Part Three, Chapter Two
by Dennis Abrams
Myshkin speaks briefly with Evgeny, talking about his feeling of shame regarding the past three days. Lizaveta worries that Myshkin is about to have a fit. Myshkin speaks of being ill his entire life and his certainty that he makes people laugh, “My gestures are inappropriate, I have no sense of measure; my words are wrong, they don’t correspond to my thoughts, and that is humiliating for the thoughts,” yet he remains convinced that he is more loved in the Epanchin house than he had ever been in his life. Aglaya’s fury at Myshkin’s apologetic attitude: “There’s no one here who is worth such words…No one, no one here is worth your little finger, or your intelligence, or your heart! You’re more honest than all of them, nobler than all of them, better than all of them, kinder than all of them, more intelligent than all of them! There are people here who aren’t worthy of bending down to pick up the handkerchief you’re just dropped…Why do you humiliate yourself and place yourself lower than everyone else? Why have you twisted everything in yourself, why is there no pride in you?” Kolya’s delight at the return of ‘the poor knight.” Aglaya turns on her family for teasing and tormenting her about marrying Myshkin. The prince jumps in, “I haven’t asked you, Aglaya Ivanovna….I only meant to say…I meant to say…I only meant to explain to Aglaya Ivanovna…to have the honor of explaining to her that I never had any intention…to have the honor of asking for her hand…” Aglaya, along with everyone else, laughs at Myshkin. Adelaida kisses the prince on the forehead, he kiss her hand three times. A walk to the vauxhall — Myshkin walking ahead with Aglaya on his arm as a suitor who has rejected her. Aglaya points out to Myshkin the bench in the park, near the three big trees, where she sits alone at seven in the morning when everyone else is asleep. At the vauxhall: Myshkin’s desire on occasion to go away and disappear, perhaps to a spot in the mountains of Switzerland that he liked, “Oh, how he wanted to be there now and to think about one thing — oh! all his life about that — it would be enough for a thousand years!” Aglaya and the others are laughing at him, “Idiot!” Myshkin sees a familiar face in the crowd. Nearby, a crowd of ten people, eccentrics, led by three women appear, and walk past the Epanchin party, led by Nastasya Filippovna, who Myshkin hasn’t seen for more than three months. Nastasya addresses herself to Evgeny: “What! Don’t you know! He doesn’t know yet, imagine! He shot himself! Your uncle shot himself this morning! They told me earlier, at two o’clock; half the city knows by now; they say three hundred and fifth thousand in government funds are missing, others say five hundred thousand. And here I was counting on him leaving you an inheritance, he blew it all!…” Evgeny Pavlovich pales at the news. The Epanchins quickly leave the theater, leaving Myshkin and Evgeny behind. An officer friend of Evgeny’s insults Nastasya, she grabs a riding crop from a nearby stranger and hits the officer across the face. The officer rushes at Nastasya, Myshkin jumps off and grabs the officer from behind, and end up getting shoved and flying into a chair. Keller jumps in to protect Nastasya. Rogozhin accompanies Nastasya from the theater. The officer asks Myshkin for his name. The police arrive five seconds after all the participants had made their escape. Aglaya had been watching the whole scene from twenty paces away, “I wanted to see how the comedy would end.”
The “comedy” is not going to end well — do we see a dual coming?
And of course the entire scene at the dacha with Aglaya’s passionate outburst defending Myshkin as being better than anyone in the room while insisting that she will never marry him, while also letting him know where he can meet her privately was extraordinary to say the least. As was Myshkin’s realization that Nastaya is, indeed, mad. It is painful for Myshkin not to recognize that Aglaya does, indeed, have feelings for him, and equally painful to read her withdrawals into mocking laughter when he doesn’t understand what she’s telling him.
Yesterday, Eddie posted a question about Russian Liberalism, the subject of an attack by Evgeny, asking exactly how it could be defined? This, from historyworld.net, might help. (To keep things in context, keep in mind that The Idiot was published serially between 1868-1869.
Alexander II and emancipation of the serfs: AD 1855-1861
When Alexander II succeeds his father, in 1855, the Crimean war has lasted a year and there are already the first tentative discussions of peace between the belligerent powers. They result eventually in the treaty of Paris, in March 1856, by which Russia loses some territory on the shores of the Black Sea and the right to keep a navy in those waters.
This conclusion is a blow to Russia’s pride, particularly since Nicholas has been much concerned with building up the empire’s military strength. Reform is clearly required. The new tsar devotes himself to a radical change of policy. He focuses first on the most striking and harmful anachronism in Russia – the survival of serfdom.
Serfdom, familiar in various forms throughout medieval Europe, has been given a rigid legal status in Russia by Boris Godunov in the 16th century – at a period when serfs elsewhere have already become free peasants and labourers. By the 18th century serfdom is widely recognized by many in Russia as an injustice and an obstacle to economic progress. Catherine the Great tries to introduce reform early in her reign, but her plans are thwarted by the reactionary nobles who own the serfs.
Even Nicholas I, in other ways repressive in his home policy, forms committees to consider the problem of serfdom – a matter of increasing urgency in view of the frequent rural uprisings during his reign.
On his accession in 1855, Alexander II moves quickly and effectively. Between 1857 and 1861 proposals for emancipation are widely and thoroughly discussed. As many as forty-six provincial committees, each representing the local owners of serfs, make recommendations to a drafting commission.
The result is a law of March 1861 which frees all serfs and obliges landlords to provide each family with a plot of land for a fixed rent. The peasants also have the right to purchase their plots, in which case the government pays the landowner the full price in 5% bonds. The peasant, instead of paying rent, redeems the government loan over a period of forty-nine years.
The peasants are organized in communes, under a village council with strong powers. The members of the council are elected elders. In practice these bodies are much influenced by government and police pressure. But the village communes inspire Russia’s increasingly excitable revolutionaries with the vision of a different type of society on the far side of political upheaval.
Alexander II follows the emancipation of the serfs with other important reforms – in local government, the law and the army. But as so often, reform feeds an appetite for more of the same and faster. The second half of the reign is characterized by revolutionary ferment and, in response, increasing government repression.
Slavophils and Narodniki: AD 1855-1881
The two main groups proposing radical change in the reign of Alexander II are the Slavophils and the Narodniki. They are at opposite ends of the conventional political spectrum, representing the right and the left respectively, but they share a romantic notion of Russia – whose real identity they find in the villages and peasant communes.
The Slavophils believe that Russia has an identity, deriving from her Slav origins, which is intrinsically different from the rational and materialistic nations of western Europe. Their villain is Peter the Great, whose efforts brought about the westernization of holy Russia.
The Russian soul is seen, by the Slavophils, in the piety and warmth of a peasant community living around a Russian Orthodox church. This is a way of life isolated from the harsh realities of politics. Protection from these realities is provided by the rule, necessarily autocratic, of the Russian tsar, appointed by God for this purpose. The political philoshophy of the Slavophils is summed up in the phrase Revolutionary Conservatism, the title of a pamphlet by one of their leading writers, Yuri Samarin.
The Narodniki similarly revere the peasant commune, but for an opposite reason. They see it, in keeping with its name, as the seed bed of communism – a life of shared ownerhip, which they believe must prevail throughout the wider society.
The Narodniki derive their name from the Russian narod (people) and are therefore usually translated as Populists. Partly inspired by the broader European movement of communism, they adapt Marx’s theories to what they believe to be a model more appropriate to Russia. Elsewhere it may be necessary to go through a stage of bourgeois capitalism, and to rely on the industrial proletariat to achieve revolution, but in rural Russia they foresee an unbroken development from the peasant communes to the final achievement of socialism.
But first the message needs to be taken to the peasants. From the late 1860s there develops the movement known as khozhdenie v narod – ‘going to the people’.
In this campaign young intellectuals and students dress in peasant clothes and disperse in the countryside to begin the work of indoctrination and subversion. The peasants are bewildered and the intruders are easily identified; arrests and trials follow.
The more extreme groups within the Narodniki respond with acts of terrorism, orchestrated by Zemlya y Volya (Land and Freedom), a secret society formed in 1876. This is soon followed by a more radical cell, Narodnaya Volya (People’s Freedom). Their most distinguished victim is the tsar himself, Alexander II, killed in 1881 when a bomb is thrown at him at close quarters in St Petersburg. Russia’s great era of reform ends with an act of violent extremism.
Part Three, Chapter Three