Dostoevskij and Russian Anarchist Thought

James Goodwin, University of Florida

A powerful impulse toward rebellion and revolt (bunt) forms a conspicuous and familiar attribute of many character types in Dostoevskij’s work, yet few studies have investigated the problem of Dostoevskij and anarchism. While Dostoevskij’s religious convictions and nationalism would obviously undermine any attempt to place him into a truly anarchist tradition, the unquestionable appearance of certain anarchist principles in his work naturally encourages reflection on their relationship to its broader political dimensions. The link between Dostoevskij and anarchism also remains important for an understanding of his dramatic shifts in Russian cultural memory, which was often forced throughout the twentieth century to reconcile negative assessments of the writer with inevitable references to “Dostoevskij the prophet.”

My discussion of Dostoevskij and Russian anarchist thought seeks to explain the nature and genesis of a forgotten approach to Dostoevskij by two nominally anarchist writers of the early Soviet period, A. A. Borovoj and N. G. Otveržennyj (Bulyčev). Based to some extent on pre-revolutionary allusions to Dostoevskij and anarchism (in the work of Ivanov-Razumnik and Čulkov, for example), in their studies of the 1920s Borovoj and Otveržennyj carried out a systematic attempt to situate Dostoevskij in the realm of several fundamental anarchist ideas. Despite a few noteworthy differences, which Borovoj outlined briefly in a preface to one of Otveržennyj’s works, both writers attempted to identify Dostoevskij as an ultimately progressive artist whose conception of revolt, affirmation of the individual, and faith in the constructive force of the irrational were clearly consistent with the libertarian aspirations of the Russian revolution. Under the flag of the Voice of Labor publishing house, one of the final means of public expression for anarchists after 1921, the works of the two writers provided an isolated but striking defense of Dostoevskij’s legacy for the revolutionary epoch.

Consideration of the anarchist view remains crucial for a deeper appreciation of attitudes toward Dostoevskij over the course of the Communist era. For although its few surviving representatives in Russia disappeared under Stalin’s rule, the anathema of anarchism persisted and eventually provided a convenient basis for the exoneration of Dostoevskij during the Thaw years. By juxtaposing the contributions of Borovoj and Otveržennyj to apologies for Dostoevskij in the 1960s and 1970s, when Russian scholarship managed finally to rehabilitate Dostoevskij by means of a vastly different notion of the anarchist heritage, my paper also aims to demonstrate the political significance of anarchism for Dostoevskij criticism in the Soviet Union. Together with the complete restoration of Dostoevskij to the official canon of literary classics and visionary Russian thinkers, the rebirth of anarchist thought in the “new” Russia suggests that the theme of Dostoevskij and anarchism deserves a closer study.