Dispensable Traditions

Paula Erizanu

In 1990, twenty years after winning the Nobel Prize in Literature ‘for the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature’, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote an essay entitled How to Rebuild Russia? He argued that the USSR should splinter along ‘ethnic’ lines: the Baltic states, Moldova, the South Caucasus and most of the Central Asian republics should be let go, while a new Russian nation would include Ukraine, Belarus and the ethnic Russian parts of Kazakhstan. The essay overemphasised the similarities between the peoples who would live in this imagined country, and brushed off the repression they suffered under the tsarist and Soviet regimes.

Solzhenitsyn at least acknowledged that ‘if the Ukrainian people really wanted to secede, no one would dare to keep them by force.’ Vladimir Putin – who once called Solzhenitsyn a ‘true and real patriot’ – must have missed that sentence. Solzhenitsyn returned the compliment, expressing his admiration for Putin on several counts. ‘I would like to praise the prudence and soundness of his decisions and judgments,’ he said in September 2000, months after the obliteration of Grozny. In 2006 he praised Putin’s ‘efforts to save the country’s lost statehood’. Anna Politkovskaya was murdered that year. In 2007 Solzhenitsyn accepted the State Prize of the Russian Federation from Putin.

Dostoevsky, too, embraced authoritarianism in later life and adopted an imperialist, messianic view of Russia, as he became a friend and supporter of the conservative thinker Konstantin Pobedonostsev, future imperial high commissioner of the Most Holy Synod. In The Devils, Shatov asks: ‘Do you know who are the only God-bearing people on earth, destined to regenerate and save the world in the name of a new God, and to whom are given the keys of life and of the new world?’ The answer, of course, is ‘the Russian nation’. Dostoevsky restated the idea in The Diary of a Writer:

Isn’t there in Orthodoxy alone both the truth and the salvation of the Russian people, and in the forthcoming centuries – of mankind as a whole? Hasn’t there been preserved in Orthodoxy alone, in all its purity, the Divine image of Christ? And, perhaps, the most momentous preordained destiny of the Russian people, within the destinies of mankind at large, consists in the preservation in their midst of the Divine image of Christ, in all its purity, and, when the time comes, in the revelation of this image to the world which has lost its way!

A hundred and fifty years later, Patriarch Kirill has expressed his full support for Putin’s attack on Ukraine, justifying it as a ‘metaphysical’ struggle against Western depravity and ‘gay parades’.

As Russian society will – I pray – try to come to grips with its imperialist politics, it will also have to become more critical of the cultural foundations of its dangerous dream of national grandeur. Tolstoy had nothing but contempt for Pobedonostsev, who was a model for Toporov in The Resurrection, his last novel, for which he was excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox Church. And many writers today – including Boris Akunin, Dmitry Bykov, Yulia Latynina, Irina Prokhorova, Vladimir Sorokin, Ludmila Ulitskaya and Mikhail Zygar – are among those speaking out against Putin’s war of aggression. Yet others, including the former dissident and head of PEN Russia, Evgeny Popov, have expressed their support for Putin’s ‘military operation’. The bestselling novelist Zakhar Prilepin even fought in the war in Donbas and boasted of ‘killing many’. Eduard Limonov, too, celebrated the annexation of Crimea.

While I have nothing but contempt for Prilepin and Limonov, I am not suggesting Dostoevsky or Solzhenitsyn should be ‘cancelled’, though Western institutions could put more emphasis on studying Russian culture critically, rather than buying into mystical ideas of the ‘Russian soul’. But above all, I sincerely hope that once the terrible war that Russia has inflicted on Ukraine ends, Russian society confronts its imperialism, and looks to build a nation that serves the everyday needs of its impoverished citizens, rather than terrorising and annihilating its neighbours. Otherwise, as the Ukrainian writer Serhiy Zhadan has put it, ‘Russia’s “great humanist” culture is going to the bottom like the invincible Titanic. Sorry, I mean like a Russian warship.’


  • 17 March 2022 at 11:37pm
    Graucho says:
    Yet again the old adage "Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely" has held true. For all its faults, democracy does not require assassination or men in white coats to rid us of the curse of those afflicted with the malady.

    • 19 March 2022 at 11:02am
      XopherO says: @ Graucho
      Not an old adage but an actual quote from the first Lord Acton, who wrote, "Power tends to corrupt, but absolute power corrupts absolutely." It does seem that the longer someone is in power the greater the chance they will start to lose their marbles. How will Putin be deposed, after 22 years and now completely deranged? Thatcher went after 10 when she had become completely autocratic - but never understood why. Like Putin she got rid of anyone who dared challenge her - wets. There are of course those studies that suggest those with psychopathic tendencies are more likely to get to the top, tendencies likely to be reinforced through time in power? Blair was enlisted to help Putin get elected in 2000. Perhaps he never was a good judge of character.

  • 19 March 2022 at 9:00pm
    ianbrowne says:
    I found this Blog post a little alarming. I don’t think we should be looking at ideas of the Russian soul as providing an explanation for Putin’s war of aggression, which the writer seems to be suggesting.

    But more worrying was this sentence: “I am not suggesting Dostoevsky or Solzhenitsyn should be ‘cancelled’, though Western institutions could put more emphasis on studying Russian culture critically, rather than buying into mystical ideas of the ‘Russian soul’.”

    This seems a strange way to read Dostoyevsky’s novels. Shatov, who Paula Erizanu refers to, is a character in a novel, The Devils, and as such we need to understand his words in the context of that novel. The Devils is a novel which looks at various ideas, but one of the things that it deals with is the manifestations of nihilism in late nineteenth century Russia, and the negative consequences that nihilism has for moral and spiritual life.
    This aspect of Dostoyevsky’s writing is not something that is of Russian significance. It is of European or even universal significance. It is the aspect of Dostoyevsky’s writing that Nietzsche found compelling.

    In 1887, Nietzsche read a peculiar French translation of Notes from Underground entitled L’esprit souterrain, which wasn’t actually Notes from Underground, but was a very loose translation of two different novels written 20 years apart, The Landlady and Notes from Underground, presented as a single story comprising two linked parts. The two stories had been joined together by the translator, with Ordynov, the romantic dreamer of The Landlady, becoming the main character of the Notes from Underground. What the translator presented as the second part of the story was a very free adaptation of Notes from Underground. Nietzsche had this to say in a letter to Franz Overbeck on 23rd February, 1887: “I knew nothing about Dostoevsky, not even his name, until a few weeks ago – uncultivated person that I am, reading no ‘periodicals’! In a bookshop my hand accidentally came to rest on L’esprit souterrain… The instinct of affinity (or what shall I call it?) spoke to me instantaneously – my joy was beyond bounds; not since my first encounter with Stendhal’s Rouge et Noir have I known such joy. (The book consists of two short stories, the first really a piece of music, very foreign, very un-German music; the second a stroke of genius in psychology, a sort of self-ridicule of know thyself).”

    It was Nietzsche’s reading of that translation of Notes from Underground, however strange that translation was, that lead him to give such an importance to the idea of ressentiment in On the Genealogy of Morals, which was central to Nietzsche’s attack on nihilism in the Third Essay of that book. Since the first two essays in On the Genealogy of Morals are an extended attack on the way ressentiment underpins Christian morality, the suggestion that because Dostoyevsky himself believed in the redemptive power of Christianity he might deserve to be ‘cancelled’, in the light of the way a certain conception of the Russian soul is suggested by Putin’s aggression seems peculiar, to say the least. Nietzsche found in Dostoyevsky the resources to construct the story of how the resentment of early Christians engendered the “poisonous and hostile feelings” which led to the “revolt into morality.” How we read Dostoyevsky is up to us, as readers. But Nietzsche showed us one way of reading him, and Nietzsche’s way has been of profound significance for the intellectual and moral life of Europe and the world. Nietzsche did not read Dostoyevsky as offering a picture of the Russian soul which could be used to justify Putin’s war.

    However, perhaps we should not be complacent, as on 2nd March the Bicocca University of Milan announced that it was cancelling a course on Dostoyevsky given by Paolo Nori, stating, “the goal is to avoid any form of disagreement, especially internal ones, as this is a moment of great tension." The decision was subsequently reversed. Unlike the initial decision made by Bicocca University, I hope that most Western institutions already put the emphasis on adopting a careful and critical approach to the study of Russian novelists and the Russian contribution to European and world culture, which means accepting rather than avoiding disagreement. To do otherwise is to risk falling into the idiocies of the cancel culture.

    Given what Nietzsche wrote in On the Genealogy of Morals, it is likely that Nietzsche would have been in sympathy with Dostoyevsky’s critical portrayal of nihilism in The Devils. It isn’t clear what Nietzsche would have made of the character of Shatov, but it is pretty safe to say that he wouldn’t have “bought into mystical ideas of the Russian soul.” Nor, I suspect, would he have read The Devils or the character of Shatov as offering a justification for a war of aggression against Ukraine taking place 140 years after the death of Dostoyevsky.

    I suspect that much of what passes for the cancel culture rests upon simplistic readings. “I am not suggesting Dostoevsky… should be cancelled” seems to me to be a statement of the obvious. As William Empson said a denial is often the sign that what is being rejected is actually rather appealing and the speaker is summoning their resources in order to resist temptation. As we saw in the initial action of the Bicocca University of Milan, cancelling anything Russian which can be given some association, however tenuous, with Putin’s aggression has an appeal for the more naïve voices of the cancel culture. What is needed is a bit more critical thinking and a bit less cancelling.

  • 21 March 2022 at 3:38pm
    Bob K says:
    I'm not familiar with Limonov. Does he deserve contempt for more than his thoughts on Crimea? Calling it an annexation begs some questions about what actually happened there in 2014. From Wikipedia:

    "Following the referendum, the State Council of Crimea and Sevastopol City Council declared the independence of the Republic of Crimea from Ukraine and requested to join the Russian Federation. On the same day, Russia recognized the Republic of Crimea as a sovereign state."

    • 21 March 2022 at 6:11pm
      ianbrowne says: @ Bob K
      A couple of books by Boris Akunin are banned in Ukraine. I don't know if anything by Limonov is.

    • 22 March 2022 at 11:19am
      Neil Foxlee says: @ Bob K
      The Russian claim of a 97 percent vote in favor of annexation with a turnout of 83 percent defies belief, and for good reason. See "Putin's 'Human Rights Council' Accidentally Posts Real Crimean Election Results" ( ).

    • 23 March 2022 at 10:51am
      Reader says: @ Bob K
      I love the phrase "requested to join the Russian Federation." Just as Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia requested to join the Soviet Union after their occupation by the Red Army in the wake of WWII. Such naivete, if it really is naivete, is surprising in a contributor to the LRB blog.

    • 23 March 2022 at 12:07pm
      Delaide says: @ Bob K
      Also from Wikipedia: “ The results of referendum were questioned;[186] another report by Evgeny Bobrov, a member of the Russian President's Human Rights Council, suggested the official results were inflated and only 15% to 30% of Crimeans eligible to vote actually voted for the Russian option.”

    • 27 March 2022 at 2:37pm
      Dr Paul says: @ Reader
      I'm not sure whether this is a valid comparison. Had there been a genuine poll in the Baltic States on joining the Soviet Union, I suspect that the 'yes' vote would have been laughably low. However, various presidential elections in Ukraine saw a vote in the Crimea of 90 per cent for pro-Russian candidates. Had an honest poll been taken in the Crimea on transferring from Ukraine to Russia, it may well have come out in favour of this course. Putin, in line with his professional training, did not trust the population to vote the right way, and so ran a bogus poll, even though his favoured result could well have been achieved in an honest one.

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