Dostoyevsky’s Disregarded Prophecy
The dogma of progress may never recover from the 20th century. Entire continents razed by war, whole peoples wiped from Earth, generations decimated for no good reason—such an optimistic view of human capacity didn't have a chance. What could possibly cause such catastrophic anguish? How could we fail to adapt, evolve, or learn from our earlier mistakes?
Before the killing started, Europe's brightest intellectuals gathered in fashionable salons to debate Marxism, eugenics, and utopia—ideas that would unleash this destruction. Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky chaired many such meetings during the mid-19th century. By the time he completed The Brothers Karamazov in 1879, Dostoyevsky had established himself as a foremost opponent of secularism and revolutionary Marxism.
In retrospect, Dostoyevsky fits William F. Buckley Jr.'s image of futile conservatism: He "stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it." His prophetic denunciation of secular totalitarianism—embodied less than a century after his death by Hitler and Stalin—helped me understand the root of rebellion against God that haunted the 20th century and threatens us still today.
I discovered Dostoyevsky a little later than many. We struggled a bit with American literature in my high school, and I can't imagine us wading through Dostoyevsky trying to keep our Alyoshas and Raskolnikovs apart. But during my junior year of college, I registered for an introductory course on Russian literature, one of the most popular classes at Northwestern University. Students flocked to hear Professor Gary Morson's dramatic readings from The Brothers Karamazov, but they stayed to grapple with the questions of morality and salvation. You can't learn Dostoyevsky without learning about his Christian faith. And despite majoring in European history and taking a class called "American Evangelicalism," I had yet to hear a compelling or fair case for Christianity until we began reading about the dysfunctional Karamazov family.
Dostoyevsky's Christian faith, like his writing, bears the mark of tortured genius. His biography from 131 Christians Everyone Should Know explains, "Though a devout Christian, he was never a good one." He squandered royalties while gambling and frantically authored his greatest works to stay one step ahead of the creditors.
Perhaps Dostoyevsky owes his unique brand of confrontational apologetics to this messy faith. Never inclined to moderation, Dostoyevsky slaps you in the face with dingy scenes of urban squalor and shady, depraved characters. His Underground Man in Notes from Underground notoriously inspires a prostitute to love him, then seduces her, only to humiliate her by paying her for the occasion. The Karamazov family patriarch cares so little for his children that he forgets they even exist. Dostoyevsky reminds us in Memoirs from the House of the Dead that "the executioner's nature is found in embryo in almost every contemporary man."
Many of Dostoyevsky's characters bore the strikingly complex image of their creator. Troubled in his youth by Russia's dismal poverty and indifferent leaders, Dostoyevsky developed an affinity for revolutionary philosophy. According to these theories, the inherited social order prevented humans from reaching their full capacity for virtue. Therefore people should be freed from the bondage of religious superstition and empowered to overthrow their leaders. This kind of talk earned Dostoyevsky a death sentence from the czar, who pardoned him at the last second in a particularly cruel stunt intended to break his will. It worked.
Dostoyevsky wasn't off the hook, though. He labored the next four years in a Siberian work prison. There he poured over the only book he had—the New Testament. When he regained his freedom, Dostoyevsky devoted himself to defending Christianity and fighting his former allies.
Beware the 'Superman'
Possibly his most prophetic book, Crime and Punishment details how Raskolnikov, the book's main character, kills two women and wrestles with the moral and psychological effects. Inwardly struggling to justify his crime, Raskolnikov writes an article that cites Napoleon's and Mohammed's bloodshed to argue that "extraordinary" men transcend law. His friends discuss the article's implications: "In his article all men are divided into 'ordinary' and 'extraordinary.' Ordinary men have to live in submission, have no right to transgress the law, because, don't you see, they are ordinary. But extraordinary men have a right to commit any crime and to transgress the law in any way, just because they are extraordinary." Unaware of Raskolnikov's guilt, a friend then turns to him. "That was your idea, if I am not mistaken?"
Raskolnikov, though, faulted himself for not living up to this "ideal." He couldn't dodge the guilt. But this idea was more than just the ranting of a guilt-ridden killer. The theory had gained wide hearing in Dostoyevsky's day. Friedrich Nietzsche further legitimized the idea of a "superman" unrestrained by Christian values. A superman refuses "antiquated" notions of right and wrong, recognizing only those values that help him get ahead.
Even if you don't recognize these theories, you recognize their effect. Dostoyevsky's beloved Russia eventually succumbed to revolutionary fervor in 1917, and "supermen" Lenin and Stalin justified their murderous barbarism by appealing to visions of communist utopia. Competing forms of superman ideology clashed during World War II, pitting Hitler's genocidal eugenics against Soviet aspirations. Today Osama bin Laden, while not secular, excuses his murder of innocents by claiming a superior morality.
Hope to Overcome
Dostoyevsky's great contribution to Christianity is that he shows us how to combat the destructive theories he so effectively explains. Christians must undermine the attractiveness of such ideas by bringing rebellious humans into a loving relationship with Christ. Sonia, a young woman forced into prostitution to support her step-siblings, models for Dostoyevsky how God uses unlikely vessels to communicate his truth. She accepts Raskolnikov's confession and forgives him, despite her friendship with one of his victims. She further coaxes him to realize his idea's failings and spurs him toward repentance with her unconditional love.
In our study of history, we are bound to wonder how our loving God could tolerate such evil as we experienced in the 20th century. While writing a thesis in college about Christian opposition to Hitler's terror, I couldn't help but cry over horrific tales of senseless murder. Dostoyevsky never shies away from these problems of evil. But even after posing difficult challenges to the Christian faith, he refuses to provide tidy answers. He prefers to illustrate consequences, reminding us what a world without God looks like. Finally, he exemplifies the simple yet determined Christian character that offers a hopeful alternative.
Copyright © 2005 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.