Dostoevsky, Putin, Christianity, and the Russian Soul


Author: Srdja Trifkovic (Srdja Trifkovic)

In 1939 Winston Churchill memorably described Russia as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” He summarized the Western sense of Muscovy as an unfathomable, vaguely ominous land, definitely “the Other.”

The riddle would have been easier to solve, perhaps, and the mystery less baffling, had Sir Winston read the Russian classics, and especially Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky. He is the embodiment of the intertwining of literature and philosophy characteristic of his native land.

No nation takes its national literature more seriously than Russia. In these horrid times, only a minority of educated Britons would recognize Shakespearian references, and the same applies to Dante in Italy, Goethe in Germany, and Balzac in France. While wokedom seeks to eradicate dead white males from the collective memory of what still calls itself “the West,” Turgenev, Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Dostoevsky are alive and well in Russia. They are safe from the barbarism of the cancel culture in their native land; and their opus itself has helped Russia remain remarkably immune to the self-hating nihilism gripping the West.

At times an entire nation may be imbued with the sense of its special role in human affairs. That spirit may have tragic consequences (revolutionary France, Nazi Germany), or else it may reflect the natural urge of a vigorous young polity to grow and expand (the Roman Republic, America’s “Manifest Destiny”). It is unique to Russia, however, that the concept of national consciousness becomes fixated on the notion of the nation’s “soul.” The notion of its unique destiny inevitably follows. 

One man, through his writings, has contributed more than anyone to this phenomenon: Dostoevsky.

“To understand Putin,” the late Dr. Henry Kissinger said in 2016, “one must read Dostoevsky, not Mein Kampf.” (Let us add en passant that he should have suggested reading Ivan Ilyin too, who probably has a larger, more practical influence on Putin.) Kissinger did not tell us, however, what is, or should be, the source of this understanding. Should we look for the clues to Vladimir Vladimirovich’s thinking and behavior in Dostoevsky’s ideas? Or else should we compare some of the characters Dostoevsky created, in their emotional turmoil and temperamental makeup, to the president of the Russian Federation? Is Putin inspired by Fyodor Mihailovich’s message, or is he—in some meaningful manner—this millenium’s incarnation of one of his fictional protagonists from a century and a half ago? 

According to Kissinger, Putin is both. He is “a character out of Dostoevsky,” as Kissinger told CBS’s “Face the Nation” in December 2016. But he is also a statesman whose view of world politics is influenced by Dostoevsky’s ideas (as Kissinger wrote in the online magazine CapX in June 2017). Does the overall verdict stand, and which one of the two assertions is more true?

Dostoevsky’s writings are but one long struggle with the demons—both his own, and those afflicting Russia, and humanity in general. He was transformed forever by the experience of facing the firing squad and embracing God as a very young man. He turned the remaining four decades of his life into an eternity with universal relevance. His victims can turn into felons, his torturers into angels. Love conquers all; its essence is Christ.

Dostoevsky was not a Russian nationalist, as routinely claimed by his Western detractors. He felt that just as Christ is the proof of the existence of God, Orthodoxy is the proof of the existence of the Russian nation. In other words, Dostoevsky’s nationalism had for him a religious significance. No mere nationalist can speak to the nations and races to this day as he has done. He was a Slavophile, to be sure, but not primarily so. To him being Russian meant “showing that our soul embraces the whole of humanity, unites everyone in a fraternal embrace of love, and in the end, perhaps, utter a final word of great and universal harmony, of fraternal alliance of all peoples according to the law of Christ!”

The war in Ukraine, Dostoevsky would probably say, reflects the ability of the Russian soul (on both sides of the Slavic divide) for greatest evil and greatest good—and human reason alone can never separate the two. It is capable of a dark crime and an even greater sacrifice; of losing itself, and rediscovering itself in the act of penance. It is impossible to believe in God and to deny the devil, and vice versa. They both rule the world. Finding the Evil One in us proves the existence of God. He can appear everywhere and at all times, as an artist, a shabby aristocrat, or a common man, within Stavrogin in Dostoevsky’s novel Demons, or within Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, and countless other characters.

The devil enslaves us by granting us countless freedoms and rights, and this feat is his greatest accomplishment in the contemporary Western world. This is also a key fact which Putin seems to understand, although he has not phrased the insight in these same terms. The West accuses Putin of making Russia less free while the West finds its freedom in the pursuit of grievances over denied rights—from racism, discrimination, homophobia, etc., etc., ad nauseam. At the same time, the West denies freedom for what matters: for being, rather than constantly becoming. This is the ultimate denial of freedom, unimaginable in “Putin’s Russia.” A Westerner is not at liberty to discriminate in loving his family, his people, his nation, more than he loves an abstract humanity.

There are legions of new rights invented within the “collective West,” for the legions of newly minted oppressed groups (LGBTQ+, transgenderists, “people of color,” asylum seekers, illegal immigrants etc.). There is no right, however—none whatsoever—to be a heterosexual, white, Christian male who can live his life quietly, respecting the rights of others but also respecting himself, unmolested by the terror of “equity” and “progress,” and the shameless shaming, which demands continuous repentant self-flagellation.

Dostoevsky recognized the Enemy. He prophetically anticipated the notion that “all is allowed,” as presented by Ivan Karamazov and by Nikolai Stavrogin. He knew that revolutionary socialism would become the new religion and that, once God was killed, the Heaven would be lowered to the level of man and that the apparatus of power would be transformed into the embodiment of the Grand Inquisitor, annulling freedom in the name of collective happiness.

This same Enemy, in our own time, denies the legitimacy of the nation—any nation—in the name of a post-national global utopia based on “diversity,” “tolerance,” and “inclusiveness.” The Enemy knows well that if there is no national community, if there is merely an amorphous humanity, then there is no vessel within which God can be and must be cherished, and believed in, and worshipped. 

It is because of its opposition to this global vision, rather than due to a geopolitical calculus (which also matters, of course) that the Western political establishment believes it must defeat, cancel, and eradicate “Putin’s Russia.” Russia, in other words, is literally the last major Christian national community left standing against the New World Order.

Superficially at least, there is some similarity between the Russian president and Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. In disregard of the letter of the law, Putin goes after Zelensky, just as Raskolnikov goes after the horrid old woman. Thousands of decent Russian and Ukrainian young men get killed in the process, just as the old hag’s innocent half-sister Lizveta became collateral damage of Raskolnikov’s crime. It is arguable, however, that Putin didn’t set out to “murder” Ukraine like Raskolnikov did the nasty old hag. Quite the contrary, Putin has endangered his own enterprise by edging into the war through half measures, due to his own caution, confusion, and inability to finally break from his illusions about the West.

Who is the equivalent here of the investigating magistrate, Porfiry Petrovich? Surely not the “international community,” the very beast which has goaded and baited the Bear for years, just as it had enabled and lionized the robber barons of the Yeltsin era. 

More importantly, what of the ensuing redemption? For Putin to be “redeemed” there needs to be the clear fact of fatal transgression—in the eye of God, rather than man—and there needs to be the acceptance of the transgressor that he has sinned. 

It is here that the similarity ends. Many of Dostoevsky’s characters have no sense of proportion and no inner limit or measure. They transgress beyond bounds, and often burn all bridges behind them. They come alive only when the last trace of hope within them is extinguished, or when they destroy it. 

Putin has taken risks, and arguably he has transgressed, albeit not in the sense of the Western propaganda machine. It is the fruits of his labors by which he will be remembered, however, and not their moral context. That is how it has always been in the Hobbesian world of international politics, and that is how it will be for all time. 

If Putin stops Russia’s geopolitical and moral decline, and if he helps protect from an ever-aggressive, ever-encroaching Enemy his constituents—not only those in Russia, but all those who detest Washington D.C.’s “rules-based international order”—he will be redeemed in the collective memory of his nation and among the billions in the misnamed Global South. That does not mean, of course, that he will merit eventual redemption where it really counts, but it may offer some hope.

Ultimately, Vladimir V. Putin is not a character out of Dostoevsky’s opus, because he is neither deranged nor entangled in the quest for the meaning of life. Nor is he subservient to the Devil— most of Fyodor Mikhailovich’s heroes belong in one of those three categories. 

Putin is a cautious, rational man who may have made several important miscalculations in his political career—most importantly vis-à-vis Ukraine—but he is not a character out of Dostoevsky. He is a reader of Dostoyevsky, and that answers Dr. Kissinger’s dilemma. Putin has likely grasped that Demons is Dostoyevsky’s most important work by far, at least when it comes to offering insight on how to heal his nation from the destructive fury it has endured over the past 106 years, and how to ensure that it does not experience the same mortal danger again.

Putin will not allow Russia to be ruled, ever again, by the lackeys who want to shine the shoes of Westerners. That is, to become the slaves of the American neoconservatives and neoliberals, who would be terminally wretched if Russia were to be transformed into a rich and happy land: who would they have as their object of visceral hatred then? To these malefactors, it is both legitimate and enjoyable to hate a white Christian land; a Russia de-Russified would no longer fulfil that demonic urge, and they would have to move on to other targets.

In contrast to ideological chaos and revolutionary zeal of the postmodern Western world, anticipated by Dostoyevsky with prophetic precision, today’s Russia embodies order and stability. This explains the paranoid, hysterical quality of the public discourse on Russia and all things Russian in today’s West. This narrative is not truly related to the war in Ukraine, although it has reached insane proportions since Feb. 24, 2022.

The phenomenon has two key pillars. 

In terms of geopolitics, we see the striving of the powers that embody Carl Schmitt’s “nomos of the sea”—the need of the seaborne great powers, Great Britain before World War II and the United States thereafter, to contain and, if possible, to control, the Eurasian heartland.

Equally important is the Western elite’s deep cultural antipathy, the desire not just to influence Russian policies and behavior but to effect an irreversible transformation of Russia’s identity. This mania started well before Napoleon’s disastrous venture in 1812, and it matured during the Crimean War four decades later. It tragically prolongs the European civil war that exploded in July 1914, resumed in 1939, and has never properly ended, not even with the fall of the Berlin Wall. 

This Russophobic madness needs to end, and the war in Ukraine must end with a geopolitically reasonable compromise, so that the existential challenge common to all—the resurgent global jihad and Europe’s demographic collapse—can be addressed. It cannot end, however, for as long as the European Union and its key countries remain abjectly subservient to the demonically possessed hegemonistic elite in the United States.

Dostoevsky would be horrified but not surprised by this spectacle. Back in the 1860s and ’70s he grasped that the West suffers from the fatal split between heart and mind. He presents us with an ontological problem of “the West,” which in our own time has become a synthesis of all others. It is the looming end of culture itself. From the subject of activity, Western man has been reduced to a mere element—the “human factor,” subservient to artificial intelligence. Impulses for activity still pass through the individual, but they are dictated by the System. The real world becomes symbolic rather than substantial, the natural is squeezed out, with nature merely providing the building blocks for the artificial, and relations with nature assuming a primarily functional character.

This Russophobic madness needs to end … so that the existential challenge common to all—the resurgent global jihad and Europe’s demographic collapse—can be addressed.

Those who read and understand Dostoevsky also understand the need to reaffirm relations between people that are regulated by feelings, customs, faith, love, and hate, by considerations of good and evil, by sin and punishment, by beauty and ugliness. 

The game is not up. Cultural and demographic death of Europeans and their overseas descendants is not the inevitable end of the road for all of us. God exists, as Dostoevsky proves conclusively, and therefore we are endowed with feelings and reason, with the awareness of who we are: the heirs to the most creative civilization, the best by far the world has ever known. 

It is our right and out duty to defend ourselves against morbidity, deviance, population replacement and cultural and biological suicide, everywhere, from San Diego to Vladivostok. In Europe at last the signs are encouraging. Even the ever-so-progressive Dutch are waking up to this fact, with the “far-right populist” Geert Wilders emerging as the winner in November’s general election. In America the looming farce next November may finally force the Deplorables to take a realistic stock of their options.

This struggle is just, even if the outcome is uncertain. In the face of cosmic uncertainty the first task of a true man, Dostoevsky teaches us, is to hold on to life, and beauty, and truth. The rest is in God’s hands. ◆