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Reading Russian literature



As I write this article today, the Russia-Ukraine war was entering its 33rd day. This is a topical issue. The name Russia is all over mainstream media. But I do not have much political thought in me. I am, however, forced to recall a few nineteenth century Russian literature texts that I read in school. I also regret that I never got to read up to this day any literature text from Ukraine. All the same, the Encyclopedia Britannica says, and I agree as an African reader, that the most celebrated period of Russian literature was the 19th century, which produced, in a remarkably short period, some of the indisputable masterworks of world literature. It is argued that Russian literature, especially of the Imperial and post-Revolutionary periods, has as its defining characteristics an intense concern with philosophical problems, a constant self-consciousness about its relation to the cultures of the West, and a strong tendency toward formal innovation and defiance of received generic norms.
The greatest anguish suffered by Dimitri in this novel is the failure to prove that he did not kill his father. As readers, we are at a vantage point and we know that he does not kill his father
I recall that in Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls, we see Chichikov traverse the Russian terrain buying dead souls! First published in 1842, and widely regarded as an exemplar of 19th-century Russian literature, the novel chronicles the travels and adventures of Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov and the people whom he encounters. Chichikov plans to buy dead souls and then collect them for his own eventual gain. Basically, he wants to create the illusion that he is wealthy. Although these transactions prove comical, they also demonstrate how greedy people can be. I recall reading avidly about one Pecorin in A Hero of our Time by Mikhail Lermontov, written in 1839 and published in 1840, fall in and out of love at different places. Pecorin is an example of the superfluous man noted for his compelling Byronic characteristics. I recall too the scholars Bazarov and Arkady, who travel and dialogue in Fathers and Sons by Turgenev about the place of family in Russian society. I recall Russia towards the end of Tsarism with Maxim Gorky’s novel, Mother. Gorky’s Mother presents a panoramic gallery of female characters such as Nilovna, Sophia, Natasha, Sasha and Ludmilla. Mother depicts and dramatises the emerging class-conscious revolutionary proletariat class in Russia. When we get to my favourite Russian novel, Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, we come to Russia in the family. I recall that it is just about the longest novel that I have read in this life so far. It took me twenty one days of undeterred reading! Brothers Karamazov is a novel with a simple plot about a murder and a complex discussion of faith, doubt, and morality. When you finally read through this novel, you find out that many of these characters do not know that they could be part of the Karamazov family up until they are deep in crisis! In this novel, we come to Russia directly in the mind and on the ground. You feel that Russia is a product of relations in the family. No one really goes away in The Brothers Karamazov. Everyone is here talking to, hitting at and or scolding blood relatives. Character, particularly its different and twisted shapes become a motif. Characters here are manipulated to represent types. In The Brothers Karamazov characters, various ugly and beautiful worlds live together. Fyodor Pavlovitch Karamazov, is the father of Dimitri, Ivan, Alyosha and most likely, Smerdyakov, but he has not been really fatherly to them. Fyodor Karamazov is the first class rogue, one who should not be allowed to be a father. He is the source of all the turmoil in the family. No wonder each of his sons, at some point, want him dead. Firstly Fyodor Karamazov marries Adelaida only in order to obtain a dowry. Soon, Adelaida runs away with a student of Divinity, leaving behind the three year old Dimitri. Karamazov, forgets the son who grows up under the custody of a servant well wisher and later, the maternal relatives. Fyodor Karamazov remarries and when his second wife dies, he forgets the two children and they are kept and raised by different people in two different places. Fyodor Karamazov constantly refers to his absent children as orphans even when he is still living himself! The Karamazov sons meet for the first time when one is twenty, the other twenty four and the third, twenty seven, having been reared at different places. But even then, Fyodor Karamazov is not yet done with them! He denies Dimitri a fair share of his mother’s estate. The worst blow comes when Karamazov gets interested in Grushenka, Dmitri’s lover, and is prepared to woo her with money! He has denied his son fatherly care, a right to a mother’s estate and now he attempts to deny him a chance to have a lover. Fyodor Karamazov says to one of his sons about himself: “As I get older.. I shall not be a pretty object. The wenches won’t come to me of their own accord, so I shall want money. So I am saving…simply for myself, my dear son. You may as well know. For I mean to go on in my sins to the end…For sin is sweet… You can pray for my soul if you like and if you don’t want to, don’t, damn you! That is my philosophy.” And when he is told that Dimitri will not give up on the competition for Grushenka, Karamazov says with the voice of a competitor: “He is a low cud But He shan’t have Grushenka, anyway, he shant! I will crush him!” The worst in Fyodor Karamazov is expressed when he impregnates a local mentally retarded wandering girl, Lizavetta although he refuses to own up to the very end. Instead, he adopts Lizavetta’s son, Smerdyakov, who becomes his servant. Towards the end of the novel, Fetyokovitch, the lawyer who defends Dimitri over the allegation that he murders his father states that by killing Fyodor Karamazov, Dimitri has not murdered his father (parricide) because Fyodor is not a father outside biological terms. In fact, if he has killed, Dimitri has killed a rival, a man who is supposed to be his father but who did not play that role. The lawyer says, let the son stand before his father and ask him, “Father, tell me why I must love you? And if that father is able to answer him and show good reason, we have a real normal, parental relationship…But if he does not, there is an end to the family tie. He is not a father to him and the son has a right to look upon him as a stranger, and even an enemy.” If it is Smerdyakov who murders Fyodor Karamazov, then he is doing it as a rejected son who smashes his recognition into the skull of his father, like what Moses is thought to have done to Mary in Lessing’s The Grass is Singing. At this point, this scenario amounts to the following set of questions (1) What is a father? (2) If people kill those that have made them gradually crawl to their death through deprivation, is that murder? (3) What is murder? (4) What is parricide? Fyodor Karamazov is a superfluous man. Compared to Eugene Onegin and Pecorin, the latter two are angels. At least whatever Eugene and Pecorin do in the world, comes back to them. Fyodor Karamazov denies life those that he brings into the world. Fyodor Karamazov’s rootlessness, disrespect for religion and marriage and a sharp appetite for money and women, is mirrored as Dostoevsky’s attack on western values. Every modern Russian of western trends is seen as a Karamazov. On the other hand, Dimitri is tailor made into a man who vacillates from one extreme emotion to another. He is a rogue who can storm out in disagreement from the monastery, beat up his father and fight in public. He is a caring brother and a passionate lover. Dimitri is not a superfluous man. He has a conscience. In his anger, he talks about killing his father but he does not decide to kill him. When he develops some guilt feelings, it is over the mistaken thought that he has killed Gregory by accident and for this he regrets: “I punish myself for my whole life, my whole life I punish!” Dimitri intends to kill himself for it and it is the police who save him when they say that Gregory is still alive. Instead of celebrating the death of his father, who is his rival, Dimitri looks at himself with honest introspection: “I am not much good myself, I am not very beautiful, so I had no right to consider him repulsive. That is what I mean.” The greatest anguish suffered by Dimitri in this novel is the failure to prove that he did not kill his father. As readers, we are at a vantage point and we know that he does not kill his father. Through that, Dostoevsky is raising other questions. 1) How useful is the legal system if it fails to get to the truth? 2) If one fails to prove his innocence, is he necessarily guilty? Dimitri is a man who could have been good had it not been for deprivation. Justice is no justice if it does not consider the whole background and psychology of the criminal, the same argument raised by Max as he defends Bigger Thomas in Wright’s Native Son. All this means that society will judge individuals but not itself. We should not forget that Dimitri is every Russian brought before the judiciary system. Futyukov is right when he says: “…gentlemen of the jury, why depict my client as a heartless egotist and monster…he is wild and unruly – we are trying him for that but who is responsible for his life? Who is responsible for his having received such an unseemly bringing up?” Dimitri represents man-made contradictions – a good man made bad by others. He is a double like Shakespeare’s Macbeth. On the other hand, Alyosha who Dostoevsky thinks is the main character, is a humanist, the only star in the dark night of the Karamazovs. From the beginning, Alyosha is meant to stand apart, sometimes akin to the control experiment. Alyosha does not seem to have the sense of vengeance like you find in his brothers clearly because he has a father figure in Zosina from the monastery. He moves from the world of action into a world of contemplation and prayer. For Dostoevsky, who is inclined to religion and Slavophilian sentiment, Alyosha represents what the Russian mind should be. Alyosha has not the flushy ideas and personality associated with the West. His principle is simple: that there is God is above us. Given the chance, he would retreat into a monastery for the rest of his life. It is only father Zosina who throws him back into life when he asks him to be a mediator in his troubled family and take up a family. Fyodor Dostoevsky was a 19th-century Russian novelist and short-story writer whose psychological penetration into the darkest recesses of the human heart, together with his unsurpassed moments of illumination, had an immense influence. Dostoyevsky is best known for his novella Notes from the Underground and for four long novels, Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Possessed (also and more accurately known as The Demons and The Devils), and The Brothers Karamazov. Each of these works is famous for its psychological profundity, and, indeed, Dostoyevsky is commonly regarded as one of the greatest psychologists in the history of literature. And to recall him now through his literature from a far away African country when his country, Russia, is at war triggers useful thoughts and insights.

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