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8 December 2021updated 04 Apr 2022 7:12pm

What Dostoevsky knew about evil

The great Russian writer was no saint. But 200 years after his birth, his work shows how we might confront wickedness in the world.

By Rowan Williams

Fyodor Dostoevsky, whose 200th birthday fell on 11 November this year, is one of those writers destined to produce the most ambivalent feelings among readers of almost all persuasions. On the one hand, there is no dispute that his novels are brilliant – intense, extreme, groundbreaking in their psychological insight and complexity, profoundly disturbing. On the other, his opinions jar against every liberal orthodoxy you can think of. He was an authoritarian monarchist who loathed Western democratic ideals and thought socialism a diabolical perversion. He was the author of shrill polemics against Jews (with some of his fictional characters permitted to give voice to the very worst anti-Semitic fantasies), a strong advocate of wars against the Islamic world – and a controversialist who would have been completely at home in the wilder and nastier reaches of Twitter. Is he someone you want on your side?

The trouble is that Dostoevsky is manifestly more than the sum total of his journalistic views. He may have defended tsarist absolutism, but he provides the most eloquent argument of the 19th century against religious tyranny. He wrote toxic nonsense about Jews, but objected to any attempt to limit their political and religious freedom. He believed that Christian (more specifically, Russian Orthodox) faith was the only hope for cultural renewal and global reconciliation, but wrote a scarifying catalogue of the unavenged horrors of human suffering (including child abuse) for which the Creator had to be held to account. He imagined Jesus Christ being tried and condemned by the Spanish Inquisition. He claimed, with a typical mordant irony, to have made a better case for atheism than most atheists would dare.

The fierce conservatism of his later years was a long way from where he began. The story is an extraordinary one. Born in Moscow in 1821, he came from a family just outside the lower edges of the gentry: his father was a doctor who married a bit above his station and finally managed to attain the status of a minor nobleman, but the household was never rich by the standards of that class. Dostoevsky’s mother died when he was 15, and his father two years later, when Fyodor was a student at the Academy of Engineering in Moscow (it was rumoured that his father had been murdered by his serfs, but most scholars are sceptical of the claim). During and after his student days, Dostoevsky became increasingly involved with clandestine groups who circulated material critical of the brutal absolutism of Tsar Nicholas I’s regime. His first ventures into fiction in the mid-1840s represented an attempt to depict some of the miseries of the poor – not so much the working proletariat, let alone the serfs, but the class of overburdened and underpaid minor employees of the administration, the “precariat” of their day.

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His associations with radical political groups such as the Petrashevsky Circle led to his arrest in 1849, and, along with several others in the same position, he was condemned to death. On 22 December that year, he and his friends were paraded before a firing squad – and then, in a piece of sadistic official theatre, their reprieve was announced at the very last moment. The sentence was commuted to exile in a labour camp, followed by compulsory military service. Dostoevsky disappeared from Russia’s cultural and literary life for six years.

The trauma of the almost-execution haunts many pages of the later Dostoevsky. But his experience in the prison camp was the seedbed of the most formative changes in his thinking and sensibility. He had never completely abandoned religious belief; it now became central for him. He encountered at close quarters the abjectly poor and powerless, and developed a near-mystical reverence for the “Russian people” and their spiritual resources – while retaining a harsh realism about their capacity for explosive violence, self-indulgence and numbing apathy. He no longer nursed any aspirations for social reform as a political goal and concentrated on spiritual transformation as the ideal to be sought. These convictions never wavered, and they are the constant hinterland of his later fiction.

Discharged from the army in 1859, he began to write again – not least about his experience in prison. Twentieth-century Russian chroniclers of the Gulag such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sinyavsky saw themselves as standing in the tradition of Dostoevsky in this respect, insisting on how the prison experience revealed a “real” Russia – the primal soup of criminals, saints, vagrants, peasants and dissidents who would never fit into a rationally planned society. And Dostoevsky was increasingly fascinated by this distance between the random and tumultuous diversity of human life in extremity and the claims made by Enlightenment thinkers about the possibility of planning a just social order. His 1864 novella Notes from Underground highlights the basic counter-suggestibility of the human mind: two and two may make four, but no power on or beyond Earth can prevent me from claiming they make five. The ability to say what is not so is deeply rooted in all of us – and this is what makes human beings both absurd and hopeful, capable of monstrous evil and of transfiguring imagination and faith.

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Given his fascination with the random and chaotic elements always just around the corner of human life, it is not at all surprising that Dostoevsky was obsessed with gambling. All through the unhappy years of his first marriage with Maria Dmitrievna Isaeva, widow of an excise officer, he struggled with this – and with the resultant debts, which forced him to live abroad for long periods. Widowed in 1864, he remarried in 1867, and his second wife Anna Snitkina, who had been his secretary since 1866, played a major role in eventually breaking his addiction as well as helping him organise his literary activity (the furious pace of his writing up to around 1868 was dictated by the pressure to pay off his debts). He settled down to a more stable existence as husband and father, and, increasingly, public pundit: his Diary of a Writer in its serial form was more widely read at the time than most of his fiction. By the time of his early death in 1881 (the main cause was emphysema, but his health had long been poor and he also suffered from epilepsy), he was established as a major presence in Russian cultural life, the spokesman simultaneously of an anarchic spirituality of love and compassion and of an uncompromising loyalty to Orthodoxy and monarchism. The huge and astonishing novels of his maturity – from Crime and Punishment in 1866 to The Brothers Karamazov in 1880 – make no attempt to reconcile the contradictions; they simply allow the philosophical debates and the tensions to be as fully staged as possible.

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This is why the great 20th-century Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin described Dostoevsky’s work as “polyphonic”. The movement of the narrative is always by way of dialogue, and the writer has to inhabit diverse and opposed positions if that dialogue is to be more than artificial. The energy of his speech comes from the sense of urgency about responding to what has been said. That question can’t be left unanswered! That unfinished thought must be completed, that clue must be followed, that claim scrutinised, that perception fleshed out. Dostoevsky’s characters are always talking themselves in and out of positions – or rather they are in search of the conversations that will enable them to make sense of one another and of themselves.

In her recent studies of Dostoevsky, the philosopher and literary critic Julia Kristeva argues that it is through this kind of exchange in language that we discover, as bodily beings, where and how we belong in a world of stimulus and response. We exist because we are “touched”: something kindles speech and thought in us so that the bare material stuff of flesh and bone becomes a body engaged in meaning, a communicative organism. In that light, Dostoevsky’s fiction is indirectly about how we become speaking selves. And when he depicts evil, it is partly as an abuse of language itself, a kind of speaking that prevents the speaker from being “touched”.

This can take various forms. In Devils (1872), Dostoevsky’s penultimate novel and arguably the most unified and well-focused of the later works, we meet Pyotr Verkhovensky, leader of a secret revolutionary cell, whose ceaseless flow of disarming chatter conceals a relentless manipulative coldness that views the lives of others as completely immaterial. But we also encounter the even more troubling figure of Nikolai Stavrogin – seen as a potential charismatic revolutionary by others, yet manifestly hollowed-out, drained of energy, metaphorically and (it is implied) literally impotent.

In a key chapter of the book – long suppressed as too shocking for publication – it appears that Stavrogin has abused a young child who subsequently kills herself. He wants to make a confession of this appalling story; but when he shares it with a saintly spiritual elder, the holy man points out that he has told the story with an eye to dramatic self-humiliation, not out of actual repentance. Confession is not a literary exercise, nor a sort of negative point-scoring; it is about rejecting the fascinations of your private dramas. Stavrogin has destroyed a life; how can this be spoken of at all without the storyteller’s life itself being lost and turned around? Since it is at odds with any reality outside the self, evil stops you receiving what you need to live. And if you can’t receive, you have to work desperately, manically, to secure your existence. One of the symptoms of this is the flow of words that figures such as Pyotr Verkhovensky pour out – or the self-obsessed and self-focused drama that Stavrogin stages. This is speech that connects only with itself; nothing else matters. At the end of Devils, Stavrogin is dead by suicide; and the inhumanly detached Pyotr simply steps on to a train, indifferent to the trail of destruction he is leaving behind.

Death of a master: Dostoevsky’s wife Anna with their children at his grave, 1881. (Getty Images)

Something of this comes through, rather differently, in Karamazov. Throughout the novel, various characters articulate the insight that each of us is “responsible for all”. Put just like that, it can sound like a dangerously unrealistic moral fantasy; but in context it is more obviously about how no one can ever assume that someone else’s life and welfare is not their business. Whoever I encounter has a claim to and for which I am answerable. There are no acceptable alibis – I cannot say that someone is of the wrong race, class, gender, age, moral probity, social standing or anything else. The real transgression in Crime and Punishment lies in the excuse made by the feverish and tormented young murderer Raskolnikov that his first victim – an avaricious old woman to whom he owes money – is dispensable, an “insect” with no human claim on him. Whoever stands before me, it is my task to discern where and how their humanity is denied or affronted and then to do what I can to affirm and release it. In extreme cases, taking responsibility is a matter of stepping in to acknowledge my complicity in a situation where there is no other individual around to take the blame. This is what Dmitri Karamazov proposes to do in the novel, accepting the guilt for a crime he has not committed, though he has imagined committing it. The idea of taking responsibility is, at root, simply about accepting that in any situation you must act for the sake of whoever else is there.

This may throw some light on one of Dostoevsky’s most quoted and most misunderstood ideas. At various points in Karamazov, we hear the axiom, “Without God, everything is permitted.” It surfaces first as a provocative philosophical slogan; but in the ears of some it is heard simply as a licence to act out whatever desires and impulses are boiling away under the surface.

Dostoevsky is certainly not saying that morality is impossible without a heavenly policeman; as if no one would be good without the threat of divine punishment. Recall his passionate belief in freedom and his rejection of any kind of religious or moral coercion. In the most famous passage of Karamazov, where the sceptical journalist Ivan relates his fable about Christ and the Inquisition, the Grand Inquisitor attacks Jesus precisely for making the moral life too difficult by leaving us our liberty and not providing threats and sanctions. The Catholic Church, according to Dostoevsky, has rectified Christ’s mistake by establishing itself on the basis of “miracle, mystery and authority” – three ways of enforcing credulity and compliance, which are also the basis of three temptations that Jesus refuses in the gospel stories when he is tested by Satan in the desert.

There is a possible clue to the axiom in the resonance of the Russian word for “permitted”. It is not so much that without God everything is allowed, and we can enjoy a blissful liberty of choice; the Russian term has connotations of indifference, of shrugging the shoulders. Without God, the only attitude is “whatever”. And Dostoevsky deliberately leaves an ambiguity. Russian has no definite article, and in one of the occurrences of the phrase, “God” does not have a capital: so it could be read as “without a god”. The point is that without a source of meaning that “touches” us, that is sensed as coming to us from outside our own agendas and preferences, nothing much matters, nothing has value in itself, nothing is really desirable in itself (Pyotr and Stavrogin in Devils are both presented in different ways as outside “ordinary” sexual desire and gratification).

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If we do become ourselves in the speech we hear, learn and respond to, in the polyphonic world of impassioned exchange and discovery that is human language, then we are always receiving before we give. We are always not quite catching up with what is in front of us, and so always being pulled forwards into meanings and relations that we don’t yet fully comprehend. We are free to say yes or no to this; and freedom can be expressed in absurdity – in logically and morally nonsensical positions. But we are also free to learn unconfined by what is insisted on by the powers that be. We are always more than we have been – not in the sense of advancing in some steady progress towards an ideal state, but in being able to reshape and adjust our relation with a reality that will not bend to our will, but which will show itself afresh to our imagination.

Do we want Dostoevsky on our side? Nothing will make him a comfortable bedfellow, and nothing will make some of his prejudices and obsessions any less repugnant. But the great novels of his later years present a great ethical and spiritual challenge that is not negated by Dostoevsky’s own patchy record in exemplifying universal compassion in his journalism. Nonsense is always possible, and so, therefore, is evil; we are always vulnerable to a rhetoric, public or private, that asserts its freedom not to tell the truth. That is the risk all language runs. And it is countered not by a dogged insistence on reason, but by the acceptance of a common human task – recognising the unavoidable involvement with each other that shows itself in the speech we share.

If we truly share a capacity (a destiny?) as beings who speak to each other, we must always attend to how we are heard; we must imagine our own voices in the ears of another. In that moment, we understand that we owe it to one another to make every voice heard, to be responsible for securing the freedom of the voice of the other and the stranger.

Those voices matter because they are not our invention; they have a life and depth of their own. For Dostoevsky and his fellow-believers, they are signs of the transcendent divine stranger whose voice summons everything and everyone into existence. But for anyone thinking seriously about language and imagination, the recognition of the stranger’s voice is where we begin in resisting the freedom to lie, and the devastation and injustice that flow from it. Dostoevsky does not have to be a saint or an infallible moral guide for us to see the significance of such a legacy at the present time.

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This article appears in the 09 Dec 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special