Conversation 6: ‘The Jewish Question’. Episode 3.

When the speaker had finished, the chair (who declared at the outset that he’d never read any Dostoevsky) asked for questions or comments. There was the customary silence. I was even starting to wonder whether anyone else was going to say anything—I had several comments lined up but this wasn’t my home turf, so to speak, and it didn’t seem right for me to go first.

            The silence was eventually broken by an older colleague, maybe retired, who’d been sitting at the far end of the room from the speaker. He’d spent a lot of the time looking out of the window and occasionally checking his phone, and I’d wondered whether he’d been listening at all or whether, perhaps, he was only there out of duty.  

            He lifted his hand in a rather languid way.    

            “Professor Allan,” said the chair, clearly relieved that things were getting underway.

            “Thank you,” Professor Allan said, “and thank you to the speaker for a very thorough if rather depressing paper.” He spoke with the kind of slightly supercilious drawl that I associated with the more self-consciously upper middle-class suburbs of Edinburgh. “I dare say that a lot of what you argue is correct, but surely the point is that at that time nearly everyone in Europe was Anti-Semitic. You make a lot of Dostoevsky characterizing Jews in terms of their being ruthlessly acquisitive, cultivating a state within the state, and so on and so forth. But these are all standard tropes that Dostoevsky shared with all his contemporaries. What makes him worse than any of the rest?”

            Almost without pausing to think, the speaker answered in a slightly irritable tone, as if this was the sort of question only a fool would ask. Perhaps he also felt he was being talked down to by the older man.

            “Well, that’s obvious,” he said. “But I don’t see that it makes it any better and the fact is that there were a great many writers, philosophers, and social reformers who were developing a much more positive approach to Jews and Judaism. Think of George Eliot. And, as I tried to emphasize, my paper wasn’t just about Dostoevsky but about the impact—the deleterious impact—that his ideas had on the first generation of his German readers.”

            “But an author can’t be responsible for his readers,” replied Professor Allan dismissively. “And if we’re talking about the Nazis, then they were exceptionally unscrupulous readers who tried to enlist all the important figures of Western culture into their cause—Shakespeare, Bach, even Jesus. They claimed them all. So the fact that some Nazis also liked Dostoevsky doesn’t really prove anything.”

            Prof Greenhill-Jones shrugged.

            “Maybe not,” he smiled, rather grimly, “but he gave it to them on a plate.”

            Uncomfortable silence.

            “Next question?”

            I was working hard on formulating my thoughts, when, slightly to my surprise, Carl (who’d acknowledged not being very knowledgeable about Dostoevsky) chipped in.

            “Hi, Peter,” he began. “I don’t have any objections to the main thrust of your paper,” he continued, “but perhaps relating to the last comment about how Dostoevsky was being so badly misread in the 1920s, I do think many of these readers were projecting back into Dostoevsky ideas that were, basically, everywhere in the radical right at the time—but also the left. If I’m not mistaken, I think the connection between mysticism and terrorism is from George Lukacs, although this is the kind of political extremism that moves very quickly from left to right or vice versa.”

            “Yes. That’s what I was saying.”

            “But my point is that it’s not Dostoevsky himself. And when it comes to the dictator theory he is surely only one of many sources—de Maistre, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Schmitt, Cortès. And the same goes for Anti-Semitism, which was endemic in German culture long before they started reading Dostoevsky. Think of Wagner and what Nietzsche’s sister did with her brother’s writings, even though he was openly contemptuous of Anti-Semites.”

            “Maybe. I did mention Nietzsche. But that doesn’t absolve Dostoevsky.”

            “I don’t say it does, but you gave the impression that he was somehow uniquely responsible, whereas I’m arguing that, actually, he was only a very small piece of a much larger mosaic.”

            He shrugged again and didn’t seem inclined to follow this up.

            “Anyone else?” came plaintively from the chair.

            “Sorry,” said Carl, “maybe I didn’t put my point very clearly. The issue seems to me to be really about how important any literary text, including Dostoevsky, was to the development of the radical right. I don’t deny that writers and artists had a role on the left and on the right, but it was a secondary role. Any ideas they contributed had to be processed through political debate and were ultimately evaluated on their political, not their literary merits. OK, so there was an expressionist fringe, who saw art as itself being a kind of revolution, but they were fairly quickly brushed aside.”

            “But this just my objection to Dostoevsky,” Greenhill-Jones retorted. “That he’s a political theorist who dresses his views up as literature and it’s the political effect of his work we should be most worried about.” 

            “That doesn’t make any sense,” said a youngish man in a t-shirt with a geometric design that reminded me of something by one of the Russian constructivists. He seemed fairly self-assured in any case. The speaker understandably stiffened.

            “Yes, Greg,” said the chair, who looked worried that things might be starting to get out of control.

            “Yeah, it doesn’t make any sense,” continued Greg, “because once you stop reading Dostoevsky as literature, there’s no point really. He was a novelist, that’s it. In fact, I doubt whether there’s a consistent political philosophy in his work at all. But that’s not what anyone reads it for, anyway. In any case, you could turn the whole argument upside down. I mean, if you took Bakhtin’s view that none of his characters can be identified with Dostoevsky’s own voice, then why not see The Diary of a Writer as a kind of fiction, a thought-experiment, if you like? Putting it out there to see how people react.”

            This seemed to me to be not taking Dostoevsky seriously enough. I was sure he did mean a lot of what he wrote in The Diary and at least some of it resonated with the fiction.

            “If you take that approach, then any writer could mean just about anything,” Greenhill-Jones said severely. “It reduces writing to play.”

            “Isn’t that what writing—literature—is?” asked the young man.

            “Not at all. For Dostoevsky and the other leading modernist writers writing was a means of trying to change society. That’s why what they say about society is the key to understanding them.”

            Another pause. I raised my hand.

            “Yes?”

            “Thanks for the paper. What you say about the articles on ‘The Jewish Question’ is regrettably correct, and I don’t think we can entirely write the articles off as thought-experiments, though it’s an intriguing idea.”

            As I began speaking, a man who’d come in a little late, shortly after the start of the paper, suddenly leaned forward as if to listen more attentively. He was probably in his mid-thirties, rather pale, and with a wispy moustache. I couldn’t see him properly as he was sitting to one side and slightly behind me, but I’d sensed him fidgeting rather nervously at several points during the paper and generally giving off a sense of anxiety. Some strange people do turn up at these seminars.  He seemed vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t place him.

            I continued.

            “But, to be fair to Dostoevsky, although you mentioned that he ended by calling for reconciliation between Christian and Jews, I didn’t feel that you gave it sufficient emphasis. I mean, talking about a Rabbi and a Pastor jointly presiding at the funeral of the German doctor isn’t the sort of thing you usually get from Anti-Semites, is it?”

            “As you say, I mentioned that. But it’s clear that Dostoevsky takes with one hand what he gives with the other. Throughout this passage it’s the goodness of the Christian doctor he emphasizes and though the doctor is good to Jews, they’re not allowed any real agency of their own. They just have to be grateful. You can see this even more clearly when he goes on to describe how the whole story could be encapsulated in the kind of genre painting popular at the time. The picture shows the eighty-year-old doctor tearing up his shirt to use for the new-born baby of a destitute Jewish family. Then …” he paused and brought up a document on his laptop, which he then read out. “Then—I’m quoting—he has the doctor say, ‘“This poor little Yiddisher will grow up, and, perhaps, he himself will take his shirt off his shoulders and, remembering the story of his birth, will give it to a Christian” … Will this come to pass? Most probably not.’ So, what I take from this is that even the self-sacrificial example of the good Christian is not going to be enough to move the Jew to be equally charitable. Why not? Because, as I’ve said, Dostoevsky regards the Jew qua Jew as deeply and essentially morally corrupt and immune to compassion.”

            I couldn’t complain that I hadn’t had a full answer, though I still thought what he said was probably too one-sided—but I didn’t immediately have a counter-quotation at my fingertips. I’d also wanted to say something about how he read the figure of Isay Fomich, which I remembered as being far more positive. But while I was thinking, another voice joined in. This was a middle-aged woman sitting just the far side of Carl. She had short wavy brown hair and a likeable, rather humorous face. When she spoke, it was with a distinct Russian accent, though her English was very good. She didn’t wait to be asked by the chair but just spoke up.

            “Of course, we know all this about Dostoevsky and Anti-Semitism. It’s not new. Anti-Semitism is a fact of Russian life. People are anti-Semitic, the Church is anti-Semitic, even the Communists were anti-Semitic. But—so what? I’m Russian, I’m Jewish, I’m Orthodox. Theoretically, this shouldn’t be possible, but here I am. You know what Dmitri Karamazov said about Russia and Russians: Russia is broad, it contains many contradictions. Dostoevsky contains many contradictions and the fact that he was Anti-Semitic didn’t stop him writing beautiful things about Christ, about love, about reconciliation. I don’t see the problem. This is life, not putting people in pigeon-holes. Anti-Semitic, not anti-Semitic, blah blah blah.”

            Again, I caught the latecomer out of the corner of my eye and noticed that he seemed to be blushing.

            One of the students stifled a laugh.   

            “Well, it’s not so funny,” she continued, adjusting her scarf, patterned with brightly coloured flowers on a black background and glaring at him. “Quite a lot of Jews converted to Orthodoxy in the 1980s. Maybe it was the ritual. Maybe it was because it was one of the few ways of expressing spiritual life. Maybe it was a space of intellectual freedom. But it’s a fact.”

            “Thank you, Irina,” said the chair. I sensed that he had previous experience—at least in his mind—of Irina as a disruptive presence in the seminar, though I’d rather liked what she’d said. “Peter?” he asked, turning to the speaker. 

            “Sure. People are not always consistent. That’s obvious,” he said fairly brusquely, clearly irritated by this latest intervention, “but it’s not a question of Dostoevsky as an individual or the Russian character. For us, these are historic texts and we have to read them objectively. If you want to claim Dostoevsky as an important source for modern thought, then you have to be clear as to just what he says and just what kind of influence he had. And he may well have written beautiful things about Christ but that doesn’t—that can’t—justify what he says about Judaism nor the effect that his words had on those who would turn these words into action.”

            “This is not what reading Dostoevsky is about,” said Irina, dismissively, “but, whatever …”

            The chair looked questioningly at her in case she wanted to turn this rather vague comment into a proper question or response, but she just smiled and raised her eyes, as if to say that it would be entirely pointless to try to say anything more.

            The next question wasn’t about Dostoevsky at all but about Russian Orthodoxy and Jewish-Christian relations in Russian history. The questioner was clearly wanting to see this in a more positive light, but Professor Greenhill-Jones wasn’t having any of it. I wasn’t so interested in this rather more theological discussion but went on trying—and failing—to identify just what it was I thought the speaker was missing and trying to remember just what exactly Dostoevsky had said in the story about the doctor. I was sure that what Greenhill-Jones had read out hadn’t been the last word.

            After the last question, the chair announced next week’s topic, thanked Professor Greenhill-Jones for a ‘provocative’ paper and said that although the speaker had to leave promptly to catch a train back to London anyone who wished to join him in the pub to continue the discussion would be welcome. 

            There was a general shuffling about as people gathered their bags and coats. I asked Carl if he was going to the pub but he had another seminar to go to.  Making my way down the stairs I found myself next to the elusively familiar late-arriving man.

            “That was, as the chair said ‘provocative’”, I remarked.

            He nodded, with a slight shrug of the shoulders. It was a gesture I’d become familiar with from our previous conversations and I recognized it immediately. It was Fyodor Mikhailovich, looking (I now realized) as he looked in the photographs taken of him while he was serving in the army, out in Siberia.

            “Fyodor Mikhailovich!” I exclaimed, keeping my voice down so as not to draw attention. “I didn’t recognize you!” 

            “Yes,” he smiled, almost mischievously. “I thought it might be best for an occasion like this to look a bit younger and less like a slightly disreputable old man.”

            By now we were leaving the building and at the bottom of the steps we both stopped. The small crowd was separating out. Carl had already shot off at top speed to his next event and Fyodor Mikhailovich and I found ourselves standing alone. I hadn’t noticed how it happened, but he now looked more like the Dostoevsky I knew from our previous encounters, which was both unsettling and reassuring.

Conversation 6: ‘The Jewish Question’. Episode 2

After reading this, I have to say I felt fairly disillusioned with Dostoevsky for a couple of days. On the one hand I wished he’d turn up and explain himself. On the other hand, I was quite glad he didn’t. It might be the end of a beautiful relationship. I even wondered about giving the seminar a miss, but I felt that would be rather shameful. Even if my hero had feet of clay, it was better to know the truth. Anyway, for all I knew the speaker was going to show that there was some more positive side to the picture, though the mention of the Third Reich wasn’t very promising. So, with a sense of foreboding, I went.

            The room where the seminar was being held looked out over Professor’s Square, a range of grey Victorian buildings in the Scottish baronial style. Splashes of yellow from the first daffodils were appearing in the raised grass plot in the middle of the square and a couple of trees were coming into flower. Spring was in the air.

            There were about a dozen people there, sitting round a long table that filled most of the room. Carl was the only one I knew. We arrived at more or less the same time and sat together. Only two or three of those attending looked like students and the rest were fairly middle-aged, probably academics or maybe mature students. It was a bit different from the mix in our own department. The speaker sat at the end of the table and was concentrating on his laptop screen while exchanging small talk with the chair, a suited and very respectable looking young man. I guessed that Greenhill-Jones must have been about forty, perhaps younger. He had a shaven head and large black-rimmed glasses and wore a blouson leather jacket. He looked very serious, even ‘earnest’. 

            The chair told us that Greenhill-Jones was applying for a major grant on Literature and the Conservative Revolution 1919-1939, which, again, didn’t obviously connect with Dostoevsky. Unfortunately, he didn’t make a lot of effort to engage with the audience but read his paper from his laptop with very little variation in tone or inflection, only occasionally looking up to scan the room, perhaps to make sure we were still paying attention. Well, this was the way people were doing things now. I didn’t like it a lot, but I suppose I was used to it. And it saved paper.

            I made fairly extensive notes, but I’m not going to try to reproduce his whole paper here, just to go through the main points. It’s now available online for anyone who’s interested in reading more (at least, it was at the time of writing). Even in summary, it’s probably too academic for most, but then it is just that—academic! 

            The speaker started out by explaining that he was going to set out three ways in which Dostoevsky had made an important contribution to the rise of National Socialist ideology: firstly, by developing a forceful anti-bourgeois and anti-Western rhetoric; secondly, by undermining the ethical credentials of democratic politics; and, thirdly, by portraying the Jews as the main causes of the malaise of modern society. He would illustrate this from both Dostoevsky’s publicist writings (he meant The Diary of a Writer) and his novels. 

            You can’t say we weren’t warned.

            The paper began with a discussion of the German translations of Dostoevsky’s works. Unlike in the English-speaking world, what the translators called his ‘political writings’ were translated fairly early on, in 1922, and had a big impact on right-wing thinkers. The Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger was only one of those who praised them. One of the editors actually wrote a book called The Third Reich that did a lot to inspire the Nazis. At that time (Greenhill-Jones explained) many Germans were fascinated by what they saw as the extremism of Russian society, swinging from the extreme of Tsarist autocracy to that of Bolshevism: from the complete submission of the people to one man to the complete submission of the people to one party—and Dostoevsky was seen as the essential spokesman for this Russian extremism.

            Like Karl Marx, Dostoevsky accused capitalism of bringing about an endless struggle for the survival of the economically fittest, a struggle that undermined social cohesion and left individuals to sink or swim for themselves. A kind of war of all against all. It’s true that this was something he and I had touched on several times, but (which he hadn’t mentioned to me) Dostoevsky apparently believed that this capitalist revolution was, essentially, a Jewish revolution. In his view, Jews had no loyalties to the wider society to hold them back from single-mindedly pursuing profit, whatever the social cost. When they saw the peasants socially uprooted after emancipation, they didn’t pity them but set about ruthlessly exploiting them. (This fitted in with what he’d written about Lithuania.)

            Then, Greenhill-Jones went on, Dostoevsky’s idea of the unity between Tsar and people provided a model for the totalitarian state. This was a bit more complicated than blaming the Jews for capitalism and seemed also to involve the idea that his writings showed a strange symbiosis between religious mysticism and terrorism. Alyosha Karamazov was an example of this. Although the novel shows him as a saintly young man trying to reconcile his brothers and make peace amongst some squabbling schoolboys, Dostoevsky’s notes show that he would later become a terrorist and be executed. He thought this development was entirely logical. 

            I didn’t really agree with that, not least since Fyodor Mikhailovich and I had touched on how his characters are always evolving in ways that makes it nearly impossible to predict what’s going to happen next. The truth is we just don’t know what Dostoevsky would have done with Alyosha if he’d lived to write the next chapter. What we do know is that nearly all his novels changed radically in the course of being written, so whatever he ended up writing might have been quite the opposite of what he mentioned to his friends. Who knows? But if I didn’t agree with that point, I had difficulty even following the next one.

            The argument was along the lines that the Nazis took the idea of the exceptional or superior man, from Dostoevsky. This superior man was someone who was not bound by legal or moral codes, an idea developed by Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. Such a man was entitled to transgress every social boundary for the sake of his higher idea, like (Raskolnikov thought) Napoleon, Caesar, or Mohammed. He would even have the right to shed blood for his idea. Given Dostoevsky’s analysis of the effects of capitalism, the emergence of such characters in the modern age was actually quite predictable. From here, Greenhill-Jones said, there was a more or less straight line to the dictator-idea that Mussolini and Hitler would seek to embody, though he also mentioned Nietzsche’s idea of the Übermensch as pointing in the same direction. But here was the twist: such a dictatorship (it seemed) would bring us back to the kind of relation between Tsar and people that Dostoevsky so admired. Unlike in bourgeois democracies, with their endless disagreements and debates, leader and people would be one—only this time their unity would not be based on culture or tradition but on the will of the leader.

            This seemed rather peculiar to me. I could understand the Tsar-and-his-people idea and I could understand the Raskolnikov-as-prototype-of-the-dictator idea but they seemed to me to be two completely different things—quite apart from the fact that Dostoevsky never endorsed Raskolnikov’s ideas. In fact, the whole point was to show that they were essentially wrong-headed—or so I’d always thought. 

            Finally—and I suppose I’ve been putting off getting round to this bit—there was how he depicted the Jews. Of course, he went through the passages from The Diary of a Writer I’ve already mentioned, which left me feeling rather weak, but then he turned to the novels.

            “A lot of commentators,” he said, “especially Christian commentators” (he looked round the room at the assembled theologians who were, presumably, mostly Christian) “like to draw a line between Dostoevsky the publicist and Dostoevsky the novelist. There is no such line when it comes to the Jews. Dostoevsky’s Anti-Semitism is just as obvious on the pages of his novels as it is in The Diary of a Writer. We do not have time to go through every example and I shall limit myself today to some of the most egregious and characteristic.”

            So, which were they going to be? I couldn’t immediately think of any examples, but my ignorance was soon vanquished.

            He brushed aside the passages where one or other character makes an Anti-Semitic remark. That, he conceded, could be down to the novelist portraying people as they actually were, with their real-life prejudices. But that was only the tip of the iceberg.

            He began with the character of Isay Fomich Bumstein, a Jewish prisoner—the sole Jewish prisoner—in the prison novel-memoir The House of the Dead. This, he said, was the epitome of an Anti-Semitic caricature of the Jew. Isay Fomich was described as physically scrawny (Dostoevsky said he looked like a chicken), he was a coward, a money-lender, and his prayers were said to involve bizarre and almost inhuman screeching and wailing. He is described as vain and boastful and, because of being Jewish, gets special privileges, being allowed to attend the synagogue in town and paying to get himself whipped with birch-rods, Russian-style, in the steam bath—which Dostoevsky’s narrator incidentally says was a picture of hell itself. The obvious inference was that Isay Fomitch was the most hellish apparition in all of hell. (I didn’t remember the narrator quite saying that and made a mental note to look it up later.)

            From there on, it seemed that there was at least one Anti-Semitic passage in just about every one of the major novels—Crime and PunishmentThe IdiotThe Possessed, and A Raw Youth all got a mention. Whenever a Jew appeared, he was either a coward or a capitalist. 

            Finally, he came to The Brothers Karamazov. Admittedly, there are no Jewish characters here, but, he pointed out, Dostoevsky makes a point of saying how, at a crucial moment in old man Karamazov’s life, he’d gone away to Odessa, where he associated with many Jews. “It may be presumed that at this period he developed a peculiar faculty for making and hoarding money,” comments the narrator. But, as Greenhill-Jones added (and it was hard not to agree), this wasn’t just a more or less accidental character trait, since it was precisely old man Karamazov’s love of money that started off the whole series of catastrophic events that end with his murder. And it wasn’t just making money that he learned from the Jews. When he came back from Odessa, the narrator says, “He behaved not exactly with more dignity but with more effrontery”—again a supposedly Jewish trait that Dostoevsky mentions in The Diary of a Writer.  We are told that “his depravity with women was not simply what it used to be, but even more revolting”, probably alluding to the supposed sexual voraciousness of the Jew. Along with his love of money, this habitual insolence and unrestrained sexual desire also contribute to the tragedy to come. In these ways, and despite being technically a gentile, Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov’s ‘Jewish’ characteristics are what cause the disaster that unfolds in the eight hundred pages that follow. If not Jews themselves, Jewishness is at the root of the whole catastrophe.

            In a final twist he added that one character, Liza, a highly neurotic adolescent, actually replays myths about Jews crucifying Christian children. It couldn’t really get worse—except that when she asks saintly Alyosha if it’s true he merely says he doesn’t know rather than telling her to stop.

            Going back to where he had started, Greenhill-Jones concluded that, for Dostoevsky, the catastrophe of the Karamazov family is a microcosm of Russia itself and Dostoevsky’s solution is that Russia must find its own superior man, a leader whose mystical sense of union with God empowers him to recreate a modern version of the ‘synthetic’ state in which all barriers between leader and people have been dissolved and who is ready to tear up all existing laws and conventions in order to attain this goal.

            “The conclusion then is unavoidable,” he finished up, “Dostoevsky was not only an Anti-Semite but one of the thinkers who provided the essential materials for the emergence of the Hitlerian state.”

            I was fairly sure that this wasn’t really a fair representation of Dostoevsky’s thinking since, as I said, all the ‘superior man’ type characters turn out to be flawed and, as he’d explained to me, their apparent ‘superiority’ is often the manifestation of their inferiority complex. But what were other people—what were these theologians—going to make of all this?

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.

Conversation 5: ‘Light from the East’. Episode 7.

“Let’s begin very simply,” said Fyodor Mikhailovich. “Do you like the spring? Do you like to see the flowers and the new growth? Do you enjoy the birdsong?”

            “Yes, of course—everybody does.”

            “Do you love these things?”

            “I suppose so, but …”

            “But?”

            “Not in the way I love Laura. Of course, in a general sort of way I could say that I love nature and I love going out to walk in the hills, but that’s different from loving someone. And if it’s Christian love we’re talking about, isn’t that about loving people. ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’?”

            “It is. Of course it is. But can you really separate the two?”

            “Surely you have to? I suppose that the landowner that Ivan Karamazov talked about, the one who had a boy killed for startling his horse with a stone, I suppose he loved his horses and dogs well enough. And Ivan Karamazov himself, didn’t he say he loved the sticky buds, that he loved life—but it didn’t help him believe in God, did it?”     

            Fyodor Mikhailovich nodded.

            “Yes, yes, yes. But just what did he love? Or should I say, how did he love? As he himself put it, he loved it even though he couldn’t see any meaning in it. But that was a very different kind of love from Markel’s, wasn’t it?”

            I nodded, recalling the description of Zosima’s brother Markel, a teenager dying of consumption who, in his last days, delights in the birds, trees, meadows and skies he can see through his window. In The Idiot too, another teenager, the angry and nihilistic Ippolit, is taken out to the country, where, someone says, it’s easier to die amongst trees.

            “Yes, I can see that—but I’m not sure why?”

            “For Ivan … it’s a feeling for the life-force flowing in his own veins that he sees mirrored in the sticky buds and it’s his own will-to-life that he experiences in nature. Markel, of course, is dying, his life-force is fading, but he delights in nature for its own sake—perhaps that’s why he asks the birds to forgive him, for not having loved them for their own sakes before. But I think I’m not explaining this very well. Vladimir Sergeyevich, you’re the philosopher. Can you explain?”

            “Of course.” He looked at me inquiringly. “May I?”

            “Please.”

            “I think this is best approached in a philosophical way—but don’t worry, the sort of philosophy I mean is not for specialists. You don’t have to follow long and complex logical arguments. It’s more a way of looking at the world as a whole, a ‘world-view’ as they used to call it. 

            “Now you see, as Ivan Karamazov himself insisted, he was only prepared to look at the world in the perspective of Euclidean geometry. Although he wrote that notorious about church affairs (as we’ve been discussing), he was trained as a natural scientist and that means being trained in the way that a natural scientist was trained in his time, our time. I think science in your time has become somewhat less Euclidean and more alert to the manifold dimensions that encompass our life in the world, but for Ivan and his contemporaries science was limited to the facts of sense-experience, to whatever could be measured and numbered and classified. It was materialism, in a very narrow and limited sense; abstracting matter from the whole organic and dynamic movement of which it was a part. So when Ivan says he loves life, it is only this materialistic love of life that he is talking about, the will-to-life as Schopenhauer put it, a blind, purposeless, material urge. As he says to Alyosha, it doesn’t even involve seeing any meaning in life. But that is not life—or it is only a half of life or even less than half. Don’t mistake me. This materialism too had its justification, its rightful place in the overall development of history. You could even say it was a fruit of Christianity, because Christianity taught men to turn to the earth and not lose themselves in contemplating other-worldly ideas, as Plato and the Platonists had done. All things are growing together into a divine unity and that includes matter. But just as it was a mistake to see truth only in ideas, it is also erroneous to see truth only in matter. The truth is the whole.

            “Let me put this another way. What Ivan sees when he sees the sticky buds of spring is the power of life, the animal vitality of the Karamazov blood that all three brothers feel coursing within them, especially in the sex-drive and the will-to-power. But what Zosima’s brother Markel sees when he looks out from his window is the beauty of life, a beauty that’s quite independent of him, a beauty one can only marvel at without regard to whether it’s any use to ourselves. That’s ‘Platonic’ you might say, and, in a way, you’d be right. Plotinus saw it, certainly, but he still thought that, in the end, we had to turn away from the world to see it as it truly is. Which is because he didn’t know of God as creator, a creator who loves the wisdom that pervades and orders the world as a whole. 

            “You and Fyodor Mikhailovich have talked about Christ’s incarnation and everything Fyodor Mikhailovich said was true, and I would only add that incarnation is the supreme moment of a movement that runs from the beginning of creation to its end. It’s a process that we too are part of, not only bringing humanity together in universal fellowship but bringing the whole of creation, the whole cosmos, back to God in praise. 

            “All of this is to say that you cannot love human beings unless you also love the world that has brought them forth in the material dimension of their lives and, equally, that, unlike those friends you talked about, you cannot really love the world of nature if this does not lead you to love your fellow human beings. The sympathy that brings us close to each other is a universal sympathy, it’s the divine love that moves all things.”

            He stopped.

            It was a lot to take in. Fyodor Mikhailovich was looking up, smiling, his eyes twitching. I looked down, nodding gently. I think I’d followed it all.

            “So you see,” began Fyodor Mikhailovich, turning to look at me, “you see why Markel asks the birds to forgive him and why Zosima tells his disciples to kiss the earth, to kiss it and water it with their tears—remember what he said: ‘Love all God’s creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything and you will see the divine mystery in all things.’ We are not lords of creation any more than we are lords over each other. On the contrary, we are all too often busy destroying all that God has made well and wishes to make even better. Yes, we must ask the earth and all that lives on earth for forgiveness.”

            “My friend, Tamsin, then … she’s right to say we should be tuning in to the vibrations of the cosmos …?”

            “If she means it with love, if ‘tuning in’, as she puts it, increases love and enlarges your sympathy—of course!”
            “That poor crazy woman Maria Lebyatkina—she too talked of watering the earth with her tears: so was she right when she also said that the earth was the mother of God?”

            “Not quite,” replied Fyodor Mikhailovich and paused, momentarily absorbed in a melancholy thought. “She too—like, but also very unlike Ivan Fyodorovich—she too had only half the truth, she too loved the earth but without seeing its truth, its truth in God. Not that she was a materialist like Ivan. She wasn’t an intellectual at all but lived entirely in her feelings. She was, you could say, lost in her feelings. Literally, lost. And yet she also realized in her strange intuitive way that she needed something more, which is why she dreamed of a prince who would come to her like a falcon and lift her up into the air, taking her to the heaven that would help her see the earth in its true perspective. But, of course, it was a fantasy, a feeling that could never find true expression—and, as she said, her prince turned out to be only an owl. Perhaps you like owls, but the peasants used to think that when an owl visits your house it’s a sign of death.”

            “Whereas Alyosha experiences heaven—the Milky Way—sinking down into the earth that he kisses and waters with his tears. He experiences the unity of both.” This was half a statement and half a question.

            “And why his experience is inseparable from the need to forgive, to be forgiven, and the realization that others are praying for him.” Fyodor Mikhailovich finished my thought for me. 

            “Maria sees only the earth, only tears, only death; she cannot see beyond the part to the whole of which it is a part and into which it is constantly growing,” added Vladimir Sergeyevich. “And yet it is true that the earth and all that is in it manifests the divine wisdom, mother of all things—but this is not the earth’s own wisdom; it is not the earth that brings forth wisdom or is wisdom but it is wisdom, divine wisdom, that brings forth the earth. This is the wisdom that God loves, cherishes, and makes infinitely fruitful in all the infinite variety of life. In nature and in humanity, both.”

            As I’d felt a couple of times before in our conversation, Solovyov’s ideas were somehow elusive. I sensed a meaning in them, a flash of light that, for an instant, irradiated his words, but I couldn’t quite get a clear grip on what exactly he was saying. I thought of a passage I’d always remembered from the Bible where wisdom is described as God’s beloved daughter, playing before him in creation and wondered how far Solovyov wanted to push the idea of wisdom as a female divine principle. I also wondered how far Fyodor Mikhailovich agreed. I knew of his veneration for the image of the Madonna, which we’d discussed before, but this seemed rather different.

            Probably Fyodor Mikhailovich could see my uncertainty, as he patted me on the knee.

            “Vladimir Sergeyevich thinks about these things as a philosopher thinks. I was only a novelist, a teller of stories. But I think that what Zosima said was true, that ‘all is like an ocean, all is flowing and blending’, and what we think or feel or do may have effects in worlds we never know and what is done in those other worlds may have effects on us, a passing thought, a glance of recognition, a moment of love. Naturally, the materialists, whether they are scientists, philosophers, or just lovers of champagne and oysters think that both philosophers and novelists are foolish and maybe even just a bit mad. And maybe they’re right. But if there is no such unity, if there is no such higher world for our world to aspire to, then, indeed, it is as we discussed in our first conversation and we are no more than insects crawling over the face of an empty and meaningless earth that has no light other than the light of a dead sun. But it is not so!”

            He spoke these last words with unusual force. Then, quite suddenly, he seemed to relax.

            “But, my goodness, look at the time! Shouldn’t you be getting back to work?”

            I looked at my watch. It was nearly three o’clock. I had a student coming at three and a class at four. I could forget about fitting in a quick trip to the library but if I left now I’d be back in my room by five past and, probably, the student wouldn’t turn up until ten past. In any case, she’d wait for at least ten minutes. But it seemed a waste of an opportunity to leave them both just as I was starting to feel—however uncertainly and confusedly—how our conversations were starting to connect up.

            “Um … er … I do have a student coming to see me,” I said, in a tone suggesting I’d be happy to be contradicted.

            “Then you must go,” said Fyodor Mikhailovich, slapping his hands on his thighs and starting to get up. As he did so, he touched Vladimir Sergeyevich on the arm. “Come on, my friend, we too have others to see, many others.”

            We were all three standing now.

            “I go this way,” I said, gesturing towards the university.

            “And we go that way,” replied Fyodor Mikhailovich. They each gave a slight bow in my direction, turned, and walked off. Again, I had the impression that they’d slipped into talking in Russian as, I suppose, they would, no longer having to make themselves intelligible to me. After I’d walked a couple of hundred metres, my head full of our conversation, I turned to see if they had vanished. At first I thought they had, but, then I saw that they’d gone down to the lower level and were standing looking at the Stewart Memorial Fountain. Fyodor Mikhailovich pointed up at it and, remembering his admiration for Sir Walter Scott, I wondered whether he was telling Vladimir Sergeyevich about Scott’s poem of the Lady of the Lake whose statue topped the fountain’s Gothic pinnacle. I felt a drop of rain and, plunging my hands into my pockets, resumed my way back to the university.

Conversation 5: ‘Light from the East’. Episode 6.

So there I was, laughing with dead people in Kelvingrove Park. Unembarrassed, absurd laughter. I was reminded of how Dostoevsky’s fictional Elder Zosima tells his followers that faith can only be communicated through joy. Perhaps there was no answer to my questions—only laughter? But I wasn’t prepared to let go just yet.

            “Excuse us, please,” chuckled Fyodor Mikhailovich, “we never could agree about the Church!”

            “But aren’t you both now in a situation where you know which is the true Church … I mean from your new vantage point, as it were … there?”

            Fyodor Mikhailovich raised his hands towards his forehead, as if searching for the right words.

            “You see, I told you before that we cannot comment on what is happening in your world now and when you say ‘church’ I think you mean the visible historical insitutions that people call churches. But we are limited in other ways too. We cannot stand in judgement on history past or present. Only when, as Vladimir Sergeyevich said, God is all in all—only then will we too know the truth once and for all. But we do agree—and I think everyone here, where we are, has the same opinion—that, whatever else it does, the Church must act in the world. That was the point of my making Alyosha Karamazov leave the monastery to go out into the world. But he doesn’t set himself up as a new Peter, he doesn’t make himself his disciples’ leader. He is simply their friend, and he, in turn, lets them go out into their lives, each in their own way. And remember, it was Zosima himself who sent him out and wouldn’t let him remain—as he wanted—in the monastery.”

            I remembered from The Brothers Karamazov the story of how Alyosha came across a group of boys throwing stones at another boy, Ilyusha, whose father, it turned out, had been publicly humiliated by Alyosha’s brother, Dmitri. Alyosha befriends the boys and helps them to be reconciled to Ilyusha who, in good Victorian fashion, is dying from consumption and whose family are too poor to get help. After Ilyusha’s death, Alyosha gathers the boys at a large stone on the edge of the town (presumably a reference to Peter, whom Christ called the Rock) and urges them to keep alive the memory of Ilyusha and to remember how they had become friends with him. This, he says, will be a consolation and a guide to them in the time that lies ahead, a reminder of how they ought to be and how they can be, no matter how wicked the world around them. Keeping Ilyusha’s memory alive will be an ‘eternal memory’ (he said) of what goodness really is.

            “So you both agree that the Church must get down into the mud, like St Nicholas, that it must reconnect with the people?”

            “The Church—our Church—never left the people; it was always there, alongside them, sharing their suffering and their hope. Christ was always with them, and their hearts understood him. Always.”

            I could see Solovyov shaking his head, but Fyodor Mikhailovich’s words brought me back to the problem with which we’d started—the people. Who is this ‘people’? Is it only the Russian people? Both Fyodor Mikhailovich and Vladimir Sergeyevich had said not, but that still left me with the question as to just who they were and how I could get to be one of them!

            “So, this people, Fyodor Mikhailovich, who are they? How do I find them? How do I become one of them? You say—Vladimir Sergeyevich says—that it’s not just about Russians, it’s the man in man that matters, universal humanity, sympathy. But where does someone like me begin?”

            “Someone like you?”

            “Not just me, but someone of my time; someone who’s living over two hundred years after the industrial revolution began and after all the wars and revolutions and technological transformations of the twentieth century; someone living in a post-industrial, pluralistic, secular age. I mean, there is no ‘people’ anymore, not even in the sense in which there was still something like an industrial working class just fifty years ago. Everything has become fragmented and individualized and the ‘people’ are probably more preoccupied by building their conservatories or their loft extensions, by their pension plans or just their next holiday in the sun. Does being with the people mean driving to the retail park at the weekend or joining the queue for the next flight to Malaga? Just what does it mean these days?”

            They both looked at me intently, perhaps wondering whether I was going to say more, but I’d run out of steam. Fyodor Mikhailovich nodded sympathetically, while Solovyov seemed more doubtful.

            “Well, of course, all these tendencies were true in our day already. People were more and more taken up with their own affairs and when it came to their neighbours it was a matter of ‘What’s that got to do with me?’ Or, which is the same thing, if their neighbours got too close it would be ‘Why’s it any business of yours?’ Of course, this was especially true in the cities and amongst the middle-classes, the people who’d been exposed to all those Western ideas about everybody being a law to themselves. As I said—as you know—I felt, I knew, that the common people still had a different kind of reality and that the Russian heart was still an Orthodox heart. But you’re right, even in Russia that heart has been broken many, many times and it’s as true of nations as of individuals that heartbreak can lead to despair—and a heart that’s been broken too many times inevitably becomes hardened. Even in Russia—and, yes, even in our time, you could see this already in the West, where spiritual life had become almost extinguished …”

            “Come, come,” said Solovyov, a little impatiently, but sympathetically, as one would rebuke a child.

            “Very well, but, please note, I didn’t say it was extinct and I concede that London, Paris, Geneva, and the Spa towns, the places I knew best, weren’t the whole of the West. Perhaps the worst of it. Maybe I was unlucky in what I saw and experienced. Maybe something of a genuine Christian solidarity still lived on, in hiding, as it were.”

            “You yourself said you thought that maybe there was an affinity between the Italian and Russian peasants,” I added, remembering one of our previous conversations.

            “Yes, maybe, maybe. But the truth is that even in the cities, even where the life of the community has become most fragmented and individualized, even in the rootless and despairing crowd there remains a certain sympathy, a certain possibility of sympathy.”

            “Like the story you told me about the young father you saw out for his Sunday afternoon walk?”

            “Exactly so.”

            Solovyov leant forward and shook a school-teacherly finger at me.

            “You see, this is what Fyodor Mikhailovich can do; it’s what he did more than anyone before him ever did. He takes the people who have been uprooted and find themselves adrift in a world of catastrophic forces they cannot control and shows that they too have the same needs of the heart as any other human being. I was a philosopher and I spoke about universal humanity—but he shows you the universal in the individual, in any individual, in each individual.”

            I couldn’t help noticing that Fyodor Mikhailovich looked rather self-conscious and even that he was blushing—just a little.

            Still feeling the after-effects of our moment of shared laughter, I almost joked as I asked whether that meant I really could reconnect to the people and rediscover the common human heart at the retail park or the airport.

            “Why not? Perhaps those people are building their house extension to care for their ageing parents and perhaps they spend half the night, every night, sitting up by their old father’s bedside, helping him to the bathroom, dressing his wounds; perhaps they are travelling to be reunited with a child they haven’t seen for half a lifetime or to consummate a love-affair that is as deeply felt as the love between Romeo and Juliet. And maybe as tragic. And those people down there” (he gestured towards the network of paths below where we were sitting) “what do we really know of why they are here or what troubles await them when they go home? I could only write about my Russian reality, as it was then, and perhaps I was too hasty to deny that humanity in other nations—perhaps—but let every one of us look for that humanity wherever we are, whoever we are. There are stories to be told about those people too. And not only about their crimes and miseries. Love your neighbour, even if he’s really rather repellent and someone you wouldn’t like to mix with socially. You’re no better than him. But—more importantly—both of you are better than you know.”

            “Yes, but it’s so hard … there are so many layers to get through, so many masks, so many roles to negotiate. How do I know when I’ve got to the real person, the one behind the mask?”

            “You don’t know, of course, you feel and trust your feeling. It’s like your feeling for life itself.” I guess that I looked blank because he stopped and put a forefinger to his lips as if trying to think and then asked what seemed like a bit of a non sequitur.  “Tell me, are you warm?”

            “I’m OK. It’s quite mild for February and I’m well wrapped up so, yes, I’m warm enough.”

            “How do you know that?”

            “I just feel it!”

            I began to see what he was getting at, but he wasn’t finished.

            “And do you see those flowers beneath that tree over there or the buds forming on the ends of the branches?”

            “Yes, of course.”

            “And what do they mean?”

            “Well, they don’t really mean anything, but I suppose they’re a sign that spring will be here in a few weeks.”

            “And how do you know that?”

            “I don’t know. I’ve always known it. Everyone knows it.”

            “Exactly.”

            “Exactly?”

            “Yes, exactly.”

            “But surely there’s a difference between knowing whether you’re hot or cold or being able to recognize the signs of spring and being able to read the human heart? Isn’t there a world of difference between the world of nature and the human world? Yes, I know about Wordsworth and the Romantics … and I know about the Neo-Pagans … and our friend Tamsin is always telling us that we have to tune in to the rhythms of the cosmos. But even if I did, how would that help me be more in tune with my fellow human beings? In fact, it’s often struck me that the people who talk most about being at one with the universe tend to be even more self-absorbed than the rest of us, as if dealing with some of the really bad stuff that’s going on all around us would ruin their cosmic harmonies.”

            Mikhail Fyodorovich and Solovyov looked at each other questioningly, as if asking which of them should reply. Fyodor Mikhailovich spoke first.

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

Fyodor Mikhailovich looked at Solovyov, as if inviting him to speak—which he did.

            “Of course, you need a church. I know that many people in your time say that you don’t need a church and you don’t need to go to church to be a Christian and they were saying it in our time too. But think what happens if you don’t have a church, if you just have vague ideas of love, freedom, and fellowship. Maybe someone here and someone there will be inspired to live by those ideas, but let’s be realistic: where are they going to get those ideas from if there isn’t some historical organ to teach them, if they don’t learn about the examples of Christ and the saints to show them how to put them into practice? Even more importantly, don’t imagine for a moment that if you give up having a church then the state will give up being a state. On the contrary, without a church the state itself will take over the church’s tasks and take it upon itself to teach people the values they should live by and to punish them if they fail to do so. Once you’ve reached that point, it’s then only a small step into complete tyranny. If there isn’t a living community to witness to the truth that God alone is God, then you can be sure that Caesar will seize the opportunity and make himself god—as happened in Rome and innumerable times since.”

            “So how do we know what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God? Christ asked the question, but I don’t think he answered it and I don’t think anyone else ever has either.”

            Solovyov’s eyes flashed, ominously I felt, but an amused smile suggested he’d been expecting just this question.

            “It’s not easy. Ultimately, of course, there can be no division. All life is one and all is moved by the one divine spirit; but here and now, in the middle of history, there’s still a long way to go before this is universally acknowledged. For now, there must be church and state, until the time when the church has infused the state with Christ’s spirit, which is to say that there’s no immediate or simple answer to your question. Both the church and the state relate to the whole of life but they do so in different ways, meaning that they cannot ultimately be separated in the way that your Western theorists tried to separate them by saying ‘This belongs to the Church’ and ‘This belongs to the State’, the so-called ‘division of powers’. That just invites endless conflict. But, no: the Church relates to the whole of life and, in the end, it will become the whole of life but only by using its proper means of freedom and love. Without freedom and love, it ceases to be a church.”

            As he was talking, I remembered one of the first scenes in The Brothers Karamazov in which there is a heated discussion between Ivan Karamazov and some monks about an article Ivan has written. In this article he had argued that the state should be transformed into a kind of church, making itself a moral and spiritual organism as well as a means of preserving and ordering human beings’ material life in the world. He had also argued that whereas a person now can commit a crime and still regard himself as belonging to the church (even if he also knows that the church requires him to repent), to be caught committing a crime in the state that has become a church would result in being completely excluded from every form of society. It would be a kind of terror that no one could endure. The kind of leverage that, perhaps, people experienced in the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany. Even without the threat of torture. Then, suddenly, I remembered reading somewhere that Solovyov had in fact been a model for Ivan and, without thinking, blurted out that what Vladimir Sergeyevich had just said was surely the argument of Ivan’s article.

            Dostoevsky and Solovyov looked at each other. Fyodor Mikhailovich raised his eyebrows questioningly. I was afraid I’d put my foot in it—after all, Ivan is eventually revealed as the principal theorist of nihilism in the novel and, after being visited by the devil, ends by having a mental breakdown. Had I perhaps offended Solovyov by associating him with this strange schizoid character? Much to my relief (and surprise), he burst out laughing.

            “So, you’re thinking that I’m Ivan?” he asked, as if delighted at the idea. “Well, some of his ideas are not entirely bad—if he really means them. But does he?”

            He looked at Fyodor Mikhailovich, who pursed his lips but said nothing.

            “You mean,” I said, “that maybe he’s just playing with ideas for the sake of it?”

            “Exactly. But the question is a real one. Wars and revolutions have been fought over it—just look at what happened in Europe between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. But I’m not talking about the church taking over the state or the state taking over the church in a political way. I say again: the church can only progress by using its own proper means of freedom, love, and brotherhood. If it uses any other means, then it’s no longer the church.”

            “Like the Grand Inquisitor!” I said.

            “Exactly—although we’ve been talking about the state turning itself into a church and the Grand Inquisitor torturing and burning those he decides are heretics is more an example of a church turning itself into a state.”

            “The Catholic idea,” muttered Fyodor Mikhailovich, though I seemed to detect a teasing or perhaps self-deprecating tone in the way he said it.

            “Not at all the Catholic idea!” declared Solovyov. “A perversion of the Catholic idea, maybe. I grant you that it was a perversion that did appear on earth, in history. And maybe it lasted many hundreds of years. The Inquisition happened. People tortured and burned their fellow Christians in the name of Christ. There can be no excuse. But that is not the Catholic idea, as you can see from the fact that since our time the Catholic Church herself has learned a greater humility and no longer promotes wars in the so-called defence of the Church. Its authority is and can only be a spiritual authority, not the authority of the sword.”

            “Nevertheless,” said Fyodor Mikhailovich, as if reluctant to concede the point, “nevertheless, what happened remains a warning. Not that the Protestants were any better. They too tortured and burned their enemies. In the end, whether the church makes itself into a state or the state makes itself into a church, it’s no different from communism. Trying to rule over men’s material and spiritual needs at the same time will inevitably end up by destroying the difference between them. It’s the politics of the ant-heap.”

            “We’re agreed on that,” interjected Solovyov. “But I still say that, for now, at the present stage of history—and that may yet last a long, long time—we cannot leave the state to itself. It is not enough just to appeal to the vague spiritual longing of the masses, the ‘Russian soul’, if you like.”

            Fyodor Mikhailovich shifted uncomfortably as Solovyov said this, but he carried on without seeming to notice.

            “Christ’s new word needs someone to speak it, someone who can speak it in Christ’s name, someone with authority. That is why He appointed Peter to be the foundation of his Church: because without a real living person to be its spiritual father, the Church can never really be the Church, just some kind of religious organization.”

            “Yes, yes, yes,” Fyodor Mikhailovich interrupted, “this is all very fine as an argument, but you must remember that Peter isn’t the same as Rome. Yes, every Church needs to be grounded in the life of a human being who is willing to give himself or herself in love and to take responsibility for their flock, but that doesn’t of itself justify the argument that the Pope must always and forever be the primary authority in the Church. The Pope may be Peter’s successor, but is he the successor to his office only or his spirit? And the spirit cannot be constrained—it blows where it will, does it not?”

            “Of course, the Pope should not rule alone, which the Catholic Church itself now understands. Peter needs Paul and both need John.”

            “Sorry?” I asked, puzzled at these rather obscure references.

            “The Pope,” Solovyov explained, “is the successor of Peter” (Fyodor Mikhailovich shrugged), “while the Protestant churches have taken the mantle of Paul, and we, in the East, are the heirs of John. Only the witness of all three is the true Christian witness, but one must have authority—until the time when God is indeed all in all. And,” he continued, looking sideways at Fyodor Mikhailovich, “before that happens, the Christian witness must also rejoin the witness of the Jews.”

            I wasn’t really used to this kind of theological argument and many of its terms were strange to me. Although Solovyov was still looking intently at me, I turned away and again scanned the view across the city towards the estuary. The streaky silver clouds were darkening and it was starting to look as if rain might be coming in. I turned back to Vladimir Sergeyevich.

            “I’m not at all sure where this is going,” I began, “but I’m inclined to agree—at least, I think I agree—with Fyodor Mikhailovich. I mean, how can you have authority without some sort of compulsion being involved? Isn’t the whole point of exercising authority down to the fact that people don’t spontaneously do the right thing? So don’t you then have to end up forcing them to do it?”

            Solovyov shook his head.

            “Not at all. If you see someone walking towards a cliff edge, don’t you warn them about the danger is? So why shouldn’t it be the same in the moral universe, when you see someone behaving in ways that are likely to cause harm to themselves or others? Don’t you warn, rebuke, persuade? Don’t you do all you can to bring them back onto the right way?”

            “Yes, but that’s different from telling someone what to believe, isn’t it?”

            “Not at all. Telling someone the truth isn’t forcing them to accept it.”

            “Not when their own hearts witness to that truth,” added Fyodor Mikhailovich.

            “Fyodor Mikhailovich,” said Solovyov, taking his friend’s hand and speaking in a softer voice. “You know what I think: that you, more than anyone, have shown how even the most abused heart can still nurture a flame of love for God and even those who imagine themselves made in the image of the Beast are, nevertheless, loved by their creator, fellow creatures with saints and angels. But if the truth of the heart is to become a universal truth it needs to become manifest, it needs a social form. We believed, didn’t we, that such a form existed in Russia and that the love of Tsar and people connected the whole of society, but I think we were disappointed.” Dostoevsky shrugged again. Solovyov turned to me and explained. “You see, when Alexander the Second was assassinated, I, like Fyodor Mikhailovich, looked on the Tsar as a true father to his people and so I appealed to his successor to spare the murderers. But, of course, he didn’t. In fact, I lost my post and became what you might call a vagabond, relying on the protection of friends just to stay alive. And all for a letter that didn’t ask for anything more than simple Christian compassion.” He sighed. “Alas, in the end, the Tsar too was an earthly ruler, like any other earthly ruler—and that is why we need a Church capable of speaking with an independent voice, which our beloved Orthodox Church could not do and, in the end, allowed itself to become little more than a servant of the state.”

            He paused before continuing.

            “Let me tell you a story” he began. “Once upon a time St Nicholas and St Cassian had been sent back to visit earth, for a reason we are not told. On their way through Russia they came across a peasant whose cart had got stuck in the mud. ‘Come on,’ said St Nicholas, ‘we must help this poor fellow out’. ‘But if we do that,’ replied St Cassian, ‘my heavenly robe will be stained with mud.’ ‘Well, you carry on,’ said St Nicholas, ‘and I’ll rejoin you when I can’. And so St Nicholas went down and helped the peasant get the cart moving and, of course, his heavenly robe was indeed stained with mud. When they got back to paradise, St Peter was surprised and asked what had happened. St Nicholas explained. ‘Very well,’ said St Peter, ‘because you cared more about the peasant than your beautiful shining robes, you, Nicholas, will become the most venerated of all the saints in Russia and your feast will be celebrated twice a year. But you,’ he said, turning to Cassian, ‘because you worried more about soiling your own robe, your feast will be celebrated only once every four years only.’ And this is how it is with the Church. The Western Church has taken the risk and gone out into the world and, of course, its robes have been soiled as a result. I do not dispute that. Our Orthodoxy believed that it could keep itself pure behind the monastery walls but although that too is a way of serving God it is not the better way.”

            Fyodor Mikhailovich lifted his hands weakly in what might have been a gesture of protest, before letting them fall back on his knees while emitting a noise that sounded like a cross between a grunt and a laugh.

            “I like your story, Vladimir Sergeyevich,” he said, ‘but it says the opposite of what you think it says. Of course, St Nicholas is the most beloved saint of the Russian people, precisely because he was willing to get down in the mud beside them and be alongside them in their suffering. Some in Orthodoxy have retreated from the world, it’s true, but the true Russian Church is not found on Mount Athos, it’s found in every Russian village and its rites accompany every poor forgotten earthly soul, no matter how humble and downtrodden. The Russian monk was not retreating from the world, he was keeping the people’s treasure secure, so as to return it to them in those moments when they needed it most.”

            “But it’s not enough to be religious,” insisted Solovyov “the Church that prays must also be the Church that acts, in the world!”

            “That’s all very well and good,” said Fyodor Mikhailovich, “but this so-called independent Church: doesn’t its independence mean becoming independent of the people? As long as the people know that the Church is with them, that its teachers are praying for them and caring for them, they will accept it. But the moment when the Church cares more for the Church than for the people—and this must happen as soon as the Church constitutes itself as a separate and distinct organization within society, insisting on itself and its own laws as the condition of salvation—in that moment, the Church is no longer a part of the common life; it has made itself a power over the people. It can act, you say, but its action is for itself and no longer for the people.”

            I don’t quite know when it began but at about this point I suddenly became aware that the two of them were speaking what I assumed was Russian, as if they were carrying on a conversation they’d been having for a long time and had forgotten about my presence. Maybe this had been going on for several minutes and I had somehow been able to understand it by virtue of the strange alterations of language that were involved in communication between our world and theirs but after this point I lost track. Fyodor Mikhailovich said something to which Solovyov gave long reply, delivered in an exultant oratorical style, while Fyodor Mikhailovich was almost literally bouncing up and down as he tried to get a word in. They were causing quite a commotion and I was aware that people passing by were looking rather oddly at them—at us. A couple of young men kept looking back and smirking. A woman nodded at me and I realized it was someone who worked in Laura’s office, though I didn’t know her well. I nodded back, rather uncomfortably.

            This continued for a minute or more, until I coughed rather loudly to remind them that I was still there. They both stopped immediately and looked round at me. More or less at the same time they apologized and burst into laughter, simple, joyous laughter, like a child’s—and couldn’t help joining in. Laughing with dead people. What next?

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.”

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.

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’?”

Conversation 5. ‘Light from the East’. Episode 1.

Over (a late) breakfast, I was eager to put some of the points Dostoevsky had made about his depiction of women to Laura. But it didn’t get very far. She acknowledged (as I’d half-suspected) that she had been playing devil’s advocate (at least in part) and I acknowledged that, of course, she had a point. I suggested that it was Dostoevsky’s society and not Dostoevsky himself that was to blame for the kinds of horrific experiences endured by so many women in his novels and she didn’t disagree. She explained that this didn’t stop her getting a lot out of the novels—enjoying them even—but the fact remained that women got a pretty raw deal in them. Then, inevitably, we got to talking about our friends and we decided (probably for the hundredth time) that Martin was a pain in the neck and always had been. Laura shook her head. “I don’t know how Tamsin stands him”, she said. We also agreed that Carl was OK but a bit prickly. “Too ideological,” I said. “Maybe,” said Laura non-committally.

            We didn’t exactly avoid talking about Dostoevsky after that and when he did get mentioned I was circumspect in my comments—but when she started reading The Brothers Karamazov a couple of weeks later, I couldn’t help teasing her, just a little. She in turn said, almost triumphally, “You see. I was right. It starts with a rape and a mad woman!” “But isn’t that the world we live in?” I asked. “And isn’t Dostoevsky trying to ask us how to change it?”

            Obviously, I didn’t stop thinking about him and about everything he’d said in our conversations. I was starting to realize that up until now I’d only really glimpsed the smallest part of what was going on in his writings, even though I’d read most of the major fiction by now, some of it several times. It was a whole new world, and I’d only just landed on its shores. Claiming to ‘know’ Dostoevsky was a bit like someone I once met who said he’d visited most of countries in the world, only to add that in many cases he’d only been in the airport. You can’t really call that knowing a country, not even if you buy a bagful of souvenirs to take home.

            Dostoevsky’s world, then. A difficult world to get into and find your way around in and not just because of the difficult Russian names and the bizarre behaviour of its inhabitants. I was starting to realize that I wasn’t going to get very far in this world or understand what was going on in it if I wasn’t prepared to face some questions, difficult questions, about myself. I’d started off asking Fyodor Mikhailovitch about how you can find faith in a world that didn’t seem to have neither God nor purpose, just a random chaos of matter that had haphazardly evolved to where we are now. But just what was it I was looking for? I was keeping a line of communication open to the church, but I didn’t really think I was going to find what I was looking for there and I wasn’t really attracted to any of the new religious movements I’d come across—too many beatific smiles. Where was the passion? Where was the depth? And I didn’t want to be a Druid or Neo-Pagan either. My academic conscience wouldn’t allow me to tolerate the historical inaccuracies that their made-up mythologies seemed to involve. Nothing seemed to work for me—but then, where was my passion? What, if anything, was I really prepared to give myself to?

            Don’t imagine I thought about these things all the time. I did have a job to go to and once the semester had started the usual round of teaching, meetings, grant applications, project reviews, etc., etc. absorbed most of my waking hours and left me incapable of anything much except watching nature documentaries or crime dramas for a couple of hours in the evening. And I should add that, to be honest, I quite liked a lot of what I did. On a good day there was a hum in the air. This semester I’d committed to a course on the devil in modern literature and had chosen texts from Marlowe, Milton, Goethe, Byron, Poe, Dostoevsky, Mark Twain, Thomas—and Klaus—Mann. I hadn’t imagined any of the students had read any of them before and was doubtful as to whether more than half of them would read the quite short excerpts I’d selected for them. Probably they’d just settle for whatever they could pick up from Wikipedia or online study guides. In the event, I was proved wrong and you could even say it was fun. There was quite a lot of sympathy for the devil in the class and the discussions were lively.

            If I had time in the middle of the day and when the weather wasn’t too bad (which it often was), I liked to get off campus and take a walk round Kelvingrove Park to clear my head. Sometimes, I’d sit on one of the benches at the top level looking back over the park and out towards the Clyde estuary. Down below people were busy at whatever they do: mothers (and sometimes fathers) and children, students (singly or in groups), runners, people going into the city centre or returning from it. The wind stirred the trees lining the Kelvin valley. It was a mild late February day with a high cover of silver-grey clouds and though spring was still some way off scattered bunches of crocuses and snowdrops provided random splashes of colour, while daffodils were pushing up through the ground in large clumps and new buds were forming on some of the trees.

            I often liked to picture big international exhibitions that celebrated science, industry and the British Empire that were held here back in Victorian times, at the height of Glasgow’s wealth and prestige. A massive iron dome, medieval castles, and Indian palaces had once stood right below where I was sitting. The red sandstone turrets of the Kelvingrove museum, which looked as if they had been borrowed from some Mughal palace, were the last reminder of those days, the days of an Empire on which, they said, the sun never sets. Well, it has set now.

            My thoughts about this ‘glorious’ past were interrupted by a Scottish National Party supporter handing me a leaflet that was covered with the blue and white saltires that had become a symbol of the independence cause. The leaflet was calling me to a big pro-independence rally this upcoming Saturday. I didn’t expect to go. Even though I’d like to see an independent Scotland I didn’t like the flags and slogans or noisy emotions. And demonstrations don’t change anything anyway.

            Empire. Nationhood. What were these things all about? Apart from anything else, they both seemed a bit irrelevant to the multicultural reality of university life. Perhaps academics were collectively citizens of everywhere even if that meant they ended up being citizens of nowhere. It struck me that Fyodor Mikhailovich wouldn’t like that line of thinking.

            Fine. But there were several things that needed doing back at the office, as always, and a book I needed to borrow from the library. Later, I had a tutorial meeting with a student. Time to move. I was just standing up to go when I became aware of someone who, I suppose, had been sitting next to me on the bench for quite a few minutes without me noticing. It was a middle-aged man, wearing a rather featureless overcoat in some sort of close check design. Even though it wasn’t that cold, his collar was turned up and, since his face was turned away from me, I couldn’t immediately make out his features, only the dome of his balding head with some loose wispy hairs catching the soft breeze. I noticed he was wearing woollen mittens and rubbing his hands with a wringing movement as if to keep warm. He was also muttering to himself, though I couldn’t make out what he was saying. The kind of odd character you get in the park in the middle of the day, I suppose. I adjusted my jacket, ready to go, and as I did he looked round. I immediately sat down again.

            “Fyodor Mikhailovich,” I exclaimed. “It’s you!”

            “As you see”.

            “But … but ….?”

            “You mean: How can you be here, in public, where people might notice, maybe one of your colleagues? Perhaps they might start asking questions?”

            “Well … yes … something like that …I mean … well, they might … if they could see you … or am I the only one who can see you here?” It was very confusing, and I was confused.

            “Anyone can see me, I suppose.” He wrinkled his eyes and glanced round, but there was no one nearby. “The truth is, though, they’re probably not that interested. After all, who am I to them? Just an old man on a park bench.”

            He looked up and scanned the view, nodding thoughtfully to himself. I wondered what he made of it and whether he had a particular reason for coming here, just now. Was there something he particularly wanted to say? If there was, he didn’t seem to be in a hurry to say it. Perhaps he was waiting for me to begin.