As someone who teaches Russian literature, I can’t help but process the world through the country’s novels, stories, poems, and plays, even at a time when Russian cultural productions are being held around the world. is being cancelled.
With the Russian military carrying out devastating violence in Ukraine – including the slaughter of civilians in Buka – discussions of what to do with Russian literature naturally arose.
I don’t worry that really valuable art can be revoked at any time. Perpetual works of literature are permanent in part because they have the capacity to be read critically against the ups and downs of the present.
You could make this argument for just about any great work of Russian literature, but as a scholar of Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky, I would stick with Russia’s most famous literary export.
After World War II, German critic Theodor Adorno called the Holocaust a profound blow to Western culture and philosophy, even questioning man’s ability to “live after Auschwitz”.
This idea, born out of the very specific context of the Holocaust, should not be applied randomly to the present moment. But following Adorno’s moral leadership, I wonder how – after the brutal shelling of the city of Mariupol, after the horrors on the streets of Buka, after the atrocities committed in Kharkiv, Mykolev, Kyiv and many others – how indiscriminate violence should change Readers contact the great writers of Russia.
suffering with clear eyes
Upon learning that the Russian writer Ivan Turgenev had seen a man sentenced to death at the last minute, Dostoevsky clarified his position: “[A] Man living on the surface of the earth does not have the right to ignore what is happening on earth, and there are high moral imperatives for this.”
Seeing the wreckage of a theater in Mariupol, and the citizens of Mariupol starving due to Russian air raids, I wondered if Dostoevsky—who specifically addressed the question of children’s suffering in his 1880 novel The Brothers Karamazov He had focused his piercing moral vision on what would become a theater where children had taken refuge in response to the bombing of the Russian army. The word “children” was extensively written on the sidewalk outside the theatre, so that it could be seen from the sky. There was no misunderstanding of who was there.
Ivan Karamazov, the central protagonist in “The Brothers Karamazov”, focuses far more on questions of moral accountability than on Christian acceptance or forgiveness and reconciliation. In conversation, Evan regularly brings up examples of the loss of children, prompting other characters to recognize the atrocities that take place among them. He is determined to seek vengeance.
Certainly the deliberate shelling of children at Mariupol is something Dostoevsky could not possibly have looked away. Could he have defended the vision of Russian morality by seeing innocent civilians – men, women and children – lying on the streets of Buka?
At the same time, readers should not look away from Dostoevsky’s indecisiveness and his sense of Russian extravagance. These dogmatic views of Russian greatness and Russia’s messianic mission are linked to the broader ideology that has fueled current Russian foreign politics over Russia’s past colonial missions and violent demonstrations in Ukraine.
Yet Dostoevsky was also a great humanist thinker who linked this vision of Russian greatness to Russian suffering and faith. Seeing the spiritual value of human suffering was probably a natural consequence for a man sent for five years to a labor camp in Siberia to attend a glorified socialist book club. Dostoevsky came out of his suffering, but, arguably, not in a place where he could accept state-sponsored terror.
Could one author, in his 1866 novel “Crime and Punishment”, elaborate on the toll of murder on a murderer—which suggests that when someone takes a life, they kill themselves—possibly Russia’s Do you accept Putin’s point of view? Warts and all, did Russia’s biggest spiritual rebel retreat and revolt against Russian violence in Ukraine?
I hope he, as many contemporary Russian writers have. But the dogmas of the Kremlin are widespread, And many Russians accept them, Many Russians look away.
Tolstoy’s Path of Pacifism
No writer captures the war in Russia in a more poignant way than Tolstoy, a former soldier turned Russia’s most famous pacifist. Tolstoy, in his last work, “Hadji Murat”, examining the colonial exploits of Russia in the North Caucasus, showed how absurd Russian violence against a Chechen village causes Russian violence.
Tolstoy’s greatest work about Russian warfare, “War and Peace”, is a novel that Russians have traditionally read during the Great Wars, including World War II. In “War and Peace”, Tolstoy argues that the morale of the Russian army is the key to victory. The battles most likely to succeed are defensive, in which soldiers understand why they are fighting and what they are fighting to protect: their home.
Nevertheless, he is able to convey the harrowing experiences of young Russian soldiers coming into direct confrontation with the tools of death and destruction on the battlefield. They disappear into the crowd of their battalion, but a single loss is devastating for the families awaiting their safe return.
After publishing “War and Peace”, Tolstoy publicly condemned several Russian military operations. The final part of her 1878 novel “Anna Karenina” was not originally published because it criticized Russia’s actions in the Russo-Turkish War. Tolstoy’s alter ego in that novel, Konstantin Levin, calls Russian interference in the war “murder” and thinks it is unfair to drag the Russian people into it.
“People make sacrifices and are always ready to sacrifice their souls, not murder,” he says.
In 1904, Tolstoy wrote a public letter condemning the Russo-Japanese War, which is sometimes compared to Russia’s war in Ukraine.
“War again,” he wrote. “Again suffering, not necessary to anyone, completely unnecessary; again deceit, again universal stupidity and cruelty of men.” One can now hear him shout the title of that essay “Bethink Yourself” to his countrymen.
In one of his most famous pacifist writings, 1900’s “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” Tolstoy tackled the problem of today’s Russia.
“The misery of nations is not caused by any particular individual, but by the particular order of society under which people are so bound together that they find themselves in the power of a few men, or more often the power of a loner. Man: A man so perverted by his unnatural position as the arbiter of fate and the lives of millions that he is always in an unhealthy state, and always suffers more or less from the mania of self-aggrandizement .
importance of action
If Dostoevsky insisted that one should not look away, it would be fair to say that Tolstoy would argue that people should act on what they see.
During the Russian famine of 1891 to 1892, he started soup kitchens to help his countrymen who were starving and abandoned by the Russian government. He worked to help Russian soldiers escape the draft in the Russian Empire, visiting and supporting imprisoned soldiers who did not want to fight. In 1899 he sold his last novel, “Resurrection”, to help the Doukhobars, a Russian Christian sect, immigrate to Canada so they would not need to fight in the Russian army.
These writers have nothing to do with the current war. They cannot eliminate or reduce the actions of the Russian military in Ukraine. But they are embedded at some level within the Russian cultural fabric, and how their books are still read matters. Not because Russian literature can explain what is happening, because it cannot. But because, as Ukrainian writer Serhi Zadan wrote in March 2022, Russia’s war in Ukraine marked the defeat of Russia’s great humanistic tradition.
As this culture copes with a Russian army that has bombed and massacred Ukrainians indiscriminately, the great writers of Russia must be read critically with an urgent question in mind: how to stop the violence. Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny famous During his March 2022 trial, Tolstoy urged his countrymen to fight both autocracy and war as one enables the other.
And Ukrainian artist Alevina Kakhidze cited “War and Peace” in her February 2022 entry in her graphic diary.
“I read your f-ing literature,” she wrote. “But it seems Putin didn’t, and you’ve forgotten.”