200 years of Dostoevsky

Project by Embacy in honor of the great Russian writer



21 Reflections of Dostoevsky in Pop-Culture

21 Reflections

of Dostoevsky in Pop Culture

  The world had changed immeasurably in 200 years since the birth of Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky (1821−1881). Yet we still see a lot of his reflections in contemporary culture — from novelists, filmmakers and musicians to stand-up comedians and anime characters. We want to show that Dostoevsky isn't just an impenetrable writer of hefty tomes, and show humanity laying therein, and many of the things that he had inspired.

  We're Embacy, a Russian design studio, specializing in web design and branding. We thought, what can we do to promote the rich Russian culture and our beloved Fyodor Mikhailovich in particular? We've settled on making a website.

1. Love and Death

Still From The Movie

   In the 1970s, as Woody Allen was working on a script, he turned to his shelves — which at the time were filled with Turgenev, Tolstoy, and, of course, Dostoevsky. The following dialogue fits in almost the entirety of Dostoevsky's bibliography, as it references Crime and Punishment, Bobok, The Brothers Karamazov, The Possessed, Raw Youth, The Idiot, Humiliated and Insulted, The Gambler, and The Double.

—  Remember that nice boy next door, Raskolnikov?

—  Yeah.

—  He killed two ladies.

—  What a nasty story.

—  Bobok told it to me. He heard it from one of the Karamazov brothers.

—  He must have been possessed.

—  Well, he was a raw youth.

—  Raw youth, he was an idiot!

—  He acted assaulted and injured.

—  I heard he was a gambler.

—  You know, he could be your double!

—  Really, how novel.

2. Silent Hill 2

Angela climbs the stairs and disappears into the fire

   The oblique and misty streets of Silent Hill are comparable to those of Dostoevsky's cold Saint Petersburg. Akira Yamaoka, the composer for the game, had revealed that the scriptwriter was reading Crime and Punishment while working on Silent Hill 2. “[...] the works of Dostoevsky has helped to express the human emotions from a depth psychology aspect in the game.”

Angela climbs the stairs and disappears into the fire

Protagonist James Sunderland

Protagonist James Sunderland

3. Sigmund Freud

“Four facets may be distinguished in the rich personality of Dostoevsky: the creative artist, the neurotic, the moralist and the sinner. How is one to find one's way in this bewildering complexity?”

— Sigmund Freud, Dostoevsky and Parricide (1928)

Photographic portrait of Sigmund Freud, signed by the sitter (“Prof. Sigmund Freud”)

“The Brothers Karamazov is the most significant novel ever written”

— Sigmund Freud, Dostoevsky and Parricide (1928)

4. Death Note

Death Note Manga 6 Volume 49 Chapter

Death Note Manga 6 Volume 49 Chapter

   An arrogant student commits crimes, taunts a detective investigating him, then finds his bitter end. This both describes Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, as well as Light in Death Note. Not only are the main characters similar in being intelligent students, who are also prideful and arrogant, the showdowns between Light and the detective L are reminiscent of those between Raskolnikov and Porfiry, and the overall plot of the work is remarkably similar. The key difference is that Raskolnikov ultimately looks for redemption, while Light follows through to the end. Also, the demons here are quite literal.

Death Note Manga 6 Volume 49 Chapter

The main character Light, his girlfriend Misa and their gods of death

5. Existentialism and Absurdism

“Dostoyevsky once wrote: ‘If God didn’t exist, then everything would be permitted;’ and that for existentialism is the starting point.”

— Jean-Paul Sartre

Jean-Paul Sartre
Antanas Sutkus, Lithuanian SSR, 1965

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir Antanas Sutkus, Lithuanian SSR, 1965

   “'Everything is permitted,' exclaims Ivan Karamazov. That, too, smacks of the absurd. But on condition that it be not taken in the vulgar sense. I don't know whether or not it has been sufficiently pointed out that it is not an outburst of relief or of joy but rather a bitter acknowledgement of a fact. The certainty of a God giving a meaning to life far surpasses in attractiveness the ability to behave badly with impunity. The choice would not be hard to make. But there is no choice and that is where the bitterness comes in. The absurd does not liberate; it binds. It does not authorize all actions. Everything is permitted does not mean that nothing is forbidden. The absurd merely confers an equivalence on the consequences of those actions. It does not recommend a crime, for this would be childish, but it restores to remorse its futility. Likewise, if all experiences are indifferent, that of duty is as legitimate as any other. One can be virtuous through a whim.”

— The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus

Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Paris, France, 1944

6. Columbo

Peter Falk as Columbo

   The resourceful and eccentric detective Porfiry Petrovich of Crime and Punishment had inspired all the off-beat detectives to come afterwards. The more direct inspiration was drawn by Richard Levinson and William Link, who wrote the show Columbo. They say the character was inspired by Porify Petrvocih and G. K. Chesterton's Father Brown.

7. Ted Talk

   Ted Talks continue to illuminate subjects that matter today, including Dostoevsky's seminal work, Crime and Punishment. Here's what Alex Gendler has to say about the novel from centuries ago that is as relevant today as ever:

8. David Foster Wallace

   “But if I decide to decide there’s a different, less selfish, less lonely point to my life, isn’t the reason for this decision my desire to be less lone­ly, meaning to suffer less pain? So can the de­cision to be less selfish be anything other than a selfish decision?”, asks David Foster Wallace in Feodor’s Guide: Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky, supposedly a review on Joseph Frank's biography of Dostoevsky, yet an essay that takes a swing at Dostoevsky's whole body of work. He speaks of Dostoevsky's bravery, and reveals that he found himself relating to Smerdyakov, which is morbid, in light of how his life ended.

The Cover of Infinite Jest

  The Incandenza brothers of Infinite Jest have something in common with the Karamazovs, but what Wallace really took from Dostoevsky, is the insistence on philosophical confidence. Wallace was tired of all the people and all the novelists with no convictions, who could only take potshots at ideologies, rather than ever standing for what they believe themselves.

   In his essay, Wallace also reminds us that Dostoevsky isn't just important and ought to be read, because those are terrible descriptors, and turn important writers into vegetables. They now become something healthy for you, and something that is utterly boring. He reminds us that Dostoevsky is plain fun to read:

The Cover of Infinite Jest

“One thing that canonization and course assignments obscure is that Dostoevsky is­n’t just great, he’s fun. His novels almost always have just ripping good plots, lurid and involved and thoroughly dramatic. There are murders and attempted mur­ders and police and dysfunctional-family feuding and spies and tough guys and beautiful fallen women and unctuous con men and inheritances and silky villains and scheming and whores.”

Village Voice illustration of Fyodor Dostoevsky and David Foster Wallace, by Randy Jones, 1996

9. The Simpsons

   Simpsons already did everything, including Dostoevsky. Here we see Lisa reading The Brothers Karamazov, and Crime and Punishment was referenced in Treehouse of Horrors V with the segment entitled Time and Punishment.

10. Norm Macdonald

  The late great Norm Macdonald, known for his brief SNL tenure and illustrious stand-up career afterwards, was himself a gambler, and an admirer of Dostoevsky. Of course, in Norm's fashion, if you simply look up "norm macdonald dostoevsky", you'll see this tweet:

  We'll never find out how ironic this statement was, but we do know that Norm spoke of Dostoevsky with veneration on an episode of WTF with Marc Maron, and undoubtedly, Dostoevsky inspired his now iconic appearance on The Tonight Show.

  The story goes that Norm didn't prepare much for the show, and remembered the classic joke. We won't retell it now, in case you haven't seen this before. However, the original iteration of the joke would only fill up a few seconds of the air time. So, as one does, he filled it with Dostoevsky-inspired dread and moral quandaries, which only Norm could deliver like this.

go to twitter

11. Edvard Munch

  “Will anyone ever be able to describe those times?” We need Dostoevsky, or at least a mixture of Krogh, Jeager, and perhaps myself to describe the wretched existence in Christiania as convincingly as Dostoevsky’s depiction of a Siberian town — not only then, but now as well,” wrote Munch.

Edvard Munch, Self-Portrait. Between the Clock and the Bed, 1940-1943; Munch Museum in Oslo

   Throughout his life, Munch was inspired by Dostoevsky: his self-portrait Between the Clock and the Bed, which shows a nude female figure, might be an illustration for A Gentle Creature. A lesser known work of Dostoevsky, it tells the story of suicide by a girl who had to marry a despicable moneylender. Another self-portrait of his is said to be inspired by the portrait of Dostoevsky, by Swiss artist Felix Vallotton.

Edvard Munk, Self-Portrait
Munch Museum in Oslo

Félix Vallotton. Portrait of Fyodor Dostoyevsky Foundation Félix Vallotton

  Edvard Munch died in 1944. On his bedside table, there was Djasvlene, the Norwegian translation of Dostoevsky's Demons.

Edvard Munch, Self-Portrait. Between the Clock and the Bed, 1940-1943; Munch Museum in Oslo

Edvard Munk, Self-Portrait
Munch Museum in Oslo

Félix Vallotton. Portrait of Fyodor Dostoyevsky Foundation Félix Vallotton

12. The Idiot by Iggy Pop

   Iggy Pop, a punk star, is also quite the literary: in 2016, he reinterpreted Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, his album Préliminaires is a rumination on Michel Houellebecq's The Possibility of an Island, and in 1995 he wrote an academic essay on Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. However, in 1977, he hadn't read Dostoevsky's The Idiot. In a 1985 interview, Pop said Bowie was the one who titled the album. Pop knew it was a reference to the novel but also felt his friend was simply insulting him.

13. Jonathan Franzen

Jonathan Franzen by Interview Magazine

The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen HarperCollins UK

   Jonathan Franzen is one of the biggest writers today, and he is greatly inspired by Dostoevsky. He considers The Brothers Karamazov his favorite book, and all his major works: The Corrections, Freedom, Purity, they all deal with identity, free will, and dysfunctional families. But none draws on Dostoevsky as much as his most recent offering, Crossroads.

The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen HarperCollins UK

   Set in the American midwest in 1971, the novel deals with a minister and his family. They search for faith far different from Dostoevsky's own brand of Orthodoxy, but they grapple with all the same questions. “My question… is whether we can ever escape our selfishness,” asks Perry, a fifteen-year-old slyly drunk at the clergymen dinner party. “Even if you bring in God, and make Him the measure of goodness, the person who worships and obeys Him still wants something for himself. He enjoys the feeling of being righteous, or he wants eternal life.”

14. The Machinist

   Now mostly remembered for how skinny Christian Bale got for the role, The Machinist is largely inspired by Dostoevsky's The Double, and Dostoevsky is referenced throughout the movie: early on, the main character is seen reading The Idiot, and a marquee in a later scene reads Crime and Punishment.

Christian Bale in The Machinist

15. The Gambler (opera)

  In the 1910s Sergei Prokofiev adapted The Gambler into an opera, yet, in the wake of the revolution, it was first put on stage only in 1929 at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, Brussels, in a revised form. The opera was finally staged in Russia only in 2001, at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow.

PROKOFIEV The Gambler Winner - Best DVD (Stage and Drama)

THE GAMBLER opera by Sergei Prokofiev, Mariinsky theatre

THE GAMBLER opera by Sergei Prokofiev, Mariinsky theatre

Still From The Movie

16. The Double

  Written and directed by Richard Ayoade, also known for writing and directing The Submarine and starring in The IT Crowd, the 2013 adaptation of a challenging novel takes it into a whole new direction. “Suggested by a Dostoevsky novella, but set in an entirely created world in which only the language makes any reference to the place moviegoers will reenter once they exit the theater, and paying homage to the likes of Brazil, Orson Welles’ The Trial, and Eraserhead within its first five minutes, The Double insists upon its bona fides with a will and makes you like it.”, writes film critic Glenn Kenny over at Roger Ebert.

The Double, 2013 United Kingdom, Richard Ayoade

  The movie stands out with an impeccable performance by Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network, Zombieland, Now You See Me) and shows how good a modern adaptation of Dostoevsky can be. We could only wish that they had kept the Russian names. It's a dark comedy, but it is a comedy after all. It could work.

The Double, 2013 United Kingdom, Richard Ayoade

17. The Idiot by Akira Kurosawa

The Idiot (1951) The Criterion Collection

The Idiot (1951) The Criterion Collection

  “I had wanted to make The Idiot long before Rashomon. Since I was little I've liked Russian literature, but I find that I like Dostoevsky the best and had long thought that    this book would make a wonderful film. He is still my favourite author, and he is the one — I still think — who writes most honestly about human existence.”

— Akira Kurosawa

18. You, TV Series

   The tense and nerve-wracking thriller You is reminiscent of the paranoia of the first half of Crime and Punishment, and the book is on display in the first episode of the second season.

19. Arrested Development

Arrested Development Season 1-3 [DVD] Movies & TV — Amazon.com

    Another story of a dysfunctional family, Arrested Development could almost be read as a more comedic retelling of The Brothers Karamazov: Michael is Ivan, G.O.B. is Dmitry, and Buster is this weird version of Alyosha.

Arrested Development Season 1-3 [DVD] Movies & TV — Amazon.com

20. Taxi Driver

Still from the movie

   Dostoevsky happens to be the progenitor of the "angry loner" genre. You can draw a direct line from The Underground Man of Notes From Underground to Travis Bickle of Taxi Driver, to Drive, even to Joker. Martin Scorsese said, "I felt close to the character by way of Dostoevsky. I had always wanted to do a movie of Notes from the Underground. I mentioned that to Paul [Schrader] and he said, `Well this is what I have, Taxi Driver,' and I said, `Great, this is it.'

Film Poster, 1976

   Later in his career, Martin Scorsese would return to Dostoevsky, for his segment in New York Stories (1989). “This is another one of those things that I've wanted to do for a long time, since I read The Gambler in 1968.” His segment is not a direct adaptation, but takes it to New York in the 80s, and turns a gambler into a painter addicted to his own misery, played by Nick Nolte.

Still from the movie

Still from the movie

Film Poster, 1976

21. The Master and Margarita

'Dostoevsky's dead,' said the citizeness, but somehow not very confidently. 'I protest!' Behemoth exclaimed hotly.

“Dostoevsky is immortal!”


   Being Embacy, a Russian design studio making websites and branding identities, we write a lot — from brand promises to the copy of main pages of sites. Moreover, writers and words are the core of our culture and we wanted to share our honor and admiration to one of the greatest writers. If this page inspired you to read his works — we did a good job.

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