Dostoevsky’s danger

On the Spectator website this piece was titled (not by me) ‘Dostoevsky and Putin’s useful idiots’.

When I was seventeen I heard the name Dostovesky, and was enthralled. Just the name felt so glamorously intellectual, so deep. I began to read some of his novels, and my admiration increased. A bit later I delved into his ideas, and my admiration became more nuanced. I partly admired his defiance of the rational humanist arrogance of the West, but I was also wary of his reactionary mystical nationalism, his faith in the anti-liberal Russian soul.

It seems that a lot of religiously minded intellectuals struggle to get past stage one. They are so taken with the flinty glamour of this writer that their critical faculties atrophy. They allow their aesthetic admiration to influence their religious politics.

Rowan Williams is a theologian I admire for the most part, but he has been overly romantic about Russian Orthodoxy, as if its vision of religion and politics in perfect harmony is more authentic than modern Western Christianity. And his love of Dostoevsky has been a major factor in this. 

Last year he wrote an article for the New Statesman in which he argued for the novelist’s abiding relevance. He acknowledged that ‘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.’ But we should not dismiss his thinking too quickly, he argues. ‘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.’

Williams implies that it is simplistic to criticise Dostoevsky for his anti-liberalism: there is actually nuanced vision here. I don’t buy it. His anti-liberal vision must be squarely addressed, in normal sober terms, without reference to the poetic passages in his novels. If a reactionary, theocratic version of Christianity is a bad thing, then his version of it is also a bad thing. If only Rowan Williams spent more time explaining that a more enlightened, pro-liberal version of Christianity is possible, rather than semi-glorifying reactionary versions.

A.N. Wilson also displayed his deep love for the Russian sage last year. In the TLS he reviewed various books about Dostoevsky, and concluded by suggesting that he foresaw some of the ruptures of our time. These include ‘the pathetic unravelling of liberal Western Christianity, and its attempt to marry Reason and the Gospel.’ This is a deeply clumsy little bit of theologising, and again it gives succour to an illiberal vision. Wilson is wrong to suggest that liberal Western Christianity is defined by ‘its attempt to marry Reason and the Gospel’. This was one aspect of it, but another aspect is its belief in political liberalism. By shoving these two aspects together, Wilson implies that the liberal Christianity of the West was a huge mistake, a failure of authenticity. Does he believe this – that we should have stayed with a medieval theocratic version? His desire to sound as deep as Dostoevsky has clouded his judgement.

So what, you might say – these erudite Dostoevsky-fans are not likely to approve of religious nationalism in real life. Surely I do not accuse them of being Putin’s useful idiots? Well, there is an article in this month’s Catholic Herald by Mark Jenkins that gives one pause. It too begins by explaining that Dostoevsky was a prophet of Russia’s religious renewal, and an antagonist of western individualism and rationalism. Then it explains that this vision was revived after the fall of the Soviet Union: an intellectual called Aleksandr Dugin heralded the rise of a new Russian empire, rooted in Orthodoxy. In writings that directly influenced Putin, Dugin announced that Russia’s holy calling is to destabilise the decadent liberal West and make the world safe for traditional Christian civilisation. 

Jenkins maintains a neutral tone as he describes such ideas, but presumably he disapproves of a grand plan to divide and weaken the West. But the conclusion suggests otherwise. Jenkins makes a surprising prediction: ‘In ten years’ time, Russian tanks in Ukraine might well be greeted with flowers, rather than bullets.’ Eh? Has the Catholic Herald really invited a Putin sympathiser to tell us about this crisis? It seems so, for he concludes: ‘Fundamentally, the current crisis in world affairs is rooted in the materialism and dualism of the European Enlightenment. It is a defective paradigm, remarkably similar to the one that brought ancient Rome to its knees.’ He then quotes Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s belief that the liberal order is a new barbarism. And he finishes with another quote: ‘As Friedrich Holderlin once said: “Where there is danger, deliverance lies also.”’ The implication is that Putin’s chaos is providential, a righteous blow against the false ideology of the West.

This is the sort of thing that was written a century ago, about another bold foreign leader who dared to stand up to the decadence of liberal democracy: Mussolini. Soon Hitler was also praised on the same grounds. Yes, he might be crude and simplistic in his rhetoric, but who else is defying the Communists, and the secular liberals? Yes, there might be tragic conflict in the short term, but maybe this is necessary, to shake the world from its captivity to liberalism. Yes, there might be unfortunate consequences for the Jews, but that will blow over when order is restored. Plenty of right-wingers said this sort of thing, right up to the outbreak of war, and religious conservatism was a major factor in their worldview.

I think it is time to question the theological disparagement of liberalism, the not-quite-harmless theocratic posturing of our leading religious thinkers.