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.

This is because Dostoevsky would have loved Twitter, because he loved arguing. If he were alive today, I regret to tell you that he would definitely have his own Substack, and realistically, also a podcast. I know this because one of the projects that made him best known in his own day was a journal that he and his wife Anna published themselves, written solely by Dostoevsky, calledA Writer’s Diary. Publishing monthly, he used the journal to reflect on the hot topics of the day, ranging hugely from criminal trials and society scandals to world politics, trends in the arts and famous people he’d met years before. Did it have a theme? No, not really. The theme was pretty much just “things that are in my head today”. Sound familiar?

Dostoevsky valued his ability to publish above all else. Particularly during the early years of his career, government censorship was strict. When it eased up in the late 1850s there were fierce debates about the written word, particularly the danger that it might help recruit political extremists. It was a very real danger: all over St Petersburg, young radical ‘nihilists’ were distributing leaflets calling for ordinary people to “take up axes”, set fire to government buildings and overthrow the Tsar. And yet, as Dostoevsky wrote in a letter to his editor: “How can you fight nihilism without freedom of speech?” Censorship made the radicals appear more enigmatic, “and that entices the inexperienced”. Perhaps one of the key differences between now and then was that Dostoevsky assumed even his opponents were sincere – his argument is only persuasive when everyone is approaching debates with good faith. 

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.

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