The Brothers Karamazov
THE SECRET SOURCE OF PUTIN’S EVIL
It’s not the K.G.B., or the Cold War. It’s decidedly more Pushkin-esque, or Peter the Great, than that.
BY PETER SAVODNIK
JANUARY 10, 2017 5:00 AM
By Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images.
Henry Kissinger recently compared Vladimir Putin to “a character out of Dostoevsky,” which apparently delighted the Russian president. That’s not entirely surprising. No Russian writer encapsulates the many incongruous feelings and forces—cultural, spiritual, metaphysical—still coursing through the post-Soviet moment better than Fyodor Dostoevsky.
Technically, our current chapter of Russian history began on Christmas Day, 1991, when Mikhail Gorbachev declared the Soviet Union dead. But, in reality, it didn’t come into focus until 1999, with the outbreak of the second Chechen war and Putin’s rise to power, and, really, it didn’t acquire any momentum or self-awareness until October 2003, when Yukos oil chief Mikhail Khodorkovsky was arrested at gunpoint on a tarmac at an airport in Novosibirsk. That was when Putin signaled that the old Boris Yeltsin configuration—the weakened head of state enveloped by a swarm of self-seeking boyars, or oligarchs—was over and that the once dormant, fractured, fractious state was reasserting its authority and imposing a new order: a new telos. Since then, the question that’s animated all discussion of Russia outside Russia has been: Where is Putin leading his country? What does he want?
When Americans try to explain anything that they think is bad about modern Russia, they inevitably blame the Soviet Union. Russians like flashy clothes because they didn’t have them for so long, they say. Or Russians don’t smile because, well, if you’d grown up in the Soviet Union, you wouldn’t smile either. And so on. This makes us feel good about ourselves—we were on the right side of history—but it’s also incorrect. The great disruption, the sea change, far presaged the rise or fall of the Soviet Union. It was Peter the Great, in the late-17th and early-18th centuries, “cutting a window,” as Pushkin put it, to Europe. That genuflection to the West—reorganizing the army, imposing new styles and codes of conduct on the aristocracy, liberalizing universities—may have been right, but it was also brutal and bloody, and it spawned a crisis of confidence, and a questioning or ambivalence about what Russia ought to be that has existed ever since.
For the next three centuries, this questioning, very roughly, pitted Slavophiles (those who believed in the inherent goodness of the old Russia) against Westernizers, who wanted to transform the empire into Europe: liberal, less insular, more secular. Russia lacked a clearly defined identity, always veering between its oriental and occidental selves—bifurcated, fragmented, unsure of what it was meant to be. In the late 19th century, in the wake of the 1848 revolutions in France and Austria and the German and Italian principalities, and the publication of Marx’s Communist Manifesto, the wandering—the battle—sharpened. A radical consciousness opened up. It had been imported from Europe, but, in Russia, as always, it acquired a new ferocity. What had been a desire for polite and incremental reform morphed into a violent nihilism. Change, whatever had been meant by that, would no longer suffice. Now, the only option was to blow it all up and start over.
“A DOSTOYEVSKEAN VOZHD KNOWS RUSSIA IS GOOD AND THE WEST IS NOT, AND HAS LEARNED THAT THE ONLY WAY TO KEEP THE WEST OUT IS TO OVERCOME IT.”
Dostoevsky, who traveled widely in Europe but was suspicious of it, despised passionately the revolutionaries and their desired revolution. He spent the 1860s and 1870s obsessing over Russia’s looming confrontation with itself. His four most important works (Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, Devils, and The Brothers Karamazov) are not simply novels, but rather dystopian warnings about what would happen if Russia did not return to its pre-Petrine origins.
Dostoevsky foresaw Russia destroying itself with the clandestine, or not so clandestine, support of the West. The clearest illustration of this self-destruction comes in The Brothers Karamazov. The novel, the longest whodunit ever written, revolves around the murder of Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov. One of Karamazov’s three legitimate sons, Mitya, is accused and found guilty of the murder. But the real murderer is Karamazov’s mentally challenged, bastard son, Smerdyakov—and the real murderer behind Smerdyakov (the zakashik, or orderer) is Ivan, the most successful and Westernized of the Karamazov brothers. It is Ivan, full of his newfangled Western ideas, who tears apart his family (and, metaphorically, Russia), and it is the last remaining legitimate Karamazov son, Lyosha, who is left to rebuild it. Not incidentally, Lyosha is the youngest, most religious, and most self-effacing of the Karamazov clan. The way forward is actually the way backward—all the way to the ancient, Russian sobornost, the spiritual community that, in the Slavophile mind, used to bind Russia together. This, all these years later, is Putin’s Russia.
The Soviet perplex, viewed through a Karamazov prism, is not the cause of post-Soviet Russia’s woes but the effect of the same calamity that still bedevils Russia: the identity crisis bequeathed to it by its original Westernizer, Peter. Russia spent the 1990s devouring itself—selling off its biggest oil assets, handing over its elections to the C.I.A., allowing NATO to encroach upon its borders—and, only under Putin, has it retaken possession of itself.
The yawning chasm in this logic, of course, is Vladimir Putin, who bears zero resemblance to the fictional Lyosha. Putin, indeed, betrays few signs of being especially deep. It’s unlikely his agenda stems from a close reading of Russian novels. He’s a mobster, and he views his fellow countrymen the way a mobster views the little people in his neighborhood, with a mix of sympathy and disdain. But Putin is also Russian, and the same angers and longings that permeate the wider Russian psyche are presumably his, too.
Assuming Kissinger is right, it’s unclear which of Dostoevsky’s characters, if any, Putin identifies with. That’s not really the point. The point is that Dostoevsky very clearly delineates right from wrong in a distinctly Manichaean way. Russia, the old Russia, is good, pure—childlike or diminutive, in a way. The West is bad. It’s not simply that it’s a rival civilization, an economic or geopolitical competitor; it’s that the West is impure and, when introduced into the Russian bloodstream, toxic.
A Dostoyevskean vozhd, or leader, knows Russia is good and the West is not, and presumably he has learned by this late date that the only way to keep the West out is to overcome it, to expedite its undoing. The more Western leaders, and especially American presidents, talk about resetting relations with Moscow, the more the Dostoevskian president distrusts them. He hates them, and any so-called Russian president who doesn’t is a traitor or a buffoon. (Exhibit A: Gorbachev. Exhibit B: Yeltsin.)
Putin’s goal is not just a little more turf. Russia has a lot of that. His telos—his endgame—is the destabilization, the overcoming, of the whole Western order. This sounds fantastical to Americans because we’re an ahistorical people. That doesn’t mean we’re ignorant of history, although there’s a great deal of that, too. It means the categories with which we apprehend the world are not defined by the past, and we can’t really understand how it could be otherwise.
Russia, like most countries, however, is a decidedly historical country, and it appears to be seeking to rectify a 400-year-old wound. It has discovered, much to its chagrin, that you can’t simply look inward. That was the tsars’ mistake. They thought they could keep the West out. The cost of that mistake was the Bolshevik revolution, Stalin, famine, the Gulag, world war, and, ultimately, a failed state, the decimation of a way of life, the economy, their pensions and pride and sense of place in the world.
“TRUMP, WHO APPEARS UNBOUND BY ANY CODE OF ETHICS OR OVERARCHING THEORY OF INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS, OFFERS PUTIN AN AMAZING OPPORTUNITY.”
Putin will not make that mistake. When he bombed Aleppo, it likely wasn’t because of ISIS or Bashar al-Assad. It was because he wanted to assert Russia’s hegemony—and undermine America’s. We can presume this because no obvious Russian interests have been served by the country’s meddling in Syria, but many American interests have been thwarted. Also, it fits a pattern: Putin’s Russia creates chaos wherever possible and then seeks to take advantage of that chaos. (Consider, for example, the so-called frozen conflicts in Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine.)
When he allegedly hacked into the Democratic National Committee, it wasn’t a personal vendetta, as Hillary Clinton suggested, and when he allegedly helped disseminate fake news about the candidates, it wasn’t because he cared, first and foremost, about the election result. It was because he wanted tens of millions of Americans to doubt the legitimacy of their own election. After all, Putin can’t really be sure Donald Trump will serve Russia’s interests better than Clinton would have. That Trump is so erratic must worry the Kremlin. That his instrument of choice is Twitter must compound those worries. What is beyond debate, however, is that Americans losing faith in their democracy—and the institutions that prop up that democracy, like the media—does serve Russia’s long-term interests.
Trump, who appears unbound by any code of ethics or overarching theory of international affairs, offers Putin an amazing opportunity. He will be the first American president who has said he wants better relations with Moscow and means it unqualifiedly. True, most American presidents say things like that, but there’s always an implied (and obvious) caveat: so long as our improved relations further U.S. interests.
With Trump, however, there are no obvious caveats. Why should there be? The interests we’ve long defended are not his interests. He exists outside any tradition of American government. If better U.S.-Russian relations—which, for Trump, mean better relations between Trump and Putin, however superficial they may be—endanger our Eastern European allies, or prolong the conflict in the Middle East, or, more broadly, counteract the democratic strivings of any number of peoples around the globe, that won’t matter, because those are no longer our interests. Republicans who defend Trump or warn against being duped by our own intelligence agencies may be unaware of how narcissistic and pliable the incoming president is—or they’ve yet to read much Russian literature.
Or they’ve allowed their partisan furies to cloud what should be nakedly transparent to all, which is that Russia is doing what it has been trying to do for a very long time. In previous centuries, they thought their moment had arrived—Peter, Catherine, the Communists, the post-Communists—and they were always wrong. They had imagined they were on the cusp of escaping themselves, and they never did. Now, maybe, they have arrived at a cosmically aligned juncture, choreographed by Putin and his lieutenants, destined by forces outside any human jurisdiction.
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Photo: Digital Colorization by Ben Park; From Getty Images.