I’ve spent the last week ploughing through the 1,400 pages of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Writer’s Diary. (Boy, that guy knew how to churn out the words!!) The experience has left me pretty well acquainted with the writer’s views on the Russian People (with a capital ‘P’), Europe, the Eastern Question, and Russia’s universal mission. I’ve also just finished writing an academic article which discusses, among other things, references to Dostoevsky in Vladimir Putin’s speeches. And now by some quirk of fate, the international press has produced not one, but two, articles saying that Dostoevsky provides the key to understanding Putin’s politics.
A year or so ago, the press was all over Ivan Ilyin, saying that he was the man you had to read to understand Putin. Before that they said it was Aleksandr Dugin. No doubt a year from now it will be somebody else. But there is a bit of truth in the Dostoevsky meme since Putin has quoted and mentioned Dostoevsky in his speeches on numerous occasions.
So what is being said of the Putin-Dostoevsky connection?
In ‘Using Dostoevsky to Understand Vladimir Putin’s Aggression’, published by the Harvard Political Review, Alejandro Jiminez says that ‘To truly understand Vladimir Putin, we should turn to Fyodor Dostoevsky’s writings that have consummately characterized the Russian Soul.’ Jiminez quotes Andrew Kaufman of the University of Virginia, as explaining that the Ukraine conflict ‘is not merely geopolitical. It’s a deep-seated drama of the Russian soul’, as described by Dostoevsky, which ‘lends itself to imperialist authoritarianism.’
Jiminez notes Dostoevsky’s belief that Russia had an imperial mission to liberate the Slavic peoples from Turkish and Austrian oppression, and to unite them under Russian leadership. He writes:
Putin has appealed to this precise idea. … When Putin speaks of his ‘brothers in arms’ or the restoration of unity between the Ukraine and Russia, he is echoing Dostoyevsky himself. When he made the aggressive move to seize the Crimea and annex it into the Russian Federation, he acted on the Russian Soul. … In a Kremlin influenced by Russian literature, Vladimir Putin embodies Dostoyevsky’s grand vision for Russia. It is a vision for Russia’s role on the world stage.
The second article, ‘The Brothers Karamazov: The Source of Putin’s Evil’ by Peter Savodnik, appeared in Vanity Fair on Tuesday. It begins by saying:
Henry Kissinger recently compared Vladimir Putin to ‘a character out of Dostoevsky’, which apparently delighted the Russian president. That’s not entirely surprising. No Russian writer encapsulates the many incongruous feelings – cultural, spiritual, metaphysical – still coursing through the post-Soviet moment better than Fyodor Dostoevsky.
The article continues:
It’s unclear which of Dostoevsky’s characters, if any, Putin identifies with. That’s not really the point. The point is that Dostoevsky very clearly delineates right from wrong in a distinctly Manichaean way. Russia, the old Russia, is good, pure – childlike or diminutive, in a way. The West is bad. It’s not simply that it’s a rival civilization, an economic or geopolitical competitor; it’s that the West is impure and, when introduced into the Russian bloodstream, toxic.
A Dostoyevskean vozhd, or leader, knows Russia is good and the West is not, and presumably he has learned by this date that the only way to keep the West out is to overcome it, to expedite its undoing. The more Western leaders, and especially American presidents, talk about resetting relations with Moscow, the more the Dostoevskian president distrusts them. He hates them … Putin’s goal is not just a little more turf. Russia has a lot of that. His telos – his endgame – is the destabilization, the overcoming, of the whole Western order.
It’s a nice little theory, but it both gets Dostoevsky wrong and gets Putin’s view of Dostoevsky wrong. Although Jiminez is correct in saying that Dostoevsky believed that Russia had a duty to liberate the Slavs, Savodnik is completely mistaken in saying that this belief translated into a black and white view of the world, a hatred of the West, and a desire to destroy the Western world.
Take, for instance, Dostoevsky’s attitude towards the Russian People. In his Writer’s Diary he discusses court cases concerning Russians who tortured their children, beat their wives, and in one case threw a six-year old child out of an apartment window. Dostoevsky’s Russians are uneducated, coarse, and brutish. But they also possess an understanding of the true spirit of Christ, shown by their humility and willingness to endure suffering. ‘They may be coarse and vile and sinful and unremarkable,’ Dostoevsky wrote, ‘but when their hour sounds and the cause of the common truth of all the People is to be undertaken, you will astounded by the degree of freedom of spirit which they will show.’ Dostoevsky’s world is far from black and white; it is morally complex, even paradoxical.
The same can be said of the author’s view of the West. Dostoevsky certainly did not ‘hate’ the West. He wrote:
Europe – why it’s a terrible and sacred thing, Europe is! Oh, gentlemen, do you know how dear Europe is to us Slavophile dreamers, who, as far as you’re concerned, should only hate Europe, this “land of holy miracles”. … Gentlemen, never did you, as Europeans and Westernizers, love Europe so much as we, Slavophile dreamers … And in our dread of conflict with Europe in the current war [the Russo-Turkish war, 1877] we fear most of all that Europe will not understand us, and as before, as always, will meet us with arrogance, and her sword, as if we were still wild barbarians.
While Dostoevsky, like the Slavophiles, felt that Russia needed to develop an independent culture in order to contribute to the good of humanity, he nevertheless admired much about the West, and proclaimed his admiration of Europeans
… who ended the trade in Negro slaves; who ended their own despotic systems; who proclaimed the rights of man; who created science and astounded the world with its power; who brought life and delight to human souls with art and its sacred ideals.
Dostoevsky felt that Europe had lost its way spiritually. Russia’s mission was to bring it back to Christ. This, however, was a spiritual mission, not a geopolitical one. It certainly did not involve ‘the destabilization, the overcoming, of the whole Western order’. The aim of Russia’s holy mission was not conflict with the West, but reconciliation. As Dostoevsky said in an 1880 speech in honour of Alexander Pushkin, ‘The nations of Europe simply do not know how dear they are to us! And subsequently, I am certain, we … will realize to the very last man that to become a genuine Russian will mean specifically: to strive to bring an ultimate reconciliation to Europe’s contradictions.’
Vladimir Putin quoted this last sentence in an article he wrote in March 2007 entitled ‘Fifty Years of European Integration and Russia’. Putin said, ‘The great writer understood well that without Russia Europe can never be itself in the world, just as without Europe Russia cannot give vent to what he called its “European longing”.’ Jiminez claims that Putin has appealed to a Dostoevskian idea of imperial mission, but clearly Putin takes something very different from Dostoevsky – the importance of Russia’s European identity, and the need to reconcile Russia and Europe.
On 10 December 2001, Putin remarked that Dostoevsky had written that ‘Russia has two masters – Russia and Europe’. The same was true for Ukraine, Putin said, adding that ‘Russia and Ukraine are inseparable parts of European culture, the European continent, European politics and the European economy’.
Putin quoted Dostoevsky again in a speech on the occasion of the unveiling of a monument to the author on 10 October 2006. In this, he used Dostoevsky’s phrase ‘Beauty will save the world’, and stated that:
This referred above all to harmony between peoples. And in this sense this symbolic gesture of the German authorities [raising a monument to Dostoevsky] speaks of how we live in a single European cultural space.
Then, in a speech on 28 July 2015 commemorating the 1,000th anniversary of the death of St Vladimir, Putin remarked of Vladimir’s adoption of Christianity, that:
The Prince’s decision reflected the striving of our people to the lofty ideals of goodness, truth and justice, to fraternal unity and solidarity the world over. Fyodor Dostoyevsky called this ‘overall humanity’.
Savodnik says that Putin’s love of Dostoevsky shows that he thinks that the West is ‘impure’ and ‘toxic’, that ‘Russia is good and the West is not’, and that he wishes ‘to expedite its [the West’s] undoing.’ How exactly does any of the above demonstrate that? And what on earth has any of it to do with the ‘Russian soul’? Maybe Jiminez and Savodnik are right, and Putin really does hate the West and wants to destroy it. But you certainly can’t tell that from Putin’s references to Dostoevsky.