Conrad and Dostoevskij on the Origin of Russian Communism

Ludmilla Voitkovska, University of Saskatchewan

This presentation will focus on Dostoevskij’s Crime and Punishment and Conrad’s Under Western Eyes, the novel examining a political milieu, which was written in 1912 in response to Crime and Punishment. Conrad’s Under Western Eyes is a fictional attempt to revisit Russia, the country of his birth, which had a powerful impact not only on Conrad’s personal life, but on the lives of many generations of Poles. The novels are similar in structure, characterization, plot and even patterns of “polyglossia”. However, there is the great tension between the two novels, since the differences in structure do not easily translate into an insight into Conrad’s conceptual disagreement with Dostoevskij. Dostoevskij’s love of Russia contrasts in the most dramatic manner with Conrad’s furor at anything Slavic. However even if Conrad disliked Russia’s influence profoundly and saw the country as “atavistic”, why should he engage so deeply with its problems and why did his argument with Dostoevskij not preclude him from borrowing the Russian writer’s framework for the organization of the novel?

The organization of Under Western Eyes is structured as a polemic against, rather than a dialogue with Crime and Punishment. However, one cannot explain away the intensity of Conrad’s argument with Dostoevskij or with his Russian characters by the mere affirmation of his dislike for Russia or by the contrast in the respective novels’ organizations. Instead, and this is the main claim of the present study, the stress of the situation was brought about by the fact that Dostoevskij and Conrad in their respective novels employed all their artistic capacity to penetrate the secret of contemporary Russian analysis to predict by means of this analysis the country’s future. As both writers use their formidable artistic gifts as means of truth-telling, Conrad’s fury at Dostoevskij springs from the following problem: in his novel he envisages a different cause for Russia’s predicament and predicts a different unfolding of her fate.

Conrad’s novel of ideas goes beyond a simple borrowing of imaginary world; rather it centers around the most complex question of Russian history: the origin and cause of terrorism, and, thus, of Russia’s future. Readers of Dostoevskij know only too well Dostoevskij’s answers to this problem. In Crime and Punishment these are articulated in “Raskol′nikov’s idea”, that is, in his fascination with Napoleon, and with the French Emperor’s ability to prove that “he is not a louse”, which, by implication, means placing the blame for violence in the camp of Westernizers. Conrad’s diagnosis and his articulation of the cause of the disease is not hard to diagnose, for it is spelled out in every aspect of Russian life. And thus he frames his diagnosis even in the book’s epigraph: “I would take liberty from any hand as a hungry man would snatch a piece of bread.” Sofija Antonovna restates these words as a political characterization of the country: “the great social inequity of the system resting on unrequited toil and unpitied suffering” (Under Western Eyes 257).

The novel’s central characters, then, are Conrad’s notable paradigmatic doubles borrowed from Dostoevskij: the terrorist Haldin and the peace-loving Razumov. But since the disease is not inspired by Napoleon as such but lack of liberty, Conrad powerfully contradicts the fates of Raskol′nikov and Razumixin in Dostoevskij’s novel. Conrad extends profound sympathy to his characters trapped by Russia’s political reality, and particularly for Razumov, in his argument against Dostoevskij’s insistence upon the need for the isolated individual to kiss the land and take up its cross. What is clear is this: Conrad is moved here not by dislike of Russian culture, but by his opposition to the resistance Russia provides to the solutions of its “communal understanding” of individuality. It is precisely this Slavophile communal understanding that appears to preclude, in Conrad’s view, the development of an individuality which cannot be developed without individual liberties. For Conrad, therefore, Slavophiles, and not Westernizers contribute to the cause of a disease which will continue to undermine Russia and so many other countries.