Dostoevskij and The Coast of Utopia

Nicholas Rzhevsky, State University of New York at Stony Brook

One way to honor writers and thinkers is to imagine their presence in our discourses and the hypothetical engagements of their ideas and values beyond their own time. Such is the honor Tom Stoppard pays Gercen, Bakunin, Belinskij, Turgenev, and other Russians in The Coast of Utopia. But what if we were to extend Stoppardís dramatic tip of the hat to the possibilities of a response in the stalls by yet another Russian writer, Fedor Dostoevskij? Dostoevskij, of course, reacted to the intellectual world represented by Stoppard with his own ideas and a series of literary masterpieces. Sitting in Londonís National Theater he would have found familiar cultural material and, at the same time, he would have discovered Stoppardís uses of Edward Carr, Isaiah Berlin, and Aileen Kelly. The hero of their interpretation is Gercen, skeptical liberal, freedom fighter, and individualist par excellence, a man committed to the highest ideals of mankind and yet a passionate opponent of all abstractions and a tragic victim of historyís lack of ideals. It is not hard to imagine that Dostoevskij would have been closely engaged by this image of Gercen, particularly since Kelly has presented him as a kind of intellectual opposite to writers like Dostoevskij himself, whom she has linked with September 11 and modern terrorism.

Dostoevskijís hypothetical response, the paper suggests, would highlight some of the broader value judgments of this part of the British sense of Russian culture, in particular in its neglect or denigration of religious realities. In typical fashion for the writer, he would respond with particular glee to the test and confrontation of ideas with human realities in the lives of Gercenís friends, wife, and mistress, and he would go on to project the extreme outcomes of such of Gercenís values as freedom, individualism, and self-shaped morality. In this response as in so much else of his work, of course, the writer would be ahead of his time, since it is already available in such works as The Adolescent and The Brothers Karamazov.