IN HIS EXUBERANT and terrifying account of a decade-long journey into the dark heart of contemporary Russia’s media-political complex, Peter Pomerantsev relates an incident in which a group of factory workers pledge their support to President Putin on television “via live video-link”:
But then it turns out the workers don’t actually exist; the whole thing is a piece of playacting organized by local political technologists (because everyone is a political technologist now), the TV spinning off to someplace where there is no reference point back to reality, where puppets talk to holograms when both are convinced they are real, where nothing is true and everything is possible. And the result of all this delirium is a curious sense of weightlessness.Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible was too good a formulation to leave it buried in the text; it had to be the title of Pomerantsev’s book, which hit the shelves in 2014. What words could better capture the distinctly postmodern atmosphere in which Russians now find themselves? Indeed, “Everything is founded on appearance in Russia; whence it is that everything inspires mistrust.” So wrote the Marquis de Custine while visiting the country in 1839, long before Pomerantsev’s time and, for that matter, long before Baudrillard theorized of “simulacra.” Plus ça change …
But it isn’t just Western visitors (and Kiev-born, London-raised Pomerantsev is essentially that) who’ve noted, and been haunted by, the uncanny fraudulence and immateriality of Russia’s façades. Exactly a decade before de Custine’s visit, the Russian nobleman Pyotr Chaadayev wrote a series of “Philosophical Letters Addressed to a Lady,” admonishing his fellow Russians to “glance around.” “Does anyone,” he asked, “have a firm footing?”
Our memories reach back no further than yesterday; we are, as it were, strangers to ourselves. […] This is the natural consequence of a culture that is entirely imported and imitative. We have no internal development, no natural progress; new ideas sweep out the old, because they are not derived from the old but show up out of nowhere. We accept only ready-made ideas, and so those indelible traces that are left in the intellect by the progressive development of thought, that build mental power, never furrow our minds.One traditional response to this “curious sense of weightlessness,” which Chaadayev felt in 1829 and Pomerantsev described, mutatis mutandis, in the 2010s, is a sort of reaction formation — to blame Russia’s ails on the “ready-made ideas” infecting its people’s minds and, by extension, on the source of those ideas, the West. This was the line taken by the Slavophiles and pochvenniks (“native soil” conservatives) in the mid-19th century. Russia, they insisted, had a firm basis for its civilization: the collective values of Orthodox Christianity and of the village. The rejection of this solid foundation in favor of foreign ideals, be they radical individualism, materialism, utilitarianism, or the false collectivisms of “utopian” and “scientific” socialism, could only lead to disaster.
For these reactionaries, nowhere was the falsity of Russia’s “imported and imitative” culture more palpable than in that most chimerical of cities, foggy St. Petersburg, built by imperial fiat on a swamp in the inhospitable north. And at no point did they feel the threat of foreign “ready-made ideas” more keenly than in the 1860s, a period of seething generational conflict, revolutionary activism, and national uprisings on the edges of empire.
Squarely in the middle of that decade, a middle-aged, bereaved, and cash-strapped Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote to Mikhail Katkov, the conservative editor of The Russian Messenger (Russkii vestnik), from Wiesbaden, proposing a story for his journal. In the introduction to his dazzlingly agile and robust new translation of Crime and Punishment, the novel that would grow out of that proposal with remarkable speed, Oliver Ready quotes from Dostoyevsky’s letter:
A contemporary setting, this current year (1865). A young man, excluded from student status at university, of trading class, living in extreme poverty, succumbs, through frivolity and ricketiness of thought, to certain strange, “half-baked” ideas in the air, and makes up his mind to get out of his foul situation in a single bound.In both conception and execution, Crime and Punishment was very much a reactionary work, a probe into what Dostoyevsky saw as the pathologies of modern urban existence: “half-baked” imported ideas that, when taken to their extremes, justify atrocities. Alcoholism, prostitution, usury: all were the consequences of alienation from the proper foundation of Russian life, alienation from God, alienation from the community. As Ready points out, the novel’s central character, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov — whose surname alludes to the schism (raskol) that affected the Orthodox Church in the mid-17th century, as well as to his fateful axe-blows — is no more divided than any other character in Dostoyevsky’s world. Even the portrait of the saintly prostitute Sonya Marmeladova, to whom Raskolnikov confesses his guilt and who may facilitate his salvation, is tinged with darkness by her descent into sin — a descent conditioned by the forces of a decrepit and debauched civilization.
Ready’s introduction teases out the novel’s ideological and literary subtexts engagingly, succinctly, and with great nuance. Just as importantly, it hints at what pushes the novel beyond the limitations of its author’s ideological convictions: the fact that Dostoyevsky’s text is as riven, as raving, as irreducible as its characters and their milieu. One can speculate, but only speculate, on some of the causes of this irreducibility: the depth of Dostoyevsky’s empathy for the deluded Raskolnikov (the author was, after all, a socialist revolutionary manqué in his youth); the haste with which he was forced to write in order to stay one step ahead of his creditors (and, of course, one shouldn’t forget that Raskolnikov’s intended victim is a pawnbroker); and even his epileptic fits (as Ready writes, one “can argue [following the late J. L. Rice] that they were a creative tonic”). The causes condense and the novel spins off into polyphony, to be so easily — and productively — “misread” or read selectively over the next century and a half by existentialists and psychoanalysts, Orthodox fundamentalists and atheists, orthodox Marxists and neoconservatives.
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