Visitors of Dostoevsky Exhibit in US Offered to Decide if Writer Was 'Man of God'
WASHINGTON (Sputnik) - To celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of iconic Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky the University of Iowa is hosting an exhibition covering his life and literary career which invites American visitors to decide whether the renowned author was a man of God, professor of Russian literature, Anna Barker, told Sputnik.
Dostoevsky was born in Moscow on November 11, 1821, into the family of a doctor. The author of such prominent novels as "Crime and Punishment," "The Idiot," "The Possessed," and "The Brothers Karamazov," Dostoevsky is nearly the most read and well-known Russian writer abroad
The University of Iowa professor said the exhibition, entitled, "From Revolutionary Outcast to a Man of God: Dostoevsky at 200
," has already been attended by more than 4,300 visitors since it opened in August.
When asked whether, after leaving the exhibition, a person gets an answer to why Dostoevsky is a man of God, Barker said, "It's up to them to discover."
"Of course, The 'Man of God' refers to this slightly derogative nickname that Rakitin gives to Alyosha Karamazov in Brothers Karamazov. He always calls him Alyosha Bojiy Chelovek, the little ‘Man of God’," Barker said. "There's been also anecdotal evidence of students showing up at the exhibition, like once a week and just reading a small section and then leaving and then coming back because they want to just slowly digest it and process it so that it wouldn't be all overwhelming at the same time."
Barker asks the question: "What is it in Dostoevsky that makes him a man of God?"
"It's not an easy answer, because Dostoevsky is not an easy writer. But I want readers to walk out of this exhibition, wanting to read more, wanting to know more and wanting to come to their own conclusions," Barker said.
Barker pointed out that the Man of God section is in Sonechka Marmeladova reading the story of the resurrection of Lazarus to Raskolnikov in "Crime And Punishment."
"It's amazing we hear reverberations of that in Brothers Karamazov, where Mitya all of a sudden saying, 'I've been resurrected through my concession,'" she noted. "And of course, in the figure of Myshkin, who is a very Christ-like character, this beautiful human being who's trying to help absolutely everyone, but because he's human, he can't. And in a character like the old man Dolgoruky, the legal father of Arkady Dolgoruky. And then, of course, in someone like Alyosha Karamazov, but also in someone like Kolenka Krasotkin, who raised in the novel, that he is a socialist and he's an atheist. But then at the end he wants to believe in life everlasting."
Barker also stressed that a great deal of discussion centers on the character of Father Zosima, who is a quintessential, crucial character in Brothers Karamazov.
"I decided to have a soundtrack for this exhibition, and we burned eight CDs of Russian Church music by Russian composers. We are playing the works of Tchaikovsky, Rakhmaninov, Chesnokov. I know that there are library employees who sometimes come to the exhibition space to just listen to the music because they love it so much," she added.
Barker said when approaching Dostoevsky's work people should start with "Poor Folk" and then work their way up to "Brothers Karamazov" because it is just an apotheosis of his writing.
"When students say they don't have time to read all of Tolstoy, and ask what would be the only work to read, I always say, 'War and Peace,' because it's just such a massive accomplishment," she said. "When my students tell me, so with Dostoevsky, should I just read 'Brothers Karamazov,' I just scream, 'No!' Because with Brothers Karamazov, you literally see the building blocks of that novel from very early on."
Barker, a board member of Iowa City, which is a UNESCO City of Literature, shared that she has been doing literary celebrations of various writers, mostly Russian authors, in Iowa City since 2010, including marking the 100th anniversary of the death of Leo Tolstoy.
"For Dostoevsky’s 200th, and he happens to be my favorite writer, I really felt that we need to just go all out. I wrote a proposal two years ago to put together an entire exhibition dedicated just to Dostoevsky," she noted, adding that the preparations have been challenged by the COVID-19. "We had to use only books that were contained in the University of Iowa library because doing inter-library loan was completely impossible in the time of COVID. And we were so limited in our research that even though we were putting together a library exhibition, we couldn't even access the library shelves until January of 2021."
Barker stressed that they aimed to organize the gallery space in a way where an interested exhibit viewer would gain a comprehensive understanding of the life and work of Dostoevsky, and the exhibition was geared not just towards Dostoevsky experts and fanatics but toward just a general reader who would want to be more deeply acquainted with his work.
‘’I really felt that the front vitrine, which is very large and can be seen from the corridor of the library, should just be an invitation to Russian culture," Barker said. "So, it has birch trees. It has Russian shawls, it has a samovar, it has St. Petersburg porcelain and some pancakes. And why pancakes? It is basically an invitation to a Russian pancake party because 'The Brothers Karamazov' ends with Alyosha Karamazov inviting the boys to come to a pancake party at Ilyushechka's Funeral."
Barker noted that the description of the front vitrine involves a write up about the Russian traditions of pancake eating and tea drinking, Boris Kustodiev’s painting the "Merchant's Wife at Tea" (1918) and Isaac Levitan’s "Birch Grove" (1889).
The exhibition then follows the life of Dostoevsky counterclockwise, Barker went on to say, from the first portrait of Dostoevsky to his birth in Moscow.
"I have five vitrines that are dedicated to the early pre-Siberian years: the first one is parents and childhood, the second one is the literary of 'Poor Folk,'" she explained. "The next one is 'The Double,' and to what extent this book influenced writers in the west, another vitrine is about 'White Nights' and the last in the first five is dedicated to the imprisonment - the mock execution and exile to Siberia. Then, there is a corner dedicated to Siberia years from the 'Dead House' to the first marriage."
The exhibition then follows Dostoevsky 's life to the post-Siberia years, marriage, the publication of 'Humiliated and Insulted,' 'Winter Notes of Summer Impressions' and his two trips abroad, the professor continued to say, noting that at that point the exhibition is divided into two parts.
"The viewers transition to 'Notes from the Underground' and the whole history of Dostoevsky’s writing [and] 'The Gambler' because it's very important in his personal life as well, since it was dictated to his future wife," she said. "I have her memoirs on display, and a number of items on display that are related to that time period. I have a record of Prokofiev’s opera Gambler, which happened to be based on Dostoevsky’s 'The Gambler.' Fascinating, Janacek and Prokofiev are the only two composers in history who wrote their substantial musical work based on both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky."
Barker said that a huge portrait of Anna Grigoryevna and a number of excerpts from her diary about their early meeting are also displayed at the exhibit.
On the other side of the exhibition space, she added, there are also five vitrines exhibiting Dostoevsky’s five prophetic novels at the end of his life.
"We're very lucky because the University of Iowa owns all five of these novels in English translations. So, we have all of these books on display, and they were printed in limited edition of 500 copies each," she added.
Moreover, the exhibition has a display showing the afterlife of Dostoevsky - the books he inspired and the authors he influenced - and another showing his personal accounts, including diaries and letters.
Barker said that in every display case they have some important book from the University of Iowa Archives and Special Collections, including the German translation of 'The Double,' 19th century travel guides to Russia, as well as a book published in Paris in 1854.
"At the same time, in every case, we have the copy of the same novel that is in print today that they can acquire in their local bookstore or order from Amazon, because I wanted readers to admire these very unusual special books that we have on display, which they can't take home. They cannot be taken out of the library. They can only be viewed in the Special Collections reading room," she added. "But I wanted the readers or the viewers of the exhibition to realize that all of these books are in print."
Interest in Dostoevsky Today
Barker pointed out that with Dostoevsky, his name precedes him. People have heard the name.
"There are so many jokes associated with the name and the association with Dostoevsky: It’s always like so depressing, and it's so dark - he writes these psychological books that are just disturbing. And then, I get emails or texts from them saying, 'Anna, it's like midnight. And I'm reading Demons, and I'm laughing hysterically. Am I okay?' I email them back and I say, 'That's fantastic. You understand Dostoevsky. He's hilarious. There's nothing dark in Dostoevsky.'"
Barker said she tells people who come to the exhibition as well as to her students that Dostoevsky shows us the complexity of what it means to be human beings.
"Dostoevsky, because of his life experiences, was willing to hear everyone's story," she stressed. "He understands that human beings are capable of anything. Human beings are capable of the most horrendous crimes. But at the same time, Dostoevsky believes that there is light in every human being, and he always has the faith in the light of us human beings. And so students immediately start relating to the brighter side of Dostoevsky - the fact that he's so funny, he's so relatable."
Barker shared that she is teaching "The Brothers Karamazov" on Facebook to almost 1,000 people from all over the world including Brazil, Australia, Pakistan, Malaysia, Europe, Georgia, and from all over the US.
"I always tell my students that you can understand any of his writing. You do not need to have any preparatory work… Dostoevsky will speak to you personally. You do not need a filter," she said. "I give them so much freedom to find themselves in Dostoevsky, that they fall in love with the books."
Eventually, she added, readers find it way too relatable, that Dostoevsky is telling such incredible truths about what we are as human beings, "that we are taken aback."
"We are almost insulted by his honesty. But once we accept the fact that we are not perfect, that we have all of these incredibly pathetic laws in us, but that our humanity is much more complex than we are willing to even admit to ourselves," she added.
When asked about the future for Dostoevsky's heritage, Barker responds with the words of Begemot in Mikhail Bulgakov's novel "The Master and Margarita."
"I protest. Dostoevsky is immortal," Barker said.
On November 11, Barker shared, they will have a party to honor Dostoevsky’s birthday.
"We’ll have a pancake party with Russian tea. We'll have Samovar, we'll have Russian pancakes," she revealed. "And I asked the choir of the Russian Orthodox Church or the Eastern Orthodox Church in Iowa City to come and sing some celebratory hymns inside the space. I'm going to bring American silly birthday hats for everyone. So we are going to be like, as silly as he would want us to be. We'll wear silly hats. We'll sing silly songs, we'll sing in Russian, and we'll have pancakes."
Dostoevsky died on February 9, 1881, and was buried at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery. He was popular during his lifetime, but enduring worldwide fame came only after death. His legacy can hardly be overstated. His novels have had a profound influence on Russian and world literature. UNESCO ranks Dostoevsky among the few authors whose creations belong to all nations and to all times.