The Polish Question and the Tradition of Russian Imposture in F. M. Dostoevskij's Besy

Elizabeth Blake, Ohio State University

After the Polish Uprising of 1863, increasingly strained relations between Poland and Russia encouraged many of the Russian littÈrateurs to trace the nature of the history between these two Slavic nations. The Russo-Polish conflict of the seventeenth century known as smutnoe vremja (the Time of Troubles) became a popular historical period for excavation by historians such as N. I. Kostomarov and M. P. Pogodin as well as dramatists such as N. A. Chaev and A. N. Ostrovskij. Dostoevskij's own recognition of the connection between these two historical periods of Russo-Polish conflict is evidenced by an October 1876 entry to Dnevnik pisatelja in which he refers to the year 1863, i.e., the year of the January Uprising in Poland, as "samoe 'smutnoe' vremja nashe" (XXIII: 141). As a consequence of the cultural significance of this phrase, when Besy's narrator employs the words "smutnoe vremja" to characterize the social chaos arising from subversive political activities in his town, he furthers the identification of this socialist agitation both with contemporary Polish revolutionary movements as well as with those of the seventeenth century. I intend to demonstrate that the references to the Time of Troubles in Besy may be read as Dostoevskij's attempt to comment upon a politically explosive topic of the 1860s--the current state of Russo-Polish relations.

Dostoevskij already develops the connection between Poland's desire for independence and Russian revolutionary movements at the beginning of Besy, when narrator includes the restoration of Poland's pre-partition borders amongst the causes of St. Petersburg's student radicals. However, it is Dostoevskij's linking of nineteenth-century Russian political conspirators to the Polish-sponsored pretendership of the seventeenth century which highlights the Polish connections of his contemporary revolutionaries, connections which encourage Dostoevskij to regard Poland as a potential threat to the stability of Russia. Further analysis of Besy's dialogue with the Time of Troubles will show that the linking of the Nechaevy to this historical period serves to discredit their political activities by associating them with Poland's historic opposition to Russia, an opposition most immediately evidenced by the bloody Polish rebellion of 1863.

The importance of the Time of Troubles for Dostoevskij's novel has already been established by the research of such scholars as L. I. Saraskina, Harriet Murav, and Leonid Chekin who effectively demonstrate that this historical period is central to Dostoevskij's depiction of imposture in Besy. My study will expound upon Murav's discussion of the presence of A. S. Pushkin's Boris Godunov in Dostoevskij's novel through a comparative analysis of the unmasking of Pushkin's pretender, Grigorij Otrep'ev, and Dostoevskij's political conspirator, Nikolaj Stavrogin. Such an analysis will reveal how Marija Lebjadkina's likening Stavrogin to the Polish-sponsored anathematized pretender casts a shadow over his pretendership before its inception in the second part of the novel. The subsequent chaos emerging from the failure of Stavrogin's pretendership, a pretendership backed by Petr Verxovenskij (a socialist of possible Polish parentage), suggests the danger that such clandestine political activities pose to tsarist Russia. In this respect, Dostoevskij's portrayal of imposture in Besy represents a cautionary tale to those sympathetic to Poland's desire for independence from Russia.