Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time

By Joseph Frank; Mary Petrusewicz | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 3

The Religious and Cultural Background

Dostoevsky's contemporary, Alexander Herzen, remarks in his memoirs that “nowhere does religion play so modest a role in education as in Russia.” 1 Herzen was, of course, talking about the education of the male children of the landed or service aristocracy, whose parents had been raised for several generations on the culture of the French Enlightenment and for whom Voltaire had been a kind of patron saint. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, such parents had long since ceased to be concerned about Orthodox Christianity, even though they continued to baptize their children in the state religion and to structure their lives in accordance with its rituals. The war years and the post-Napoleonic period, in Russia as elsewhere, were marked by a wave of emotionalism and a revival of religion. But in Russia this stimulated the growth of Freemasonry and various revivalist sects rather than any massive return to the official faith. Most upper-class Russians would have shared the attitude exemplified in Herzen's anecdote about his host at a dinner party who, when asked whether he was serving Lenten dishes out of personal conviction, replied that it was “simply and solely for the sake of the servants.” 2

Parents with such ideas would scarcely consider it indispensable to provide their offspring with any kind of formal religious education. It was only at fifteen (after he had read Voltaire, as Herzen remarks) that Herzen's father “brought in a priest to give religious instruction so far as this was necessary for entrance into the University.” 3 Tolstoy, though raised largely by devout female relatives, was also never given any religious education as a child. Turgenev's monstrous mother held the religion of the common people in such contempt that, instead of the usual prayers, she substituted each day at table the reading of a French translation of Thomas à Kempis.

Only against such a background can one appreciate the full force of Dostoevsky's quiet words: “I came from a pious Russian family…. In our family, we

1 Alexander Herzen, My Past and Thoughts, trans. Constance Garnett, rev. Humphrey Higgens,
4 vols. (New York, 1968), 1: 42.

2 Ibid., 2: 412.

3 Ibid., 1: 42.

-23-

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