Fyodor Dostoevsky’s well-deserved fame rests primarily on his fictional works: the series of novels he wrote in the 1860s and 1870s, among them Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, and especially The Brothers Karamazov. The list of writers and thinkers who have expressed admiration for Dostoevsky’s works and his psychological insights is a long list filled with luminaries; Sigmund Freud said that The Brothers Karamazov was “the most magnificent novel ever written.”1 James Joyce said “He is the man more than any other who has created modern prose.”2 Virginia Woolf said “Out of Shakespeare there is no more exciting reading.”3 His books contain profound explorations of the human psyche, and readers have, for generations, been entranced by Dostoevsky’s ability to describe in detail the motivations and feelings of his characters. His stories prefigure the twentieth century’s fixation with psychology, and the existentialist philosophers are greatly in his debt. His works deal with the great questions of faith, doubt, the meaning of existence, and many other weighty themes; he has sometimes acquired the reputation of a “difficult” writer, one whose handling of lofty and complicated ideas can be intimidating to the novice. But with patience, perseverance, and some introductory material, his works reveal their true value. His novels are consistently regarded by his readers as masterpieces, and Dostoevsky himself as a genius storyteller.

But Dostoevsky was so much more than a simple storyteller, albeit one of singular genius; he is a prime example of an artist using art to affect change in society. The path he took to get to that point in his thinking was a spectacularly convoluted one and matches the high drama of his best fiction. At the start of his career, he wrote novels of social realism such as Poor People and Netochka Nezvanova — works which displayed the plight of the lower classes in a manner which was then fashionable within the Russian literary scene. He was noticed by the influential critic Vissarion Belinsky, and quickly swept up into the network of socialist-leaning discussion groups that were then talking about Russian societal transformation and change, sometimes of a violent nature. Dostoevsky’s involvement with these groups may not have gone all the way to political upheaval and destruction, but the authorities saw his activities as dangerously subversive; he was apprehended, convicted, sentenced to death, and at the last minute — right in front of the firing squad! — had his sentence commuted to hard labor in Siberia followed by compulsory military service. During this time Dostoevsky revisited the Russian Orthodox faith of his upbringing and found solace in Christianity. From then on, he was an ardent defender of the Christian religion, fighting against what he saw as a tendency among Russian intellectuals to abandon the faith which he saw as a key component of the Russian heritage and vitally necessary to the project of achieving lasting social betterment.4

Dostoevsky’s first masterpiece, written upon returning to public life after his exile, was the short work Notes From Underground. In this brilliant little book, half narrative and half theoretical argument, he pushes back against the philosophies of his day, while also writing a very penetrating diagnosis of the mental state of his unnamed protagonist, the “underground man.” More psychologically oriented novels followed: The Eternal Husband, Crime and Punishment, and The Idiot among them. These last two are part of Dostoevsky’s attempt to give expression to his religious belief — in Crime and Punishment, the protagonist finds true forgiveness, restoration, and meaning to his life after coming to faith in Christ; in The Idiot, Dostoevsky attempted to represent what it would be like if another Christ figure, a “positively good and beautiful man,” were to come to earth again.5

But Dostoevsky did not only write novels. He was a key player in the journalistic debates which formed a large part of Russian intellectual life in the late nineteenth century, founding two periodicals of his own and writing for numerous others. In 1863 he published Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, a sharply critical indictment of the national characteristics and cultural tendencies of the various nations of western Europe. Dostoevsky had no patience for Westernism, the fashion among some Russian intellectuals to copy the ways of mainstream European culture; instead, he advocated for a return to the ways of the Russian peasantry, and especially their genuinely held, childlike faith in God.

Dostoevsky’s main opponents in the 1870s were the radical thinkers which had begun to emerge in the previous decade, the “nihilists” famously caricatured in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons. The nihilists talked of uprooting all of society yet had no real plan for what was to come after they were done; this filled Dostoevsky with apprehension. News of a political murder perpetrated by a revolutionary group led by the agitator Sergei Nechaev was the spark that motivated Dostoevsky to write Demons, his sternly prophetic warning against the implications of revolutionary thought. At times fiercely satirical, at times hilarious, and at times deeply depressing, Demons represents Dostoevsky at his finest, fighting a deadly-serious war of words with the intellectual currents swirling around him. Dostoevsky biographer Joseph Frank calls it “an encyclopedia of the Russian culture of its time” and says that “the more one knows about the Russian culture of the period, the more one marvels at Dostoevsky’s intellectual sophistication, skill and sureness of touch.”6 Perhaps, for this reason, Demons is also somewhat difficult for 21st-century audiences to appreciate; so much of it is tied to currents in contemporary Russian discourse that its intellectual import can often be lost on the modern reader. A significant amount of the book’s force lies in its satire of Dostoevsky’s enemies, and this satire can easily be missed without knowledge of Dostoevsky’s milieu. The book was very relevant to its time, though, and even though his ideological opponents knew exactly what Dostoevsky was up to, they listened to him and still respected him. He alienated many of the younger generation when he wrote this book, but he knew that the prophetic role of truth-telling is not always easy or popular.

The work most crucial to understanding Dostoevsky’s philosophy and mental outlook is A Writer’s Diary, the magazine he published in the latter half of the 1870s. The collected run of A Writer’s Diary is more than one thousand pages long; Dostoevsky wrote and edited the entire thing himself. Many large portions of A Writer’s Diary are concerned with political analyses and commentary on what was happening in Russia at the time; sometimes these passages have little relevance to contemporary readers but they can be vital to understanding his vision of what he wanted his homeland to be: a Christ-centered, unified nation, proud of its heritage of faith, and committed to a role as world leader informed by that faith. Dostoevsky sincerely believed that the Russian people had something of vital importance to give to the rest of the world in the form of their commitment to God. Sometimes, in its pages, Dostoevsky drifts toward valuing the institutional church, or even the Russian state, more than Christ. Dostoevsky was certainly not as aware of his own biases as he could have been. But he was honestly concerned with the direction he saw his homeland taking and wanted the best for his fellow Russians; he was not afraid to speak his mind about what he believed to be the serious dangers of Westernism and Nihilism. In reacting against these damaging philosophical tendencies, he always returned to the faith he shared with the Russian peasantry — the key, in his mind, to a true renewal of Russia’s importance on the world stage.

Dostoevsky drew heavily from his Christian faith to create his greatest novel, The Brothers Karamazov. Whereas Demons addresses the unfolding developments of Russian thought at a specific moment in time, The Brothers Karamazov has a much more universal relevance, both in time and place, because it discusses one of the most fundamental questions anyone can ask: the value of morality and ethics apart from God. The whole novel is built around lengthy explications and disputations of the idea that “if there is no God, then everything is permitted”; the idea is confronted by almost every major character in the book. Lengthy passages of the novel are also given over to descriptions of religious experiences, some good and some bad: Ivan Karamazov even makes a very compelling argument against Christianity in the book’s famous Rebellion chapter.

Of course, Dostoevsky himself doesn’t agree with his character Ivan Karamazov. This ability to resist authorial meddling or editorializing and let his characters explain themselves in their own words, without using them as mouthpieces for his own ideas, is one of the hallmarks of Dostoevsky’s poetics, and part of his genius as a storyteller. He will always be celebrated for his vast, wide-angle perspective on the Russia of his day; every class and stratum of humanity, from princes and titled nobility to escaped convicts and homeless beggars, half-mad monks, invalid girls, schoolboys, and everyone in between, are given fair and respectful treatment in his novels. It is sometimes easy to forget that Dostoevsky was writing popular fiction — his plots center around romantic intrigues, murders, and other sensational events. Dostoevsky the novelist has earned his place in the hearts of readers the world over. But let us not forget about Dostoevsky the activist, the prophet, and the culturally involved Christian who used art to speak to the culture around him and who tried to show a better way.

Notes:

1 Philip Reiff, Freud, the Mind of the Moralist (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 132.

2 Arthur Power, Conversations with James Joyce (Toronto: University of Toronto, 1999), 51–60.

3 Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984).

4 Joseph Frank’s monumental five-volume biography, published by Princeton University Press between 1979 and 2003, is the authoritative work on all aspects of Dostoevsky’s life and thought.

5 The phrase is from a letter Dostoevsky wrote to his niece Sofya Ivanova on January 13, 1868, and cited in Richard Pevear, “Introduction,” The Idiot (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002), xv.

6 Joseph Frank, “Introduction,” in Fyodor Dostoevsky, Demons, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000), xxx, xxv.