Dostoyevsky and Holy Russia

By Barna, MArk Richard | The World and I, September 1998 | Go to article overview

Dostoyevsky and Holy Russia

Barna, MArk Richard, The World and I

In 1867, Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881) and his wife, Anna, visited the Kunstmuseum in Basel, Switzerland. There they saw a large painting titled Dead Christ by the sixteenth-century German Hans Holbein. Anna glanced at it and moved on. A quarter of an hour later she returned to her husband, still staring at the painting. His face was paler than usual. His gray-blue eyes had a frightened look. Gently taking his arm, Anna led away the subdued man, who vowed after leaving the museum to view the painting again.

Artists traditionally depict Christ's corpse with a mystical glow or calmness that portends resurrection. In Holbein's rendering, however, Christ's face and body are bruised and swollen, and corruption has already begun. "As one looks at the painting," says a character in Dostoyevsky's Idiot (1868),

one conceives of nature in the form of some huge

machine of the latest design which, deaf and

unfeeling, has senselessly seized, crushed, and

swallowed up a great and priceless Being, a Being

worth all of nature and its laws, all the

earth, which was perhaps created solely for the

advent of that Being! That picture expresses the

notion of a dark, insolent, and stupidly eternal

force to which everything is subject, and it conveys

this to us unconsciously.(1)

Holbein's Dead Christ again brought to the surface Dostoyevsky's lifelong dread: If Christ did not rise, there is no immortality. And "if there is no immortality," he writes in Brothers Karamazov (1880), "there is no virtue, which means that everything is permitted."(2)


Born in Moscow, Dostoyevsky was raised in the Russian Orthodox Church. He was overwhelmed by the beauty of the liturgy, and every summer the family made a pilgrimage to St. Sergius monastery. But like his parents, he was not devoutly religious.

The boy's stern father dominated the family and after his wife's death took to vodka and debauchery. His excessive cruelty toward his serfs resulted in a dozen of them beating him to death. Dostoyevsky never talked about the death of his father, but his disposition changed thereafter from a cheerful teenager to one who was withdrawn and abstracted.

During his twenties he lived in St. Petersburg, the capital of Russia at the time; there he was known as the author of Poor Folk (1846), a best-selling novel that sensitively portrayed peasant life. He was also a follower of the atheist-socialist Visaron Belinsky, but he never entirely lost his faith. When Belinsky mocked Christ, the young writer would often become agitated and would be on the verge of tears.

Dostoyevsky found a more congenial setting at Petrashevsky's Fridays. Hosted by Mikhail Petrashevsky, it was a place where intellectuals discussed utopian socialism--a return to the purity of the early Christian communes. Heaven on earth in the form of a loving society chimed well with the novelist's typically Russian yearning for an apocalypse. He also attended a revolutionary group led by Sergey Durov, who wanted to overthrow the czarist regime by inciting the Russian people.

Czar Nicholas I learned of Petrashevsky's Fridays and Durov's meetings and arrested the members, including Dostoyevsky, ordering them to be executed by firing squad. Minutes before the scheduled execution, Dostoyevsky said good-bye to his comrades, "asking one of them a rather pointless question and being fascinated by the answer,"(3) and looked around at a world he would soon be leaving.

A general then rode up and read Nicholas' decree reducing the death penalty to hard labor. The death sentence was a farce concocted by a black-humored czar. Dostoyevsky spent four years at the Omsk Fortress in Siberia, living in shackles among murderers and thieves day and night. After serving at Omsk, he was entered into the Russian army as a private. …

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