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Dostoevsky Reads Hegel in Siberia and Bursts into Tears
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Common Knowledge 10.1 (2004) 93-104

In the spring of 1854, after four years of forced labor, Dostoevsky was stationed as a private on the big Asian "North Slope," in Semipalatynsk, which is in the south of Siberia. The town, a bit larger than a village, had a population of approximately five thousand, half of them nomad Kirgiz, most living in yurtas. The inhabitants did not identify with European Russians, referring to them as "people from the motherland" and regarding them with suspicion. Their numbers, however, grew continually: the number of those exiled between 1827 and 1846 increased to 159,000.

The town was surrounded by a plain sand desert, no trees or bushes, only sand and thistles. Dostoevsky lived here, in a large but low house, in which there stood a bed, table, and chest; and on the wall hung a small, framed mirror. Here, he made friends with the local public prosecutor, twenty-one-year-old Aleksandr Yegorovich Wrangel, who unselfishly supported him for more than ten years after they first met. Dostoevsky outlined his stories for Wrangel, and recited his favorite poems of Pushkin and hummed famous arias for him. They did not talk much about religion—although Dostoevsky was God-fearing, he did not attend church and disliked priests. Still, of Christ he spoke with deepest admiration. He worked steadily on the manuscript of House of the Dead, into which Wrangel was permitted to peek from time to time. In return for this favor, the public prosecutor supplied Dostoevsky with books. Soon they began to study, assiduously, day after day. Wrangel does not disclose in his memoir the name of the book that they were studying. He only mentions its author's name: Hegel.

We do not know which book of Hegel's that Wrangel, who subscribed to the Augsburger Allgemeine Zeitung, ordered for Dostoevsky from Germany. So let us select one: the lectures on the philosophy of history, which Hegel delivered between the autumn of 1822 and the spring of 1831 at the University of Berlin. His lecture series was concurrent with the arrival of ten thousand exiles in Siberia. The lectures were first published in book form in 1837; then in 1840, a new revised edition appeared. It is possible that Wrangel, after some browsing, may have ordered this book, because in it Hegel mentions Siberia. True, it is only a few words—and they explain why Hegel will not be discussing Siberia. He commences his discussion of Asia: "We must first of all eliminate Siberia, the northern slope of Asia. For it lies outside the scope of our enquiry. The whole character of Siberia rules it out as a setting for historical culture and prevents it from attaining a distinct form in the world-historical process."

Imagine Dostoevsky's stupefaction when, as he read by tallow light, he came upon this passage. We can imagine his despair when he had to face the fact that, in Europe, no one thought his suffering for an idea important—an idea for which he had been sentenced to death but then exiled. He was suffering in Siberia, a location beyond the pale of history and therefore, from the European perspective, beyond redemption. Dostoevsky felt that he had not simply been exiled to Siberia; he had been relegated to nonentity. From that place, only a miracle—one that Hegel and modern Europe believed wholly impossible—could redeem him. The European spirit acknowledged sonorously the existence of God yet rejected the thought that God could issue, not only universal commands, but individualized unique rulings as well. The European spirit, which placed natural law above all other kinds—and which denied, as Dostoevsky would later put it, the possibility of revolt against two times two—accepted the modern constitutional state, declared its timeless validity, and forgot that no law governs the creation of law.

It is entirely possible that, when Dostoevsky learned that he was cut off from history (and took offense at the notion), he determined that sheer existence has dimensions that cannot be historically denoted and leave no historical trace. When a person who feels, who experiences, the weight of sheer existence is exiled from...



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