A Little Historic Context

by Dennis Abrams

Is it possible to read the books of a given writer without any knowledge of the world from which he or she came? Of course. And while sometimes it’s interesting to try to read a book in a vacuum as it were, to concentrate solely on the text, I think (and I can never remember which school of criticism this would fall into) that without some understanding of what influenced the author, of the events that helped to make him what he was, you’re not getting the full meaning of the book.

In that spirit, I’d like to share with you the “prelude” to Joseph Frank’s magisterial biography of Dostoevsky.

“The last years of the reign of Alexander I were a troubled, uncertain, and gloomy time in Russian history. Alexander had come to the throne as the result of a palace revolution against his father, Paul I, whose increasingly erratic and insensate rule led his entourage to suspect madness. The coup was carried out with at least the implicit consent of Alexander, whose accession to power, after his father’s murder, at first aroused great hopes of liberal reform in the small, enlightened segment of Russian society. Alexander’s tutor, selected by his grandmother Catherine the Great, had been a Swiss of advanced liberal views names La Harpe. This partisan of the Enlightenment imbued his royal pupil with republican and even democratic ideas; and during the first years of his reign, Alexander surrounded himself with a band of young aristocrats sharing his progressive persuasions. A good deal of work was done preparing plans for major social reforms, such as the abolition of serfdom and the granting of personal civil rights to all members of the population. Alexander’s attention, however, was soon diverted from internal affairs by the great drama then proceeding on the European stage — the rise of Napoleon as a world-conqueror. Allied at first with Napoleon, and then becoming his implacable foe, Alexander I led his people in the great national upsurge that resulted in the defeat of the Grand Army and its hitherto invincible leader.

The triumph over Napoleon brought Russian armies to the shores of the Atlantic and exposed both officers and men (the majority of the troops were peasant serfs) to prolonged contact with the relative freedom and amenities of life in Western Europe. it was expected that, in reward for the loyalty of the people, Alexander would make some spectacular gesture consonant with his earlier intentions and institute the social reforms that had been put aside to meet the menace of Napoleon. But the passage of time, and the epochal events he had lived through, had not left Alexander unchanged. More and more had had come under the influence of the religious mysticism and irrationalism so prevalent in the immediate post-Napoleonic era. Instead of reform, the period between 1820 and 1825 saw an intensification of reaction and the repression of any overt manifestation of liberal ideas and tendencies in Russia.

Meanwhile, secret societies — some moderate in their aims, others more radical — had begun to form among the most brilliant and cultivated cadres of the Russian officers’ corps. These societies, grouping the scions of some of the most important aristocratic families, sprang from impatience with Alexander’s dilatoriness and a desire to transform Russia on the model of Western liberal and democratic ideas. Alexander died unexpectedly in November 1825, and the societies seized the opportunity a month later, at the time of the coronation of Nicholas I, to launch a pitifully abortive eight-hour uprising known to history as the Decembrist insurrection. An apocryphal story about this event has it that the mutinous troops, told to shout for ‘Constantine and konstitutsiya‘ (Constantine, the older brother of Nicholas, had renounced the throne and had a reputation as a liberal), believed that the second noun, whose gender in Russian is feminine, referred to Constantine’s wife. Whether true or only a witticism, the story highlights the isolation of the aristocratic rebels; and their revolution was crushed with a few whiffs of grapeshot by the new tsar, who condemned five of the ringleaders to be hanged and thirty-one to be exiled to Siberia for life. Nicholas thus provided the nascent Russian intelligentsia with its first candidates for the new martyrology that would soon replace the saints of the Orthodox Church.

Feodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky was born in Moscow on October 3, 1821, just a few years before this crucial event in Russian history, and these events were destined to be interwoven with his life in the most intimate fashion. The world in which Dostoevsky grew up lived in the shadow of the Decembrist insurrection and suffered from the harsh police-state atmosphere instituted by Nicholas I to ensure that nothing similar would occur again. The Decembrist insurrection marked the opening skirmish in the long and deadly duel between the Russian intelligentsia and the supreme aristocratic power that shaped the course of Russian history and culture and Dostoevsky’s lifetime. And it was out of the inner moral and spiritual crises of this intelligentsia — out of its self-alienation and its desperate search for new values on which to found its life — that the child born in Moscow at the conclusion of the reign of Alexander I would one day produce his great novels.”

Two questions:

1. Does one need to understand the historical and personal events that influenced the author to understand their books, or should they be able to stand alone as pure texts?

2. Has there ever been a period of Russian history that wasn’t “troubled, uncertain, and gloomy?”

More tomorrow…

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8 Responses to A Little Historic Context

  1. Doak says:

    1. One doesn’t need to understand the historical and personal events to understand the book, but such knowledge allows one to deeply understand the author’s work. Any good book should be able to stand on its own when it comes to the central ideas, but that context adds meat to the bones.

    If a book cannot stand as a work without historical context, then it is a failure at anything beyond pop culture.

    2) They may be troubled and uncertain over there right now, but I don’t know if they are that gloomy. They probably are, though. Russians seem to thrive on gloom. And vodka. I imagine there is some relation, there.

  2. artmama says:

    Having no knowledge of the author’s life and times can lead to increased interest in these topics while reading and after the book is read. But this knowledge is not necessary to enjoy a good book. To critique, analyze, or study a book this information is helpful, but may also not be necessary.

    All of history is troubled, uncertain, and gloomy. Russia is particularly cool in this respect!

  3. Charie says:

    There is a feeling of the oneness of humanity when identifying with a story from another culture or another time. Knowing the history can make a particular story richer, but it is not necessary if that story speaks to basic human nature.

  4. Shonna says:

    I think the knowledge adds to the understanding. I’ve been listening to the book “Travels in Siberia” by Ian Frazier which includes a lot of Russian history (particular that which relates to Siberia, which includes that of the Decembrists) and I am finding it very good background material.

    • Shonna:

      Welcome! I’ve been thinking about this question all week actually, and the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that reading a book in a vacuum as it were, without putting it into any kind of historical context, or without taking into account the author, his life, and his influences, does both the book and the reader a disservice.

      I’m a big fan of Frazier (“Great Plains” is one of my favorite books) and I’ve been meaning to get to this one. I’ll definitely add it to my pile.

  5. Taylor Kirk says:

    I usually like to read several books at once, fiction and non-fiction, that complement each other in some way. For example, I’m a fan of French Revolutionary history, so I had a biography of Danton and Vive la Revolution (a funny history) to go with some novels. I love how enriching this combination is and I am usually able to retain more of the historical information this way. As a side note, James Michener is one of my favorite authors, and I think it may be because he packs fiction and non-fiction into a massive work so well that I don’t need too much more information about the Caribbean, or Texas for that matter.

    With Crime and Punishment, it’s helpful to have more historical detail but not necessary. The center of the novel is human emotion and impulse. As for a relatively ‘untroubled’ point in Russian history, I would think maybe the years of Putin + rising oil prices and the illusion of sustainable economic growth…

    • A couple of suggestions, then, for non-fiction “read-alongs.” Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia, by Orlando Figes and St. Petersburg: A Cultural History by Solomon Volkov. Both highly enjoyable and readable (I’ll be quoting from both throughout Project D).

      And as for Putin’s era…a period of renewed repression, criminal oligarchs…so on the surface yes, but I’m not sure…

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