God is a Russian
29 June 2011 § Leave a comment
I’ve been quiet on here recently because I’ve been doing battle with those monsters of depravity: Svidrigaylov, daddy Karamazov, Valkovsky and above all, Stavrogin. Not terribly pleasant company, although I find Stavrogin hideously compelling. I’d be like Dasha, desperately wanting to save him from himself.
My next train of thought is taking me directly back to Russia itself, and Dostoevsky’s vision of Russia as holding the key to humanity’s salvation. On first glance it’s just the usual raving Russian nationalism, coupled as this so often is, with deeply uncomfortable anti-Semitism. With Dostoevsky his nationalism has additional theological complications. We may make jokes about how “God is an Englishman” but for Dostoevsky God is to be found firmly lodged in the hearts of ordinary Russian people; humanity’s salvation is to be found in Russia. To get to the bottom of all this, and to put things into context I’ll have to sketch out a bit of the history of the slavophil and westerniser tendencies that so divided Russia in the 19th century. I also need to decide which of Dostoevsky’s characters to hang this chapter around: it’s not as obvious as it is with some of the other themes I’ve written about.
Loosely connected with this, I’ve been re-discovering my own thoughts about Russia from the times I’ve spent there; one of the things I hoped to do with this book was to give it a personal angle by looking for Dostoevsky’s Russians in the Russia that I experienced. Over the last couple of days I’ve been reading all my letters from Siberia to my (now) husband, ploughing through pages of my younger self moaning about how bored I was, and having endless preoccupations with food (good food, bad food, shortage of food, abundance of food…). It’s been fun in parts, although poor old Russell did have to put up with a lot of drivel. My Moscow letters look as if they’ll be more interesting: I was older, wiser, more confident when I lived there, determined to have a good time and to immerse myself in Russian life.
The Siberian letters were full of frustration about Russia: petty officials, the difficulties of getting anything done, the rapacious university staff who organised the exchange, and the general dirt and dreariness of Krasnoyarsk, but there was also the kindness and generosity of our hosts and friends, the incredible beauty of the countryside, the amazing richness of culture even in the middle of nowhere (I was at concerts, ballets or opera almost every night it seems). I think much of what goes on in Russia is driven by the passionate love of life that Dostoevsky writes about, and it produces excesses at both ends of the scale, the glories and the horrors. It’s not a place for moderation, for the middle way, and I think that’s the clue to why I love it so much. I’m not convinced about the salvation bit though!