IN HIS EXUBERANT and terrifying account of a decade-long journey into the dark heart of contemporary Russia’s media-political complex, Peter Pomerantsev relates an incident in which a group of factory workers pledge their support to President Putin on television “via live video-link”:
But then it turns out the workers don’t actually exist; the whole thing is a piece of playacting organized by local political technologists (because everyone is a political technologist now), the TV spinning off to someplace where there is no reference point back to reality, where puppets talk to holograms when both are convinced they are real, where nothing is true and everything is possible. And the result of all this delirium is a curious sense of weightlessness.
Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible was too good a formulation to leave it buried in the text; it had to be the title of Pomerantsev’s book, which hit the shelves in 2014. What words could better capture the distinctly postmodern atmosphere in which Russians now find themselves? Indeed, “Everything is founded on appearance in Russia; whence it is that everything inspires mistrust.” So wrote the Marquis de Custine while visiting the country in 1839, long before Pomerantsev’s time and, for that matter, long before Baudrillard theorized of “simulacra.” Plus ça change …
But it isn’t just Western visitors (and Kyiv-born, London-raised Pomerantsev is essentially that) who’ve noted, and been haunted by, the uncanny fraudulence and immateriality of Russia’s façades. Exactly a decade before de Custine’s visit, the Russian nobleman Pyotr Chaadayev wrote a series of “Philosophical Letters Addressed to a Lady,” admonishing his fellow Russians to “glance around.” “Does anyone,” he asked, “have a firm footing?”
Our memories reach back no further than yesterday; we are, as it were, strangers to ourselves. […] This is the natural consequence of a culture that is entirely imported and imitative. We have no internal development, no natural progress; new ideas sweep out the old, because they are not derived from the old but show up out of nowhere. We accept only ready-made ideas, and so those indelible traces that are left in the intellect by the progressive development of thought, that build mental power, never furrow our minds.
One traditional response to this “curious sense of weightlessness,” which Chaadayev felt in 1829 and Pomerantsev described, mutatis mutandis, in the 2010s, is a sort of reaction formation — to blame Russia’s ails on the “ready-made ideas” infecting its people’s minds and, by extension, on the source of those ideas, the West. This was the line taken by the Slavophiles and pochvenniks (“native soil” conservatives) in the mid-19th century. Russia, they insisted, had a firm basis for its civilization: the collective values of Orthodox Christianity and of the village. The rejection of this solid foundation in favor of foreign ideals, be they radical individualism, materialism, utilitarianism, or the false collectivisms of “utopian” and “scientific” socialism, could only lead to disaster.
For these reactionaries, nowhere was the falsity of Russia’s “imported and imitative” culture more palpable than in that most chimerical of cities, foggy St. Petersburg, built by imperial fiat on a swamp in the inhospitable north. And at no point did they feel the threat of foreign “ready-made ideas” more keenly than in the 1860s, a period of seething generational conflict, revolutionary activism, and national uprisings on the edges of empire.
Squarely in the middle of that decade, a middle-aged, bereaved, and cash-strapped Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote to Mikhail Katkov, the conservative editor of The Russian Messenger (Russkii vestnik), from Wiesbaden, proposing a story for his journal. In the introduction to his dazzlingly agile and robust new translation of Crime and Punishment, the novel that would grow out of that proposal with remarkable speed, Oliver Ready quotes from Dostoyevsky’s letter:
A contemporary setting, this current year (1865). A young man, excluded from student status at university, of trading class, living in extreme poverty, succumbs, through frivolity and ricketiness of thought, to certain strange, “half-baked” ideas in the air, and makes up his mind to get out of his foul situation in a single bound.
In both conception and execution, Crime and Punishment was very much a reactionary work, a probe into what Dostoyevsky saw as the pathologies of modern urban existence: “half-baked” imported ideas that, when taken to their extremes, justify atrocities. Alcoholism, prostitution, usury: all were the consequences of alienation from the proper foundation of Russian life, alienation from God, alienation from the community. As Ready points out, the novel’s central character, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov — whose surname alludes to the schism (raskol) that affected the Orthodox Church in the mid-17th century, as well as to his fateful axe-blows — is no more divided than any other character in Dostoyevsky’s world. Even the portrait of the saintly prostitute Sonya Marmeladova, to whom Raskolnikov confesses his guilt and who may facilitate his salvation, is tinged with darkness by her descent into sin — a descent conditioned by the forces of a decrepit and debauched civilization.
Ready’s introduction teases out the novel’s ideological and literary subtexts engagingly, succinctly, and with great nuance. Just as importantly, it hints at what pushes the novel beyond the limitations of its author’s ideological convictions: the fact that Dostoyevsky’s text is as riven, as raving, as irreducible as its characters and their milieu. One can speculate, but only speculate, on some of the causes of this irreducibility: the depth of Dostoyevsky’s empathy for the deluded Raskolnikov (the author was, after all, a socialist revolutionary manqué in his youth); the haste with which he was forced to write in order to stay one step ahead of his creditors (and, of course, one shouldn’t forget that Raskolnikov’s intended victim is a pawnbroker); and even his epileptic fits (as Ready writes, one “can argue [following the late J. L. Rice] that they were a creative tonic”). The causes condense and the novel spins off into polyphony, to be so easily — and productively — “misread” or read selectively over the next century and a half by existentialists and psychoanalysts, Orthodox fundamentalists and atheists, orthodox Marxists and neoconservatives.
The challenges that this polyphony poses to a translator are staggering. The brave soul must shuttle back and forth between the gestalt — the great unwieldy whole — and its parts, sinking into scenes of violence and casual terror, into fever dreams, into the dramas — little and big — of conversations in tenements and police stations. Ready, who has a practiced ear for Russian dialect and a natural grace with English, is exceptionally deft at navigating these challenges. I’ll point to one instance in which a translator must take note of a number of elements (the structure of dream logic, the use of dialect and folkloric reference, and vividness of imagery) and be honest to them all without bursting the reader’s suspension of disbelief — without, as it were, waking the reader up. In Part I, Chapter 5, Raskolnikov dreams of a scene from childhood — a cart-driver has overloaded his cart with passengers and is beating his nag, urging her to move when she clearly can’t manage:
“Daddy! Daddy!” he shouts to his father. “What are they doing, Daddy? Daddy, they’re beating the poor little horse!”
“Come on, boy!” says the father. “Just drunken idiots fooling around: off we go, boy, don’t look!” — and tries to lead him away, but he breaks free of his grasp and, quite beside himself, runs to the horse. But the poor little horse is in a bad way. She’s struggling for breath, stops, gives another tug and almost falls.
“Flog ‘er till she drops!” shouts Mikolka. “She’s asking for it. I’ll flog ‘er dead!”
“Where’s your fear of God, you mad beast?” yells an old man in the crowd.
A great deal goes right in Ready’s treatment of this nightmare, which continues for another two pages. The father’s pained and abashed dismissal, “Just drunken idiots fooling around,” which he delivers in choked-off fragments in Russian (“пьяные, шалят, дураки”), sounds far fresher and produces a far more poignant effect than previous efforts: “They are drunken and foolish, they are in fun” (Constance Garnett, 1914); “They’re drunk, playing mischief, the fools” (David McDuff, 1991); “They’re drunk, they’re playing pranks, the fools” (Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, 1992). “They are in fun,” is, of course, hopelessly dated, while “playing mischief” and “pranks,” though close translations of the verb “шалить,” are not really appropriate to the situation or to the father’s register or mental state.
The “mad beast,” too, is an inspired choice. The Russian original has the old man calling Mikolka a “леший (leshii),” that is, a “wood demon” — a creature from the Russian pagan past, which worked its way into the syncretic faith of the village but, by the 19th century, was, for the most part, an element of idiomatic speech. For instance, to send someone to the wood demon is to send them to hell. Under certain circumstances, where the wood demon’s attributes are central to the exposition of a scene, a translator might want to preserve his presence — but here, where he is very much part of an idiom, suggesting wildness and inhumanity, Ready’s rendition works perfectly, allowing us to speed through the passage nervously, just as we ought to.
When the mare finally collapses, we too ought to feel the earth slip out from under us. Ready’s final coup, composed almost entirely of pounding monosyllables, accomplishes just that: “the bar comes crashing down on her spine once more and she falls to the ground, as if her four legs had all been hacked off at once.” This version is as vivid and economical as the original: “лом снова со всего размаху ложится ей на спину, и она падает на землю, точно ей подсекли все четыре ноги разом.” Earlier versions have either reduced the image to a cliché or were too verbose and uninventive to retain its energy: “the bar fell again with a swinging blow on her back and she fell on the ground like a log” (Garnett); “the crowbar again came down on her back, and she fell to the ground, as if all her four legs had been cut away from under her at once” (McDuff); “another full swing of the crowbar lands on her back, and she falls to the ground as if all four legs had been cut from under her” (Pevear and Volokhonsky). Ready’s “crashing” and “hacked off” may seem like small differences, but they are the very legs a good translation stands on.
Previous reviewers of Ready’s translation, which appeared in the United Kingdom last year, have pointed out countless other felicitous choices and individual successes, like his treatment of Dostoyevsky’s humor — particularly in the speech of Raskolnikov’s friend, Razumikhin, and in the cruel baiting of the chief investigator, Porfiry Petrovich — but it is Ready’s grander success that ought to be applauded, his ability to reproduce the whole heady brew of Dostoyevsky’s novel in a consistent but nimble modern English.
What he does especially well is conjure the eerie sense of unreality and uncertainty — that limbo of indecision, where dreams and waking life switch places without notice, where motivations and acts get hopelessly muddled — that lends such peculiar gravity to Dostoyevsky’s work. Consider this passage, in which Raskolnikov inches closer to his crime:
He hadn’t far to go; he even knew how many steps it was from the gates of his building: seven hundred and thirty. He’d counted them out once, letting his dreams run wild. At the time he still didn’t believe in these dreams himself, and merely tormented himself with their hideous but alluring audacity. But now, a month later, he was beginning to see things differently, and for all his taunting soliloquies about his own weakness and indecision he had somehow, without even meaning to, grown used to perceiving his “hideous” dream as an actual venture, while still not believing his own intentions. Now, he was even on his way to carry out a test of his venture, and his excitement grew with each step.
Shaking with nerves, his heart in his mouth …
Instead of pointing out that “letting his dreams run wild” is a better local solution for the word “размечтался” (which refers to runaway hopeful, rather than nocturnal, visions) than Garnett’s “lost in dreams,” McDuff’s “doing rather a lot of dreaming,” or Pevear and Volokhonsky’s “far gone in his dreaming” — or that ending the paragraph on the crucial word “step,” which none of the other translators do, is inspired — I would urge the reader to assess the passage as a whole. In his introduction, Ready quotes Virginia Woolf’s reaction to Dostoyevsky’s novels in “The Russian Point of View” (1925): “Against our wills we are drawn in, whirled round, blinded, suffocated, and at the same time filled with a giddy rapture.” Ready has delivered Dostoyevsky’s “whirlpools, gyrating sandstorms, waterspouts” to the modern reader without losing a grain or a drop.
Today, when global youth is at least as thoroughly alienated as it was in Dostoyevsky’s time, when “half-baked” ideas circulate instantaneously, and when President Putin’s televised puppetry is simply the crudest and most transparently cynical example of the genre on the airwaves, the “curious sense of weightlessness” is spreading. Whether or not we subscribe to Dostoyevsky’s solutions, his diagnosis of the condition is as relevant and revealing as ever.