The Image of Christ in Russian Literature
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The Image of Christ in Russian Literature

Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Bulgakov, Pasternak

John Givens

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eBook - ePub

The Image of Christ in Russian Literature

Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Bulgakov, Pasternak

John Givens

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Vladimir Nabokov complained about the number of Dostoevsky's characters "sinning their way to Jesus." In truth, Christ is an elusive figure not only in Dostoevsky's novels, but in Russian literature as a whole. The rise of the historical critical method of biblical criticism in the nineteenth century and the growth of secularism it stimulated made an earnest affirmation of Jesus in literature highly problematic. If they affirmed Jesus too directly, writers paradoxically risked diminishing him, either by deploying faith explanations that no longer persuade in an age of skepticism or by reducing Christ to a mere argument in an ideological dispute. The writers at the heart of this study understood that to reimage Christ for their age, they had to make him known through indirect, even negative ways, lest what they say about him be mistaken for cliché, doctrine, or naïve apologetics. The Christology of Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Mikhail Bulgakov, and Boris Pasternak is thus apophatic because they deploy negative formulations (saying what God is not) in their writings about Jesus. Professions of atheism in Dostoevsky and Tolstoy's non-divine Jesus are but separate negative paths toward truer discernment of Christ. This first study in English of the image of Christ in Russian literature highlights the importance of apophaticism as a theological practice and a literary method in understanding the Russian Christ. It also emphasizes the importance of skepticism in Russian literary attitudes toward Jesus on the part of writers whose private crucibles of doubt produced some of the most provocative and enduring images of Christ in world literature. This important study will appeal to scholars and students of Orthodox Christianity and Russian literature, as well as educated general readers interested in religion and nineteenth-century Russian novels.

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CHAPTER ONE

THE CENTURY OF UNBELIEF

Christ in Nineteenth-Century Russian Literature
Believe me, your Christ, were he born in our time, would be the most undistinguished and ordinary of men; he would be utterly eclipsed by today’s science and by those forces that now advance humanity.
Vissarion Belinsky, quoted by Fyodor Dostoevsky, “Old People,” Diary of a Writer
BELIEF AND UNBELIEF IN RUSSIAN SOCIETY
In calling the nineteenth century in Russia “the century of unbelief,” I do not wish to argue that a great secularism descended upon the country between 1800 and 1900 due to which no one believed in God any longer. On the contrary, Orthodoxy was alive and well in Russia, which, by 1914, boasted some 55,173 churches and 29,593 chapels,1 along with hundreds of monasteries and tens of thousands of priests and monks. Russia was truly a Christian nation, united by a single faith whose calendar of feast days and fasts regulated the daily lives of millions of peasants, merchants, and members of the nobility. Icons occupied places of honor in the corners of rooms in peasant huts and estate houses alike and Orthodox practices and beliefs made up a common cultural fabric that bound all levels of Russian society together. At the same time, however, there was also a growing conviction, mainly among the educated strata of Russian society, that religious belief was something of a cultural atavism whose place in human society had long been superseded by the sciences and the ascendancy of rationalism as a guiding principle—the culmination, to be sure, of the secular impulse in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that accompanied Peter the Great’s Westernization of Russia and Catherine’s championing of Enlightenment ideas, marking these centuries as the beginning of unbelief in Russia, at least as far as Russian intellectual life is concerned. But it was in the nineteenth century in particular that various strains of materialism made significant inroads into Russian culture, giving rise to an aggressive secularism that became the very hallmark of the progressive intelligentsia and culminating in a revolution that would usher into existence the first officially atheist state in the world. The nineteenth century, then, more fittingly merits the label of the century of unbelief than do its predecessors.
One of the most eloquent champions of the secular mindset in nineteenth-century Russia was Alexander Herzen, an ardent opponent of the Church who believed religion, like the other institutions of tsarist society, threatened the autonomy of the individual. At the same time, Herzen argued that religion had ceased to be important in the lives of the educated class. He declared in his memoirs that “nowhere does religion play so modest a role in education as in Russia.”2 Here, as Joseph Frank reminds us, Herzen was “talking about the education of the children of the landed or service aristocracy, whose parents had been raised for several generations on the culture of the French Enlightenment and for whom Voltaire had been a kind of patron saint.”3 Other Russian intellectuals were much broader in their indictment of Russian religiosity. In his famous 1847 “Letter to N. V. Gogol,” Herzen’s friend and fellow socialist visionary, Vissarion Belinsky, proclaimed that the peasants, too, were hardly Christian in the true sense of the word. “The Russian muzhik utters the name of the Lord while scratching his behind,” Belinsky writes. “He says of the icon: If it isn’t good for praying, it’s good for covering the chamber pots. Take a closer look and you will see that it is by nature a profoundly atheistic people. It still retains a good deal of superstition, but not a trace of religiousness.”4
Belinsky is surely exaggerating for effect in his assertions about the atheism of the common folk, but he is right to insist that Orthodoxy was far from properly understood or correctly practiced across the Russian Empire. The question Belinsky is really asking is to what extent Orthodoxy can be considered primarily a cultural rather than spiritual force in Russian life, that is, a religion whose believers largely go through the motions of their faith—fasting, receiving the sacraments, attending liturgy, and so on—without understanding what they are doing and without feeling particularly religious about it. This kind of Orthodox Christianity is, at best, no more than a set of acknowledged ethical norms and ritualistic gestures. Certainly, this is the impression given in the story “Peasants” (“Muzhiki,” 1897) by Anton Chekhov, whose portrait of the ignorance, filth, and drunkenness of the countryside created a sensation when it was published in partially censored form (the Moscow censorship commission found the piece “too gloomy” and too great a potential indictment of the failures of the emancipation5). Belinsky would recognize his own comments about peasant religiosity in the following passage from the story:
Marya and Fyokla crossed themselves, fasted, and took communion every year, but without any understanding of what they were doing. The children were not taught to pray, nothing was told them about God, and no moral precepts were instilled into them; they were simply forbidden to eat certain foods on fast days. In other families it was much the same: there were few who believed, few who understood. At the same time they all loved the Holy Scripture, loved it tenderly, reverently; but they had no books, there was no one to read the Bible and explain it to them, and because Olga sometimes read them the Gospels, they respected her and addressed her and Sasha as their superiors.6
Herzen describes a similar situation in his own family in the late 1820s, about the time he turned fifteen. He writes that his father, a wealthy nobleman from an ancient Russian family, “believed to some extent, from habit, from a sense of decency, and just in case,” but notes that he “never himself observed any of the rules laid down by the Church,” and received the local priest at his house not out of “religious feeling” but rather as “a concession to the ideas of society and the wishes of Government.” Herzen was told “it was necessary to submit to such rites as were required by the Church,” but that he “must avoid excessive piety, which is suitable for women of advanced age but improper for a man.”7 He was made to observe the Lenten fasting requirements, “dreaded confession,” and found Church ceremonies “impressive” and “awful.” The Divine Liturgy caused him “real fear” but no “religious feeling.” When Easter brought an end to fasting, he ate all the Easter dishes “and thought no more about religion for the rest of the year.” But, like the peasants in Chekhov’s story, Herzen reserved “a deep and sincere reverence” for the Gospel.
In my early youth, I was often attracted by the Voltairian point of view—mockery and irony were to my taste; but I don’t remember ever taking up the Gospel with indifference or hostility. This has accompanied me throughout life: at all ages and in all variety of circumstances, I have gone back to the reading of the Gospel, and every time its contents have brought down peace and gentleness into my heart.
For Herzen, the attractiveness of the Gospels had much to do with their theme of social justice, the cause that became for Herzen “a religion of a different kind.”8
For progressive thinkers like Herzen and Belinsky, there was no other kind of faith. Christ may have been an admirable moral teacher, but the religion founded in his name was already thoroughly discredited among many intellectuals. One only has to listen to the precocious teenager Kolya Krasotkin in Brothers Karamazov to understand to what extent it was fashionable in mid-to late nineteenth-century Russia to denounce religion, even while professing begrudging admiration for the figure of Jesus. Kolya tells Alyosha (Aleksei Fyodorovich Karamazov) that he is “not against Christ,” who was, after all, “a very humane person,” but as an “incorrigible socialist” he believes that “the Christian faith has only served the rich and noble, so as to keep the lower classes in slavery.” Kolya goes on to declare (echoing Belinsky9) that Christ, were he alive today, “would go straight to join the revolutionaries, and perhaps even play a conspicuous part.”10 A bemused Alyosha can only wonder aloud how the teenager has managed to acquire such a conviction so quickly. In truth, the secularization of the educated classes in Russia proceeded apace, not only among Orthodox Christians, but also in Russia’s Jewish population.11
As early as 1861, the conservative critic Mikhail Katkov in the periodical Russkii vestnik (Russian herald) declared a new “religion” was already on the scene.12 That religion was materialism, and writers such as Nikolai Chernyshevsky, Nikolai Dobroliubov, Maksim Antonovich, and Dmitrii Pisarev were preaching it in the pages of the leading radical journals of the day, Sovremennik (The contemporary) and Russkoe slovo (Russian word).13 Though materialism as the object of passionate debate and partisan devotion peaked in the 1860s, its sustained influence was felt throughout the final decades of the nineteenth century, when Georgii Plekhanov and, after him, Vladimir Lenin championed a Marxist “dialectical materialism” that fueled the revolutionary movements that would topple the tsarist monarchy. Like Kolya Krasotkin’s socialist conversion, the growth of the materialist worldview in nineteenth-century Russia was swift, giving rise to the single most important paradigm shift in nineteenth-century Russian culture: away from belief in God and toward belief in humanity instead.
The century of unbelief in Russia, stretching from Herzen’s childhood skepticism to Chekhov’s quasi-pagan peasants, is not, of course, to be understood in absolute terms. Though church officials fretted over the declining religious habits of nineteenth-century Russians, parishes and religious communities thrived; Orthodoxy was championed by important writers and thinkers associated with the Slavophile movement; Russian children still learned to read from saints’ lives; and personal copies of the New Testament (and, after 1876, the entire Bible in Russian translation) were common possessions.14 Many of the most prominent writers of the century—Nikolai Gogol, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Nikolai Leskov, and even the future atheists Nikolai Chernyshevsky and Nikolai Dobroliubov (both of whose fathers were priests)—grew up in conventionally pious and religiously observant families. Tolstoy—no friend of Orthodoxy himself—declared in his Confession that the lives of the saints were his favorite reading.15 But, as Tolstoy also reminds us, the religious heritage one grows up with is easily lost “under the influence of knowledge and experience of life which conflict with it.” “A man very often lives on,” Tolstoy continues, “imagining that he still holds intact the religious doctrine imparted to him in childhood whereas in fact not a trace of it remains.”16
A similar argument may be made for Russian culture in the nineteenth century, at least as regards Russian literature. Although V. N. Zakharov claims that “up until the twentieth century, [Russia] had not so much literature per se as Christian literature,”17 a glance at the canonical works of the nineteenth century actually suggests that Russian literature was no more religious in theme or content than any of its European neighbors, and perhaps even less so. With the exception of those of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, the major prose works of the nineteenth century do not focus on questions of Christian metaphysics and refer to aspects of Christianity or Christian culture chiefly in passing, if they do so at all. As for the writers, most were as conflicted about belief as they were in their attitudes toward their native Orthodox Church.
RUSSIAN WRITERS IN THE CENTURY OF UNBELIEF
A case in point is the father of modern Russian literature, Alexander Pushkin. The product of a childhood that was “French, frivolous, and worldly,”18 Pushkin was initially remote from religion, vacillating between agnosticism and atheism as a young man. Certainly, he was irreverent. One need only look at a few of his early works on religious themes. His 1821 poem “Christ Is Risen” is addressed to a young Jewish woman whom he promises to kiss on Easter “following the law of the Godman,” Jesus Christ, only to add, bawdily, that, for another kiss, he is equally ready to adhere “to the faith of Moses” and even put into her hand “that by which one can tell / a true Jewish man from an Orthodox.” Pushkin’s “Epistle to Davydov,” written the same day as “Christ Is Risen,” quips that the poet/narrator’s “atheistic stomach / will not digest the Eucharist,” but might manage “if the blood of Christ / were a good Chateau-Lafitte.” That same year Pushkin penned his blasphemous parody of the Annunciation, The Gabrieliad (Gavriliada), in which Mary is visited by Satan, the Archangel Gabriel, and God all on the same day, each of whom has sexual relations with her.
While these poems do not necessarily constitute a metaphysical revolt on the young poet’s part, they do reflect a deep-seated skepticism over the claims of religion. This skepticism, however, did not prevent Pushkin from hailing Christianity in later years as “the greatest spiritual and political upheaval to have transpired on this planet” or from admiring Christianity as an important moral force in the world.19 Moreover, as Felix Raskolnikov points out in his article on Pushkin and religion, the poet’s poems on death from the 1830s increasingly feature religious motifs, leading some critics to make a case for Pushkin as a Christian writer.20 By the same token, however, the work he spent the better part of a decade writing—his masterpiece, Eugene Onegin (1823–1831)—is devoid of any significant reference to Christianity at all. Indeed, Pushkin’s heroine, Tatyana, looks more to superstition and folk belief to guide her actions early in the novel than to Christianity, and while she chooses to remain faithful to her older husband and rejects Eugene’s declaration of love at the end of the novel, her moral action does not stem from any apparent religious convictions. Indeed, the clearest kind of immortality the book espouses is that earned not by a prayerful life of faith, but by art. One of Pushkin’s last poems, however, “Desert Fathers and Virtuous Women” (1836)—a poetic rephrasing of one of the most famous prayers of the Lenten liturgy, the supplication of Ephraim the Syrian—is often cited as evidence of Pushkin’s turn to faith at the end of his life.21
Pushkin’s heir apparent, Mikhail Lermontov, exhibited a similarly vacillating attitude toward faith. His distinct contribution to Russian literature is the famous psychological portrait he drew of the first bona fide materialist of Russian fiction (identified as such midway through the novel): Grigory Pechorin from Lermontov’s 1840 novel A Hero of Our Time.22 Handsome, enigmatic, manipulative, and cruel, Pechorin is also a jaded cynic who has replaced belief with skepticism in his life and worldview. He looks at the starry skies and marvels that humanity once thought to look for aid from the heavens, noting how, unlike past generations, this one passes “with indifference from doubt to doubt, just as our ancestors rushed from one delusion to another” (188).
In an age where belief is no longer tenable, Pechorin is one of the first characters in Russian literature to feel the full burden of his existential isolation and the impossibility of any firm answers to life’s burning questions. “How can a man know for certain whether or not he is really convinced of anything?” Pechorin asks. “And how often we mistake, for conviction, the deceit of our senses or an error of reasoning?” (193). An amalgam of Romantic clichés and ironic inversions of that same Romanticism, Pechorin emerges as a thoroughly modern figure. He doubts everything, mistrusts both feeling and cold calculation and, as someone who lives his life “having already lived it through in [his] mind” (189), questions what passes for authentic experience and what, on the contrary, is mere simulacrum: a distorted copy of reality derived from the artificial constructs of culture and filtered through our expectations and misperceptions. His appearance on the literary scene set the tone for the questioning heroes who followed two decades later in the works of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy.
The contemporary of both Pushkin and Lermontov—Nikolai Gogol—would seem to present the first exception to our list of authors whose works are marked by religious or ecclesiastical indifference. Gogol, whose career was launched by an anthology of tales describing how good Christian folk battle the devil and his evil forces (Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka, 1831–1832) and was concluded by a collection of essays featuring homilies about the Orthodox Church, good Christian behavior, and Christ’s resurrection (Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends, 1847), is the most prominent writer on religious themes in the first half of the nineteenth century. Such a characterization comes with a rather large qualification, however. No writer of “idea novels” à la Tolstoy and Do...

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