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1863: the pochvenniki want Polish independence for the empire’s sake

April 9, 2012

Nikolai Strakhov in the 1890s

In the 1840s Fedor Dostoevskii had a successful literary debut, became a favorite of Belinskii’s, and was a member of a circle of Ut0pian socialists, as well as of a secret revolutionary conspiracy. He spent much of the 1850s in exile for being in the socialist circle. When he finally clawed his way back to St. Petersburg and literary life, he and his brother started a journal called Time (Время). It only lasted a few years (1861-63), and then the government closed it down, objecting to an article called “A Fateful Question,” signed “A Russian” and by Nikolai  Strakhov.

Strakhov’s article was accused of being too sympathetic to the January Uprising in Poland. Dostoevskii and Strakhov claimed that the censors had misinterpreted it, that certain vague passages had allowed Strakhov’s orthodox pro-Russian position to be misconstrued. Joseph Frank and other scholars, knowing Strakhov and the post-exile Dostoevskii as conservative nationalists, believed this; it would have been inconceivable for them to take the Polish side.

Edyta M. Bojanowska looks at the last issue of Time and argues that the tsarist government was right to see a subversive view of the “Polish question” in Strakhov’s article, and that Frank et al. should not have been taken in by what Strakhov and Dostoevskii said later (6-8). Her method is to look at the entire issue and conclude that Dostoevskii had a coherent, consciously adopted editorial point of view of which Strakhov’s article was one part. The journal was not, Bojanowska is careful to say, pro-Polish as such (18). Instead the common position was that the Russian empire should strive to be founded “on the consent of its constituent ethnicities” (16), on other nations’ desire to join the (future) great civilization and culture of the Russian people, rather than on coercion and domination. Military spending on the periphery would be better shifted to education in the core, for the good of the empire itself (12-24).

Since I don’t know as much about Strakhov’s and Dostoevskii’s politics as Bojanowska and Frank do, their incompatible arguments about “A Fateful Question” both sound convincing to me. However, I think Bojanowska’s position is actually quite close to Frank’s when she argues that exile was not “the fundamental caesura of [Dostoevskii’s] biography” and that Dostoevskii in 1863 “had more in common with liberals such as Herzen than with conservative nationalists such as Katkov” (19). From what I remember, Frank argues both that Time and liberal/radical journals like The Contemporary were not as far apart as is sometimes assumed, and that Herzen and other liberals, like Dostoevskii and his pochvenniki, had by the 1860s adopted positions only Slavophiles had held in the 1840s. Bojanowska does concede (perhaps backing off a once broader claim?) that Frank has some nuance in his post-exile Dostoevskii “at other junctures of his biography,” if not in the discussion of Strakhov’s article and the end of Time.

Page references are to Edyta M. Bojanowska, “Empire by Consent: Strakhov, Dostoevskii, and the Polish Uprising of 1863,” Slavic Review 71.1 (2012): 1-24. I take this article as a well-argued, contrarian argument about 1860s nonfiction that was explicitly about the politics of empire. I think Bojanowska elsewhere gets into issues of the “poetics of empire” in fiction, and in particular how living in an empire affected writers in everything they wrote, even works that seemed removed from imperial politics (e.g. her 2010 paper at the ASEEES conference on Turgenev’s First Love).

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