Dostoevsky and the Demons of Dissent (August 2012)

“Demons, demons, that’s who you are!”

Evgenii Fedorov, Poema o pervoi liubvi. Ispoved’ byvshego dissidenta (2003)

I’ve been working recently on Dostoevsky as a frame of interpretation for the transmission of dissident cultural memory. Although this has since sunk beneath the waves, I’m writing this post as a way of summing up what I might have found. And though I’ve used a Evgenii Fedorov quotation as a nice lead-in, I’m going to save him for another time. Suffice to say that Fedorov himself, rewriting his earlier work from the 1950s in the 1980s-1990s, uses the literary-historical precedent of Besy-style revolutionary radicalism as a frequent source of inspiration and allusion in his work on forms of freedom in and outside the Gulag.

Tea-time favourite ‘Demon (sitting)’ by Mikhail Vrubel’ (1890). Courtesy of

It would be easy to focus just on Besy, especially given its potential historical parallels. As James Goodwin has shown in Confronting Dostoevsky’s Demons. Anarchism and the Spectre of Bakunin in Twentieth-Century Russia (2010), it has proven to be a hot topic of literary-political debate throughout Soviet history. Reading Besy and thinking of dissidents has turned out to be quite useful in thinking about the parallels in the revolutionary tradition and the formation of a dissident one. Elements of martyrdom and commitment abide in both, depending on where you look.

The long dark train journey of the Russian intelligentsia

Before I launch into demonic detail, it’s interesting to note other examples. The case of Leonid Tsypkin is a good one. Obsessed with Dostoevsky, Tsypkin wrote Leto v Baden during the late 1970s and published it New York a week before his death in 1982. The novel whip ups parallels between the ‘internal emigration’ of the late-Soviet intelligent and Dostoevsky’s own time in Germany. Based on Anna Dostoevskaya’s diaries, the narration flows between a winter train journey in the USSR and the effects of Dostoevsky’s torturous gambling addiction. It also contains a numerous comments on dissident culture and its connections to the 19th century. For example, the novel ends with a drawing together of Dostoevsky’s inability to merge with the times and the narrator’s own alienation as he rides the train from Moscow to Leningrad.

Tsypkin is not alone in this sort of endeavour. J.M. Coetzee’s Master of St Petersburg (1994) reworks Dostoevsky’s return from Dresden after his stepson’s death into a dark vision of the city and the men who inhabit it in a way reminiscent of Crime and Punishment itself. However, it is not the literature that is interesting here so much as the man behind it.

Tsypkin was born into a Jewish intelligentsia family in Minsk in 1926, and was evacuated at the start of the war to Ufa. Here he attended a medical institute and eventually became involved in oncology. Tsypkin wrote poetry in the 1960s before beginning on prose in the 1970s. He was never published in the Soviet Union in his lifetime. Indeed, Tsypkin never tried. A friend, Azary Messerer, was responsible for the transfer and publication of Leto v Baden abroad. In a 2002 lecture Messerer exposed the question of interpretation as distinctly multifaceted in his exploration of the novel as reflective of Jewish life in the post-war Soviet Union and a broader love of Dostoevsky in Jewish culture.

It is tempting to see the hallmarks of dissent in Tsypkin’s private obsession with documenting and studying Dostoevsky’s life. He was sacked from his institute after his son emigrated in the late 70s (later to be rehired at a lower position), and was refused a visa himself when he eventually applied for one. The quiet, closed focus of individual intellect, the escapism of the 19th century and an apparent refusal to engage with the dark and dangerous literary system suggests a rejection of the more odious elements of the Soviet Union. Emigration implies similar ideas. But firstly, it’s not that simple. Emigration was often a painful experience for all involved: those leaving and those left behind. It seems hyperbolic now, but the emigre send-off (provody) at Sheremet’evo in the 1970s was often compared to a funeral. People just didn’t know if they were going to see each other again. Likewise, similar behaviour in capitalist societies does not tend to draw the same kind of conclusions. When we think about things like off-kilter intellectual activity, protests, radicalism, the search and attainment of freedom, resistance to injustice, they are obviously born of specific conditions, but can we speak about the ‘quiet man’ in America and the USSR in the same breath?

This is not to ignore the ethical dilemnas of living and working in the Soviet system and its particular relationship with the outside world (ie open-closedness). I just want to indicate certain potential parallels and/or disconnections. And secondly, we just don’t know enough to be able to make those kinds of judgements. Although Leto v Badene has been republished and translated numerous times, only in the New Yorker last month did the English language readership finally see something beyond Leto v Badene (‘The Last Few Kilometres,’ The New Yorker, 17 September 2012). Its official Russian publication only came about in 1999.

However, for all the fawning over Tsypkin’s style and the predilection of the West for the “lost Russian classic”, there are dissenters. Notably, Mikhail Edel’shtein, who in a 2004 Znamia article called Leto v Baden a “model graphomaniac production”. Edel’shtein argued that the grandeur of Tsypkin’s style and his knowledge of history are myths born of Western liberals, raised on a diet of Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn. Contemporary Russian reviewers are much more reserved in their evaluations.

Would the dissident intelligentsia please stand up?

Of course, all this fits in with the image of the 1980s as the dark time. The ‘stagnation’ period often relates to the 70s and early 80s, but what of the differences in life after Brezhnev but before Gorbachev? As a testament to the fact that, in memory terms, sometimes a year isn’t very long at all, the early 1980s have been effaced from public discourse it seems. Only to be occasionally referred to, and always in a slightly perjorative, distant fashion. For dissidents and their families, it is the darkest time. Zoya Svetova, the daughter of Felix Svetov and Zoya Krakhmalnikova,remembers how the KGB came for her mother in 1982:

Они пришли в половине десятого вечера. Это было на даче в Кратово, в 40 километрах от Москвы. 30 лет назад. В августе 1982-го. Большой рыжий пудель Март не почуял беды. Он вилял хвостом, когда шестеро чужих людей поднимались по лестнице на второй этаж. Дверь была открыта. Мы были втроем: я, мама и мой четырехмесячный сын Филипп.

«Выдайте документы и материалы клеветнического содержания, — сказал один из них, остановившись у входа на кухню. — Вот санкция на обыск». Мама молчала, потом собралась и твердо сказала: «Ищите». И они искали. Несколько часов они выдвигали ящики письменных столов, выгребали одежду из шкафов, рылись в детской кроватке Филиппа, не обращая внимания на то, что он спит. На даче не было телефона. Мобильников тогда еще не придумали.

In relation to the stormy events of the 1960s and late 1980s, the intervening period has been declared quiet. That is, apart from the internal worlds of Soviet citizens, which, as the Besy-related novels below demonstrate, are far from uneventful. Felix Svetov’s Otverzi mi dveri (Paris, 1978; official Russian publication in Novyi Mir, 1991) follows the inner struggles of a Jewish intellectual in 1970s Moscow as he grapples with his religious faith and allegiances. Set against fierce personal battles, the establishment of new friendships and the destruction of old ones, Lev Il’ich turns from unknowing to an embrace of orthodoxy and a rejection of Jewish faith. The novel proved to be rather controversial, provoking accusations of anti-semitism in Svetov’s portrayal of urban Jewish life in the Soviet Union. (You can read a recent account of this controversy in Semen Reznik, ‘Vybrannye mesta iz perepiski s druz’iami,’ Vestnik 16, 2003 (Washington, USA).) When Solzhenitsyn reviewed the novel in the late 1970s, he drew direct stylistic and thematic parallels with Dostoevsky’s oeuvre: from the speech patterns of the intelligentsia to the combination of metaphysical and everyday (bytovye) problems.

Vladimir Kormer’s novel Nasledstvo showcases the above trend wonderfully. Written during the early 1970s, it traces the interactions between different waves of emigration (post-Revolution and post-war internal) and the religious revival among the Moscow intelligentsia of the 1970s. Despite criticism from several quarters, Kormer’s realist account of the mental and spiritual anguish undergone by inakomysliashchie and the danger posed by state security offers fascinating insight into both what dissident life was like in the 1970s and how it might be perceived (realistically and historically).

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Kormer and his novel. Courtesy of

Published abroad in the late 1980s, it was serialised in Oktiabr’ in mid-1990. The introduction by Igor’ Vinogradov idealised Kormer’s text as a documentary ‘of the reality of stagnation.’ Perhaps as a reflection of the growing discourse of Soviet citizenship as a prison-like existence, Vinogradov argues that it shows how the dissidents were the only ones who actually expressed the dissatisfaction of the population. It was a ‘figurative’ group portrait in the sense that it gives a broad picture of dissidence as a whole, rather than the ‘main’ group. In a valorisation of discussion over action, the novel’s conversations are a ‘real drama of ideas’. At the end of his article, Vinogradov states that Nasledstvo‘s polyphonic quality a la Bakhtin links it with Dostoevsky, and specifically Besy. Vinogradov goes on to say that Besy is the principal literary predecesssor in its depiction of radicals in the late 1860s. Iurii Kariakin’s book on Dostoevsky of the year before called Besy a ‘warning novel’ (roman-preduprezhdenie) for the 20th century (Dostoevskii nakanune XXI veka, 1989). Besy suddenly seemed a way of perceiving the world as the ‘radicals’ closed in on Moscow. A friend of Kormer, the writer Evgenii Popov, who had his own experiences of conspiratorial literary activity in the late 1970s and 1980s, called Nasledstvo the ‘Soviet Besy‘.

Kormer’s novel, however, is far from the rose-tinted view you might expect. It delves into the often unsatisfying world of underground philosophical and religious activity. The negotiations between different groups are fraught, and often come to nothing. The groups of friends and acquaintances contain informers and the security men make appearances at the strangest moments. Even the most innocent conversation circles, focused on honest and open conversation, are potential provocations (Lev Vladimirovich). Signing collective letters is far from a satisfactory experience and ultimately the cause of problems between friends and lovers. Indeed, as one character says at the start of the novel: ‘“The tragedy of our generation is that we can’t be sure of anything”’ (Oktiabr’ 5, 1990, 75). The foreign correspondents and tourists too, i.e. those responsible for money, information exchange and transfer, are not to be relied upon. Lev Vladimirovich continually asks the authority figure, Melik, to ‘drop all of this’ (‘bros’ ty vse eto!’), arguing that he’s far too old and that he’s not even living a ‘real life’.

Ultimately, the historical parallels tie into the resurgence of conspiracy and radical dissent as a familiar mode for certain sections of the intelligentsia. Albeit, in the late-Soviet case, without much direct action in light of the widespread preference for non-violent resistance. That is, aside from the NTS-related groups (and other) involving such prominent dissidents as Petr Iakir and Viktor Krasin from the 1960s and 1970s. The revelation of conspiracy in the church at the end of Nasledstvo as Melik confesses his dealings with KGB reflected the constant danger of betrayal (and public repentance) in dissident culture.

PS See Adam Michnik’s rejection of ‘the spirit of Demons’ due to its potential for leading individuals away from their goals. Friedrikh Gorenshtein wrote a play called ‘Spory o Dostoevskom’. Venedikt Erofeev’s play ‘Dissidenty’ about Fanny Kaplan plays with besy-like images.


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