Soviet Censorship of Fyodor Dostoyevsky


When discussing the most prolific novelists that have spanned the earth, many will regard a few Russian writers as being the most contentious. During the 19th century, Russia saw what would later be described as its Golden Era of literature – whether substantiated through poetry, prose, or short stories and novels. During this Era, following the age of Romanticism, writers began to explore the depths of philosophy within their writing, viewing society through the lens of literary realism and naturalism. These elements of writing would produce vast, overarching stories in writers explored the depths of class struggles and moral paradoxes through characters likewise exploring their own morality, religious beliefs, and understanding of fellow mankind.  Regarding acclaimed novelists of this Golden Age, many of the foremost works belong to Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky was born on November 11, 1821 under his parents, Mikhail and Maria. Along with all of six of his siblings, Fyodor was set into a strict schedule of lessons, learning to read almost as “soon as they were out of the cradle” (Frank (a) 23). These impressions, along with an intensive background of religious studies, had an intense effect on Fyodor, tying most of his ideological and artistic stimulation together (Frank (a) 55). During his later youth, he and his brother Mikhail were sent to the Nikolayev Military Engineering Institute in 1836; however, Fyodor would find no use in this education, seeing it as useless due to his little interest in mathematics, science, and engineering. After his father’s death in 1839, facing his first bout of epileptic seizures that would plague him throughout life, Dostoyevsky spent time working in the military where he began writing his first novel, Poor Folk (Vinogradov 311-8). Following the commercial success of the novel, Dostoyevsky decided to resign from the military and focus solely on writing, soon after releasing his second work, The Double (Grigorovich 273). This work did not receive as favorable reviews as Poor Folk had, and Dostoyevsky’s health declined dramatically, wherein his seizures and episodic fits becoming more frequent.

Around this time, Dostoyevsky joined the Petrashevsky Circle, founded by Mikhail Petrashevsky, which sought the aim for greater social reforms through a means of revolutionary tactics. After revolutionary material that spoke out against the State, the members of the circle were arrested, under orders of Nicolas I, and exiled to Siberia. After spending ten years within interment – shackled and bound each day, facing further epileptic fits, bouts of extreme weight loss, and hemorrhoids – Dostoyevsky and his fellow prisoners had met their execution date. However, Nicols I decided to interfere while the men were standing in front of the firing squad, issuing a last minute pardon. Suddenly, Dostoyevsky was freed and sent back to Russia (Frank (b) 8). Following his release, he faced further emotional breakdowns and epileptic seizures due to his near death experience. In response to the trauma caused by his imprisonment, along with threatening financial distress, Dostoyevsky released his next novel, House of the Dead, based on his experience within the Siberian prison system (Tunimanov 247-8).

Dostoyevsky’s future work would be plagued by a shift in idealism, leading towards a reconstruction of his novel archetypes – now depending on multiple voicing for characters as a means of describing man’s relationship with religion and its contentious nature created and fulfilled by men, along with the humanistic qualities man endured both internally and socially alike. These works would become his most well known, including Notes from the Underground, Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, Demons, and The Brothers Karamazov.

In the newly formed 20th century Soviet Union, critics and scholars were confronted with the difficult task of defining a the supposed Soviet attitude towards Dostoyevsky and his work. Beginning back in the 19th century under the traditions of raznochintsy (anti-regime intelligentsia order of the Tsarist society), radical and Marxist critics alike were personified within the likes of V. Belinski, N. Mikhailovski, N. Rozhkov, Evgei Solov’ev, and the earlier 20th century views on Dostoyevsky made by M. Gorki, G. Plekhanov, and V. Lenin. The difficulty that arose under these critics and scholars was the issue of how to best portray Dostoyevsky. His works, which were radical in speaking on the form of man, society, and religion, were seen by most Party leaders as detrimental to the State’s power, as described by V. Shlovski,

“One cannot malign Dostoyevsky without also dishonoring many of man’s greatest odysseys and projects” (Shklovski 141).

By suppressing material that would incite thought-action against anti-Soviet formation, Dostoyevsky’s works were heavily criticized by Gorki, Plekhanov, and Lenin, with Lenin commenting saying he was not impressed by “tableaus of horrors and abnormalities.” In his opinion, they were a hindrance to the social struggle, as Gorki would agree. In regards to Dostoyevsky’s works, Lenin stated,

“I was going to read The Brothers Karamazov but I gave it up – the scenes in the monastery made me sick. As for The Devils, it’s a nasty, thoroughly reactionary work…and I have absolutely no inclination to waste my time on it…what can it give me” (Valentinov 85)

However, it must be noted, that even with such a public opinion as this, Lenin on more than one occasion said,

“Dostoyevsky was a writer of true genius who had examined the sore spots of the society of his time…his works contain vivid pictures of real life” (Izvestiia 3)

Due to Lenin, Plekhanov, and Gorki’s rejections of Dostoyevsky, the 1920s and 1930s saw a vindication of his socialist ideas, but an enrichment of biographical and literary-historical work was published, among his Letters (1928-34), Literary Works (1926-30), Dolinin’s Materials and Studies (1935), and most importantly, Bakhtin’s Problems of Dostoyevsky’s Writing (1929).

Prior to World War II, Dostoyevsky’s work had still been criticized by the Communist regime, but this perspective would soon change. In response to the war, Dostoyevsky’s work was greatly exonerated and used as part of the Soviet propaganda of the time, with Gorki’s condemnations soon being forgotten. Seeming to have forgotten prior denunciations, Dostoyevsky’s work was now praised by the State,

“For its artistic power, affinities with socialist ideas, the depth of humanitarian sympathy for the insulted and injured, his brilliant prophecies and premonition of Fascist barbarism, his attack on Nietzschean-style amoralism” (Seduro 6),

Being spread across the Soviet Union with a newfound, enlightened materialism. In the interests of Fascist ideology of belligerence and conquest, the Bolsheviks seized Dostoyevsky’s work to attack their German counterparts. The study of Dostoyevsky would begin to increase once again, but with the reactionary period of Zhdanovism on the rise, these works were some of the first to be reprimanded.

Between 1947 and 1955 not one book was published on Dostoyevsky. Following the Zhdanov reactions, any hope of reestablishing Dostoyevsky’s work following the war were nonexistent. In an attempt to further collectivize the proletariat’s thoughts within the Soviet Union, the Party banned his work and any scholarly studies on them. Nonetheless, in 1956, in commemoration of the 75th anniversary of his death, the study of his works began again, and publications of his works began to increase at an incredible rate. Although, as seen in V. Ermilov’s edited publications of Dostoyevsky, it was apparent that he was adapting the writer’s literary heritage in favor of Soviet Policy. Dostoyevsky’s works suddenly became lauded solely for their anti-capitalistic themes, but were condemned for his Orthodox Christian ideology and criticisms of the common Russian/Soviet citizen. Pravda, the State’s most popular publication and figurehead for propaganda, began writing a wealth of articles on Dostoyevsky’s works, stressing his failure as a writer,

“He tried to find support in false, reactionary philosophical and socio-political notions. This had…a seriously detrimental effect upon his realism, and it impaired his artistic genius. As a result of this process, artificial, false images devoid of truth to life or artistic truth, began to appear frequently in his books” (Pravda 3)

They would go on to attack specific works as well, tearing apart Crime and Punishment, describing the “arch-individualistic revolt of Raskol’nikov”, and calling it “bourgeois-anarchistic” (Pravda 3).

Following in the steps of Gorki, Ermilov would continually disparage Dostoyevsky’s work during this time. He stated that Communists could not forgive or forget the blindness and malice that Dostoyevsky took towards the most democratic states within his era. Ermilov was keen on isolating and disengaging the reactionary motifs contained within the literary-honors work, removing anything seen as “harmful” towards the Soviet readers. He would describe Dostoyevsky’s works without mercy, taking every opportunity to denounce his work, stating that  The Insulted and Injured was –

“Warped and no longer on an even keel…Here, as the narrative progresses, the social theme to a large extent superseded and trivialized. The social pathos is fragmented” (Ermilov 108).

In reference to The Brothers Karamazov,

The Brothers Karamazov provides graphic evidence of the extreme moral opportunism of ‘Christian ethics’ and the pernicious effects of clerical ideology on art” (Ermilov 250).

When analyzing A Raw Youth, Ermilov even goes so far as to rearrange the novel and its themes to fit his own prerogative, attempting to render harmless the hypothetical damages that could be caused by the reactionary tendencies in this novel (Seduro 226)

The issue that the USSR was facing after 1956 was the matter of how to deal with its very own literary heritage. It was obvious, with critics such as Ermilov and Evnin, that the Communist Party was suppressing anti-Soviet ideals in a despotic manner. However, in the case of Ermilov, he abused Dostoyevsky during the years when repression was at its greatest in the USSR, then soften his language during the period of relaxation during WWII (Seduro 236). The state of propaganda was constantly changing to fit the nationalism that the USSR felt it needed. The Soviet Union could not effectively conceptualize how to guard its people from the reception of Dostoyevsky as a predecessor of socialism and the Russian Revolution, while at the same time defending its citizens from the hazardous inspiration of his world-view shaped by Christianity.

For a moment, I would like to take a step back and speak about Dostoyevsky’s writing style for further background regarding the Soviet’s critiques. Dostoyevsky’s true power as a writer came from his precision when working under literary realism – thus, the ability to explore the human psyche and its relationship with that which surrounded it. Within his quintessential novels, Dostoyevsky distinguished himself as a writer of the human spirit. As Evnin would observe, there are only a few landscapes throughout the entire corpus of his novels. Dostoyevsky’s artistic power manifested itself in the efforts to find “a higher beauty from within, not from without” (Dostoyevsky 281) Influenced by many great writers that came before him – among which were Byron, Hugo, Heine, Pushkin, Dumas, and Zhukovski – romantic ideals bleed deeply within his work, with characters depicted in striking poses, use of “Rembrandtesque lighting”, the romantic stylization of “beautiful women and handsome men”, and the comic and the tragedy enveloped in one (Seduro 68, 110-2). However, with all of these romantic, idealistic elements, Dostoyevsky remained rooted in realism. His work created the same image that we would see defined by a portraitist – he would grasp the main idea of the human countenance. In Evnin’s words,

“They speak to us of a dramatic spiritual struggle, of suffering and perturbed feelings; they bear the imprint of drives and passions which have not found an outlet, of unresolved inner collisions. His portraits are an integral part of Dostoyevsky’s tragic world” (Evnin 131-48).

Dostoyevsky’s work was riddled with the influence of poetry and drama that had preceded him, which primarily caused him to refer to most of his lengths as “poems”, not as ascertained novels. The scenes within his works were innovative, exploring the realm beyond literature, delving into psychology. Demonstrated in The Double, there is a literary realization portrayed in his new form, known as the inner dialogue, which we would see further realized in its epoch scene between Ivan Karamazov and the Devil (The Brothers Karamazov). He created a further respect into the self-analysis and self-questioning of a single character, creating a relatable world that each character could intellectualize and venerate.

Effectively traced by L. P. Grossman, Dostoyevsky implemented three basic forms to his character’s development, most notable seen in Crime and Punishment: first, distinguishing the first-person narrative, and/or confession by the character to himself; second, a narration by the author, illustrating the character and their actions; finally, a mixed form, both the story being illuminated by the author and an inner-monologue delving into the character’s mind and internal conflicts (Grossman 389).

Grossman would further state, within his critical essay on Dostoyevsky’s work and form, that, “the writer’s political mistakes are overshadowed by his achievements as an artist of genius and acute sensitivity,” While at the same time, supporting the national ideal of sacrificing oneself and everything else for the sake of truth, illuminating the, “eternal Russian vocation to have an idea” (Grossman 342).

It was in this time, and beyond, that perspective of Dostoyevsky began to speak much more freely than before, with a more scholarly and balanced tone. The foremost works seen in this time were the releases from the Soviet Academy of Sciences, beginning in 1956. Their first release, written by G. M. Fridlender, was monumental in relativeness to the freedom of its writing, yet it still had its flaws. Unfortunately, the Academy edition did not succeed in avoiding the practice that so many critics before had faced, in which the scholarly tendencies of Soviet culture still stood deaf to certain artistic motifs within Dostoyevsky’s thematic. This work, released during the Khrushchev-era, was much more liberal than what seen in years past, but it was still extremely evident that Party pressure was still directing the course of published literary works.

The 1960s and 1970s saw Dostoyevsky’s works becoming more available, but censorship was still rampant. A number of notable works were released in this time, as well as intelligently selected and tastefully designed books on Dostoyevsky that were created for Soviet youth, but the level of scholarly material being released was relatively low (Seduro 303). In many cases, the facts behind Dostoyevsky’s biography were accurately represented, but his works were still being abashed by critics across the Soviet Union, in many cases, attributing the writer’s ideology to the primordial evil inherent in mankind and the belief that human nature is not a means of earthly recognition.

It was not until M. Bakhtin’s releases that Dostoyevsky’s works were getting the appraise and scholarly dissection they deserved. As V. Kozhinov would comment,

“In M. Bakhtin’s books the writings of Dostoyevsky are studied as an integral ‘world’, which subsists in the specific fabric of artistic form…we are involved, along with its author, in a careful analysis of Dostoyevsky’s works themselves” (Kozhinov 3).

Among other authors of this blossoming period, we see the genius work released from A. Dolinin. Dolinin presents a formulaic account of Dostoyevsky, describing him as being, “powerful as an artists, weak as a thinker.” His critiques equip us with well-documented and irrefutable arguments that prove that the artist and thinker in Dostoyevsky were inseparable, the two which make-up the world-wide significance of his artistic creations. Where his errors of planning and inseparable thoughts occurred, the mastery of artistry compensated. The two, linked together, created the forms of revolutionized material that are now so respected today.

Soviet and Russian scholarship has entered a new period within the past decades. With the decline of the Soviet Union, the literary world of Dostoyevsky has become a human tradition, intertwined within the artists form worldwide. The literary heritage of Fyodor M. Dostoyevsky has been rooted within the Russian world from the release of Poor Folk and up until now. Between the Socialist ideology and Christian philosophy tied with the doctrines of Dostoyevsky, his work has faced much repression over the past century. From the Bolshevik revolution, to the suppression of Stalin, to the exhumation during WWII, to the Communist repression following and continuing through the coming decades, his work has seen a breadth of personal atrocities and condemnation. However, while Russia and other Soviet states are currently facing a return to ideological and political crisis, rehabilitation has been taking place for some time. In due time, his work will become rehabilitated within the land in which he was born, providing leniency in regards to literary censorship. Yet, such moderation shall not be seen until a more progressive and less authoritarian government comes along.

Works Cited

  • Dostoevski, F.M., Dnevnik Pisatelia za 1873 god (YMCA-Press, Paris, 1952)
  • Ermilov, V., F. M. Dostoevski (GIKhL, Moscow, 1956)
  • Evnin, F.I., Izvestiia Akademii Nauk SSSR. Otdelenie Literatury I lazyka (Moscow and Leningrad, Vol. XVIII, vyp. 1, 2, March-April, 1959)
  • Frank, Joseph, Dostoyevsky: The Seeds of Revolt 1821-1849, (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1976)
  • Frank, Joseph, Dostoyevsky: The Stir of Liberation 1860-1865, (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1986)
  • Grigorovich, Polnoe Sobranie Sochinenni, 12
  • Grossman, L.P., Tvorchestvo F. M. Dostoevskogo (Izdael’stvo Akademii Nauk SSSR, Moscow, 1959)
  • Izvestiia (Moscow, Feb. 10, 1956)
  • Kozhinov, V., “Literaura I literaturovedenie” (Literaturnaia gazeta, No. 32, March 16, 1962)
  • Pravda, Feb. 6, “Veliki russki pisatel’. K 75-letiiu so dnia smerti Dostoevskogo”
  • Seduro, Valdimir, Dostoevski’s Image in Russia Today, (Belmont, Nordland Publishing Company, 1975
  • Shklovski, Viktor, Za I Protiv (Sovetski Pisatel, Moscow, 1957)
  • Tunimanov, V.A., Tvorchestvo Dostoevskogo, 1854-1862 (Leningrad, 1980)
  • Valentinov, N., Vstrechi s Leninym (Izdatel’stvo imeni Chekhovav, New York, 1953)
  • Vinogradov, Evolutsia

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