LEV SHESTOV \ Penultimate Words & Other Essays

For the twenty-fifth anniversary of F.M. Dostoevsky's death


Vladimir Soloviev used to call Dostoevsky ‘the prophet,’ and even ‘the prophet of God.’ Immediately after Soloviev, though often in complete independence of him, very many people looked upon Dostoevsky as the man to whom the books of human destiny were opened; and this happened not only after his death, but even while he was yet alive. Apparently Dostoevsky himself too, if he did not regard himself as a prophet—he was too eagle-eyed for that—at least thought it right that all people should see a prophet in him. To this bears witness the tone of The Diary of a Writer,[1] no less than the questions upon which he generally touches therein. The Diary of a Writer began to appear in 1873, that is on Dostoevsky's return from abroad, and therefore coincides with what his biographers call ‘the highest period of his life.’ Dostoevsky was then the happy father of a family, a man of secure position, a famous writer, the author of a whole series of novels known to all: The House of the Dead, The Idiot, The Possessed. He has everything which can be required from life, or, more truly, he has taken everything which can be taken from life. You remember Tolstoy's deliberations in his Confession? ‘Finally, I shall be as famous as Pushkin, Gogol, Goethe and Shakespeare—and what shall come after?’

Indeed, it is difficult to become a more famous writer than Shakespeare; and even if one succeeded, the inevitable question, ‘And what shall come after?’ would by no means be removed. Sooner or later in the activity of a great writer a moment comes when further perfection seems impossible. How shall a man be greater than himself in the world of literature? If he would move, then by his own will or in spite of it he must step on to another plane. And this is plainly the beginning of prophecy in a writer. In the general view the prophet is greater than the writer; and even the possession of genius is not always a guarantee against the general view. Even men so skeptical as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, men always ready to doubt everything, more than once were the victims of prejudices. Prophetic words were expected of them, and they went out to meet men's desires, Dostoevsky even more readily than Tolstoy. Moreover both prophesied clumsily: they promised one thing, and something wholly different happened. So Tolstoy promised long ago that men would awake to their error soon and would put away from them fratricidal war, and would begin to live as true Christians should, fulfilling the Gospel commandment of love. Tolstoy prophesied and preached; people read him, as, it seems, they read no other writer: but they have not changed their habits nor their tastes. For the last ten years Tolstoy has perforce been a witness of a whole series of horrible and most savage wars. And now there is our present revolution [1905]—armed mobs rioting, the gallows set up, men shot down, bombs—the revolution which came to replace the bloody war in the Far East!

And this is in Russia, where Tolstoy was born, lived, taught and prophesied, where millions of people sincerely hold him to be the greatest genius of all! Even in his own family Tolstoy could not effect the change that he desired. One of his sons is an officer in the army; the other writes in the Novoe Vremya, as though he were Souvorin’s son [2], not Tolstoy's... Where, then, is the gift of prophecy? Why is it that a man so great as Tolstoy can foresee nothing, and seems to peer his way through life? ‘What will to-morrow bring forth?’ ‘To-morrow I'll work miracles,’ said the magician to the Russian prince of old. For reply the prince drew his sword and struck off the magician's head; and the excited mob, which believed in the magician-prophet, became calm and departed home. History is ever striking off the heads of prophetic predictions, and yet the crowd still runs after the prophets. Of little faith, the crowd looks for a sign, because it desires a miracle.

But can the ability to predict be accounted as evidence of the power to work miracles? It is possible to predict an eclipse of the sun or the appearance of a comet, but this surely means a miracle only to the ignorant. An enlightened mind is secure in the knowledge that where prediction is possible, there is no miracle, since the possibility of prediction and of foreseeing presupposes a strict uniformity. Therefore not he will appear a prophet who has great spiritual gifts, nor he who desires to dominate the world and to command the very laws, neither the magician, nor the sorcerer, nor the artist, but he who, having yielded himself beforehand to the actual and its laws, has devoted himself to the mechanical labour of record and calculation. Bismarck could foretell the greatness of Russia and Germany; and not only Bismarck, but an ordinary German politician, for whom everything is reduced to Deutschland, Deutschland über alles, could read the future for many years ahead; yet Dostoevsky and Tolstoy could foresee nothing. In Dostoevsky the failure is still more remarkable than in Tolstoy, because he more often attempted prediction: more than half of his Diary consists in unfulfilled prophecies. So often did he commit his prophetic genius.


To some it may perhaps seem out of place that in an article devoted to the twenty-fifth anniversary of the writer's death, I call to mind his mistakes and errors. The reproach is hardly just. A certain kind of defect in a great man is at least as characteristic and important as his qualities.

Dostoevsky was not a Bismarck. But is that so terrible that we must lament it? Moreover, for writers of the type of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, their social and political ideas are without any value. They know well that no one obeys them. Whatever they may say, history and political life will go on in the same way, since it is not their books and articles which guide events. And, probably, here is the explanation of the amazing boldness of their opinions. If Tolstoy really imagined that it would be enough for him to write an article demanding that all ‘soldiers, policemen, judges, ministers’ and the rest, all those guardians of the public peace, whom he detested—and, by the way, who loves them?—should be dismissed, for all prison-doors to be flung wide before the murderers and robbers—who can tell whether he would have shown himself sufficiently firm and resolute in his opinions, to take upon himself the responsibility for the effects of the measures which he proposed? But he knows beyond all doubt that he will not be obeyed, and therefore he calmly preaches anarchy. Dostoevsky's part as a preacher was quite different; but it too was, so to speak, platonic. Probably it came as a surprise even to himself, that he became the prophet, not of ‘ideal’ politics, but of those most realistic tasks which governments always set themselves in countries where a few men direct the destinies of peoples.

Listening to Dostoevsky, one may imagine that he is discovering ideas which the government must take for its guidance and set itself to realise. But you will soon convince yourself that Dostoevsky did not discover one single original political idea. Everything of the kind that he possessed he had borrowed without examination from the Slavophiles, who in their turn appeared original only to the extent to which they were able without outside assistance to translate from the Gerihan and the French: Russland, Russland über alles. (Even the rhythm of the verse is not affected by the substitution of the one word.) But what is most important is, that the Slavophiles with their Russo-German glorification of nationality, and with them Dostoevsky who joined the chorus, have neither taught nor educated one single man among the ruling classes. Our government knew all that it needed to know by itself, without the Slavophiles and without Dostoevsky. From time immemorial it had gone its way by the road which the theorists so passionately praised: so that nothing was left to them but to eulogise those in power and to defend the policy of the Russian government against the public opinion which was hostile to it. Autocracy, Orthodoxy, Nationality—all these were held so firmly in Russia that in the seventies when Dostoevsky began to preach they needed no support whatever. And surely every one knows that power never seriously reckons upon the help of literature. Certainly it requires that the Muses should pay tribute to it with the others, nobly formulating its demands in the words: Blessed be the union of the sword and the lyre.

It used to happen that the Muses did not refuse the request, sometimes sincerely, sometimes because, as Heine said, it is particularly disagreeable to wear iron chains in Russia, on account of the heavy frosts. In any case the Muses were only allowed to sing the praises of the sword, but by no means to wield it. There are all kinds of unions. And here again Dostoevsky, for all his independent nature, still appeared in the role of a prophet of the Russian government: that is, he divined the secret devices of the powers that were, and in this connection then recalled all the ‘high and beautiful’ words which he had managed to hoard up in the course of his long wanderings. For instance, the government began to cast covetous glances towards the East (at that time the Near East still); Dostoevsky begins to argue that we must have Constantinople, and to prophesy that Constantinople will soon be ours. His ‘argument’ is, of course, of a purely ‘moral character,’ and, sure enough, he is a writer. Only from Constantinople, he says, can we make avail the purely Russian ideal of embracing all humanity.

Of course our government, though indeed we had no Bismarcks, perfectly well understood the value of moral arguments and of prophecy based upon them, and would have preferred a few well-equipped divisions and improved guns. To realist politicians one single soldier, armed not with a gun but with a blunderbuss, is of more importance than the sublimest conception of moral philosophy. But still they do not drive away the humble prophet, if the prophet knows his place. Dostoevsky accepted the role, since it gave him still the opportunity of displaying his refractory nature in the struggle with Liberal literature. He sang paeans, made protests, uttered absurdities—and worse than absurdities. For instance, he counselled all the Slav peoples to unite under the aegis of Russia, assuring them that only thus would full independence be guaranteed them, and the right of shaping themselves by their own culture, and so on—and that in the face of the millions of Polish Slavs living in Russia.

Or again, the Moscow Gazette gives its opinion that it would be well for the Crimean Tartars to emigrate to Turkey, since it would then be possible for Russians to settle in the peninsula. Dostoevsky catches up this original idea with enthusiasm. ‘Indeed,’ he says, ‘on political and state and similar considerations’—I do not know how it is with other people, but when I hear such words as ‘state’ and ‘political’ on Dostoevsky's lips, I cannot help smiling—’it is necessary to expel the Tartars and to settle Russians on their lands.’ When the Moscow Gazette projects such a measure, it is intelligible. But Dostoevsky! Dostoevsky who called himself a Christian, who so passionately preaches love to one's neighbour, self-abasement, self-renunciation, who taught that Russia must ‘serve the nations’—how could he be taken with an idea so rapacious? And indeed almost all his political ideas have the mark of rapacity upon them: to grab and grab, and still to grab... As the occasion demands, he now expresses the hope that we may have Germany's friendship, and again threatens her; now he argues that we have need of England, and again he asserts that we could do without her,—just like a leader-writer in a bien-pensant provincial paper.

One thing alone makes itself felt among all these ludicrous and eternally contradictory assertions,—Dostoevsky understands nothing, absolutely nothing, about politics, and moreover, he has nothing at all to do with politics. He is forced to go in tow of others who, compared with him, are utter nonentities, and he goes. Even his ambition—and he had a colossal ambition, an ambition unique in its kind, as befitted a universal man—suffers not one whit: chiefly because men expected prophecy from him, because the next title to that of a great writer is that of a prophet, and because a ring of conviction and a loud voice are the signs of the prophetic gift. Dostoevsky could speak aloud: he could also speak with the tone of one who knows secrets, and of one with authority. One learns much in the underworld. All these things served him. Men took the poet laureate of the existing order for the inspirer of thoughts and the governor of Russia's remotest destinies. It was enough for Dostoevsky. It was even necessary for Dostoevsky. He knew of course that he was no prophet; but he knew that there had never been one on earth, and that those who were prophets had no better right to the title than he.


I will permit myself to remind the reader of Tolstoy's letter to his son, lately published by the latter in the newspapers. It is very interesting. Once more, not from the standpoint of the practical man who has to decide the questions of the day—from this standpoint Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and their similars are quite useless—but man does not live by bread alone.

Even now in the terrible days through which we have to live, now, if you will, more than ever before, one cannot read newspapers alone, nor think only of the awful surprises which to-morrow prepares for us. To every one is left an hour of leisure between the reading of newspapers and party programmes, if it be not an hour in the day when the noise of events and the pressure of immediate work distracts, then an hour in the deep night, when everything that was possible has been already done, and everything that was required has been said. Then come flying in the old thoughts and questions, frightened away by business, and for the thousandth time one returns to the mystery of human genius and human greatness. Where and how far can genius know and accomplish more than ordinary men?

Then Tolstoy's letter, which during the day aroused only anger and indignation,—it is not outrageous and revolting, think some, that in the great collision of forces which contend with one another in Russia, Tolstoy cannot distinguish the right force from the wrong, but stigmatises all the struggling combatants by the one name of ungodly? During the day, I say, it is surely outrageous: in the daytime we would like Tolstoy to be with us and for us, because we are convinced that we and we alone are seeking the truth, nay, that we know the truth, while our enemies are defending evil and falsehood, whether in malice or in ignorance. But this is during the day. In the night-time, things are changed. One remembers that Goethe also overlooked, simply did not notice, the great French Revolution. True, he was a German who lived far from Paris, while Tolstoy lives close to Moscow, where men, women, and children have been shot, cut down, and burnt alive. Moreover, there is no doubt that Tolstoy has overlooked not merely Moscow, but everything that went before Moscow. What is happening now does not seem to him important or extraordinary. For him only that is important to which he, Tolstoy, has set his hand: all that occurs outside and beside him, for him has no existence. This is the great prerogative of great men. And sometimes it seems to me—perhaps it is only that I would have it seem so—as though there were in that prerogative a deep and hidden meaning.

When we have no more strength in us to listen to the endless tales of horrible atrocities which have already been committed, and to anticipate in imagination all that the future holds in store for us, then we recall Tolstoy and his indifference. It is not in our human power to return the murdered fathers and mothers to the children nor the children to their fathers and mothers. Nor stands it even in our power to revenge ourselves upon the murderers, nor will vengeance reconcile every one to his loss. And we try no longer to think with logic, and to seek a justification of the horrors there where there is and can be none. What if we ask ourselves whether Tolstoy and Goethe did not see the Revolution and did not suffer its pains, only because they saw something else, something, it may even be, more necessary and important? Maybe there are indeed more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our philosophy.

Now we may return to Dostoevsky and his ‘ideas’; we may call them fearlessly by the names which they deserve, for though Dostoevsky is a writer of genius, this does not mean that we must forget our daily needs. The night and the day have each their rights. Dostoevsky wanted to be a prophet, he wanted people to listen to him and cry ‘Hosanna!’ because, I say again, he thought that if men had ever cried ‘Hosanna!’ to any one, then there was no reason why he, Dostoevsky, should be denied the honour. That is the reason why in the ‘seventies he made his appearance in the new role of a preacher of Christianity, and not of Christianity merely, but of orthodoxy.

Again, I would draw attention to the far from accidental circumstances that his preaching coincided with the ‘serenest’ period of his life. He who had in time past been a homeless wanderer, a poor man who had not where to lay his head, had provided himself with a family and a house of his own, even with money (for his wife was saving). The failure had become a celebrity; the convict a full citizen. The underworld, whereinto his fate had but lately driven him, it might seem for ever, now appeared to him a phantasmagoria which never had been real. In the galleys and the underworld had been born within him a great hunger for God which lived long; there he fought a great fight, the fight of life against death; there for the first time were made the new and awful experiments which allied Dostoevsky with everything that is rebellious and restless on earth. What Dostoevsky wrote during the closing years of his life (not merely The Diary of a Writer, but The Brothers Karamazov as well) has value only in so far as Dostoevsky's past is reflected therein. He made no new step onwards. As he was, so he remained, on the eve of a great truth.

But in the old days that did not suffice him, he hungered for something beyond; but now he does not want to struggle, and he cannot explain to himself or to others what is really happening within him. He pretends to be struggling still, nay, more, he behaves as though he had won the final victory, and demands that his triumph should be acknowledged by public opinion. He loves to think that the night is already past and the actual day begun: and the galleys and the underworld, reminding him that the day is not yet, are no more. All the evidences of a complete illusion of victory seem to be there—let him only choose the text and preach! Dostoevsky clutched at orthodoxy. Why not Christianity? Because Christianity is not for him who has a house, a family, money, fame, and a fatherland. Christ said: ‘Let him leave all that he hath and follow me.’ But Dostoevsky was afraid of solitude, he desired to be the prophet of modern, settled men to whom pure Christianity, unadapted to the needs of civilised existence in a governed state, is unfitted. How should a Christian seize Constantinople, drive out the Tartars from the Crimea, reduce all Slavs to the condition of the Poles, and the rest—for all the projects of Dostoevsky and the Moscow Gazette defy enumeration? So, before accepting the Gospel, he must explain it...

However strange it may appear, it must be confessed that one cannot find in the whole of literature a single man who is prepared to accept the Gospel as a whole, without interpretation. One man wants to seize Constantinople according to the Gospel, another to justify the existing order, a third to exalt himself or to thrust down his enemy; and each considers it as his right to diminish from, or even to supplement, the text of Holy Writ. I have, of course, only those in view who acknowledge, at least in word, the divine origin of the New Testament; since he who sees in the Gospel only one of the more or less remarkable books of his library, naturally has the right to subject it to whatever critical operations he may choose.

But here we have Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Vladimir Soloviev. It is generally believed, and the belief is particularly supported and developed by the most recent criticism, that Tolstoy alone rationalised Christianity, while Dostoevsky and Soloviev accepted it in all the fullness of its mysticism, denying reason the right to separate truth from falsehood in the Gospel. I consider this belief mistaken: for Dostoevsky and Soloviev were afraid to accept the Gospel as the fountain of knowledge, and relied much more upon their own reason and their experience of life than upon the words of Christ. But, if there was a man among us who, though but in part, took the risk of accepting the mysterious and obviously dangerous words of the Gospel precepts, that man was Leo Tolstoy. I will explain myself.

We are told that Tolstoy made the attempt, in his works published abroad, to explain the miracles of the Gospel in a way intelligible to human reason. Dostoevsky and Soloviev, on the other hand, readily accepted the inexplicable. But generally the miracles of the Gospel attract the people who believe least, for it is impossible to repeat the miracles, and this being so, then it follows that a merely external faith is sufficient, a mere verbal assertion. A man says that he believes in miracles: his reputation as a religious man is made both in his own mind and in others, and as for the rest of the Gospel, there remains ‘interpretation.’ Consider, for instance, the doctrine of non-resistance to evil. It need not be said that the doctrine of non-resistance is the most terrible, and the most irrational, and mysterious thing that we read in the Gospel. All our reasoning soul is indignant at the thought that full material freedom should be given to the murderer to accomplish his murderous acts. How can you allow a murderer to kill an innocent child before your very eyes, and yet not draw the sword? Who has the right to give that abominable precept?

Soloviev [3] and Dostoevsky alike repeat that question, the one in a disguised, the other in an open attack on Tolstoy. Yet since the Gospel plainly declares ‘Resist not evil,’ both of our believers in miracles have suddenly remembered reason and turned to its testimony, knowing that reason will naturally destroy any meaning whatever that may be in the precept. In other words, they repeat the question of the doubting Jews concerning Christ: ‘Who is He that speaketh as one having authority?’ God commanded Abraham that he should offer up his son. By his reason, his human reason, Abraham refused to acknowledge any intelligible meaning in the cruel command, but yet made ready to act according to the word of God and made no attempt to rid himself of the hard and inhuman obligation by cunning interpretation. But Dostoevsky and Soloviev refuse to fulfill Christ's demands so soon as they find no justification in the human reason. Yet they say that they believe that Lazarus was raised from the dead and that the man who was sick of a palsy was cured, and all the other miracles which are related by the Apostles. Why then does their belief end just at the point where it begins to place obligations upon them? Why the sudden recourse to reason, when we know exactly that Dostoevsky came to the Gospels only to be rid of the power of reason?

But that was in the days of the underworld. Now the ‘serene’ period of his life has begun. But Soloviev, evidently, had never even known the underworld. Only Tolstoy boldly and resolutely tries to test the truth of the Christian teaching, not in his thoughts alone, but in part of his life also. From the human point of view it is mad to make no resistance to evil. He knows that every whit as well as Dostoevsky, Soloviev and the rest of his many opponents. But he is really seeking in the Gospels that divine madness, since human reason does not satisfy him. Tolstoy began to follow the Gospel in that clouded period of his life when he was haunted by the phantoms of Ivan Ilych and Pozdnyshev. Here belief in miracles, belief in the abstract, divorced from life, avails nothing. For beliefs sake one must surrender all that is dearest—even a son—to the sacrifice. Who is He that spake as one having authority? We cannot now verify whether He did in truth raise Lazarus from the dead, or satisfy thousands with a few handfuls of loaves. But if we unhesitatingly perform His precepts, then we may discover whether He has given us the truth...

So it was with Tolstoy; and he turned to the Gospel which is the sole and original source of Christianity. But Dostoevsky turned to the Slavophiles and the teaching of their state-religion. Orthodoxy infallible, not Catholicism nor Protestantism nor even simple Christianity; and then, the original idea: Russland, Russland über alles. Tolstoy could prophesy nothing in history, but then, as if deliberately, he does not interfere with the historical life. For him our present reality does not exist: he concentrates himself wholly upon the riddle which God set Abraham. But Dostoevsky desired at all costs to prophesy, prophesied constantly and was constantly mistaken. We have not taken Constantinople, we have not united the Slavs, and even the Tartars still live in the Crimea. He terrified us by prophesying that Europe would be drenched in rivers of blood because of the warfare between the classes, while in Russia, thanks to our Russian ideal of universal humanity, not only would our internal problems be peacefully solved, but a new unheard of word would still be found whereby we should save hapless Europe.

A quarter of a century has passed. So far nothing has happened in Europe. But we are drowning ourselves, literally drowning ourselves, with blood. Not only is our alien population oppressed, Slav and non-Slav alike, but our own brother is tortured, the miserable starving Russian peasant who understands nothing at all. In Moscow, in the heart of Russia, women, children, and old men have been shot down. Where now is the Russian universal soul of which Dostoevsky prophesied in his speech on Pushkin? Where is love, where are the Christian precepts? We see only ‘Governmentalism,’ over which the Western nations also fought; but they fought with means less cruel and less hostile to civilisation. Russia will again have to learn from the West as she had to learn more than once before. And Dostoevsky would have done far better had he never attempted to prophesy.

But there is no great harm done even if he did prophesy. I am glad with all my heart even now that he rested a little while from the galleys at the end of his life. I am deeply convinced that even had he remained in the underworld until the day of his death, yet he would have found no solution of the questions which tormented him. However much energy of soul a man puts into his work, he will still remain ‘on the eve’ of truth, and will not find the solution he desires. That is the law of human kind. And Dostoevsky's preaching has done no harm. Those listened to him who, even without his voice, would have marched on Constantinople, oppressed the Poles, and made ready the sufferings which are necessary to the soul of the peasant. Though Dostoevsky gave them his sanction on the whole he adds nothing to them. They had no need of literary sanction, quite correctly judging that in practical matters not the printed page, but bayonets and artillery are of deciding value.

All that he had to tell, Dostoevsky told us in his novels, which even now, twenty-five years after his death, attract all those who would wrest from life her secrets. And the title of prophet, which he sought so diligently, considering that it was his by right, did not suit him at all. Prophets are Bismarcks, but they are Chancellors too. The first in the village is the first in Rome... Is a Dostoevsky doomed eternally to be ‘on the eve’? Let us once more try to reject logic, this time perhaps not logic alone, and say: ‘So let it be.’

[1] In this English translation (1916), The Diary of a Writer is rendered as The Journal of an Author. I substituded the conventional title. - A.K.]
[2] Souvrin, the famous editor of the Novoe Vremia]
[3] War and Christianity, by Vladimir Soloviev.

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