Conversation 6: ‘The Jewish Question’. Episode 1.

            My next conversation with Dostoevsky, the sixth, was both unexpected and painful and in many ways I wished I didn’t have to write it, although it perhaps ended better than at one point I’d feared. The simplest thing is to just tell it like it happened.

            There was a lot to think about after our last conversation. I reminded myself that Fyodor Mikhailovich had said quite emphatically that you couldn’t apply his writings directly to modern society and that his focus was not on social organization but on what he called ‘the man in man’. In those terms, what mattered wasn’t what he wrote about Russia in the late nineteenth century but about how being Russian in the late nineteenth century revealed universal human experiences of suffering, love, and faith. We, his readers, then had to make sense of that in our own time. Which, of course, left the question: how? As to the church, I wasn’t really all that much wiser, though I did keep thinking about Solovyov’s insistence that our spiritual needs required some kind of community that was able to keep a critical distance from the state and not get submerged in the generality of social opinion. That’s my gloss on what he said, of course. It’s clear that, for him, this had to be the Church. I wasn’t quite so sure. Our circumstances were now so different and the Church had become such a small part of life.

            A couple of days after the conversation in the park Laura mentioned that her colleague Sally had seen me with a couple of characters whom she’d described as weird-looking and having a heated argument in some incomprehensible language that she thought might have been Hungarian. 

            “I wondered if it was Russian?” she laughed.

            “Yes, maybe it was,” I said as vaguely as I could.

            “Dostoevsky?” she asked.

            “Naturally,” I answered, guessing that the best way of deflecting her question was to tell the truth, while sounding as light-hearted as I could about it, as if it wasn’t really anything worth talking about at all.      

            “Naturally,” she said, thoughtfully. “So what were you and Dostoevsky arguing about?”

            “Well, I wasn’t actually arguing,” I said, which, as far as it went, was true. “I just happened to be sitting there and they came along … I don’t know what they were talking about really …” Again, it was true that when they had slipped into Russian, I had stopped being able to follow them. I was obviously not telling the whole truth—but how could I do that without sounding crazy? 

            “Well, you never know who you’re going to meet in the park, do you?” she remarked, giving me a long steady look that could have been interpreted as inquisitorial, but which I chose to take as a simple statement of fact.

            “That’s right … so, about lunch …”

            And that was that.

            A few days later I ran into Carl in the cafeteria where I’d gone for a mid-morning espresso. He was on the way out as I was on the way in.

            “Hi, I was just thinking of you,” he said warmly.

            “Me? Why’s that?”

            “Dostoevsky … perhaps you’ve noticed there’s going to be a seminar in the religious studies department on Friday next week about Dostoevsky. I thought perhaps I’d go—I imagine you’ll be there.”

            “No, I hadn’t heard of it. What’s it about?”

            “Dostoevsky and Anti-Semitism. It sounds interesting.”       

            “Dostoevsky and Anti-Semitism. Wow!” I gulped. “That’s not something I’ve ever thought about.”

            Carl looked at me quizzically.

            “I mean, I’ve read somewhere that he was Anti-Semitic but I don’t really know what it amounts to. I suppose I’d better come and find out.”

            “Great, see you there,” he said. “I’ve met the speaker at a couple of events—he’s very smart. Oh, and by the way, Laura was really helpful about the grant application. Fantastic.”

            “Thanks, I’ll pass that on. See you there.”

            Later I checked the details on the website. The actual title of the seminar was ‘Dostoevsky, Anti-Semitism, and the Third Reich’ and was being given by someone called Peter Greenhill-Jones, a senior lecturer in Politics and Literature at one of the London universities. It didn’t sound very much like the sort of topic you’d get in a religious studies seminar but as I’d never been to one before I suppose I wouldn’t know.

            It hadn’t struck me before that there could be any connection between Dostoevsky, Anti-Semitism, and the Third Reich—but perhaps that’s what Greenhill-Jones too was going to argue. But then, why ask the question in the first place? No smoke without fire. The website only gave the title of the paper without an abstract, so there was no way of knowing in advance just what he was going to say. I looked up his webpage, but there was nothing that related specifically to Dostoevsky. I could see why Carl might be interested though, since Greenhill-Jones too flagged critical theory as one of his areas of research—Adorno and Benjamin were mentioned, amongst others. It seemed he was also interested in the representation of Jews in German culture in the early twentieth century and there was a long list of figures and topics he’d written about or given papers on: Ludwig Wittgenstein, Karl Kraus, Martin Buber, Franz Kafka, Max Brod, Thomas Mann, Leon Feuchtwanger, Knud Hamsun, the Nazi ideologist Rosenberg, and the movie Nosferatu. Still, this didn’t provide many clues as to what he might say about Dostoevsky.

            I remembered that there was something about ‘The Jewish Question’ in The Diary of a Writer and thought that might be a good place to start. Given the usual end of term accumulation of work it was fortunate that the relevant section was only about twenty pages long and wouldn’t take too long to read.

            I wished I hadn’t.

            It didn’t start out too badly. Dostoevsky writes that some of his Jewish readers have been complaining about his hatred for the Jews and he wants to defend himself. They’ve misunderstood me, he says. He even gives a long quotation from one of them. So far, so good—though the letter mentions something I’d noticed in another article from The Diaryabout how Disraeli directed British policy in the service of the Jews (from Dostoevsky’s point of view, of course, Britain was ‘the enemy’). At the time, I hadn’t really dwelt on it, but it suddenly seemed more significant.

            What was Dostoevsky’s response? He starts off by saying that there’s no people on earth who complain about their lot as much as the Jews and then goes on to say that the sufferings of the Jews in Russia are really no worse than those of the Russian peasants before the emancipation. Really?

            Dostoevsky clearly didn’t share my doubts. Instead, he doubled down, adding that one of the unforeseen consequences of the emancipation of the serfs was that the peasants were now at the mercy of the Jews, who exploited them mercilessly, just as (he says) happened to the America negroes after the Civil War. The same thing also happened in Lithuania where the Catholic clergy were the only ones to defend the peasants against a flood of cheap vodka sold to them by the Jews (I’m just repeating what he wrote). Well, at least he finally has a good word for the Catholic clergy, I thought. But, coming back to the Jews, not only do the Russians have no preconceived hatred of the Jews (he says), but it’s the Jews who hold themselves apart from Russians. Imagine, he says, that instead of eighty million Russian and three million Jews, there were three million Russians and eighty million Jews, “Would they permit them to worship freely in their midst? Wouldn’t they convert them into slaves? Worse than that: wouldn’t they skin them altogether? Wouldn’t they slaughter them to the last man, to the point of complete extermination, as they used to do with alien people in ancient times, during their ancient history?”

            I just about stopped reading at this point. I mean I’m not sure that a writer would even be allowed to publish anything like that today. It’s the sort of thing that even Facebook would take down. And, apart from the unpleasant content, I was finding it hard to reconcile these words with the Dostoevsky I’d been coming to know, a diffident, humorous, generous, and attentive person who seemed quite incapable of this sort of outburst. But I did carry on. I felt I ought. I’m sorry to say it was mostly more of the same, insinuating that the Jews maintained some kind of ‘state within the state’ and pursued their own interests at the expense of the gentiles amongst whom they lived. He acknowledges there are some Jews looking for more humane relationships with their neighbours, but this seems like a pretty small concession in the wake of everything that’s gone before. 

            Again, I was tempted to give up, but the title of the next section ‘But Long Live Brotherhood’ suggested there might be something a bit more encouraging. It was—a bit, and he does come out in support of full civil rights for Jews, which, I guess, wasn’t the general opinion back then.

            Finally, he tells a story about a Christian doctor, who, like Dr Herzenstube in The Brothers Karamazov, was a member of the very pious German community in Russia and, also like his fictional counterpart, served his community with extreme self-sacrificing love and humility. In this case, the doctor in question, a Dr Hindenburg, had lived in a mixed community of Jews and Christians, tending to both with complete dedication, even when some of the most impoverished Jews were unable to pay him. At his funeral, both the Protestant minister and the Rabbi gave eulogies and Jews and Christians together prayed for his soul. An isolated case, Dostoevsky acknowledges, but it’s only such isolated cases that can provide the building blocks for future reconciliation. An isolated case, indeed, and not one that really did much to outweigh the charge sheet he’d drawn up against the Jews.

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