The Russian soul and the toxic West

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.

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19 thoughts on “The Russian soul and the toxic West”

  1. “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… His telos – his endgame – is the destabilization, the overcoming, of the whole Western order.”

    Strictly spealing, vozhd translates as “chief”, “chieftain”. Besides – I can’t recall anything in Dostoyevsky’s writing which argues for “overcoming” and “expediting the undoing” of the West. I think the author is projecting here. Because this line of thought – “if you are not like me, if you are not for me – than you are against me and must be destroyed!” – is actually very western, if not very American shall I say.

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  2. Brilliant analysis. Witty and correct conclusion: “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”. I will add that the rift between the people of the West and Russia, Ukraine, and Russia and so on – not geopolitical and economic, but spiritual. This was written by Dostoevsky and Ilyin, Putin impressed by Dostoevsky and Ilyin as well as many other people, in particular, the author of the post, which I gladly read.

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  3. Okay, okay – upon some reflection, I think that some anvils should be dropped, no matter how obvious it is etc.

    This talk about “Russia is European” is one of the most dishonest attempts of manipulating us. Because it is not actually an argument about an undeniable fact that both due to geographical position plus history and culture, Russia is, indeed, part of what is defined as “Europe”. No, the logic trains goes as this: “If Russia is part of Europe, then Russia must act as European country and adopt European “value”. And, no, Russia has no say in defining this values!”. But who has? The West, of course! By a freak chance, the West, headed at different time periods by French, Germans and now, oh irony of ironies, by Anglo-Saxons, defines what is to be European for the rest of the sub-continent. Somewhere along the way a Great Lie, an enormous substitution took place – Europe become defined by the Western Europe at its offshoots alone.

    Let me ask you something – all of you, both our host Professor and other commenters. I ask you – what tradition, social norm, custom or habit particular to Russia are you willing to embrace, to adopt, to make it a part’n’parcel of your life? C’mon, aren’t one of your new pillars of Europeaness (and, by extension also of Westerness and “Civilization”) the “multi-culturalism” argues that when the people from different ethnic and religious and cultural backgrounds come together it’s been “proven” that it enriches learning and creativity! After all, you demand of Russia to become “more European” by adopting this or that law, social norm or attitude toward something, and you decry all attempts to resist this as being “backwards”, as if you are the sole judges on this planet to define what is “progressive” (and, ergo, good) and what is not.

    You have an invaluable ally in the face of the so-called Russian intelligentsia, whose servile attitudes were perfectly encapsulated in the form of Smerdyakov character. You like so-called Smerdyakovshina expressed by our self-proclaimed “conscience of the nation” – what’s not to love here?

    The truth is that the collective West can’ live with independent Russia following its own path, thus violating the Western monopoly on “European Civilization” and the “Truth”. The West will never debase itself in allowing Russia to have a say in what it is to be European, thus the only logical conclusion is to try to subvert – or to destroy – Russia as a distinct entity. The West’s current problem with Russia is not Putin, no. One article inadvertently blew the cover by quoting, IIRC, a British politician, who said that “Resurgent Russia Represents an Existential Threat to Europe”. See? Resurgent Russia. We are denied the right to be an independent power with a modicum of strength to back it up. In this case we are immediately proclaimed a “threat” and a target of the Western intervention.

    If there is any change in the future in this dead-end approach to Russo-Western relations, it should begin somewhere. How about it begins with ordinary people, like regular commenters here?

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      1. Uhm, I’m not accusing you anything. More explaining that this talk about “Russia is part of Europe” is actually not about this rather obvious thing – it’s about browbeating Russia into submission and compliance.

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      1. Thank you for the link, davidt. Regarding Lieven’s Valdai Forum’s article – amazing, that this is the same person, who penned this. The contrast between the two is… breathtaking.

        Lieven utters all correct sounds and states the obvious in his Valdai article – which nowadays requires lots of courage from the Westerner, because such thought-crime will guarantee the loss of handshakable status and gets you labeled as “Putin-understanding” useful idiot and the traitor to the West.

        Mr. Lieven and liberals of the world must be getting desperate, seeing as their world, after the triumph of the “End Of History” ™ is falling apart. Not crushing down at the top speed (yet), but noticeably rotting away right before their incredulous eyes. So they are willing to try literally everything to, at minimum, stave off the decay, and, in the best case scenario, to reverse the trend.

        In his Valdai piece Lieven does well in the “Whom to blame?” department (accusations of him being a dreadful Putinversteher are guaranteed) it less clear on the “ What to do?”. What, are we to believe now that some Liberal Fairy Godmother (or would it be… a Godfather?) will just pop up out of nowhere wave the magick wand and – BLAM! – we are living in the Age of Aquarius, where peace will guide the planets, with harmony and understanding and collective kumbaya among the people? Lieven writes:

        “As far as Russia is concerned, however, the new cultural, intellectual and political plurality of views opens a range of opportunities.”

        Where is it? Is see no signs of said “plurality” – only same old tried and tested claims to be an Exceptional Nation and demands for Russia to “fit in”. Oh, and a very real prospect of the EU to double down on antagonism with Russia so that no one will accuse them of “abandoning the core values of the liberal order”. Lieven still operates on the premise that “the West” is something universal, which could be graciously extended to other non-Western nations: aka the process of temporarily proclaiming the native troops honorary whites for the duration of combat by their European colonial officers.

        But nowhere is Mr. Lieven’s bias, his well-masqueraded hope, is more evident, when he talks about liberals:

        “Paradoxically enough, this may also strengthen the position of Russian liberalism, by allowing liberals to think of themselves and present themselves as a Russian part of a pan-European ideological debate, rather than as agents of a Western ideological and geopolitical agenda hostile to Russia…
        …We may now hope that the end of NATO and EU expansion, the probable transformation and radical weakening of the EU itself, and the new (if in many respects unpleasant and frightening) plurality of political forces in the West will allow the emergence of a distinctive Russian liberalism as part of a pan-European ideological debate: patriotic without being aggressive, and embedded in European liberal tradition without being a tool of American geopolitical ambition.”

        That’s bullshit. What passes for “liberals” in the modern day Russia are irredeemable bunch of Russophobes. They are either sincerely believing in Russia’s backwardness and are servile in their adoration of all things West, or they are doing it only because the West is bankrolling them. Are we to believe that the same Fairy, which would de-escalate the tensions vis-à-vis Russia and the West by creating some “North”, will also magically create a new breed of Russian liberal – only this time, loyal to Russia and not to the West?

        Personally, I find it hard to believe. See, the liberalism is antithetical to the patriotism. Lieven is completely wrong in his lionization of the Kadets, who were not in fact loyal to Russia or to the Monarchy (or he is just confusing them with the Octobrists). Kadets from the get go painted themselves as indignant better-than-though (disloyal) opposition, and were perhaps the most “Left” party in the old State Duma. As to where their sympathies really lied – one only has to look at their subservient position re: Entente the moment they grabbed the reins of power. While in Early 1917 they were given to triumphalism believing that – that’s it, a victory of the Freedom, by Summer they were succumbing to the quite typical trend among other liberals – they were afraid of the “mob”, of the “dark unwashed masses” and were demanding the dictatorship. Try as I might, I can’t recall any of the so-called liberal politicians of the late Russian Empire to express any patriotic sentiments.

        You can’t reconcile liberalism with patriotism, especially because it is the self-styled “elite” which is most given to embracing the liberalism, and by being so “elite” they can’t debase themselves to such “plebeian” feeling as the patriotism. Liberalism centers around human rights and freedoms (but not duties), while the patriotism (don’t mistake it with the nationalism!) centers around love for ones Motherland. According to liberals – human being is at the center of the Universe. Everything must be about this Person, with undoubtedly deep and rich inner world. Human being has a throng of birthrights which are to be protected and defended.

        In reality, because the liberal ideology speaks only about Rights and Freedoms, and never about the Duties, it fosters the atomization within a society, negative attitude towards the State and the Country, and an enormous individualism and egotism. Should a War come knocking at liberal’s current Homeland, there won’t be a normal reaction from them. “Gee, the higher ups again did not share something! How does it concerns me? Why do I have to risk my life because of the ambitions of others? Why should I leave my job, lose the income? Why should I be deprived of jamon and parmesan? Why I no longer can go to foreign resorts of my liking, which is now located on the territory of the enemy state? Why I can not buy the foreign car of my choosing?”. For a liberal any war (ANY!) is a gross interference in his private life and a blatant violation of his rights and freedoms. And if so, then he is not obliged to fight. Even if the liberal is forced to take part in the War, he will place his own safety well above anything else – and so, to become a deserter or a turncoat is a perfectly viable, handshakable option for him. To die for “This Country” (which is never and never will be “Our country” for them)? Oh, this is so un-liberal!

        Liberal is a priori a cosmopolite. Because of the birthrights, right to pursuit the happiness etc. it is absolutely normal to change one’s (country of) residence in order to attain that. And if you are automatically reserve for yourselves the right to bugger off should you see and opening and a promise for better life for you personally anywhere else – than how can you truly build a connection with your present surrounding, society and the state?

        Liberals are suicidal lemmings in the current political climate. The opposition is either too insane or too “we suck” to get elected anywhere in Russia. If they start screaming “Krym Nash!” now no one will believe for a sec in their sincerity. Even if they will try to pass themselves as “patriotic”, nothing will come out of it, because, how Lieven insists, they also must embrace the European brand of liberalism – which won’t be popular at home. At all. Russians tend to distrust and view very negatively people, who will demand the weakening of the state, the destruction of the social sphere and the unregulated market with no governmental influence over it. So, in the end, we will have a bunch of both unhandshakable (from the Western POV) Russian “patriotic” liberals, who are also won’t be popular among the electorate and the people of Russia as well. A clear fail. So, to quote from the old anecdote, “either take off the crucifix, of put on the pants” – you can’t survive as a so-called “patriotic liberal” in Russia, you must choose one.

        That liberalism, which is religiously professed in Russia can not protect the interests of Russian citizens, instead it protects the interests of transnational corporations. Russian liberals can not be patriotic by definition. In this case, they will have to recognize the need for a strong state, carrying out its sovereign policy of active intervention in the economy – which is taboo for any self respecting liberal. So when Lieven decides to throw a bone to Russia, by suggesting in his article that, perhaps, the West in its boundless mercy might find some elements of Russian mentality and values to be worthy and even allow their continual existence – he is not sincere. Russian values rely on the fact that there will be a strong state acting in the common interest of the majority of the people – an unfathomable thing for a liberal.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. A nice post. I am curious as to where you intend submitting your academic article- there must be serious journals out there but as an outsider I wonder. The Harvard article caused me to immediately remember the Sokal “hoax” of a few years ago. Briefly Alan Sokal wrote a “scientific” paper that was meant to test the effectiveness of the selection process of papers submitted for publication in the social sciences. For anyone with a reasonable background in either mathematics or physics the his paper was a sham, nevertheless it was published. The 3rd comment to the Harvard “paper” gives a reference to Vladimir Golstein’s Facebook account. Golstein’s comment is vitriolic. Goldstein has a relevant article in the Offguardian- here, hopefully, is the link.
    https://off-guardian.org/2016/02/27/the-grand-inquisitor-and-his-guardians-mass-medidei-and-the-fog-in-our-brainsa/comment-page-1/

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  5. You must have an iron stomach, Paul. Thanks once again. I read this crap, and it makes me so sick I can barely force myself to continue reading.
    Dostoevsky a Manichean for crying out loud? Has the author never read Bakhtin on Dostoevsky? Has he never heard of polyphony and the absence of finalization as precisely Dostoevsky’s innovations? Who drags up these ignoramuses and hires them to write about Russian literature and politics?
    The message of The Brothers Karamazov is hatred for the West?? Putin is a “Dostoevskian vozhd” [a tribal chief? — what does that have to do with Dostoevsky?]? By seizing Crimea, Putin “acted on the Russian soul?” What the hell does that even mean?
    You read this stuff, and you shake your head and wonder, at what point will someone finally have the courage to say in some important place, like the floor of the US Congress: “Have you no shame?”
    I am almost tempted to say: ‘C’mon guys, at least take the time to write good anti-Russian propaganda. Have a little self respect.’ But then again, Pushkin’s Mozart (in Pushkin’s ‘Mozart and Salieri’) already told us that genius and villainy are incompatible. Articles like Savodnik’s prove it. God help us.

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  6. @ Lyttenburgh. Sorry, I am unable to open your link and so I cannot compare the two articles. I have actually known for some time that you are not a great fan of “liberals” but the article I provided doesn’t suggest that Lieven is either. If he were then I would not have provided you with the link. Here is an older article of Lieven that might interest you.
    http://www.nationalinterest.org/article/russias-limousine-liberals-3140
    I think that the most substantive point you make is that you cannot imagine how the “West” and Russia might find the accommodation that Lieven hopes for. I am not a seer, but my main hope is that Germany will realize that the current Europe versus Russia scenario is crazy and that it adjusts its foreign policy accordingly. After all, stranger things have happened in the past 30 years.

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      1. I agree that there is no current sign that Germany will change position, however, my guess is that Germany is central to any unravelling of the problem. What is the best medium to long term scenario if Europe doesn’t come to its senses?

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      2. If (West) Europeans are not willing to treat Russians like equals and Russians do not get a proper say in Europe, Russians are going to reject Europe.

        In fact, there are signs that this is already happening.

        It is a positive development insofar that just like descendants of colonial subjects who rejected their colonial masters and modern Europeans can get along, Europeans and Russians will be to get along better when there are less conflicting narratives.

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  7. I would rather refer to Russian, possibly even ‘Soviet’ music (e.g., Shostakovitch, Prokofiev) in discussion of their ‘soul,’ an abstraction with no known physical anchor except, perhaps, the metaphorical heart. Who cannot be moved by their music…and their dance?

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