“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” These 14-words have been attributed to Fyodor Dostoevsky, and quoted hundreds, if not thousands of times. The only problem is that the great Russian writer never wrote them. Never. Yet you can find this quote in articles, books, lectures, and even government committees. And all of them point to Dostoevsky as the origin. How does such a fake persist to the point that it’s blindly accepted? And what does our acceptance say about believing what we want to believe regardless of evidence to the contrary? Especially at a time when many are obsessed with fact-checking?
Ilya Vinitsky is a Professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Princeton University. He’s the author of several books on romanticism, emotion, translation, bad poetry, and fakes and forgeries in Russian literary culture. His current project looks at Ivan Narodny, a Russian-Estonian expat writer, art critic, and con-man, who the FBI labeled as “the worst fraud that ever came out of Russia.” He’s the author of “Dostoyevsky Misprisioned: “The House of the Dead” and American Prison Literature” and “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt: A Dostoyevsky Quote Revisited” in the LA Review of Books.
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