Monday, October 26, 2015

Something in the Way of a Parricide (on Dostoevsky)

Dobuzhinsky Illustration to "White Nights"

This semi-fictional piece on Dostoevsky is included in my forthcoming book: 
Gogoldegookery: Stories from the Data Base of Russian Literature, Inc. 

Something in the Way of a Parricide
(June, 1839)

Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky (FMD) had not seen his father, Mikhail Andreevich, for two years. Much to the chagrin of the dour paterfamilias, his elder son Mikhail failed the entrance exams, but young Fyodor passed, and now he was enrolled in the Academy of Military Engineers in St. Petersburg. The school was housed in the Mikhailovsky Castle, built originally for the son of Catherine the Great, Tsar Paul. Still obsessed with his literary dreams, Fyodor did as little as possible in pursuit of the engineering career that his father foresaw for him. He read Romantic literature, wandered in a daze around the haunted building, where the ghost of the “mad tsar Paul,” murdered there in 1801, was still said to roam in the night hours.
            Meanwhile, Mikhail Andreevich had retired from his position as military doctor and moved to his small Darovoe estate in the country, one hundred fifty versts south of Moscow. Melancholic and irritable by nature, missing his late wife, who had always been his best support, MA turned to drink, took a peasant mistress, who bore him an illegitimate child in 1838. His housekeeper, Alyona Frolovna, later recalled how she used to hear him sitting alone, carrying on long conversations with his wife. Next comes the family folklore, and here is where the facts get hazy. MA is said to have begun debauching his peasant women and mistreating the men. One of his peasants recalled later (years later) that “the old man was a beast, a tyrant with a dark soul. He flogged his serfs for nothing.”
The human psyche loves a good story. The tale gets more and more interesting as it approaches its climax. As a younger brother, Andrey Dostoevsky, tells it in his memoir, “Father flew into a rage one day, began screaming, berating the peasants. One of them, Gerasim Tkach, dared to respond to the master, calling him by an unprintable epithet. Then, suddenly frightened that he had gone too far, the madcap Tkach incited the others to violence. ‘Come on, boys, we don’t have to take this. Let’s get him!’ With that all of fifteen serfs fell upon the master, belaboring him about the head and shoulders—beating him, beating him, until finally he lay still. Terrified at what they had done, the peasants quickly fled the scene. An hour later Alyona Frolovna, returning from the cow shed where she had been milking, found the master in the courtyard, already growing cold.”
Andrey was not an eyewitness to what he reports. He got his information from secondary sources, then embellished upon the tale. An even more unreliable witness, FMD’s unbalanced daughter Aimée (Любовь)—in a book published much, much later, in 1920—writes, “On a summer’s day he [MA] set off from Darovoe for his other small estate Chermashnja and never returned. . . .They found him half suffocated with a pillow from the carriage. The coachman had disappeared together with the horse.”
What the coachman had to do with this is anybody’s guess. The family itself, as we have just seen, perpetuated the story of the murder, relying upon secondhand or third-hand accounts. Apparently all of the doctor’s relatives, including his sons, really believed he had met a violent end. Here is an excerpt from a letter written by Mikhail Dostoevsky, the eldest son, and dated June 30, 1839: “This week I received a letter from my brother Fyodor, in which he informed me of the misfortune that has come upon our family. . . .We are now left orphans, without a mother or father. . . .My God, what a horrible death it was for poor papa! Two days lying out in the fields. The rain and the dust were vying with each other, fighting it out over his mortal remains. Perchance he called out to us in his final moments, and we did not go to him to shut his wide-open eyes.”
So where did the firsthand account come from? Who first reported that Mikhail Andreevich had been murdered by his peasants? A neighboring landowner, a retired Major Khotyaintsev, and his wife. When MA’s mother-in-law arrived at Darovoe directly subsequent to the tragedy—to take the younger Dostoevsky children in hand and look after the family’s affairs—Khotyaintsev informed her that the old man “умер не своей смертью” (“had died not his own death,” i.e., not a natural death). The solicitous Khot, however, advised her that it would be in the best interests of the family if the murder were hushed up. Why? Because if fifteen serfs were convicted and sent to Siberia for murder, there would be no one left to work the already straightened Darovoe estate, and the Dostoevsky heirs would soon find themselves with a bankrupt property.
In his third-hand account Andrey Dostoevsky asserts that the murder was hushed up because the peasants got together a huge bribe and paid off the authorities. Whereupon the cause of death was officially listed as apoplectic stroke. But how and where did the Darovoe peasants, who were barely eking out a poverty-stricken existence, come up with the money for the bribe? Until the mid-twentieth century scholars and historians, it appears, all accepted the account of the doctor’s death as murder. But in 1975 a young literary researcher, Georgy Fyodorov, gained access to the archives of provincial court proceedings for the Darovoe district. It appears that a hearing was called after rumors of the murder were spread and one local landowner, Leybrekht, reported the rumor to local authorities.
Here is a partial transcript of the hearing on the death of M.A. Dostoevsky, held (July 10, 1837) by a provincial court.
--The court calls to be sworn Alyona Frolovna Krot.
She rose, a tall, middle-aged woman in worn clothing, with startlingly beautiful grey eyes. She approached the proscenium.
--State your name.
--Alyona Frolovna Krot.
--Do you swear to tell the truth?
--I do, your honor.
--Is it true that you were in the employ of the deceased landowner, Mikhail Andreevich Dostoevsky?
--I was your honor. I was his housekeeper.
--It is true you were the first to discover his lifeless body?
--I was, your honor.
--Describe for the court where and how and under what circumstances you discovered the body.
--It was a hot day in early June. I had been out in the cow shed, doing the milking. I returned with a pail of fresh milk, entered the house, and told Parasha, the maid, to inform Mikhail Andreevich. Parasha entered the master’s study, where he often worked during the day. Soon she returned and said, “He’s sleeping, Alyona Frolovna, on the divan. I was afraid to disturb him.”
--Explain those words to the court. Why afraid?
--Mikhail Andreevich was a good man, your honor, but his nerves were weak, and he was prone to lose his temper. All of the servants and peasants were afraid of him. He drank, you see.
--Proceed with your testimony, witness.
--So we decided to let him sleep, your honor, although it was rare for him to take a nap in the early hours of the afternoon. Time passed and I went on with my duties. By six p.m. it occurred to me that he should have been awake long ago. I decided to go into his study and check on him. I knocked. No reply. I went in the door, walked up to the divan. Mikhail Andreevich had a strange look on his face. I whispered his name. There was no response. The room was somehow too quiet, too still. I reached out a hand and touched the skin of his arm, and then I jumped back horrified. He was dead, you see, already cold to the touch.
--So what knowledge do you have in regard to the allegation that Mikhail Andreevich Dostoevsky, the decedent landowner, was murdered by his peasants?
--None, your honor.
--Did you have occasion to see any of his male serfs in the vicinity of that divan in his study that day?
--No, your honor. None.
--Please step down and return to your seat. The court calls to give testimony one Gerasim Tkach, peasant.
Eyes wandering from side to side, clearly terrified, the peasant Tkach slowly made his way to the proscenium. He was gaunt-thin, almost emaciated, wearing rags, with a scraggly unkempt beard on his dirty face, clutching a crumpled workingman’s cap in one hand.
--State your name, peasant.
--(voice trembling with fear) Gerashka Tkach.
--State your full name, including patronymic.
--Your middle name, also known as father-name.
--(shaking all over) Ain’t got nary.
--Can’t rightly say who my father was, your honor.
--Right. Peasant Tkach, do you swear to tell the truth?
--Do you swear to tell the truth?
--(calming down a bit) You see, we was all just Tkaches. All of us once upon a time. Didn’t not nobody even have a first name. Just Tkach, and sometimes Son of Tkach (for them as had a father). Then somebody, I do not recollect exactly who, started calling me Gerasim, or sometimes Gerashka. So that's who I is.
--Enough! Do you swear you will not lie to us?
--No, sir, I mean to say. I won’t lie, swear on my mother’s grave.
--Peasant Tkach, were you involved in the murder of landowner, Mikhail Andreevich Dostoevsky?
--Did you kill your master?
--No, sir, I mean to say. Ain’t killed nobody.
--Did your fellow peasant workers on the landed estate of M.A. Dostoevsky murder said M.A. Dostoevsky.
--Answer the question!
--Wellsir. . . .I don’t even know what you’re talking about.
--Stand down, peasant Tkach, and make yourself scarce.
Quick as a flash Gerashka Tkach rushed out of that courtroom and into the oblivion of history, where most of us rush. But he was saved from total oblivion by his having once been thought culpable in the murder of the father of a great writer—a murder that most likely never took place.
--The court calls Vadim Volfovich Fritz, doctor of medicine.
Dressed in a worn frockcoat, wearing spats on his shoes, tall and lanky Dr. Fritz made his way to the proscenium.
--(State your name, get sworn in, etc., etc. etc. Hereinafter omitted)
--Vadim Volfovich, did you treat the aforementioned landowner, M.A. Dostoevsky, for any ailment directly antecedent to the time of his decedence?
--No, sir.
--To your knowledge was the aforementioned ill in late May or early June of the year of our Lord 1837?
--Not to my knowledge. But I wasn’t treating him.
--Were you called to the Dostoevsky estate at any time, to treat the patient?
--I was, your honor. They sent for me on June 5, 1837, but when I arrived at the estate the aforementioned was already deceased.
--Did you exam the decedent?
--I did, your honor.
--Did you perceive upon the body any signs of a violent struggle? Any scratches on the face, any bruises? Any teeth knocked out?
--None, your honor.
--What, in your estimation, was the cause of death?
--Apoplectic stroke, your honor.
--Thank you, Vadim Volfovich. You may stand down. The court calls Ivan Frantsovich Blitzer, doctor of medicine.
Ivan Frantsovich was a small gray-haired man who walked with a limp and spoke with a slight stammer.
--(Are you so and so, do you swear such and such, etc., etc.)
--Yes, your honor.
--(Did you treat the aforementioned so on and so forth, etc.)
--I did, your honor. I had occasion to treat Mikhail Andreevich on a regular basis.
--And what would you say was his general state of health?
--None too sparkling, your honor. MA was a heavy drinker, a melancholic-choleric personality who frequently flew into rages. He often complained of pains in his heart. I advised him to take up breathing exercises, to cut down on the drinking. I also advised a trip abroad, to the spas of Germany, where he could take the waters and, perhaps, recover his health. But I don’t think he had the money for such a trip. The crops were bad that year, as well as the year before, and his peasants were practically starving.
--What can you tell us about events on the day of June 5, 1837?
--A peasant came for me riding bareback on a piebald mare. The cross-eyed one who just testified.
--Yes, your honor. He said I was urgently needed at the estate. I left immediately, but when I arrived the patient was no longer among the living.
--Were you there at the estate at the same time that Dr. Vadim Volfovich Fritz was there?
--No, your honor. Dr. Fritz had already departed prior to my arrival.
--So that you and Dr. Fritz did not consult as to the cause of death?
--No, your honor.
--Did you perceive bruises and scratches on the body or face of the decedent?
--No, your honor.
--Any signs of a violent struggle?
--No, your honor.
--What, in your estimation, was the cause of death?
--Apoplectic stroke, your honor.
--Thank you, Ivan Frantsovich. You may step down. The court calls the landowner, Major Anatoly Borisovich Khotyaintsev.
A tall gray-haired man with a military bearing rose and approached the proscenium. He was well-dressed, walking erectly, shoulders squared, head held high.
--(are you, etc. , swearing in, etc.)
--Anatoly Borisovich, where did you hear of the ostensible murder by peasants of the aforementioned Dr. M.A. Dostoevsky?
--I don’t recall exactly when or where I first heard it, your honor. The rumor was circulating; it was in the air, so to speak.
--Do you, as master of the largest neighboring estate of the decedent, believe that M.A. Dostoevsky was murdered by his peasants?
--I can’t say one way or the other, your honor. All I know is there was a rumor going around. People will talk, you know?
--Thank you. You may step down, Anatoly Borisovich. The court calls landowner Gennady Eustafovich Leybrekht.
Leybrekht, who was neither young nor old, neither fat nor thin, was middle-aged, short of stature, with bright blue eyes and hair the color of newly mown wheat.
--(etc., etc., etc.)
--Gennady Eustafovich, given the testimony independently by two physicians that the decedent, M.A. Dostoevsky, died of apoplexy, do you still believe the rumor that his peasants murdered him?
--No, your honor.
--Then why did you spread that rumor?
--I didn’t spread it, your honor. I merely reported it to local authorities. I wanted justice done.
--Where did you hear the rumor in the first place?
--From my neighbor, Anatoly Borisovich.
--Major Khotyainstev. He asked me to tell everyone I saw.
--He asked you to spread the rumor?
--Yes, your honor.
(from the galleries, Major Khotyaintsev): Did not.
(Ley): Did too.
(from the galleries): Did not.
--Did too.
(judge): --Order in the court.
[end of partial transcript of court proceedings]

The provincial court concluded its hearing by declaring that it found no evidence of foul play in the death of M.A. Dostoevsky. Keep in mind that the way the Russian court system worked (and still works today) the idea of “innocent until proven guilty” is seldom at the forefront of judicial proceedings. If there were even the least suspicion that peasants had killed a landowner, they would have been dealt with unmercifully. Always quick to anticipate another peasant uprising, such as the Pugachev revolt under Catherine the Great, always fearful of the oppressed masses, the autocratic Russian government was swift and harsh in its judgments.
So what really happened in the case of the “murder” of Dr. Mikhail Andreevich Dostoevsky? He probably died of apoplexy (a stroke). Most likely the landowner, retired military officer Khotyainstev, intent on implicating the good doctor’s peasants in the murder, started a rumor. Why? Because, just as he had with such solicitous care explained to MA’s mother-in-law, he knew that if the peasants were convicted and sent to Siberia, no one would be left to work the pitiful and squalid little Darovoe estate. Consequently, he, Khot, a wealthy landowner with five hundred of his own souls, could acquire the neighboring property and whatever bedraggled serfs remained for a song.
But in terms of the writer Fyodor Dostoevsky, what mattered was not that the story of the murder was spurious. What mattered was that he, along with the whole rest of the family, accepted the rumor as truth. He actually believed that his father was murdered, and although he seldom spoke of his father at all in subsequent years, he probably was affected in his moral equilibrium and even psychological balance by feelings of guilt. He had not loved his father enough, he had made too many demands on him. In the last letter ever written to his second son in St. Petersburg before his death, MA had wailed out a cri de coeur. The situation (he explained) on his impoverished estate was so bad the year before that the straw roofs of the peasant huts had to be used for fodder. This year things were even worse—the heat and drought were relentless, not a drop of water. “What threatens us is not only ruin, but total starvation. After this can you continue to grumble at your father for not sending money?”
The letter was written on May 27, 1839. A week or two later, in early June, Mikhail Andreevich was, at least in the mind of his son, “murdered.” According to Freud, his “murder” marked the occasion of Fyodor’s first epileptic seizure. Freud was wrong about this, as he was wrong about so many of his “facts”—in the famous/infamous article titled “Dostoevsky and Parricide.” The epilepsy came along much later in Dostoevsky’s life, but, given his hyper-nervous nature, his impressionability, the “murder” certainly must have been a blow to his psyche.