The errors of Russia from Dostoyevsky to Putin

Above: Fyodor Dostoyevsky by Vasily Perov

The recent deaths of former Soviet Prime Minister Mikhail Gorbachev and Orthodox Metropolitan Kallistos (Timothy) Ware have drawn praise, remembrance and comment in secular and religious circles. Gorbachev was the face of the end of Communism, while Ware was probably the first English-language writer and explainer of the Eastern Orthodox faith. Gorbachev presided over the end of part of recent Russian history when, like many of us, I (mistakenly) thought communism was dead. Goods The Orthodox Church, The Orthodox wayand translations of The Philocalia introduced several generations of English speakers to the faith to which he converted. Although he later became a prelate of the Ecumenical (Greek) Patriarchate, he began his journey through friendship with Russian émigrés in Britain and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR).

Ware influenced my spiritual journey. As I sought to understand the Apostolic Church, its writings, in their clarity, conciseness, and untriumphal certainty, drew me to the East. During my twelve year stay in Orthodoxy, I had the great privilege of hearing Met. Kallistos speaks at a university near my home. He was charming and erudite, as one would expect from his books and his academic background. Nevertheless, over the years, Ware’s nascent liberalism gradually took hold. As Fr. John Hunwicke noted in a blog post on his fellow Englishman, Ware’s positions on contraception and women’s ordination showed growing divergence from Tradition. This openness to modifications of Tradition is not an aberration in the Orthodox sphere. Divorce and adulterous remarriage were tolerated and blessed (albeit penitentially) in “Orthodox rites” for centuries, and there is a growing softening of opposition to homosexuality (despite our own very recent problems with the cancellation crisis). And yet, many tradition-conscious Catholics seem to think that Orthodoxy is a refuge from the cultural and dogmatic wars within Catholicism. To understand why, I think we need to look at a crucial issue of our time, the message of Fatima and (Orthodox) Russia.

Russia’s Many Mistakes

The apparitions of Our Lady at Fatima have agitated the Catholic Church since 1917. More than a century later, the debate over the messages of Fatima, their content and their interpretation rages on. A new sense of urgency shrouds the debate as the Russian invasion of Ukraine progresses and after a problematic consecration by Pope Francis. Perhaps a good place to start is to ask: what are the errors of Russia mentioned by Our Lady?

For decades, the answer was clear on at least one of the errors: communism. But mistakes are plural, so what are the other Russian mistakes? A survey of the last hundred and fifty years might yield the following list: schism, atheism, nihilism, phyletism (the ecclesiastical heresy that subordinates the Church to an ethnicity), pan-Slavism, existentialism, caesaropapism, and personality cult. Although some of them may have originated elsewhere, Russia was the nurturing womb from which these errors sprang to tear at the fabric of God’s world. There are many political explanations for this, but I think a better place to find answers is in the writings of novelists and spiritual writers, starting with Dostoyevsky.

Dostoevsky’s life and thought epitomize the tensions within 19th-century Russia, and his examination of ideas, ideologies, and general impiety foresightedly portrayed the horrors of modernism. He began his adult life and career under the influence of romantic and liberal ideas, but a series of events and their attendant sufferings led to growing spiritual and philosophical conservatism. He wrote movingly about human freedom and saw with insight the corrosive effects of various ungodly movements on the Russian soul and psyche. His early works, as poor people, with their depictions of poverty, desperation and social turmoil, could be compared to Dickens; but, after his release from prison, described so movingly in The house of the deadDostoyevsky’s work penetrated deeply into the human heart.

The literary genius of Dostoyevsky

On the one hand, the author forcefully presents the murderous effects of sin (Crime and Punishment), the absolute cynicism and brutality of nihilism (demons), the wounds of illegitimacy (A raw youth and The Karamazov brothers), the hopelessness of gambling addiction (The player), and the weaknesses of social class (The idiot). On the other hand, some of his books have problematic aspects, like Notes from the basementwith his proto-existentialist antihero perversely exercising his free will to say no to his fellow human beings and to God.

Dostoyevsky’s magnum opus is his last novel, The Karamazov brothers, a story of parricide, greed, atheism, human kindness and cruelty, and much more. Despite its many virtues, the novel contains three important Russian errors: schism/anti-Catholicism, atheism and ethnocentrism. During a first conversation in a monastery, a monk lectures some visitors:

[T]The Church must not be transformed into a State. It is Rome and its dream. This is the third temptation of the devil. On the contrary, the State is transformed into a Church, will rise and become a Church over the whole world – which is the complete opposite of ultramontanism and of Rome… and is only the glorious destiny ordained to the Orthodox Church. This star will rise in the east!

The infamous section of the book on the Grand Inquisitor portrays the Roman Church as anti-Christian and materialistic, denying Christ and his message in favor of providing bread for weak humans, not the Eucharist and salvation. Dostoyevsky also caricatures the Polish characters as buffoons, a tired Russian prejudice that appears in more than one of his books.

The Tortured Russian Soul

Dostoyevsky’s works clearly show that whatever noble impulses may inhabit the Russian soul, external ideologies have distorted these impulses. The utopian ideas of Dostoyevsky’s dreamers finally manifest themselves in Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag. Less than a century separates Ivan Denisovitch’s Underground Man.

The Russian Revolution not only helped spread Marxist-Leninist communism, it sent other errors into the world: social and political errors like the atheistic libertarianism of Ayn Rand; literary errors like that of Nabokov lolita; ecumenical errors such as the accommodation offered to Orthodoxy at Vatican II, where Russian Church observers (later confirmed as KGB agents) came to the council in return for not exposing Communism in the council documents. But there are remedies.

As a voice against communism in general, Ven. Fulton Sheen has no equal. A response to Russia’s religious threats can be found in the books of Catherine De Hueck Doherty, who wrote so movingly of the Russian faith of her youth but realized in union with Rome. Rand (forced to leave Russia due to her politics) is deftly countered by the personalism of Russian dissident (and later exiled) Zamyatin in her novel We. And the reply to the Russian schism is given most convincingly by Dostoyevsky’s disciple, Vladimir Soloviev, in the two The Russian Church and the Papacy and “A History of the Antichrist”. And then there’s JRR Tolkien.

I was about thirteen when I first read Tolkien. It was in the depths of the Cold War (1970s) with its fears of nuclear war, and The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings provided a teenager with a story of good versus evil… and good won! My still formless mind couldn’t quite grasp the significance of Tolkien’s chapter on “The Stripping of the Shire”. It wasn’t until recently, when the reality of the resurrection of communism hit me, that I came to grips with Tolkien’s wisdom. We may have “won” the Cold War, but we did not stand up to the Communists at home.

Regarding Gorbachev’s post-Soviet legacy, David Satter writes in The Wall Street Journal makes the stark assessment that “the moral and legal vacuum he left behind spawned an oligarchic criminal regime in Russia that used terror to stay in power and launched a full-scale war against Ukraine”. In The Devil’s Final Battle, edited by Fr. Paul Kramer (2010), Gorbachev’s post-Soviet work and foundation has been scrutinized and found to be caustic, anti-democratic and anti-Christian. “Gorbachev, a man who still confesses to being a Leninist and whose tax-exempt foundations promote abortion and contraception to eliminate five billion people from the world’s population” (98). Ware’s legacy may not be as morally problematic, but his apology for orthodoxy, while seemingly irenic, has helped make a schismatic entity attractive to Westerners looking for a spiritual home. The Benedict option Author Rod Dreher is just one highly publicized example of a Catholic turning away from Rome and towards the East.

What can be done? Repent, for the Kingdom of God is near. We have hope for eternity, but that does not absolve us of duty in the current crisis. It’s too late? Will we be like the Numenorean queen Tar-Miriel, vainly trying to reach the sanctuary to intercede for her people, only to be engulfed in a destructive wave? Or could we have the chance to turn things around and defeat Mordor and its allies?

Solovyov, in Russia and the Universal Church, anticipating the current crisis of a servile Russian Church’s endorsement of an unprovoked war against Ukraine, wrote: of the state, and that ecclesiastical independence can only be secured through an international center of spiritual authority. But in his account of the end of history in “A History of the Antichrist”, the brave martyr Pope Peter II defends Christ, is resurrected by the hand of God and leads the former schismatics into full union with Rome, after which the culmination of the ages takes place. Let us pray that it will be so.

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