Conversation 5: ‘Light from the East’. Episode 2

“It’s a fine view,” I said.

            “Mmmm” (non-committally).

            “You know they had a Great Exhibition here, two actually—a bit like the one you saw in London, only without a Crystal Palace. But I suppose it was the same idea. Great Britain, land of Industry and Empire. And this is where it happened. Just down there, beyond that giant crane, is where the shipyards began, making the ships that kept the Empire going.”

            “Mm” (abruptly).

            This wasn’t very encouraging. Of course, I knew that he’d seen the Crystal Palace as a symbol of everything he didn’t like about industrialism and the new world order that was ripping up forest and earth and covering the world with a network of railway tracks, rending the fabric of ancient traditions and setting class against class. All in the name of prosperity and science. I suppose he also had reasons for disliking the British Empire in particular, since it had several times thwarted Russian ambitions.

            Trying to retrieve the situation, I added that in 1901 they’d even had a Russian village built, complete with Church, but this got only another “Hmmm,”—though this time it could have been interpreted as mildly appreciative.

            “It was all a long time ago,” I said awkwardly, realizing as I said it that for him, perhaps, it wasn’t. I had no idea how time worked in his world. “The Age of Empire, I mean”, I added by way of clarification.

            “Hmmm” (inscrutably).

            There was a pause. I couldn’t think of anything else to say, but then, shuffling along the bench, he pointed at the pamphlet I was still holding.

            “What’s that?” he asked.

            “It’s a political pamphlet,” I replied, “about Scottish independence. It’s a big thing here right now.”

            “May I look?” he asked and, without waiting for a reply, took it from me. He scrutinized it intently.

            “The flag of St Andrew,” he said. “That’s good. St Andrew is the Patron Saint of Russia too. Did you know that?”

            “No. I thought that was St Nicholas?”

            “Yes, him too—it’s a big country with a lot of enemies. It needs its saints. But you’re right—Nicholas is probably more popular. This is good,” he continued, waving the pamphlet at me. “It’s good for a people to be aware of who they are and to come together under the protection of their saint.”

            I didn’t really think that, despite the ubiquitous saltires, Scottish nationalism today was much interested in the protection of St Andrew. But I let it pass.

            “It’s like I said to you before,” he resumed. “You have to have brotherhood before you can have liberty and equality. This is what the French and what the rest of Europe forgot. And that is why their pursuit of liberty and equality led to war, revolution, and war again. An ocean of blood. And your exhibitions,” he added, holding the pamphlet in one hand and extending his arm to take in the panorama of the park as a whole, “all that industry and science will never free people if they don’t already know each other as brothers. You’ve had several centuries of it, and it hasn’t freed you yet. But this is good,” he concluded, tapping the pamphlet.

            As I mentioned already, my own attitude to Scottish independence was a bit ambiguous. I had even voted for it. But I didn’t really like the flag-waving and the marches. Add in the bagpipes and it could all be quite emotionally arousing. But that was the danger. Politics shouldn’t be driven by emotion.

            I’d now started reading Fyodor Mikhailovich’s Diary of a Writer, not systematically, but dipping into the parts that looked most interesting. There was quite a lot about nationalism in it and, like most Western and maybe even some Russian readers, I’d found some of it a bit too nationalistic, to be frank; even jingoistic. There wasn’t going to be a better opportunity to ask him about it.

            “Maybe. Maybe,” I began, “but isn’t nationalism really rather dangerous? Can’t it lead to xenophobia and even war?”

            He looked at me with mild surprise.

            “Is war such a great evil?”

            “Isn’t it? Didn’t you yourself just say that the way in which the West pursued its goals of freedom and equality led to war? I assumed you meant that was a bad thing?”

            “Of course, war is terrible. Nobody would deny that. But perhaps it is not the worst of all evils.”

            “I suppose that might be true if it was simply a matter of warriors facing each other on the battlefield, like Hector and Achilles. But that’s not what really happens. Like you yourself described when Ivan Karamazov spoke about the atrocities committed in Bulgaria, war rarely stops on the battlefield. It’s not just the warriors who get slaughtered, but the innocents, the women, the children, the old people, the sick … and, in modern times at least, most of the ‘warriors’ are only there because they’ve been conscripted or have given in to social pressure. And, actually, I don’t expect that all the Greeks and Trojans really wanted to be having to kill each other in order to survive.”

            “What you say may be true in many cases,” he said, moving closer and wagging an admonitory finger. “But it is not always true. Surely it is worse to stand by and do nothing when your brothers are being tortured and massacred—as in Bulgaria. Isn’t it a Christian duty to lose your life in order to help others?”

            “Yes, but …”

            Yes, but—Fyodor Mikhailovich was having no interruption.

            “And our young Russians … men and women who volunteered to fight or to go as nurses, risking their lives … they did not need to go, they went before they were commanded, not to conquer but to help. When I was a soldier, I myself asked to be transferred to active service—I was literally thousands of miles from the battlefield—but it wasn’t possible because of my history. A political prisoner. And, in any case,” he added, looking at me sharply with an almost inquisitorial eye, “were those who stayed at home, who carried on with their champagne and oysters, their affairs, and their stock market speculations—were they better? No. Clearly not. Sometimes war is needed to purify a nation that has fallen prey to mammon and sensuality and forgotten who it is. War is not the worst.”

            I could see his argument. But he made it sound too simple.

            “Look,” I said, becoming aware that I, in turn, was starting to wave my hands around rather wildly. “I’m sure—I’d like to think—that if I’d been a young man in 1939 then I’d have joined up to fight Nazism, like my father did. But things aren’t often that clear cut and, most of the time, behind all the fine phrases about resisting aggression and standing up for right there’s usually some Realpolitik driving the whole thing. And once the rallying-cries have died down, it’s usually the innocent who bear the brunt of it.”

            As I mentioned, I’d been reading The Diary of a Writer, including the article in which Dostoevsky famously and—to my mind—bizarrely claimed that, as he put it, “Constantinople will be ours”, predicting that it was Russia’s God-given destiny to seize Constantinople from Turkey and make it the capital of Orthodoxy. This was not only proved wrong by events, it even seemed quite delusional. Many would say it was an example of the worst kind of nationalism, namely, the kind that uses religion as a pretext for imperial expansion. It’s true that the litany of human suffering set out by Ivan Karamazov and the experience of meaninglessness described in A Gentle Spirit summed up why many people were unable to believe in God, but the age-old alliance between religion and empire had been just as off-putting to many millions more. If Dostoevsky had faced the challenges of suffering and meaninglessness more unflinchingly than any other writer of his time (or since), he seemed to have been blind to the effects of religion being co-opted by imperialism. ‘God on our side’ might make some people feel good, but it reduced God to a pawn in the politicians’ game and that was not really a God worth believing in. ‘When Britain first at heaven’s command’ and all that? Surely not.

            I could sense him watching me attentively, as if he could see that I was struggling with a difficult thought. Several times before, I’d had the feeling that he could actually read my thoughts. But if that was so then all the more reason not to hold back.

            “I mean, Fyodor Mikhailovich, I’m quite prepared to accept that your young Russian volunteers of the 1870s were motivated by selfless humanitarian reasons, but when you wrote ‘Constantinople will be ours’, wasn’t that something else? Wasn’t that a call to conquest rather than to protect the victims of Turkish misrule? Wasn’t it just a straightforward piece of imperial adventurism, just like Britain, France, Germany and the other European powers in Africa?”

            He kept his eyes fixed on me throughout this barrage of rhetorical questions, but his response wasn’t at all what I’d expected. He laughed, with an open and unaffected laugh.

            “So! You really have got round to reading my Diary of a Writer! I’m delighted. Congratulations.” At this point he even gave my knee a cheery slap. He was clearly no ghost, as I could feel the pressure of his hand quite distinctly.

            “But,” he continued in a more serious tone, “I think that like most of my Western readers and, yes, some of the Russians, you haven’t been reading it very carefully. I never wrote that Russia should simply seize Constantinople and annex it to Russia. Not at all. My point was that once Constantinople had been taken, Russia would protect it as an open city for all Orthodox peoples, giving a Christian people spread over half the world their own Christian capital, like the Jews had their Jerusalem and the Muslims their Mecca. A free city, for all the Orthodox especially—of course—but also for all peoples to come as pilgrims to worship at the shrine of Holy Wisdom. And” (looking at me reproachfully) “if it hadn’t been for your Lord Beaconsfield—Disraeli—it would have happened. No. It wasn’t about empire. It was what you now call a humanitarian intervention. Don’t you think that’s a good thing?”

            I wasn’t too sure. Of course, it didn’t help that I didn’t really know all that much about the historical background to the events he was talking about. But even though I accepted the idea of humanitarian intervention in principle I suspected that there wasn’t always too much connection between the principle and the practice. We intervened when our enemies broke the rules but looked the other way when our friends broke the same rules. And, in any case (and as far as I understood it), what Dostoevsky had been writing about back then wasn’t what we would call a humanitarian intervention but an international pan-Slavic movement that was using Christianity as a rallying call for overthrowing theb Turkish Empire. ‘In this sign conquer’ or something like that.

            “Of course, I accept that the Bulgarians and Serbs suffered under Turkish rule and had every right to try to gain their freedom. But that’s my point—it’s one thing to free people from oppression: it’s another to start re-drawing the map on the basis of rather vague ideas about national identity and religion.”

            “Not just vague ideas and not just religion—but brotherhood.”

            “Yes, but aren’t we all brothers? When I was a child we used to sing a song at school about ‘the brotherhood of man keeps growing’. Isn’t that the only brotherhood that matters? Christ’s fellowship has to be universal, surely? It can’t just be Russians or Orthodox or Muslims, for that matter, who count as ‘brothers’?”

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