A Letter to the Russian Ministry of Culture

Editor’s Note: This appeared originally on Duke professor Carol Apollonio’s blog, ‘Chekhov’s Footprints.’ It is written to the Russian culture ministry.

The author in Tomsk, Russia with a statue of the founders of Tomsk State University.

Thank you for notifying me that the Russian Ministry of Culture has awarded me a medal (“The Great Russian Writer F. M. Dostoevsky”).

This is a great honor; I am profoundly moved and grateful that my Dostoevsky scholarship and service, into which I have poured so much thought and energy over the years, have been recognized in the writer’s homeland. It has been rewarding for me to spend my life reading and writing about Dostoevsky. It has been a privilege to teach his writings to generations of students, to discuss with them not just the big questions of ethics, theodicy, faith, reason, and justice that he raises in his works, but also the fine nuances of the language and poetic structure of his writing. I have also been proud to translate and publish the works of my brilliant Russian colleagues, and to increase awareness of their contributions among literature specialists worldwide. In 2019 I was able to travel across Siberia, where many fine scholars and museum professionals welcomed me with generosity and good will. Last year, 2021, was particularly rewarding as we joyfully celebrated the writer’s bicentennial with conferences, lectures, films, exhibitions, and special events in every corner of the globe. As I have come to realize now more than ever, I am just a small part of the conversation that began with Dostoevsky’s writing and will continue long after all of us are gone.

It is therefore heartbreaking for me to have to decline this honor, which means more to me than words can say. Along with the rest of the world, I have watched with horror over the past year as Russia has invaded, brutalized, and tortured its neighbor Ukraine. Internally, it has arrested and terrorized brave, thoughtful individuals who have spoken out against the war, driving many of them away from their homeland. Given my respect for the profundity of Dostoevsky’s artistic writings, I am distressed that public figures have quoted from his non-fiction to justify this war. By doing so, they are doing irreparable harm to the writer’s reputation and trivializing what it is in his works that has reached readers worldwide. For me, accepting this award from the Russian government would too easily be taken as complicity in these crimes.

In making this statement, I am speaking as an individual, not as a representative of any organization. I continue to nurture a deep love and respect for Dostoevsky’s works, and for the writings of my colleagues in Russia and around the world. Together with them, I cherish hopes for better times, for mercy, reason, and peace.

With respect,

Carol Apollonio

Professor of the Practice of Slavic and Eurasian Studies, Duke University



Duke University Opinion and Analysis

Duke University is home to more than 15,000 undergraduate and graduate students and a world-class faculty helping to expand the frontiers of knowledge.