It's one of those where we get sold the whole.. 'Russia was a peasant backwater that had stagnated under the Tsars before Stalin launched the brutal equivalent of an industrial revolution in the five year plans that pulled the Soviet Union into modernity at huge cost to lives.'
And yet you look at some of the literature and wider culture coming out of Russia in the late 19th Century and you realise that the above viewpoint is a bit caricatured. There seems to have been this great bubble of intellect and philosophy in which the circumstances were just right in that society to produce your Tolstoy's and your Dostoevskys. I'm not saying it was devoid of social and political issues, but for there to have been thriving intellect of this kind there must have been avenues in society that could make it happen.
That's just a wider observation as a lead into my review. The book is fantastic, I envy the ability of Dostoevsky to make characters so unique and believable. When you read a sentence you have your own little voice and identity in your head for that person, and it is a person, because it feels real, it feels like this is a biography rather than fiction. I'd even go as far as to say I've never seen character development on a scale like this. I think the underlying cause of this is the author's ability to create dynamic conversations between characters driven by very different personalities and ideologies.
The three brothers are perfect:
Ivan the arrogant, intellectual atheist, who commands the respect of his brothers and is conflicted between his philosophy and the outcomes of his actions.
Dmitri passionate and emotional doomed to act on emotion, unable to control his fiery infatuation for Grushenka. His actions are always detrimental to himself and yet he never learns.
Alyosha the abnormally empathetic, kind and wizened monk. Constantly embroiled in other people's drama never of his own making and yet patient enough to sit and be a bulwark to anyone who needs him to listen and aid.
And as if great characters and an engrossing, tragic story line isn't enough. We're then hit with a barrage of cutting philosophy, often in great detail to get you thinking when you put the book down. I did think Dostoevsky was an atheist, such was the depth of the argument his character Ivan puts forward in a religious debate with Alyosha, but I later found out that his religious beliefs were always a point for contention and although he was supposedly a Russian orthodox Christian, he possibly identified as deist at one point and was often conflicted.
It's because of this that I think Ivan, Dmitri and Alyosha are all born from he and his own struggles with the big question. They do say write what you know. The book as a whole is a glimpse into the Russian landscape before the brutalities of the First World War, the Civil War and the Soviet regime. It's truly priceless and I will most definitely read his other works later on down the line.