Unfortunately, book bans are as old as the written word. Information that gives way to the expansion of ideas is a gift, but for the same reason it can be viewed as dangerous. The American Free Speech Booksellers only discovered in 2016 growing lists of schools and libraries banning titles like Khaled Hosseini’s kite runnerTony Morrisons Loverand Emily M. Danforths Cameron Post’s Error Education — Titles that explore themes away from straight, white narratives. However, we are now at a new frontier of the book ban; It’s not just about ideas, it’s about limits. A university in Milan has just attempted to cancel a course on classic Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky because of Russia’s recent hostile invasion of Ukraine.
Paolo Nori, an Italian writer invited to give a four-part guest lecture on Dostoyevsky at the University of Milan-Bicocca, vented his frustration in an Instagram video after receiving a disturbing notification informing him that its course was “shifted”. The e-mail read in part: “Dear Professor, the Vice Rector for Didactics has informed me of a decision made with the Rector to postpone the Dostoyevsky course. … This is to avoid controversy, especially internally, at a time of great tension.”
Nori lamented in his video: “I realize what is happening in Ukraine is horrific and I feel like crying just thinking about it. But what is happening in Italy is ridiculous. … It is wrong in Italy today not only to be a living Russian, but also to be a dead Russian who was sentenced to death in 1849 for reading something forbidden. For an Italian university to ban a course on an author like Dostoevsky is unbelievable.” Dostoevsky’s work includes iconic existential titles such as notes from the underground, crime and punishment, and The brothers Karamazov. Dostoyevsky was Sentenced to death in 1849 for his activities in a “radical intellectual discussion group” called the Petrashevsky Circle for reading banned books. His execution was stayed at the last minute, but he spent four years in a Siberian labor camp in his quest for intellectual freedom.
Nori’s video resonated quite a bit with his nearly 20,000 followers, and as of Wednesday morning, “Dostoevsky” did announced on Twitter as backlash to the decision began to grow. Former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi tweeted“During this time we need to study more, not less: at the university we need teachers, not incompetent bureaucrats.” Many noted that the deletion of Russian culture, in particular its deep philosophical history, leaves only Putin’s flaw today to be mentioned. Some Twitter users quotes Dostoyevsky himself“You can be sincere and still be stupid.”
However, it seems as if the backlash served to restore course to Dostoyevsky. The University released a statement reading, “The University of Milano-Bicocca is a university open to dialogue and listening, even in this very difficult period that dismays us at the escalation of the conflict. … The course of the writer Paolo Nori is part of the writing course aimed at students and citizens who aim to develop transversal skills through forms of writing. The university confirms that this course takes place in the specified groups and deals with the content that has already been agreed with the author. … In addition, the rector of the university is meeting Paolo Nori next week for a moment of reflection.” With cultural boycotts against Russia, the cancellation of tours in the country, the retraction of film releases, the refusal of foreign venues to host Russian acts , etc., we walk a fine line when it comes to punishing a people for the actions of their senseless dictator. In the coming months it will be important not only to erase Russian history and culture for the actions of Putin – while standing by Ukraine.