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The Two Dostoevskys


Albert Camus once declared that the author of The Possessed and not Karl Marx was the greatest prophet for the twentieth century. Dostoevsky’s depiction of the monstrous consequences of ideological fanaticism is equally pertinent to the twenty-first. Yet this great champion of liberty against the tyranny of ideas was himself the proponent of a “Russian idea”: a form of messianic nationalism, coupled in his last years with a virulent anti-Semitism.

Apart from a few specialist studies,1 scholars in the West have been loath to linger on this aspect of his thought. (It is not, for instance, among the topics included in the recently published Cambridge Companion to Dostoevskii.2 ) As Joseph Frank notes in the last volume of his distinguished biography, Dostoevsky’s political ideas have seemed so eccentric that “it was felt necessary to get them out of the way if one were to do him justice as a novelist.”

This separation between Dostoevsky’s day-to-day political writings and his concern with eternal verities would make little sense to his Russian readers. Admirers of his vatic pronouncements on Russia’s special destiny, such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn and the philosopher Nikolay Ber-dyaev, have treated them as an integral part of his message to the world, as have more critical commentators, such as the outstanding Soviet scholars Leonid Grossman and A.S. Dolinin, who emphasized that Dostoevsky’s fiction and his journalism served a common purpose: to shed light on the moral and spiritual meaning of contemporary Russian reality.

According to Frank, it was the work of Russian scholars that, back in the 1970s, inspired his project: to fill the gap in Western criticism of Dostoevsky by approaching his works within the social and cultural milieu to which they were clearly a response. The result is a monumental achievement, part biography, part cultural history. Its fifth and final volume breaks the self-imposed taboo of so many non-Russian critics by paying explicit attention to the ideology of Dostoevsky’s last decade.

Frank’s four earlier volumes have set the evolution of Dostoevsky’s thought and art in the context of the acute clash of values that accompanied Russia’s lumbering transformation from a society based on serfdom into an industrialized state. Among the intelligentsia all received notions of moral and social order became the subject of fierce debate. Westernizers looked to Europe for models of development based on rational principles, while Slavophiles, emphasizing fundamental differences between the historical development of Europe and of Russia, insisted that Russia must follow its own path, relying on native traditions and on the people’s Orthodox faith. Dostoevsky adopted a form of these latter beliefs as a result of his life among the common people during the decade of prison and exile to which he was sentenced in 1849 as a follower of the French utopian socialists.

When he returned to St. Petersburg serfdom was about to be abolished; other reforms were promised, and the intelligentsia was bitterly divided on the path and pace of change. As editor of two journals advocating a return to authentic Russian values he threw himself into these polemics, challenging the limitless trust of the young radical progressives in the power of reason and science to transform human societies. Meanwhile, in the capricious and perverse antihero of Notes from Underground, he created an embodied argument against the rationalist determinism of the left. The underground man revolts against the socialist utopia in the name of man’s “dearest good,” his freedom to exercise his own independent choice—but his unbounded willfulness is also intended to illustrate the evils of a freedom that is not subject to Christian values.

Dostoevsky developed this theme in Crime and Punishment and The Possessed. These novels placed him in the forefront of Russian literature, but it was only in his last decade that he became revered as a teacher and prophet, principally through a work almost unknown in the West, his Writer’s Diary. His other major creation in those years, The Brothers Karamazov, is commonly seen as the apotheosis of his Christian humanism, while in some passages of the Diary he can be said to have reached his moral nadir. By putting these two projects at the center of his last volume, Frank confronts us with the problem of the two Dostoevskys.

A Writer’s Diary is an unclassifiable work. It appeared first in 1873 as a column in a conservative journal, and from 1876 as an independent monthly publication. Suspended after two years while Dostoevsky devoted himself to The Brothers Karamazov, it was revived in the last months of his life. An unprecedented combination of fictional and nonfictional genres, it comprises a bewildering variety of material: short stories, anecdotes, personal reminiscences, autobiographical pieces, reports on political developments, sensational trials, and other current issues ranging from an epidemic of suicides to the fashion for spiritualism.

The Diary has been largely neglected in the West, where it was usually regarded as a random collection of Dostoevsky’s writings until (in a study accompanying the first full English translation) Gary Saul Morson showed that Dostoevsky conceived it as a daring experiment in literary form, creating art out of improvisation by revealing the timeless significance of contemporary events.3 He also had an immediate aim—to use his influence to halt Russia’s slide into chaos through a combination of external threats and internal pressures: the desperate situation of the peasantry, whose economic structures and way of life had been destroyed by rapid industrialization, and the growing revolutionary movement (Tsar Alexander II would be assassinated a month after Dostoevsky’s death in 1881). Dostoevsky took on the role of moral counselor, speaking directly to his readers and responding to their reactions, frequently using topical sources such as court cases or newspaper reports to expand on a theme familiar from his novels of the 1860s: that the complexity of human situations and moral problems is not reducible to general formulas providing neat solutions.

But in 1876 the Diary‘s tone changed abruptly as Russia moved to war with Turkey and its European allies over the crisis that began with the revolt of Slavic nationalities in the Balkans against Turkish rule. What others saw as merely another political struggle, Dostoevsky read as the denouement of the drama of world history. He predicted the conquest of Constantinople (the original seat of Eastern Orthodoxy) and the unification of the Slavs under Russia’s political domination, to be followed by an apocalyptic confrontation in which the dying civilization of Europe would be saved and all nations united in brotherhood by means of the “Russian idea,” contained in Russia’s Orthodox religion, which alone was faithful to the essence of Christianity. As to whether our “selfless and sacred idea” would triumph through peaceful persuasion or political conquest, Dostoevsky did not commit himself, stating only that “it is not in peace alone…that salvation is to be found; sometimes it is also in war.”

Dostoevsky adopted a solemn prophetic tone: “Now, for everyone in the world, ‘the time is at hand.’” When the war failed to realize his expectations of “something millenarian,” he simply relocated them, predicting in his last Diary article that Russia’s conquest of Asia would be the catalyst for the birth of a new world.

Like most messianic thinkers, Dostoevsky tended to demonize forces that resisted his dreams. His pre-ferred scapegoats were the Jews. As Frank notes, references to Jews in Dostoevsky’s early writings were “not particularly abusive if judged by the standards of his time and place.” But now in hate-filled passages of the Diary and also in his correspondence he ascribed Russia’s internal woes to the “crowd of triumphant Jews and kikes” who battened onto the misery of the people, from financiers who had contributed significantly to Russia’s industrialization to tavern-keepers who exploited the innocent Russian peasant.

All that he detested most in European culture he now attributed to the pervasive influence of the “idea of the Yids” (zhidy), which he defined as a thirst for world domination in the name of a carnivorous materialism. Behind Britain’s alliance with Turkey, he detected the “Israelite” Disraeli’s hatred of the “Russian spirit.” If the Jews ruled Russia, would they not massacre the people, “exterminate them completely, as they did more than once with alien peoples in times of old?” (Strange as it may seem, he did not see this diatribe as incompatible with his Christian position on equality of rights, maintaining in the same text that it was up to the Jews to show that they could use these rights without detriment to the native population.)

With its anomalous form and its shifts between radically different moral perspectives, the Diary is, as Morson observes, “one of the strangest works of world literature.” Frank’s extended study of it shows its importance as the main vehicle for Dostoevsky’s ideological and artistic preoccupations of the 1870s, and as the source of his extraordinary influence on his time through its insistence on Russia’s twin “accursed questions”: its relation to Europe, and the Westernized intelligentsia’s relation to the people. Frank is also the first Western critic to give due attention to Dostoevsky’s growing respect for the moral idealism of a new generation of revolutionary populists, who in turn appreciated his compassion for the peasantry, though not his support for tsarism. Frank writes perceptively on the way in which Dostoevsky was perceived as a moral educator who transcended the narrow factionalism of the time.

But while Frank pulls no punches in conveying the nastiness of Dostoevsky’s anti-Semitism and the tedious jingoism of his “Russian idea,” readers looking for illumination on the dark side of Dostoevsky may feel themselves shortchanged. Although the Diary itself is the main subject of almost half of his very long book, the chauvinistic messianism that dominates it during most of its existence is disposed of in under thirty pages.

Frank is clearly reluctant to give space to these repulsive rantings, citing Gary Saul Morson’s remark that they are “eminently forgettable.” But Morson did not mean that they were harmless: he points out that Dostoevsky’s vision of salvation as collective, terrestrial, imminent, total, and miraculous displays the archetypal characteristics of millenarian thinking as defined in Norman Cohn’s famous study.4 A common feature of such thought is a triadic version of history, culminating in an age of utopia. In Marx’s secular eschatology, history passes from primitive communism through a class society toward a final communism which is the realm of freedom. (The Third Reich, which was supposed to last a thousand years, is rooted in the same mythology.) Dostoevsky, too, distinguishes three stages in Russia’s historical role. In the first, it developed its Orthodox vision in the purity of isolation; in the second, beginning with the reign of Peter the Great, it assimilated the best of European civilization in preparation for the final stage, in which it would redeem the world.

Cohn showed that from the Middle Ages fanatical anti-Semitism has been closely linked with millenarianism: the Jews were associated with the Antichrist, sinister false claimants to the role of God’s chosen people. Dostoevsky returned obsessively to what he regarded as the goal of the Jews: that “the Messiah…will use his sword to bring down all the other peoples to sit at their feet.” He was so carried away by this vision that, temporarily forgetting his prophecy of a cataclysmic confrontation between Russia and Europe, he predicted that the final battle of mankind would be between Christians, representing brotherhood, and the Jews, representing materialism.

  1. 1

    See, for example, David I. Goldstein, Dostoyevsky and the Jews, with a foreword by Joseph Frank (University of Texas Press, 1981); Bruce K. Ward, Dostoyevsky’s Critique of the West: The Quest for the Earthly Paradise (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1986); and James P. Scanlan, Dostoevsky the Thinker (Cornell University Press, 2002), the last two chapters of which deal with Dostoevsky’s political philosophy.

  2. 2

    See Malcolm Jones’s comment that there are good reasons for not devoting much attention to Dostoevsky’s political ideas: “They seem to cast little light on what is original and insightful in Dostoevskii’s major fiction and to have little in common with those qualities which have established him as a world-ranking author.” The Cambridge Companion to Dostoevskii, edited by W.J. Leatherbarrow (Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 158.

  3. 3

    See Morson’s introduction to Fyodor Dostoevsky, A Writer’s Diary, Volume 1: 1873–1876, translated and annotated by Kenneth Lantz (Northwestern University Press, 1994), pp. 1–117.

  4. 4

    Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium, Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages (London: Maurice Temple Smith, 1970).

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