The "Debate over Bakunin and Dostoevskij" in the 1920s

J. Frank Goodwin, Colgate University

The subject of my paper is the so-called "debate over Bakunin and Dostoevskij" in early Soviet Russia, a "literary-historical" episode which originated with a hypothesis by scholar L. P. Grossman in 1923. In a close study of Dostoevskij's Besy, Grossman argued that the famous Russian anarchist, Mixail Bakunin, served as the historical prototype for the character Nikolaj Stavrogin in the novel. He also suggested that Besy, traditionally considered a work about "Nechaevshchina," may also be read as a "most outstanding study of Bakunin." For the next five years, in public lectures and in leading organs of the Soviet press, Grossman defended his thesis against opposition from a number of other specialists in the fields of Russian literature and history, partisan and non-partisan alike. Evidence suggests that by 1926, "the debate over Bakunin and Dostoevskij" had become one of the most widely publicized discussions of Besy in the Soviet period.

In 1928, six years after his original thesis, Grossman himself posed the question which still confronts readers today. Reflecting on the debate in a preface to a third edition of his essays in 1928, Grossman confessed that after five years he found it "difficult to explain the unprecedented storm of objections provoked by [his] historical-literary experiment on the genesis of Dostoevskij's hero." The "issue of Dostoevskij and Bakunin," he insisted, did "not in the least deserve the sharp and heated criticism which arose in response to [his] paper of 1923." Thus after all the exchanges in the press and in public with his opponents, who included both literary scholars, historians, anarchists and communists, Grossman still refused to acknowledge the problematic nature of his approach to Stavrogin and Besy. Did Grossman's thesis really not deserve the vehement opposition it met for three full years? Why, in fact, did Grossman's thesis cause such a controversy?

Although Grossman himself may have been motivated primarily by a politically innocuous interest in literary prototypes and the genesis of Dostoevskij's characters, for his main respondents the most important aspect of his study concerned the nature of Dostoevskij's critique of populism in Russia and its significance for Soviet power. Through a review of its main arguments and counter-arguments, my paper will describe how a number of events and other publications of the same period ultimately transformed the "debate over Bakunin and Dostoevskij" from an ostensibly academic search for Stavrogin's prototype into a much broader discussion about the nature of the Russian revolution.