Had Dostoevsky not existed, we may very well have needed to invent him. His preoccupation with (at the risk of sounding trite) the power of love echoes throughout literature and popular if not global culture. Russian dissident intellectual Aleksander Solzhynitsin had almost no choice but to draw on the premiere Russian novelist in his Gulag Archipelago (written 1958 — 1968, published 1973). Russian philosopher turned novelist and capitalist apologist Ayn Rand placed Dostoevsky alongside Victor Hugo as the rarest and greatest masters of literary art. In A Gentleman in Moscow (2016), Amor Towles repeatedly draws on Dostoevsky’s insights. My own one sentence takeaway from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment attests to said “power of love” as, on the novel’s final page, Raskalnikov finally requites the Christ-like love shown him by Sonia, as he ponders “by what infinite love he would now redeem all her sufferings.”1 2 On this point, Dostoevsky echoes Soren Kierkegaard, Danish philosopher from earlier in the nineteenth century, who declared that “man’s love mysteriously begins in God’s love.”3 Dostoevsky’s influence surfaces outside the world of Russian (or Russian-themed) literature as well, as prolific Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami cites him as a powerful influence.

Dostoevsky in the Gulags

Solzhynitsin claimed that “spiritually Dostoevsky far outstripped the realities of our life.”4 The life that both writers knew well was that found in prison, and Solzhynitsin’s indictment of Soviet labor prisons drew powerful insights from Dostoevsky’s prison-themed works such as House of the Dead (1862) and Crime and Punishment (1866). The scene is set, however, by Dostoevsky’s reflections from Diary of a Writer. The Russian justice system is lampooned for ridiculous arguments made by lawyers (“What kind of woman would she have been had she not stabbed her rival?”); more powerfully, Dostoevsky pleads that “it is better to err on the side of mercy than on that of the death penalty” to which Solzhynitsin cheered “Oh, yes, yes, yes!” 5 Prison interrogators were likened to Porfiri Petrovich’s admission to Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment that only someone like the criminal could discover the ways of the criminal. 6 Solzhynitsin further claims that Dostoevsky’s realism made for preferred readings among the Gulag’s prisoners, arguing that there was simply too much food available in the works of Gogol and Chekhov compared to Dostoevsky, who depicted harsh and hungry life with passages like “The children went hungry. For several days they had seen nothing but bread and sausage.”7

Of the prison experience itself, Solzhynitsin claimed that “it has been known for many centuries that prison causes a profound rebirth of a human being . . . in our country they always mention Dostoevsky in this respect.”8 In House of the Dead, he declared that a prisoner “bore silently and suffered within himself the story [an act of crime] of how he got [there];” the Soviet Gulag’s prisoners, however, were typically imprisoned merely for political reasons. 9 Of all the realist literature depicting human suffering, Solzhynitsin observes that Dostoevsky’s stands out (as does that of Cervantes), as such writing can only come about from firsthand experience, claiming “That is how Cervantes got his education in slavery and Dostoevsky in hard labor.”10

While within Russia the works of Dostoevsky and others were canceled by Soviet suppression, Solzhynitsin explains that this was in stark contrast to the world outside the border. Until 1941 ordinary Russians had no idea “that Russia Abroad was a great spiritual world, that in it Russian philosophy was living and developing” with the philosophy of Berdyayev, the music of Rachmaninoff, enchanting Russian art and theater, the writings of Nabakov, and “profound studies of Dostoevsky.”11

A Dostoevskian Gentleman in Moscow

This global appreciation of Russian culture and thought is reflected Amor Towles’s heralded 2016 novel, A Gentleman in Moscow, in which the fictional Count Rostov observes much of twentieth century Russian history while placed under house arrest. The book has been nominated for various literature awards, planned for production and release by Paramount+ and Showtime with Ewan McGregor in the lead role of Count Rostov, and was even recommended reading by Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, during the COVID-19 pandemic. In this literary masterpiece, Towles draws repeatedly on Dostoevsky (specifically Demons, Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, and The Idiot), reminding us of the spiritual aspect of life, despite various levels of suffering. Towles’s Gentleman in Moscow has the same primary motif, an uplifting love, as the novelist he cites so often. Count Rostov ennobles the souls of both serfs and princes in his various interactions, as the New York Times review explains:

Towles chooses themes that run deeper than mere socio political commentary: parental duty, friendship, romance, the call of home. Human beings, after all, ‘deserve not only our consideration but our reconsideration’ — even those from the leisured class. Who will save Rostov from the intrusions of the state if not the seamstresses, chefs, bartenders, and doormen . . . [whom he] turns into confidants, equals, and finally, friends.12

Towles places Dostoevsky among the luminaries, both moral and intellectual, of human history. Count Rostov recalls endless debates comparing the relative genius of Dostoevsky and Tchaikovsky who sleep mere feet apart in Moscow’s Tikhvin Cemetery, attests the genius of an eminent Professor of Literature by claiming he had “single-handedly wrestled the works of Dostoevsky to the ground,” treats as equals the “couplets of Pushkin, the paragraphs of Dostoevsky, and the transcripts of Socrates and Jesus,” and notes how “a single passage from Dostoevsky roused one man to action and another to indifference — within the very same hour.” 13

While recounting the life of his friend Mishka, a poet, Rostov peruses Mishka’s collection of thoughts, titled “Bread and Salt,” drawn from the gospels, Greeks, Romans, Shakespeare, Milton, Goethe, but also from Russians including such as Turgenev and Dostoevsky. Such thoughts from Dostoevsky ponder the relative worthless goal of merely meeting material needs (typically, bread):

One glass of beer, a piece of dry bread, and see, the mind gets stronger, the thoughts clearer, the intentions firmer (Crime & Punishment)


The carts that deliver bread to all mankind, without any moral foundations for their action, may quite cold-bloodedly exclude a considerable part of mankind from enjoying what they deliver. (The Idiot)


Turn [stones] into bread and mankind will run after you like sheep, grateful and obedient . . . [but] what sort of freedom is it . . . if obedience is bought with loaves of bread. (“The Grand Inquisitor” from The Brothers Karamazov)14

But bread, and any advance of civilization, pales next to spiritual quality, as Rostov cites Dostoevsky in asking

Do you know that mankind can live without the Englishman . . . without Germany . . . without the Russian man . . . without science, without bread, and it only cannot live without beauty. (Demons)15

An Unwitting Fan: Ayn Rand

Dostoevsky garners further praise, albeit begrudging, from Russian émigré and intellectual Ayn Rand. Comparing him with French novelist Victor Hugo (Hunchback of Notre Dame 1831, Les Miserables 1862) as elite writers who could illustrate moral character by revealing one’s “sense of life,” she claimed “Hugo gives me the feeling of entering a cathedral — Dostoevsky gives me the feeling of entering a chamber of horrors, but with a powerful guide.”16 While she considered both writers to be limited by Romanticism’s resort to “altruist morality” (Rand is considered an ethical egoist and individualist), she held that Dostoevsky was “a passionate moralist” whom “no one has equaled . . . in the psychological depths of his images of human evil.”17 She praises him for his “superb mastery of plot structure and his merciless dissection of the psychology of evil.”18 In Crime & Punishment he “reveals the soul of a criminal all the way down to his philosophical premises,” though she finds The Brothers Karamazov’s hero Alyosha, a Christ figure, to be “crudely inept as an attempt at a virtuous character.”19 She further notes that Stavrogin from Dostoevsky’s The Oppressed began as an attempt as the embodiment of a Russian-Christian altruist soul, but became one of his “most repulsively evil characters.”20 That such altruism was discounted by Rand is not surprising. I once asked Ohio State University’s Professor of Russian Literature and Philosophy James Scanlon, whose Dostoevsky the Thinker is reviewed in this issue, if her writing did not sound similar to that of the Russian Nihilists. “I asked her the same question once” was his telling reply.

The Power of Love in Japan: Murakami and His Idol Dostoevsky

Prolific Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami cites Dostoevsky among his profound influences; others include Charles Dickens, Franz Kafka, and Gustave Flaubert.21 Murakami’s novels have been summarized as “a powerful examination of human identity, often using magical realism and the metaphysical in aid of this exploration;” his launch to fame was the short story “Firefly” (1983) and the novel based on it, Norwegian Wood (1987), with “its frank exploration of love and sex.”22 Like Dostoevsky, Murakami believes that love is the essential basis of both who we are and who we can become. Murakami credits Dostoevsky’s novelist skills in how he peoples stories with “one colorful, weird character after another” (in Demons), admiring that “Dostoevsky must have been someone with a huge mental cabinet.”23 Others claim that he quotes or alludes to Dostoevsky in several works, considers The Brothers Karamazov the ideal novel, and often includes a Prince Myshkin (The Idiot’s Christ figure) “vibe” with his protagonists.24 For instance, in Killing Commadatore (2019), characters repeatedly cite Dostoevsky’s The Possessed for its characters who “do crazy things just to prove that they are free people, unconstrained by god and society,” such as Kirillov who shoots himself with a pistol just to make the point.25

Murakami is otherwise profoundly Dostoevskian thematically, albeit set in a modern world, as can be seen in his various novels. His novels explore how to regain our humanity in an often meaningless and idiotic cosmos, drawing on works by such authors as Kafka (The Castle, 1926, with its mind-numbingly unresponsive bureaucracy), Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (Cat’s Cradle, 1963, on the slavishly subservient scientists of a nuclear-armed military complex), and Raymond Carver (What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, 1981, a collection of short stories exploring love and disenchantment in the modern world).26 Thus, in the paired stories of Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1985), characters from both stories struggle to retain their memories, their identity, and their humanity against scheming scientists and systems of power. In Kafka on the Shore (2002), protagonists in search of meaning find it, and their identities, in how they rage against inane systems, against “narrow minds devoid of imagination . . . the kind T.S. Eliot calls hollow men.” 27 And unlike Kafka’s protagonist (Klamm, in The Castle) who finds meaning in romantic companionship and love, Murakami’s Kafka finds meaning in a web of relations broader than just the romantic, a common struggle to regain meaning and thus one’s full humanity.

Such struggles to gain one’s full sense of humanity is easily likened to the Grand Inquisitor story from Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. In it, the bureaucratic church is confronted by Christ himself, as an Inquisitor of Spain confronts Jesus who has returned “quietly, inconspicuously” and passes silently among the crowds “with a quiet smile of infinite compassion” as the “sun of love shines in his heart.” 28 At the end of the Inquisitor’s charges, Jesus, the prisoner, simply “gently kisses” his accuser on the lips. In turn, the Inquisitor releases him with warning to never return. Tragically, although “the kiss burns in his heart . . . the old man holds to his former idea” and continues his heartless prosecutions.29 Murakami’s closest discussion of such formal religion appears in his 1Q84, an alternate reality setting for his version of “Big Brother” of George Orwell’s 1984.30 In it, the rise of religious cults in the cultural vacuum of postwar Japan are explored, in effect an exposé of modern powerful religious figures (like the Inquisitors of fifteenth century Spain) who betray the humanity of their own subjects.

Summary

Dostoevsky, the philosopher of love if of any single thing at all, echoes throughout the thought and works of the twentieth century that followed him. Great Russian spirits like Solzhynitsin or the fictional Count Rostov found solace and wisdom in the late nineteenth century novelist. The political, social, and philosophical critic Ayn Rand admitted his deftly realistic assessment of human nature, while Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami found his unrelenting quest for a love based level of human existence both inspirational and the highest of standards required for humane living. The sufferings found in that great century find no healing balm greater than that which Dostoevsky revealed at the end of Crime and Punishment, when Raskalnikov considers “with what infinite love he would redeem all [Sonia’s] sufferings,” that infinite love only made possible by the bottomless spring of the love of God.31

Notes:

1 Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 550.

2 As discussed in a course-paper-turned-blog, Seth Myers, “Dostoevsky : Crime and Punishment aka What Can’t You Get Away With,” NarnianFrodo, January 2, 2019. https://narnianfrodo.com/2019/01/02/dostoevsky-crime-and-punishment-aka-what-cant-you-get-away-with/#_ftnref31 ]

3 Soren Kierkegaard, Works of Love (New York: HarperPerennial, 2009), 54. Kierkegard (1813 – 1855), here likened love to a lake, adding that “if there were no spring at the bottom, if God were not love, then there would be neither a little lake nor man’s love.” This Christian love “has undergone the transformation of the eternal by becoming duty [and thus] can never despair,” and Kierkegaard further reminds “let us not now or at any time, forget its primal character – namely, that it did not originate in any human heart.” Kierkegaard, Works of Love, 54, 27, 56.

4 Aleksander I. Solzhynitsin, The Gulag Archipelago 1918 – 1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation I-II Volume 1 (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), 287.

5 Ibid., 287 – 88.

6 Ibid., 120 – 21.

7 Ibid., 214.

8 Aleksander I. Solzhynitsin, The Gulag Archipelago 1918 – 1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation III-IV Volume 1 (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), 604.

9 Ibid., 527.

10 Ibid., 491.

11 Solzhynitsin, Gulag Archipelago I-II, 262 -63.

12 Craig Taylor, “A Count Becomes a Waiter in a Novel of Soviet Supremacy.” The New York Times, Sept. 23, 2016. https://nytimes.com/2016/09/25/books/review/amor-towles-gentleman-in-moscow.html .

13 Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow (New York: Penguin Books, 2019), 183, 338, 356, 355.

14 Ibid., 372 – 74.

15 Ibid., 372.

16 Ayn Rand, The Romantic Manifesto: A Philosophy of Literature (New York: Penguin Random House, 1971), 34. Centennial Edition, Digital. Full credit goes to Jason Monroe for informing me of Rand’s comments on Dostoevsky.

17 Ibid., 107.

18 Ibid., 33.

19 Ibid., 107, 33.

20 Ibid., 107.

21 Cosima Lumley, Norwegian Wood: Book Analysis. Bright Summaries.com, 2018. Loc. 3. Digital.

22 Ibid., loc. 18.

23 Haruki Murakami, Novelist as a Vocation (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015), 155.

24 I credit fellow Faulkner University Humanities doctoral student Brian Niece for these observations, in a note of August 31, 2023. Niece designed a tutorial course (for which I was grateful to participate) with Murakami’s and other books discussed here.

25 Haruki Murakami, Killing Commendatore (New York: Vintage Books, 2019), 495.

26 Murakami has won the Kafka Prize, translated Carver into Japanese, and cited Vonnegut Jr. among others.

27 Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore (New York: Vintage Books, 2005), 181.

28 Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov trans. by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Farrar, Giroux, and Strauss, 2002), 248 – 49.

29 Ibid., 262.

30 Haruki Murakami, 1Q84 (New York: Vintage, 2013).

31 See footnotes 1,3 for references in Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard on these thoughts.