Dostoevsky as an anti-Semite
Literary anti-Semitism is as old as Western culture itself. A full listing
of writers who have expressed hostility toward Jews and/or Judaism--from
Shakespeare to T.S. Eliot, from Pushkin to Pasternak, etc.--would add up
to a Who's Who of Western literature.1 Undoubtedly, Dostoevsky follows
in this tradition.
It is disparaging, however, that as the true novelist of ideas and Christian
love, Dostoevsky could harbor such ill will towards the Jews. Does this
not discredit everything he has written? This paper will address Dostoevsky's
anti-Semitism through an examination of Isay Fomitch Bumstein in The House
of the Dead, the Messianic idea in The Devils, and 'the little demon' in
The Brothers Karamazov. Furthermore, this paper will question the moral
implications of Dostoevsky's Christian message given his anti-Semitic posture.
It will suggest that while he was indeed an anti-Semite, one can continue
to read Dostoevsky's work without feeling that his message was a complete
Until The House of the Dead, Jews were practically absent from Dostoevsky's
writings.3 But beginning with this book in 1862, the Jew and the Jewish
question assume a place of growing importance in Dostoevsky's thought. The
eight years of military and penal servitude in Siberia expose Dostoevsky
to both criminals and Jews alike. Unlike Gogol, who in his native Ukraine
had observed firsthand the hostility between the Ukrainians and Jews, Dostoevsky
did not have any direct experience with Jews, because there were few Jews
living in St. Petersburg.4
It is in the House of the Dead that Dostoevsky, for the first time, depicts
a Jewish character: Isay Fomitch Bumstein (IV, 61). Dostoevsky pays considerable
attention to this character. Dostoevsky writes, "He was a jeweler by
trade, always had more than enough work from the town...and so escaped hard
labor. Of course, he was a pawnbroker at the same time, and supplied the
whole prison with money at a percentage and on security" (IV, 61).
While there is probably nothing malicious in Dostoevsky's caricature of
Bumstein as a money-lender, this representation reinforces the anti-Semitic
notion that Jews are deceitful and opportunistic. Moreover, in the Russian
context, people who practiced business and finance (bankers, creditors,
etc.) were considered graznye (dirty).
Making Isay Fomitch a moneylender associates him with all the negative
Jewish stereotypes in Russia at that time. Dostoevsky creates the impression
that Isay Fomitch is the only prisoner who engages in money-lending. As
Goldstein contends, "To claim that Isay Fomitch got out of the rigors
of hard labor so that he could merrily go about plying his trade leaves
the reader incredulous."5 Dostoevsky's caricature of Isay Fomitch reinforces
the image of the shrewd Jew who manages to dodge hard work and even garner
Dostoevsky also paints a humorous picture of Isay Fomitch. As Goldstein
states, "The caricature quality of the portrait is potent, and the
intention of the author is unmistakably clear: to laugh at the little Jew
and provoke laughter at his expense."6 Dostoevsky reminds us that Isay
Fomitch is a "skinny, feeble, puny man of around fifty...with a white
body like a chicken's" (IX, pg. 105). Immediately after drawing this
image, Dostoevsky marshals a series of moral traits which stigmatize Isay
Fomitch and to a certain extent, the larger Jewish nation. He calls attention
to Isay Fomitch as "a most comical mixture of naiveté, stupidity,
craft, impudence, good nature, timidity, boastfulness and insistence"
(IX, pg. 106).
Is Dostoevsky being purposefully spiteful to Isay Fomitch because of his
Jewishness or is this just another example of Dostoevsky's xenophobia to
all things non-Slavic? What is clear is that Dostoevsky's portrait of Isay
Fomitch echoes the bigotry-ridden atmosphere of Russia at the end of the
second half of the nineteenth century. One cannot entirely dismiss the hypothesis
that Dostoevsky caricatured the Jew, Isay Fomitch, with an eye to the audience
he hoped to reach.7
While the Jew and the Jewish question enter into Dostoevsky's thoughts
in the 1860's, this decade is also the most prolific period in his literary
career. In addition to writing Notes from the Underground, and The House
of the Dead, Dostoevsky completes Crime and Punishment, The Idiot and in
1871, he finishes The Devils. In addition, this decade is marked by personal
tragedy, gambling, and debts. Beginning in 1862, Dostoevsky makes the first
of several sojourns to Europe and his prolonged stay (from 1867-1871), no
doubt, significantly influences his belief in the Great Russian Messianism.8
The Russian Messianic idea found its most virulent expression in The Devils,
where, in a conversation with Stavrogin, Shatov states:
Reduce God to the attribute of nationality?...On the contrary,
I elevate the nation to God...The people is the body of God. Every nation
is a nation only so long as it has its own particular God, excluding all
other gods on earth without any possible
reconciliation, so long as it believes that by its own God it will conquer
and drive all other gods off the face of the earth. At least that's what
all great nations have believed since the beginning of time, all those
remarkable in any way, those standing in the vanguard of humanity...The
Jews lived solely in expectation of the
true God, and they left this true God to the world...A nation which loses
faith is no
longer a nation. But there is only one truth; consequently, only one nation
can posses the true God...The sole "God bearing" nation is the
Russian nation...(Part II, Ch.I, sect. 7, pg. 265-266).
This passage is important because it acknowledges the debt of the Russian
Messianic idea to Judaic thought. Dostoevsky infers that the Jews have 'passed
the torch' to the Russian people as the 'sole God bearing nation'.9 Dostoevsky's
anti-Semitism is rooted in his belief in the uniqueness of Russia, and his
conviction that Russia was predestined to resurrect all of mankind.10 Dostoevsky
felt that Russian Orthodoxy would emerge victorious over the decadent civilizations
of the West. The belief in the election of Russia as the nation-Messiah
suggests that Dostoevsky would be implacably hostile toward anyone or anything
that challenged this belief. Let it be clear, Dostoevsky condemns not only
the Jews, but also the Poles, the Vatican and the Roman Catholic Church,
the socialist idea, the West, atheism, and materialism. In fact, his contempt
of the Roman Catholic Church is unparalleled in literature.
Once Dostoevsky chose Russia to fulfill the Messianic idea, it was essential
for him to discredit the people who were originally the 'chosen nation'.
As Goldstein notes, "He thus replaces true Messianism, which is universalist,
by its antithesis--a nationalistic, even chauvinistic Messianism."11
At this point, the Jews were no longer the object of laughter and ridicule
for Dostoevsky. Rather, they represented a dark and sinister force detrimental
to the destiny of Russia's historical mission.12 Dostoevsky's answer to
the Jewish question, as seen in The Brothers Karamazov, is to dispel them
through malignant repudiation.
Indeed, no assessment of Dostoevsky as an anti-Semite would be complete
without a consideration of The Brothers Karamazov. While the references
to the Jews are minimal, those images are nonetheless indicative of the
progression of Dostoevsky's perspective of the Jews.
As an introduction to the narrative, Dostoevsky details the life of the
old Karamazov, Fyodor Pavlovich. Dostoevsky writes, "Three or four
years after his wife's death he had gone to the south of Russia and finally
turned up in Odessa, where he spent several years. He made the acquaintance
at first, in his own words, 'of a lot of low Jews, Jewesses and Jewkins...'"(I,
IV, pg. 16). Fyodor Pavlovich, "developed a peculiar faculty for making
and hoarding money" (I, IV, pg. 16). There is a clear association between
Fyodor Pavlovich's dexterity in money matters and his association with the
'Jewkins'.13 Again, Dostoevsky is associating the Jews with negative stereotypes.
If nothing more, the derogatory name-calling highlights Dostoevsky's anti-Semitism.
Fyodor Pavlovich's association with the Jews, however, is not the catamount
reference to them in The Brother Karamazov. In Book eleven, Chapter three,
Dostoevsky blatantly rejects the Jews and in so doing, calls to question
his own integrity as a writer. Alyosha, in his final meeting with Liza,
finds the crazy girl in a state of extreme excitement. This 'little demon',
so despicable and revolting, ultimately discredits Alyosha (and Dostoevsky)
in the eyes of the careful reader:
"Alyosha, is it true that at Easter the Jews steal a child and kill
"I don't know."
"There's a book here in which I read about the trial of a Jew, who
took a child of
four years old and cut off the fingers from both hands, and then crucified
the wall, hammered nails into him and crucified him, and afterwards, when
tried he said that the child died soon, within four hours...That is nice"
"Nice, I sometimes imagine that it was I who crucified him. He would
moaning and I would sit opposite him eating pineapple compote. I am awfully
fond of pineapple compote, Do you like it?" (XI, III, pg. 552).
How could Alyosha say, "I don't know" and listen calmly while
Liza tells how she would eat pineapple compote while a four year old boy
is crucified to a wall?
This passage is important because in it, Dostoevsky simultaneously betrays
Alyosha and his own artistic integrity. In the words of Goldstein, "How
could Dostoevsky have dared to put these words in the mouth of his Alyosha,
Alyosha, the incarnation of charity, the symbol of Russia's spiritual regeneration.14
Alyosha's irrational statement is so uncharacteristic that one cannot help
but question this character and his role as a 'monk in this world'. As an
artistic creation, Alyosha loses his integrity. The careful reader justifiably
reacts with skepticism while Alyosha preaches active love in this world.
This "I don't know" disgraces the Jewish nation, because it suggests
that they did indeed sacrifice children during Easter rituals. Clearly,
this passage is a ruthless attack on the Jews.
With all his authority as a writer, Dostoevsky endorses anti-Semitism.
This scene illustrates the extent of Dostoevsky's hatred against the Jewish
people. He is blinded by his own idea of "Messianic Russia". Invariably,
the exclusive love he bore for Russia does not enable him to love all of
mankind like his fallen character, Alyosha.
Given Dostoevsky's treatment of Isay Fomitch, the Great Russian Messianism,
and Alyosha's bitter "I don't know", one must admit that Dostoevsky
was blindly prejudiced. In this interpretation, Dostoevsky's appeals for
Christian love and sympathy for those who suffer, ring false in the light
of what seems to be his deep-rooted anti-Semitism.15 If Dostoevsky was an
anti-Semite than yes, his writings are ironic. However, Dostoevsky always
insisted he was not an anti-Semite.16
With all the ambiguity in his texts, there is evidence which supports
arguments for and against any anti-Semitic sentiments Dostoevsky might have
held. Joseph Frank, the renown Dostoevsky scholar states, "There is
evidence here of something else besides the usual contempt or disdain, and
it indicates that Dostoevsky was capable of both reactions at the same
time."17 In this sense, Dostoevsky is remarkably similar to Stavrogin
Dostoevsky does infuse his caricature of Isay Fomitch with a splash of
warmth and goodwill. He even speaks kindly of this "killingly funny
man that everyone really seemed to love" (IV, 61). According to the
Constance Garnett translation, Dostoevsky does not refer to Isay as a Jewkin,
but as a Jew, which suggests a certain amount of respect. How Dostoevsky
could have hated the Jews with so much passion is difficult to understand
in light of his penetrating and complex insight into the human soul and
The fact that Dostoevsky maintains he never was an anti-Semite is significant.
Joseph Frank invents a new category for Dostoevsky in the literary history
of anti-Semitism; the category of guilty anti-Semite.18 Dostoevsky could
never reconcile himself inwardly to his own violation of God's commandments.
The contradictions in his anti-Semitism, as evidenced above through Isay
Fomitch and Alyosha reflect that Dostoevsky struggled with himself about
his opinion of the Jews.
In the final analysis, a world where good and evil exist simultaneously
was perfectly acceptable for Dostoevsky. Stavrogin and Svidrilagaev certainly
are capable of desiring good and evil, and feeling pleasure from both. While
Dostoevsky's anti-Semitism is a fault, it should not detract from his overall
Christian message. Like his characters, Dostoevsky also experiences the
battles of good and the evil in his own life. And like all of us, Dostoevsky
is human and capable of contradiction.
1 Singer, David, An Anti-Semitic Genius. Book Review in The New Leader.
May 18, 1981, v64, pg. 20.
2 Joseph Frank, "Foreword" to Dostoevsky and the Jews, by David
Goldstein, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1981, pg. xiv.
3 Goldstein, David I., Dostoevsky and the Jews,. University of Texas Press,
Austin, 1981, pg. 9.
4 Goldstein, pg. 5
5 Ibid., pg. 21.
6 Goldstein, pg. 18.
7 Ibid., pg. 30.
8 Goldstein, pg. 50.
9 Ibid., pg. 55.
10 Ibid, pg. 50.
11 Goldstein, pg. 56.
12 Ibid., pg. 51.
13 Goldstein, pg. 155.
14 Goldstein, pg. 156.
15 Joseph Frank, xi.
16 David Singer, pg. 21.
17 Joseph Frank, xii.
18 Ibid., pg. xiv.
1. Dostoevsky, Fyodor, The Brothers Karamazov. The Garnnet Translation,
revised by Ralph E. Matlaw. W.W. Norton & Company, New York. 1976.
2.Dostoevsky, Fyodor, Devils. New translation by Michael R. Katz.
Oxford University Press. Oxford. 1992.
3. Dostoevsky, Fyodor, The House of the Dead. The Garnet Translation.
The MacMillan Company, New York, 1950.
4. Goldstein, David I. Dostoevsky and the Jews, with forward by Joseph
Frank. University of Texas Press, Austin. 1981.
5. Singer, David, "An Anti-Semitic Genius." Book Review in The
New Leader. May 18, 1991, volume 64.