In 2014 a scrappy piece of paper covered with jottings by the great Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky caused a bit of a stir, due to various doodles in the margin.
The page contained notes that were later used by Dostoevsky in his novel Demons, first published in 1871. One of the doodles was of a man’s head – see the picture below – which most experts took to be a portrait of William Shakespeare. However, beneath the little portrait can just be made out (in Cyrillic) the name ‘Atkinson’. Nothing else connects to the name and there is no further explanation. Who was this Atkinson mentioned by the great writer?
According to scholars, it could only be one of two men; either Thomas Witlam Atkinson or the British art critic Joseph Beavington Atkinson (1822-86). Which one was it?
First, let’s deal with the question of whether or not the portrait is ‘Atkinson’. All the experts seem to agree that it is too close to the famous ‘Chandos’ portrait of Shakespeare to be anyone else. That being said, there is a very superficial resemblance to Thomas Atkinson, although it is extremely unlikely that Dostoevsky ever met him. Dostoevsky was imprisoned in Omsk in Western Siberia from 1851-54 and subsequently lived in Semipalatinsk – in what is now northern Kazakhstan – for a while after that, but there is no evidence from either man that they met.
Considering the name alone, let’s look at the case for Joseph Beavington Atkinson first. Dostoevsky expert Professor Nikolay Zakharov notes that in his diary Dostoevsky mentions an anonymous article called “Angliyskaya kniga o russkom isskustve i russkikh khudozhnikakh” (“An English Book about the Russian Art and Russian Artists”) which retells and includes excerpts from J. B. Atkinson’s book An Art Tour to Northern Capitals of Europe (London, 1873). Zakharov assumes Dostoevsky would have been provoked by Atkinson’s claims in the book that “up to now, the Russian school of art has not developed new styles or new themes”.
However, the date of the Atkinson book is a little late, considering that Dostoevsky’s novel was published in 1871.
So what about Thomas? As stated above, Dostoevsky was imprisoned in Siberia for several years and could certainly have heard about the odd English couple and their child roving around the Siberian and Central Asian steppes at that time.
We also know that when he was living in Semipalatinsk, from 1854-56, Dostoevsky became friendly with Baron Alexander Egorovich Wrangel (1833-1915), an admirer of his books. They both rented houses in the Cossack Garden outside Semipalatinsk and the baron later wrote a book of reminiscences about his encounters with Dostoevsky.
Interestingly, in 1848-9 when Thomas and Lucy were living in Kapal in what is now eastern Kazakhstan – and directly south of Semipalatinsk – they also knew a Baron Wrangel, who was the commanding officer of the small outpost. As Thomas notes in Travels in the Regions of the Upper and Lower Amoor: “The society among which I was thrown was of a mixed character. At the head of the civil department was a German baron, who had won glory in the Caucasus, where he had received a wound from a Circassian sabre, that nearly proved fatal. He was the Priestoff, or political agent, whose duties were with the Kirghis. He was a good soldier, had few scruples, and was a most amusing fellow, believing himself equal to Nesselrode in diplomacy. Were fiction and invention essential in the acquirements of a minister, I would back the Baron against the Count.”
Thomas does not name the Baron, but Lucy does – more than 30 times! She writes many amusing anecdotes about Baron Wrangel, who was clearly a good friend of her husband. She even describes the two men playing duets – Thomas on the flute and the baron on the guitar.
Was this the same Baron Wrangel? Without knowing the full name of the Baron known to the Atkinsons it is difficult to be sure. Thomas’ baron had been wounded in the Caucasus, so that might be a clue. The baron known to Dostoevsky was born in 1833, which might make him too young to have been the same person known to the Atkinsons. If not, he was probably a close relative.
However, there are even more possible connections. We know that Dostoevsky went to live in Barnaul after leaving Semipalatinsk. Again, the Atkinsons were well known there, having spent two winters in the town. It seems very unlikely that Dostoevsky did not hear something of them during the time he spent there.
So, although we cannot prove definitively that Dostoevsky was referring to Thomas Atkinson in his marginalia, the likelihood seems very high. Did he ever appear as a character in a Dostoevsky novel? That is up to you, dear readers, to find out.