Russia’s timeless Smerdyakovism

A good friend of mine posted a review of The Two Abysses of the Soul on Facebook. It was excellent so I’ve decided to excerpt it here, without comment.

WHEN RUSSIA AMPUTATED CRIMEA from Ukraine earlier this year, expertly swift as the stroke was, the pain was not just local. It was felt right away throughout Eastern Europe, from Warsaw to Bucharest to Vilnius to Riga. Indeed, this was a pain that brought back the memory of older, bigger wounds, which people in the region thought they had safely forgotten about. Always an aggressive, expansionist neighbor, the Russian bear, whenever it had the chance, didn’t hesitate to swallow up, in whole or in part, smaller neighboring countries. Little wonder that the latter ended up perceiving Russia as nothing but a realm of destruction. Joseph Conrad, who experienced the Russian empire’s insatiable land hunger firsthand, in his native Poland, openly regarded it as an empire of nothingness. In “Autocracy and War” (1905), for example, he wrote that from Russia’s inception “the brutal destruction of dignity, of truth, of rectitude, of all that is faithful in human nature has been made the imperative condition of her existence.” Under the oppressive shadow of Russian autocracy “nothing could grow.” Some eight decades later, in “The Tragedy of Central Europe” (1984), Milan Kundera would make a similar point: when Russians brought totalitarianism to his country “they did everything possible to destroy Czech culture.” Indeed, for him, “totalitarian Russian civilization is the radical negation of the modern West.”

Vladimir Putin’s sudden decision to start slicing up Ukraine must have reminded East Europeans of Russia’s traditional expansionism, but also of something else, something even worse. For there are still vivid in Eastern Europe’s collective memory episodes of Russian brutality so ferocious, so nightmarish that they can’t have anything to do with politics, not even with its most cynical variety. No matter how you look at them, even within a logic of repression, these acts just don’t make sense; they are too extreme to serve any punitive or preventive function — or any other rational purpose, for that matter.

There are works of literature that transcend aesthetics, literary history, and craftsmanship, and give us access to something deeper and more consequential. These works are no longer about their individual authors: through them something important about the collective psyche is captured and given expression. Don Quixote is one such work. Miguel de Unamuno thought that Cervantes’s novel was nothing less than the autobiography of Spain itself. Thomas Mann wanted his Doctor Faustus to be read in the same spirit. He hoped that, by writing this book, he would find out what exactly — in Germany’s history, culture, and philosophy — could bring forth something as monstrous as Nazism. The Brothers Karamazov, too, must be such a work. One feels compelled — especially when one comes from Eastern Europe, which has had its share of brushing with the two abysses of the Russian soul — to look into Dostoevsky’s novel for answers to bigger questions about Russia’s history and presence in the world.

Toward the end of The Brothers Karamazov, as the prosecutor Ippolit Kirillovich makes his case for Dmitri Karamazov’s condemnation, he brings up the image of two abysses between which the defendant, in his view, is caught. One is the “abyss beneath us, an abyss of the lowest and foulest degradation,” while the other is “the abyss above us, an abyss of lofty ideals.” “Two abysses, gentlemen,” says the prosecutor, “in one and the same moment — without that […] our existence is incomplete.”

This image of the two intertwined abysses can be said to be a picture of Russia itself. The basest and the highest, the most despicable and the noblest, profanity and sainthood, total cynicism and winged idealism, all meet here.

The high point of a symbolic reading of The Brothers Karamazov, however, is the lackey Smerdyakov. To many readers this may seem surprising: in the novel, his is one of the most washed-out faces. We can’t really “read” Smerdyakov. He may or may not be Fyodor Pavlovich’s bastard son (and thus one of the brothers Karamazov); he is inconspicuous, elusive, slippery, always hiding, always doing things on the sly. What’s remarkable about him is that he is so unremarkable. And yet behind this mask of anonymity there lies something frightening: a compulsion to do evil for its own sake. When Smerdyakov is introduced, we learn of him that “as a child he was fond of hanging cats and then burying them with ceremony.” Why did he kill the cats? Just because. As he grows up he gets better and better at gratuitous evil. Now an adult, Smerdyakov teaches kids in the neighborhood a certain trick: “take a piece of bread, […] stick a pin in it, and toss it to some yard dog, the kind that’s so hungry it will swallow whatever it gets without chewing it, and then watch what happens.” Why torture the dogs? Why not? Eventually Smerdyakov develops this into a systematic, coherent behavior. He kills Fyodor Pavlovich without any clear motive; he plans the murder to the last detail and commits it in cold blood, but we don’t know why. He kills just because.

Smerdyakovism is an obscure, yet tremendous force that runs deep throughout Russian history. Its basic principle is formulated succinctly by the lackey himself: “The Russian people need thrashing.” Why? Just because. Smerdyakovism flares up especially in the form of leaders and institutions that rule through terror alone; repression for the sake of repression. Its impact is overwhelming, its memory traumatic, and its social effects always paralyzing. Joseph Conrad sees “something inhuman,” from another world, in these Smerdyakovian institutions. The government of Tsarist Russia, relying on an omnipresent, omnipotent secret police, and “arrogating to itself the supreme power to torment and slaughter the bodies of its subjects like a God-sent scourge, has been most cruel to those whom it allowed to live under the shadow of its dispensation.” And that was just the beginning.

It was Stalin who brought Smerdyakovism to perfection.

The more fascinating the philosophical vistas opened up by The Brothers Karamazov, the more puzzling its author. Dostoevsky is a complicated case. As a creative artist, he is as insightful as it gets. He has given us access to regions of the human soul that few before or after him have. He is bold, visionary, and uncannily prophetic. As a novelist, Dostoevsky is a most generous demiurge: each of his novels emerges as a universe in its own right, a polyphonic world where characters have their distinct voices, independent from their author’s. Yet as a journalist Dostoevsky can be embarrassing. He was narrow-minded, often mediocre, and parochial, when not openly xenophobic and anti-Semitic. This Dostoevsky — the nationalist, the inveterate Slavophile for whom Russia was a “God-bearing country” that had some natural right over others — would have likely approved of Putin’s efforts to save Ukraine from the paws of the godless West. Ever since he died Dostoevsky has not ceased to supply Russia’s political establishment with ideas, one fancier than the next.

We should not be so surprised, though. For that, too, is in The Brothers Karamazov. Throughout the novel, Ivan toys with the idea that “if God does not exist, then everything is permitted.” He drops it carelessly in conversations so that any idiot can pick it up and use it. Then, one day, Smerdyakov tells him that he just used it to murder his father. The killing “was done in the most natural manner, sir, according to those same words of yours,” says the lackey, barely containing, we surmise, sardonic laughter. Smerdyakov is of course lying — he killed Fyodor Pavlovich just because — but his mockery of Ivan’s idea is real. Mocking philosophical ideas is another facet of Russia.

Putin’s spin doctors are always ready to connect his politics to a line of Slavophile thought that runs deep in Russia and leads straight to Dostoevsky himself. Indeed, Putin is often seen crossing himself in the presence of Orthodox clergy and lighting candles in the midst of pious, simple Russian folk. Cameras are always close at hand to capture his churchgoing, just as they are to seize his tiger hunting, horse riding, crane saving, reindeer feeding, topless fishing, tank driving, or jet flying. Putin must be laughing like mad at Dostoevsky’s Slavophilia, just as Smerdyakov was laughing at Ivan’s philosophy. For Putin cares as much about ideas (Slavophile or otherwise) as he does about the tigers he kills.

Putin can be a politician, a thinker, a hunter, a fisherman, a hockey player, a fighter pilot — he can be anything he likes because he is nothing in particular. “He is an excellent imitator,” writes Anna Politkovskaya. “He is adept at wearing other people’s clothes, and many are taken in by this performance.” Journalists have often noticed how difficult it is to “read” Putin, since he is always so slippery. Yet for any serious reader of The Brothers Karamazov this is something familiar. Featurelessness itself can be a feature — that’s one of the indications that you are in Smerdyakov’s presence.

Putin, too, is Smerdyakov. The institution that created him (the KGB) is one of the most Smerdyakovian institutions ever devised. His unapologetic defense of the Soviet Union and his attempts to revive it, his recycling of the Stalinist propaganda machine, the silencing of human rights movements all over Russia, the manner in which he annihilates his opponents — all are signs that Smerdyakovism enjoys a new life in today’s Russia. Most significant of all, however, is Putin’s recent vivisection of Ukraine; Smerdyakov’s signature is all over it. An army of faceless, nameless, insignia-less “little green men” who steal themselves into the country under the cover of night and, before anyone knows it, cut off a piece of it. Since they do everything on the sly, and the whole operation looks more Mafia-like than military, people liken Putin’s army to a gang of thugs. That’s inaccurate: the “little green men” are not thugs, they are Smerdyakovs in action. There is nothing fake about them; their modus operandi is the lackey’s 100 percent.

To be sure, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin is not Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin. They are both Smerdyakovian, but, by its very nature, Smerdyakovism is protheic, multidimensional, complex. Stalin’s Smerdykovism manifests itself especially in his “just because” acts, while Putin’s in his anonymous, cowardly mode of operation. But that’s little consolation to an Eastern Europe traumatized for centuries by its stronger, always erratic, always drunk-like neighbor. For these countries the danger does not necessarily come from Putin or Stalin personally, but from Russia’s timeless Smerdyakovism, of which they are only temporary embodiments.

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