where the writers are
Review: A Writer's Diary by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Volume 1 (1873-1876



I’m almost tempted to say that Dostoevsky became the first blogger when he decided to publish a monthly diary, paid for by subscriptions, in 1873.  This literary experiment includes everything from letters, literary battles, and short stories to fragments of poems, recollections and long polemics focused on Russia’s system of justice (which had undergone a substantial reform in the previous decade.)


It’s a whopper of a book, over 700 pages.  Do you have to be a Dostoevsky fanatic to want to read it?  Probably.  But it’s also true that anything Dostoevsky wrote had (and still has) a relentless force and crackling energy worth exploring.


In a very long introductory study, Gary Saul Morson of Northwestern University makes a valiant attempt to suggest that many of Dostoevsky’s failings and surprising shifts of genre and subject in his Writer’s Diary amount to a new kind of literature.  I didn’t find myself persuaded this was the case, although it is oddly Russian for a writer to push words in any direction he wishes (Solzhenitsyn ended up working in a kind of fictional/historical pastiche format and didn’t like the term novel applied to what he was doing).


I won’t go through this book item by item, but I did find a few things worth remarking.


  1. Dostoevsky’s faith in the Russian People and the Russian Orthodox Church was boundless.
  2. Dostoevsky was deeply preoccupied with the so-called “Eastern Question” which actually refers to Europe’s eastern border on Russia and not to Russia’s eastern border with the Orient.
  3. He was a man of strange compassion, always ready to take up the pen to assault injustices perpetrated by Russia’s new courts.
  4. He liked to think of Russia as a kind of new country, still fresh and waking up to its mission on earth.
  5. He rejected the notion that pan-Slavism was a key to understanding Russia’s quarrel with Europe; he liked to place more emphasis on a spiritual fraternity that united people under the auspices of the Russian Orthodox Church, or Eastern Orthodox Church, as the case may be (though not the Greek Orthodox Church).
  6. The line of descent he liked to trace in religious affairs went from Byzantium into what would become Russia, which inherited Orthodoxy in its proper form and had, in some vague way, a claim on Istanbul, or Constantinople.
  7. He was an unthinking, reflexive anti-Semite of the worst kind.
  8. He adored children.
  9. His capacity to write great courtroom scenes in his novels is mirrored in his Writer’s Diary. His oratorical power was silent, spoken in ink, but thunders when you read it.
  10. He could be whimsical, self-deprecating, witty, casual and many other endearing things one wouldn’t think of in association with the author of Crime and Punishment.
  11. Somehow (presumably through intensive reading of newspapers and direct correspondence) he was able to keep up with the events of the day, including wars hundreds of miles away from where he wrote, in great detail.  One wouldn’t think one could do that without the benefit of today’s instantaneous forms of communications, but I can’t see any difference between what he knew about public affairs and what our current pundits know...or don’t know.  He was on top of things, both simple and complex.


There is a second volume to The Writer’s Diary that covers the years 1877-1881.  I’ll probably read it because I am, in fact, a Dostoevsky fanatic and generally fascinated by Russian writers and Russia as a country.  The critically important lesson one learns in the first volume of The Writer’s Diary is how alienated, confused, attracted and repelled Dostoevsky was with regard to Europe, not to mention America.  We follow Putin’s Russia...or Yeltsin’s Russia...or Gorbachev’s Russia and shake our heads.  That’s probably because we don’t fathom Russia’s sense of difference, vulnerability, and mission vis-a-vis the West.  Dostoevsky knew all about it, and it shows up on every page of this large strange book.