Dostoyevsky: Prophet and Radical Visionary for an Apocalyptic Future
Vika Pechersky on Vladimir Solovyov's support for Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The Silver Age, a tumultuous and often rebellious heir to the Golden Age of Russian literature, emerged on the scene in the last decades of the nineteenth century. This age, which was ended abruptly by the Communist Revolution, produced an explosion of creativity and intellectual curiosity among Russian artists, writers, and philosophers. Artist and thinkers like Wassily Kandinsky and Kazimir Malevich, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Igor Stravinsky, and Vladimir Solovyov and Nicolai Berdyaev all created their works during this vital period in Russian history.
The Silver Age could have been the birth of a new Russia. The artists and intellectuals of the Silver Age tried to make sense of Russia’s proximity to European cultural and the political shifts and fast-paced changes occurring in their own society. Perhaps for the first time, Russian intellectuals engaged in earnest with the modernist ideas of the West, either adopting them wholeheartedly or producing distinctly Russian responses to them. Fyodor Dostoyevsky is the best-known representative of the latter group.
Undoubtedly one of the most famous novelists of the Golden Age, he was a literary giant, a writer of unparalleled skill and psychological insight. However, he was much more than that for many Russian intellectuals of the Silver Age. He was a prophet of the impending changes in Russian society, for good or ill, and a writer who embodied a kind of Christianity that the people in Russia needed in those turbulent times. At the same time, some of his compatriots vehemently opposed and criticized Dostoyevsky for promoting a new kind of Christianity. One such critic was Konstantin Leontiev, a monarchist Russian philosopher who accused Dostoyevsky of reducing Christianity to mere humanism, and a sentimental one at that.
Among Dostoyevsky’s staunch supporters was Vladimir Solovyov, a young and passionate philosopher who found in the great writer a kindred spirit and a guide amidst his own intellectual and religious struggles. Not all of Solovyov's works have been translated into English, although he went on to become the leading philosopher of the Silver Age and produced a robust system that strived to bridge the gap between Western and Russian philosophical sensibilities. In his works, The Critique of Western Philosophy and Philosophical Principals of Integral Knowledge, Solovyov offers a serious critique of Western philosophy. He argues that both metaphysical and empirical branches of Western philosophy (he traced the history of philosophy starting with Eriugena) arrived at the same dual conclusion: affirmation of idealism and skepticism about knowledge of the outside world. In other words, both already contained in themselves a rejection of metaphysics. Therefore, it should surprise no one that in modern times, Western philosophy appeared unrecognizable in the form of positivism.
In the introduction to the Russian edition of Solovyov’s collected works, he is described as someone who possessed a pervasive sense of intellectual restlessness due to his keen realization that the old world and its way of life were passing away. The tsarist vertical power and the way of life it created for millions of people was eroding and being replaced by the encroaching political and social democratization of the Russian way of life, often expressed in radical ideologies such as anarchism and socialism on one side and Slavophile nationalism on the other.
Solovyov felt deeply the shifts of the cultural tectonic plates and the inevitable disruption of life they were about to unleash. But instead of grasping for the old ways of life (this, for Solovyov, was a pointless exercise), he reached forward and looked to the future, not as something hostile but as an opportunity to form a better society and even become better Christians. Solovyov’s intense yet hopeful gaze at the future cannot be explained by simply believing in human progress in materialistic terms. Solovyov argued that such sentiments only lead to the meaninglessness of human life. His hope for the future was, first and foremost, apocalyptic: tracing history’s trajectory towards a dramatic resolution of the cosmic drama. And this he learned from Dostoyevsky himself.
After Dostoyevsky’s death, Solovyov delivered three lectures in his memory. In them, Solovyov expressed the fullness of his intellectual debt to the great writer. In the preface, Solovyov states that his primary goal is not to give a literary analysis of Dostoyevsky’s works nor to explore his personal life and how it affected his writing.
Solovyov aimed at one question: What animated Dostoyevsky’s work?
Dostoyevsky’s work appealed to many people, though he was not as elegant a writer as some of his contemporaries, such as Tolstoy or Turgenev. And yet, despite his apparent stylistic deficiencies, Dostoevsky’s work seemed to appeal to people far beyond its apparent literary value. The appeal, Solovyov contends, is that Dostoyevsky’s novels are not content with describing the settled way of life that the Russian gentry enjoyed. Nor is he content with observing, however keenly, the general condition of Russian society as a whole. The world in his works is in upheaval. According to Solovyov, only Dostoyevsky made societal chaos and the radical movements it produced the very subject of his writing.
And yet, in his novels, Dostoevsky did not simply chronicle the development of social movements, nor did he let himself be influenced by their fads. Dostoyevsky possessed a long-term vision. The great writer could foresee where various social movements of his day would lead people and solemnly judged these movements along with the society that embraced them.
Solovyov argues that Dostoyevsky had the right to pronounce such judgments because he judged that which he knew and suffered himself. Even though Dostoyevsky’s intuition about social injustices was correct, his solution—an overthrow of the social order—led him to jail, hard labor, and ultimately to death row. Yet, it is there, among condemned-to-death revolutionaries, that Dostoyevsky became disillusioned and saw the emptiness of his radical views and experienced true faith in God.
Solovyov also argues Dostoyevsky spoke from his Christian faith, a personal belief that bore fruit despite the rocky soil of his personal struggles. His faith gave him the spiritual and intellectual power to rise above the various social movements churned out by the intellectuals of his day because this faith contained in itself the end and purpose of human history—a spiritual transformation (or ensoulment) not only of human beings but of the material creation itself: the true destiny of all humanity.
Solovyov notes that Dostoyevsky found himself among people who were not viewed as the best exemplars of human goodness or nobility. Still, among the lowest of the low, he witnessed that which the best representatives of the Russian intelligentsia had all but lost. These poor and wretched death-row inmates, who had nothing left but to entrust their souls to God, returned to Dostoyevsky that which the educated and intelligent took away—the pure faith of the contrite and the brokenhearted. Since then, for Dostoyevsky, the true faith of Christ resided in everyday people, and he never lost proximity to them and their faith even when he himself escaped death row and returned to his highly educated circles.
Dostoyevsky belonged to a rare group of thinkers who never submitted themselves to the crude power of the facts of life. He served a far higher cause—faith in truth and dobro (goodness)—not only the truth and goodness that is but that which must come to be. In that sense, he was a true prophet and a genuine hero of faith. Solovyov declares that, despite the dire state of the world and the lifeless state of Christianity, Dostoyevsky believed in and spoke of the true faith of Christ, a true Christianity that must yet come to be. To echo the words of Jean-Luc Marion, “We are not yet Christians.”
In his larger philosophical project, Solovyov claimed that there are three types of Christianity, establishing a three-step theory in which humanity matures and develops in history. He defined history as the interaction between man and God, with the ultimate goal of reaching free and uncoerced unity with the divine. In his lectures, he placed Dostoyevsky within this framework and applied his theory specifically to Christianity as a historical and cosmic phenomenon.
First, there is a temple Christianity, the most basic form of Christian faith, when it is limited to the building of the church and its Sunday service. Outside of the church’s walls, the faith has no bearing on the life of worshipers. Such a Church is entirely exterior to people. Solovyov contends that temple Christianity has a kernel of the truth of Christ, but it comes in such small doses that it is utterly insufficient.
The second stage in the development of Christianity occurs when the faith is no longer content to stay within the walls of the church and spills over into the interior life of the person. Jesus becomes the highest moral ideal; the goal is the salvation of the individual. Solovyov calls this stage domestic Christianity. This Christianity contains some truth and must exist as a form of personal faith. However, it is also limited because domestic Christianity exists only within the bounds of the individual’s personal life, leaving the outside world with its political, economic, or ecological relations in the power of the anti-Christian powers and authorities. Both temple and domestic forms of Christianity are only partial at best and unable to circumscribe the totality of our existence.
There must be a third stage, Christianity’s truest form, the connection with the divine that incorporates every aspect of human life and interactions beyond individual encounters. Solovyov calls it universal Christianity. All humanity must come together in brotherly love, characterized by a free and selfless unity of all people. If Jesus Christ is the living Logos, the incarnation of the Truth, then the self-giving love embodied by Christ must become the very logic of all human existence. Solovyov admits that such Christianity does not yet exist. It is the Christianity of the future of which he speaks. However, Dostoyevsky, in his person and work, provides a glimpse and a foretaste of what such human existence might look like. This is the value of Dostoyevsky’s novels.
For Solovyov, this universal Christianity cannot be only about the geographical spread and global conquest of the Christian faith. Such an idea can only ensure that Christianity remains coercive and exterior to human life and thus only partial to our existence. Solovyov aims at something more profound..
In Solovyov’s opinion, Dostoyevsky demonstrated that essential unity. In his life and work, his religion, artistic expression, and intellectual work came together in a unified intelligibility. Solovyov said that in his convictions Dostoyevsky never separated truth from beauty or goodness. And in his literary works, he never isolated beauty from truth and goodness—all three could only exist in unity. It cannot be otherwise because when each of them is isolated from the other two, they all lose their meaning and value.
In the incarnation, Dostoyevsky was able to see the endless depth of the human soul, capable of containing the limitless depth of God. And in the depth of the human soul, he found the depth of God. Solovyov called this relationship between God and man Godmanhood—a unity of God and man, not only in spirit but in actual flesh. For Dostoyevsky, this unity with God and the depth of the human soul was beauty, goodness, and truth.
Yes, Dostoyevsky was a humanist. However, he was not naïve or sentimental. He believed in the depth of human soul and the divine capacity of humans to reach the heights of goodness and selfless love. At the same time, he recognized the human capacity to commit acts of evil against ourselves and others—in myriad forms of self-delusion and self-destruction—which makes his plea for truth, beauty, and goodness ever so urgent.
Vika Pechersky is a native Russian speaker who was born and raised in the Former Soviet Union. She is the Submissions Editor at Mere Orthodoxy and earned her Master of Theology from Loyola University Maryland. Vika lives with her family outside of Washington DC.