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The Stupid War On Russian Literature

Read Dostoevsky.


“Yes,” says the latest edition of The Economist, “the Russian literary canon is tainted by imperialism.” Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has called into question “not just the value of reading” Russian classics, says the magazine, “but also the morality.” As it happens, I’m a big fan of Russian literature and classical music. For me, the novels of Dostoevsky are still imminently readable — which is more than I can say for The Economist.

In The Times Literary Supplement, Oksana Zabuzhko, a Ukrainian writer, “argued powerfully,” The Economist points out, that Western readers of major Russian authors have ignored their “imperialist attitudes and indulged their drastic moral relativism and sympathy for criminals.” These books, the author claims, are “the camouflage net” for Russian tanks in Ukraine.

This is insanity. Soon after Putin’s invasion, symphonies and opera houses began shutting down Russian artists and performances. Carnegie Hall removed Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, and Metropolitan Opera dropped opera singer Anna Netrebko. The Polish National Opera canceled performances of Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov,” and the Cardiff Philharmonic dropped Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” over its bellicosity. The Russification of Ukraine was most intense under Soviet rule, so why allow anyone to play Prokofiev or Shostakovich? Next thing you know Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” will be banned for normalizing cultural appropriation.

The attack on Russian writers is worse. I will admit to knowing little about the “imperialist bent” of the renowned poet and novelist Pushkin, who apparently wrote verse trumpeting Russia’s “might” in the 1830s. Though a critic of the tsars and champion of the downtrodden, a Ukrainian critic points out, the poem “To the Slanderers of Russia” is a broadside against the French-backed Polish uprising against the tsar in 1830. Pushkin was apparently still sore about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812. (Napoleon promised the Poles, and many other “colonized” ethnic minorities in Europe, self-determination. Colonizer or liberator?)

Leo Tolstoy, notes The Economist, is guilty, as well, for neglecting “the perspectives of the colonised peoples of eastern Europe.” (Presentism will end up making virtually anything written before 2000 problematic.) Though, in the end, the novelist “repudiates militarism and violence” so he’s OK. One can’t say the same for Dostoevsky, the magazine alleges, whose novels are “laced with colonialist ideas” that are expressed “in spiritual rather than militaristic terms”:

In the past readers have seen Dostoyevsky as a sublime guide to the darkest, most secret reaches of the human heart. Today he and other Russian writers can instead seem to point the way to the front in Donbas.

Accusing Dostoevsky of empowering Putin is quite the charge. What are these “egregious examples” of Dostoevsky’s Russian “chauvinism” and colonialist mindset that directly led to the invasion of Ukraine?  We are offered two. The first, an essay entry in his final book, “Diary of a Writer,” in which Dostoevsky cheers on the Russian expansion into Asia — an imperialist race that nearly every major European power participated in.

The second is a remark by Prince Myshkin — the protagonist in his novel “The Idiot” — in which he refers to Catholicism as “unchristian.” Myshkin, for those of you who haven’t read the chaotic novel, is Dostoevsky’s sanctified version of a Russian Orthodox Christian man, a figure so chaste and uncomplicated that he holds no ill toward anyone — not even those who plot against him. This innocence leads others to believe he is a simpleton. “The Idiot” certainly idealizes traditional Russian theology and culture. Dostoevsky believed, as Barack Obama might say, in Russian exceptionalism. He also believed in pan-Slavism. The author wrote most of the book while living in Western Europe, an experience he did not enjoy. But if you believe Myshkin is a proxy for bigotry and war and “colonialism,” or that the writing embraces anything resembling “moral relativism,” you’ve drastically missed the point.*

Ukrainians, incidentally, many of whom still lionize and write patriotic songs about Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera or build statues of Simon Petliurano, who led pogroms against Jews in the early 20th century, should probably be careful arguing that Dostoevsky’s “long-standing hostility to Catholics and Jews” puts him in league with Putin.

“The Idiot,” like many other books of the 18th and 19th centuries, was serialized in newspapers and sometimes touches on contemporary, now-esoteric political debates. There is no evidence that the writer, who was subjected to a mock execution, would have supported the authoritarian quashing of political dissent. Anti-Western sentiment was certainly part of Dostoevsky’s position. He was a conservative and a reactionary, and like many contemporary writers in Europe, he grappled with the meaning of national identity. Putting the writer at the head of a column of tanks for exploring those issues in the 1870s is a transparently risible attempt to cancel Russian culture.

“Those who detest Mr Putin’s invasion of Ukraine need not throw away their copies of the Russian classics,” allows The Economist. Instead, “readers might revisit them with more critical eyes and a renewed sensitivity to imperialist sentiments.” No, thank you. One might simply read great novels as if they were written in their own time and place. It’s not that there weren’t odious ideas in the novels of the 19th century. But Dostoevsky never peddled immorality or “fascistic” notions or violence. There is no need to retcon Russian literature — or music or art — to comport with your contemporary political needs.

*I went back and read the section in “The Idiot” in which Myshkin attacks the rituals and alleged greed of the Roman Church. It’s all very The Great Schism-y. Mostly, though, Myshkin blames Catholics for the deterioration of faith in Europe, joking that if a Russian converts to Catholicism he is “sure to become a Jesuit at once, and a rabid one into the bargain.” Myshkin (wrongly) blames Rome for the rise of socialism, but (rightly) notes that the ideology “seeks to replace in itself the moral power of religion, in order to appease the spiritual thirst of parched humanity and save it; not by Christ, but by force.” Russia, it turns out, would fall to socialist faith a few years before Italy.

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