March 2018 Print

A Star from the East: Dostoevsky and Fatima

by Andrew J. Clarendon

In a 1985 interview, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, best known as the Nobel Prize winning chronicler of the GULAGs of the Soviet Union, stated:

“Over a half century ago, when I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of old people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: ‘Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.’ Since then, I have spent well-nigh fifty years working on the history of our revolution...but if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous revolution that swallowed up some sixty million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: ‘Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.’”

Dostoevsky’s Warning to the World

While Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008), who spent eight years in various forced labor camps as well as years of exile, had first-hand knowledge of the revolution, he was not the first Russian to warn about the various effects of atheistic materialism and to propose a real solution, a spiritual one. Such a prescient vision was granted to Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881). A novelist renowned for his psychological insight, Dostoevsky nevertheless captured the great ideas of his time and charted out their disastrous consequences. The vision is dark, but not without hope. While in his earlier novel Demons he predicts a socialist revolution that will demand the sacrifice of millions; in his magnum opus The Brothers Karamazov, he calls for spiritual renewal as the only way to save both East and West from the horrors of rejecting, forgetting, and finally trying to replace God.

Demons, published in 1872, is, in Ronald Hingley’s words, Dostoevsky’s “greatest onslaught on nihilism,” showing how earlier liberal ideas have led to a loss of the Russian soul, a sort of possession. As the translator Richard Pevear perceptively notes in his introduction, the demons in the title are, more than anything else, ideas, “that legion of isms that came to Russia from the West: idealism, rationalism, socialism, anarchism, nihilism, and, underlying them all, atheism.” Like all great thinkers, Dostoevsky takes the phrase that “ideas have consequences” seriously in his works: “is the possibility of an evil or alien idea coming to inhabit a person, misleading him, perverting him ontologically, driving him to crime or insanity.” At one point in Demons, one character says to another: “It was not you who ate the idea, but the idea that ate you.”

The philosophy of the new Russian man, who has replaced the liberalism of the French Revolution with atheistic materialism, is given in social terms. It is in Demons that Dostoevsky predicts a future socialist revolution “as a final solution” to the social question. Shigalyov, the political philosopher of the novel, describes his theory: “Starting from unlimited freedom, I conclude with unlimited despotism…[there is to be] the division of mankind into two unequal parts. One tenth is granted freedom of person and unlimited rights over the remaining nine tenths. These must lose their person and turn into something like a herd.” As the Grand Inquisitor argues in one of the most famous sections of The Brothers Karamazov, the mass of men are incapable of handling their freedom and will in fact welcome slavery. Hence, Shigalyov answers his critics by saying, “What I propose is not vileness but paradise, earthly paradise”; the idea of God having been killed, the next step is for the members of “the party” to take His place. The only remaining question is how to get a society to accept the new order; propaganda will not really work, “especially if it’s in Russia,” but Dostoevsky can foresee a quicker and more effective solution: “however you try to cure the world, you’re not going to cure it, but by radically lopping off a hundred million heads.” Solzhenitsyn thought some 60 million of his fellow Russians had perished due to the Revolution; some historians put the worldwide casualties due to communist regimes at as many as the “hundred million heads” Dostoevsky mentions.

Rays of Hope in Dostoevsky

Dostoevsky’s vision is not all bleak, however, even in this modern day and age, God remains God. Like the possessed Gerasene man described by St. Luke whose story is one of the epigraphs of Demons, Dostoevsky hoped that his people would embrace a spiritual cure. In a letter to a friend, the novelist writes that the Gerasene man is like the Russian people who, once exorcised by Our Lord, will sit at His feet, while the revolutionaries are like the herd of swine that the demons enter into and are driven over the cliff. As Pevear notes, writers like Dostoevsky opposed the corrosive nihilism from the West with a nationalistic cultural vision, “their notions of the Russian earth, the Russian God, the Russian Christ, the ‘light from the east,’ and so on.”

Even so, in The Brothers Karamazov, the spiritual antidote is treated in a more extended and universal fashion. There are two basic elements to the cure, a negative and a positive one. First is a call for a profound union with Christ crucified by considering oneself as “guilty for all,” imagining oneself as guilty not just for one’s personal sins but for all the sins of the world. This leads to humility and penance, of course, but above all else charity for one’s fellows. Secondly, one is to practice what Dostoevsky terms “active love.” It is not enough to love man in the abstract as Madame Khokhlakov, the “lady of little faith” does, or even as the revolutionaries like the Grand Inquisitor and Ivan do, but concretely in the circumstances Providence puts one in. The Elder Zosima, the monk who expresses the core spiritual themes of the novel, teaches that active love is to “try to love your neighbors actively and tirelessly…[it is] to reach complete selflessness in the love of your neighbor…active love is a harsh and fearful thing compared to love in dreams…[it is] labor and perseverance, and for some people, perhaps, a whole science.” To imitate and be united with Christ, to realize “our living bond with the…higher heavenly world” that is our true home, is the answer to the riddles that perplex mankind; in the words of Dostoevsky’s own Credo, the answer is “to believe that nothing is more beautiful, profound, sympathetic, reasonable, manly, and perfect than Christ.”

Dostoevsky’s Blind Spots

For all his insight into humanity and ability to predict future events due to the consequences of ideas, even Dostoevsky could not have foreseen the full nature of the spiritual cure he sought. In fact, there is a decidedly anti-Catholic bend in Dostoevsky’s novels, mainly because his exposure to Rome was through French socialists; one wonders how he would have reacted if he had been exposed to the fullness of Church teaching. In any event, outside of direct heavenly intervention, it is not possible that Dostoevsky could have guessed that Heaven’s answer would be revealed by the Mother of God herself in a remote village in Portugal 36 years after his death.

Our Lady’s words at Fatima—that the “errors of Russia” would lead to the “annihilation of nations” unless Russia was “consecrated to the Immaculate Heart” and converted—certainly resonate with Dostoevsky’s own vision. As Dostoevsky called for the conversion of his Holy Mother Russia and her people, holding to the “precious image of Christ,” so too the Mother of God called for the full conversion of Russia to bring about a “period of peace.” While the future union will not be under the unfortunately schismatic Russian Orthodox, Dostoevsky was profoundly right about the mysterious importance of Russia both then in the early days of modernism and now in our putative post-modern age. To borrow and modify the context of the words of one of the monks in The Brothers Karamazov, conversion and subsequent renewal “is the great destiny of Orthodoxy on earth. This star will shine forth from the East….And so be it, so be it.