectory of both commonality and criminality, within that of the labour camp itself. And it was this subliminal policy of (inadvertent) influence and persuasion, which resulted in the writer’s intense questioning of what he referred to as Russian Democracy.

Writing of the adverse humanity of the novel in ‘The Flesh of the Political’ in Part II of this book, Ruttenburg states: ‘’The phenomenon of pain appears to offer an alternative inroad into the mind of the peasant-convict, specifically the pain of corporal punishment, but […] it too, has no adequate linguistic equivalent – it is ‘’without a tongue (bez iazyka).’’

The confluence of protagonist Alesandr Petrovich Gorianchikov’s realisation and acceptance is as such, as raw as it is meditative. His own coming to terms with a society that is totally polar to that which he (the narrator, Dostoevsky) is familiar, appears at first, brazenly painful; although upon later reflection, undeniably more resolute. This is invariably brought to bear, when shortly thereafter, Ruttenburg, quotes Gorianchikov: ‘’I asked a lot of questions about pain. I sometimes wanted to know definitely how great this pain was and with what, finally, it could be compared. Truly, I don’t know why I pursued this. I remember only that it was not from idle curiosity. I repeat that I was agitated and shaken. But whomever I asked, I could in no way get an answer that satisfied me. It burns, it scorches like fire – this was all I could learn, the only answer I received. It burns, and that’s it.’’

Whether or not in today’s terms, this might be viewed as nothing other than cordial resignation or highly inflammatory rhetoric, might, given the sexy sensationalism of suffering (Last Exit To Brooklyn, A Clockwork Orange, Football Factory et al), appear somewhat partially self-induced.

Either way, Dostoevsky’s work remains a deeply entrenched literary force to be reckoned with, while Dostoevsky’s Democracy is a regal reflection of said force.

If nothing else, it sheds contemplative light on a period of Dostoevsky’s writing, fraught with more anguish and sorrow, than most of us can even begin to imagine. For this reason alone, is Nancy Ruttenburg’s contribution to the elongated legacy of one of Russia’s finest writers, to be resoundingly applauded.

David Marx


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