The Creative Process

Pushkin Monument (Moscow)

In 1880 Dostoevsky spoke at a ceremony celebrating the unveiling of a new monument dedicated to early 19th century Russian poet Alexander Pushkin. His speech was so emphatic and brilliant that police had to be called to the scene to quell the jubilant crowds. Women wept and fainted. Men yelled and cheered. Shouts rang out from the crowd: “Genius!” “Prophet!” “Saint!”

Dostoevsky certainly tempts the comparison to a prophet. His words at the Pushkin speech were chillingly perfect:

Do I speak of economic glory, of the glory of the sword or of science? I speak only of the brotherhood of man. I say that the heart of Russia, perhaps more than that of all other nations, is chiefly predestined for this universal, pan-human union. I see its traces in our history, our men of genius, in the artistic genius of Pushkin. [1]

Just months before his Pushkin speech, Dostoevsky completed his final novel, The Brothers Karamazov. This work, too, is so perfect that I wouldn’t change a single word. Indeed, Dostoevsky’s words often seem not spoken by man, but rather dictated from the heavens above.

I was disconcerted, then, to learn that one of Dostoevsky’s works had been unceremoniously altered.

The text itself of Devils was written entirely by Dostoevsky. The novel’s direction, though, was at one point changed by an outside influence. This altered the tone and even the content of the entire rest of the story. The river was dammed and redirected, if you will.

Devils was published chapter-by-chapter. At Tikhon’s, originally slated to follow chapter 8 in part 2, was deemed too vile and offensive by the government censor. Even after Dostoevsky revised its content to be more suitable for the public, the government still refused to publish it, so Dostoevsky was forced to scrap the entire chapter. He then wrote the rest of the book with the knowledge that At Tikhon’s would not be published. In fact, the censored chapter was only discovered some 50 years later in Dostoevsky’s personal archive.

What this chapter contains I will not say, not because it’s too offensive for print, but because I couldn’t hope to describe the full extent of Stavrogin’s evil in just a few words. I do, however, urge the reader to read it in its entirety (see source 2).

What I will say is that At Tikhon’s describes one of the most despicable acts man could possibly commit. This description was not without purpose: Dostoevsky had intended to describe the events that so deeply plagued Stavrogin’s conscience. And some [3] argue that, having been unable to describe the depths to which Stavrogin had sunk, Dostoevsky was also unwilling to tell of the heights to which Stavrogin would ascend. Thus the censorship of At Tikhon’s relegated Stavrogin’s status from the book’s ultimate hero to its unfortunate villain. The Russian government killed Nikolay Stavrogin. It redirected the mighty Mississippi.

This knowledge didn’t sit well with me. One obvious annoyance is the difficulty in placing At Tikhon’s in the rest of the novel. Some modern publications include the chapter, while many don’t. I actually think it’s best not to include it, since it seems somewhat out of place given the story’s ending. Still, though, it’s a shame that readers might miss this amazing philosophical work. To remedy this concern, perhaps At Tikhon’s should still be read, but as a standalone work of fiction, and not the context of the rest of the story.

A more pressing concern is the realization that we’ll never know how Devils would have turned out had the government permitted the chapter’s publication. Would Stavrogin have ended up looking more like Raskolnikov, post-transformation, and less like the ill-fated Svidrigailov? We’ll never know. We can’t know. But I certainly would have liked to see the former case. How dared the Russian government redirect a river so sacred? How dared they muddle the words of a prophet? This was more than just censorship; this was the irreversible destruction of a masterpiece! We should be up in arms about this!

One small detail, though, assuaged these concerns. Look closely at the text of At Tikhon’s [2], which, by the way, was translated directly from Dostoevsky’s handwritten manuscript. In the footnotes are described dozens of small changes the author made in the writing process. One reads: After “girl” is struck out: “I lived with them on familiar terms, and they stood on no ceremonies with me.” (pg. 42) Another: Instead of “at last, etc.,” originally stood: “I finally decided that I could leave and I went downstairs.” (pg. 58) Some changes are incredibly trivial. “As soon as the three days were over” was struck out and replaced with “After three days.” (pg. 48) “This is not a bad account” was struck out and replaced with “Yes, the account is not bad.” (pg. 28) In another footnote, several large paragraphs are scrapped (pg. 38-39).

An important insight dawned on me. At Tikhon’s was a far cry from a mere dictation from above. Every sentence, every word, was a struggle. Dostoevsky often tried two, three, or more times to express a thought properly. Sure, the final product seems divinely perfect. But the process in getting there was gritty and painstaking.

Dostoevsky was a gifted man. At the same time, to call him a prophet is to understate the effort he committed to his work.

And just as At Tikhon’s was built by perspiration rather than inspiration, so was all of Devils, and any of Dostoevsky’s other works, for that matter. The government censor can hardly be blamed for changing Devils’ direction, as there really was no definite path to begin with. Dostoevsky’s stories-in-the-making were’t linear plotlines, waiting to be transcribed. They were amorphous clouds of character, event and ideology, at the mercy of the trials faced by the author on a daily basis. Whether by influence of government censor, or the death of his son, or his last-minute pardon on death row, Dostoevsky’s works were molded and shaped  by external events all the time. His talent lay in his ability to maintain the fluidity of the stories within his writing, despite the irregularity of his life outside of it.

We need not mourn the death of Nikolay Stavrogin. He was merely a victim of the times. Rather, we must celebrate the flexibility and perseverance that earned Dostoevsky his laurels: genius, prophet, saint.


  1. Doestoevsky’s speech on Pushkin
  2. At Tikhon’s original manuscript
  3. Interesting commentary on At Tikhon’s.
  4. Devils, full text, Constance Garnett translation. Note that this version does not contain At Tikhon’s.

3 comments on “The Creative Process

  1. Two minor corrections and a comment:
    1) Police were not “called to the scene to quell the jubilant crowds” after Dostoevsky’s speech.
    2) It was not a government censor who rejected “At Tikhon’s,” but the editor of the journal in which the novel was being published, Mikhail Katkov. (By the way, a few years later Katkov also refused to publish the last section of “Anna Karenina” due to Tolstoy’s criticism of the Russo-Turkish War that was then going on. Tolstoy then published a complete version of the novel by himself.)
    Comment: the idea of Dostoevsky’s novels as “amorphous clouds” (!) with “no path to begin with” recalls Henry James’ famous criticism of Russian novels as “huge baggy monsters.” Yet if we examine Dostoevsky’s notebooks – as you say – “the process in getting there [writing his works] was gritty and painstaking” and show that he did plan them out very carefully, both in their overall conception and in many specifics. Modern criticism has shown that Dostoevsky’s novels are far from amorphous, but have very complex and sophisticated literary form, e.g. in their manipulation of narrative voice.

    • Josh says:

      Professor Levitt, thanks for your reply. I’m not sure where I heard about the police being called; that may well have been my imagination running away from me.

      Regarding to your comment: my argument wasn’t that Dostoevsky’s stories are amorphous in their final form, but, rather, that Dostoevsky’s concept of and plans for these stories may have been amorphous before pen came to paper. There may have been no clear path to begin with, but this, if true, would suggest nothing about the final state of these novels, which is incredibly polished.

      It seems you might be arguing that the novels were never amorphous to begin with, either in execution or in their original plans. You might be right. In this case, though, even when the direction of his novel was forcibly changed, Dostoevsky still wrote like it hadn’t been. This is a testament to his ability to adapt his novel’s plan to external demands, and this stands regardless of how often Dostoevsky had to use this ability.

      Incidentally, have you read the plans for Dostoevsky’s Dreams of a Ridiculous Man? This is shown after the At Tikhon’s manuscript in my source 2. If these plans match closely the final novel, that would add weight to your argument.

  2. Ben says:

    Notes from Underground was also altered by censors. The highly dark novel was once a Christian text! I’ll quote from Robert Louis Jackson’s Dialogues with Dostoevsky: The Overwhelming Questions:

    “See Dostoevsky’s letter to his brother Mikhail, March 26, 1864, where he complains that the censor excised those parts of chapter 10, part 1–the ‘most central one, where the very idea [of the work] is expressed, where I deduced the need for faith and Christ’. The original manuscript has not been preserved, and the omissions were never restored. Dostoevsky maintains in his letter that the chapter had to be printed with ‘sentences thrown together and contradicting itself.'”

    I take issue with your claim that “there really was no definite path to begin with”. In Notes from Underground in particular, at least, it seems clear that there was a path, one which was altered.

    We must distinguish between internal and external alterations to the text. We should elevate decisions made by Dostoevsky over decisions made by government censors. You mention that many external factors affected his work. Though this is true, we may distinguish, even among those, between those which are “natural” or “accidental” and those which reflect a deliberate attempt by ill-intentioned outsiders to alter the course of the plot. (We’ve talked before about the preference we tend to give to “natural” outcomes.) These can’t be put on equal footing.

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