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We have much to learn from nineteenth-century Russia

Since the Cold War we have, to our detriment, become increasingly blinded to the wisdom of the Old Russia

I’ve always remembered the advice from a good friend I met during our tank racing days in the British Army, given during a turbulent period in my life following, in quick succession, an Afghanistan tour, resigning my officer’s commission and leaving the army to be left blinking at a strange new civilian world in Texas of all places.

He offered an eclectic list of emotional stabilizers that included learning to cook tasty organic food; regular sex in a stable relationship; prayer and the New Testament; micro-dosing with MDMA—otherwise known as the drug ecstasy—once every six months just to take the edge off, finishing with reading good nineteenth-century Russian literature.

I’ve done my best to follow his advice in the subsequent years, though the habit that’s proved easiest to maintain regularly has been consuming Russian literature and its timeless wisdom offered by writers such as Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Are movements new types of quasi-religions to replace the God-shaped hole in modern society?

I was fortunate to be steered in their direction by my friend. The Cold War and its bizarre blend of terrible and surreal machinations came to dominate Western society’s notions of Russia, and nowadays almost all our news and focus on Russia revolves around the dangerous consequences of the cynical and authoritarian ways of President Putin. It’s exceedingly rare to be reminded how the middle decades of the nineteenth century in Russia were “distinguished by a wealth of good prose-writing unsurpassed in world literature,” A. D. P. Briggs, professor emeritus of the University of Birmingham, writes in the introduction to the 2007 edition of Dostoevsky’s The Karamazov Brothers by Wordsworth Classics. “[T]wo generations of new writers poured out their ideas in a succession of stories and novels that would take the world by storm.”

Nowadays, the books about Russia you find on Western bookshelves are typically written by foreigners and have titles such as “From Russia with Blood: Putin’s Ruthless Killing Campaign and Secret War on the West” and “Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and then Took on the West.” While those books are needed, there is clearly a lot more to Russia than its menacing government’s tentacles.

“Everyone always asks about Putin!” a Russian art curator for a Saint Petersburg museum recently told me during a shared dinner following a day hiking the Camino del Norte, after I asked him how bad things were with Putin. I tried to switch the topic to less choppy waters.

“Everyone always mentions Tolstoy!” he continued to lament with a smile as I was building up a head of steam in describing my man crush for the great count and his writing. The art curator rattled off a load of other nineteenth-century Russian writers he admires. I don’t think I recognized a single name.

By the end of his life Tolstoy had little patience left for organised religion

As Briggs also notes, the names of Herzen, Pisemsky, Saltykov-Shchedrin, Leskov, Goncharov, Chernyshevsky and Mamin-Sibiryak are not widely known outside of Russia these days. For most of them, their misfortune was to be “merely talented in an age of greatness,” Briggs says, noting that they and their works might well have been more celebrated were they not eclipsed by the three giants whose works seized the imaginations of those outside Russia: Ivan Turgenev (1818-83), Leo Tolstoy (1828 – 1910) and Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-81).

It is Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, the former primarily, who have provided me with my continual hit of nineteenth-century Russian literature over the years in keeping with my friend’s advice. I have found myself drawn to them even more of late—with the darker writings of Dostoevsky now catching up—which is surely no coincidence given the current mood, and set against the post-Christian world emerging and seemingly being sped into existence by the Left.

Dostoevsky’s “one big idea”, Briggs says, was that “the modern world was going in the wrong direction by embracing science and materialism at the expense of all other ways of accounting for the universe we live in.” Dostoevsky feared that the “power to calculate—human reason—was being given too free a rein, [while the] rampant materialism of the modern world” constituted “a terrible danger to humanity” for the following reasons.

“While promising everything it delivered nothing, by leaving out of account the things that really matter—human personality, spiritual values and especially the overriding need for freedom, including the freedom to make mistakes, go off the rails, ignore one’s own interests,” explains Briggs, who might as well be also commenting on the current Covid-19 situation. “Atheism, positivism, socialism, these forces would lead away from freedom into a totalitarian society where the rules for human behaviour were worked out according to scientific formulae and imposed upon the population for their own good.”

Ordinary people increasingly seem to feel they need to become politicised over every minutiae of life

Maybe it’s just me, but I read that with a shiver when hearing reports of students potentially having to hunker in their accommodation over Christmas because of the “risk” of community spread, self-isolation becoming law for those told by NHS Test and Trace they have been in contact with someone who has Covid-19, with large fines for those who don’t adhere. It gets more of a sinister edge when accompanied by rules regarding knowingly giving false information about close contacts to NHS Test and Trace, in other words meaning you have to snitch; not a great one for engendering trust and a sense of community, especially if you ask those who lived through East Berlin with the threat of the Stasi or those living in Eritrea today under a similar regime of fear and suspicion.

Admittedly, and thankfully, despite the muddled and oscillating responses of the British government to Covid-19, we are a long way off from totalitarianism taking hold in this country. More relevant for us right now are the warnings offered by those Russian sages about how the utilitarianism and cold rationality of modern thinking fails to accommodate man’s innate spiritual nature.

In Briggs’s assessment of Dostoevsky’s novel The Devils, about a fictional town that descends into chaos as it becomes the focal point of an attempted revolution, he writes that “the worst devil of all, the author assures us, is the dreadful bacillus of modern progressive thinking, that blend of atheism, socialism and narrow-minded empiricism which was steadily infecting the whole of Russian society, eating away at its moral and spiritual strength, and promising so much evil in the near future.”

The evidence of this happening now arguably finds its most stark example in America—the developed world’s religious powerhouse. “In this devastating election year of 2020, Americans are waking up to the reality that four centuries of Christian flourishing have come to an end,” Damian Thompson writes in a recent article for The Spectator’s US magazine. He describes the “hard-edged secularism that is fast becoming the default ‘religion’ of Americans born after 1981, less than half of whom describe themselves as Christians.”

Thompson cites the latest statistics gathered by the Pew Research Centre: between 2009 and 2019, the number of American adults describing themselves as Christian fell from 77 percent to 65 percent, while the number of atheists, agnostics and “nothing in particular” rose from 17 to 26 percent. Since 1973, the percentage of Catholics who go to mass on Sundays has fallen from 50 percent to around 35 percent, with most of the decline happening since the turn of the century.

While this “European-style decline has been on the horizon for some time,” Thompson says, it is hitting home this year due to America’s national election revealing much “about the looming collapse of American Christianity.” He cites the positions of the vying candidates reflecting the shifting sands among society, ranging from Donald Trump’s blasé and opportunistic use of religion to the way Joe Biden’s running mate, Kamala Harris, “attacks conservative Christians, especially Catholics, who dare to challenge the strict creed of identity politics.”

The Catholic Church is increasingly caught up in culture-war disputes, ranging from tussles over Catholic adoption agencies placing children with gay couples to Catholic hospitals providing contraception services. Set against the devastating clerical abuse scandal, all this has made the Catholic Church a prime target, especially with American protestors who already perceive an alliance between Christian voters and Trump.

This summer saw a wave of attacks on Christian properties across the US taking the number of attacks this year to over 70, writes Luke Coppen, Europe editor of the Catholic News Agency. The vandalism ranged from a church pelted with a Molotov cocktail in Weymouth, Massachusetts, to a church in Ocala, Florida, being firebombed with the congregation inside; a statue of St Jude had its head taken off in Denver, Colorado, while a vandal destroyed a statue of Jesus at St. Patrick Cathedral in El Paso, Texas earlier this month.

In explaining America’s current ructions, racial issues often grab the headlines, and understandably so. But there is an argument to be made that these convulsions reflect just as much the tectonic shifts going on between God-fearing America and its emerging secular twin, a situation and consequences of which Dostoevsky and Tolstoy lived through in Russia.

Such secular zealotry were much on Dostoevsky’s mind back in nineteenth-century Russia

“The instructions of a secular morality that is not based on religious doctrines are exactly like what a person ignorant of music might do, if he were made a conductor and started to wave his hands in front of musicians well-rehearsed in what they are performing,” Tolstoy wrote in his 1893 essay Religion and Morality. “By virtue of its own momentum, and from what pervious conductors had taught the musicians, the music might continue for a while, but obviously the gesticulations made with a stick by a person who knows nothing about music would be useless and eventually confuse the musicians and throw the orchestra off course.”

He goes on to argue that “this sort of confusion is beginning to take place in the minds of people today, as a result of the attempts made by leading figures to instruct people in a morality that is not based on that superior religion which Christian humanity has started, and to some extent succeeded, in assimilating.”

The jarring ramifications of this confusion might go some way to explain why so many of today’s identity politics movements display such religious zeal in the way they go for their enemies. I wouldn’t be the first to reference the Spanish Inquisition when discussing the treatment meted out by some activists to those not towing the progressive or woke line on complex issues such as transgenderism, abortion, gay marriage, white privilege, and all the rest.

Such secular zealotry and its accompanying politics were much on Dostoevsky’s mind back in nineteenth-century Russia; hence Briggs cites Ronald Hingley, the English scholar, translator and historian of Russia, emphasising the political message of The Karamazov Brothers as follows:

Here is an eloquent defiance of humanity at large against those dull, self-admiring, uncreative, mischief-making, self-seeking philanthropists called politicians or statesmen, who so disastrously devote their lives to imposing on others what they know to be best for them—that host of inquisitors, petty rather than grand, who have so lamentably proliferated since Dostoevsky’s death in the government of his own and other countries.

The big problem now—playing out, as ever, initially and most notably on the dramatic stage of America before migrating to other shores—is that in addition to those troublesome “philanthropists called politicians or statesmen”, ordinary people increasingly seem to feel they need to become politicised over every minutiae of life. Douglas Murray takes this emerging devotional trend to task in his book The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race, and Identity, discussing the corresponding movements as new types of quasi-religions to replace the God-shaped hole in modern society and in so many people’s lives.

In defence of the protestors, activists and ordinary self-identifying liberals who are motivated by good intentions and what their heart tells them, it should be noted that by the end of his life Tolstoy had little patience left for organised religion. But his eyes remained firmly set on God and on a set of exceedingly simple principles revolving around love at the individual level. “Seize the moments of happiness, love and be loved! That is the only reality in the world, all else is folly,” he writes in War and Peace. As with organized religion, he had little time for the passions propelling large scale movements.

“The law of human life is such that the improvement of it, whether for the individual or for society, is only possible through inner, moral perfection,” Tolstoy writes in his essay What Is Religion and Of What Does Its Essence Consist? “All the efforts people make to improve their lives through violent external behaviour towards one another serve as the most potent form of propaganda and … increases the evil which gathers size like a snowball and increasingly alienates people from the only possible way of genuinely improving their lives.”

I could go on, but clearly, I shouldn’t. Rather than reading a contemporary British writer praising nineteenth-century Russian writers, it would be far better for a reader to put his or her reading time toward the actual works of those Russian writers. On that, a last thought from a more learned modern-day writer—Briggs—on the value for us now of Dostoevsky’s depiction in The Brothers Karamazov of “the tragic and ‘abnormal’ nature of modern man, who is condemned by his lack of faith to amoralism and the desert of existential uncertainty, anxiety and doubt … accompanied, and indeed sharpened, by a longing for new certainties to replace those that have been lost.”

The Brothers Karamazov continues to offer us infights into the moral, social, political, psychological and spiritual crises that afflict out modern cultures,” Briggs sums up, before reminding us what might be gained by persevering with this challenging read. “It was Dostoevsky’s deepest hope that it also indicated the way to overcome them.”

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