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Reviewed by:
  • Dostoevsky in Context ed. by Deborah Martinsen, Olga Maiorova
  • Irina Erman
Martinsen, Deborah, and Olga Maiorova, eds. Dostoevsky in Context. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2015. Pp. xxiv+329. $45.95 CDN paperback.

The first volume in the Cambridge University Press “Literature in Context” series to focus on a Russian writer, Deborah Martinsen and Olga Maiorova’s Dostoevsky in Context offers a thoughtfully curated collection of thirty-five short essays that describe Russia as it was experienced by Dostoevsky and his contemporaries. The volume aims to inform students and general readers about the “artistic, journalistic, political, religious, and economic” (1) worlds that Dostoevsky inhabited. In doing so, the essays also examine how Dostoevsky interacted with these contexts and trans-muted his wide-ranging life experiences into his fiction. Thus, while it presents the writer as a man of his epoch who was profoundly shaped by the social and political transformations that Russia underwent during this time, Dostoevsky in Context also highlights Dostoevsky’s unique life trajectory and helps nonspecialist readers appreciate the creativity and vision with which he engaged with the major issues of his day.

The volume presents its own cross section of contemporary Dostoevsky Studies. As the editors explain in their introduction, the essays that have been selected “not only re-examine well-studied contexts (such as Christianity, realism, serfdom, legal practices, revolutionary terrorism, and ‘the woman question’), but they also explore emergent contexts (such as Islam, empire, childhood, gambling, symbolic geography, penal practices, race, and biology)” (3). This makes Dostoevsky in Context particularly valuable as a classroom companion to inform discussion by helping students navigate questions regarding race, empire, or Dostoevsky’s portrayal of Jewish or [End Page 171] Muslim characters, and approach those issues within the Russian context. Further, the expert essays gathered in this volume can prove valuable to specialist readers as succinct summaries of important issues in the field, which can also point to avenues for further scholarly exploration.

The focus and scope of Dostoevsky in Context emerges clearly when we compare it with other important resource texts, such as Kenneth Lanz’s The Dostoevsky Encyclopedia (2004) and The Cambridge Companion to Dostoevskii (2002) edited by W.J. Leatherbarrow. In their introduction, Martinsen and Maiorova also rightfully point to Joseph Frank’s masterful five-volume biography as the starting point for all subsequent discussions of the writer in his time. Their curated approach, however, explicitly differs both from Frank’s exhaustive study and from Lanz’s collection of 248 alphabetically arranged entries, which cover topics ranging from Dostoevsky’s own writings to relevant people, places, literary influences, and key concepts. Dostoevsky in Context is organized into two main parts, with Part One focusing on “Social, Historical, and Cultural Contexts” and a shorter Part Two dealing with “Literature, Journalism, and Languages.” The first part of the book is further divided into four thematic sections, which foreground the changing political, economic, social, and cultural landscape experienced by Dostoevsky and his contemporaries. This sets the main topic for the entire volume, in that it focuses primarily on the country’s transformation during and after the Great Reforms. As the volume concentrates on the 1860s and 1870s, the picture of Dostoevsky it presents is largely that of the post-Siberia author of the major novels and the Diary of a Writer. In this, the collection tailors itself to the classroom, in which Crime and Punishment and the mature novels appear with much greater frequency than Dostoevsky’s early works. Its concentration also decreases overlap with the eleven essays featured in W.J. Leatherbarrow’s The Cambridge Companion to Dostoevskii, which opens with the intellectual and literary influences that shaped Dostoevsky in the 1840s.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Martinsen and Maiorova’s volume is how well it anticipates and addresses major questions that arise in the classroom. The first five essays speak to various aspects of the question: why does such a level of political dissatisfaction persist, and, in fact, even rise to the level of terrorism and revolutionary agitation, after the abolition of serfdom and Alexander II’s other reforms? In the first entry, Richard Wortman discusses the judicial reforms and the...