Published in 1864 as an answer to the radical reformers who had risen from among the Russian intelligentsia, “Notes from the Underground” represents Dostoyevsky’s firm stand for Russian traditional values, for the Orthodox religion and for man’s right to freedom and free will. As a man who firmly believed that Russia needed to progress from within rather than adopting European models of advancement, and as an intellectual with strong conservative views, Dostoyevsky was strongly against the new concepts advanced by the Europeanized generation of Russian intellectuals. These intellectuals advocated for ‘rational egoism’, ‘utopian socialism’ and ‘radical enlightenment’ which were all notions that promoted a form of government which excluded traditional values, religion and customs, and instead proposed the creation of a new kind of society, based on reason, individualism and egalitarianism. In “Notes from the Underground”, Dostoyevsky tries to construct a case against all of these concepts which are not adequate in the context of the Russian culture, and which contradict human spirit in general. This formula is only able to confuse the individual and transform the society into a chaotic one, in which a man like the novel’s protagonist can only feel alienated and alone. In the end, Dostoyevsky believes that Russia should find its own path, not ignoring Europe and not allowing it to destroy Russian values. This attitude reveals an ongoing defensive trend in Russia’s history, as the country has always tried to be ‘with’ Europe, without being ‘of’ Europe.
In the mid-19th century, Russia was finding itself in a critical point of political and cultural transformation. The country’s relationship with Europe was a complex and highly problematic one, as Russia felt inferior to other European countries, and needed to progress and step into the future. Since most young intellectuals were educated in other European countries and traveled a lot, they were open to new ideas from the West. On the other hand, Russia’s political relationship with other European countries was also problematic, as its increasing power started to constitute a threat to other European countries. However, Russia’s own perception of Europe was not that it stands against the continent, but, as Andrei Tsygankov argues, that it had certain duties in and towards Europe. For example, Russia’s attempt to respect its European obligations involved standing firm for the rights of the Christians living on the Ottoman territory (10). However, as the author also argues, there was a fundamental misunderstanding between Russia and Europe, which was an important cause for the Crimean War. In this context, the nation needed to clarify its own position in the relationship with Europe. Was Russia with, against or of Europe?
Dostoyevsky’s “Notes of the Underground” reflects these anxieties, particularly in what the fear of the new ideas coming from the West is concerned. Dostoyevsky, a true Slavophil, rejected the radical concepts advanced by Russian reformers, and his stand is obvious in the critical tone he adopts. New European political thought advanced the theory of ‘radical enlightenment’, according to which the country should be governed according to reason and logic, ignoring human impulse and caprice. In the novel, the Underground man rejects this theory, arguing that, “you for instance, want to cure men of their old habits and reform their will in accordance with science and good sense. But how do you know , not only that it is possible, but also that it is desirable to reform man in that way?(259) In this passage, the main character directly addresses the reformers and clearly opposes ‘old values’ to the radical enlightenment theories that promoted the reliance on scientific truth. Also, his reject of rationalism and of socialism are obvious in his appeal to the human nature, which rejects uniformity and logic: “we are oppressed at being humans, humans with our own real bodies and blood; we are ashamed of it, we think it a disgrace, and we keep trying to be some sort of fairytale universal beings”(351). This shows that Dostoyevsky believed his ideas to be available for humanity in general. He believed that each people, and each nation had its particularities, which were formed in thousands of years of living in a certain space, an in certain conditions. But above all cultural particularities, it was the caprices and impulsivity of the human nature that rejected logic and reason.
Also related to the ‘utopian socialism’ which was strongly supported by reformers was the concept of the ‘crystal palace’, which had been presented in 1851 at the British Exposition, and came to symbolize a perfect structure of the future. In this regard, the Underground man accuses his readers, “you believe in a crystal palace that can never be destroyed – a palace at which one will not be able to put out one’s tongue on the sly or make a fig in one’s pocket” (262). This represents his reject of uniformity and perfect order which goes against human nature. The movement towards socialism had therefore began and, while reformers saw it as a means of achieving order in a rather chaotic, corrupt and primitive state, the Underground Man saw it as an attempt to transform people into robots, as the below passage shows:
“then, you say, science itself will teach man (tough to my mind it’s a superfluous luxury) that he never has really had any caprice of his own and that he himself is something of the nature of a piano-key or the stop of an organ…” (252).
His reject of conformity and rationalism is also obvious in his rejection of all form of logic and order, even of mathematic principles, because they too tell people how to think: “what sort of free will is left when we come to tabulation and arithmetic, when it will all be a case of twice two makes four? Twice two makes four without my will” (259). His assertion of ‘free will’, which is essentially a human right, and his belief that rationalism and conformity are against human nature, which is sometimes impulsive, otherwise capricious, and contradictory, transforms the novel into one which does not necessarily represent the Russian man, but it is universally true.
After the revolution, when the socialists came to power, it was proved that Dostoyevsky was right to dismiss the theories based on rationalism and logic. According to Kenez, Bolsheviks “aimed to remake not only the society, but human beings and the oldest and strongest human institutions” (114-115). Also, the author argues, this attempt to ‘remake the human being’ involved the weakening of the family structure, as an institution which promoted traditional Russian values. However, as it was proved, the theory could not be put in practice, because the human spirit is too strong. The perfect socialist state, the ‘crystal palace’ proved to be a mere utopia. As Marples argues, the fall of the Soviet Union, the Soviet leaders were preoccupied more with slogans than with action (106), and of the many plans, none was put in practice, which led to economic crisis and downfall.
The Socialist Russian State did turn against the West, but this only occurred after 1947, Tsyganov argues (11). Also, its assertiveness towards the West must be understood in light of the West’s distrust towards Russia(7). However, in the 19th century, Russia had not yet defined its own position in regards Europe, and its own perception was that of either belonging to Europe or being allied with Europe. The Slavophils, and Dostoevsky did not reject Europe but rather, tried to define their own national identity independently of Europe.
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Notes from the Underground, the Double and Other Stories. New York: Barnes and Noble Classics. 2003. Print.
Kenez, Peter. A History of the Soviet Union from the Beginning to the End. 2nd ed. California: Cambridge University Press. 2006. Print.
Marples, David. The Collapse of the Soviet Union, 1985-1991. Pearson. 2004. Print.
Tsygankov, Andrei. “Assessing Cultural and Regime-Based Explanations of Russia’s
Foreign Policy: “Authoritarian at Heart and Expansionist by Habit”?” Europe-Asia Studies, 64.4. (2012):1-18. Web.