The Antinomies of Dostoevsky’s Political Thought

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Dostoevsky Trepanier Avramenko

Dostoevsky’s Political ThoughtRichard Avramenko and Lee Trepanier, eds. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2013.

Sainte RussieAlain Besançon. Paris: Editions de Fallois, 2012.


Dostoevsky’s Political Thought is a collection of essays on the ideas inspired by, arguably, the greatest political minds among the nineteenth-century novelists. The volume is especially successful in depicting Dostoevsky’s criticism of modernity and its “secular social religions.”[i] It fleshes out the Christian and mystical motives in Dostoevsky, his ideas on humility, justice, love, beauty, faith and freedom. The volume also presents some of the trends Dostoevsky inspired in modern Western culture.

On the whole the book, however, leaves one with a sense of unease and insufficiency. The introduction states that the aim of the volume is to “understand Dostoevsky as a political thinker”. If this is the case, the book succeeds only partially, because it fails to address the most controversial and problematic issues of Dostoevsky politics. Given that at least three essays (Walsh, Trepanier, Sandoz) offer a distinctively Voegelinian reading of Dostoevsky, it is also surprising how little attention the authors pay to Eric Voegelin’s own suspicions about Dostoevsky’s political philosophy.

This is not to say that individual essays are biased or intellectually deficient. Nevertheless, as a whole, the book offers a lopsided view of Dostoevsky’s political thought. The arguments that would address the darker and more problematic side of Dostoevsky are simply not sufficiently visible in the volume. The reader must seek the equilibrium on her/his own. To find that balance I read the volume edited by Richard Avramenko and Lee Trepanier side by side with another recently published book – Sainte Russie by Alain Besançoin – which, I hope, will soon be translated into English. Besançon, naturally, does not focus exclusively on Dostoevsky; however, he does try to paint a more realistic picture of the unique strain of Russian political philosophy that Dostoevsky was a part of. Unlike the neatly academic authors from the Trepanier and Avramenko’s volume, Besançon at times can even seem brutal and provocative. His Dostoevsky is by no means the sensitive Christian conservative we find in Dostoevsky’s Political Thought. On the contrary, he is one of the philosophers behind the imperial Russian theocracy that in its various guises was always a major threat to the West. In a way, Besançon’s Dostoevsky is beyond the Western notions of conservative and progressive, or Christian and atheist, for that matter.

This is the geopolitical, Slavophilic Dostoevsky with little of the “active love”[ii] attributed to him by Trepanier. From the Western point of view he might be fascinating, but at the same time it is a dark fascination, a fascination with an untamed, destructive force. Such a fascination may be permissible in art but must be perished from the Western understanding of politics. In a way, Besançon’s Dostoevsky is a figure akin to an extremist Muslim. In this Dostoevsky’s eyes, there is nothing the West can do to redeem itself. Its progressivism is no better than traditional Catholicism and Protestantism. Nor is Judaism of any use. To be saved, all the West can do is to become Russia. Dostoevsky writes this very openly in his Writer’s Diary and hints at it in his novels. However, for some reason not all researchers take him seriously.

So which is the real Dostoevsky? The compassionate Christian, who criticizes the excess of modernity with the gentle words of Alyosha and father Zosima, or the violent Russian imperialist from A Writer’s Diary? I, actually, still try to withhold my final judgment. I know it may be biased. After all, I am now back in Poland, a Slavic country whose neighbor (Ukraine) is currently being dismembered by the Russian military and political machine. The operators of that machine have no qualms about using the very same Slavophilic rhetoric Dostoevsky loved so much. One hears it clearly in the statements made by Vladimir Putin, Siergei Lavrov and Alexandr Dugin – a political theorist and Putin’s personal advisor. All this may blur my judgment and condemn me to something Solzhenitsyn called “the Polish version of Russian history” in his famous dispute with Richard Pipes.[iii] Nevertheless, I will still insist that the arguments about the “dark side” of Dostoevsky, the kind of arguments one finds in the works of Besançon and Pipes, need to be heard and included in any volume on Dostoevsky’s political thought.

To be sure, the interpretation of Dostoevsky’s criticism of modernity and his attempts at recreating politics that would be rooted in the “divine ground of being” provides the reader with valuable insights. However, problems start when we try to move from his criticism of modern Western civilization to the positive program. The Dostoevsky of Trepanier and Avramenko is far too simple, too domesticated and conservative. This mistake is akin to what the less theoretically inclined political scientists would call selecting the cases based on the dependent variable, the dependent variable being the reading of Dostoevsky offered by Elis Sandoz in his brilliant but controversial Political Apocalypse.[iv] In short, theorists are often criticized for not using sufficiently rigorous methods. Naturally those who use this kind of criticism rarely explain how to approach subjects that deal with complex symbolisms, images, visions and aspirations while achieving the same kind of rigor one finds in simple statistical explorations.

Virginia Woolf[v] famously stated that Dostoevsky’s novels are “seething whirlpools, gyrating sandstorms, waterspouts which hiss and boil and suck us in.” How does one approach such books with methodological rigor? The simple answer is that there is no simple answer to be given. Political theory is always tied to ethics and a serious investigation of ethics always involves a painful, introspective examination of one’s own moral objectivity. That is why for political theorists methodological rigor needs to be supplemented with a moral impartiality akin to that of a judge presiding over a court. In practice, this means trusting no one and remaining suspicious, especially when a given historical thinker seems to correspond with one’s personal political likes and dislikes. This was something Eric Voegelin was very much aware of. He despised all labels, always strove to find the weak points of every thinker or philosophy, and for this reason during his lifetime made few friends in politics and academia alike.

Focusing on the weaker points of a given political theory, the hidden ideological impurities and tacit assumptions rather than buying into the coherent, wholesome appearance was clearly Voegelin’s method. One might metaphorically argue that he was always more concerned with the drop of poison than with the all the nutritious drink the poison was dissolved in. In spite of being viewed as a conservative friend of Christianity, he gave short shrift to many conservatives and Christian philosophers. De Maistre, for instance, was for Voegelin just another gnostic revolutionary pretending to restore the lost order. For similar reasons he was also highly suspicious of Dostoevsky. In the New Science of Politics we read:

“In Dostoevsky this superimposition of messianic crystalized in the curiously ambivalent vision of an autocratic, orthodox Russia that somehow would conquer the world and in this conquest blossom out into the free society of all Christians in the truest faith. It is the ambivalent vision which, in its secularized form, inspires a Russian dictatorship of the proletariat that in its conquest of the world will blossom out into the Marxian realm of freedom.”[vi]

Voegelin, however, never wrote an extensive study of Dostoevsky or the typically Russian political form. It was Voegelin’s great student, Ellis Sandoz, who focused on the Russian writer. However, both in the essay published in Trepanier and Avramenko’s volume and in his larger book, Sandoz mainly examines Dostoevsky’s criticism of modernity. He became especially interested in the metaphor of the grand inquisitor, a metaphor that spoke to the atheism and the totalitarian nightmare of the modern era. Other researchers soon followed suit. Peter Sloterdijk, for instance, made Dostoevsky’s description of London’s “Crystal Palace” the key metaphor of a groundbreaking philosophical work on globalization.[vii] However, a volume entitled Dostoevsky’s Political Thought, unlike Sandoz’s work, simply cannot choose just one metaphor or one topic form Dostoevsky. It needs to give a broader picture and thus it is open to more flaws and inconsistencies.

In the Avramenko and Trepanier’s, Dostoevsky’s Political Thought, David Walsh rejects the suggestion that Dostoevsky “remained an inconclusive searcher to the end of his life.”[viii] Walsh, however, never describes the political form Dostoevsky has found and called his own. Perhaps it is true, as Ethan Alexander-Davey notes in his essay, that “On the whole Dostoevsky’s positive formulations, at least when compared to his social criticism, are vague, abstract and insufficiently elaborated and thus bound to disappoint.”[ix] But would that not make Dostoevsky an inconclusive searcher? Yes, unless he actually finds something. Moreover, is it intellectually honest to dismiss what we now see as the ugly and disappointing part of Dostoevsky political thought, in spite of the fact that Dostoevsky himself paid a lot of attention to that particular part of his oeuvre?

Unfortunately, this is a common approach among Western readers of Dostoevsky. In Dostoevsky’s Political Thought only three authors (out of eleven) – John P. Moran, Ethan Alexander-Davey and Ron Srigley – try to give fuller accounts of Dostoevsky’s politics with all its weakness and strengths rather than pick and choose motives. Nevertheless, none of the authors treats A Writer’s Diary like a serious source of knowledge about Dostoevsky’s political ideas. This is staggering given that the Diary is mostly about politics, which it addresses directly, using an open essayistic form and making reference to concrete events, politicians and states! The novels, on the other hand, only hint at politics.

Could it be that A Writer’s Diary, with its imperialism, militarism, chauvinism and anti-Semitism is just a bit too much for the sensibilities of modern political theorists? Could it be that they shy away from reconciling the brutality of Dostoevsky’s pure politics with his subtle, political metaphors? Could it be that they fail to see the paramount importance of this intellectual task? Let us not forget that the importance of A Writer’s Diary has already been noted by America’s most established Dostoevsky scholar – Joseph Frank. He calls A Writer’s Diary a unique, “one-man monthly magazine” that made the author “the most successful publicist ever to have appeared on the Russian scene.”[x]

This is because A Writer’s Diary is not a collection of private notes, as some contemporary readers might suspect. It was a collection of published essays. Dostoevsky actually founded his own journal devoted to disseminating his non-fiction political work. One would, however, be gravely mistaken if one assumed that there is no connection between the obsessively political journal and Dostoevsky’s novels. Indeed, Dostoevsky generally does not reveal whether he agrees or disagrees with the opinions of particular characters in his novels. However, one very significant character does employ almost verbatim quotations from the Diary. It is Shatov from the Devils.[xi]

The messianic nature of Dostoevsky/Shatov vision of Russia is correctly noted in John P. Moran’s essay in Dostoevsky’s Political Thought. Moran, however, denies that the project has any real political implications. He sees it more as a spiritual exercise. Ethan Alexander-Davey, on the other hand, notices that the three main elements of the Russian psyche are depicted in Brothers Karamazov. Dimitri personifies romanticism, Ivan, rationalism, and Alyosha, Christianity. Of those three, as Alexander-Davey correctly notes, Dostoevsky has some appreciation for Romanticism and Christianity but he completely condemns rationalism.

According to Alain Besançon, this irrational spiritual predisposition makes Russia a specific type of theocracy, something one could call state-doxy. The specific nature of this model is that, unlike in traditional theocracies, in Russia the state creates and modifies the religion and not the other way round. For instance, unlike in the theocratic Iran, where the religious leaders (Ayatollahs) control politics, in Russia it is the church or pseudo-religion that is a tool that is fully controlled by the iron-fisted political power.

The state-doxy also differs from typically Western relations between the church and the state. In the West, unlike in Russia, the clergy developed institutions that guarded the church from becoming a mere political device and at the same time enabled it to act effectively as a spiritual counterbalance to the state’s domination. Based on this insight, some authors such as de Custine[xii] in the nineteenth century and later Kucharzewski[xiii] in the twentieth, went as far as to suggest that while Western European governments could become despotic only due to an unfavorable turn of events, Russia, since its beginnings has been consciously designed to be a despotism and, in fact, could not function without the despotic oppression. Besançon seems to concur and adds that for this reason all the societal structures in Russia are tacitly tied to the state and its “religion”. The apparent independence of some persons is merely a political masquerade for the Westerners.

The French thinker writes:

“The duplication of points of reference, one to the reality as such, the other to the ideological pseudo-reality is the most effective method to mislead the foreigner. The foreigner is introduced to a mayor, a journalist or a historian and he thinks that he is really dealing with a mayor, a journalist or a historian. If he is sufficiently intelligent, he will not believe their lies; but he will not question their functional equivalence.”[xiv]

Who are they then, the mayors, journalists and historians? According to Besançon, all persons who hold social positions of prominence in Russia are first and foremost priest of the state-doxic ideology. And let us not forget that because the imperial apparatus of power has absolutely free reign over its “clergy”, it can fill the ideological vessel with any content it desires. That is, as long as such content serves the mission of indefinite expansion. This wondrous ideological elasticity would be unthinkable in the case of the West. “Russia has returned to its old coat of arms and flag, whereas, France would rebel if it was to return to the fleur-de-lis,”[xv] Besançon remarks.

With each and every change something, however, remains unchanged. The Third Rome, the Soviet Union, Dugin’s Eurasian empire: they all have something in common. None of those political forms has any definite borders; they do not resemble clearly defined nation states. They are all encompassing, cosmological projects; their mission is to save (i.e. conquer) the world (i.e. as much territory as possible). Of course there have been conscientious (some quite conservative by Western standards) Russian thinkers who proposed that rather than expand the empire, Russia should focus on internal reforms and settle for a more governable territory and a more sober ideology. Pyotr Chaadayev, Sergei Petrovich Trubetskoy, Alexander Herzen are the names that immediately come to mind. Dostoevsky, however, despised each and every one of those reformers and he wrote about it quite openly. This is because, after a turbulent youth that almost ended tragically, Dostoevsky became one of the greatest minds in the imperialistic and expansionistic camp. Moreover, his faction has been victorious and its intellectual heirs still dominate Russian political thought today.

Besançon points out that already during his lifetime Dostoevsky became a favorite author of the czarist state. His funeral was an official celebration. The czar made a special endowment to secure the future of Dostoevsky’s widow. Konstantin Pobiedonoscew[xvi], the Ober-Procurator of the Holy Synod, the highest state supervisor of the Russian Orthodox Church and the czar’s former educator, agreed to supervise the upbringing of Dostoevsky’s children.[xvii] The great writer was clearly not an outsider but a mainstream intellectualist who shaped the political concepts of his nation for centuries to come. Dostoevsky’s thought had equally profound consequences for the old empire, the Communist era and the current neo-imperial period. Besançon makes the following remark:

“Dostoevsky’s fundamental hatred is directed at a complex object consisting of Catholicism and its twin-brother, atheistic socialism. Secondly, he hates the Jews. Catholics and socialistic atheists (namely the secularized children of the Roman pope) want to conquer the world through violence and the negation of freedom. The great gathering of different peoples around Russia, as prophesied by Dostoevsky, was supposed to occur in the name of love and through love. What then should one think of the Russian regime, its army, police and slaves? One should pay no attention to those. One can even approve of them, because above it all one finds the Russian Christ and love that together bring the mystical freedom.”[xviii]

Of course, stepping down from a lofty ivory tower of subtle interpretations of Dostoevsky might seem demeaning. Nevertheless, it is necessary if one is to gain some valuable, practical insights from the theoretical knowledge. Politics, even political theory, is always eventually concerned with the contemporary, the passing, and very often needs to deal with some rather ugly appetites and ambitions. Moreover, admiring a certain strain of political thought should not preclude describing the undesirable or perverted implications of some parts of that thought.

What strikes me in Dostoevsky’s Political Thought is that even the authors who hinted that they are aware that Dostoevsky’s “active love” is coupled with a darker imperialist vision, were always surprisingly coy about the negative aspects of Dostoevsky’s politics. Their general approach was the he-couldn’t-have-been-serious attitude. This is a grave mistake. Recent events suggest that modern Russia is imbued with precisely those ideas that many Western interpreters of Russian political thought find too distasteful to be analyzed. Moreover, Russians themselves prefer not to mention some of the political dreams of their great thinkers.

For instance, it is an interesting fact noted by Dostoevsky scholars[xix] that the most violently anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic parts of Dostoevsky’s correspondence and essays were censored both by Communist and Western editors. Let us not repeat this mistake. Dostoevsky’s genius demands that we speak about his political thought openly.



[i] Richard Avramenko and Lee Trepanier eds., Dostoevsky’s Political Thought (New York: Lexington Books, 2013), pp. 115-141.

[ii] Avramenko and Trepanier, Dostoevsky’s Political Thought, pp. 31-51.

[iii] Alexander Thomas, Solzhenitsyn (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998).

[iv] Ellis Sandoz, Political Apocalypse (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2000).

[v] Virginia, Woolf, “The Russian Point of View,” in The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 4. ed. Andrew McNeille (London: Hogarth 1994), p. 181.

[vi] Eric Voeglein, New Science of Politics (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987), p. 117.

[vii] Peter Sloterdijk, In the World Interior of Capital: Towards a Philosophical Theory of Globalization (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013), p. 169-263.

[viii] Avramenko and Trepanier, Dostoevsky’s Political Thought, p. 9.

[ix] Ibid., p. 131.

[x] Joseph Frank, Through the Russian Prism (Princeton University Press: Princeton New Jersey, 1990), p. 153.

[xi] See also Jan Kucharzewski, The Origins of Modern Russia, (New York: PIASA, 1948), pp. 109-112.

[xii] See Astolphe de Custine, Letters from Russia, a translation of La Russie en 1839 by Anka Muhlstein (New York: New York Review of books, 2002).

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Alain Besançon, Sainte Russie (Paris: Editions de Fallois, 2012), p. 14. All the translations from this volume are mine. I have also consulted a Polish translation of the text, Alain Besançon, Swięta Rus (Warszawa: Teologia Polityczna, 2012).

[xv] Ibid., p. 15.

[xvi] Lawyer and statesman. One of the most hard-line supporters of autocratic government, enemy of parliamentary government, freedom of the press and constitutionalism. Known for his anti-Semitic policies.

[xvii] Besançon, Sainte Russie, p. 86.

[xviii] Besançon, Sainte Russie, pp. 84-85.

[xix] See David I. Goldstein, “Rewriting Dostoevsky’s Letters”, American Slavic and East European Review Vol. 20, No. 2 (Apr., 1961), pp. 279-28.


The following chapters are available here: “Dostoevsky’s Heroines; Or, On the Compassion of Russian Women,” “The Politics and Experience of Active Love in The Brothers Karamazov,” “This Star Will Shine Forth From the East: Dostoevsky and the Politics of Humiliation,” and “Dostoevsky’s Discovery of the Christian Foundation of Politics.”

Michal Kuz

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Michał Kuź is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Lazarski University in Poland. He is a former Fulbright scholarship recipient and a graduate of the Louisiana State University. He also writes regular columns for "Rzeczpospolita" and other Polish magazines and is an expert with the Jagiellonian Club Center for Analysis.