A teenager adrift in 1870s Czarist Russia

OCTOBER 27, 2022

A teenager adrift in 1870s Czarist Russia

A teenager adrift in 1870s Czarist Russia

It was a real find. Recently, after a dinner with my sister’s family at Greenbelt in Makati City, I decided to drop by Fully Booked and browse. And lo and behold, I came upon a little-known novel—long, 600 pages—titled “The Adolescent” by Fyodor Dostoevsky, known primarily for the masterpieces “Crime and Punishment” and “The Brothers Karamazov.”

A glance at the blurb at the back of the book indicated that this was indeed a major novel with ingredients for which Dostoevsky is known for: conflicts with the family, a hero who is more of an antihero, fascinating characters who represent various strata of Russian society and a nation in ferment.

In short, a panorama of Russia during the late 19th century, on the eve of revolution.

The protagonist, a 20-year-old “rebel at heart,” is the narrator, writing about what happened to him during the previous turbulent year, when he was 19, all because of an “idea.”

He is Arkady, the illegitimate son of an imperious landowner, Versilov, who is shunned by society because of his continuing, scandalous relationship with Arkady’s mother, Sofia, a serf (servant) and married at that to a patient, cuckolded husband.

Versilov for a time neglects Arkady, but sees him through grammar school, after which the youth refuses to go to college. His father sends for him, not really to upbraid him but to just allow him to live with his (the father’s) legitimate family.

But after a month Arkady decides to leave and seek his fortune in St. Petersburg, that other Russian capital, haunted by his “idea.”

Arkady claims he hates women, but he and his father lust after the same woman: and Arkady at the same time lusts for money and power. He wants to become somebody in society, “to become a Rothschild,” in other words, a filthy rich aristocrat.

Tormented characters

He meets many fascinating characters in Czarist Russia of the 1870s, when the old systems and beliefs of the behemoth country—always a threat to smaller neighboring nations like Ukraine and Poland—were being challenged by the new ideologies of socialism and nihilism.

Many of Dostoevsky’s characters are disturbed and tormented, which makes them a case study for psychiatrists, not to mention the critics and the more serious readers and students. Perhaps this is why Freud described “The Brothers Karamazov” as “the most magnificent novel ever written.”

The fact is, Dostoevsky himself was a tormented soul: a compulsive gambler, suffered epileptic fits (“foaming at the mouth”) and was a radical Orthodox Christian, described by one critic as wanting to transform Russia into “a vast monastery.” And he was also regarded as one of the greatest writers of all time, along with fellow Russian Leo Tolstoy, author of “War and Peace.”

Now, class, Teacher Tito Madz would like to know: who of the two novelists is, in your opinion, the greater writer? —CONTRIBUTED

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