Fyodor Mikhailovich, where are you today?

Oh, Fyodor Mikhailovich, where are you when we need you? Or, to be honest, when we want to be able to let off our frustration and anger? And, no, we don’t agree with those universities that are taking your books off their reading-lists as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. We will continue to value your words—as we value Tolstoy’s, Chekhov’s, and so many others’—because they have shaped the way we think, no, the way we are. Without you, our humanity would be diminished.

I know you said that you can’t supply the answers to our present-day problems and that we have to work these out for ourselves. But when we talked about nationalism all those months ago in Kelvingrove Park, it all seemed somehow simpler, more theoretical. Now, all those things you wrote about Russia and its superiority over the West, about how a nation can be cleansed by war, and your praise for the Russian volunteers fighting for Bulgaria and Serbia—what does that all mean today? Does it mean you would be cheering at the destruction of Kharkiv, Mariupol, and Kiev, with Odessa and Lviv to come? Some might think so, but could you really have accepted Slav fighting Slav, Russian-speaker fighting Russian-speaker? I can’t believe it—but I suppose it might depend what information you had and whether you believed it. What if you really believed Russians were being massacred in Donetsk and that Russia had only stepped in to help and protect …? But surely you were too smart to be taken in by those sorts of justifications? I don’t know. And then, just as I’m getting plunged into gloom, I remember what you said about Russia’s truly distinctive capacity being the ability to enter into and sympathize with the views of all other European nations. And I remember that your defining theme was ‘the man in man’, what makes us all (Russian, Ukrainian, English, Scottish, French, etc., etc.) human—the eternal soul that exists beyond our divisions of nationhood and official religiosity. I must hold on to that.

I want to echo the words of Elizaveta Prokofievna at the end of The Idiot, looking at the sad, silent figure of the beloved Prince Myshkin: come back to us. But I know you won’t and can’t. God knows, I’m lucky for the meetings we did enjoy. I can’t expect you to be there at every crisis in life. No, it’s up to us now not to let your words be taken and twisted in the cause of violence and hate. You know, I’ve several times thought that of all the characters in your novels, the one that the Russian President most resembles is Peter Verkhovensky, the ruthless conspiratorial leader of a nihilist organization dedicated to subverting the rule of law in Russian society. It’s not for me to judge any individual, and that’s not my point. But one thing I did learn from you was that nihilism can use any vocabulary that suits its purposes because it’s ultimately indifferent to truth. Like your Grand Inquisitor, it can even adopt the language of Christianity. But does it respect the freedom and the dignity of the individual? Does it love the person? There’s the rub.

No, I won’t stop reading you, you can be sure of that—and I’ll go on listening to Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich and, if it’s ever possible, I’d love to visit Moscow one more time in my life. I cherish my Russian friends. But, today, I can’t help thinking of the words of the Marquis de Custine, who said that since he had visited Russia (in 1839) he saw the future of Europe in black. You wouldn’t agree with that and I don’t want to. But his words haunt me. And then, on the other side, I think also of what Berdyaev wrote about you. I’m not quoting this to flatter you, but to help me hold fast to the promise of that other Russia, the Russia of Sonia, Myshkin, Zosima and Alyosha; the Russia of saints who died rather than lift their hands against their brothers, the Russia of spiritual pilgrims and witnesses to truth who faced down history’s worst tyrants; the Russia of artists, writers, musicians, and dancers who created sublime images of what we—all—might become in a transfigured world. 

‘So great is the worth of Dostoievsky that to have produced him is by itself sufficient justification for the existence of the Russian people in the world; and he will bear witness for his countrymen at the last judgement of the nations.’

I write these words and, of course you don’t appear. I didn’t think you would. But I seem to hear your voice, from somewhere not too far off … ‘Please, I’m only a writer …’

2 thoughts on “Fyodor Mikhailovich, where are you today?

  1. Dear George,
    Indeed, as you kept suggesting in Conversations, we should not require of Dostoevsky a vision of what is going beyond his age. Slav fighting Slav… Russians fighting Nazi… Dostoevsky could not foresee the Civil War and WWII to come, simply because they went beyond his age. Yet they have become inseparable from the Russian history, and without them it is impossible to know the post-Dostoevsky’s Russia. She has passed through the ordeal of the two apocalyptic wars to get purified and fit for the ongoing spiritual quest. Without this new knowledge it would be too problematic to talk to Dostoevsky again. Perhaps the first step to acquisition of this new knowledge would be to correct a misleading vision of him whom you unfairly compare to a ‘ruthless leader’ borrowed from the Possessed. You right, it might be helpful to visit Moscow once more to see for yourself what is in fact going on. Our Moscow flat will be at your disposal for as long as you need to develop a new vision. It might also be helpful to add to Tolstoy and Chekhov mentioned another Tolstoy, Aleksey, and Sholokhov, I mean The Road to Calvary and The Quiet Don Flows.
    Thanks a lot for raising a voice in support of Dostoevsky and Russia.
    Sergei

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  2. Dear Sergei, Many thanks for your comments – coincidentally we last night started watching the 1958 movie of Sholokhov’s Quiet Flows the Don (my wife has read Sholokhov’s novels, I, alas, haven’t) – but, of course, you’re right: there’s so much to read. I was very impressed with Vodolazkin’s Laurus and have no doubt that Russia will continue to contribute remarkable works of great spiritual depth to world literature. And thank you for the offer of accommodation – though I fear it will be several years before travel arrangements return to anything like normal.
    Is the comparison of the Russian President to Peter Verkhovensky ‘unfair’? Of course, there’s never any exact fit between any literary person and any later actual person. But it does seem to me that Dostoevsky’s portrayal of nihilism, epitomised in P.V., is not only aimed at the then ‘left-wing’ version (remember the Grand Inquisitor, a ‘Christian’!) but any figure or movement that subordinates the actuality of living human life to ideological abstractions and this, it seems to me, is what we are seeing in the initiation of a war that will produce no good, no good for Ukraine, clearly, but also no good for Russia itself, alas. And, of course, we must bear in mind both that there cannot be any direct application of any 19th century work (in any country) to present circumstance and also that we also have multiple other resources, historical and contemporary, for interpreting God’s call in our time.

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