Reading Dostoyevsky Is No Crime

Italian university threatens to cancel Russian literature as response to war, then backs down

You can forget about trying to understand Raskolnikov’s philosophical dilemmas or the moral conflicts of the Karamazov brothers, the University of Milan-Bicocca told students on Tuesday, March 1. With the conflagration going on in Ukraine, and the worldwide recriminations against Vladimir Putin for his brazen aggression, the university decided that Professor Paolo Nori, a prolific novelist and scholar of Russian literature, should postpone teaching his popular course on the works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

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Then, after an uproar on social media stoked largely by a tweet featuring a video in which Nori appears shocked and incredulous at the decision—a video viewed more than 554,000 times as of this writing—the university changed tack and announced that the course could proceed as scheduled after all.

On March 2, the website Open.Online quoted Nori as saying, “What is happening in Ukraine is a horrible thing and I feel like crying just thinking about it, but what is happening in Italy is a ridiculous thing. An Italian university taking such a decision is incredible, when I read the email I didn’t believe it. We should talk more about these issues these days, and not censor them.”

(My Italian is limited, so thanks here to Google Translate.)

Nowhere has the university addressed the question of why canceling or putting off the study of any Russian writer, and Dostoyevsky in particular, might be an appropriate response to Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine or his disregard for the wishes of millions of Russians, whose protests against the invasion have been some of the most spirited and best attended anywhere in the world.

The Idiot
‘The Idiot,’ by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, which is not currently illegal to read.

Maybe this is not the place for an excursus on Dostoyevsky’s attitudes toward imperial power. But no one should ignore the fact that this pre-revolutionary writer was merciless in his satire of the vanities and outsized ambitions of people like Vladimir Putin, who could have stepped out of the pages of one of Dostoyevky’s novels and stories.

In the 1846 short story “Mr. Prokharchin,” Dostoyevsky introduces readers to a lonely, aging, arrogant Russian who takes advantage of the goodwill of the landlady of the slum tenement where he has crashed out and coexists awkwardly with the other boarders, who are both bemused and put off at his aloofness and rejection of such a low station in life. The other boarders get into heated arguments with Prokharchin, and in the course of one exchange, Mark Ivanovich grills him point-blank about his vanity and thwarted ambitions: “What, do you think you’re the only person in the world? Do you think the world was made for you? What are you—some kind of Napoleon?”

In point of fact Prokharchin is not Napoleon, just a sad and broken aging man who fell far short of realizing his dreams. Prokharchin’s behavior grows more and more erratic until an evening when he vanishes and the landlady sends the other boarders to go looking for him. At length Mr. Prokharchin turns up again, but he dies shortly thereafter, leading to a search of his room that uncovers a pretty lavish fortune, including currency from the reigns of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great.

In this story, Dostoyevsky has satirized the vanity and pathological extremes to which some of his countrymen revert. An aging statesman, who has come of age in the KGB, dreamt of imperial conquest, and harbored a festering grievance over the limits imposed on Russia’s reach, may be acutely aware of the possible futures that lie before him: a few years down the road, will he end up as Napoleon, or as Prokharchin?

A statesman, in other words, like Vladimir Putin.

In attempting to cancel Dostoyevsky, the University of Milan took action against one of the most trenchant critics of the psychology driving the aggression that the university and people around the world deplore.

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Michael Washburn

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author, most recently, of The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We're Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020). He's also host of the weekly Sea of Reeds Media podcast, Reading the Globe.

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