What Does It Mean To Be Russian? On Dostoevsky’s Early Literary Ambitions

Kevin Birmingham Investigates State Censorship Under Czar Nicholas

Dostoevsky was 23 years old, unemployed and aimless in a city dominated by the military, the bureaucracy, and rank. Becoming a writer meant resisting the city’s ratIonal order. This was particularly difficult to do because another key to Nicholas’s control of Russia was his control over literature and the circulation of ideas. Nicholas’s regime considered virtually all secular literature hostile to orderly society. Nicholas expanded the dragnet for dangerous words almost immediately after his coronation.

More than a dozen censorship offices in different ministries inspected virtually all printed material, and the list of banned books was updated monthly. The “Black Office” reviewed foreign periodicals arriving by mail. International tourists had to forfeit their books and wait, sometimes for days, for the Foreign Censorship Committee to clear them. Censors worried about secret codes hidden in musical scores, and phrases like “forces of nature” and “intellectual ferment” were unacceptably inflammatory. Nicholas shut down a newspaper for publishing an unfavorable review of a play he quite liked. He outlawed German philosophy altogether.

Domestic journalism was hamstrung. Every new periodical required state approval, which could take years. Censors pored over each issue before it could be printed, which made timely issues difficult and newspapers almost impossible. Editors were sometimes incarcerated for violations, as were overly permissive censors. Warier censors anticipated how an irate superior or a skittish high-ranking noble might react to any particular article or phrase. Enterprising censors rewrote questionable passages themselves.

Russian literature had been largely a state- and church-sponsored enterprise for decades. The government founded or supported dozens of journals that operated as state organs. Officials co-opted influential writers and editors by paying them. Newspapers couldn’t be sold on the street or in railway stations, and commercial advertisements were banned, which kept prices high. Publications struggled to reach more than a few thousand subscribers with scattershot news items, meandering letters from Russians abroad, and reports on occasional crimes (usually foreign).

Russian censorship had long created eerie silences. There was not a single reference to Petersburg’s flood of 1824 in any Russian newspaper. Hundreds of thousands of people lived through a disaster that consumed the capital, and it was as if it had never happened. Under Nicholas’s reign, the silences rippled outward. While the annual number of books published in Russia had tripled in the first third of the 19th century, by 1837 the growth had ceased. It would remain stagnant for the next 15 years.

Dostoevsky’s decision to renounce his estate to become a writer was, by any reasonable estimate, absurd. It was nearly unheard of to make a living from literary fiction. Pulp adventure tales and illustrated chapbooks were profitable. Literature wasn’t. Almost all Russian writers of note were either landed gentry deriving income from estates with hundreds of serfs or else high-ranking state or military officials. Lermontov, Pushkin, Turgenev, Goncharov, Tolstoy—none of them renounced anything in order to write fiction because no one turned to writing to pay their bills. Russian literature developed as a social grace for elites, and their disdain for professional writing helped them retain control. Genuine literature, they insisted, was unsullied by commerce. Money destroys an author’s principles, keen thinking, and good taste. Dostoevsky’s plan was not just an “imprudent risk.” For an upwardly striving family, it was crass.

Petersburg was becoming the center of Russian literature in the 1840s, and the city’s readers were shaping its content.

Even without its social taboos and government hostility, Russia would have been a difficult place for a writer. The mid-19th-century literacy rate was low—15 percent is probably a generous estimate—while Germany, France, Britain, and the United States all had majority-literate populations. Russia’s small readership forced publishers to rely on high prices. A copy of Gogol’s Dead Souls cost ten rubles, and many novels cost 25 to 30—nearly half of the average bureaucrat’s monthly salary. High prices kept the book market small. There were only about a thousand titles published in Russia every year, and nearly half of them were foreign.

The best solution to the adverse market was to aggregate as many readers as possible in subscription lists for wide-ranging monthly journals. Purchasing a book was a commitment, but subscribing to a journal was a stroll through the arcade. Novels appeared in installments. If you didn’t like one narrative’s development, there was another one in the same issue. If you didn’t like novels at all, you could read summaries of world events, or about Constantinople in the fourth century, or about recent discoveries in physiology, or “A Popular Essay on How the New Planet Neptune Was Discovered.” Some contributions were specialized. “The Causes and Fluctuations of Grain Prices,” for example, or “On the Possibility of Definitive Measures of Confidence in the Result of the Sciences of Observation and Particularly Statistics.” Literature was bundled with everything.

They became known as “thick” journals—each issue was hundreds of pages. The Library for Reading, one of the first thick journals, boasted 57 contributors. Its content was generally light and apolitical, but it published translations of Victor Hugo and Balzac, Dickens and James Fenimore Cooper. Seven thousand subscribers paid 50 rubles per year—the price of a few books—to be cultured and informed. More than 200 journals came and went during Nicholas’s reign. The turnover was a sign of precarity, but it was also a sign that people found the risks worth taking. By the 1840s, there was a small ecosystem of durable journals, and they paid their writers well. Book publishing still lagged behind Europe, but Russia’s biggest journals had circulations about as high as their British and French counterparts. And the reach was wider than the subscription list.

For ambitious young writers like Dostoevsky, however, the thick journals’ domination seemed like a trap. Russia’s embryonic market allowed a handful of opportunistic publishers to band together and squeeze out competitors. It was a club sustained by bribes, threats, favors, blacklists, and mutual promotion. “It’s an oligarchy,” Dostoevsky complained to his brother in 1845. Submitting your work to a journal meant yoking yourself to editors and their sycophants, “to the main maître d’hôtel,” he complained, and “to all the sluts and kitchen boys who nestle in the nests from which enlightenment is disseminated.” Everyone thought the business was crass.

Nicolaevan Russia was an unlikely place for a world literature to develop, but beneath the surface there was just enough wealth and education, enough curiosity and self-scrutiny, enough daring and insecurity and pride to create a new literary capital on an old continent. Petersburg was becoming the center of Russian literature in the 1840s, and the city’s readers were shaping its content. Roughly half of Russia’s readers were civil servants or military officials engaged in meaningless work for a state they earnestly wanted to value. It was as if there were a surplus of meaning floating downstream looking for somewhere to land. That experience needed articulation.

The most influential person shaping Russian literature at the time was a tempestuous critic named Vissarion Belinsky. He was the first Russian writer to devote his entire career to literary criticism, and he dominated public opinion in a way no other critic ever had. Belinsky started and ended writers’ careers. His reviews determined booksellers’ orders. His annual roundups of the literary scene covered significant translations and trends, all the major journals, and virtually every notable Russian publication across all genres. He reviewed contemporary authors and interpreted decades-old publications. If Belinsky didn’t write about you, you didn’t matter.

Chaadaev’s insistence that Russia did not have a tradition essentially turned the tsar into a tyrant.

Belinsky identified four types of literature in Russia: kopeck literature, trade literature—distinguishable only by the profit margins—“graybeard literature” (just what it sounds like), and genuine literature. He claimed there were only a dozen genuine Russian writers. Belinsky thought good critics created a literate society, which meant drawing clear lines. “Scribblers in frieze coats,” he wrote, “with unshaven chins, write miserable little books at the order of petty booksellers.” They “ruin the public taste, deface literature, and the calling of the literary man.” Belinsky hated the kitchen boys, too. He was 28 years old and already the most well-known critic in Russia when he moved from Moscow to Petersburg in 1839 to join a newly revived journal called Notes of the Fatherland. Its goal was to take down the oligarchs, the scribblers, the graybeards, and the status quo.

“I feel sorrow and pity for those who do not share my opinion,” Belinsky said. His pity was sincere. Disagreements with him opened up into Manichaean divides between those seeking truth and those who wallowed in ignorance. Ideas mattered. His voice quavered and his cheeks trembled when he attacked the ignorant during disputes. His outbursts earned him the nickname Furious Vissarion.

Belinsky’s ideas were routed through his emotions. “Thinking and feeling, understanding and suffering,” he wrote to a friend in 1841, “are one and the same thing.” He paced through his rooms while reading, agitated or thrilled. He would lock himself in his study, stand at his writing desk, fill a sheet of paper, and then throw himself into a book until the sheet’s ink dried. Then he’d continue on a clean page. He’d shuttle back and forth, reading and writing, until he was too weak to go further. His finished essays featured sharp insights and succinct judgments rather than extended lines of reasoning. They were earnest, lyrical, and meandering—one of the oligarchs believed he wrote only while drunk. What readers loved about Belinsky was his fervor. He had a prophet’s zeal, and it was that sense of calling, a temple-cleansing mission, that made him so persuasive.

Belinsky was the son of a provincial military doctor; he had a “plebeian origin,” as Ivan Turgenev called it. He was expelled from Moscow University for his “limited capacities” (he didn’t pass a single exam in three years), and the expulsion denied him both the status of the degree and the finer points of a higher education. He knew that people noticed the gaps in his knowledge (he spoke no foreign languages, not even French), and he was convinced he was too ugly to be a suitable companion.

Temperamental though he was, Belinsky thought of literature as a form of empiricism. He referred to “the mysterious laboratory of nature” and to creativity’s laws. “Reality—that is the motto and the last word of the contemporary world.” While this sounds like being a partisan for everything, Belinsky was rebuffing the vestiges of romanticism that seemed blind to everyday life. He preferred a nonfiction genre that the French called physiologies, detailed and precise descriptions of people or places. When Belinsky referred to one physiological sketch as “living statistics,” it was high praise. The genre was built upon the notion that a careful delineation of a specimen can lead to general insights about the increasingly complicated world—the same way you could learn about all kidneys by dissecting one of them. The genre was an outcropping of realism, and as such it often focused on unseemly urban details. One physiology about Petersburg’s tenements described the leftovers of insects smeared on the walls.

A sense of organic wholeness was crucial because some Russians had begun to question their nation’s unity.

Gritty realism had its detractors. One of the Russian oligarchs objected to the tendency to rummage “in the dark corners and alleys of life.” Blood-smeared walls and flies circling unconscious drunks were not, in themselves, beautiful, so how could describing it ad nauseam be art? For people like Belinsky, beholding the truth, however unsavory, was invaluable. Literature was the news when the news wasn’t legal.

What Belinsky really wanted was a rendering of what it meant to be Russian. That’s what drew him to Gogol. Belinsky was the first critic to praise his talent. Gogol, Belinsky wrote, gives us Russian life “in all its nudity, in all its frightening formlessness.” He captured the mania and pettiness of life in a ranked society. “Here is the Russian spirit, this smells Russian!” Belinsky exclaimed about Dead Souls. Russia was fragmented by rank, but literature, he believed, could turn fragmentation into a deeper organic unity.

A sense of organic wholeness was crucial because some Russians had begun to question their nation’s unity. Alongside post-Napoleonic optimism was a persistent unease about Russia—just a feeling, usually, or a budding thought, something you would repeatedly uproot. But one day it became clear that someone had allowed it to grow like a poisonous flower, and the thought was cultivated in a long letter addressed to a lady who never ultimately received it. Instead, the letter circulated for years in handmade copies passed among friends until a journal in Moscow somehow published it uncensored in 1836 under the heading “First Philosophical Letter.”

What the letter announced, with alarming force and clarity, was that Russian culture, Russian history, Russian thought and literature, and even the Russian people did not exist at all. There was nothing to unify. “We belong to none of the great families of mankind,” the letter stated, “we are neither of the West nor of the East, and we possess the traditions of neither.” Russia had no foundation: “There are no rules, there is no home life, there is nothing to which we could be attached… nothing durable, nothing lasting; everything flows, everything passes, leaving no traces either outside or within us.”

The letter was unsigned, though people knew it was written by Peter Chaadaev, a former officer in the Napoleonic Wars who had resigned at the height of his career and become a recluse. Chaadaev was an iconoclastic traditionalist, and for him the absence of a national tradition was Russia’s defining quality, the only thing that affected all aspects of Russian life. “What is habit, instinct, among other peoples we must get into our heads by hammerstrokes. Our memories go no further back than yesterday; we are, as it were, strangers to ourselves.” To read the letter was to hear someone happily demolishing Russia’s overweening nationalism with his own relentless hammerstrokes. “Isolated in the world, we have given nothing to the world, we have taken nothing from the world; we have not added a single idea to the mass of human ideas; we have contributed nothing to the progress of the human spirit. And we have disfigured everything we touched of that progress.”

None of these statements were even remotely acceptable—in public or in private. The censor who approved it claimed that the journal’s editor had read selected passages to him while he was playing cards. It was, in any case, the embarrassing task of the head of the Chief Directorate of Censorship to inform Tsar Nicholas that an article appearing in The Telescope constituted a “direct attack on the past, present and future of the motherland.” Nicholas swiftly denounced the “First Philosophical Letter” as a “jumble of insolent absurdities worthy of a madman.” He declared Chaadaev insane and placed him under medical and police supervision. The censor lost his rank and his pension, and the editor of The Telescope was exiled to the edge of European Russia. The journal was banned, of course, as was any article that even mentioned it.

Chaadaev subtracted everything. The dominant theory of Russian autocracy was that tradition shaped and justified the tsar’s authority, and Russian identity, in turn, flowed out from the tsar. Chaadaev’s insistence that Russia did not have a tradition essentially turned the tsar into a tyrant. And so without a tradition or a legitimate ruler, Russians would have to find another way to be a people. Dostoevsky read Chaadaev’s letter just as he was hoping to become a writer of national significance, and his original pursuit—studying the mystery of being human—became intertwined with another more immediate question: What does it mean to be Russian?


The Saint and the Sinner

Excerpted from The Sinner and the Saint: Dostoevsky and the Gentleman Murderer Who Inspired a Masterpiece. Used with the permission of Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Kevin Birmingham.

Kevin Birmingham
Kevin Birmingham
Kevin Birmingham received his PhD in English from Harvard, where he is a Lecturer in History & Literature and an instructor in the university's writing program. His first books is The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses.

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