The political drama being played out right now in Russia and Ukraine, and exemplified by Putin himself, is not merely geopolitical. It’s a deep-seated drama of the Russian soul that has been around for centuries. And Russian literature is the place we see it in full flower. The question Putin is grappling with is the one that recurs throughout the nineteenth-century Russian classics: What is the source of our national greatness?
In thinking about this question—to the extent that he’s consciously considered it at all—Putin, whose two favorite writers happen to be Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, has two distinct traditions to choose from. He has chosen Dostoevsky, not Tolstoy.
Dostoevsky believed that Russia’s special mission in the world was to create a pan-Slavic Christian empire with Russia at its helm. This messianic vision stemmed from the fact that Dostoevsky thought Russia was the most spiritually developed of all the nations, a nation destined to unite and lead the others. Russia’s mission, he said in 1881, was “the general unification of all the people of all tribes of the great Aryan race.”
This sort of triumphalist thinking was anathema to Tolstoy, who believed that every nation has its own unique traditions, none better or worse than the others. Tolstoy was a patriot—he loved his people, as is so clearly demonstrated in War and Peace, for example—but he was not a nationalist. He believed in the unique genius and dignity of every culture. One of the hallmarks of his writing from the beginning was his capacity to uncover the full-blooded truth of each one of his characters, no matter their nationality. In his Sevastopol Tales, which were inspired by his own experiences as a Russian soldier fighting against the combined forces of the Turks, French and British in the Crimean War of the 1850’s, Tolstoy celebrates the humanity of all his characters, whether Russian, British, or French.
Unfortunately, amid all the spiritual turmoil following the fall of the Soviet Union Russians have tended to cling to the more comforting messianic vision of Dostoevsky rather than Tolstoy’s softer vision of universal humanity. Tolstoy’s vision is too rational, too commonsensical, and too subtle for their tastes. After all the tragedies of twentieth century Russian history, and the humiliations of the past twenty years in particular, many ordinary Russians are seeking unequivocal proof of their national worthiness—indeed superiority—among the family of nations.
Putin plays to precisely that contingent of the population. He rarely quotes Tolstoy in his speeches, yet often quotes twentieth-century Russian messianic philosophers, who were themselves influenced by Dostoevsky’s brand of nationalism. Putin, who has called the fall of the Soviet Union the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century, also said the fall of the Soviet Union was a “genuine tragedy” for the Russian people. If you listen to him speak about Russians in Ukraine (“we are brothers in arms,” we must restore Russia’s historical unity, etc.) you’re hearing the voice of Dostoevsky.
None of this is to suggest that Dostoevsky would immediately recognize his own ideas in Putin’s words and actions. As is so often the case with cultural borrowings, Putin has taken only those aspects of Dostoevsky’s message that he finds congenial to his purposes. Dostoevsky, who created some of world literature’s most devastating critiques of power-hungry political operators, ultimately believed in Christian love and humility. He believed in the power of truth, not tanks. He didn’t trust the mechanisms of the state or the maneuverings of politicians, and understood as well as anyone that religion can be used as much as a force for evil as good.
The problem is that Dostoevsky, for all his depth and humanity, was also naively utopian. In his heart of hearts he believed that the Christian empire he envisioned could be created by God-fearing leaders who embodied the Russian values of kindness and humility. How Dostoevsky wasn’t able to recognize that this would not be that case—that no society has ever been successfully built exclusively on the Christian principles of selfless love—is one of the greater mysteries of the Russian soul. Dostoevsky unintentionally lay the philosophical and cultural groundwork upon which Putin, cynical and sneering, now stands.