#Dostoyevsky Is the Limit?!

Between Russianness & Dostoyevskiness

Dostoyevskiness © Sergey Armeyskov, 2014.Oh, dostoyevskiness of a flowing cloud!

Oh, pushkinities of mellow noon!

Night looks like Tyutchev,

Filling boundless with supernal.

Velimir Khlebnikov, 1908-1909.


Apparently, Fyodor Dostoyevsky became a symbol, an archetype of a Russian writer, along with Lev Tolstoy (‘Tolstoyevsky’). Simplified image of Dostoyevsky’s Russia (or Dostoyevskian Russia) became a part of popular culture both in the West and in Russia.

Tolstoyevskiness © Sergey Armeyskov, 2014.

There’s a term достоевщина dostoyevshchina (dostoyevschina) which can be translated as ‘dostoyevskiness‘. According to Ushakov‘s (1935-40) and Yefremova‘s (2000) explanatory dictionaries it means correspondingly:

1. (with mild condemnation) psychological analysis in the style of Dostoyevsky.

2. Emotional imbalance, sharp and controversial spiritual experiences typical of the heroes of Dostoyevsky’s novels.


Mixed feelings, emotional imbalance, suffering and doomness (hopelessness) as the set of features of F.M. Dostoevsky’s heroes.

I would like to add that in contemporary Russian dostoyevshchina is also used to describe some awful situations or circumstances. For example: “after watching criminal news she said – ‘pure dostoyevshchina‘”. In this post by dostoyevskiness I mean the crude extract of his novels, the black hole of Dostoyevsky’s Universe.

By the way, in Velimir Khlebnikov’s poem the author invented a neologism of his own достоевскиймо (dostoyevskiymo; cf.: Eskimo) but still I’ve decided to translate it as ‘dostoyevskiness’.

Ilya Glazunov - Rodion Raskolnikov (book illustration), 1982
Rodion Raskolnikov (book illustration), 1982.

Trying to ‘understand’ Russia reading (translated) Russian (classical) literature is like, as the saying goes, seaching for a black cat in a dark empty room. This Sisyphean task can become a Russian roulette gone bad. The non-existent pussy riot cat grinning in the dostoyevskiness darkness, just like its Cheshire relative, can suddenly jump into the room from the Pandora’s box of a Russia-curious Reader’s subconscious, simultaneously turning into the ‘fearfully symmetrical‘ Siberian tiger (Amur tiger).

Street Art: Rodion Raskolnikov (Saint Petersburg).
Street Art: Rodion Raskolnikov (Saint Petersburg).

The sleep of reason produces night mares monsters but there’s a room for the woe from wit as well. Take a book by L.S. Dostoyevsky and turn on, tune in and drop out“!

Classical Russian novels are definitely worth reading but their impact can be adverse if one actually plans to study Russia through these books. When reading Russian literature there is a temptation to perceive it first and foremost as a reading on Russia. The trick or treat is that Russian classical literature is super realistic, so the generalized image of Russia that forms in a Reader’s mind seems absolutely real. The mistake starts when a Reader tries to make far-reaching conclusions about Russia based on what s/he read or – God forbid – to make an anatomical model of the ‘mysterious Russian soul‘. There is a danger that our furry Siberian frenemy smells the suffering of the Russian soul and finds the Reader, so that s/he will finally try his/her luck of the Russian.

In reality there’s nothing ‘Russian’ about the resulting construction – a Reader is looking in the mirror of the Other and sees his/her own reflection which has an invisible ushanka – the antipode of cap of invisibility – on. Heavy is the Cap of Monomakh! [Expression from Alexander Pushkin‘s play “Boris Godunov”. It is often said in an ironic manner when the hardships of something are discussed.]

Russianness cannot be limited to dostoyevskiness. The latter is (or can be) a part of it, the ‘dark side’ of Russia. Trying to define Russia through ‘Dostoyevsky’ and/or Russian fiction in general is like mixing oil with water: these substances can be very close to each other but there will always be a division between them.

Diamonds and graphite are one, yet they are different.

Dostoyevsky Day in Saint Petersburg
Dostoyevsky Day in Saint Petersburg

Among the various ‘Russian myths’ the literature-centric essentialism is one of my favourite. Simply put, the ‘literature-centric essentialism’ is the idea that the way Russia is presented in Russian literature reveals the ‘essence of Russia’. In other words, it is a notion that the ‘mystery‘ of Russia is unveiled in Russian literature.

Ilya Glazunov - Prince Myshkin after the death of Nastasya Filippovna (book illustration), 1966.
Prince Myshkin after the death of Nastasya Filippovna (book illustration), 1966.

Russophobic discourse is, to an extent, about keeping Russians humiliated and insulted in the imaginary land of Raskolnikovs and Myshkins:

Raskolnikovation to all the Myshkinsmen!

Thus, dostoyevskiness can be seen as a part of a bigger mythologization (klyukvification) narrative of Russia.

Dostoyevsky Dostoyevskiness“You can take ‘Dostoyevsky’ out of ‘Russia’ but you can’t take ‘Russia’ out of ‘Dostoyevsky'”.

Author: Sergey A. Armeyskov, Candidate of Sciences in Culturology (≈ PhD in Cultural Studies). Follow me on Facebook, Twitter & Instagram.
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