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October 30, 2010

Dostoevsky and Spiritualism

By Thomas E. Berry, University of Maryland

From the reign of Catherine the Great to the Revolution of 1917, Russian society and literature were affected by the relationship between Western spiritualism with its seances and mediums and an ancient folk tradition with its superstitions and fancifulness. The common Russian belief in spirits, combined with the Western occult science, brought charlatans into the highest court circles throughout the last hundred and fifty years of the Romanov's rule. Cagliostro drew the attention of Catherine II; the Baroness Krudener instructed Alexander I; D.D. Home had the patronage of Alexander II; and Rasputin and Dr. Philippe had a close relationship with Nicholas II. The Czars were the inheritors of two strong social forces: a folk tradition based on the mystical and the miraculous dating back hundreds of years and a fervent search for historical and spiritual meaning among the Russian intelligentsia. Only Nicholas I failed to understand the popularity of spiritualism in Russia and his jack of interest separated him from the mainstream of Russian life. Most Russian monarchs were greatly influenced by the spread of spiritualistic forces. It was as if folk superstitions and Western spiritualism were destined to blend together and contribute to the fall of the Russian Empire.

Dostoevsky began writing during the reign of Nicholas I, the Czar who "had a horror of mysticism."(1) The literature of the time, however, was filled with psychic phenomena. Literary censorship during the 1840s encouraged parody and suggestive literature. European literary trends, such as Byronism and Hoffmannism, greatly influenced the writers in Russia, official restraints hindered the free development of their artistic spirits, and spiritualism were popular in the tales of Odoevskij, Gogol and other writers. In Something About Spectres in 1848, V.A. Zhukovskij discussed society's interest in spirits as if the question of spiritualistic phenomena was a major concern of the time.(2) Dostoevsky was aware of the literary tastes of the period and his own writing reflected his effort to appeal to the public's taste for the esoteric.

In The Double (1846), Dostoevsky explained the hero's talking with his own image as a case of mental imbalance. In The Landlady (1847), the heroine gave the impression of being possessed by the devil, but the author again explained her problems as an example of psychological imbalance. In Netochka Nezvanova (1848), a clarinetist inherited a remarkable violin and became obsessed by the power the devil had over him when he played. The evil powers of these early stories by Dostoevsky were based on the folkloric devils of Russian fables and Western short stories. Had the writer not been imprisoned at the end of the decade, he might have created more demonical tales. Literature and society, however, had undergone considerable change when he did return to his writing.

Dostoevsky wrote his major novels during the reign of Alexander II, a period when seances and mediums were extremely popular in society. The Czar welcomed the spiritualist D.D. Home into the royal palaces as a guest for weeks at a time. Seances of an incredulous nature were held with the monarch and other notables such as Count A.K. Tolstoy and Miss V.F. Tjutchev in attendance. The latter reported the fascination of the ruler with the occult science.(3) The popularity of seances among upperclassmen in society gave new dimensions to belles-letters and spiritualism gave Russian literature a leitmotif: the medium.(4) Dostoevsky's works show the dual nature of Russian spiritualism from the folkloric devils in many of his works to the sophisticated devilish phantom of Ivan's dream in The Brothers Karamazov. The writer's interest in spiritualism was undoubtedly sparked by the tremendous popular regard for the occult science during the reign of Alexander II.

In his personal life, Dostoevsky gave evidence of his curiosity about psychic phenomena. Doctor Janovskij, who treated the author, reported that Dostoevsky believed in premonitions and related the following incident. During the second year of their acquaintance, the doctor lived in Pavlovsk, returning to St. Petersburg three times a week for his medical practice. One day a strange urge convinced him of the necessity of returning to the city for an unscheduled visit. In a remote area he accidentally ran into Dostoevsky who had no money to pay a petty debt demanded of him by some military clerk. When the writer saw the doctor, he shouted, "See! See who will save me!" Later Dostoevsky called the incident remarkable and every time he would remember it, he would say, "Well, after that, how could one not believe in premonitions!"(5)

Dostoevsky often discussed spiritualism with friends,(6) and in 1876 he published his thoughts about spirits in The Diary of a Writer:(7)

...I think that a person who wants to believe in spiritualism cannot be hindered by anything, neither by lectures nor by entire commissions: and the disbeliever, if he really does not wish to believe, cannot be persuaded by anything. That is exactly the sort of persuasion I overcame at the February seance at A.N. Aksakov's, at least during the first strong impression. Since then, I have simply denied spiritualism, that is, in essence I have been indignant over the mystical aspect of its doctrine. (After reading the report of the academic commission's study of spiritualism, I could never be in a position to deny the spiritual phenomena which I have been acquainted with even before the seance with the medium and now, especially now.) But after that remarkable seance I suddenly guessed, or more so, suddenly realized, that it's not enough that I don't believe in spiritualism, but besides that, I don't want to believe - so no sort of proof will ever shake my position.

Books in Dostoevsky's private library give further evidence of the author's interest in the occult science:(8) for instance, Experimental Researches on Spiritualism, by Professor R. Cera (1866); and Spiritualism and Science: Experimental Researches on the Psychic Force, by William Crookes(1872).

In 1863 Dostoevsky attended a seance when the medium L.N. Livchak did a rope trick which caused several noted scientists considerable embarrassment.(9) The botanist V.I. Butlerov wrote that the event was the result of an "enormous technical operation that required significant mental power." Later the medium admitted that his great "technical operation" was done simply by "breaking a circled rope. Then, after tying the knots together, the broken parts were mended."(10) Evidently he substituted the knotted rope for the unknotted when nobody observed. Dostoevsky himself said that there was probably a logical explanation.(11)

During the early 1860s, Dostoevsky showed his interest in the esoteric by his publication of stories by Edgar Allen Poe in the journal Vremja (Time) and in articles about the American writer's literary style. Dostoevsky was intrigued by Poe's technique of presenting the outward possibility of an unnatural event while proceeding to relate a realistic tale. In the issue of Vremja that contained the stories The Tell-Tale Heart, The Black Cat, and The Devil in the Belfry, there is an unsigned piece entitled St. Petersburg Dreams in Verse and Prose. The work was by Dostoevsky as it is an autobiographical account of a writer which parallels the Russian author's life. An imprisonment in Siberia is referred to as a "journey to the moon," which could indicate just how much Dostoevsky made Poe's images his own.(12)

Dostoevsky, like Poe, often intermingled naturalistic and irrational elements. The Russian author's earlier works used folkloric devils, as was pointed out above, and he continued using them in his major prose writings; for instance, Father Ferapont's multiple devils in The Brothers Karamazov. However, the influence of spiritualism is also evident in the esoteric aspects of the great novels. In Crime and Punishment there is a discussion of ghosts between Svidrigajlov and Raskolnikov (Part IV, Chapter I) which could have been inspired by Dostoevsky's knowledge of seances. When Svidrigajlov tells Raskolnikov about his dead wife's visitations, the descriptions are similar to the spiritualistic visits during a seance. Marfa Petrovna appears only briefly and speaks a few trifling remarks. Her oral utterances are similar to the phrases in thousands of seances recorded in the nineteenth century. They are pointless and disappointing to the listener. The same is true of the appearance of Svidrigajlov's dead serf Filka: a momentary visitation and pointless comments. Dostoevsky could have remembered his own experiences at seances while writing the scene.

In the novel The Devils, Dostoevsky referred to the book From New York to San Francisco and Back to Russia by P.I. Ogorodnikov. When Shatov in The Devils mentioned his experiences in America, he implied that spiritualism was part of the American way of life.(13) Ogorodnikov's book was published in 1872 and contained a conversation between two Russians who accidentally met in America and traveled together. Ogorodnikov and a student named A.E. Ja...v discussed American spiritualism while on their way to Chicago:(14)

... Ja...v related that Chicago, except for an abundance of Germans, is remarkable because most of the population is in intercourse with the next world and they are therefore somewhat strange.

And the practical American makes peace with that rubbish called the study of "spirits'?" involuntarily tore from my throat.

In America, as in a country with wide freedom of conscience, thought and speech, spiritualism, similarly to a majority of other studies, has found an abundance of fertile soil. There are up to four million followers of spiritualism in that country, and hundreds of remarkable people are in charge of it: lawyers, men of letters and scholars. They have their own special schools, their own religious service, their own festivals, picnics and meetings; they publish many books about spiritualism, their catechism and papers; they have more than just a few male and female prophets, clairvoyants, and mediums; their doctors, especially medics, can cure by means of spirits any disease of the body or the soul, and for that they charge only two or three dollars. Several of them are so gifted they can speak all dead and living languages and create miracles.

Having received such an account of the Chicago spiritualists, I reproached my acquaintance for not realizing that I truly doubt everything about the charlatans and exploiters of easily convinced fools.

"But not all spiritualists belong to the category of rascals," Ja...v interrupted.

I proposed to Ja...v that we go together to a seance of one of the mediums, but the hour was late, and probably all magicians were busy with beer by that time.

Dostoevsky referred to Ogorodnikov's book because he agreed with the traveler's low opinion of spiritualism. Another reference to the travel book was made in The Devils when Shatov discussed labor conditions in America.(15) The writer's mentioning of spiritualism in the novel is unusual because the occult science is rare in his prose writings. He usually expressed the fantastic through dreams.

One of the most famous dreams in Dostoevsky's novels is in The Brothers Karamazov: "The Devil: Ivan's Nightmare". There are references to spiritualism in the dream, which takes place in candlelight with a demon dressed possibly like a medium. The devil's statements about spiritualism refer to the Western occult science which was so popular in the country. The devil speaks of himself as a spirit and jokes that Ivan seems to think that he is dreaming. At various times Ivan himself calls the demonic visitor a phantom, a hallucination and a ghost. In his Diary of a Writer (Jan. 1876, Ch.3), Dostoevsky associated devils with spiritualism:

I should like to bring my January diary to a close with something more joyful. There is a humorous theme, and it is important; it is in vogue; namely, the topic of devils, of spiritism... Clergymen are raising their voices; they are instructing science itself not to bother with magic, not to investigate 'that witchery.' And if the clergy have raised their voices, it means that the thing has reached momentous proportions... But the trouble is: are there devils?... My trouble is that I do not believe in devils and it is a pity since I have formed a clear and remarkable theory about spiritism, but one based exclusively on devils: without them my theory is valueless...

Dostoevsky goes into detail in a humorous manner to explain his theory. He states that the basis of the devils' kingdom is discord and that their purpose is to sow discord among us. His definition could well have been taken from Chulkov's eighteenth-century Dictionary of Russian Superstitions(16) which maintains that discord is the raison d'etre of devils. Dostoevsky concludes that evil spirits had already caused much trouble in the new science of spiritualism. Many people had already been persecuted because of their belief in the popular science. The writer referred to the Scientific Committee on Spiritistic Phenomena in St. Petersburg which was formed to study spiritualism.(17) He claimed that devils had already caused much discord in the committee's work. Instead of fighting back, the devils had surrendered and had done nothing. Consequently, the people who believed that tables could fly had been ridiculed. Then, when the committee turned its back in disgust, the devils did something else that again convinced the adherents of spiritualism that they were correct after all. Of course, such an event caused the proceedings to start all over again. Seances, failure and ridicule, Dostoevsky claimed that it was all working just the way the devils wanted it. He ended his remarks with the following:

...Of course, I have been jesting and laughing from the first to the last word; however, here is what I wish to say in conclusion: if one is to consider spiritualism as something which has a new creed (and almost all spiritualists, even the sanest among them, are somewhat inclined toward such a view) several of the above remarks could be accepted as true... For this reason, may God bring a hasty success to an open investigation by both sides; that alone will eradicate as soon as possible the stench that is going around, and it might enrich science with new discoveries. But the shouting, defaming and expulsion of each other from society because of spiritualism ...that, in my opinion, ... is intolerance and persecution. And that is precisely what the devils want!

Dostoevsky must have been satisfied when the official governmental committee investigating spiritualism under the supervision of the noted chemist D.N. Mendeleev announced that it did not find a basis for the claims made by spiritualists.(18)

Devils played a considerable role in Dostoevsky's works. It has been pointed out by Robert Belknap that those evil forces form a veritable subtext in The Brothers Karamazov.(19) Dostoevsky's interest in devils and spirits is especially evident in the short story Bobok, which was written toward the end of his career and included in his Diary of a Writer in 1873. Bobok is a critic's delight. It has Poe's blending of the irrational with the realistic: the hero overhears the conversation of the dead in a cemetery; it has Hoffmann's exaggerations: noises coming from graves, etc.; it has the decadence of Baudelaire: the dying dead romp in a final orgy of debauchery; and the story has Gogol's mixture of fantasy and morality: the dead question the purpose of their lives and discuss the nature of morality itself. Bobok has even been compared stylistically to Gogol's The Dream of a Madman.(20) There is also reason to believe that Dostoevsky's attendance at seances influenced his writing of the tale. He went to mediumistic meetings during the 1860s and several seances from that period were recorded by Miss Tjutchev, the lady-in-waiting at the court of Alexander II mentioned above.(21) Certain aspects of Dostoevsky's story are similar to Miss Tjutchev's descriptions. In both, sounds are muffled. The hero of Bobok has trouble discerning the voices from the graves and Miss Tjutchev speaks of the faint sounds of the various phenomena she witnessed. More important is the pointlessness and stupidity of the communication of the spirits. One character in Bobok comments that "You can't imagine what an absence of wit there is here;" and a philosopher is noted for muttering a few irrelevant words each week. Other characters use the words "stupid" and "nonsensical" to describe their conversations. Miss Tjutchev concludes that the spirit world is indeed dull because of the absurdity of the spirits' comments. She found the "voices from the other world" to be abusive, foolish and senseless. For her, spiritualism was fascinating, but fatuous. Dostoevsky, it appears, agreed. In fact, Bobok could be interpreted as a parody of a seance where the absurd is placed on a par with empirical reality.

Dostoevsky's interest in spiritualism is evident in his life and literature. Father Ferapont's devils in The Brothers Karamazov indicate the author's knowledge of the Russian folkloric tradition and aspects of Bobok and Crime and Punishment show the writer's familiarity with mediums and seances. Dostoevsky did not believe in spiritualism, but the occult science did have an influence on his writings.


1. H. Troyat, Pushkin, (New York: Doubleday, 1970), p. 308.
2. V.A. Zhukovskij, Sochinenija, (St. Petersburg, 1885), pp. 111-127.
3. A.F. Tjutchev, Pri dvore dvukh irnperatorov, (Moscow: M.S. Sabashnikov, 1928), p. 147.
4. For a discussion of mediums in Russian literature, see: T.E. Berry, Spiritualism in Russian Society and Literature, (Nordland Press International, 1981).
5. Rebus, 1885, 25, p. 230.
6. Ibid.
7. F.M. Dostoevskij, Dnevnik pisatelja za 1876 god, (Paris: YMCA Press, 1940), V.H, pp. 139-140.
8. F.M. Dostoevskij, Polnoe sobranie sochinenij v tridcati tomakh, (Leningrad: Izdatel'stvo "Nauka," 1972), v. 12, p. 293.
9. Dostoevskij: "Pis'ma" (Moscow: Goslitizdat, 1959), v. IV, p. 350.
10. Ibid., p. 350.
11. Ibid., pp. 10-11.
12. V. Astrov, "Dostoevskij on Edgar Allan Poe," American Literature, v. XIV (1942), p. 72
13. Op.cit., Dostoevskij, "Polnoe sobranie sochinenij v tridcati tomakh," v. 10, p. 112.
14. P.I. Ogorodnikov, Ot Nju Jorka do San Francisko i obratno v Rossiju. (St. Petersburg: Kolesova i Mikhin, 1872), pp. 304-308.
15. Op.cit., Dostoevksij, "Polnoe sobranie sochinenij, v. 12, p.293.
16. M. Chulkov, Abevera Russkikh sueverij, (Moscow: Tipografija F. Gippius, 1789).
17. E.H. Britten, Nineteenth Century Miracles; or Spirits and Their Work in Every Country of the Earth. (New York: Lovell, 1884), p. 354.
18. Ibid., p. 359.
19. R.L. Belknap, The Structure of 'The Brothers Karamazov', (The Hague: Mouton & Co., 1967) pp. 34-40.