As someone who teaches Russian literature, I can’t help but process the world through the country’s novels, stories, poems and plays, even at a time when Russian cultural productions are being canceled around the world.
I’m not worried that truly valuable art can ever be canceled. Enduring works of literature are enduring, in part, because they are capacious enough to be read critically against the vicissitudes of the present.
You could make this argument about any great work of Russian literature, but as a scholar of Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky, I will stick with Russia’s most famous literary exports.
After World War II, German critic Theodore Adorno described the Holocaust as a profound blow to Western culture and philosophy, even going so far as to question the very ability of human beings to “live after Auschwitz.”
This idea, born of the very specific context of the Holocaust, shouldn’t be haphazardly applied to the present moment. But following Adorno’s moral lead, I wonder whether – after the brutal shelling of the city of Mariupol, after the horrors on the streets of Bucha, along with atrocities committed in Kharkiv, Mykolaev, Kyiv and many more – the indiscriminate violence ought to change how readers approach Russia’s great authors.
Confronting suffering with clear eyes
Upon learning that Russian writer Ivan Turgenev had looked away at the last minute when witnessing the execution of a man, Dostoevsky made his own position clear: “[A] human being living on the surface of the earth has no right to turn away and ignore what is happening on earth, and there are higher moral imperatives for this.”
Seeing the rubble of a theater in Mariupol, hearing of Mariupol citizens starving because of Russian airstrikes, I wonder what Dostoevsky – who specifically focused his piercing moral eye on the question of the suffering of children in his 1880 novel The Brothers Karamazov – would say in response to the Russian army’s bombing a theatre where children were sheltering. The word “children” was spelled out on the pavement outside the theatre in large type so it could be seen from the sky. There was no misunderstanding of who was there.
Ivan Karamazov, the central protagonist in The Brothers Karamazov, is far more focused on questions of moral accountability than Christian acceptance or forgiveness and reconciliation. In conversation, Ivan routinely brings up examples of children’s being harmed, imploring the other characters to recognise the atrocities in their midst. He is determined to seek retribution.
Surely the intentional shelling of children in Mariupol is something Dostoevsky couldn’t possibly look away from either. Could he possibly defend a vision of Russian morality while seeing innocent civilians – men, women and children – lying on the streets of Bucha?
At the same time, nor should readers look away from the unseemliness of Dostoevsky and his sense of Russian exceptionalism. These dogmatic ideas about Russian greatness and Russia’s messianic mission are connected to the broader ideology that has fuelled Russia’s past colonial mission, and current Russian foreign politics on violent display in Ukraine.
Yet Dostoevsky was also a great humanist thinker who tied this vision of Russian greatness to Russian suffering and faith. Seeing the spiritual value of human suffering was perhaps a natural outcome for a man sent to a labor camp in Siberia for five years for simply participating in a glorified socialist book club. Dostoevsky grew out of his suffering, but, arguably, not to a place where he could accept state-sponsored terror.
Would an author who, in his 1866 novel Crime and Punishment, explains in excruciating detail the toll of murder on the murderer – who explains that when someone takes a life, they kill part of themselves – possibly accept Putin’s vision of Russia? Warts and all, would Russia’s greatest metaphysical rebel have recoiled and rebelled against Russian violence in Ukraine?
Tolstoy’s path to pacifism
No writer captures warfare in Russia more poignantly than Tolstoy, a former soldier turned Russia’s most famous pacifist. In his last work, Hadji Murat, which scrutinises Russia’s colonial exploits in North Caucasus, Tolstoy showed how senseless Russian violence toward a Chechen village caused instant hatred of Russians.
Tolstoy’s greatest work about Russian warfare, War and Peace, is a novel that Russians have traditionally read during great wars, including World War II. In War and Peace, Tolstoy contends that the morale of the Russian military is the key to victory. The battles most likely to succeed are defensive ones, in which soldiers understand why they are fighting and what they are fighting to protect: their home.
Even then, he’s able to convey the harrowing experiences of young Russian soldiers coming into direct confrontation with the instruments of death and destruction on the battlefield. They disappear into the crowd of their battalion, but even a single loss is devastating for the families awaiting their safe return.
After publishing War and Peace, Tolstoy publicly denounced many Russian military campaigns. The last part of his 1878 novel Anna Karenina originally wasn’t published because it criticised Russia’s actions in the Russo-Turkish war. Tolstoy’s alter ego in that novel, Konstantin Levin, calls the Russian intervention in the war “murder” and thinks it is inappropriate that Russian people are dragged into it.
“The people sacrifice and are always prepared to sacrifice themselves for their soul, not for murder,” he says.
“Again war,” he wrote. “Again sufferings, necessary to nobody, utterly uncalled for; again fraud, again the universal stupefaction and brutalisation of men.” One can almost hear him shouting “Bethink Yourselves,” the title of that essay, to his countrymen now.
In one of his most famous pacifist writings, 1900’s “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” Tolstoy presciently diagnosed the problem of today’s Russia.
“The misery of nations is caused not by particular persons, but by the particular order of Society under which the people are so bound up together that they find themselves all in the power of a few men, or more often in the power of one single man: a man so perverted by his unnatural position as arbiter of the fate and lives of millions, that he is always in an unhealthy state, and always suffers more or less from a mania of self-aggrandisement.”
The importance of action
If Dostoevsky would insist that one not look away, it is fair to say that Tolstoy would contend that people must act upon what they see.
During the Russian famine of 1891 to 1892, he started soup kitchens to help his countrymen who were starving and had been abandoned by the Russian government. He worked to help Russian soldiers evade the draft in the Russian empire, visiting and supporting jailed soldiers who did not wish to fight. In 1899 he sold his last novel, Resurrection, to help a Russian Christian sect, the Doukhobors, emigrate to Canada so they would not need to fight in the Russian army.
These writers have little to do with the current war. They cannot expunge or mitigate the actions of the Russian army in Ukraine. But they’re embedded on some level within the Russian cultural fabric, and how their books are still read matters. Not because Russian literature can explain any of what is happening, because it cannot. But because, as Ukrainian writer Serhiy Zhadan wrote in March 2022, Russia’s war in Ukraine marked a defeat for Russia’s great humanist tradition.
As this culture copes with a Russian army that has indiscriminately bombed and massacred Ukrainians, Russia’s great authors can and should be read critically, with one urgent question in mind: how to stop the violence. Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny noted during his March 2022 trial that Tolstoy urged his countrymen to fight both despotism and war because one enables the other.
And Ukrainian artist Alevtina Kakhidze cited War and Peace in a February 2022 entry in her graphic diary.
“I’ve read your f—ing literature,” she wrote. “But looks like Putin did not, and you have forgotten.”
Featured image: A woman walks with a bicycle next to a building damaged in the separatist-controlled town of Volnovakha in the Donetsk region, Ukraine, March 15. Photo: Reuters/Alexander Ermochenko