Commentary on social and moral issues of the day

A God-Possessed Man: Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821 -- 1881)

Malcolm Muggeridge

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Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821 -- 1881)

Excerpted from A Third Testament.

When the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia in the October Revolution of 1917, one of the first administrative acts of the new revolutionary government was to transfer the capital from St. Petersburg, whose spirit, like its elegant architecture, belonged to Western Europe, to Moscow, at the heart of Russia and of Russian history. At the time there was every reason -- strategic, economic and political -- for doing this, but it also settled a controversy that had agitated and divided the Russian intelligentsia for years past -- between the Westernizers and the Slavophiles. Though the triumphant Bolsheviks looked to a German Jew, Karl Marx, for their ideology, and to the Twentieth Century's most successful exponent of capitalism, America, for their technology, their regime was to be, in its aspirations, its strategy and its character, essentially and insistently Russian.

In October 1821, a second child was born to the resident doctor of a Moscow hospital then known as the Mariinskaya Hospital for the Poor. The baby who thus came into the world in an obscure enough way was destined to become one of the most famous writers of his time, not just in Russia but throughout the world. The doctor's name was Dostoevsky, and he christened his new son Fyodor.

Like so many of my generation, I first read Dostoevsky's novel, Crime and Punishment, when I was very young. I read it like a thriller, with mounting excitement. Later, when I came to read Dostoevsky's other works, especially his great masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov, I realized that he was not just a writer with a superlative gift for storytelling, but that he had a special insight into what life is about, and into man's relationship with his Creator, making him a prophetic voice looking into and illumining the future. I came to see that the essential theme of all his writing is Good and Evil, the two points around which the drama of our mortal existence is enacted.

The Dostoevsky family's own circumstances were decidedly somber. His father seems to have had a harsh and irascible temperament, made worse by a growing tendency to drink too much; and his mother, naturally a cheerful soul, succumbed to tuberculosis during her ninth pregnancy, when Fyodor was fifteen. It was the end of family life for Dostoevsky; along with his brother Michael, he was sent off to St. Petersburg to prepare for early entry into the Military Engineering College there.

When Dostoevsky had been only some six months at the Engineering Academy, he heard that his father had died, allegedly murdered by some serfs on his estate in revenge for his admittedly drunken, incalculable and lecherous ways. For obvious reasons the family kept the details to themselves -- even assuming they knew them with any certitude; the authorities, too, were anxious that such murders -- apparently rather common at the time --should not be widely publicized. The death of his father, in circumstances so mysterious and so sinister, cannot but have affected Dostoevsky profoundly. It has even been suggested that it brought on the epileptic fits that were to afflict him for the rest of his life.

Dostoevsky's six years at the Engineering Academy seem to have left little mark upon him. In 1844, when he was twenty-three, he took the plunge, resigned his commission and set up as a writer in St. Petersburg -- a hazardous enterprise, but almost immediately successful. Poor Folk, his first published work, a study in the Gogol-Dickens style of the poor of St. Petersburg, was rapturously received by, among others, Belinsky, the famous critic in whom Dostoevsky was later to see a misguided Westernizer. Few writers have gotten off to so promising a start; everything seemed to be set fair for a dazzling career.

The Belinsky circle, like the Bloomsbury one and all such circles, was no doubt a great bore, and Dostoevsky found more exciting (and, as it turned out, dangerous) company in the Petrashevsky circle. This was a group of revolutionaries, all bent on overthrowing the existing social order. Inevitably, the Petrashevsky-ites were infiltrated by the secret police, and some thirty-four of them --Dostoevsky among them -- were arrested and sent off for examination. He, like Shatov in The Devils, had been entrusted with the clandestine printing press.

Dostoevsky found himself in solitary confinement in the Peter and Paul Fortress where so many revolutionaries -- Bakunin, for instance -- were at one time or another incarcerated. For Dostoevsky it was the true beginning of his inner life, and of the illumination out of which his great works were to come. Prisons, let it be said, have fostered far more art and mystical insight than any Arts Council, Ministry of Culture or other such effort in the way of governmental encouragement. In the Peter and Paul Fortress he was willy-nilly introduced to the theme of punishment, which he was suffering, and crime, to which a long, elaborate examination sought to relate it. The punishment was tangible, the crime more elusive; in the questions put to him by his interrogator there is the same insistent repetition, the same cat-and-mouse tactics taking advantage of Dostoevsky's ignorance of the extent of his questioner's knowledge, as in the interrogation of Raskolnikov by Porfiry in Crime and Punishment.

Dostoevsky had been eight months in the Peter and Paul Fortress when the verdict was at last announced. Twenty-three of the prisoners, including Dostoevsky, were condemned to death, with a secret proviso by the Czar that in view of their youth, at the very last moment, the sentence should be commuted to a more lenient one. So the twenty-three condemned men were taken before an execution squad. The guns were actually lifted, the order to shoot was actually given, when one of the Czar's aides-de-camp rode dramatically up and announced a reprieve. In The Idiot, Prince Myshkin, on his first visit to the Yepanchins, describes a similar experience as happening to a friend of his:

Three posts were dug into the ground about twenty paces from the scaffold, which was surrounded by a crowd of people and soldiers, for there were several criminals. The first three were led to the posts and tied to them; the death vestments (long white smocks) were put on them, and white caps were drawn over their eyes so that they shouldn't see the rifles; next a company of soldiers was drawn up against each post...The priest went to each of them with the cross. It seemed to my friend that he had only five more minutes to live. He told me that those five minutes were like an eternity to him; riches beyond the dreams of avarice; he calculated the exact time he needed to take leave of his comrades, and decided that he could do that in two minutes, then he would spend another two minutes in thinking of himself for the last time, and, finally, one minute for a last look around...There was a church not far off, its gilt roof shining in the bright sunshine. He remembered staring with awful intensity at that roof and the sunbeams flashing from it; he could not tear his eyes off those rays of light; those rays seemed to him to be his new nature, and he felt that in three minutes he would somehow merge with them. The uncertainty and the feeling of disgust with that new thing which was bound to come any minute was dreadful; but he said that the thing that was most horrible to him was the constant thought: "What if I had not to die! What if I could return to life -- oh, what an eternity! And all that would be mine! I should turn every minute into an age, I should lose nothing, I should count every minute separately and waste none!" He said that this reflection finally filled him with such bitterness that he prayed to be shot as quickly as possible.

Dostoevsky's sentence was "four years penal servitude, to be served in fortresses and then as a common soldier." At midnight he was fitted with ten-pound irons on his feet, and then taken in an open sledge to Siberia.

The four years he spent in the Omsk penal settlement, fettered and in the harshest conditions of confinement imaginable, were seemingly lost years; he wrote nothing and suffered much. Yet it might be doubted whether, without them, he would ever have been more than a gifted writer and man of his time. His own subsequent account, in The House of the Dead, is no more than the bare bones of the experience; the great works that follow probe and expound it. In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov is similarly sent to Siberia and, like Dostoevsky, begins by being proud and aloof with his fellow prisoners. Then he comes to see that they are brothers, too -- "Many of them have profound, strong, beautiful natures... Some you cannot help respecting, others are downright beautiful." He makes Raskolnikov emerge from the terrible squalor and monotony and cruelty of prison life with a conviction that the experience of living is somehow more than dialectics.

Military service was a decided improvement -- for instance, Dostoevsky could get letters and books, and an element of excitement was added by a frenzied love affair with a lady -- Maria Dmitrievna Isaeva -- who, after many turbulent meetings and partings, at last became his wife.

It took five years of maneuvering of one sort or another for Dostoevsky to be released from military service and get permission to return to St. Petersburg. Finally he arrived there in December 1859, almost exactly ten years since he left in that open sleigh for Omsk. At first he occupied himself largely with journalistic work in collaboration with his brother Michael, overjoyed to be back in the swim, to have newspapers to read and polemics to engage in and friends to see. When, three months after the death of his wife, Maria, Dostoevsky's brother Michael died suddenly, he was left with financial responsibility for the magazine, Epokha, they had been jointly running. This involved him in chronic insolvency for years to come, but induced him to return to his true work, the first fruit being the appearance in 1866 of Crime and Punishment in serial publication.

The scene had to be St. Petersburg, one of those seedy neighborhoods where his long perambulations often took him -- tall, shabby apartment blocks teeming with people coming and going, dark doorways and stairways. As for the crime, he was an avid reader of crime reports and found in the newspapers one that would suit perfectly. An aged moneylender, widow of a titular councilor, an old crone who lent grudgingly and collected avidly, had, along with her sister, been struck down with an axe in her own apartment. Times were hard, and there were many such moneylenders-cum-pawnbrokers in the district. Under the circumstances a certain amount of sympathy for her assailant might be expected.

He was Raskolnikov, one of Dostoevsky's great creations; his Candide (he had long projected a Russian nineteenth-century version), or perhaps his Faust or his Rastignac; an aspiring Hero of His Time as characteristic as Lermontov's; a down-in-the-mouth student who never studied; slothful and penniless, a half-baked intellectual with all the fashionable, current ideologies rattling about in his mind, moody and vain and given to violence in thought if not in word and deed.

At no point does Raskolnikov feel or express any pity for the murdered women, or remorse at having killed them. Nor does he seek to justify having murdered them by his need for money. In fact, he doesn't so much as look over his booty, but just hides it away on a building site where he can recover it if ever he has a mind to. In the days after the murder that he spends brooding on it, he experiences no regrets and knows no penitence; only fear, not so much that he will be found out, as that he will weaken and confess.

As it turns out, there is no occasion for him to confess. He is in the clear as far as the police are concerned, and yet he does confess -- to Sonia, a pathetic girl who has taken to prostitution to help support the indigent household of her drunken father. He had come to realize, he tells her, that power is given only to him who dares to stoop and take it -- "That's why I killed the old woman." His only regret now is, he almost whimpers, that he has proved unequal to this high endeavor; he has come to Sonia to ask what he ought to do.

In the character of Raskolnikov, Dostoevsky takes us to the very ultimate in human godlessness, to the point at which man worships his own will and thereby finds his only sanctification in its exercise -- ultimately in violence for violence's own sake. Violence in art and in literature and in entertainment, violence in thought and in deed, violence on the streets and on campuses, violence in football stadiums and in the cinema and on the television screen, violence in politics and in ideologies and even in religion. "I kill, therefore I am!" says Raskolnikov, and even as he says it he realizes that it was not the old hag he murdered, but himself. "I did myself in at one blow and for good," he tells Sonia. So it will be, Dostoevsky says to us, for all who follow this devil's way, whether singly or collectively.

It is in Sonia's mouth that Dostoevsky puts the answer:

"Get up!" She seized him by the shoulder and he raised himself, looking at her almost in astonishment. "Go at once, this very minute, and stand at the crossroad, bow down, first kiss the earth which you have defiled -- and say to all men aloud: 'I am a murderer!' Then God will send you life again. Accept suffering and be redeemed by it --that's what you must do."

At first he rejects it, but at last, after his trial and forced exile to Siberia, where Sonia follows him, he sees in her love and devotion the possibility of a rebirth -- of a gradual regeneration, of becoming acquainted with a new and hitherto unknown reality. Accept suffering and be redeemed by it -- this was Dostoevsky's message to a world hurrying frenziedly in the opposite direction, seeking to abolish suffering and find happiness. Since Dostoevsky's time, the world has known much trouble and found little happiness, and so may be the better disposed to heed his words.

The severe financial difficulties in which his brother Michael's death involved Dostoevsky got him into the habit of retreating abroad when the pressure of his creditors became insupportable. This resulted in frequent stays at German spas -- such as Wiesbaden -- where a casino was provided to relieve the tedium of imbibing large quantities of distasteful medicinal waters. One wonders what the blameless bourgeois dyspeptics going to and from the Kurhaus, or listening to the orchestra in the gardens, made of the crazed-looking bearded Russian who had come among them.

In his short, brilliant novel, The Gambler, Wiesbaden and the other spas appear as Roulettenburg, and the hero, Alexis Ivanovich, is drawn as irresistibly to the tables as Dostoevsky was. It was not, however, as Alexis Ivanovitch explains, just the play's excitement; he wanted the money, wanted it desperately, and wanted it to come to him in this particular way -- by sheer chance rather than by work or stratagem or calculation. How strange it is to think of this inspired writer sitting hour after hour, evening after evening, utterly absorbed in the monotonous repetition of faites vos jeux, rien ne va plus, with the players frenziedly staking their money, at the very last moment changing their minds and pulling some back or piling some more on; then the announcement of the inexorable number at which the little ball has come to rest, and the agonized calculations of winnings and losses.

Dostoevsky said of himself that he carried everything to excess -- love and hate, hope and despair, ecstasy and sentimentality; gambling was, for him, the reductio ad absurdum of money. Just to get it and lose it on the turn of a wheel! To acquire riches by chance, and then lose them as suddenly and unaccountably! The banker, the speculator, even the prospector for gold might persuade himself that his cupidity performed some useful service, but gamblers are the monks of greed, dedicated wholly to its service, with the green baize tables for an altar on which to set out the sacrificial offerings of coins and banknotes. As money loses its value, will the cult go on? It is a possibility that Dostoevsky would have enjoyed exploring.

Some of Dostoevsky's most frenetic gambling excesses were associated with the most physical of his love affairs -- with Apollinaria Suslova, a student who approached Dostoevsky initially in a mood of awe at his greatness, and then found him (a common campus drama) disappointing in bed. She appears in The Gambler as a willful femme fatale.

Writing The Gambler proved in every sense therapeutic. For financial reasons it had to be completed in twenty-six days, and to achieve this Dostoevsky procured the services of a stenographer, Anna Grigoryevna Snitkina, who turned out to be exceptionably competent and sensible, and in due course became his second and last wife. On their travels in Europe she had to endure one final gambling debauch, and writes in her diary the appalling straits to which it reduced them -- the pawning of everything they had, including her wedding ring, at times the actual starvation to which they were subjected, all made worse for Anna because she was going through her first pregnancy. Then, again at Wiesbaden, the mania spent itself as mysteriously as it had begun, and for the last decade of his life, thanks to Anna's quiet competence, steady affection and careful management, Dostoevsky had the peace of mind to produce his great works in relative ease and security.

Dostoevsky, who normally stayed as far away as possible from museums and art galleries, paid a special visit to the Museum of Art in Basel to see a painting, "Christ Taken Down from the Cross," by Hans Holbein the Younger. He had heard about this picture, and what he had heard had greatly impressed him. His wife Anna described in her diary Dostoevsky's reaction to seeing the original:

The painting overwhelmed Fyodor Mikhailovich, and he stopped in front of it as if stricken...On his agitated face was the sort of frightened expression I had often noted during the first moments of an epileptic seizure. I quietly took my husband's arm, led him to another room and made him sit down on a bench, expecting him to have a seizure any minute. Fortunately, it didn't come. Little by little Fyodor Mikhailovitch calmed down, and when we were leaving he insisted on going to take another look at the painting that had made such an impression on him.

Anna's own reaction was one of revulsion. She writes of the painting that, contrary to tradition, Christ is depicted "with an emaciated body, the bones and ribs showing, the hands and feet pierced by wounds, swollen and very blue, as in a corpse that is beginning to rot. The face is agonized, and the eyes are half open, but unseeing and expressionless. The nose, mouth and chin have turned blue." In The Brothers Karamazov, when the saintly Father Zossima dies, the monks are deeply disturbed because the body soon begins to stink, when, as a potential saint, it should have remained intact. This superstition was exposed in the early days of the Soviet regime in the anti-God museums -- for instance, in the one set up in the ornate St. Basil's Cathedral in Red Square -- by showing the fossilized remains of buried saints dug out of their graves. How ironic that opposite St. Basil's was the mausoleum in which the carefully preserved body of Lenin was on display, thus promoting a revival of the selfsame superstition the anti-God museums were supposed to have abolished.

The reason Anna was so horrified was that Holbein's picture shows the body of Christ in a state of decomposition. On the other hand, as far as Dostoevsky was concerned, the picture's fascination was precisely that it did show Christ's body decomposing. If His body was not subject to decay like other bodies, then the sacrifice on the Cross was quite meaningless; Christ had to be a man like other men in order to die for men. In other words, at the Incarnation, God did truly become a man.

Dostoevsky's wanderings outside Russia brought him, in 1867, to Geneva, where so many wanderers of one sort or another have come. On the shores of Lake Geneva, it is safe to say, more explosive words have been uttered and more explosive ideas entertained than anywhere else in modern times; from Rousseau to Lenin, it has been the seed-bed of revolution. As though to redress the imbalance, the city itself has remained one of the bastions of bourgeois orthodoxy when so many of its citadels elsewhere have been falling. An ideological adventurer may still deposit his savings in Geneva with a reasonable assurance that they will remain intact, whatever the consequences of the propagation of his ideas elsewhere.

Harassed by his usual money troubles and over the late delivery of his work -- in this case The Idiot, which he was struggling to finish -- Dostoevsky took a sour view of both the revolutionary ideas and their bourgeois cushioning. In his letters he complains equally of the awfulness of life in Geneva, on Sundays particularly, and of the various enragés assembled for an international congress under the auspices of a League for Peace and Freedom, some of whom -- Herzen and Bakunin, for instance -- were known to him. How many such congresses there were to be in Geneva, culminating in the largest, longest, most publicized and most futile, the League of Nations, whose fine new Palais des Nations was completed just when the organization itself, to all intents and purposes, had become an irrelevance.

For the title of his next novel, written in Geneva, Dostoevsky chose The Devils; [In Constance Garnett's famous translation, the title is given as The Possessed, possibly an unconscious effort to tone down Dostoevsky's savagely satrirical presentation of the rage and destructiveness innate in the liberal mind.] his theme is that, just as the devils entered into the Gadarene swine, the subversive ideas of the age were entering into people's minds and would similarly destroy them. Raskolnikov's insistence that he had a right to kill, translated into politics, led straight to Bakunin's dictum that destruction is in itself creative, and so to revolution for revolution's own sake. Thus, today's Raskolnikov is tomorrow's Nechaev -- the young student revolutionary terrorist on whom Dostoevsky based the character, Pyotr Vechovensky. By inducing the young to follow Raskolnikov and throw aside all restraint in their personal behavior, the way is prepared for a corresponding lack of restraint in the exercise of power. "A generation or two of debauchery," Pyotr Vechovensky says, followed by "a little drop of nice fresh bloodletting just to accustom people," and "then the turmoil will begin." Today, a century later, it is well under way.

What Dostoevsky understood with such wonderful clarity is that the romantic notions of old Vechovensky are the inevitable prelude to the devilish ones of his son Pyotr, and that both derive from one of Geneva's favorite sons, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who insisted that men can only be free when they do what they like, and that doing what they like is conducive to their individual and collective happiness, peace and security. Exactly the opposite, Dostoevsky insists, is the case; when men are dominated by their own desires, they fall into the most terrible of all servitudes. Young Vechovensky is simply old Vechovensky writ large. The old one is serious and foolish, the young one is frivolous and merciless, and after them both comes inexorably the Gadarene rush over the cliff.

Old Vechovensky is a marvelous piece of characterization, immensely funny, and in his own way, immensely touching. How often such voices as his have been heard in Geneva, calling for peace, for liberty, for democracy. He is Eleanor Roosevelt, he is Bertrand Russell, he is eve-ry siren voice urging us to follow Pyotr Vechovensky, whose purpose is to hand us over to the sloganeers, the brainwashers, the dogmatists, from whom there can be no escape. And have we not seen the fulfillment of their plans in, for instance, Germany's Baader-Meinhof Gang, with Sartre as spokesman for the intelligentsia, throwing in his blessing?

With The Devils out of the way, Dostoevsky knew that the book he projected next could be written only in Russia, and it was with infinite relief and delight that he and Anna made arrangements to return there after their long and troubled exile. They arrived back in St. Petersburg in the summer of 1871, with ten years, the most fruitful and serene of his life, before them. Thanks to Anna's careful management, they were able to acquire a house in Staraya Russa, an ancient town in Novgorod Province, and in its tranquility he wrote A Raw Youth, worked on The Brothers Karamazov and prepared his Pushkin Memorial speech. There is a description of the town in The Brothers Karamazov, and he imagined that from his window he could see the old white monastery where Alyosha was a monk and Father Zossima died.

Before starting work seriously on The Brothers Karamazov in the spring of 1878, Dostoevsky paid a visit to Optina Pustin monastery in the neighborhood of Tula and the family estate where his father had been murdered by the serfs. He stayed there two days and had several conversations with the saintly Father Ambrosius, the original for Father Zossima in The Brothers Karamazov. Many years later Tolstoy visited Optina Pustin on his last tragic journey, which ended in the stationmaster's house at Astapova. Both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, in their different ways, were fascinated by monasticism, which has now, in the old traditional sense, been ended in Russia, though many of the monasteries themselves -- for instance, Novo-Devichy, on the outskirts of Moscow --have been painstakingly preserved and restored as national monuments, to be stared at by tourists, and perhaps one day, as Christians may dream, to receive back their monks.

Dostoevsky was a God-possessed man if there ever was one, as is clear in everything he wrote and in every character he created. All his life he was questing for God, and found Him -- if indeed he ever did other than fitfully -- only at the end of his days, after passing through what he called "the hell-fire of doubt." Freedom to choose between Good and Evil he saw as the very essence of earthly existence; better even to choose Evil than to have no choice. The Devil, he insists, has a necessary role in our human drama, though without him there can be contentment and well-being of a kind, amounting to Tolstoy's dream of happiness in earthly, mortal terms, which was to Dostoevsky deeply abhorrent. This is the dream, too, of all authoritarians, temporal and ecclesiastical, especially the latter, as Dostoevsky explains in one of his most famous passages -- Ivan Karamazov's account to his brother Alyosha of an imaginary encounter between the Grand Inquisitor and the returned Christ in sixteenth-century Seville.

Christ has reappeared among the people and been recognized; he has performed miracles as he did in Galilee...

In his infinite mercy he once more walked among men in the semblance of man. The people are drawn to him by an irresistible force, they surround him, they throng about him, they follow him. He walks among them in silence with a gentle smile of infinite compassion. The sun of love burns in his heart, rays of light, of enlightenment, and of power stream from his eyes, and, pouring over the people, stir their hearts with responsive love. He stretches forth his hands to them, blesses them, and a healing virtue comes from contact with him, even from his garments...

Then, in the Cathedral of Seville, he raises from the dead a small girl who has been brought in for burial. Just as she is sitting up in her coffin and looking around her with surprise in her smiling eyes -- just at that moment...

...the Cardinal himself, the Grand Inquisitor, passes by the cathedral in the square. He is an old man of nearly ninety, tall and erect, with a shriveled face and sunken eyes from which, though, a light like a fiery spark still gleams...He stops in front of the crowd and watches from a distance. He sees everything...and his face darkens. He knits his gray beetling brows and his eyes flash with an ominous fire. He stretches forth his finger and commands the guard to seize him...The guards take the prisoner to the dark, narrow, vaulted prison in the old building of the Sacred Court and lock him in there. The day passes and night falls, the dark, hot and breathless Seville night. The air is heavy with the scent of laurel and lemons. Amid the profound darkness the iron door of the prison is suddenly opened and the old Grand Inquisitor himself slowly enters the prison with a light in his hand. He is alone and the door at once closes behind him. He stops in the doorway and gazes for a long time, for more than a minute, into his face. At last he approaches him slowly, puts the lamp on the table and says to him: Is it you? You?

The terrible burden that Christ had laid on mankind, the Grand Inquisitor explains, was freedom. When in the wilderness the Devil offered deliverance from this burden, the offer was recklessly rejected. Thus, Christ refused to turn stones into bread, thereby abolishing hunger; refused also to jump from a high pinnacle in the Temple to create wonder and awe, thereby attracting people to him and his cause; and finally refused to take over the kingdoms of the earth, which would have put him in a position to create earthly paradises everywhere. He even, for the sake of freedom, insisted on dying himself. However, quite soon after his death his Church decided to close with the Devil's offer, and in place of freedom provided miracles, mystery and authority -- in contemporary terms, affluence, the marvels of science and an all-powerful state -- to the very great betterment of the human condition. If now Christ remained in the world, he would upset everything again with this terrible, devastating, sublime freedom of his. So again he must die.

All the time the Grand Inquisitor has been speaking, Christ has remained quite silent, as on a previous occasion before Caiaphas, saying not a word.

The Grand Inquisitor saw that the Prisoner had been listening intently to him all the time, looking gently into his face and evidently not wishing to say anything in reply. The old man would have liked him to say something, however bitter and terrible. But he suddenly approached the old man and kissed him gently on his bloodless, aged lips. That was all his answer. The old man gave a start. There was an imperceptible movement at the corners of his mouth; he went to the door and opened it and said to him: "Go, and come no more -- don't come at all -- never, never!" And he let him out into the dark streets and lanes of the city.

The Prisoner went away, leaving the old man with that kiss glowing in his heart. And so it glows still.

The statue in Moscow of Russia's national poet, Pushkin, was unveiled in June 1880, providing Dostoevsky with the opportunity he had long sought to speak to his fellow countrymen -- to exhort them like the prophets of old; to warn them of the dangers that lay ahead, and of the ruinous consequences that would surely ensue if they followed the Westernizers with their fraudulent promises of progress and freedom. Now, seemingly, everything that Dostoevsky most abhorred has come to pass in Russia. The institutions on which he pinned his hopes -- the monarchy and the Church -- have collapsed, the one abolished and the other a shadow of itself; the Revolution he so dreaded has happened, and the Westerners may be said to have triumphed in the sense that industrialization, science and agnosticism are now the order of the day.

Dostoevsky's great moment came on the third day of the Pushkin celebrations. He delivered his address in the Hall of Columns, which was largely used in those days by the nobility for social occasions and to receive the Imperial Family. Forty-four years later, its name changed to the House of Trade Unions; Lenin's body was to lie in state there. One may imagine the scene -- Dostoevsky, a truly prophetic figure, bearded, wild-eyed, his brow furrowed, and speaking (though from a prepared text) with great force and eloquence, and leading up to his tremendous climax when he proclaimed the coming of a universal brotherhood brought about, not by socialism and revolution, but by the full and perfect realization of "this Christian enlightenment of ours."

In the serener circumstances of his last years, Dostoevsky's essential love of life and joy in all God's creation found a surer expression than ever before. "Beauty," he makes Dmitri Karamazov -- perhaps his favorite of the three brothers -- say, "is not only a terrible, it is also a mysterious thing. There God and the Devil strive for mastery, and the battleground is the heart of men."

Almost exactly half a century ago, I was passing through St. Petersburg -- or Leningrad, as it was called then -- and some impulse led me to seek out Dostoevsky's grave. I found it with some difficulty, and stood by it for a while, thinking of this great writer, and of the extraordinary range of his genius and depths of his insights, and how his works, far from seeming to belong to a vanished past, grow ever more relevant to the dilemmas and distractions that are part of the experience of living in this world at any time and in any circumstances.

I was much younger then, of course, in sight of the beginning of a life, as now of its ending; in the intervening years a great deal has happened to the world, to Dostoevsky's reputation, and, for that matter, to me. Yet I still find myself marveling, as I did on that occasion, at how one man's genius can, as it were, pick up all the strands of an age, revealing its pattern -- all its absurdity, all its diabolism and all its splendor. All the world in a grain of sand, Blake said; yes, and all of life in a word.

On the first occasion that I visited Dostoevsky's grave, it had an air of neglect. Today this is far from being the case. His reputation in his native Russia, after some ups and downs, stands higher than ever. His books are published in editions, not of tens but of hundreds of thousands; every word he wrote is piously preserved, studied and commented upon -- sometimes, I daresay, in ways that would surprise him. All this would be a source of great satisfaction to him. His love for his native Russia was one of the few wholly consistent themes of his life. Abroad, he was always homesick, and his faith that somehow Russia and the Russian people had some special role to fulfill in the working out of the world's destiny never wavered, and only burnt brighter as the years passed.

Standing beside Dostoevsky's grave, it is impossible for me not to think of another of which I also have very vivid memories. I mean, of course, Tolstoy's at Yasnaya Polyana, on a ridge overlooking the forest in which, he was told as a child, a green stick was buried inscribed with the secret of everlasting happiness. Tolstoy never did find that green stick, and Dostoevsky never even looked for it; yet somehow these two great Russian writers seem linked together. In life, as it happened, whether by accident or deliberation, they never actually met. But certainly they took great account of one another's works -- Tolstoy aspiring so ardently after his kingdom of heaven on earth and arriving at Astapova; Dostoevsky plunging down so frenziedly into his kingdom of hell on earth and arriving at Golgotha -- two parallel lines that Euclid told us never meet, but which, it has now been discovered, after all, do. It is where they meet that we mortals must live.

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Posted: 04-Dec-05

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