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Reviewed by:
  • Dostoevsky's Democracy
  • Anne Eakin Moss
Nancy Ruttenburg. Dostoevsky's Democracy. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2008. Print. 275 pp.

Nancy Ruttenburg's monograph about Notes from the House of the Dead, Feodor Dostoevsky's quasi-autobiographical novel based on his ten-year Siberian exile, offers an exemplary model for the mutually illuminating study of literature and philosophy. Ruttenburg reads this text as a complex narrative about the political and philosophical implications of the complete stripping of identity, including rank, profession and citizenship, and forced merger with the common criminals enacted in the camps, or katorga. Through Ruttenburg's analysis, Notes from the House of the Dead can be seen as the beginning of an investigation into the ontology of crime that Dostoevsky continued through the rest of his great novels, and as a foundational statement about what she calls Dostoevsky's “democracy”—a utopian notion of populist community contingent not on individual liberation but on self-estrangement and “desubjectification” (158).

On December 22, 1849, Dostoevsky was led to the Semenovsky Parade Ground with fifteen of his co-conspirators in the radical Petrashevsky circle, a group committed to reform of the autocratic Russian state and particularly the emancipation of the serfs. The tsar's death sentence was read to the men. Dostoevsky watched in the second group, as the first group of three was led before the firing squad. As the soldiers prepared to fire, a tsarist aide-de-camp rode onto the scene to deliver the tsar's pardon—a commutation of the death sentence to, in Dostoevsky's case, four years in a hard-labor camp [End Page 1126] and a total of ten years of internal exile (31). This was the last act in a performance orchestrated from start to finish by Tsar Nicholas the First, and an overpoweringly effective act of sovereign revenge accomplished by sovereign pardon. Dostoevsky returned from the camps a convinced monarchist and Christian. Notes from the House of the Dead, published in 1861 upon his return to St. Petersburg, has traditionally been seen as a narrative of his conversion experience, considered the result of the unfathomable brutality to which he bore witness.

Ruttenburg proposes that rather than a realization of faith in light of hardship, Dostoevsky underwent a process of the taking apart of the self in response to his confrontation with the “radical otherness” (39) of the peasantry under these conditions. Invoking, but critiquing, Giorgio Agamben's Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Ruttenburg shows the ways in which Dostoevsky understood the mock execution staged for him by the tsar and his subsequent exile almost literally as reduction to the “bare life” of the homo sacer who can be “killed but not sacrificed” as a result of the sovereign's ban (Agamben 83). In Notes from the House of the Dead, Dostoevsky articulates a response to this experience by means of what Ruttenburg terms “the unconsummated image of a narrating self progressively undone as he progresses through his narrative” (34). Ruttenburg locates in the careful framing of the House of the Dead (it is posited as the found prison memoir of a nobleman convicted for wife-murder, edited and framed by another embedded narrator) the genesis of Dostoevsky's celebrated dialogical narrator and polyphonic novel.

She also finds in the House of the Dead a specific historical chronotope for Agamben's state of exception that has the potential to revise his paradigm. For Agamben, the ability of the sovereign to cast an individual out of the sphere of law and into this space of exception makes bare life (zoe, rather than bios, political life) the defining basic unit of Western politics. In Agamben's view, the liberal state's presumptive claim to define and protect “human rights” represents the original sin of political sovereignty, totalitarian or democratic, one that leads inexorably to the concentration camps. The resonance of the experience of katorga in Dostoevsky's telling with the state of exception despite the profound historical difference of Russian imperial politics (which were definitively not founded on a conception of human rights), however, prompts Ruttenburg to examine “the ways in which historically the biopolitical realization of ‘human equality' exceeds the abstract...


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