Dostoevsky And The State

Originally published at Soul of The East

As the author of a notable work on Fyodor Dostoevsky, philosopher Nikolai Onufriyevich Lossky contributed an excellent analysis of Dostoevsky’s worldview. Here he examines Dostoevsky’s relation to the state in the context of Russian culture and Orthodox faith. While Dostoevsky highly valued the democratic ethos of the Russian people and wished to see their communal principles enacted more in political life, he was nonetheless a staunch monarchist and a critic of Enlightenment liberalism. Dostoevsky’s thoughts on foreign policy, meanwhile, might seem quite romantic to us, but they contain a powerful ideal: the image of a state in the service of God, the Church and the people. Translated by Mark Hackard.

As a great empire, Russia is an organism larger than the Russian people. However, the Russian people are the most important factor of the Russian Empire, and the basic features of the people’s spirit determine the character of its sovereignty to a significant degree. Therefore Dostoevsky’s thought on the attributes of Russia as a state are closely tied with the views he expounded on the Russian nation.

Dostoevsky was an opponent of limiting autocracy; he feared that the higher classes, the bourgeoisie and the educated would use political liberty to subordinate the simple folk to their interests and ideals. “Our constitution,” says Dostoevsky, “is mutual love of the Monarch toward the people and the people toward the Monarch.” (Letter to Maikov, No. 302) Civil liberties, freedom of conscience, freedom of thought and freedom to print were loved and defended by Dostoevsky in every period of his life. He valued rural and city self-government highly and considered them correspondent to the spirit of the Russian people. Preparing the novel Demons in his notebooks and thinking over the image of Stavrogin (initially under the name of “the prince”), Dostoevsky wrote and doubtlessly expressed during this his own thought: “If there is reform, self-government, then elucidate it clearly and firmly, not hesitating, but believing the in strength of the nation… The German principle, administration, wants to lay its hands on the native Russian form, self-government.” One of the characters elucidates further, keeping in view the thoughts of the “prince”: “It was curious that he could so deeply understand the essence of Rus when he explained it and thereby enflamed Shatov.”

Finding in the Russian people a “genuine democratic attitude,” Dostoevsky, without doubt, would have welcomed the establishment of political democracy in the form of a democratic monarchy, if, he hoped, the lower classes of the people could have genuinely enjoyed political freedom in the spirit of their ideals. In the last year of his life, when discussions of calling aZemsky Sobor (Land Assembly) were circulating, he recommended to ask the “gray coats” about their needs and even spoke about the responsibility of ministers before the Zemsky Sobor.

The place of Russia in Europe and her foreign policy especially interested Dostoevsky. The notion that moral principles should guide only the behavior of private individuals, but not the state, roused him to indignation. Condemning the behavior of such diplomats as Metternich, Dostoevsky says: “A policy of honor and unselfishness is not only a higher, but also perhaps the most beneficial (it) policy for a great nation, precisely because it is great.” (Diary of a Writer, 1876, Jul.-Aug.) Russia namely comports herself as a great nation. “Russia,” says Dostoevsky, “was never able to produce its own Metternichs and Disraelis, but rather the entire time of its European life it has lived not for itself, but for others, precisely for interests common to all mankind.” Her unselfishness often resembles the chivalrous nature of Don Quixote:

In Europe they scream of ‘Russian invasions’ and ‘Russian treachery,’ yet only to frighten their masses when needed, for the shouters themselves hardly believe any of it, nor have they ever believed it. On the contrary, they are now bothered and scared that in Russia’s image there is something upright, something too unselfish, honest and disdainful of usurpation and bribery. They have a presentiment that it’s impossible to buy her off and she won’t be lured into a mercenary or violent matter by any political advantage.” (1877, Feb.)

There has recently appeared a brochure titled, “Principles of Russia’s European Policy in the 19th and 20th Centuries,” by Professor E.V. Spektorsky. Therein Prof. Spektorsky, making use of a multitude of facts, attests that Russia was guided predominantly by a policy of principles while Western states conducted a policy of interests. “The principles of Russia’s European policy were the salvation of the lost, loyalty to treaties and allies, and a peace of solidarity.”

One can object that Russia under autocracy conducted an unmercenary policy not by the will of the people, but by the orders of her rulers, such as Alexander I, Nicholas I and Alexander II. With many facts it can be proven that this is incorrect, and that that unselfish policy did correspond to the spirit of the Russian people themselves. And so after the flooding of St. Petersburg on 7 November 1824, among the people there were rumors that the disaster was retribution for the sin of not rendering help to co-religionist Greeks who had revolted against the Turkish yoke. The Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78, the goal of which was the defense of Orthodox Slavs, was supported by a widespread sympathetic movement of the popular masses.

Peter’s reforms, despite the dangers and temporary deviations toward the loss of cultural identity, were highly valued by Dostoevsky, as they freed Russia from “isolation”; their consequence was the “measureless expansion of view” and such an introduction to Europe, thanks to which we apprehended

our universal purpose, our personality and role in humanity, and we could not but recognize that this role and purpose did not resemble those of other peoples, for there every national personality lives only in themselves and for themselves, while we shall now begin, when the time has arrived, namely with becoming servants to all for universal conciliation.

Entering into European life, Russia attains the possibility of “active application of our treasure, our Orthodoxy, to the service of humanity.” (Diary of a Writer, 1876, June) The first step on this path should be the resolution of the Eastern and Slavic questions, which in Dostoevsky’s understanding are rather approximate with each other. As a matter of fact, the significance of the Straits for the economic life of Russia and the defense of the Black Sea Coast is known to Dostoevsky, but it does not interest him. “The Golden Horn and Constantinople – all of this will be ours,” writes Dostoevsky, “but not for invasions and not for violence.” To demand Constantinople from Europe, Russia, thinks Dostoevsky, has “a moral right,” “as the marshal of Orthodoxy,its patroness and protector.” (Diary of a Writer, 1876, June, Dec.; 1877, March)

Gaining hold of Constantinople and freeing the Bulgarians and Serbs from the Turkish yoke, Russia, hoped Dostoevsky, would set a beginning to the “unity of the Slavs” “in the service of humanity.” (1876, June) He knew that Western Europe would oppose Pan-Slavism with all its power, fearing Russia’s strengthening. Even in Russia herself, in an article by Professor T.N. Granovsky, Dostoevsky came across the idea that Russia’s attention to the fate of the Southern Slavs was conditioned not by idealist motives, but the aspiration to expansion. Fighting against Granovsky’s idea, Dostoevsky backhandedly admits that he had the academic in mind when he sketched out the image of a Russian liberal in the form of Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky, mocking while at the same time loving and respecting him. In consolation to people who feared Russia’s strengthening, Dostoevsky said that for Russia herself the matter of liberating the Slavs will be a source of “only troubles and pain.” (1876, Jul.-Aug.)

Dostoevsky foresaw that “as it never was before, there will be for Russia no greater haters, enviers, slanderers and even overt enemies than all these Slavic tribes only as soon as Russia liberates them and Europe agrees to recognize them as liberated.” This would happen “not by the supposedly low ungrateful character of the Slavs, not at all – they have their character in this respect as all do – but because such things in the world cannot happen otherwise.”

Unfailingly they will begin from inside themselves, if not speaking it aloud, and announce to themselves and convince themselves that they do not owe Russia the least bit of gratitude, but rather that they barely escaped from Russia’s lust for power by concluding a peace through the intervention of the European concert.

“They will grovel before the European states,” and will say that “they are educated peoples capable of the highest European culture, while Russia is a barbarous country, a gloomy northern colossus not even of pure Slavic blood, an oppressor and antagonist of European civilization.” “These small lands will eternally quarrel amongst each other, eternally envy and intrigue against one another.” (1877, November) Therefore, “without Russia’s enormous unifying center, Slavic harmony is not to be, and without Russia the Slavs couldn’t survive; the Slavs would wholly disappear from the face of the earth, whatever the Serbian intelligentsia or various European, civilized Czechs might dream.” (ibid, February)

Despite all these tragic prophecies, Dostoevsky loves the Slavs and considers it Russia’s duty to selflessly fight for their freedom. “In the current war,” he says, “having freed the Slavic tribes, we shall not acquire not one strip of land from them (as Austria is dreaming for herself), but rather, we will be overseeing their mutual harmony and defend their liberty and independence, even against all of Europe. (ibid, April) He hopes that the freed Slavs, perhaps after their age-old strife, will finally come to understand Russia’s unselfishness and form a federated state with her, in which every member would receive “as much political freedom as possible.” Dostoevsky dreams that “such a union could finally someday be joined by even non-Orthodox European Slavs.” (1876, June)

When speaking on an all-Slavic federation, Dostoevsky obviously has in mindN.Y. Danilevsky’s work Russia and Europe. Danilevsky set out to prove that the united Slavs would bring a new form of culture into the historical process and achieve a new cultural-historical type to take the place of the Romano-German cultural-historical type. However, the distinction between Dostoevsky and the ideas of Danilevsky is great. According to Danilevsky, cultural-historical types are so unique that they are almost incapable of influencing one another, and it is impossible to produce a unified and universal human culture. Dostoevsky, to the contrary, does not depart from the ground of Christian universalism:

We first declared to the world that not through the repression of the character of foreign nationalities do we want to attain our own success. On the contrary, we see it only in the freest and most independent development of all other nations and in brotherly unity with them, complementing one another, fostering in ourselves their organic particularities and extending, from us to them, our branches for cultivation, communing with them in soul and spirit, learning and teaching until that time when humanity, having been fulfilled with the relations of peoples unto universal unity, like a great and magnificent tree will give shade to the happy earth.

Lovely are Dostoevsky’s dreams of universal brotherhood of peoples and the peaceful development of culture. Speaking on Russia, he constantly underlines her unselfishness and her unwillingness to undertake predatory seizures of other lands. He had well-founded proof in Danilevsky’s bookRussia and Europe that Russia, founding a massive empire, never killed off established national cultures. Unfortunately, however, it is impossible to close one’s eyes to the fact that Slavic and Russian messianism seduced Dostoevsky to the assertion that the capture of Constantinople by Russia would be morally justified. He omits from view that the protection of Orthodoxy and the defense of Russia’s economic and strategic interests could be achieved without taking Constantinople away from the Turks by way of a peace agreement with Turkey and other states.

We shall say in passing, by the way, a few words on Dostoevsky’s attitude toward war. Christianity, both in Orthodoxy and in Catholicism, considering war an evil, admits, however, that there are other even worse types of evil, and therefore permits war in the struggle with them – for example, for the salvation of a people perishing from the violence of a predatory conqueror. Dostoevsky also holds this opinion, though he is overly fascinated by the positive aspects of war. He says:

A long peace always breeds cruelty, cowardice and crude, flabby egoism and principally mental stagnation. During a long peace, only the exploiters of peoples grow fat.

Having accumulated enormous wealth, the exploiters engorge themselves and begin to seek out deviant pleasures; the division between the rich and the poor is amplified, and “faith in the brotherhood of man” is lost. From this condition of society arise wars with commercial ends, for example, over new markets; such wars “pervert and even ruin peoples.” Conversely, “war for a magnanimous objective, for the liberation of the oppressed, for an unmercenary and holy idea heals the soul, drives out shameful cowardice and idleness,” and strengthens with an “awareness of self-sacrifice,” a consciousness of duty fulfilled and the solidarity of all the nation. (1877, April, see also Letter No. 353)

A burning love for Russia did not stop Dostoevsky from seeing the shortcomings of her state and social structure. And so in Demons, he made a well-aimed satire of despotic ways of Governor Von Lembke, who, not listening to the workers’ representatives that came to complain about the fraud of their factory manager, took them for rioters and had several of them beaten. Also wonderfully expressed in the novel are the absurdity and illegality of the measures that the governor and his subordinate take in the fight against the revolutionaries. Any “administrative triumph” (in Stepan Trofimovich’s words) is revolting to Dostoevsky. Toward the end of his life, he wrote in his notebooks that our society was not conservative, as “everything was taken from it, right up to legitimate initiative.” “All the rights of the Russian are negative ones. Give him something positive and you will see that he’ll also be conservative.” “He’s not conservative because there’s nothing to conserve.”[i]



[i] Biography, Letters and Notes from the Notebooks of F. Dostoevsky, 1883. Pg. 357.