Was it fair of Solzhenitsyn to call Peter the Great “a mediocre man, if not a barbarian”? I honestly don’t know. What I do know is that history didn’t begin with the Cold War, and that long before Solzhenitsyn, renowned novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky expressed reservations of his own about the historical impact of Russia’s most zealously pro-Western czar. So if they were really interested in getting to the bottom of things, American journalists would spend less time worrying about the reincarnation of Stalin and more time considering the Petrine legacy.
In his provocative contribution to Dostoevsky’s Political Thought (“Dostoevsky’s Discovery of a Christian Foundation to Politics”), David Walsh argues that the Petrine legacy is one of social and spiritual schism, as from the 17th century onward Russian elites sought to distance themselves from their roots:
A process that began with the Europeanizing reforms of Peter the Great culminated in the liberation of the serfs, as the severing of the final link with the life of the people. Even the Russian language was abandoned in favor of French and the cultural heritage of the West in general. The disconnected gentry looked disdainfully on the rudeness of the Russian peasant with his superstitious attachment to Orthodoxy and his tendency toward reckless excess. As a modern intelligentsia their mission was to rescue the people from their ignorance, by introducing the light of universal liberal reason everywhere they went.
Detached rationalism produces men who regard their own communities and people with aloof contempt, and as several contributors to this volume point out, Dostoyevsky’s work was in part motivated by the belief that the writings and activism of enlightened liberal Westernizers paved the way for the nasty, brutal revolutionaries who came later. It is worth noting that the plot of Dostoyevsky’s Demons was inspired by the career of sociopathic terrorist Sergei Nechaev, who openly gloated that he and his fellow anarchs could always count on help from “ambitious office-holders and liberals of various shades of opinion”—i.e., useful idiots.
In “Dostoevsky’s Heroines,” Richard Avramenko and Jingcai Ying examine the subject’s search for someone who could heal “the Russian man’s Western disease,” a search that led him to the humble, self-renouncing, and pious Russian woman. Convinced that the man who has no country has no God, Dostoyevsky saw it as the gentle sex’s task to teach him love for both. Demons offers one such example of the Russian woman as healer, with the meek Gospel-seller Sofya Matveyevna tending to the wounded spirit and health of the disillusioned intellectual Stepan Verkhovensky. Just as the liberal Verkhovensky is father to a vicious and brutal revolutionary, Sofya is the honest widow of a soldier who gave his life fighting in Crimea—on behalf of czar and Orthodoxy, and against Western powers allied with the Turks.
For his part, Ethan Alexander-Davey (“Ugliness, Emptiness, and Boredom: Dostoevsky on the Secular Humanist Social Religion”) delves even deeper into the notion that revolutionary socialism and democratic liberalism are “two heads of the same dragon.” According to him, Notes From the Underground illuminates the 21st-century Pax Americana as much as works like Demons help historians make sense of the ruthless Bolshevik regime:
Dostoevsky’s insights on a humanity conquered by the materialist monster show us the origin of such socio-economic phenomena as the devil-may-care, drug-addled, whoring gamblers and gangsters of American high finance who lately blew up the global economy, and will likely blow it up again before long. He helps us to understand why the rootless billionaires will skin others to save their own skins, and why large numbers of the idle, public-assistance-collecting poor save them the trouble by developing addictions to methamphetamine and burning their own skins off. Those who are deprived of beauty and toil will pine away, ruin themselves and others, lose their minds and lose their humanity.
Pace democratic theory, crime and vice cannot be eliminated through greater prosperity, because man needs more than just bread. It is through culture that we rise above the beasts of the field; it is through hard work that we learn brotherhood. Abolishing both work and culture via new techniques and self-satisfied cynicism, liberalism leads to apathy and despair. What can we ask of children, demanded Dostoyevsky indignantly, when “the word ‘fatherland’ has been pronounced in their presence not otherwise than with a derisive expression,” when their “fathers and the educators have kept talking about ‘cosmopolitan’ ideas,” when old-fashioned nurses “have been dismissed because, over their cradles, they—those nurses—said the prayer ‘Mother of God’”?
Dostoyevsky himself came to appreciate his heritage only after first passing through a liberal phase, and Alexander-Davey is right to highlight the role childhood memories and aristocratic artifacts played in facilitating the novelist’s return to his roots. No less than moving encounters with God-fearing peasants, family readings from the works of nobleman-historian N. Karamzin and visits to the hallowed Kremlin left their mark on the boy who would, when grown, proclaim that “beauty will save the world.” “[P]ossession of high culture, national culture, and not just plebeian culture, seems essential,” concludes Alexander-Davey, “if the upper classes are to become enrooted once again.” Clearly, Alexander-Davey labors under no egalitarian delusions. The real question is not whether there is to be an elite, but rather what kind of example it will set—and how loyal it will be to the nation manifested by a people and culture.
As bashing the West and idealizing the East can too easily play into the intellectual fashions of our time, Ellis Sandoz does a great service by identifying the common ground Dostoyevsky shares with the most quintessential Western thinker of all. It is God and not man who is the measure of all things, Plato tells us in his Laws, thereby summarizing the theme of Crime and Punishment some 2,000 years in advance. As Sandoz explains (“Philosophical Anthropology and Dostoevsky’s ‘Legend of the Grand Inquisitor’”), both the Greek philosopher and the existentialist writer recognize totalitarianism as corollary to individualism:
Absolute freedom leads to absolute tyranny. The absolute freedom of rebellious man . . . is license which perverts the meaning of freedom on principle, enslaves man to his passions, leads him to the anarchy of passionate self-assertion and gratification ending in cannibalism, fratricidal war, the surfeit of self-indulgence which, exacerbated by blasphemy and faithlessness makes man the most miserable of creatures. . . . Rebellious man progresses from the tyranny of the libidos to the tyranny of an external power—or, rather, of the libido dominandi politically organized.
So the threat Dostoyevsky faced was not European philosophy but a mangled and truncated version of it. Man is zoon politikon; his heart is restless until it rests in God; for all its amazing power, his mind cannot fully plumb the essence of a single fly. We owe these insights not to the Russian Orthodoxy of a mystically illuminated East, but to a civilization that was once noble and wise—a civilization tragically intoxicated by its own success, like the Atlantis of Critias.
I must mention that several contributions to Dostoevsky’s Political Thought will fail to prove as interesting to the Chronicles reader as they will to the devoted Dostoyevsky expert. Other contributions, moreover, are oriented toward somewhat peculiar theses. Ron Srigley, for instance, goes to great lengths to try to prove Dostoyevsky was a con artist who produced Christian propaganda (“Dostoevsky’s Confidence Game”), while Steve Ealy connects the reactionary novelist to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech (“Speaking on the Lower Frequencies”). This is not to deny the scholarship that went into either essay, but to confess that when I open a book on Dostoyevsky and politics I hope for a higher number of “edgy” readings—i.e., passages that bring out the relevance to the here and now of Dostoyevsky’s decidedly counterrevolutionary perspective.
Even some of the more intriguing contributors avoid the politically incorrect yet obvious implications of their commentary. Dostoyevsky saw the reconstruction of Russia along Western lines as something already tried, with appalling results: Does not this fact inescapably point us toward the long-standing alliance of NGOs, homegrown liberals, and U.S. government agencies seeking to “democratize” the novelist’s homeland? If the self-sacrificing woman who renounces egoism really is the katechon restraining godlessness and destruction—why, surely this calls into question the feminist goal of transforming every last meek, nurturing Sofya into an empowered careerist Amazon?
Nowadays, the underground man lives on the “radical” right, and insofar as we aim to shed light on advanced liberal modernity we must challenge liberal judgments and taboos. Should we feel that the modern world’s problem lies not in a failure to live up to its ideals but in said ideals’ perversity, then it is at their most “offensive” that bygone geniuses have something meaningful to say to us.
[Dostoevsky’s Political Thought, edited by Richard Avramenko and Lee Trepanier (New York: Lexington Books) 260 pp., $70.00]
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