Russian Exceptionalism

Illustration: "Holy Russia" by Mikhail Nesterov
Mikhail Nesterov, Holy Russia, 1902

From The Possessed (Demons) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The following conversation takes place between Shatov, a former agitator and now a believer in “the Russian God;” and Stavrogin, the princely but self-destructive son of a nobleman, who made Shatov’s acquaintance when they both were members of a revolutionary society. We have put some sentences in bold for special emphasis.

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“Do you know,” he [Shatov] began, with flashing eyes, almost menacingly, bending right forward in his chair, raising the forefinger of his right hand above him (obviously unaware that he was doing so), “do you know who are the only ‘god-bearing’ people on earth, destined to regenerate and save the world in the name of a new God, and to whom are given the keys of life and of the new world… Do you know which is that people and what is its name?

[Nikolai Vsevolodovich Stavrogin:] “From your manner I am forced to conclude, and I think I may as well do so at once, that it is the Russian people.”

“And you can laugh, oh, what a race!” Shatov burst out.

“Calm yourself, I beg of you; on the contrary, I was expecting something of the sort from you.”

“You expected something of the sort? And don’t you know those words yourself?”

“I know them very well. I see only too well what you’re driving at. All your phrases, even the expression ‘god-bearing people’ is only a sequel to our talk two years ago, abroad, not long before you went to America. … At least, as far as I can recall it now.”

“It’s your phrase altogether, not mine. Your own, not simply the sequel of our conversation. ‘Our’ conversation it was not at all. It was a teacher uttering weighty words, and a pupil who was raised from the dead. I was that pupil and you were the teacher.”

“But, if you remember, it was just after my words you joined their society, and only afterwards went away to America.”

“Yes, and I wrote to you from America about that. I wrote to you about everything. Yes, I could not at once tear my bleeding heart from what I had grown into from childhood, on which had been lavished all the raptures of my hopes and all the tears of my hatred…. It is difficult to change gods. I did not believe you then, because I did not want to believe, I plunged for the last time into that sewer…. But the seed remained and grew up. Seriously, tell me seriously, didn’t you read all my letter from America, perhaps you didn’t read it at all?”

“I read three pages of it. The two first and the last. And I glanced through the middle as well. But I was always meaning…”

“Ah, never mind, drop it! Damn it!” cried Shatov, waving his hand. “If you’ve renounced those words about the people now, how could you have uttered them then?… That’s what crushes me now.”

“I wasn’t joking with you then; in persuading you I was perhaps more concerned with myself than with you,” Stavrogin pronounced enigmatically.

“You weren’t joking! In America I was lying for three months on straw beside a hapless creature, and I learnt from him that at the very time when you were sowing the seed of God and the Fatherland in my heart, at that very time, perhaps during those very days, you were infecting the heart of that hapless creature, that maniac Kirillov, with poison… you confirmed false malignant ideas in him, and brought him to the verge of insanity…. Go, look at him now, he is your creation… you’ve seen him though.”

“In the first place, I must observe that Kirillov himself told me that he is happy and that he’s good. Your supposition that all this was going on at the same time is almost correct. But what of it? I repeat, I was not deceiving either of you.”

“Are you an atheist? An atheist now?”

“Yes.”

“And then?”

“Just as I was then.”

“I wasn’t asking you to treat me with respect when I began the conversation. With your intellect you might have understood that,” Shatov muttered indignantly.

“I didn’t get up at your first word, I didn’t close the conversation, I didn’t go away from you, but have been sitting here ever since submissively answering your questions and… cries, so it seems I have not been lacking in respect to you yet.”

Shatov interrupted, waving his hand.

Do you remember your expression that ‘an atheist can’t be a Russian,’ that ‘an atheist at once ceases to be a Russian’? Do you remember saying that?

“Did I?” Nikolay Vsyevolodovitch questioned him back.

“You ask? You’ve forgotten? And yet that was one of the truest statements of the leading peculiarity of the Russian soul, which you divined. You can’t have forgotten it! I will remind you of something else: you said then that ‘a man who was not orthodox could not be Russian.'”

“I imagine that’s a Slavophil idea.”

“The Slavophils of to-day disown it. Nowadays, people have grown cleverer. But you went further: you believed that Roman Catholicism was not Christianity; you asserted that Rome proclaimed Christ subject to the third temptation of the devil. Announcing to all the world that Christ without an earthly kingdom cannot hold his ground upon earth, Catholicism by so doing proclaimed Antichrist and ruined the whole Western world. You pointed out that if France is in agonies now it’s simply the fault of Catholicism, for she has rejected the iniquitous God of Rome and has not found a new one. That’s what you could say then! I remember our conversations.”

“If I believed, no doubt I should repeat it even now. I wasn’t lying when I spoke as though I had faith,” Nikolay Vsyevolodovitch pronounced very earnestly. “But I must tell you, this repetition of my ideas in the past makes a very disagreeable impression on me. Can’t you leave off?”

“If you believe it?” repeated Shatov, paying not the slightest attention to this request. “But didn’t you tell me that if it were mathematically proved to you that the truth excludes Christ, you’d prefer to stick to Christ rather than to the truth? Did you say that? Did you?”

“But allow me too at last to ask a question,” said Nikolay Vsyevolodovitch, raising his voice. “What is the object of this irritable and… malicious cross-examination?”

“This examination will be over for all eternity, and you will never hear it mentioned again.”

“You keep insisting that we are outside the limits of time and space.”

“Hold your tongue!” Shatov cried suddenly. “I am stupid and awkward, but let my name perish in ignominy! Let me repeat your leading idea…. Oh, only a dozen lines, only the conclusion.”

“Repeat it, if it’s only the conclusion….” Stavrogin made a movement to look at his watch, but restrained himself and did not look.

Shatov bent forward in his chair again and again held up his finger for a moment.

“Not a single nation,” he went on, as though reading it line by line, still gazing menacingly at Stavrogin, “not a single nation has ever been founded on principles of science or reason. There has never been an example of it, except for a brief moment, through folly. Socialism is from its very nature bound to be atheism, seeing that it has from the very first proclaimed that it is an atheistic organisation of society, and that it intends to establish itself exclusively on the elements of science and reason. Science and reason have, from the beginning of time, played a secondary and subordinate part in the life of nations; so it will be till the end of time. Nations are built up and moved by another force which sways and dominates them, the origin of which is unknown and inexplicable: that force is the force of an insatiable desire to go on to the end, though at the same time it denies that end. It is the force of the persistent assertion of one’s own existence, and a denial of death. It’s the spirit of life, as the Scriptures call it, ‘the river of living water,’ the drying up of which is threatened in the Apocalypse. It’s the æsthetic principle, as the philosophers call it, the ethical principle with which they identify it, ‘the seeking for God,’ as I call it more simply. The object of every national movement, in every people and at every period of its existence is only the seeking for its god, who must be its own god, and the faith in Him as the only true one. God is the synthetic personality of the whole people, taken from its beginning to its end. It has never happened that all, or even many, peoples have had one common god, but each has always had its own. It’s a sign of the decay of nations when they begin to have gods in common. When gods begin to be common to several nations the gods are dying and the faith in them, together with the nations themselves. The stronger a people the more individual their God. There never has been a nation without a religion, that is, without an idea of good and evil. Every people has its own conception of good and evil, and its own good and evil. When the same conceptions of good and evil become prevalent in several nations, then these nations are dying, and then the very distinction between good and evil is beginning to disappear. Reason has never had the power to define good and evil, or even to distinguish between good and evil, even approximately; on the contrary, it has always mixed them up in a disgraceful and pitiful way; science has even given the solution by the fist. This is particularly characteristic of the half-truths of science, the most terrible scourge of humanity, unknown till this century, and worse than plague, famine, or war. A half-truth is a despot… such as has never been in the world before. A despot that has its priests and its slaves, a despot to whom all do homage with love and superstition hitherto inconceivable, before which science itself trembles and cringes in a shameful way. These are your own words, Stavrogin, all except that about the half-truth; that’s my own because I am myself a case of half-knowledge, and that’s why I hate it particularly. I haven’t altered anything of your ideas or even of your words, not a syllable.”

“I don’t agree that you’ve not altered anything,” Stavrogin observed cautiously. “You accepted them with ardour, and in your ardour have transformed them unconsciously. The very fact that you reduce God to a simple attribute of nationality…”

He suddenly began watching Shatov with intense and peculiar attention, not so much his words as himself.

“I reduce God to the attribute of nationality?” cried Shatov. “On the contrary, I raise the people to God. And has it ever been otherwise? The people is the body of God. Every people is only a people so long as it has its own god and excludes all other gods on earth irreconcilably; so long as it believes that by its god it will conquer and drive out of the world all other gods. Such, from the beginning of time, has been the belief of all great nations, all, anyway, who have been specially remarkable, all who have been leaders of humanity. There is no going against facts. The Jews lived only to await the coming of the true God and left the world the true God. The Greeks deified nature and bequeathed the world their religion, that is, philosophy and art. Rome deified the people in the State, and bequeathed the idea of the State to the nations. France throughout her long history was only the incarnation and development of the Roman god, and if they have at last flung their Roman god into the abyss and plunged into atheism, which, for the time being, they call socialism, it is solely because socialism is, anyway, healthier than Roman Catholicism. If a great people does not believe that the truth is only to be found in itself alone (in itself alone and in it exclusively); if it does not believe that it alone is fit and destined to raise up and save all the rest by its truth, it would at once sink into being ethnographical material, and not a great people. A really great people can never accept a secondary part in the history of Humanity, nor even one of the first, but will have the first part. A nation which loses this belief ceases to be a nation. But there is only one truth, and therefore only a single one out of the nations can have the true God, even though other nations may have great gods of their own. Only one nation is ‘god-bearing,’ that’s the Russian people, and… and… and can you think me such a fool, Stavrogin,” he yelled frantically all at once, “that I can’t distinguish whether my words at this moment are the rotten old commonplaces that have been ground out in all the Slavophil mills in Moscow, or a perfectly new saying, the last word, the sole word of renewal and resurrection, and… and what do I care for your laughter at this minute! What do I care that you utterly, utterly fail to understand me, not a word, not a sound! Oh, how I despise your haughty laughter and your look at this minute!”

He jumped up from his seat; there was positively foam on his lips.

“On the contrary Shatov, on the contrary,” Stavrogin began with extraordinary earnestness and self-control, still keeping his seat, “on the contrary, your fervent words have revived many extremely powerful recollections in me. In your words I recognise my own mood two years ago, and now I will not tell you, as I did just now, that you have exaggerated my ideas. I believe, indeed, that they were even more exceptional, even more independent, and I assure you for the third time that I should be very glad to confirm all that you’ve said just now, every syllable of it, but…”

“But you want a hare?”

“Wh-a-t?”

“Your own nasty expression,” Shatov laughed spitefully, sitting down again. “To cook your hare you must first catch it, to believe in God you must first have a god. You used to say that in Petersburg, I’m told, like Nozdryov, who tried to catch a hare by his hind legs.”

“No, what he did was to boast he’d caught him. By the way, allow me to trouble you with a question though, for indeed I think I have the right to one now. Tell me, have you caught your hare?”

“Don’t dare to ask me in such words! Ask differently, quite differently.” Shatov suddenly began trembling all over.

“Certainly I’ll ask differently.” Nikolay Vsyevolodovitch looked coldly at him. “I only wanted to know, do you believe in God, yourself?”

I believe in Russia…. I believe in her orthodoxy…. I believe in the body of Christ…. I believe that the new advent will take place in Russia…. I believe…” Shatov muttered frantically.

“And in God? In God?”

“I… I will believe in God.”

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