Reimagining Dostoevsky for the 21st Century (2): Interviewing Dostoevsky

“If there is any place where I can see the seed or the idea of the future, it is in Russia.”

2021 marks the bicentenary of Fyodor Dostoevky’s birthday and yet his work seems more topical than ever. The great novelist takes a pointed position on numerous political issues which still resonate today. Ulrich M. Schmid, Professor of Russian Culture and Society at the University of St Gallen, Switzerland, imagines interviewing Dostoevsky on contemporary matters.

UMS: Fyodor Mikhailovich, in 2014 Russia annexed Crimea. What is your assessment of this event?

FMD: Not long ago I found an article in the Moscow News about the Crimea. The Moscow News advances the bold notion that it is pointless to grieve over the Tatars: let them be expelled and set up colonies of Russians in their place. I agree wholeheartedly because I myself have long held just that view on the “Crimean question”. On the whole, if the resettlement of Russians in the Crimea (gradually, of course) should require large expenditures by the state, then I think this would be a very possible and very profitable course of action.[1]

UMS: The pandemic is another situation which has led to a tremendous increase in government spending in Russia. What would be your advice here?

FMD: My idea, my formula, is as follows: “In order to establish sound finances in a state that has experienced certain upheavals, don’t think too much about immediate needs, no matter how urgent they may seem; think only about restoring the roots, and you’ll get sound finances.”[2]

UMS: The Turks and Russians have a long history of military conflict. Now that President Erdogan has turned Hagia Sophia back into a mosque, how should Russia react in this situation? Should it defend Orthodox Byzantium?

FMD: Yes, I answer, the Golden Horn and Constantinople – all that will be ours, but not for the sake of merely annexing territory and not for the sake of violence. It will happen of its own accord precisely because the time has come.

And so in the name of what, in the name of what moral right could Russia make a claim on Constantinople? As leader of Orthodoxy, as its protector and guardian. And so, sometime, even the  non-Orthodox European Slavs might join such a union, for they themselves would see that without this immense unifying force they, perhaps, would again exhaust themselves in mutual strife and discord.[3]

UMS: The relationship between Europe and Russia is forever troubled. Why is that?

FMD: What was Russia doing in her policy over these whole two centuries if not serving Europe, far more, perhaps, than she was serving herself? Oh, the nations of Europe simply do not know how dear they are to us! To become a genuine Russian will mean specifically: to strive to bring an ultimate reconciliation to Europe’s contradictions, to indicate that the solution to Europe’s anguish is to be found in the panhuman and all-unifying Russian soul, and at last, perhaps, to utter the ultimate word of great, general harmony, ultimate brotherly accord of all tribes through the law of Christ’s Gospel![4]

UMS: After Brexit, the European Union is in crisis. What is your evaluation of the project of European unification?

FMD: Lacking the instincts of the bee and ant, which flawlessly and accurately construct their hives and anthills, people sought to construct something in the nature of a flawless human anthill.[5]

It would be good if we could also realize that at the moment England is in the most critical situation it has ever been in. This critical situation of hers can be formulated most accurately in a single word: isolation, for never before, perhaps, has England found herself in such terrible isolation as now.[6]

UMS: In your work you mention Karl Marx only once in passing, although you were almost exact contemporaries. What is your assessment of Marxist philosophy and its revolutionary implementation?

FMD: The socialists do not go beyond the gut. They even boast that boots are more important than Shakespeare, that one should be ashamed of talking about the immortality of the soul, and so on.[7]

Some of our worthy generation cast in our lot with socialism and accepted it, without the least hesitation, as the final answer for the unity of all human beings. In such fashion, to achieve our goal we accepted something that was the acme of egoism, the acme of inhumanity, the acme of economic bungling and disorder, the acme of slander on human nature, the acme of destruction of every human freedom; but this did not trouble us in the least. At the same time we became so alienated from our own Russian land that we lost all conception of the degree to which such a doctrine is at odds with the soul of the Russian people. In fact, not only did we have no regard at all for the character of the Russian People, we did not even acknowledge that they had any character. We forgot even to think of it, and with complete and despotic equanimity were convinced (without even raising the question) that our People would at once accept everything we told them.[8]

UMS: Given that you criticize socialism so strongly, do you believe that liberalism offers better prospects?

FMD: What is liberalism, speaking generally, if not an attack on the existing order of things? It is so, isn’t it? The liberal has gone so far as to deny Russia herself – that is to say, he hates and beats his own mother. Every Russian failure and fiasco excites his laughter and almost delights him. He hates national customs, he hates Russian history, he hates everything. If there is any justification for him, it is perhaps that he doesn’t know what he is doing and thinks that his hatred of Russia is the most beneficient kind of liberalism. [9]

UMS: Let’s talk about religion. You are a staunch supporter of the Russian Orthodox faith.

FMD: The Russian knows nothing higher than Christianity and cannot even conceive of anything higher. His whole land, all the commonality, the whole of Russia he has called Christianity, or Krestianstvo. Take a closer look at Orthodoxy: it is by no means only clericalism and ritual; it is a living feeling that our People have transformed into one of those basic living forces without which nations cannot survive.[10]

UMS: What is your opinion of other denominations and of atheists?

FMD: Roman Catholicism is even worse than atheism. Yes, that’s my opinion! Atheism merely preaches a negation, but Catholicism goes further: it preaches a distorted Christ, a Christ calumniated and defamed by it, the opposite of Christ! It preaches Antichrist – I swear it does! Roman Catholicism believes that the Church cannot exist on earth without universal temporal power, and cries: Non possumus! In my opinion, Roman Catholicism isn’t even a religion, but most decidedly a continuation of the Holy Roman Empire, and everything in it is subordinated to that idea, beginning with faith.[11]

UMS: In what way are things better in Russia?

FMD: If there is any place where I can see the seed or the idea of the future, it is in Russia. Why is that? It’s because we have had and still preserve among the People one principle: that the land for them is everything, and that they derive everything from the land; this is still what the huge majority of them believe. But the main thing is that this principle is the normal law of humanity. There is something sacramental in the land, in one’s native soil.

I think that children should be born on the land and not on the street. One may live on the street later, but a nation – in its vast majority – should be born and arise on the land, on the native soil in which its grain and its trees grow.[12]

UMS: These days we often hear the demand that people face up to the challenges posed by climate change, populism, and the pandemic. What is your advice?

FMD: The truth is not outside you, but within; find yourself in yourself; submit yourself to yourself; master yourself, and you shall see the truth. Conquer yourself, humble yourself, and you shall be freer than ever you imagined; you will embark on a great task and make others free, and you will find happiness, for your life will be made complete, and you will at last understand your People and their sacred truth.[13]

 

All of Dostoevsky’s answers are original quotations.

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Ulrich Schmid writes: Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881) was a contentious writer who often fell out with his editors, publishers and fellow poets. As a young man he belonged to a more romantic than revolutionary circle in which the abolition of serfdom and the lifting of censorship were discussed. However, the Tsarist authorities were very nervous in the European revolutionary years of 1848 and 1849. Dostoevsky was arrested, sentenced to death and subjected to a mock execution. He then spent almost ten years in Siberian exile. This decisive experience made him not only a devout Christian, but also an ardent admirer of Tsarism. In the last years of his life he published his Diary of a Writer on a monthly basis, in which he commented on world political events from a very subjective perspective. Dostoevsky’s chauvinist and anti-Semitic remarks are notorious. At the same time, with his great novels, Dostoevsky also presented a radical criticism of Russian society, which, in its imitation of Western lifestyles, he believed remained blind to the expected return of Christ.

Ulrich Schmid’s original article was first published in Neuer Zürcher Zeitung on 7 January 2021. This translation by Sarah Hudspith is a slightly abridged version of the original text.

[1] Diary of a Writer July-Aug 1876 (A Writer’s Diary, vol. 1, trans. by Kenneth Lantz, London: Quartet, 1994)

[2] Diary of a Writer Jan 1881 (A Writer’s Diary, vol. 2, trans. by Kenneth Lantz, London: Quartet, 1995)

[3] Diary of a Writer June 1876 (A Writer’s Diary, vol. 1, trans. by Kenneth Lantz, London: Quartet, 1994)

[4] Pushkin Speech 1880 (A Writer’s Diary, vol. 2, trans. by Kenneth Lantz, London: Quartet, 1995)

[5] Diary of a Writer Nov 1877 (A Writer’s Diary, vol. 2, trans. by Kenneth Lantz, London: Quartet, 1995)

[6] Diary of a Writer May-June 1877 (A Writer’s Diary, vol. 2, trans. by Kenneth Lantz, London: Quartet, 1995)

[7] ‘Socialism and Christianity’, Notebooks 1864, trans. by S. Hudspith

[8] Diary of a Writer Jan 1877 (A Writer’s Diary, vol. 2, trans. by Kenneth Lantz, London: Quartet, 1995)

[9] The Idiot Part 3 Chapter 1 (trans. by David Magarshack, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1955)

[10] Diary of a Writer Sept 1876 (A Writer’s Diary, vol. 1, trans. by Kenneth Lantz, London: Quartet, 1994)

[11] The Idiot Part 4 Chapter 7 (trans. by David Magarshack, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1955)

[12] Diary of a Writer July-August 1876 (A Writer’s Diary, vol. 1, trans. by Kenneth Lantz, London: Quartet, 1994)

[13] Pushkin Speech 1880 (A Writer’s Diary, vol. 2, trans. by Kenneth Lantz, London: Quartet, 1995)

Reimagining Dostoevsky for the 21st Century (1): Dostoevsky the Master Builder

In 2021 we mark 200 years since the birth of Fyodor Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky’s works continue to be read, translated, and adapted into a variety of media, demonstrating his enduring popularity and relevance. I recently turned my own hand to adapting Dostoevsky, after a seeing on Twitter a Venn diagram by @fyodor76, putting herself in the overlap between circles representing lovers of Dostoevsky and fans of Lego. Amongst the replies @johnayliff commented “The Minifigs Karamazov”, and an idea was born. Lego’s track record of capturing key story moments from various movie franchises such as Harry Potter and Star Wars in their construction sets seemed suddenly to chime with Dostoevsky’s talent for depicting scenes that spark the imagination. Anyone who has read one of Dostoevsky’s novels will have, fixed in their mind, their vision of the most striking episodes: Raskolnikov bringing the axe down on the unsuspecting Alyona; Rogozhin and Myshkin keeping vigil beside the covered corpse of Nastasya Filippovna; Father Zosima bowing down to the astounded Dmitry Karamazov. Whilst being driven to a large extent by dialogue, Dostoevsky’s novels also have a distinctly scopic quality, generating powerful images of significant moments in the story, expressing ideas that exceed the words in which they are written. This makes his work eminently amenable to visual adaptation.

Thus inspired by @johnayliff’s comment, I began with The Brothers Karamazov. This novel makes use of expressive chapter titles, some of which are quotations of lines of dialogue, and which are often oblique and whimsical. These suggested themselves perfectly for identifying buildable and recognisable scenes and providing the captions. Having worked out which scenes I would build, I then took to thinking about how to make each character distinctive, and representative of their role and traits. Here I was slightly hampered by the Lego available to me: although the amount of Lego acquired by my family over the years was, in all seriousness, a factor in our recent decision to buy a bigger house, I knew my children would not wish me to tamper with their favourite sets. So I was restricted to a collection of non-franchise-related minifigures that mainly comprised soldiers and emergency services workers. Not a great casting pool for 19th century female roles. Fortunately, some characters acquired through a few years of those extravagant Lego advent calendars diversified my selection, and also provided a range of ready-made set props such as fire places, tables and chairs.

Two Lego minifigure women, one with brown hair tied back and lilac dress, one with loose blonde hair and green dress
Katerina and Grushenka

Choosing the right hair and facial expression required careful thought; thus Grushenka’s status as a woman shaped by men’s treatment of her is signalled by her loose hair style and more overtly feminised features, compared with Katerina’s tied-back hair and more neutral expression. Like any screenplay writer worth their salt, I conflated some elements of the story: in the novel, Smerdyakov, for example, is not playing his guitar when he is encountered sitting by the garden gate by Ivan and he comments that it is nice to have a chat with a clever man; but the visual signifier of the frivolous guitar for this crucial conversation adds to the image of Smerdyakov as dismissive of the value of human life.

Ultimately the scale of the novel exceeded my skill and patience, and my episodisation stopped at Dmitry on the threshold of murder (those of you who have not read the novel will have to do so to find out whether he did it or not). But the response on Twitter was very positive, and I was requested to do a follow-up of Crime and Punishment. So the following weekend, back I went to the brick boxes. This time, I resolved to summarise the whole novel, and found it easier than with The Brothers Karamazov. Indeed, as @kevinobriencha1 observed, Crime and Punishment “uniquely marries action and philosophy”. The novel provides a number of important visuals, such as Raskolnikov’s hat that is too eye-catching for a would-be murderer, Sonya’s three windows in her apartment, symbolic of the divine light of the Holy Trinity that infuses her outlook, or the liminal spaces such as thresholds or street junctions where pivotal events happen that could take the action in a number of directions.

Lego minifigure old woman holding package, with grey hair in a bun, angry expression and black dress
Alyona

Again, I wanted the figures to be emblematic of their characters. For Raskolnikov I chose a head with a rather crazy grin and lines round the eyes, to signify his mental turmoil. For Sonya, I used the same body and hair as the sexually exploited Grushenka, but chose a child’s head to indicate her innocence and purity despite her profession. In the case of Alyona, being short of bodies befitting an elderly widow, I had to breach my injunction to borrow from my children’s beloved franchise sets, and used the body of a Harry Potter Death Eater, but I think that Fyodor Mikhailovich would have found that rather fitting for a moneylender.

Some readers may feel that Lego is too flippant a medium to render such a serious author as Dostoevsky, who grappled with the ‘accursed’ questions of the nature of good and evil, the immortality of the soul and the despair that attends upon self-interest and pride. However, there is subtle, but significant humour in Dostoevsky, that exists alongside the dark philosophical probing, indeed throws it into sharper relief. There is black comedy in Raskolnikov slipping and slithering, panic-stricken, in the blood of his victims as he tries to locate Alyona’s hidden riches, or in the heavily accented soldier wearing an incongruous helmet, telling Svidrigailov “Dis is not de place” as he puts the gun to his head. The humour reminds us not only of the breadth of human nature, so memorably lamented by Dmitry Karamazov, but also of the fictionality of the stories, which paradoxically signal their truth. Dostoevsky believed that only fiction, particularly that which presented its poetic idea as a “whole image”, could fully capture the essence of the human condition. Or, as Emmet Brickowski says in The Lego Movie, “The prophecy is made up. And it’s also true. It’s about all of us.”

The Brothers Karamazov: selected scenes

(Original Twitter thread here)

Lego minfigure old man with long white beard, lying face down in front of Lego minifigure soldier, two other Lego minifigure men watching
Why is such a man alive?
Lego room with four Lego minifigure men holding glasses sitting around a fireplace
Over the brandy
Lego room with two Lego minifigure men sitting at a table holding cups
The brothers get acquainted
Lego room with two Lego minifigure women and one Lego minifigure soldier
Lacerations in the Lego house
Lego minifigure holding a guitar sitting on a wall, Lego minifigure man coming towards him
It’s nice to have a chat with a clever man
Wall of Lego house in background, Lego fence in foreground, Lego minifigure soldier holding a small club sitting on the fence
Dmitri’s delirium

Crime and Punishment: selected scenes

(Original Twitter thread here)

Lego horse drawing a cart overloaded with Lego bricks, with Lego minifigures brandishing a whip and a stick
Raskolnikov’s nightmare
Lego minifigure old lady in a Lego room holding a package, Lego minifigure man holding axe behind her
The murder
Lego room with two Lego skeletons on red tiles representing blood, Lego minifigure man holding axe and sack, two Lego minifigure construction workers outside the door
The decorators try to get into the apartment
Small Lego room crowded with two male and two female Lego minifigures
Raskolnikov is visited by his mother, sister and Razumikhin
Lego policeman sitting with Lego minifigure man in a Lego room
Porfiry interviews Raskolnikov at the police station
Lego minifigure lying on red tiles representing blood, under a Lego horse pulling a carriage, with Lego minifigure man watching
Marmeladov is run down in the street
Lego room with three windows, in which a Lego minifigure girl reads a book to a Lego minifigure man. In an adjacent Lego room a Lego minifigure man listens.e
Sonya reads the Raising of Lazarus to Raskolnikov while Svidrigailov eavesdrops
Lego minifigure woman pointing a gun at Lego minifigure man
Dunya faces Svidrigailov
Lego minifigure man holding gun to his head, and Lego minifigure soldier, by a Lego lamp post
Svidrigailov shoots himself
Lego minifigure man lying face down near a Lego lamp post, watched by a Lego minifigure girl
Raskolnikov prostrates himself in the street
Lego minifigure convict with Lego minifigure girl with Lego snowman in background
Raskolnikov and Sonya in Siberia