Dostoevsky in Context
Five years ago, when my colleague and friend Deborah Martinsen (Columbia University) invited me to work together on this book, we did not know that Dostoevsky would be the first non-English writer featured in Cambridge University Press’ series “Writers in Context.” How could we examine the many worlds—artistic, ideological, political, religious, social, and economic—in which Dostoevsky lived? How could we, as the series required, introduce his masterpieces along with these diverse contexts to a general readership, as well as to a professional audience not necessarily specializing in Russia? We realized that we would need to put together a glossary to explain some specific Russian cultural phenomena and institutions. The most important decision we made in implementing the project, however, was to make it interdisciplinary. We invited a group of literary scholars and a group of historians of imperial Russia to contribute to the book and organized a workshop where these scholars from different fields could work out a common language—a language that would be comprehensible to readers outside our disciplines, as well. It was a rewarding experience to talk across the disciplinary divides and this is the spirit that we wanted to animate our project, because we planned, as we emphasized in the Introduction, “to focus not only on the Russia depicted in Dostoevsky’s works, but also on the Russia that he and his contemporaries experienced: on Russian social practices and historical developments, political and cultural institutions, religious beliefs, ideological trends, artistic conventions, and literary genres.” The almost forty contributors to our volume explored these many worlds and offered fresh insights into how we might understand Dostoevsky in relation to them.
Of course there is nothing new in studying Dostoevsky in historical context. Context-based approaches to his masterpieces have been practiced by generations of specialists; we are continuing this well-established scholarly tradition. But we also tried to contribute something fresh to this type of research. As we stated in the Introduction, “while scholars usually examine Dostoevsky’s artistic and philosophical meditations on the phenomena of his age,” in our volume we wanted to examine the phenomena themselves and situate them, as well as Dostoevsky’s treatment of them, in a larger historical frame. We also wanted to introduce new and emergent contexts that were previously understudied but have become increasingly important in our own age, such as Islam, empire, race, childhood, and symbolic geography, to name just few. We hope that our project can contribute to the perpetual process of re-reading Dostoevsky—and so we tried to re-read him by examining the contexts in which he lived from our modern perspective. If our volume succeeds, it is because of our outstanding group of contributors—leading experts in the worlds illuminated in the book.