Why Dostoevsky would have loved 2021

Twitter, Brexit and podcasts: Fyodor Dostoevsky was born 200 years ago, and yet his views would have slipped comfortably into modern life, explains Alex Christofi.

A collage of a photograph of a man using a smartphone with a portrait of Dostoevsky
A collage of a photograph of a man using a smartphone with a portrait of Dostoevsky

Plenty has changed in the 200 years since Fyodor Dostoevsky was born, on 11 November 1821. Much of what he feared most about the future happened after he died: the Tsar was assassinated just a month after Dostoevsky passed away in January 1881; in the decades that followed came a socialist revolution followed by mass bloodletting, just as he had predicted. Decades later, that too collapsed, and the world we live in now would in some ways have been completely unrecognisable to someone living in the mid-19th century. And yet, some fascinating parallels between his world and ours remain, I discovered while researching his life for my book Dostoevsky in Love. In fact, if Dostoevsky were around today, chances are you’d have heard of him.

It’s this sort of insight that people are talking about when they say Dostoevsky is a great psychological novelist'

What was everyone arguing about back then? Well, for one thing, whether the country should see itself as part of a bigger European culture or whether it should look inside its own borders for inspiration. For his part, Dostoevsky worried that Russian elites had lost touch with their own people and were beginning to lose their culture (fellow novelist and frenemy Ivan Turgenev actually lived in Germany for a lot of his life, and Dostoevsky once helpfully recommended he buy a telescope so that he could still see Russia – a sick burn for the Victorian era).

I remember re-reading Notes from the Underground in the aftermath of Brexit, slightly incredulous about the whole thing as someone who had voted Remain and felt all the facts and figures were on my side. About a quarter of the way through, the narrator explains how “statisticians, sages and lovers of mankind” are always blaming “those short-sighted fools who understand neither their own profit nor the true meaning of virtue”, without ever realising that sometimes people are prepared to sacrifice material gain if only to prove that they are truly independent and free to make decisions, “whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead”. 

It’s this sort of insight that people are talking about when they say Dostoevsky is a great psychological novelist. By the time Trump was elected some months later, I had already underlined another passage from the same book:

“I, for example, would not be the least bit surprised if suddenly, out of the blue, amid the universal future reasonableness, some gentleman of ignoble or, better, of retrograde and jeering physiognomy, should emerge, set his arms akimbo, and say to us all: ‘Well, gentlemen, why don’t we reduce all this reasonableness to dust with one good kick, for the sole purpose of sending all these logarithms to the devil and living once more according to our own stupid will!’ That would still be nothing, but what is offensive is that he’d be sure to find followers: that is how man is arranged.”

I still find it hard to believe that was written in 1864. But that was what Dostoevsky did best: he peered into people and reported what he saw with greater faithfulness and honesty than many of us can muster. At just 17 he wrote to his older brother: “Man is a mystery. It must be solved, and if it takes a whole lifetime, don’t say that it’s a waste of time. I am preoccupied by this mystery because I want to be a human being.” Two centuries after his birth, we still have so much to learn from him.

What did you think of this article? Email editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk and let us know.

Sign up to the Penguin Newsletter

For the latest books, recommendations, author interviews and more