There is something demonic in the Russian soul, something that cannot be explained rationally.

Rod Dreher


Fyodor Dostoevsky, diagnostician of the Russian soul ((Eugene Ivanov/Shutterstock)

A reader posted a link to this 2014 essay by Costica Bradacan, talking about how Russia can be understood through Dostoevsky’s great novel The Brothers Karamazov. Bradatan begins by saying that there is something demonic in the Russian soul, something that cannot be explained rationally. Excerpt:

Vladimir Putin’s sudden decision to start slicing up Ukraine must have reminded East Europeans of Russia’s traditional expansionism, but also of something else, something even worse. For there are still vivid in Eastern Europe’s collective memory episodes of Russian brutality so ferocious, so nightmarish that they can’t have anything to do with politics, not even with its most cynical variety. No matter how you look at them, even within a logic of repression, these acts just don’t make sense; they are too extreme to serve any punitive or preventive function — or any other rational purpose, for that matter.

One of those events was the great famine that Stalin imposed on Ukraine to punish it politically. Excerpt:

In a recent book, Bloodlands, Yale historian Timothy Snyder estimates that approximately 3.3 million people died then of starvation. (Some three millions were ethnic Ukrainians; the rest were Russians, Poles, Germans, and Jews.) How was this done? First, when the peasants could not meet the excessively high quotas of grain set by Moscow, all their food supplies were confiscated. “The authorities searched for that grain as if they were searching for bombs and machine guns,” writes Vasily Grossman, whose book Everything Flows offers one of the most compassionate accounts of the Ukrainian famine. Everything edible was taken away by party activists and OGPU (Soviet security services) officers. Their entire seed fund was seized; even cooked food, dinner already set on the table, was swept away.

Once that was done, people were left to die the slowest of deaths: “The village was left to look after itself — with everyone starving in their huts. […] And all the various officials from the city stopped coming.” To make sure nobody escaped, roadblocks were set up by the OGPU, and the railway stations were guarded by armed soldiers. Through Party and OGPU channels, Stalin was kept abreast of what was going on.

As an American, there is a lot that I admire about Russia. But if I were Ukrainian, I think I would hate Russia from the depths of my soul for this.

The other incident mentioned by Bradatan was the massacre at the Katyn forest of Polish army officers and soldiers who had been defeated by the invading Nazis, and surrendered to the Red Army rather than be taken by the Germans. They were slaughtered, every one of them:

The killings were performed individually: two NKVD officers would hold the victim by the hands, while a third would shoot him in the head, from behind. One victim at a time, some 21,892 times. Why did they kill unarmed, defenseless prisoners like this? Just because.

“Just because” — that’s what defines these episodes. They are enormously brutal, gratuitous, and incomprehensible. They seem to emerge from some dark corner of human nature: no matter how intently we scrutinize it, we cannot make anything out.

Russians have done this to themselves as well, of course. This is what the Gulag and the Great Terror essentially were: just because. Bradatan quotes the prosecutor at the end of The Brothers Karamazov, saying that the Russian character is stretched between “two abysses”: one abyss its lofty ideals, the other its foul degradation. Russia is capable of the highest highs and the lowest lows. Bradatan argues that the Russian soul was captured well by Dostoevsky in that novel, in his portrait of the brothers.

There is Ivan, who is relentlessly philosophical. Alyosha represents the heights of Russian spirituality. More:

Dmitri Karamazov is the face of ordinary Russia. The prosecutor who sends him to Siberia says as much. “She is here, our dear mother Russia, we can smell her, we can hear her!” As Russians, “we are lovers of enlightenment and Schiller, and at the same time we rage in taverns,” he says, “an amazing mixture of good and evil.”

Symbolically, the most important character is the bastard son Smerdyakov, who stands for the aspect of the Russian soul that nobody wants to recognize. He’s a nobody in the novel, though he ends up being very important because of his deeds. The most important thing about him, says Bradatan, is that he does evil for its own sake. “He kills just because.” More:

Smerdyakovism is an obscure, yet tremendous force that runs deep throughout Russian history. Its basic principle is formulated succinctly by the lackey himself: “The Russian people need thrashing.” Why? Just because. Smerdyakovism flares up especially in the form of leaders and institutions that rule through terror alone; repression for the sake of repression. Its impact is overwhelming, its memory traumatic, and its social effects always paralyzing. Joseph Conrad sees “something inhuman,” from another world, in these Smerdyakovian institutions. The government of Tsarist Russia, relying on an omnipresent, omnipotent secret police, and “arrogating to itself the supreme power to torment and slaughter the bodies of its subjects like a God-sent scourge, has been most cruel to those whom it allowed to live under the shadow of its dispensation.” And that was just the beginning.

It was Stalin who brought Smerdyakovism to perfection. Under his rule, Smerdyakov starved to death millions of Ukrainian peasants and killed tens of thousands of Polish prisoners. In Siberia he built a vast network of camps and prisons whereby a significant part of Russia’s population was turned into slave labor. All this for no particular reason — just because. In The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn documents the whole thing in maddening detail. The Great Terror that Stalin orchestrated and put into practice with the help of the NKVD in the late 1930s is perhaps the most eloquent example of Smerdyakovism in 20th-century Russia. Without any trace of rational justification, the country’s artistic, scientific, political, and military elites were decimated within a few years. Some of its best writers, scientists, engineers, and generals received then a bullet in the head.

Bradatan goes on to say that Putin has to be understood as a manifestation of Smerdyakovism — not a Stalin-level example, but an example all the same. Read the whole thing. 

I defer to you readers who know something about Russia and/or Russian literature to comment on this essay. I found it fascinating, and am eager to hear what you have to say. To me, the most interesting aspect of the piece is its central claim that the greatness of Russia and Russia’s wickedness are all part of the same organic unity. Bradatan quotes from the prosecutor’s speech in The Brothers K:

“Two abysses, gentlemen,” says the prosecutor, “in one and the same moment — without that […] our existence is incomplete.”

This image of the two intertwined abysses can be said to be a picture of Russia itself. The basest and the highest, the most despicable and the noblest, profanity and sainthood, total cynicism and winged idealism, all meet here.

What do you think?

UPDATE: Occurs to me that something similar might be said of the American South. Minnesota is by most standards a better place to live than Mississippi, whose history includes great poverty and racist cruelty. But then again, Minnesota never produced a Faulkner, a Welty, or a Percy, and could not have done. I’m not putting Minnesota down over this. I’m just saying that Mississippi, and the American South in general, is abyssal in the same tragic way as Russia’s. Think about it: Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit is Smerdyakov.

UPDATE.2: OK, OK, Minnesota has produced some fine writers. I didn’t say they did not. I don’t think any of them come up to Faulkner’s status, but that’s me.

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80 Responses to Smerdyakovism

  1. bacon says:

    If nothing else, this post has shown that you have many followers in Minnesota, a relatively liberal state. Maybe you’ve stumbled on a new way to track readers – say something irritating about a state and sit back.

  2. Articuno says:

    Russia is gnostic. Maybe this came to them with the baptism from Byzantium. They perceive others to be like them, so they justify whatever they do. They speak of mysterious “russian soul” whenever they want to justify their wrongdoings and corruption, like Pobedonoscev or Tiutczew. They are also fatalistic and maybe this is why they don’t have moderate expectations from the state or neglect the well being of ordinary Russians. But this leads also to a constant fear among the elites that the people will murder them one day, and people fear brutal power. To me such culture is destined to fail somehow. Bolshevism was one indicator, now Islam is expanding. If you want to read more then obviously Letters from Russia of Custine are good and there’s an essay by Spengler about the Two Faces of Russia or something

  3. DocBroom says:

    Nice, Minnesota is nice in the same way C.S. Lewis’s N.I.C.E is nice, or Britain’s healthcare is N.I.C.E. I’m from Minnesota originally and quite happy to be as far from Minnesota as I am.

  4. La Lubu says:

    (Of course this is a matter of taste, but I’d personally take Prince over any musician that came out of Mississippi.)

    I love the hell out of Prince too, but:

    Robert Johnson
    B.B. King
    Muddy Waters
    Sonny Boy Williamson
    Albert King
    Howlin’ Wolf

    Had these fine Mississippi musicians not paved the way, Prince wouldn’t have been Prince.

  5. JonF says:

    Re: Why did they kill unarmed, defenseless prisoners like this? Just because.

    No, not “just because”. There was a logic to it, even if it is a gruesome one: the Russians were killing off Polish elite men, to better enable their own rule of the half of Poland they got under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

    The gulag by the way has its roots in the ghastly prison camps the Tsar maintained in Siberia. Nothing new under the sun.

  6. JonF says:

    John Gruskos,

    Rod may be a tolerant host, but you will many of us here do not look kindly on slanders directed at the people who gave us the Prophets, the Apostles, the Theotokos and Christ himself.

    [NFR: I missed his remark the first time around. I’m going to let it stand, but I agree with you, Jon. — RD]

  7. David Herwaldt says:

    TA wrote: (Of course this is a matter of taste, but I’d personally take Prince over any musician that came out of Mississippi.) So you’d take Prince over Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, Ike Turner, Elmore James, Sonny Boy Williamson, Robert Johnson, Johnny Shines, etc., etc. Without Mississippi, without the blues, there would be no Prince, nor would there be a Dylan. I write this as an Iowan at this moment, but a Minnesotan by birth.

  8. jsmith says:

    As always, the West has a short memory, but the Russians have not forgotten their humiliation.

    Nor did Hunter Strickland.

    Why is what is silly on an individual level not so for nation-states?

  9. Harvey says:

    Essentialism is a really bad idea, no matter whether it’s applied to Russians, MTDists, liberals, the Left or Trump supporters.

    The reason that it’s a bad idea is that it is a pure cop-out. Once something is ‘essential’, there’s no longer any reason to examine history, motivations, economic / cultural effects.

    (Just consider how many times, RD, that you used the word ‘enemy’ to describe Americans who disagree with you. We can’t simply have different points of view; we are reduced to caricatures with demonic souls.)

    [NFR: My “enemies” are not Americans who disagree with me. They are Americans who would punish me for my religious beliefs, and who would force me and my own to assent to lies. — RD]

  10. William Tighe says:

    Janwaar Bibi wrote:

    “Latvia for example is almost a quarter Russian, and they are concentrated in the Eastern part of the country.”

    This sounds like Estonia, although the figure I was given in 2001 for Estonia was 40% Russian, and it is true that they are concentrated in the Eastern part of the country. In Latvia, however, at that time – my wife’s parents were from Latvia and her late father was an historian – the figure was 50%/50% and the Russians were concentrated in Riga, the capital, and along the Gulf of Riga (a choice retirement area for Soviet-era military officers and bureaucrats for whom the Crimea was beyond their means), and not in one particular region of the country. In Lithuania, by happy contrast, Lithuanians amount to about 80% of the population, with about 20% Russians, Byelorussians, and some Poles and Ukrainians.

  11. Gus says:

    Oh, Rod. You will catch hell (and already have, it looks like) from Minnesotans. Like many Southerners we have a great inferiority complex. I take your point, though. New Orleans is an excellent example. Could jazz have been born in an orderly, well run city?

    [NFR: One thinks of Harry Lime’s remark in “The Third Man” about artistic greatness emerging out of chaotic and bloody Renaissance Italy, but Switzerland’s well-ordered society producing only the cuckoo clock. — RD]

  12. Gus says:

    We should probably also note the many atrocities committed by Americans against American Indians and African slaves. I don’t think Russia is unique in this regard.

  13. Wes says:

    Eugene Vodolazkin had a really good one on Russia/the West in this month’s FT’s.

  14. Paul Grenier says:

    I think some of the above posts are missing the point of Rod’s question.

    It is of course true, as Solzhenitsyn famously said, that “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” And no doubt through the heart of every nation as well, including the nation that fire-bombed Japanese cities (you know, just for starters).

    But I think Rod Dreher is asking whether there is in Russian culture and history a tendency for this inevitable human dualism to take on a particular form, one oriented either to the purity of self-effacing love, or to the abasement of pure cynicism.

    As my own most recent essay on TAC suggests, Chekhov, far from being a contradiction to Dostoevsky’s extreme contrasts, may well be a further confirmation of them.

    I have long felt that this line of reasoning, brought up by Dreher, needs to be explored in light of Fr. Alexander Schmemman’s thesis, expressed in his Journals, that Orthodox Russia (and Schmemann does suggest this applies also to Catholic cultures, but I would add that it applies to Russia ‘on steroids’) has a different eschatology compared to protestant America (or Switzerland): for a culture such as Orthodox Russia’s, the Kingdom of Heaven is already present, symbolically (which does not mean ‘as a pretense’!) here below. The world is therefore not merely a rational ‘rules-based’ place ordered to comfortable progress, but is instead a place where heaven itself may erupt — at least, in a certain sense. See the Orthodox liturgy! This idea, if corrupted, e.g. by communism as an atheistic ideology, Schmemman continues, does not simply eject the idea of perfection, but fatally distorts it. (I am writing this from memory, so sorry for the rough outlines here.)

    My other thought, Rod, is to try to find the book by the Southern Traditionalist and poet John Gould Fletcher, The Two Frontiers, which compares the psychology and spirit of Russia and the US. Have only seen excerpts, but it is suggestive and thoughtful at least in parts, and despite its being written in the 1920s. Fletcher suggests, among other things, that America is about constant busyness, Russia — cf. Oblomov! — about lethargy — except when animated by some exalted spiritual cause (at which point it is capable of a great deal indeed). As one might expect, Fletcher thinks these two opposites, America and Russia, need each other. (As in the cliche ‘If you two can’t stop arguing with one another I think I’ll make you get married.’)

    As regards the whole Ukraine situation, which continues to tragically unfold, I’ll only add that, were all sides to act with the good of the Ukrainian PEOPLE foremost in mind, Christian forgiveness would be a darn good place to start. Those who think politics needs to be walled off from ‘religion’ forget that politics becomes a kind of hell if it neglects the centrality of mutual forgiveness — something that a culture that has been repeating the Lord’s prayer for a thousand years is capable of — if we would just give it the opportunity.

  15. pbnelson says:

    q.v. Staggerford by Jon Hassler.

  16. Mel Profit says:

    This is why literary analysis in a vacuum is mischievous. The “Russian soul”, as evidenced by three hundred years of prison camps, gulags, Cossacks, Romanovs, and Bolsheviks, is indeed a dark and dangerous one. That said, even the worst of Russian tyrants have had real enemies, including Mr. Putin who watched Yeltsin get taken by the West and NATO creep up to his doorstep. Whatever the absolute morality and political wisdom of his actions in Crimea and the Donbass, they were in response to Western arrogance and provocation. It is also worth pointing out that Ukraine, with its large and influential Neo-Nazi faction, is hardly the Shining City on a Hill that neocons and other fabulists insist on seeing in every American protectorate.

    Finally, no less than the Ukrainians, the Russians have historical memories–and quite recent ones–that Americans can barely imagine. If Ukrainians are justified in hating and fearing Moscow, Russians should be apoplectic at the very mention of Germany. In a region as blood-soaked as Europe, there is plenty of culpability to go around, including souls Slavic, Gallic, Teutonic, and Red, White and Blue.

  17. Loudon is a Fool says:

    Sinclair Lewis + J.F. Powers + Prince + Charles Shulz + Judy Garland + Garrison Keillor + the Coen Brothers + Laura Ingalls Wilder < Walker Percy or William Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor or Robert Penn Warren or Cormac McCarthy or John Kennedy Toole

    This is just math, guys. I’ll give you F. Scott Fitzgerald but, given the amount of time he actually spent growing up in Minnesota, that’s kind of like Canada crowing about that little mechanical arm they made every time the space shuttle would launch. Which makes sense given that Minnesota is kind of like America’s Canada: “Yeah, uhh, really nice people. Great personality.”

  18. Zeno says:

    KansasM says: All you ever need to know about what it means to be human is found in “When Doves Cry.”

    That’s another good reason not to live in Kansas.

  19. I guess I can be glad you picked Minnesota and not Pennsylvania.

    Anyway–Next school year, I plan to teach Solzhenitsyn and a piece of the Brothers–“The Grand Inquisitor”–to my high school AP class. The lesson plan includes Solzhenitsyn’s One Day and his Harvard speech in which he told our elite graduates of 1978 that people in Russia suffered because “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this happened.”

    The Harvard grads booed him off the stage.

    We seem even more reluctant to hear that message today.

  20. dfb says:

    Interesting that Professor Bradacan fails to note, in suggesting Smerdyakov is caught between “two abysses” that the one person who is certainly a parent of Smerdyakov – “Stinking” Lizaveta Smerdyashchaya – is specifically identified by Dostoevsky as a “holy fool.”

  21. Captain P says:

    Russia’s actions in Ukraine are entirely explainable based on ordinary geopolitical concerns. The US and and EU had fostered a coup that toppled a Russia-friendly Ukrainian government and replaced it with one that wanted to eventually join NATO, which Russia considers an anti-Russia alliance. If, someday, China were to become more powerful than the US, and support a coup in Mexico to replace a US-friendly administration with one that wanted to join a China-dominated mutual defense organization, the US might act in the same way.

    Furthermore, Ukraine has a crucial role in Russian national identity — Kievan Rus was the ancestor state of both Ukraine and Russia. It was a blow to Russian pride to see their “mother country” taken over by a faction hostile to Russia. Ergo, Putin shored up domestic support by intervening in Ukraine.

  22. Dana Ames says:

    I recently watched the lengthy “Andrei Rublev” (Tarkovsky, 1966) and found the same mishmash of situations and motives presented by a Russian in the midst of Communism. It also struck me to a lesser extent while reading “Echoes of a Native Land” by S. Schmemann. Yes, people are like that all over the world. I think each culture has a different “odor” about its mixture of sublimity and depravity, though.


  23. bt says:

    “But then again, Minnesota never produced a Faulkner, a Welty, or a Percy, and could not have done.”

    Art tends to do quite well under conditions of duress or strain or pain. And yes, the south has always offered than in much larger helpings than in more kind and content places like Minnesota.

  24. Prof CJ says:

    1. More than anything else, Russia is a bloated colonialist
    country that’s still holding on to its colonies, namely
    Siberia and the Kaliningrad Oblast’. Another colony,
    Alaska, was sold to the U.S. Granted, much of Russia’s
    military expansionism occurred when Russia was ruled
    by a German, Catherine the Great. There is growing
    evidence that multiple acts of genocide took place as
    Russia was expanding from Muscovy toward the Urals
    and into Siberia (even Wikipedia mentions that). I wonder
    if Russia is going to repent the horrors it inflicted on the
    native population during its colonialist expansion or if that
    topic is even discussed in Russia. I may be wrong but I’m
    not aware of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky ever being critical of
    Russian colonialism.

    2. Some Ukrainians I know (I’m not Ukrainian) regret the
    fact that Eastern Orthodoxy was imposed on Rus’ . They
    are envious that Poland and Bohemia joined Western
    Christendom, i.e., Catholicism, because in purely secular
    terms Poland and Bohemia (now Czechia) got instant access
    to the cultural riches of France, Italy, and England. What did
    Rus’ get? Exposure to Byzantine despotism.

  25. Michelle says:

    As my husband always says, there’s a reason why he’s from there. Russian culture is dysfunctional, a dysfunction that originated long before communism.

    As for Faulkner–he’s highly overrated.

  26. Michelle says:

    because Russians had a tradition of self-critique, exemplified by Dostoevsky, which Jews lacked.

    What hogwash written by someone who obviously knows nothing of Jewish culture.

  27. John says:

    As mentioned above, the crimes you refer to are to be attributed not to Russians, but to Communism. Stalin was a Georgian not a Russian; the enforcers of the Ukrainian famine were to a great extent Ukrainian Communists. Similar crimes were repeated and even surpassed in the other countries that fell under Communist rule, such as China. I don’t know how you made this mistake.

  28. Wygrif says:

    Minnesota also produced Norman Baurlaug, who is one of the most important people of the twentieth century and in a wonderful, deeply Minnesotan way is almost totally unknown among the general public.

    So even if you were right about literature MN > MS

  29. Charles Cosimano says:

    All governments rule by terror to one degree or another. Stalin was just on the far end of the curve.

    Remember, Stalin did not do it by himself. There was an army that let him.

  30. Lllurker says:

    The (submissive?) culture of the Russian people may have made the country vulnerable to Communism/Stalinism but I’m not so sure that within Stalin’s own head and heart there was anything uniquely Russian going on. He grew up Georgian, in the Orthodox Church, he became a seminarian, and then IIRC for awhile he acted as a sort of Georgian/Marxist propagandist and revolutionary. All this before he had much involvement in Russian politics beyond Georgia itself. And later after he did seize power in Russia Stalin spent the rest of his life de-Russifying the place.

    As far as the 20th century monsters go, to me Stalin is the more straightforward actor, especially when compared to Hitler and some of the others . He seems to have decided that the key to power was to always be the most ruthless operator in the room, then later the most ruthless operator in the country. He had the cunning to know when to be discreet about it but he never seemed to waver much from this formula. (Nor apparently to suffer any guilt from it.)

    Viewed through this lens Stalin’s atrocities such as the liquidation of the Kulaks, the Holodomor, the massive purges and the Katyn Forest Massacre all consist of just so much more of the same. He held power by employing institutional campaigns of terror making it impossible for anyone else to develop a power base. I’m not sure there’s anything particularly Russian in that sort of Evil.

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About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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1 Response to There is something demonic in the Russian soul, something that cannot be explained rationally.

  1. marysong says:

    I suppose this offering is simplistic … but … how about demonic infestation as a cause of all this evil and brutal slaying of ones’ fellow man ‘just because’ ? Wasn’t the country of Mexico recently exorcised? So! It is a possibility.

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