The Russian literary tradition, especially the realist novel associated with Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, made signal contributions to the self-understanding of modern man. This owes to the fact that its deepest subject is nothing less than the human soul and the “timeless questions” that confront all self-aware human beings. As the distinguished Slavist Gary Saul Morson establishes in his wise and authoritative Wonder Confronts Certainty: Russian Writers on the Timeless Questions and Why Their Answers Matter, this tradition, while hardly uniform in its approaches and emphases, forcefully challenges what we might call the Enlightenment Vulgate.1

Against historical and sociological determinism, Russian literature defended the free will of human beings and illustrated the drama of good and evil that played out in every human soul. Against a facile faith in progress, it reminded modern men and women that material progress is hardly coextensive with moral advancement, that “man does not live by bread alone.” Against utopians and incipient totalitarians impatient to “engineer” the human condition out of existence, it defended decency and self-restraint, and, in some cases at least, taught deference to a providential God, however mysterious his presence might be. As Morson eloquently puts it, the great Russian novelists “rendered moral questions palpable, urgent, and bafflingly complex” without succumbing to the fashionable disdain for the old moral verities. In the pages of the realist novel, young and old alike engaged in disputations about God and immortality, free will and determinism, and utopia and dystopia.

Human beings were to be sacrificed for the cruelest unattainable revolutionary ends.

This novelistic tradition that put the decencies of ordinary life above abstract theory, refusing to reduce the soul to anything other than itself, was therefore at constant loggerheads with the revolutionary fanaticism of the intelligentsia. To be a member of the Russian intelligentsia was precisely to disavow God, to have limitless contempt for common sense and customary morality, and to deny the reality and efficacy of free will and personal responsibility. Russian intelligents unapologetically supported terrorism and repudiated all reformist politics. Theirs was a politics of pure negation. The Russian writer and doctor Chekhov was appalled by the strategy of Russian revolutionaries in the early 1890s to exacerbate rather than ameliorate the epidemic of cholera then facing the country. Human beings were to be sacrificed for the cruelest unattainable revolutionary ends.

Chernyshevsky, whose What Is To Be Done? held pride of place in the revolutionary canon, gave this fanaticism a particularly telling theoretical expression. He denied the existence of a normative “human nature” and an accompanying moral law, affirmed absolute determinism, and, with chance and choice both eliminated in one fell swoop, therefore denied that human beings could be held responsible for their crimes and misdeeds. Consequently, and paradoxically, he sketched a vision of utopia in which poverty and unhappiness were defined out of existence. To achieve it, however, any and all means were justified. Cruelty and mercilessness were, in this cold and implacable worldview, indispensable instruments of revolutionary transformation.

As Morson so suggestively puts it, Chernyshevsky and the revolutionary intelligentsia chose deracinated “theory” as “the proper blueprint for life.” In contrast, for “Dostoevsky and the realist novel, life must take the place of theory.” Human beings are infinitely more important than the abstract models, schemes, and utopias designed by intellectuals. As Dostoevsky sketched with preternatural accuracy in his 1871 novel Demons, also known as The Possessed, terror and totalitarianism were the only possible outcome of the subordination of the human person and the binding of the distinction between good and evil, right and wrong, to a revolutionary fanaticism that acknowledged no moral limits, no conception of the sacred or divine, and thus no human soul worthy of respect.

Dostoevsky could predict the coming of totalitarianism with unerring accuracy.

Dostoevsky could predict the coming of totalitarianism with unerring accuracy (and the hundred million human souls who would perish at its hands) precisely because he refused to reduce human beings either to the “environment” surrounding them or to an impersonal nexus of causal necessity that made human freedom superfluous. The Russian writer cherished mercy and forgiveness and saw exactly where their denial would lead. Above all, he could so luminously sketch the coming of totalitarianism because he understood the doctrines and psychology of the revolutionary nihilists like no one before or after him.

A generation or so after Dostoevsky’s death, Semyon Frank, a contributor to the profoundly insightful anti-revolutionary collection of essays Vekhi (“Signposts” or “Landmarks”) that was published in 1909, lambasted the Russian intelligentsia for treating ordinary people as mere “material,” always a “passive object of humanity” to be manipulated or “saved” by the revolutionaries themselves. Frank and the other contributors to Vekhi argued that, for all their talk about the “happiness” of humanity, to be found in an indefinite future, the Russian intelligentsia loved their own “idea” and not “living people.” Frank devastatingly added that “since [the revolutionary] is sacrificing himself to this idea, he does not hesitate to sacrifice others as well.” How relevant that insight remains in our new era of woke fanaticism! It will remain relevant as long as intellectuals continue to define themselves by deracinating theory rather than rooting themselves in real life and taking common sense as a guide post.

Early in the book, Morson recalls the famous revolutionary proclamation “Young Russia,” written by P. G. Zaichnevsky and other radicals. This proclamation breathed the spirit of the most unhinged ideology:

There is only one way out of this oppressive and terrible situation . . . and that is revolution—bloody and merciless revolution—a revolution that must radically change all the foundations of contemporary society without exception and destroy the supporters of the present regime.

We do not fear it, although we know rivers of blood will flow and innocent victims too will perish; we foresee all this, but we still welcome its approach.

Solzhenitsyn chronicles all the consequences of applied revolutionary fanaticism once their schemes are put into practice.

The evocation of cruelty and mercilessness was routine in a Russian intelligentsia defined by a lust for revolutionary negation. Lenin and his “Red Terror” drew on this revolutionary bloodlust as he invented in the years after 1917 “an entirely new form of rule,” the totalitarian ideocratic state. Morson cites the damning words of Solzhenitsyn about the 1862 Proclamation in his magisterial Gulag Archipelago. Along with Demons, that work stands as perhaps the most profound anti-totalitarian book ever written, as well as an unsurpassed work of literary art. Dostoevsky saw exactly what the bésy, the “demons” of his title, had in mind, and Solzhenitsyn chronicles all the consequences of applied revolutionary fanaticism once their schemes are put into practice. As the Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn scholar Liudmila Saraskina has suggested, the two works can be read as a diptych on the soul of man under sustained assault from ideological fanaticism.

Solzhenitsyn summarizes the proclamation’s message as follows:

What is it we want? The good, the happiness of Russia. Achieving a new life, a better life, without casualties is impossible, because we cannot afford delay—we need speedy, immediate reform!

But what is the result of such nihilistic impatience? Solzhenitsyn gets to the heart of the matter in these powerful and uncompromising words:

What a false path! They, the zealots, could not afford to wait, and so they sanctioned human sacrifice . . . to bring universal happiness nearer! They could not afford to wait, and so we, their great-grandsons, are not at the same point as they were (when the peasants were freed), but much farther behind.

Like Orwell, Chekhov was a nonbeliever who defended ordinary decencies against their cultured despisers.

As Morson sardonically quips, this terroristic sense of time “led to the time of terror.” The willful suspension of an elementary sense of decency and restraint lead to political catastrophe and a massive assault on the human soul. Chekhov rightly observed that repugnant means and repugnant ends are inseparable. He was repulsed by the revolutionary intelligents through and through: he despised their deliberate slovenliness, their disregard for personal responsibility and financial probity, their systematic mendacity and lack of sympathy (unlike “beggars and cats”) for ordinary people. He did not hesitate to defend “the bourgeois virtues,” a rare thing for Russian writers and thinkers. For him, “cultured people” who were dirty, rude, imprudent, and thoughtless hardly embodied true intellectual or moral virtue. Like Orwell, Chekhov was a nonbeliever who defended ordinary decencies against their cultured despisers, the militant atheists and materialists. He held on to them with an admirable firmness that still impresses.

In the latter half of the book, Morson shows how a series of twentieth-century writers—Grossman, Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn, and some important but lesser known authors, too—embodied the Russian realist tradition and its hard-fought “novelistic truth” during the new age of ideological despotism inaugurated in 1917. The willingness of writers such as Maxim Gorky and Mikhail Sholokhov shamelessly to serve the totalitarian state, to repeat its lies, pained writers such as Likhachev, Pasternak, and Solzhenitsyn, who remained faithful to the ethical imperatives of the Russian literary tradition. To subordinate the truth to crude and cruel ideological considerations was to betray the sacred mission of a writer committed in the depths of his soul to truth and conscience.

Many contemporary literary theorists, too, wish to negate and deconstruct, but without an appeal to overt terror (at least for now).

This noble view of literature at the service of conscience and truth was of course profoundly at odds with the trampling of literature by totalitarian ideologists. But it is also mocked by our contemporary “postmodern” sophisticates for whom “truth” is always in inverted commas (unless they are denouncing the likes of Donald Trump, in which case a concern for truth is conveniently rehabilitated). Many contemporary literary theorists, too, wish to negate and deconstruct, but without an appeal to overt terror (at least for now). To our postmodern theorists, the classical Russian literary tradition is hopelessly naive. But as Morson observes with his characteristic lucidity and good sense, “it is difficult to imagine anyone in Auschwitz or the Gulag regarding evil as a mere convention.” Nor could those confronted by the totalitarian scourge so glibly dismiss the distinction between truth and falsehood, right and wrong. The best Russian literature encourages us to become “naive” again, to see things with fresh eyes by allowing life to correct the egregious distortions of theorizing that have brought it out of focus, including its indispensable moral foundations.

While far from “nonjudgmental” or ethically neutral, the tradition that Morson authoritatively articulates and eloquently defends always has a central place for forgiveness, mercy, and freedom. Even Crime and Punishment’s Raskolnikov, who kills the helpless Lizaveta (and her pawnbroker sister, too) and is so misled by the inhuman theories racing in his mind, is eventually redeemed by conscience and love, even as he sets out for prison in Siberia to justly pay for his terrible crime.

As Morson emphasizes against the advocates of reductive materialism and determinism, human freedom is circumscribed by a thousand constraints, but it is far from an illusion. In the camps, Solzhenitsyn singles out the choice confronting every prisoner: will he choose to “survive at any price” and thus at the expense of other human beings, or will he do his best to maintain his personal integrity, come what may? Facing that “great fork of camp life,” Solzhenitsyn freely chose the path of conscience and self-respect. By doing so, he freed himself from the spiritually destructive premise, common to Bolshevism and all materialist doctrines, that “the result is what counts.”

To reject the dehumanization inherent in every form of ideology, scientism, and materialism is implicitly to recognize “the image of perfection,” the imago Dei, at the innermost core of every human being. That image gives dignity to every human person, as the painter Kondrashov so beautifully states in the best of Solzhenitsyn’s novels, In the First Circle. Kondrashov adds that this “image of perfection” reminds a human being of his “chivalrous duty.” He strikingly adds that “in the days of chivalry, there were no concentration camps! No gas chambers!” What a forthright challenge to the ideology of progress that he and Solzhenitsyn pose.

The path forward, writes Solzhenitsyn, is inseparable from the patient cultivation of our own souls and runs through the recognition of the free will that is bequeathed to us as a gift from on high. As Morson pithily remarks in response to the soul-denying materialists and determinists, “Life is shaped by fate, but meaning depends on what we choose.” To succumb to materialism and determinism and to reject moral agency is to deny the purpose and meaning integral to a truly human life.

To help understand the Russian tradition and its perennial stakes, Morson contrasts liberating “wonder” with the debilitating quest for absolute “certainty.” He also invokes the tradition of literary dialogue, from the “dialogue of the dead” which draws on the wisdom of our literary, philosophical, and theological forebears who still speak to our own time and circumstances, to the “eternal questions” that should animate all reflective human beings, as opposed to those specific questions and concerns of their own time and place. Like the famed Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, on whom he has written so well, Morson esteems “the polyphonic novel,” where many voices pursue truth and meaning in a manner that is quite distinct from some noisy cacophony without any animating purpose. In this understanding, dialogue and authentic pluralism presuppose truth and take it with the utmost seriousness. They should not be confused with the lazy and undignified path of ethical and cultural relativism. To wonder is to exercise the powers of the human soul. It requires gratitude for the great gifts that are reason, conscience, truth, and human free will. At the same time, absolute certainty escapes mere mortals, and always will. Even St. Paul acknowledged that we “see though a glass darkly.”

Our liberty is always liberty under law in both a political and metaphysical sense.

But dialogue about the “eternal questions” presupposes that truth, however partially and tentatively grasped, is a proper object of human striving. We are in the end “thinking reeds,” as Blaise Pascal called us, not prisoners of an inhuman causal nexus with no place for reason, reflection, or the responsible exercise of our freedom. One fundamental truth the twentieth century has taught us is that it is wrong, categorically wrong, to treat human beings as mere means at the service of ideological projects. Our liberty is always liberty under law in both a political and metaphysical sense. As the best Russian literature teaches, the emancipation of the human will from all limits and restraints is the path of individual and collective perdition. We should all be grateful to Gary Saul Morson for drawing out that indispensable insight with such lucidity, erudition, and grace. And at a time when all things Russian are treated with contempt and enmity, it is important to be reminded how foolish it would be to “cancel” the best Russian wisdom. The Russian literary tradition is not just a crown jewel of Russia, but also a gift to humanity.

  1.   Wonder Confronts Certainty: Russian Writers on the Timeless Questions and Why Their Answers Matter, by Gary Saul Morson; Harvard University Press, 512 pages, $37.95.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 9, on page 16
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