Because I love literature, I bristle when I hear Russia described as my country’s enemy.
Certainly Vladimir Putin is our enemy, because he is a tyrant who murders journalists. And certainly Donald Trump is our enemy, not only because he’s a racist and a sexual predator and a con-man, but also because Vladimir Putin is clearly his role model, his idea of an effective leader.
But Putin does not own the epic Russian soul or mind, and Russia’s historic intellectual achievements have formed bridges of human connection that no crass politician can ever tear down. Even if the entire planet explodes this weekend (as it might, since the ignorant Trump thinks he can solve the Korean problem with nuclear weapons), we will burn in friendship with the land that produced some of the most searingly brilliant writers of all time.
It was 196 years ago that the first of the three greatest of the many Russian greats was born. This is the fire-hot Fyodor Dostoevsky, who somehow found the formula to turn existential expressions of rage about the cruel absurdity of human life into taut, gripping works of fiction. I most recently read for the first time his The Idiot, which brought to me once again the special joys of a Dostoevsky novel: the twisted humor, the irony upon irony upon irony, even the simple gorgeous moments of innocent pleasure that enflame his tortured characters, because these moments tie them to their own tragic lives, and to the faulty, impossible Earth.
Our current political era is often described as Kafkaesque, but Kafka’s absurdism can be seen as a branch on the tree of Dostoevsky’s absurdism. Probably no work resonates more for today’s confusing times than his angry, self-mocking diatribe Notes From Underground (which I once spent two years directing as an experimental film — I really should get busy putting up on YouTube). The Beat poets loved Dostoevsky: Jack Kerouac’s Subterraneans was an affectionate cover version of Notes From Underground, and Allen Ginsberg’s famous friendship with his loony-bin muse Carl Solomon began when the two young men traded quips about The Idiot and Crime and Punishment in a psychiatric waiting room.
Dostoevsky was a political hothead in a time of dramatic upheaval. As a young man he was nearly executed for insurrection, then banished to Siberia. As an older man he embraced Russian nationalism and spoke out against the insipid formulas of simplistic idealists. For resistance-minded readers today, he stands for psychological complexity, for the passion of existential conviction in an absurdist age.
I adore Dostoevsky, but he is not even my favorite epic 19th century Russian novelist. That would be Leo Tolstoy, whose original ideas about pacifism and the causes of political strife I find incredibly useful and innovative. Tolstoy should never be mistaken for a stuffy old novelist, even though he admittedly looks like a hoary Mosaic prophet in the antique photographs taken at the end of his life. He was in his own prime a brave war journalist, a robust public figure, a sharp and incisive philosopher. It seems to me today that most people have still not managed to understand the original concepts about the nature of group behavior that are laid out in War and Peace and Anna Karenina.
These two masterpieces work well as a twinned pair, even though the starkly different titles tend to obscure how similar these two works are. In fact, War and Peace could have been called Natasha Rostov, or Anna Karenina could have been called Divorce and Marriage. There’s a lot of romance in War and Peace and a lot of politics in Anna Karenina. War and Peace takes place during the Napoleonic wars and is primarily about the moral education of Pierre Bezukhov, who is Leo Tolstoy. Anna Karenina is often mistaken for a book about the tragic love affairs of Anna Karenina, though she is only one of many characters in the book. It is primarily about the moral education of Konstantin Levin, who is Leo Tolstoy.
As an inspiration for righteous protesters today, Tolstoy stands for the strength of pure and deeply grounded idealism. Unlike Dostoevsky, he was not obsessed with contradiction, and did not frequently change his own mind. He formulated his own ideas about pacifism, but mapped these ideas back to Jesus Christ and urged a new discovery of religion. Like his Pierre Bezukhov, like his Konstantin Levin, Tolstoy lived his entire life as a mission to help the world. Perhaps his greatest success on this front was to inspire a young Indian lawyer in South Africa named Mohandas Gandhi, who began his own epic spiritual journey and #resistance career on a Tolstoyan tip.
The fiction writer and playwright Anton Chekhov painted with a gentler brush than either Dostoevsky or Tolstoy. None of the great Russian novelists created great fictional villains; all their best characters were sympathetic, flawed heroes. But even Chekhov’s heroes were often ineffectual bumblers, because he dealt with the comedy of good intentions gone wrong. In his wonderful and eternally relevant The Cherry Orchard, we see the varied members of a large, lovable wealthy family bustling busily to solve a serious problem: their beloved home and magnificent estate is about to be sold out from under their feet.
They talk and talk and talk, and do everything they can about the problem … except begin to take steps to solve it, which they do not manage to do in time. Today, as climate scientists point to clear conclusions that our “elected leaders” refuse to hear, the warnings in The Cherry Orchard ring so loudly it nearly hurts.
While Dostoevsky brings badly needed psychological insight to our #resistance battles, and Tolstoy bolsters us with urgent ideas about the meaning of morality, Chekhov stands for a different tool in our toolkit. He stands for empathy, as in his searingly tragic and influential novella The Peasants, which simply painted a picture to help Russians see that their forgotten impoverished neighbors were human beings too.
Before we ever call Russia our enemy, we should consider that there is no civilization on Earth that ever had a single century of literature as great as Russia’s 19th century. Not England, not France, not China, not even my beloved America in the 20th century (though I can’t help imagining, possibly foolishly, that this was close). We should also consider the many other great literary Russians — Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev, Babel, Solzkenitzyn — who all help to prove, every single one, that this great land is the friend of humanity, even when it is ruled by a crude, greedy tyrant who claims to speak for its epic soul.
Russia has suffered under greedy tyrants before. The explosion of genius that produced its epic literary age seems to have been born in the victory against Napoleon Bonaparte’s invading army, which eventually led Russia’s youthful intellectuals of the Romantic era to begin asking why they threw out an oppressive French tyrant only to continue to sustain their own oppressive Czar.
Today, a few agonized revolutions later, Russia still suffers under an oppressive dictator. Here in America, to our pathetic surprise, we now suffer under an oppressive dictator as well. The people of America stand with the people of Russia, and the people of the world, in our continuing quest for liberty and human rights. Putin is our enemy, and so is Trump. Russia, a land of epic originality and genius, can only ever be our friend.