The whole world venerates Dostoyevsky, and the prophet has now been honoured in his own land again. That is, if you call the eight-part, big-budget, prime-time, nationally televised biography that concluded last night on Rossiya-1 an honour – which I would. Here's why.
The lynchpin of a project like this is, obviously, the actor playing Fyodor Mikhailovich: if he can bring it off – that is, capture the essence of an enormously complex and troubled soul whom the entire viewing audience knows intimately (or thinks it does) – then the whole production will be counted a success. If this actor falters, conversely, nothing and no one else can save it.
The big-stakes role here went to Yevgeny Mironov, an excellent choice. First, he is arguably the actor of his generation, a performer whose versatility and craftsmanship make him the post-Soviet Innokenty Smoktunovsky – or as close to such as we're likely to get. Mironov has done Gogol, Solzhenitsyn and pop-blockbusters with equal facility; even more promisingly, he'd already done a fine Dostoyevsky turn on the small screen, as Prince Myshkin in the excellent 2003 serialisation of The Idiot.
For that TV production Mironov enjoyed a comparative advantage he lacked in this Dostoyevsky: the image of Myshkin most viewers then carried was that of Yuri Yakovlev in the 1959 film version – a modestly successful struggle against miscasting (and light-years behind Smoktunovsky's famous stage version). Heading into a biographical account of Dostoyevsky, the same viewers harboured a different and far more imposing image: Anatoly Solonitzyn as the writer in Aleksande Zarkhi's 1980 Twenty-Six Days in the Life of Dostoyevsky.
How good was Solonitzyn in capturing Fyodor Mikhailovich? As one anxious pre-broadcast speculator put it, "I'm afraid I'll be disappointed [with Dostoyevsky]. I remember Zarkhi's Twenty-Six Days very well, and Anatoly Solonitzyn's performance was pure genius." No argument there – and no question that Mironov also knew that performance well. It took a special kind of self-assurance, which Mironov clearly has, not to be intimidated by it.
And he wasn't. Mironov took Eduard Volodarsky's script and Vladimir Khotinenko's direction and created an impressively original Dostoyevsky, a version of the writer we haven't seen – or indeed contemplated – before. As intense in his affections as he is in his convictions, this energised Dostoyevsky strides well outside the dark-toned schoolbook mini-biographies today's rising generation has been raised on. Mironov made the icon breathe. And passionately.
Also facing a serious image-overcoming task in Dostoyevsky was Alla Yuganova as Anna Snitkina, the writer's second wife. The masterfully nuanced performance as Snitkina by Yevgeniya Simonova in Twenty-six Days remains firmly fixed in millions of minds, including this one. But Yuganova went at it gamely, and if her innovations were not on the level of Mironov's, they were certainly enough to stake out a Snitkina you could believe and appreciate. And I did.
Director Khotinenko is known for skilful risk-taking: Mirror for a Hero (1987) was a painfully perceptive look into the recent Soviet past, and The Priest (2009) had the nerve to offer Russians multiple views of German occupation during World War II. In Dostoyevsky Khotinenko proved himself no less inclined to take "liberties" with established canons – and the final episodes showed just how far a newly-energised Fyodor Mikhailovich could go and remain the icon the world so wants to venerate.
Which he did. This series preserved a classic by reimagining him. Can TV do anything better?