Conversation 5 ‘Light from the East’: Episode 3

Fyodor Mikhailovich looked down and, holding the edge of the bench, shifted his body uncomfortably from side to side.

            “You misunderstand me. I know that all men are brothers. Yes, of course. Remember what I wrote about the Chechen prisoner Ali who was with me in the camp and whom I taught to read, using my New Testament. We loved each other and he, like me, loved the words of Jesus on the Mount.  Christ is no stranger to any man. Brotherhood is for all, but there are degrees of brotherhood and a people like the Russian people, bound together in a common faith, under the protection of a common father their Tsar, are brothers in a very special way—just like your brothers are special to you in a way that’s different from the brothers next door.”

            I didn’t actually have any brothers, but that didn’t seem worth mentioning.

            “But how does that work out today, when Russians no longer have a common faith or a Tsar? I know Putin uses talk about Russian brotherhood to justify sending his soldiers into Crimea and Ukraine, but to the rest of the world it just looks like a power grab.”

            Fyodor Mikhailovich sighed, raised his eyes to heaven and muttered something I couldn’t make out. He looked troubled, perhaps more so than at any point in our conversations so far, but when he spoke he was very, very firm.

            “Let’s be very clear,” he said. “One thing I cannot do—cannot do, may not do—is to comment on what’s going on in your world, in your ‘today’. Your time is your time, not mine, and dealing with it is your duty, not mine. Even if I had opinions—and I’m not saying that I do—I may not share them with you. Of course, we are aware of what is happening in your world, but we have other tasks. Anyway,” he smiled, “why would you ever expect a nineteenth century novelist to solve your world’s problems? Even if the human heart hasn’t changed so much in the last two hundred years, everything else has. Not least in Russia.”

            “But some people think your ideas are very relevant to our contemporary problems, Fyodor Mikhailovich,” I protested, “and I don’t just mean the Russian nationalists. There are those who say that you’re the one who’s given the best analysis so far of one of the biggest challenges facing us today: international terrorism.”     

            A smile flickered on his face and he nodded.

            “Yes, yes, yes—and that’s just the point, don’t you see?”

            “What’s the point?”

            “That the explanation for terrorism isn’t the ideology of this or that group of terrorists—anarchism, nationalism, communism, Islam or whatever it may be. That always changes from generation to generation, but it’s not what really motivates the terrorist.”

            “Then what does?”

            “It’s young men—mostly young men, but also some young women—who’ve grown up expecting more than the world can give them, maybe because they’ve been educated for a life that don’t exist, or brought up to think that the world should accommodate itself to their wishes—this famous autonomy—, or perhaps just feel that the world won’t do anything for them because their fathers never did anything for them, or maybe because their natural desire to achieve something and be someone is met with humiliation or laughter. And so you’ve got a gap between expectation and reality and when that gap is too intense and shared by too many people, then you get the explosion. It’s like I say: the human heart, its needs, its hopes, and its reactions don’t change too much in the course of two hundred years, though circumstances change. I can’t tell you the specific reasons for the terrorism of your time, that is, I can’t explain why just this group of people at just this time have been drawn to terrorism. Still less can I tell you or your world-leaders what to do about it. Those are your tasks, not mine. But I can tell you that it’s a mistake just to focus on the theories that the terrorists themselves proclaim because, for the most part, they’re based on self-deception. Don’t look at the theory, look at the person. Beyond that, I can’t really help you—but don’t worry. There are still many other things for us to talk about. Many things. The most important things.” He nodded his head vigorously. “But brotherhood: that is the rock on which we must build. And” (he smiled) “I’ve not forgotten what we were talking about last time, so, just to be clear: brotherhood and sisterhood, men and women, brothers and sisters, one family!”

            His words were, in a way (and I’m sure were meant to be), comforting. But I suddenly felt very alone. I was, I suppose, the epitome of an uprooted, classless intellectual. I’d never been part of an old-fashioned working-class community (if such a thing still existed) or any ‘community’ for that matter. Still less did I enjoy the kind of advantage that comes from having an aristocratic lineage or having attended some elite school. I’d never really been part of any ‘we’, except for the small nuclear family I’d grown up in, seeing our relatives only a few times a year for uncomfortable family gatherings, and moving every few years as my father went up the promotion ladder of his company. Just the sort of deracinated liberal—the ‘superfluous men’—that Dostoevsky saw as having such a negative effect on the national brotherhood of all true Russians who still loved their soil and their traditions. Again, I felt bound to voice my objections or, at least, reservations.

            “But what about those on the outside, Fyodor Mikhailovich? What about those who are not members of that family? What about those of us who aren’t Russians? How do we get to join the club?”

            Fyodor Mikhailovich hesitated, his head bobbing almost imperceptibly in a way I’d become used to. Unexpectedly, he gave a gentle and fond laugh.

            “My daughter Liubov, you know” (I didn’t) “had some strange ideas. She always said that I was really a Lithuanian and chose to become a Russian. That was quite wrong, of course, but maybe I did have to learn what it meant to be Russian, to reconnect with my Russian roots, chiefly on account of what I experienced in prison.”

            “Yes, but I don’t even have any Russian roots to reconnect to,” I wailed. “How does this help me?”

            Even as I was asking speaking, I became aware of a rather odd-looking young man walking towards us. I say ‘young’ but he could have been anything between twenty-five and forty. What was most striking about him was an extraordinary mane of wavy brown hair that framed his thin bearded face, almost like a picture of Jesus in a child’s Bible–only a Jesus with wild hair. Perhaps John the Baptist rather than Jesus. His face was exceptionally animated. He looked constantly from side to side but without really focussing on anything, giving the impression that he was somehow detached from the world around him. Perhaps he was on something. He was wearing a dark-grey reefer-type jacket cut in an unusual way, almost military-style and rather old-fashioned. Maybe a survivor of the 1980s New Romantics. Or even the 60s. Clearly not someone entirely at home in the present.

            Just as I noticed him, he too noticed us and I was astonished when he immediately raised his hand in greeting. “Fyodor Mikhailovich! I found you at last!” he called out.

            Fyodor Mikhailovich looked round and jumped up—quite energetically—to greet the new arrival. “Vladimir Sergeyevich,” he said warmly as they embraced and kissed Russian-style. Still with one arm round Vladimir Sergeyevich (whoever he was), Dostoevsky gestured towards me. “Here, sit down, join us. I’m sure my friend here will appreciate your help. We’re not quite seeing eye to eye today. He might find some of your ideas a bit more congenial.”           

Vladimir Sergeyevich reached out a hand towards me but, stopping short of taking my hand, finished the gesture with a small wave. “Vladimir Sergeyevich Solovyov,” he said and sat down.

3 thoughts on “Conversation 5 ‘Light from the East’: Episode 3

  1. What a compelling way to end this very important (and possibly my favourite so far) chapter extract! Similar to his elder friend, in his belief in ‘the spirit of truth, the spirit of charity, the spirit of life, the spirit of liberty’ Vladimir Sergeyevich Solovyov cared so much for the religious and intellectual emancipation of Russia.


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