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.