Conversation 5 ‘Light from the East’. Episode 4

I have to admit, I was unnerved. I had never read any of Solovyov’s works, but I knew who he was—a brilliant young philosopher whose lectures on divine humanity had been attended by Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and others and who had made an epochal impact on Russian thought. I also knew that in the last years of Fyodor Mikhailovich’s life the two of them had become friends and had travelled together to visit the holy Elder Amvrosy who had counselled Fyodor Mikhailovich about the death of his son. But what unnerved me most was, to put it crudely, another dead person turning up in my life! I couldn’t help thinking of a movie in which a woman is visited by her dead husband and they rekindle their love. So far, so good. But then he starts bringing his friends, until her house is full of dead people. Was that going to happen to me? Was I really losing it? Yet, here we were, in the middle of the park, in broad daylight, with people coming and going. And though both of then looked a bit odd, it all seemed strangely normal—apart from the fact that they were dead.

            Fyodor Mikhailovich turned to Solovyov with a broad smile.

            “You’ve come at just the right time. You see, my friend is wanting to know how to become a Russian and I’m trying to explain that that’s not the point, but maybe you can explain it better.”

            “You don’t really think that Fyodor Mikhailovich’s message is really just for Russians, do you?” asked Solovyov, looking at me intently.

            “Well, not exactly that, but he seems to be saying that there’s a certain kind of brotherhood that’s unique to Russians.”

            “No, no, you’re missing the point,” said Solovyov, pressing his hands together and leaning forward. “Of course, he believed that the Russian people—like every people—had a distinct essence or spirit, one that, until our time, had been kept hidden: hidden until the time was right for its word to be spoken to the world. It was, of course, Christ’s own word, spoken 1800 years before but now destined to be spoken anew in our time, in our language, spoken to the world and, I emphasize, for the world. The light comes from the East, but it comes to illuminate the whole world.”

            “So what was—is—this essence?”

            “What was it? Why, what could it be except for the Christian idea of a universal human brotherhood in Christ’s name.”

            “But hadn’t that been proclaimed many times before, maybe even in every generation since Christ’s own time?”

            “Yes, it had been proclaimed many times—but also forgotten just as many times! And in our time, in our nineteenth century, our age of reason, industry, and empire, our age of unbelief, it was in danger of being forgotten once and for all. So it was never more urgent for it to be spoken anew. Russia was a chosen people, but she was chosen to serve the world through her new word, not to rule over it.”

            Solovyov spoke quietly, but there was an ecstatic quality in the way he spoke, almost like an orator who had arrived at the key moment of his speech. It was impressive, certainly, but I was left not quite sure what to say. I shouldn’t have worried, because before I could say anything Fyodor Mikhailovich intervened.

            “You see, the Russian genius is not a genius for ruling, it is a genius for sympathy, for entering into every culture and every human experience. Our literature is not just for ourselves, but draws on every literature—English, French, Italian, German, all literatures—to show every people their own portrait.”

            We’d spoken before about how Dostoevsky had been influenced by a whole constellation of major Western writers and had in turn become a part of world literature, but there was something here that niggled.

            “I don’t doubt that your books help readers around the world to re-evaluate their own lives. Maybe that’s what’s happening to me now. But I have to say that the way you depict foreigners in your novels isn’t always very sympathetic. In fact, and as far as I can remember, every Frenchmen, Pole, or German you introduce is made to seem pretty repellent.”

            He smiled at me as one smiles at a child who keeps on getting the simplest of sums wrong.

            “Look. The world of my novels is the world experienced by nineteenth century Russians. It couldn’t be anything else, could it? But don’t you remember what we’ve said before about lies and truth, about literature and reality? The point is not what this nineteenth century Russian thought or felt about that nineteenth century Polak. The point is what their encounter—and all the human misunderstanding and error it involved—points to in our universal human experience, as Vladimir Sergeyevich just explained.”

            I still wasn’t entirely convinced, but Solovyov was now speaking again.

            “Let me put it like this. Before Fyodor Mikhailovich began writing, who was there to speak for those he called the insulted and the injured, the unfortunates, those rejected by society or just simply ignored and left to one side, the slaves, all of those bypassed by history? Where were their voices? Even when they cried out, they were not heard. Their reality was, of course, often ugly, chaotic, and even terrifying. But didn’t they too deserve a place in history, some part in the development of the great synthesis? And this was the man who gave them their voice, who showed the world all the freedom, all the love, all the humanity of those who had been deprived of freedom, love, and humanity. The man in man!” As he said this, he placed his hand on Fyodor Mikhailovich’s rather rounded shoulder and smiled at him, his eyes flashing, almost like a lover or devotee. Fyodor Mikhailovich smiled back, with a broad, simple, and somehow humble smile.

            “So does that make you a revolutionary, Fyodor Mikhailovich?” I asked, suddenly feeling strangely cheerful, as if caught up in the spirit of Solovyov’s declamation. “Were you the spokesman for the wretched of the earth?”

            “Not in that way.” He shook his head. “But of course I understood them, the best of them, the revolutionaries. What person possessed of any degree of moral sensibility could fail to be aroused to anger by what the people suffered? Except that our human idea of righteous anger isn’t always the same as Christ’s. Not anger, you see, but love. Brotherhood.”

            “Yes,” added Solovyov, “not a classless society of equal rights but a real community of love—a Church, the true Church of universal humanity.”

            “A Church?” I asked. “You mean the Russian Church?”

            “The universal Church,” replied Solovyov.

            “The Orthodox heart,” added Dostoevsky. I wasn’t quite sure whether this was intended to correct or simply to explain what his friend had just said.

            “But a church,” I said, “a church with its buildings, its priests, its hierarchies, and its dogmas? How does that help universal humanity? I mean, I’m not against the church and I sometimes go myself, but it seems very difficult for human beings to have any kind of religious fellowship without it immediately becoming exclusive and dividing people from one another instead of bringing them together in this universal human brotherhood Vladimir Sergeyevich spoke of.”

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