Fyodor Dostoevsky
Fyodor Dostoevsky; drawing by David Levine


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.

Morson sees the contradictions in the Diary as reflecting Dostoevsky’s fundamental uncertainty about whether he wished to deny not only the desirability of Western socialism, but also the possibility of any Kingdom of God on earth. Morson concludes that although Dostoevsky’s utopia differed from the ideologies of the intelligentsia, it shared the characteristics that Dostoevsky himself had rejected as highly dangerous.

Frank finds Dostoevsky’s messianic outpourings “tedious,” “deplorable,” “objectionable,” but he does not seem to find them alarming. He relies on the catch-all notion of a “deep-rooted xenophobia” to explain both Dostoevsky’s messianism and his anti-Semitism, without speculating on their interconnection. The grandiose predictions in the Diary, he suggests, were Dostoevsky’s means of rescuing himself from despair as his country lurched from crisis to crisis.

But readers of Frank’s two preceding volumes will know that Dostoevsky first publicly proclaimed his “Russian idea” nearly two decades earlier, on his return to St. Petersburg from exile. In his journalism of the 1860s he contrasted European societies, riven by class conflict, their spiritual unity shattered by the domination of materialism and selfish individualism, with Russia, founded on the authentic Christianity of the Orthodox Church. Asserting the unique capacity of the Russian people, inspired by their religious openness to all humanity, to assimilate everything that was best in other cultures and bring about a “panhuman” reconciliation of nations, he predicted that the ideal of true brotherhood expressed in the democratic egalitarianism of the peasant commune was destined to be the foundation of a new Christian world order.

In his penultimate volume Frank cites this “deplorable” example of the nineteenth-century vogue for political messianism only to maintain that Dostoevsky was too much of a realist to present his new faith except as an aspiration “completely at odds with terrestrial realities.” But Dostoevsky’s correspondence with his friend the poet and ardent nationalist Apollon Maikov suggests otherwise. As early as 1856 he wrote to Maikov from exile: “Yes, I share with you the idea that Russia will be the culmination of Europe and her mission.” Following the emancipation of the serfs in 1861 his admiration of the political order in Russia passed all bounds of realism: he told Maikov that, unlike Western states, which were founded on conquest, Russia was built on mutual love between monarch and people, and he predicted “a great renewal of the world through the Russian idea.”

But Frank regards Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot, published in the same year, as evidence that such statements were not to be taken literally. He argues that through the failure of the novel’s hero, Prince Myshkin, to resolve the conflict between his apocalyptic aspirations and his earthly limitations, Dostoevsky subjected his own convictions to the same test he had used for the left—compatibility with the conditions of earthly existence—concluding “with exemplary honesty” that his eschatological ideal, incarnated by the Prince, could do no more than provide a beacon to light up this world with the unearthly illumination of a higher one.5

Frank’s downplaying of Dostoevsky’s messianic position is consistent with the overall conception of his multivolume work, which has created a dramatic unity out of Dostoevsky’s chaotic life and art. We follow his path from utopian socialism to Christian faith, forged through the terrible experiences of a Siberian prison camp, and we see him thereafter devoting his creative genius to exposing the deceptiveness of the socialists’ belief that paradise can be attained on earth, a mission that culminates just before his death in the publication of The Brothers Karamazov, in which, as Frank puts it, he “succeeds in achieving a classic expression of the great theme that had preoccupied him since Notes from Underground: the conflict between reason and Christian faith.”


Frank’s work will surely remain the classic study of Dostoevsky the anti-utopian humanist. He has shown with great persuasiveness and a wealth of detail how Dostoevsky’s most profound moral and philosophical insights were formed in reaction to the limitations imposed on him by the radical philosophies of his time. But Dostoevsky’s life, like his novels, resists the demands of dramatic unity. In keeping his conflicts with the left in the foreground, Frank has neglected his conflicts with himself. Myshkin in The Idiot is speaking for the author when he says that the nineteenth century lacked the simple certitudes of the Age of Reason: “In those days they were men of one idea, but now we are …men of two or three ideas at once.” Dostoevsky confessed soon after his religious conversion that he remained “a child of my age, a child of unbelief and doubt.” Dostoevsky’s faith in an unseen kingdom never displaced the hope implanted in him by French utopian socialists such as Saint-Simon, Pierre Leroux, and George Sand that the message of the Gospels would be realized on earth through a total transformation of society. In a Diary article of 1876 he speaks with great affection of Sand, whom he had venerated in his youth for her understanding of humanity’s striving toward “perfection and purity.”

A similar moral idealism attracted him in the young generation of revolutionary populists. As Frank notes, Dostoevsky predicted that they would fail because they did not share the religious beliefs of the Russian people. But it has been remarked that Dostoevsky himself showed surprisingly little interest in the theology or liturgy of the Orthodox Church: his faith was concentrated on the image of the God-man Jesus Christ, whose contemplation, he confessed, was his only refuge from the torments of religious doubt. The utopian socialists had held Christ to be the first great preacher of a vision of fraternal existence which had been developed in the modern age by the proper application of reason and science, and it is their influence, rather than that of the Church, that we can sense in this prediction from the Diary of 1877: “The national barriers and prejudices that until now have prevented the free communion of nations …will someday fall before the light of reason and consciousness”: then people will begin to live “as brothers, rationally and lovingly striving for general harmony.”

That Dostoevsky was uneasy about his attempt to reconcile the rival ideas of the Kingdom of Heaven and an earthly paradise is suggested by the curious scene in The Possessed where Shatov, a mouthpiece for the author’s view of the Russians as a “God-bearing” people destined to regenerate the world, is asked whether he himself believes in God. He stammers out that he believes in Orthodox Russia and the Body of Christ. “I believe that the Second Coming will take place in Russia…. ‘But in God? In God?’ I…I shall believe in God.” His questioner accuses him of reducing God from an absolute to “a simple attribute of nationality.”

Humans have ever been seeking to discover a formula for social organization as close to faultless as possible, and satisfying everybody; but human beings know of no such formula. “The ants know the formula for their ant heap; the bee knows the formula for his hive…but humans do not know their formula.” Here (in the Diary of 1880) speaks Dostoevsky the anti-utopian, against the intelligentsia’s belief that the chaotic multiplicity of history and human life could be reduced to a single system. Repeatedly the Diary insists that to believe that history is marching to an inevitable goal is to deny human responsibility and freedom.

Meanwhile, the other Dostoevsky continued his ardent pursuit of a final formula for human societies, finding support for his hopes in the work of two contemporary religious philosophers: his friend Vladimir Solovyov, who defined Russia’s mission as the establishment of a theocratic Kingdom of God on earth, and Nikolay Fyodorov, who believed that humanity would follow Christ’s example and accomplish the resurrection of the dead through its collective will, thereafter completing the perfection of itself and its universe. Dostoevsky found himself so much in agreement with Fyodorov’s views that “I felt I might have written them myself.”

Dostoevsky’s enthusiasm for these ideas can’t be reconciled easily with Frank’s interpretation of his religious beliefs, although his confidence seems to falter at this point: acknowledging the resemblance between Solovyov’s utopia and Dostoevsky’s hopes, he argues that for Dostoevsky the notion of a Kingdom of God on earth “presumably remained speculative and transcendent.” He is on no firmer ground when he turns to The Brothers Karamazov, which Dostoevsky was writing at that time.

That novel’s ideological core is Ivan Karamazov’s revolt against God, expressed by means of his Legend of the Grand Inquisitor who upbraids Christ for burdening human beings with the agonizing torment of free choice: true compassion demands that they be relieved of this freedom in return for the assurance of material well-being. The answer to Ivan’s ratiocinations is contained in the teachings of Father Zosima, whose attitude Frank describes as a serene acceptance of human destiny, deriving from faith in a loving God. But theologically informed critics have questioned whether Zosima’s message is Orthodox or even Christian. His God, like Shatov’s, is identified with the image and purposes of the Russian people “that bears God within itself,” which he singles out from other nations for some unspecified form of salvation. The discourses of this Russian monk are surprisingly devoid of references to the devotional practices of Orthodox life, and he holds out the promise of paradise as an imminent earthly prospect—a state of total harmony which would presumably relieve humans of the burden of free choice just as effectively as the Grand Inquisitor’s dystopia.

Frank’s only concession to such critics is to observe that it is “quite possible” that the passions aroused by the Russo-Turkish War had made Dostoevsky more inclined to conflate religion and nationality than he had been in the past. I believe he is mistaken; the ambivalences of The Brothers Karamazov are due not to the political contingencies of the mid-1870s, but to Dostoevsky’s lifelong adherence to two ideas at once.

Dostoevsky’s funeral procession on January 31, 1881, numbered about 30,000 people and stretched for almost a mile; fifteen choirs accompanied the cortege. “It can boldly be said,” wrote a contemporary critic, that “there had never before been such a funeral in Russia.” Many, particularly student youth, were there to mourn the Dostoevsky who had been imprisoned for his humane beliefs and who defended the peasant victims of the march of progress. But many also mourned the other Dostoevsky, who had justified victimization and war on behalf of an abstraction called the “Russian idea.”

The wild emotions that this concept could unleash had become evident one year previously, when he had given his famous “Pushkin speech” at the unveiling of a monument to Russia’s foremost poet. He presented Pushkin as the embodiment of Russian “panhumanism” and the poetic herald of the great mission that Russia was called upon to accomplish in the name of humanity. Dostoevsky described the spectacular success of his speech: “When I spoke at the end…of the universal unity of people, the hall was as though in hysteria…. Strangers among the audience wept, sobbed, embraced each other…. ‘Prophet, prophet’ people in the crowd shouted.” The Slavophile publicist Ivan Aksakov ran onto the platform and declared to the audience that “beginning now, brotherhood had arrived and there would no longer be any perplexity.”

One cannot quarrel with Frank’s assertion that “the misguided patriot waving the banner of imperial domination” is not the Dostoevsky who has become an important part of the patrimony of world culture. But he gives us little insight into why this other Dostoevsky is a continuing inspiration for those who oppose the popular understanding of world culture—which is often seen as being exclusively the heritage of Western Christendom and the values of modern representative democracies—in the belief that it ignores or denigrates what is of most value in their own national character and tendencies. The Russian idea has had many variants from early-nineteenth- century Slavophilism to the Stalinist utopia, but it was Dostoevsky’s combination of messianic passion with literary genius that first made this vision a potent ideological force, inspiring philosophers like Berdyaev (who presents the struggle to reach the New Jerusalem as the “vocation” of the Russian people) and Soviet dissidents such as Solzhenitsyn. As preached today by neo-Slavophiles and nationalists of every stripe, from the Communist Zyuganov to the right-wing xenophobe Zhirinovsky, the Russian idea continues to be promoted as an antidote to the sense of moral disorientation and loss of national identity that has followed the collapse of communism.

With hindsight, Dostoevsky’s version of the Russian idea now appears as a pioneering form of a messianic anti-Westernism whose generic characteristics include religious and moral condemnation of the materialism and egoistic self-interest to which the West’s economic and political ascendancy is ascribed; rejection of cultural and political pluralism in favor of a view of the state as a vehicle of collective salvation in the name of a single set of truths; a tendency to project responsibility for failures onto scapegoats and to demonize those who are ideologically or ethnically outside the community of believers; and the dream of a purifying “holy war.”

The Possessed is often cited as required reading for anyone who attempts to understand the terrorists of September 11. A Writer’s Diary has at least as much claim to that distinction.

This Issue

March 27, 2003