“Mathematical belief is the hardest to convince someone of. Thomas believed because he wanted to believe. I didn’t want to believe and did not believe.” — Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Last December, the Los Angeles Review of Books published my essay “Dostoyevsky Misprisioned: The House of the Dead and American Prison Literature.” In it I tracked down the origin of a famous quote repeatedly attributed to the Russian author: “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” These words were never written or uttered by Dostoyevsky. They first appeared in English in the second half of the 1960s and served as the motto for a prison reform newsletter and organization. Since then they have been cited by countless “activists, lawyers, senators, judges, writers, journalists (from The New York Times to the Los Angeles Times to the Guardian), and scholars (but, tellingly, not by Dostoyevsky experts).” Ironically, in the early 2000s, the statement was translated “back” into Russian and was even ostentatiously hung above the entrance to a women’s penal colony in Kaliningrad; a visitor to the colony suggested that “it is possibly due to this slogan that we are at 100% production capacity!”
Having resolved the issue, I had hoped the Dostoyevsky attribution might rest in peace. Indeed, on May 14, 2020, the words were cited by Justice Sotomayor, but, as a friend assured me, thanks to my essay in LARB, the Justice did not ascribe them to Dostoyevsky.
Recently, my hopes were dashed.
Two weeks ago, my distinguished Princeton colleague Professor Peter Brooks wrote to me that Michelle Alexander had quoted Dostoyevsky’s words again in her excellent op-ed for The New York Times, “America, This Is Your Chance.” I decided to send a brief correction to the section’s editor; he did not respond. I resent it to another editor and finally received a kind acknowledgment from a third: “thank you! you will hear from us soon.” Several days passed and I emailed again to inquire about the status of the correction. “We sent it to a third party,” I was told. Several days later, I received a request from the editor asking to confirm whether my “finding” was now a “consensus in my industry.” Most certainly, I responded. “Was there any pushback?” the editor followed up. No, not to the best of my knowledge, I responded, because it’s obvious that Dostoevsky didn’t write these words.
“We just don’t want to correct the corrections if anything is wrong with your correction,” I was told: “we have to prove a thing is true beyond a reasonable doubt.” Yes, I responded, but the truth is that Dostoevsky did not write these words, and it would be unreasonable to continue attributing them to him. “OK,” the editor responded reluctantly, and asked me what I thought about the following correction: “The origin of the quotation is uncertain; Russian literature scholars say that its frequent attribution to Dostoevsky is erroneous.”
Fine as far as it goes, I said, but I did trace its origin, and I can’t pretend to be multi-personal (Russian scholars). While the copydesk chief is still working this case, I decided to get the most authoritative proof I could find.
As my (few) readers know, a decade ago I authored a book titled Ghostly Paradoxes: Modern Spiritualism and Russian Culture in the Age of Realism. And so, being an expert in the field, a couple of nights ago I organized a mini-seance via Zoom in the presence of my wife (a scholar), my daughter (a history major), and my mother-in-law (a former librarian). We summoned the spirit of Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky (FMD), and asked him several questions. The transcript of our brief conversation is enclosed below (in my translation from Russian):
IV: Thank you for joining us,
FMD: My pleasure. As you know, I despise spiritualist seances. They are nothing but devils’ tricks and ruin proper faith [see Dostoevsky’s articles on modern spiritualism in his Writer’s Diary— ed.]. So, please be quick.
IV: I apologize, sir, and I promise to be quick. Everything well over there?
FMD: I’m fine, but I still worry about the world I left behind. It’s in misery.
IV: Did you happen to read the latest NYT op-ed by Michelle Alexander?
FMD: Well, we are not allowed to comment on earthly publications but, as a former prisoner, I can tell you that I think Alexander’s plea is noble and urgent.
IV: Did you write the words, attributed to you in the article, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons”?
FMD: These words are not mine. Can you imagine my using the term “civilization” in a positive sense? Besides, the point I was trying to make in The House of the Dead is that prison, awful is it was, forced my protagonist to reevaluate his past and his secular beliefs, and eventually to bless the fate that enabled his Christian revival. But I agree that our attitude towards prisoners is hugely indicative of our morality.
IV: In that case, since the quote has been used constantly in the West and serves a good cause, would you agree to… endorse it now, rather than completely dismiss it? I mean to grandfather it in, so to speak?
FMD: (after a long pause) Alright … But with a small emendation. These should always be described as my posthumous words, with reference to my current statement, made on —what’s the date down here? Yes, June 16, 2020.
IV: Thank you! It will be my honor to communicate this message, if it isn’t already too late. Just to make sure, what do you think of the following wording? “As Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881) famously said in the late 1960s.”
FMD: Works for me. Please keep me posted. And if your daughter really does want to become a lawyer, ask her to read The House of the Dead.
At that point the connection was lost. Now we await the copydesk’s decision. As we all know, the degree of professionalism of a newspaper is determined by its attitude to fact checking.
Ilya Vinitsky is a professor of Russian literature at Princeton University. He is a 2019–2020 Guggenheim Fellow, working on the cultural biography and political imagination of Ivan Narodny, a Russian-Estonian-American “revolutionist,” arms dealer, journalist, writer, art critic, and promoter.