Dostoevsky’s Heroines; Or, On the Compassion of the Russian Woman

HomeArticlesDostoevsky’s Heroines; Or, On the Compassion of the Russian Woman

Readers of Dostoevsky’s political novels recognize well that he is engaged in pitched battle against the West for the spiritual direction of Russia and his Russian brethren. He regards Russia as the last bastion of hope in the fight against secularism, materialism, rationalism, and individualism. That Russia is moving in the direction of the West is nothing less than a “political apocalypse,” as Ellis Sandoz puts it.1 The bulwark against this Western invasion is, of course, Russian Orthodoxy, which is manned by a uniquely appropriate warrior, the Russian Soul.2 Representatives of this type tend to be holy men, like Fathers Zosima and Paissy (Brothers Karamazov), Bishop Tikhon (The Possessed), Myshkin (The Idiot), and Dolgoruky (The Adolescent).

In their battles against the West, these holy men are armed with what Dostoevsky regards as the chief weapon against the West: Christian love. This Christian love, however, is distinct for Dostoevsky because it is rooted in a shared history of suffering, and this suffering allows for his holy men to manifest their love as compassion. As Dostoevsky puts it, “If you love, you will belong to God . . . . With love all things may be redeemed, all things may be rescued.”3 Like Christ, the Russians have suffered, and from their suffering the rest of the world will be saved.4 The holy men in Dostoevsky’s novels, however, are not the only characters whose compassionate love is exemplary.

Overlooked almost universally by political theorists are Dostoevsky’s women. Sonya’s love for Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment and Darya’s love for Stavrogin in The Possessed is quintessentially self-sacrificial love. Its essence is compassion, i.e., the willingness to share others’ suffering.5 Sonya shares Raskolnikov’s suffering from his guilt. Darya takes upon herself Stavrogin’s suffering from his nihilism.

Male characters, of course, follow this pattern, but it is only with the more “feminine” characters that we witness a self-sacrificial individual relinquishing his own happiness to help a particular, non-abstract sinner find salvation: Myshkin’s love for Nastasya in The Idiot, and Alyosha’s love for his brothers in The Brothers Karamazov are prime examples. Prince Myshkin shares Nastasya’s suffering from debauchery and Totsky’s mistreatment of her. Alyosha suffers his brothers’ debauchery and godlessness.

In all four examples, this compassionate love is either exemplified by women, or by males who are quite outside the hyper-masculinity of the typical male character. The following sheds light on the feminine character of compassionate love in Dostoevsky’s work. In doing so, we will foreground some feminine characters that are rarely noticed. But rather than a broad survey of the feminine characters in Dostoevsky’s work, we will focus on the heroines in The Possessed–it is in this novel, after all, that we find the most self-assertive, violent men.

To illustrate the feminine character of compassionate love, we will first attempt to explain why women are important in Dostoevsky’s vision of Russian salvation and then expound the meaning of compassion that paves the way to salvation. We will then focus on three heroines in The Possessed (i.e., Marya Lebyadkina, Darya Shatova and Sofya Ulitina) and analyze them in light of our theoretical framework. From this analysis, we will argue that the compassion of Russian women is Dostoevsky’s most poignant example of Russian love. The three heroines we will look at all manifest Sonya’s beseeching to Raskolnikov: “We are going to suffer together, we will bear the cross together!” 6

Dostoevsky’s Women

Few political theorists have made much of love in Dostoevsky’s work. Perhaps the best account of the theme comes from Lee Trepanier, who points to Father Zosima’s idea of “active love” as the basis of Russian Orthodoxy–or at least Dostoevsky’s gloss on Russian Orthodoxy. As Trepanier puts it, active love is exemplified by “Zosima’s vision of epistemological humility, self-constrained freedom, and a socially-bound community where the ideals of Christianity become contextualized and consequently can become possible.”7 Missing from Trepanier’s account, however, is the central point of this paper: that the kind of love of which Zosima speaks is made active most effectively through Dostoevsky’s heroines.

Other scholars, of course, recognize the role love plays in Dostoevsky’s work. Nathan Rosen, for example, recognizes that for Dostoevsky love is “a movement toward the preservation or creation of a moral order” that reveals the good in heroes and saves them from chaos and nihilism.8 Richard Chapple recognizes that what is unique about this active love is that it embraces “the concrete individual rather than the abstract masses.”9 Neither of them, however, connects love to the compassion of Dostoevsky’s heroines.10 In fact, even fewer readers of Dostoevsky connect compassionate love to Dostoevsky’s heroines, especially the heroines in The Possessed. Katherine Briggs, for example, in her monograph on the women in Dostoevsky’s novels, completely ignores the heroines in The Possessed.11

Those who do look at the women tend to pick and choose the heroines to discuss rather than recognizing the centrality of the feminine to Dostoevsky’s politics. Linda Ivanits, for example, praises Marya Lebyadkina’s spirituality as a Russian peasant, proclaiming her the only “positive heroine” in The Possessed.12 Nina P. Straus, in her analysis of Nikolai Stavrogin’s mistresses, argues that they all seek independence of their lover’s sado-masochistic masculinity and counterbalance it with their feminine strength.13 Elsewhere, Straus does associate Dostoevsky’s view of maternity with “the idea of the feminine components of faith, with earth and Russia as a mother, and with Jesus as the mother’s son incorporating traits of suffering, self-sacrifice, and compassionate love associated with maternity” but seems to overlook the most important examples of this pattern. 14

Nevertheless, it is in the Russian woman–especially the Russian peasant woman–that Dostoevsky sees the hope for the salvation of Russia and her ill sons. As a Russian slavophile and Christian, he wants to defend both the Russian folk-belief in Mother Earth and the Orthodox faith in a more general sense. For him, the Russian peasant woman possesses both, which makes her the ideal healer for the Russian man’s Western disease.

As Nicolai Berdyaev puts it, the Westernized Russian man “has departed from the feminine principle” and “renounced his mother earth . . . .”15 He has lost his moral compass, continuously overstepping all moral boundaries (e.g., Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment) and lusts for every sensual pleasure (e.g., Stavrogin in The Possessed). In the face of the Russian man’s degeneration, the Russian woman preserves the “life-affirming and altruistic values” inherited from Mother Earth, the sacred soil that remains the regenerative source for all Russians.16

Dostoevsky is not merely hoping for such a heritage in the Russian woman, he actually finds it in her: “In the Russian woman resides our only great hope, one of the pledges of our revival. The regeneration of the Russian woman during the last twenty years has proved unmistakable.”17 The heroines in Dostoevsky’s novels embody this “great hope” and exemplify the Russian woman’s striving to reunite the degenerated Russian man with Mother Earth. Therefore, it is not surprising that nearly all the heroines in Dostoevsky’s work are peasants because the Russian peasants have always been closest to the soil.

In fact, Dostoevsky is so hopeful of the peasant’s spiritual health that in Crime and Punishment he even lets Sonya, a peasant, give Raskolnikov the cypress-wood cross, a symbol of the Russian peasantry, to ensure the murderer’s salvation and reconciliation with the Russian soil.18 To Dostoevsky, the Russian peasant woman might be the only way back to Mother Earth for the fallen Russian men.

Daughters of Mother Earth and Followers of Christ

Of course, Dostoevsky’s heroines are more than daughters of Mother Earth–they are also the followers of Christ from whom the Russian man will regain his faith in God. The Russian peasant woman’s messianic identity is revealed in the words of Stepan Verkhovensky, a failed scholar in The Possessed. Representing the Russian idealists of the 1840s, Stepan admires the European civilization but lacks aims and resolution in his opinions and sentiments to save Russia.19 Yet, from him, a Russian man who loves anything but Russia, we learn the messianic mission Dostoevsky places upon the Russian peasant woman:

“Oh, blessed is he to whom God always sends a woman and . . . I fancy, indeed, that I am in a sort of ecstasy.”20

He simply bowed down at her feet and kissed the hem of her dress . . . . “My savior,” he cried, clasping his hands reverently before her (p 612).

Through this Westernized liberal who comes back to Russia and Russian Orthodoxy on his deathbed, Dostoevsky highlights the Russian woman’s unique mission on the earth–to heal the Russian man who has withered spiritually from his genuflection before the altar of Western rationalism and materialism. In seeking the salvation of Russia in Western ideas, the Russian men have turned their backs on the Russian God, losing their way to salvation and bringing their nation suffering and chaos. The way back is through the Russian peasant woman.

Prostrating himself before a peasant woman, Stepan turns to the Russian God for salvation and realizes that there is nothing but death in the West–a truth later confirmed by Stavrogin’s suicide. Kneeling before a Russian peasant woman, Stepan understands that the meaning of being a Russian lies in Mother Earth and God. To be sure, depicting the peasant woman as representative of both Mother Earth and Christianity, Dostoevsky suggests a rather heretical Christian belief of which the Orthodox Church would have disapproved. This is a point to which we will return in our analysis of Marya Lebyadkina. For now, it suffices to reiterate that the Russian woman, as the apostle of Mother Earth and Christ, is the key to the salvation of Russia and her wayward sons.

Dostoevsky’s Women’s Compassion

In all the heroines Dostoevsky depicts, compassion is the common characteristic. For the novelist, only those women who love compassionately possess the regenerative capacity. Here compassion retains its etymological sense: compatior, to suffer with one, the impulse that compels Dostoevsky’s heroines to share the Russian men’s suffering. As the willingness to share suffering, compassion justifies suffering in love, paves the way to salvation, cleanses egoism in love, and remains as the spirit of the Russian community.

First of all, compassionate love means the acceptance and sharing of suffering. In Crime and Punishment, for example, Sonya’s compassion for Raskolnikov first manifests in her willingness to partake in his suffering by accompanying him to Siberia. Sonya’s commitment to Raskolnikov exemplifies the sort of Russian love Dostoevsky envisions, a love that entails little happiness but much suffering. As Berdyaev puts it:

The common bond between two human beings, the love-cult of woman, is a beautiful flower sprung from European Christian culture, and Russia had no age of chivalry with its garden of trouvère. This spiritual lack gives a flavour of affliction and pain, of melancholy and often of distortion, to all Russian manifestations of love. There has been no real romanticizing of love in Russia, for Romanticism is a purely Western phenomenon. 21

Instead of romantic tales with happily-ever-after endings, Dostoevsky sees suffering in love. For him, love is never merely a companion from whom endless joy and reassurance will flow. Rather, Russian love is bound up with pain. When “suffering is [the Russian] life,” no love can escape into a Romantic utopia.22 Therefore, Russian love is not the joy individuals experience in each other. It is realized only when people suffer with each other, when they are compassionate for each other. Its immensity is the intensity of suffering. In Crime and Punishment, love is realized only when Sonya assures Raskolnikov that they will “bear the cross together,” suffer with each other. In short, to realize love is to share suffering–that is, to have compassion.

For Dostoevsky, the meaningfulness of compassion and its necessity are never doubted because shared suffering is the Russian way to salvation. In Father Zosima’s words, Dostoevsky reveals to us that the attainment of compassionate love is faith in God:

“Try to love your fellow human beings actively and untiringly. In the degree to which you succeed in that, you will also be convinced of God’s existence, and of your soul’s immortality. And if you attain complete self-renunciation in your love for your fellow creatures, then you will unfailingly come to believe, and no form of doubt will ever be able to visit your soul.”

That has been tested, that is precisely true. 23

To Love Your Fellow Human Beings

“To love your fellow human beings” is to suffer with them. As Ellis Sandoz asserts, only through suffering can a Russian find God and Russian love and therefore transcend “the common bond between two human beings” because it allows the person to enter the relationship with God.24 Raskolnikov receives from Sonya not only the warmth of companionship but also God’s grace in her compassionate love. After failing to become a superman without God, he understands that a man “left to his own resources . . . can do nothing.”25

With shared suffering, Sonya shows Raskolnikov, who once admired Napoleon for his individualistic heroism, that a Russian man will find no salvation in the Western cult of individualism; he can only be saved by divine grace while rooting himself in Mother Earth/the Russian God. Following this truth, Raskolnikov lays himself down in the soil and confesses his sins at the crossroad. Sonya realizes her compassionate love for Raskolnikov as the murderer admits his sin and begins his return to God, to Russia, and to salvation.

However, Raskolnikov’s salvation does not come without sacrifice; it is achieved at the cost of Sonya’s self-renunciation. As with Father Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky reminds us that salvation (i.e., the realization of compassionate love) requires self-renunciation. As such, compassionate love stands in contrast with self-assertive love that only empties personality. Zosima recognizes this well and declares that this self-assertive love does nothing to heal the sickness of the soul:

“Fanciful love thirsts for a quick deed, swiftly accomplished, and that everyone should gaze upon it. In such cases the point really is reached where people are even willing to give their lives just as long as the whole thing does not last an eternity but is swiftly achieved, as on the stage, and as long as everyone is watching and praising. Active love, on the other hand, involves work and self-mastery, and for some it may even become a whole science.”26

Fanciful love only gratifies the ego.

An individual besotted with fanciful love accepts suffering not because he selflessly shares others’ suffering, but because he desires the praise brought by his own suffering. As such, fanciful love is nothing more than self-love, amor sui. Its realization is essentially the assertion of egoism, which reduces personality to “the abyss of its own nothingness.”27

It is into this abyss that Raskolnikov had fallen. To realize his dream of Napoleonic heroism, he kills two innocent women. He is only rescued from this abyss by Sonya’s compassionate love, a love founded on self-renunciation as opposed to the assertion of the ego. A truly compassionate individual must break from the desire to gratify his or her ego and reconstruct his or her personality by partaking in others’ suffering.

As Father Zosima tells us, self-renunciation does not diminish personality but paves the way to God. Therefore, faith, fortified in shared suffering, guarantees the fullness of Sonya’s personality. In turn, Sonya’s personality embodies the idea of compassion.

Embodied Ideas

To Dostoevsky, ideas without embodiment are as imaginary as the tales of Western romantic love. Sonya actualizes compassion as much as compassion fulfills her personality. To be sure, a truly compassionate individual never takes pleasure in suffering because he understands that pain is incompatible with gratification. Nor does he seek suffering as an ascetic, for the point of compassion is never suffering itself. The essence of compassion lies in togetherness (“com-”), not suffering (“passion”)–or, in the Russian, the “so” of “sostradanie.”

In the form of its shared suffering and fulfilled personality, compassion is the culmination of the Russian spirit of community. Although the preceding analysis focuses on suffering, it is a mistake to think that Dostoevsky values suffering intrinsically; to him, it is only a means to personality, to God, and to the Russian community. More important than suffering (“patior”) is togetherness (“com-”) in compassion. Togetherness is the basis of the Russian community, a community Berdyaev describes as “the unity of love and freedom which has no external guarantees whatever.”28 Compassion is the fundamental stratum of this community because, as an idea distinct from mere suffering, its emphasis lies in sharing more than suffering.

Sonya is a heroine because she does more than accept suffering–she not only suffers for her family but, more importantly, suffers with Raskolnikov. In Sonya, suffering is no longer personal but interpersonal and communal. Because the choice to suffer with others can be imposed by no external authority but only by an inner urge to bear others’ suffering, compassionate love retains freedom. Shared suffering, hence, becomes a spiritual bond uniting all individuals who freely submit to the community without losing their personality.

Out of their free will, individuals who suffer with each other constitute the base of this organic Russian community. This free community needs no “external guarantees” because God sanctions its spiritual bond with freedom. We know from Father Zosima that compassion connects man to God: “In the degree to which you succeed in that [i.e., loving others compassionately], you will also be convinced of God’s existence, and of your soul’s immortality.”29 Because self-assertion leads to empty personality and obstructs the way to salvation, faith and salvation only exist in the Russian community, a community of compassion. It is precisely in this kind of love, as exemplified by a heroine, that Dostoevsky sees “the inner mystery binding all beings to each other as fellow creatures in a common world.”

Love as compassion is “the corporate experience of love.”30 In The Possessed, Dostoevsky offers three sterling examples of this “corporate experience of love” in three separate heroines: Marya Lebyadkina, Darya Shatova, and Sofya Ulitina. Each of these women naturally sacrifices herself for the sake of another suffering person. Each of them is, in a sense, a nurse to the soul of suffering Russia. The success of their spiritual ministrations depends, of course, both on how far advanced the disease is and the nature of the disease itself. Their success, in other words, reveals Dostoevsky’s thoughts on which disease poses the most danger for the Russian Soul.

We shall begin this diagnosis and analysis with Marya Lebyadkina.

Marya Lebyadkina: A Holy Fool for Mother

Being a holy fool, Marya Lebyadkina seems odd among the heroines in The Possessed. Different from Darya Shatova and Sofya Ulitina, Marya does not necessarily suffer with others, but her own suffering is exemplary. Crippled and feebleminded, she lives with an abusive, alcoholic brother and is tricked into marrying Stavrogin, who marries her in defiance of conventions. She may indeed be the most miserable woman in the story.

Yet, as a holy fool, she causes no discomfort or repugnance on the part of others. To the Russian peasants, a holy fool’s infirmity lends itself to a “higher sensibility” that allows the Holy Spirit to manifest in them: “Severe asceticism, feigned madness, and at times feigned immorality were the outstanding characteristics of this type of spirituality.”31 In other words, Marya’s feeblemindedness is a veil covering her inner spirituality. From this woman who suffers excruciatingly, we will hear the most spiritual passage Dostoevsky writes in The Possessed, a spiritual insight that equates the Mother of God to Mother Earth.

Marya exhibits her spiritual insightfulness during Shatov’s visit to her apartment. After combing Shatov’s hair, Marya speaks of his boredom: “You may be a very sensible man but you’re bored. It’s strange for me to look at all of you. I don’t understand how it is people are bored. Sadness is not boredom. I’m happy.”32 People like Shatov are bored because they accept neither God nor suffering. Their boredom is the kind of atheism springing from the difficulty reconciling “belief in God and divine providence with the existence of evil and unjust suffering.”33

Marya, however, is not bored because she believes in God. The world’s suffering and her own miseries may render her melancholic but never bored. She endures evil and sin cheerfully because faith strengthens her with hope. Marya’s cheerfulness stems not only from the orthodoxy of her Christian faith but also from her peasant belief in Mother Earth. Recalling her conversation with a lay sister, Marya reveals her conviction that the Mother of God is Mother Earth, in whom lies the joy of life:

“What is the mother of God?” “What do you think?” “The great mother,” I answer, “the hope of the human race.” “Yes,” she answered, “the mother of God is the great mother–the damp earth, and therein lies great joy for men.

And every earthly woe and every earthly tear is a joy for us; and when you water the earth with your tears a foot deep, you will rejoice at everything at once, and your sorrow will be no more, such is the prophecy.”

That word sank into my heart at the time. Since then when I bow down to the ground at my prayers, I’ve taken to kissing the earth. I kiss it and weep. And let me tell you . . . there’s no harm in those tears; and even if one has no grief, one’s tears flow from joy. The tears flow of themselves, that’s the truth.34

Mother Earth and Mother of God

Marya blends Mother Earth and the Mother of God into a personal incarnation that is neither true to the folk religion nor approved by the Orthodox Church. In Linda Ivantis’s words, “This outright equation of the earth and Mary exhibits shadings of a heretical cult.”35 This heretical cult, according to Joanna Hubbs, is a fourteenth-century dissenting sect called Strigol’niki, from which the confession to earth originated.36

However, their ritual of confession did not warrant forgiveness; Mother Earth still condemned murderers and “those damned by their parents” eternally. The merciful image of Mother Earth is Dostoevsky’s view of the folk religion, which is bound with his Christian faith, and more specifically, with the Virgin Mary. Although not identified with Mother Earth, the Mother of God has long been solicited as “a merciful protector, an intercessor for men before the heavenly justice.”37

Mary, to Dostoevsky, supplies the unconditional mercy Mother Earth lacks, whereas Mother Earth provides a national faith. This heretical integration points to Dostoevsky’s slavophile and Russophile sentiments in his Christian faith, echoing his diatribe against Western Catholicism in the Idiot. Therefore, the women who will save Russia can never be westernized, like Nastasya Filippovna in the Idiot. Russia’s saviors can only be Russians in touch with both Mother Earth and the Mother of God. Indeed, it is the integration of both beliefs that sets Marya aside from other Westernized female characters in Dostoevsky’s work.

As we will see in what follows, the Russian women who share Marya’s peasant background and her faith are the best candidates for saving Russia’s sons. It is by the connection of God and Mother Earth that Marya’s peasant Christian faith stores the strength of life amid suffering. As aforementioned, Marya may be the most miserable character in the novel, yet she is also the most cheerful one. The reason for this juxtaposition is her faith in Mother Earth and God.

To the Russian peasants, Mother Earth herself is the source of every life, to which every life will also return.38 Therefore, to confess to Mother Earth is to seek life, to shed tears on Mother Earth is to water life, and to worship Mother Earth is to consecrate life. No sorrow can drown this joy flowing out of such a life-affirming faith, as Christ preaches to his disciples in the Gospel of John (John 16:20–24).

Marya’s joy for life is later substantiated by Shatov’s excitement for the birth giving of his wife, another Marya: “Shatov spoke in an incoherent, stupefied and ecstatic way. Something seemed to be tottering in his head and welling up from his soul apart from his own will.”39 To embrace Mother Earth is to relish the creation of life, an event of “a great joy.” Like the pain of labor preceding the joy of new life, suffering always overshadows the joy of life. Marya’s joy does not come from the abundance of a happy life but from the miseries of her painful life–joy alone is not enough to support life. From this perspective, to be spiritually alive one must suffer, as Christ did.

In Marya, we see both the culmination of suffering and faith, which, to Dostoevsky, is the birthright of the Russian people:

“I believe that the main and most fundamental spiritual quest of the Russian people is their craving for suffering–perpetual and unquenchable suffering–everywhere and in everything . . . Even in happiness there is in the Russian people an element of suffering; otherwise, felicity to them is incomplete . . . . [T]hey do know Christ, . . . the heart-knowledge of Christ, a true conception of Him, does fully exist . . . it has merged with the heart of the people.”40

More than the endurance of physical pain, suffering is the ground of life, “the most fundamental spiritual quest.” As such, suffering is “everywhere and in everything.” All human experiences, including happiness, must rest upon suffering, or they will be meaningless.

Why? Because only the acceptance of suffering leads to true faith.

The Russian conception of Christ is a God who suffers with human beings. To reject suffering is to reject God and the ground of all human life. Christ can only be understood in suffering, as Marya exemplifies, and, therefore, to follow Him is to suffer. This is the spiritual journey on which all Russians must embark. Through Marya, who is already on this journey, Dostoevsky shows us that cheerfulness, the affirmative attitude towards existence, comes not from the absence of suffering but from the acceptance of suffering with faith in God. As Stefan Zweig puts it, the basis of existence for Dostoevsky is “I suffer, therefore I exist.”41 The vicissitudes of Marya’s life best exemplify Zweig’s formulation. Suffering imbues her entire existence and fortifies her faith in God.

Darya Shatova: The “Failed” Nurse

In our analysis of Marya Lebyadkina’s suffering, we conclude that to retain faith means to accept suffering, which, to Dostoevsky, is the ground of existence. However, it would be misleading to assert that suffering only belongs to the poor, oppressed Russian peasants like Marya. To Dostoevsky, suffering is the ground of existence precisely because of its universality. It is imperative for human beings to seek, gain, and reinforce faith in suffering. This search for suffering is not masochistic but compassionate. It stems not from the thirst for distorted pleasure but from the communal spirit of shared suffering.

In Darya Shatova, we see such a spirit. Unlike Marya, Darya is not disabled, destitute, or oppressed. She is adopted by Varvara Stavrogina and raised in an aristocratic, wealthy household. However, similar to Marya, Darya is also a peasant woman of faith. In her love for Stavrogin, we see nothing but compassion, her will to share Stavrogin’s suffering. In their conversations, it is clear that she fights Stavrogin’s nihilism while holding deep concern for him.

Although Darya is unsuccessful in helping Stavrogin regain his faith, her failure does not betray a limit to the saving capacity of compassion. As the epigraph of the novel suggests, Stavrogin might well be the possessed pig that ought to die off the Russian soil. To understand Darya’s compassion for Stavrogin, we must first understand Stavrogin himself, the anti-hero who suffers from his nihilism and alienation from Russia. In his letter calling for Darya’s company, Stavrogin reveals the rotten state of his soul:

As always I blame no one. I tried the depths of debauchery and wasted my strength over it; but I don’t like vice and didn’t really want it . . . .

Dear friend! Great and tender heart which I divined! Perhaps you dream of giving me so much love and lavishing on me so much that is beautiful from your beautiful soul that you hope to set up some aim for me at last by it? No, it’s better for you to be more cautious, my love will be as petty as I am myself and you will be unhappy.

Your brother told me that the man who loses connection with his country loses his gods, that is, all his aims. One may argue about everything endlessly, but from me nothing has come but negation, with no greatness of soul, no force. Even negation has not come from me. Everything has always been petty and spiritless.42

The Complete Nihilist

In this confession, Dostoevsky depicts the inner character of “a complete nihilist” who “has no horizon orienting him to earth or the heavens.”43 Without any sense of an objective standard, he finds everything “trivial and stale” and, therefore, becomes bored of everything. His boredom results not from his contempt for traditional values but from his self-will.

Throughout his life, nothing but his selfhood matters to Stavrogin. He is an “individual” through and through. He indulges in debauchery, which, in Berdyaev’s words, is “love and affirmation of self, conducing to the ruin of self” and “the most frozen isolation to which a man can condemn himself, a decline to a sentient nothingness.”44 In the end, he finds that self-will and debauchery only isolate him, deprive him of purpose, and eventually reduce him to pettiness. He can negate nothing because he has no belief to negate, i.e., the ground for all negations. Even his dislike of debauchery is not a negation of sensual pleasure but only a disbelief in sensual pleasure, which stems from his hollow self.

As Stavrogin quotes Shatov’s words, he knows that the cause for his perdition is his separation, his disconnection, from Russia. Yet, Stavrogin still misquotes Shatov because Shatov’s original word is God, not gods. Stavrogin’s nihilism has depleted his spirit to the extent that he can no longer tell the difference between Christianity and paganism. After all, to a complete nihilist, differences in faith provoke nothing but indifference. David Walsh is indeed right to conclude that “atheists’ freedom is also self-closed and empty.”45

Moreover, Stavrogin’s nihilism precludes him from any chance of participating in the organic and life-spirit emanating from the soil of Russia herself. As he puts it, “I have no ties in Russia–everything is as alien to me there as everywhere.”46 He is alienated from Russia because he has neither faith nor compassion, the two essential characteristics of the Russian Soul. From the start of the novel, Stavrogin loves only himself. His life is purposeless because he has no faith in Russia and is unable to suffer with others, the very purpose of a Russian’s life. He is dead to the suffering of others, just as he is dead to himself.

Darya’s Compassion

Knowing well that Stavrogin’s soul is empty, Darya is still determined to take some of his suffering upon herself. At their first meeting at Stavrogin’s house, Darya reveals her intention to be Stavrogin’s companion. However, Stavrogin, full of self-will, cannot comprehend her compassion. Without understanding Darya, he mocks her determination, comparing her to “pious old women who frequent funerals and find one corpse more attractive than another.”47

Stavrogin’s necrophilic joke worries Darya because the joke is self-referential. If Darya were the old lady, then Stavrogin would be the corpse that interests her. In truth, the joke does allude to his spiritual death–his disconnection from God, Russia and the Russian people–and foreshadows his suicide. Stavrogin’s reference to death makes Darya concerned with his general well-being: “‘Are you very ill?’ she asked sympathetically, looking at him in a peculiar way. ‘Good heavens! And this man wants to do without me!’”48

Darya is afraid that without her, Stavrogin could not even physically survive in this world, let alone regain his spiritual health. Her desire to share his suffering is uncanny. She wants to save him through compassion. Darya is determined to accompany and save Stavrogin even after enduring his mockery. She recognizes his dead soul, but is nevertheless shocked when she learns that he has accepted Fedya’s offer to murder Marya Lebyadkina and her brother. She fears that Stavrogin has been implicated in a potential murder: “Surely you must see that you’re being caught in their nets on every side!”49

The net here likely refers to a spider’s web. As Briggs observes, Dostoevsky often presents in his novels the spider “as a spiteful, evil insect which lurks in dark corners to prey on others . . . a metaphor for the dark and unadmitted feeling which lies within the human psyche.”50 Here the spiders are Fedya who kills for money and Stavrogin who consents to Fedya’s assassination contract. Both of them prey on Marya Lebyadkina. For Darya, Stavrogin’s spider-like action is a clear sign of possession: “God save you from your demon, and . . . call me, call me quickly!”51

Stavrogin’s demon is his nihilism, his inability to love.52 Still, Darya displays genuine concern for his well-being and offers to share in his suffering. Her willingness to suffer with others and Stavrogin’s inability to love forms a stark contrast between a compassionate heroine and a rapist.53 Dedicating herself to saving a Westernized Russian man, Darya fits Dostoevsky’s profile of the female savior for Russia. She is a godly peasant woman who represents the healing power of Mother Earth and the Christian salvation. As a compassionate heroine, she is at least as admirable as Sonya. Although Stavrogin repeatedly rejects her companionship and mocks her love, she is steadfast in her willingness to renounce her own happiness and become his spiritual nurse.

Even after reading his letter, in which he reveals his disrespect for her sacrifice and the gloomy future of accompanying him, Darya still chooses to go to his side and bury her life with him. By doing so, Darya follows Father Zosima’s principle of active love to the letter. In her, we see the same Russian spirit we have seen in Sonya–that is, the communal spirit that compels individuals to alleviate the suffering of others through self-sacrifice. Darya’s compassion, like Sonya’s, is also an act of free will. Thus, her altruistic personality can stand as an exemplar of Christian freedom, as opposed to Stavrogin’s atheistic freedom that centers on self-will and ends in self-destruction.

Sofya Ulitina: The “Successful” Nurse

Sofya Ulitina is a minor character in the novel, and only appears near the end. However, she might well be one of the most telling characters. To begin, she shares many characteristics with Darya. Both of them are godly peasants who, out of compassion, try to save westernized Russian men (i.e., Stavrogin and Stepan) with Christian faith.

Darya wants to be a nurse at a convent and sell bibles while Sofya used to be a nurse and is now selling Gospels. What distinguishes Sofya from Darya is Sofya’s marital status. She is a widow whose late husband fought Europeans in the Crimean War–which is of especial interest in this context because France was a major belligerent against Russia in the Crimea, and Stepan, the man for whom she sacrifices herself, speaks French like a Parisian. In any case, following her husband’s anti-European legacy, Sofya appears in the novel to be the healer for the spiritual disease Stepan contracts from Europe, and especially from the French.

Although she is only a minor character in the novel, she embodies the hope Dostoevsky places upon the Russian women. Without Sofya, Stepan would be doomed to die alone on his search for Russia. It is Sofya, the common Russian peasant woman, who makes possible the only salvation scene in the novel. Simply put, no Sofya, no salvation.

Before encountering Sofya, Stepan has already experienced the sort of hospitality and care for others that is de rigeur with the Russian peasants. After being offered a free ride by a peasant woman, Stepan is stunned and thinks to himself: “‘How wonderful it is,’ he thought to himself, ‘that I’ve been walking so long beside that cow and it never entered my head to ask them for a lift. This ‘real life’ has something very original about it.’”54 For a man immersed in Western culture where individualism, materialism, and self-interest trump community, it is indeed hard for him to imagine being offered a free ride from a strange Russian peasant.

As Stepan later confesses to Sofya, in French no less, that he has never seen them close up.55 Therefore, it is only natural that he cannot understand “this real life.” This “something,” Stepan will later understand with the help of Sofya, is compassionate love, the Russian community spirit, the Russian Soul. Deeply moved by the peasants’ hospitality, Stepan perceives the dignity of a Russian peasant woman in Sofya. When he sees Sofya, he murmurs: “There’s something noble and independent about her, and at the same time–gentle. Le comme il faut tout pur, but rather in a different style.”56

Sofya is “noble” because she harbors a noble faith, a faith rooted in both Mother Earth and Christianity. She is “independent” because she lives on her own. Spiritually, she is also a self-standing believer without external guarantee, just like the Russian community itself. Sofya is “gentle” because, like the peasant woman who offers Stepan a free ride, she is raised in a community of hospitality. As such, she is a lady “in a different sense,” different from those westernized Russian ladies who concern themselves with nothing but debauchery (e.g., Nastasya in The Idiot).

Later, Stepan recognizes that Sofya (and the peasant woman who gave him a ride) are the real Russian people, the people who know compassion in their heart.57 Therefore, it is safe to assert that the dignity Stepan perceives in Sofya is the radiance of the Russian spirit. Stepan, whose compassion is awakened by Sofya’s dignity, returns to the real people when he offers to take Sofya to Spasov, the village for which she desperately wants to leave. In contrast with Stavrogin who repeatedly rejects Darya’s compassion and the Russian spirit, Stepan hears the call of compassion and embarks on his journey to salvation with Sofya his nurse.

Dignified and compassionate, Sofya becomes not only Stepan’s travel companion but his nurse. Like Darya, who is worried about Stavrogin’s possession, Sofya is anxious about Stepan’s well-being when she hears his dreaming of “a gaping jaw full of teeth.”58 However, the demon in Stepan does not drive Sofya away. To share and alleviate Stepan’s suffering, she stays.

At first, she resists his request for her overnight company, fearing for her reputation. Eventually, she remains with him to nurse him because, despite the risk to her reputation, she understands that he is suffering, really suffering.59 Sofya stays up all night caring for Stepan, running in and out of the room. Even though her frequent movement provokes other residents to abuse her, we hear not a single complaint from Sofya. On the contrary, she even decides to stay with him when he is too ill to board the steamer departing for Spasov. To ease his suffering, she foregoes the opportunity to start a new life. Later, she fully commits to Stepan when he begs her not to leave him alone.

What motivates her to make such a commitment is compassion in its most unadulterated form. Out of compassion, Sofya is constitutionally incapable of abandoning a physically and spiritually ill man and thus remains to nurse Stepan and share his suffering. Sofya’s compassionate care of Stepan rekindles his Russian faith. He shares this revelation with Varvara Stavrogina: “I’ve learnt to know real life in Russia . . . et je precherai l’Evangile.60 Stepan finally realizes the bond Dostoevsky is suggesting between Russians and Christianity. Deciding to preach the Gospel, Stepan has taken the first and most crucial turn back to the Russian spirit and his own salvation.

As death closes in, Stepan, inspired by Sofya’s compassionate care, enunciates his insights of the Russian spirit in his profession of faith:

“My immortality is necessary if only because God will not be guilty of injustice and extinguish altogether the flame of love for Him once kindled in my heart. And what is more precious than love? Love is higher than existence, love is the crown of existence; and how is it possible that existence should not be under its dominance? If I have once loved Him and rejoiced in my love, is it possible that He should extinguish me and my joy and bring me to nothingness again? If there is a God, then I am immortal. Voilà ma profession de foi.”61

Stepan’s profession of faith echoes Father Zosima’s interpretation of love and God. For both of them, love leads to faith in God and God, in return, guarantees the meaningfulness of love.

Love is compassion, the willingness to suffer with others, and being means only the earthly existence full of suffering. Compassion is higher than earthly existence because it transcends the world through sharing. Out of shared suffering, the genuine Russian community is created and the Russian path to God is paved.62 By sharing others’ suffering and self-sacrificing, individuals can forge a communal bond that leads to salvation.

Thus, suffering ceases to be meaningless pain and turns into the basis of a historical, corporeal community. If a Russian, like Stavrogin, loses himself to the loveless rationalism of the West, then only passionate self-love informs his existence–which is empty and destructive. For Dostoevsky, Russian love can only be compassion, not passion. This is what Stepan learns from Sofya and what cures him from the spiritual ailments of the West.

Conclusion

For Dostoevsky, the way to salvation is by dwelling in the nexus of suffering and compassion. It is on this same canvass of compassion that salvation for Russia herself will be drawn. That is, in the reciprocity of suffering and compassion, Dostoevsky sees hope for Russia’s future. By sharing one another’s suffering–through renunciation of the self–the great schisms in Russian society can be healed. Through the abandonment of individual well-being and the love of other sufferers, none will be ostracized from this community that places forgiveness over judgment, unity over individuality, and godly hope over atheist progressivism.

In The Possessed, like much of the rest of Dostoevsky novels, Russian women are the last line of defense in the battle against secularism, materialism, rationalism, and individualism. Marya Lebyadkina, the peasant woman who endures the most miserable of miseries, joyfully proclaims the godly hope in Mother Earth, the Russian embodiment of the Mother of God. In Marya’s words, Dostoevsky suggests to us that the basis of human existence is never happiness. Even spiritually, man is unhappy, for suffering is the foundation of human life.

Only in suffering can man find God and the meaning of life. However, such discovery is not the attainment of salvation. To be saved, man must either love or be loved. That is, man must share others’ suffering or share his suffering with others. Stavrogin is destined for self-destruction because he rejects Darya’s love, her compassion for him. Stepan, in contrast, is saved because he accepts, even begs for, Sofya’s compassionate care. Marya, Darya, and Sofya, three peasant women, are the agents of compassion whose activities in the novel manifest nothing but the Russian spirit (i.e., compassion for all mankind). Their heroism is indeed Dostoevsky’s formula of salvation–that is, the way to God is through the feminine–through the compassion best exemplified by the Russian peasant women.

 

Notes

1. Ellis Sandoz, Political Apocalypse: A Study of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1971).

2. For a brilliant analysis of this, see Nikolas Berdyaev, The Russian Idea (London: Geoffrey Bles & The Centenary Press, 1947) and Nikolai Berdyaev, Dostoevsky (New York: Meridian Books, 1957).

3. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov: A Novel in Four Parts and an Epilogue (London: Penguin, 2003), 72.

4. For more on Dostoevsky’s messianic vision of Russia, see his Pushkin Speech, in Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Dream of a Queer Fellow and the Pushkin Speech (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1961), 57–58.

5. The Russian word for compassion, sostrandanie, is etymologically parallel to the Latin, “suffering with.” The root, incidentally, also lies at the heart of Father Zosima’s name.

6. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 405.

7. Lee Trepanier, “The Politics and Experience of Active Love in The Brothers Karamazov,” The Political Science Reviewer 38 (Fall 2009). Reprinted as chapter 2 in this volume.

8. Nathan Rosen, “Chaos and Dostoyevsky’s Women,” The Kenyon Review 20 (1958).

9. Richard L. Chapple, “A Catalogue of Suffering in the Works of Dostoevsky: His Christian Foundation,” The South Central Bulletin 43 (1983).

10. Frank Friedeberg Seeley, “Dostoyevsky’s Women,” The Slavonic and East European Review 39 (1961). More explicit than Rosen and Chapple, Seeley offers a tripartite definition of love that includes humility, the perception of the soul, and compassion. Without ranking these three components of love, Seeley fails to emphasize the saving and communal powers of compassionate love.

Thomas A. Idinopulos, on the other hand, highlights the communal element in love by suggesting that for Dostoevsky “love . . . consists of compassion, fellow suffering–a love which does not forsake but rather which forgives the sinner, accepts tragedy as well as joy in life, a love which perceives and celebrates the inner mystery binding all beings to each other as fellow creatures in a common world” (Thomas A. Idinopulos, “The Mystery of Suffering in the Art of Dostoevsky, Camus, Wiesel, and Grünewald,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 43 (1975)).

11. Katherine Jane Briggs, How Dostoevsky Portrays Women in His Novels: A Feminist Analysis (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2009).

12. Linda J. Ivanits, “Dostoevskij’s Mar’ja Lebjadkina,” The Slavic and East European Journal 22 (1978).

13. Nina Pelikan Straus, “Every Woman Loves a Nihilist: Stavrogin and Women in Dostoevsky’s The Possessed,” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction 27 (1994b).

14.Nina Pelikan Straus, Dostoevsky and the Woman Question: Rereadings at the End of a Century (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994a), 84. Straus, for example, has little to say about Sofya Ulitina, whose compassionate love saves the central character of the novel, Stepan Verkhovensky, from the abyss of Western culture.

15. Berdyaev, Dostoevsky, 118.

16. Joanna Hubbs, Mother Russia: The Feminine Myth in Russian Culture (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988), 228.

17. F.M. Dostoievsky, The Diary of a Writer (London: Cassell, 1949),340–341.

18. Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment, 502.

19. Konstantin Mochulsky, Dostoevsky: His Life and Work (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967), 417.

20. Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Possessed: A Novel in Three Parts (London: William Heinemann, 1913), 606. All subsequent citations are from this translation and will be indicated as P. Some passages are modified to better reflect the Russian and more modern renderings.

21. Berdyaev, Dostoevsky, 112.

22. Sandoz, Political Apocalypse, 173.

23. Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov: A Novel in Four Parts and an Epilogue, 77–78. Emphasis added.

24. Sandoz, Political Apocalypse, 182.

25. Berdyaev, Dostoevsky, 126.

26. Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov: A Novel in Four Parts and an Epilogue, 80.

27. Sandoz, Political Apocalypse, 181.

28. Berdyaev, The Russian Idea, 52.

29. Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, 78.

30. Berdyaev, The Russian Idea, 161.

31. Ivanits,“Dostoevskij’s Mar’ja Lebjadkina.”

32. Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Possessed: A Novel in Three Parts (London: William Heinemann, 1913), 131 (translation modified).

33. Berdyaev, The Russian Idea, 132. See also Richard Avramenko, “Bedeviled by Boredom: A Voegelinian Reading of Dostoevsky’s Possessed,” Humanitas XVII (2004).

34. Dostoevsky, op.cit.,132-133.

35. Linda Ivanits, Dostoevsky and the Russian People (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 112.

36. Hubbs, Mother Russia: The Feminine Myth in Russian Culture, 57.

37. Sandoz, Political Apocalypse, 29; Hubbs, Mother Russia: The Feminine Myth in Russian Culture, 115.

38. Sandoz, Political Apocalypse, 28

39. Dostoevsky, op.cit., 556.

40. Cited in Sandoz, Political Apocalypse, 59–60.

41. Stefan Zweig, Three Masters: Balzac, Dickens, Dostoeffsky (New York: The Viking Press, 1930), 156.

42. Dostoevsky, op.cit., 635.

43. Avramenko, “Bedeviled by Boredom,” 113.

44. Berdyaev, Dostoevsky, 123–124.

45. David Walsh, “Dostoevsky’s Discovery of the Christian Foundation of Politics,” Religion and Literature 19 (1987).

46. Dostoevsky, op.cit., 634.

47. Ibid., 273.

48. Id.

49. Id.

50. Briggs, How Dostoevsky Portrays Women in His Novels: A Feminist Analysis, 91.

51. Dostoevsky, op.cit., 274.

52. As Father Zosima tells us, “[w]hat is hell? . . . The suffering that comes from the consciousness that one is no longer able to love.” Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, 417.

53.Cf. Michael Kochin’s chapter in this volume.

54. Dostoevsky, op.cit., 297.

55. Ibid., 605.

56. Ibid., 603.

57. Ibid., 605.

58. Ibid., 607.

59. Ibid., 609.

60. Ibid., 617.

61. Ibid., 623.

62. This communal spirit echoes Christ’s Two Great Commandments in Matthew 22:35–40: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

 

Our review of the book is available here. The following chapters are available here: “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.” Also see “The Apocalypse of Beatitude: Modern Gnosticism and Ancient Faith in Dostoevsky’s The Possessed,” and “Psychologists of Evil: Nietzsche and Dostoevsky on the Darkness of the Soul.”

This excerpt is from Dostoevsky’s Political Thought (Lexington Books, 2015)

Richard Avramenko and Jingcai Ying

Written by

Richard Avramenko is a Board Member of VoegelinView and Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; and Jingcai Ying is a doctoral student in the Department of Politics at the University of Virginia.