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Dostoevsky’s Conversion

Dostoevsky’s so-called “transformation” in Siberia was essentially the process by which this crisis was overcome. But before going on to analyze its resolution—depicted implicitly in The House of the Dead, and explicitly twenty-five years later in the article on “The Moujik Marey” published in The Diary of a Writer—there are still other important aspects of Dostoevsky’s situation in the prison camp that must be mentioned. One such was a relationship which, though generally scanted, seems to me of crucial importance.

There were, of course, upper-class convicts in the prison camp with whom Dostoevsky was on more or less good terms; but none seems to have been able to relieve his sense of desolation and terrible isolation. If we are to judge from the cordial terms in which he speaks of them, Dostoevsky was closest of all to the small group of Polish political prisoners who shared his fate. He calls one of them “a very kind-hearted and even great-hearted man”; of another he remarks, “I never ceased to love him.” Dostoevsky, we may presume, did not use such words lightly; and they indicate that, at least for a brief period, the Poles were his only true friends in the camp. But we know that he eventually quarreled with them for reasons he does not explain.

For further information, though, we have the memoirs of Szymon Tokarzewski, one of the men in question, which supplement Dostoevsky’s own account with valuable details. He tells us that Dostoevsky and the Polish prisoners broke relations because, as a Russian patriot, Dostoevsky furiously rejected the Polish claims to independence from the Russian empire; and he was also repelled by the Polish prisoners’ contempt for the Russian peasant convicts, whom they refused to regard as anything but criminal riffraff. “They saw in the convicts nothing but their brutality,” Dostoevsky writes sadly, “could not discern any good quality, anything human in them, and had indeed no wish to do so.”

What is important here is to understand that Dostoevsky’s own attitude toward the peasant convicts, before his “conversion,” was exactly the same as that of the Poles, of which he later speaks with such reprobation. Ultimately, as we shall see, what supplied the psychic-emotive spark for his “conversion” was the recognition of this identification—the recognition that he himself was looking at these representatives of the Russian “people” through exactly the same eyes as the implacable Polish enemies of his homeland.

William James, in his classic The Varieties of Religious Experience, has pointed out that those who undergo conversion are inevitably people with a “divided self,” beset by inner emotional confusion and caught in a tangle of conflicting loyalties that must be untied if they are to continue to function. Such a description applies perfectly to Dostoevsky, whose old faith had been shattered by his disillusioning encounter with the peasant convicts, and who now found himself, to his horror, allied in feeling with those who looked down on the Russian “people” with withering disdain. Nothing was more important for him than to find some way of over-coming his repulsion for the peasant convicts, and to bring his intensely patriotic sentiments as a Russian into harmony with his reactions to the flesh-and-blood Russians who shared his existence in the camp.

This is the context in which it is necessary to place Dostoevsky’s own account of his “conversion,” which is contained in his famous article on the moujik Marey; and certain details of the article take on a greatly increased significance once we view them as part of this larger context. Before recalling its main points, however, we must first turn back to The House of the Dead and cite some of Dostoevsky’s description of the preparations for Easter made in the camp. The Marey incident occurred on the second day of Easter Week, and would thus have been immediately preceded by the events Dostoevsky depicts. “I very much liked the week of the preparation for the sacrament…,” he writes. “It was long since I had been to church. The Lenten service so familiar to me from the faraway days of my childhood in my father’s house, the solemn prayers, the prostration—all this stirred in my heart the far, far-away past, bringing back the days of my childhood.” Dostoevsky recalls having imagined that the peasants standing at the church door, where the convicts always stood during the ceremonies, “prayed humbly, zealously, abasing themselves and fully conscious of their humble state.”

Dostoevsky’s most exalted religious feelings were thus aroused by the preparations for Easter; and he was all the more horrified when the “holiday” in the camp, as he portrays it in the Marey article, led to an orgy of drunkenness and general debauchery. Never had the peasant convicts been more revolting and unbearable, and Dostoevsky rushed out of the barracks in an uncontrollable impulse of rage and indignation. “My heart was inflamed with rancor,” he writes. While walking outside he encountered one of the Polish prisoners, who was also seeking to escape from the repugnant spectacle. “He looked at me gloomily, his eyes flashed and his lips began trembling. ‘Je hais ces brigands‘—he muttered through his clenched teeth, in a half-strangled voice, and passed by.”

The effect of these words was to make Dostoevsky abruptly turn on his heel and go back to the barracks, even though he had bolted out in a frenzy just a quarter of an hour before. He does not explain why the remark should have had this effect; but it is clear, from everything said so far, that the Polish comment had stung him to the quick, and that he wished to demonstrate his solidarity with his fellow Russians. It was in this state of mind, with his heart beating “agitatedly” as a result of the words he had just heard, that he lay down on the plank-bed to dream of the past and recalled an incident of his youth.

One day, he writes, while taking a walk in the woods on his father’s small estate, Dostoevsky was frightened by what he thought was the sound of someone shouting that a wolf was roaming in the vicinity. Dashing out of the woods, he rushed to one of his father’s peasant serfs, whom he knew only as Marey, plowing in a nearby field. The surprised peasant halted work to comfort the trembling child “like a mother,” blessed him with the sign of the cross, and sent him home. The memory of this incident swept over Dostoevsky, at this instant, like a revelation, and made him aware of something he had never grasped before. “The encounter was isolated, in an empty field, and only God, perhaps, saw from above what deep and enlightened human feeling, what delicate, almost womanly tenderness, could fill the heart of a coarse, bestially ignorant Russian peasant serf, not yet expecting, or even suspecting, that he might be free.”

And Dostoevsky attributes to this recollection a total transformation in his attitude toward the peasant convicts. “I suddenly felt that I could look at these unfortunates with quite different eyes, and suddenly, as if by a miracle, all hatred and rancor vanished from my heart [italics added]. I walked around, looking attentively at the faces that I met. That despised peasant, with shaven head and brand-marks on his face, reeling with drink, bawling out his hoarse, drunken song—why, he must be that very Marey; after all, I am not able to look into his heart.” Later that day, Dostoevsky met the same Pole again and could now confront him with a quite different feeling of inward security and even a twinge of pity. “He could not have had any memories of any Mareys, and any other opinion about these people than: Je hais ces brigands! No, those Poles had much more to endure than we did.”

Dostoevsky’s sudden shift, which he himself compares to “a miracle,” bears all the earmarks of a genuine conversion experience; and it also involves a recovery or rediscovery of faith. But it is not religious in the strict sense, though it has strong religious associations and overtones. For what Dostoevsky has been converted to is a belief in the Russian people as being, in some sense, the human image of Christ, capable of inwardly overcoming and forgiving all the injustices committed against them by their masters from time immemorial. Dostoevsky thus resolved his own moral and spiritual crisis by what can be called, using Kierkegaard’s term, a “leap of faith” in the moral beauty of the Russian peasantry; each peasant was a potential Marey, and each had managed to preserve in his soul—at least to Dostoevsky’s suddenly cleansed vision—the highest and most sublime of the Christian virtues.

It may seem, at first sight, that this renewal of Dostoevsky’s faith in “the people” simply returned him to his point of departure, and that he had just gone back to his “humanitarian” and “philanthropic” convictions of the 1840s. But if this were so, then no “conversion” would really have taken place. In fact, however, the circumstances of Dostoevsky’s recovery of “faith” gave it an entirely new significance, even though it may seem superficially similiar to his past beliefs. For one thing, the focus of his faith was now the Russian common people, and it thus became charged with a new and intense nationalistic passion; the virtues of “the people” were no longer seen as simply a function of their status and class condition, but as a distinctly national characteristic.

For another, these virtues reverse the old “humanitarian” attitude, based on the pity and condescension of the upper classes for the weak and the inferior; it was now “the people” who had the right to pardon and forgive, and who were the unique repository of this sublime spiritual attribute. And finally, Dostoevsky’s recovery of his faith in “the people” had been made under the beneficent influence of the religious emotions of his childhood, and was indissolubly linked with the Orthodox faith that he shared with the peasant convicts. Hence his new “faith” was divorced from, and was indeed in sharp opposition to, his previous “progressive” Christianity, which he now saw as the source of all his earlier errors and illusions.

Long ago, in the days of his youth, Dostoevsky had written a boyishly enthusiastic letter in which he had spoken of Christ as having been incarnated by God and sent to earth in order to provide the world with “the organization of its spiritual and earthly life.” And he had singled out, as the destined temporal embodiment of Christ’s message in the early nineteenth century, “the childish Christian tendency” in the poetry of Victor Hugo. Now, after his “conversion,” he would abandon this cosmopolitan allegiance and, in the future, discover the true teaching of Christ only in the world of the peasant Marey.

(This essay is based on a lecture given in French at a Colloque International, organized by l’Institut National d’Etudes Slaves, and convened to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of Dostoevsky’s death (1821-1881). The conference took place in July, 1981, under the auspices of the Fondation Sophia Antipolis, Valbonne, France.)

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