Below is a machine translated interview that gives a unique insight into Dostoevsky’s relationship to the Orthodox Church, specifically to the Optina Monastery and Elder Ambrose, and the prophecies about the revival of Russia.
The famous Optina hermitage
monastery, celebrated by the elders, hosted the "Days of Dostoevsky"
for the first time this summer. [See video below for a summary of the events]
Many revelations were given to the great writer through communication with the Optina elder Ambrose, to whom Dostoevsky visited in 1878, after the death of his four-year-old son Alyosha. In an interview, leading Russian Dostoevsky researcher, founder of the Dostoevsky Foundation, and professor emeritus of Moscow State University Igor Leonidovich discusses with RIA News these revelations.
- Igor Leonidovich, what is about today that connects the name of Dostoevsky with the Optina Hermitage, where he came only once in the summer of 1878 to the elder Ambrose?
- During the Days of Dostoevsky in Optina hermitage the foundation stone for the future monument to Fyodor Mikhailovich was unveiled. A part of this stone was brought from Omsk - from his place of punishment. And there is some symbolism in it: it's erected together with Ilyushchkin's stone in The Brothers Karamazov. In the novel, when the boys after Ilyushchkin's funeral gather at the stone, Alyosha Karamazov makes a speech about universal love, about the future, about the fact that the deceased's comrades must not forget him and love each other. There is a certain symbolism in the fact that the participants of Dostoevsky Days gathered exactly at that stone...
- And when will the monument itself be erected?
- Presumably, next summer.
- Should and will "Days of Dostoevsky in Optina Monastery" be repeated, in your opinion?
- Yes, we discussed the idea of making these days an annual national holiday. The main thing is not to "bureaucratize" or "oversee" this idea but to make Dostoevsky Days in the Optina Hermitage an authentic celebration of Russian culture. Of course, the initiative and participation of the Church is important here, but equally important is the secular character of this celebration. Next to the territory of the monastery there is a huge field, where poets, novelists, artists of theater and cinema, musical groups, book fairs and so on could perform. There could also be scholars, researchers with open lectures on literature, national history and other areas of humanities. Of course, all this must be done in such a way as not to disturb the residents of the monastery.
[In fact, Dostoevsky is such an important part of Russian Orthodox secular culture, that the Patriarch himself addressed the organizers and participants of this event saying that it "will contribute to the enlightenment and moral education of our nation" and praising Dostoevsky as a true Christian and a phenomenal writer.]
- Why Optina hermitage and not some other monastery?
- This is a turning point in Dostoevsky's life. He goes to the Optina Hermitage after the death of his beloved younger son Alyosha, whose name is given to one of the characters in The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoevsky's son died suddenly, of an attack of epilepsy, which further affected his father. He arrives at the monastery exactly on the fortieth day - 40 days since Alyosha's death - and orders a memorial service there. And he does not alone, but with Vladimir Solovyov (founder of Christian philosophy, mystic, poet and publicist - ed.). As Anna Grigorievna (Dostoevsky's second wife - ed.) writes, on her initiative, she asked Solovyev to persuade her husband to go with him to Optina.
Dostoevsky stayed only two days at the monastery - from June 25 to 27. There he attends a general conversation between the elder Ambrose and the parishioners, a meeting reflected in the chapter "Believing women" in The Brothers Karamazov. What is said in this chapter about the death of a child, including the words of the elder himself - all this was based completely in reality.
There were two meetings in private – which were personal and obviously important for the writer. Moreover, the difference in age between Dostoevsky and Ambrose was not so great: the elder was only nine years older than his interlocutor. It is known that Ambrose said of Dostoevsky: he is a penitent. That is what he noted above all. Which is very important for understanding the personality of the author of Karamazov and his worldview before writing the novel.
- What did the elder Ambrose tell Dostoevsky?
- This can only be speculated. By the way, according to one version, it was not only Ambrose who spoke, no less "active" in the conversation was Dostoevsky himself. Thus, it was a dialogue between them.
Of course, the personality of Ambrose is reflected in the image of the elder Zosima. But it is by no means a likeness. Zosima is precisely an image, and a collective one at that. His teachings are a separate story. Here Dostoevsky's ideas about such an exceptional institution as eldership are reflected.
- Why did Dostoevsky pay so much attention to the Optina hermitage elders in The Brothers Karamazov?
- Old age as a phenomenon exists only in Orthodoxy. And Dostoevsky had long been interested in the monastic theme; he even contemplated writing a certain work in which the hero might be, for example Chaadayev, presumably exiled to a monastery for his Philosophical Letter. When Dostoevsky returns from Optina, he sits down to write his "sunset" novel. Of course, the author's visit to Optina could not but affect the artistic structure of The Brothers Karamazov.
This monastery has always been considered one of the holiest places in Russia. Gogol came here, Tolstoy has been here many times.
- And what is known about Tolstoy's visit to the hermitage?
- Tolstoy also talked with Ambrose. And the latter, according to some evidence, came out after this conversation exhausted. He believed that the author of the treatise "What is my faith", unlike repentant Dostoyevsky, was possessed by exorbitant pride.
Tolstoy came to Optina for the last time before his death. Having been excommunicated (or rather, declared to have fallen away) from the Church, he did not dare to cross the threshold of the monastery, although the elders were ready to receive him. And being with a nun, Mary Nikolaevna, in Shamordina, Tolstoy told her that after all he was going to visit the hermitage. But on October 30, 1910 his daughter Alexandra Lvovna arrives, and on the morning of October 31, Tolstoy leaves with her and doctor Makovitsky for his last journey that ends at Astapovo station.
- Could you reveal the little known pages of the story "Dostoevsky and Orthodoxy"?
- It is important to note that the author of The Karamazovs was brought up in a deeply Orthodox family. The first vivid impression he had as a child was the Bible, and the history of the Old and New Testaments. He grew up in Moscow, in the Mariinsky Hospital for the Poor. And the title of his first novel, Poor People, is not only a statement of material hardship, but a sort of sigh of divine sorrow for the entire human race.
Then there was a crisis: when he communicated with Belinsky, who, as Dostoevsky writes, "berated me in profanity with Christ”. Dostoevsky, for whom Christ was the incarnation of truth and the bearer of the best human traits, could not endure this.
Dostoevsky formulated his attitude toward Christianity in lines written shortly before his death: "Not as a boy do I believe in Christ and confess Him, but through a great crucible of doubts my hosanna passed”. The "crucible of doubts" is the struggle of a spirit hungry for truth.
In a letter to the Decembrist's wife Natalia Fonvizina after his imprisonment, in 1854, he wrote amazing words: "If anyone could prove to me that Christ is outside the truth, and indeed it would be that the truth is outside Christ, I would rather be with Christ than with the truth”.
- How do you understand this phrase about truth and Christ?
- I believe Dostoevsky means that if truth is anti-human, arithmetic (as Raskolnikov says, "there is arithmetic!"), if truth is mathematical, mechanistic, soulless, then he prefers to stay with Christ, that is, with man. Contrary to this soulless truth, which is not really true.
It is not for nothing that Christ says in the Gospel: "I am the way, the truth, and the life. He (Dostoevsky) makes a choice in favor of Christ if even the supposed truth is of a scientific nature. There is a very interesting dialectic here that requires reflection.
By the way, there is testimony of Konstantin Leontiev (doctor, diplomat, religious thinker, writer, accepted monastic tonsure in Optina hermitage shortly before his death - ed.), that some Optina elders consider Zosima from The Brothers Karamazov to be a made-up image, not quite orthodox. True, this is not confirmed by other sources.
Of course, Zosima is not quite a typical old man, he still has some secular habits. In the novel, as we recall, after his death he "stank", tempting Father Ferapont and the rest of the brethren. But strikingly, according to one testimony, his prototype, the elder Ambrose, said that when he died, a spirit would flow from him because he took many sins upon himself, confessing and instructing.
- Do you mean that he sacrifices himself, his potential holiness, for the sake of sinners?
- One might say so. In general, Dostoevsky's Christianity is a hard-earned, not at all "formalized" Christianity.
- Wasn't Tolstoy's Christianity suffering?
- From his point of view, yes. But for Leo Tolstoy, Christ is more of a colleague. Shortly before his death, Dostoevsky reads Tolstoy's letter to his relative, Countess Tolstoy, where he lays out his creed, the foundations of future Tolstoy-ism, in particular the non-recognition of Christ's divinity. Dostoevsky clutches his head and exclaims: wrong, wrong - everything is wrong!
This letter lies on Dostoevsky's desk on the day of his death. And what is on Tolstoy's desk when he leaves Yasnaya Polyana? It's the open second volume of The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoevsky's novel is one of his last readings. He notes the teachings of the elder Zosima - he likes them. But he has complaints about the rest. At the same time, Tolstoy reads the Gospel - the Sermon on the Mount - and responds as follows: "Very unnecessary, and written worse than Dostoevsky”. Here is such a strange convergence of destinies.
I must say that in his time translating the Gospel, Tolstoy expels all poetry from it: the miracles, resurrection and so on. He leaves, conventionally speaking, only the gospel "publicity”.
For him, Christ is only a teacher, but by no means God; he is devoid of a mystical essence. And for Dostoevsky, who would prefer to remain "with Christ rather than with the truth," there is nothing higher than the person of Christ. Quite different, as we can see, are their approaches.
- Is Dostoyevsky's interpretation of Christian dogma and Orthodox teaching canonical in every respect?
- With the general canonicity of religious beliefs, Dostoevsky has his own interpretation of some Christian truths. And this did not suit everyone. For example, Leontiev wrote that Dostoevsky's Christianity is rosy ("Our New Christians"), that there cannot be a kingdom of God on earth and that one should not aspire to it. Meanwhile, Dostoevsky is precisely characterized by an attempt to introduce Christian consciousness into real life-political and historical practice.
- What does this mean concretely?
- Concretely, it means the indivisibility of morality. Here is how it is stated in The Writer's Diary: "What is true for the individual as a person, let it remain true for the whole nation. Yes, of course, it is possible to lose temporarily, to become temporarily poor, to lose markets, to reduce production, to become more expensive. But let the morally healthy body of the nation remain, and the nation will undoubtedly benefit more, even financially. In other words, there are no two morals, there is no truth "as applied to a case”. The moral law is one for all. "No, it is necessary that the same truth, the same truth of Christ, should be recognized in political organisms as it is for every believer. At least somewhere this truth must be preserved, at least some of the nations must shine. Otherwise, what will happen: everything will be obscured, muddied, and drowned in cynicism. This imperative is extremely relevant to our time.
- Is Prince Myshkin in The Idiot an attempt to portray an almost Christlike figure in 19th-century Russia? Have you met any other such "idiots" in literature or in life?
- In his rough notes, Dostoevsky writes: "Prince Christ”. But this notation is conventional. The prince is a human being. And the attempt to create an image of a positively beautiful man is not entirely successful. After all, Myshkin does not bring happiness to anyone, all his aspirations are crushed by cruel reality. And this applies not just to his aspirations with regards to Nastasia Philippovna but all others as well. The prince is full of good intentions, but what is the ending? Myshkin returns to the clinic in Switzerland.
He is not Christ, of course. It is a demonstration of an ideal, pure, noble, appealing human image. It is a projection of Christ, not realized in terms of concrete action. Myshkin's inner foundations are Christian. But he will never take the scourge to drive the peddlers out of the temple.
- What conclusions, then, should remain after reading The Idiot? That it is impossible, without being God and without having a mystical component, to be an impeccably moral person and to lead those around him to a better rather than a tragic ending?
- Why do we think that a text of fiction should teach us something, guide us, have some kind of edifying meaning? It doesn't! Chekhov wrote to Suvorin that Russian literature answers no questions, but is important because it poses those questions correctly. In The Idiot a question is posed. And we have to answer his questions for ourselves. In general, there are hardly any ready-made formulas arising from Dostoevsky's fiction he is very versatile.
- Is Alyosha Karamazov another attempt to portray an ideal contemporary, almost Christ?
- With Alyosha, everything is not so simple. On the one hand, he is an ideal, the author's favorite hero, who bears the name of the dead son. But there was, as you know, a plan to continue the novel. And according to this plan, Alyosha becomes a revolutionary, and attempts to assassinate the tsar. "He would have been executed..." I wrote extensively about this in my book Dostoevsky's Last Year.
- Did Dostoevsky sympathize with the revolution before his death?
- Of course not. But he discovered the secret of the Russian revolution! Into the revolution went not only "devils", depicted by him earlier in the eponymous work, bubt also idealists, pure-hearted, believing people. Such as Alyosha Karamazov. And this, of course, is the tragedy of Russia, of the Russian spirit, of Russian history. Alyosha, the humble, pure, almost saintly man, suddenly joins the revolutionaries. His death on the scaffold is a kind of atonement.
After the tsar-killing (the members of the "People's Will" blew up Alexander II on March 1, 1881 - ed.), on the eve of the sentencing of the "March Day" tsar-killers, Vladimir Solovyov made a speech, which called for a pardon. Anna Grigorievna Dostoyevsky (the writer himself died in winter) was outraged by this speech. Her friend remarked that Dostoyevsky had somehow identified Solovyev with his favorite, Alyosha Karamazov. "No, no," Anna Grigorievna hotly objected, "Fyodor Mikhailovich saw in Solovyev's person not Alyosha, but Ivan Karamazov." That's the twist of the plot.
- What about the other two brothers - Dmitri and Ivan?
- They are collective images. The image of Dmitri Karamazov is impressive, the "frustrated father-killer. Ivan's dialectic is striking, which leads him in the end to a mental crisis, to madness. By the way, in a conversation with the elder Zosima he says that the Catholic idea refers to the transformation of the Church into the state, but according to the Russian Orthodox idea - on the contrary, the state turns into the Church, the spiritual community of people. And there are completely different laws. Dostoevsky writes in his last notebook: "The execution of Kviatkovsky, Presnyakov (the People's Commissars sentenced to death - ed.) and the pardoning of the others. As a state they could not pardon (except at the will of the monarch). What is an execution? - In the state it is a sacrifice for an idea. But if it is the church there is no execution."
Dostoyevsky was present at the trial of Vera Zasulich, who severely wounded with two shots Fyodor Trepov (St. Petersburg city governor - ed.). The crime was obvious, but the court rendered an acquittal. During the trial Dostoevsky remarked to the journalist sitting beside him that the punishment of this girl was inappropriate, unnecessary... "Should have been expressed," he said, "Go, you are free, but don't do it another time." A phrase applied to the Gospel Mary Magdalene, to whom Christ says, "Go and sin no more." "We don't seem to have such a legal formula," added Dostoyevsky, "The good news is that she (Zasulich - ed.) will be elevated to the status of a heroine”. Incidentally, after the scandalous acquittal of Vera Zasulich, a wave of political assaults on the Russian empire was unleashed.
Participants of the Dostoevsky Days in Optina hermitage at the
foundation-stone of the future monument to the writer in the hermitage
- Dostoevsky is believed to have had many prophetic judgments, particularly about today's Russia - is this true, in your opinion, in what way?
- He didn't predict specific events. But he did have prophetic judgments about human destinies: what a person can get to. If you take, for example, Raskolnikov's dream - madness, murder, a kind of end of the world - it's also a kind of prediction. The assumption that the Slavs - if Russia frees them - will turn away from her is striking.
The main thing, I repeat, is that his prophecies about man have come true. He writes that man, outwardly civilized, may yet find pleasure in the blood. Of course, this is the twentieth century, this is the foresight of his historical dramas.
Of Russia in 1878-79 he says that it stands at some final point, wavering over the abyss. But in general, this is Russia's static position. Take "The Bronze Horseman": "Where are you riding, proud horse, and where will you drop your hooves?"
One could say that the entire world now stands at some final point, wavering over the abyss. And to use the metaphor of the Semenovsky Platz (the deliverance of the Petrashevites from the death penalty - ed.), it remains to be seen whether the world will be pardoned in the end.
- And what would Fyodor Mikhailovich say about what is happening today between Russia and Ukraine, Russia and the "collective West," or about the special operations?
- Dostoevsky is hardly the last symbol of Slavic unity. His family came from Belarus (the village of Dostoyevo), then moved south. His father was born in Ukraine in the village of Voytovka, then moved to Moscow. All of this is set out in more than a thousand-pages in the Chronicle of the Dostoyevsky Family, published by the Dostoyevsky Foundation in 2013. Dostoevsky is the real embodiment of these historical continuities and connections. The more tragic is the current situation.
- "The demons" - who were they, only revolutionaries? Who are they today?
- "The demons" are, of course, not just revolutionaries. Yes, in fact, that kind of underground revolutionaries are, everything is portrayed very ironically, the same Peter Verhovensky. But this demonic characteristic is a universal human trait. A trait that has to do with different situations: with the revolution, the counterrevolution, and so much more. To that beginning in man, which threatens his very existence.
There is an anecdotal story: Anatoly Lunacharsky (a revolutionary and the first Commissar of Education of the RSFSR - ed.) once announced that the Soviet government was going to erect a monument to Dostoyevsky. "And what will you write on the monument?" - an old professor asked the Commissar. - "Maybe you'll write the following inscription: 'To Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky from grateful demons”. So, the demons are a global and, alas, recurring phenomenon.
- Till the end of the century according to the Christian, linear conception of the world development?
- I am currently publishing a collection of poems in a magazine, which includes these lines:
To know, to our regret,
imperfect as it may be,
believing in every box...
the world is going mad.
In virtue of this accident...
in the rush of mutual hunts...
we will not see the second coming...
we will not see the second coming.
- And what is your opinion of the state of modern culture?
- Again, let me quote my own poetry:
And God is mooing like a cow,
And manuscripts burn.
...In the beginning was not the Word,
but a clip and a video.
Oh, wondrous world of creatures,
I sing you and blaspheme you,
though my vocabulary
has long since been reduced to nought.
- What, then, is the significance of Dostoevsky's memory for contemporaries and younger generations these days?
- If we take his biography, Dostoevsky is a working model of Russia: he walked the entire path of Russian spiritual quests - from the Petrashevites (a circle of socialist revolutionaries - ed.) to the Pushkin Speech. But, as he himself said, ideas change, but the heart remains the same. None of the writers in the world survived his own death - it happened only to him. It is not by chance that Dostoevsky writes in The Brothers Karamazov an epigraph from St. John's Gospel: "Verily, verily, I say unto you, if a grain of wheat falls into the ground and does not die, it remains alone; but if it dies, it brings forth much fruit”. He himself is that grain - as if it had died on the scaffold, but has borne inestimable fruit.
And coming back to the Optina Hermitage, I would like to say that the planned Dostoevsky Days could become not only a celebration of Russian culture, but also a phenomenon that would enlighten our national consciousness.