Perhaps few experienced the restless 19th century as intensely as Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky (1821-81). His was a very strong experience of an era, his life full of personal misfortune. The artistic expression of what he lived through affected others as deeply as himself.

When his debut epistolary novel Poor Folk (1846) was enthusiastically received by critics, the young mining engineer seemed destined to become a successful writer. However, his career was abruptly cut short in 1849 when he was imprisoned and sentenced to death for high treason because of his participation in a reading group. He was pardoned in December 1849, literally at the last minute, and his sentence commuted to imprisonment.[1] He himself, in his novel The Idiot (1868), tells the story of a man known to Prince Myshkin: “This man one day, along with others, had been led to the scaffold and had already been read the sentence of death by firing squad for political offenses. Another judgment was read to him twenty minutes later. It commuted his sentence. However, during those twenty minutes, or at least a quarter of an hour, the man had lived with the absolute certainty that he would die within a few minutes.”[2]

In his Notes from the House of the Dead, Dostoevsky describes the next five years of imprisonment in the fortress of Omsk, years which marked him deeply. It is not, however, a true autobiography, but rather a fictional account with an autobiographical background. Another five years of exile in Siberia followed, during which he married the widow Maria Isaeva. Only in 1859, after a final exercise of grace granted by the reforming emperor Alexander II, the couple returned to European Russia.

The following years were characterized by travels in Central and Western Europe (which the writer comes to look at in an increasingly negative way), a love affair with the young and emancipated Apollonia Suslova, the death of his wife Maria, and his ruinous addiction to gambling. Dostoevsky elaborated on these experiences in his novella The Gambler. A decisive turning point came with his marriage to Anna Snitkina, with whom he lived for four years in Italy, Switzerland and Germany, and by whom he had four children. After a final loss in 1871, Dostoevsky at last abandoned the game of roulette, and spent the last 10 years of his life in Russia in a fairly conventional manner.

In his five great novels – Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, Demons, The Adolescent, and The Brothers Karamazov – Dostoevsky addresses both the fundamental events of his time and the important questions of humankind: the freedom of the individual; the role of extraordinary figures, such as Napoleon; the struggle for power between the pope and the nations; the liberation of the Balkan peoples; the birth of socialism; the relationship between Russia and Europe; the conflict between fathers and sons, and many others. In this sense, what elsewhere in Russian literature is found scattered among several authors – in particular, in the writings of his contemporaries Nikolai Gogol (1809-52), Ivan Turgenev (1818-83), and Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) – in Dostoevsky appears collected and observed as through a single lens.

Therefore, for theology it is no less important to consider how much life and thought are intertwined in him. We have already mentioned his experience of the proximity of death by execution that was interrupted at the last moment and his experience of imprisonment. We can add the profound reflections on good and evil and on repentance in Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, which acquire a particular relevance if we think of all the pain that Dostoevsky himself  inflicted, especially on his second wife, Anna, with his gambling addiction.

Particularly significant, however, is the relationship between his art, his thought and his epilepsy. In The Idiot he describes how the main character, Prince Myshkin, experiences the moments immediately before an epileptic fit: he lives them as an intense “tenfold” perception of reality, as a morbid state, and yet as “beauty and prayer,” and also as the “supreme synthesis of life.” In this regard, it seems obvious to connect with Dostoevsky’s epilepsy that prophetic gift, that existential awareness of what is happening, which Nikolai Berdjaev attributes to him[3] and that we can compare to the extraordinary experience of God experienced by Balaam (cf. Num 24:4) and Paul (cf. Acts 9:3-4; 22:6-7).[4]

The power of death

It should be added that for those who believe or are searching, it is always useful to go back to The Idiot. It is not by chance that in his pastoral letter on the eve of the new millennium Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini took up the famous question: “Which beauty will save the world?”[5] Also, it is not by chance that the encyclical Lumen Fidei (LF) quotes the words of Prince Myshkin when he saw the painting of the Dead Christ in the Tomb by Hans Holbein the Younger: “Looking at that painting might cause one to lose his faith” (LF 16). After the two World Wars, the genocides of the 20th century, and especially after the Holocaust, we can perhaps understand much better the feelings of Prince Myshkin and particularly of the young Ippolit, who is ill with tuberculosis, as they look at the painting depicting Christ tortured to death. Ippolit explains his feelings as follows: “Looking at that picture, you get the impression of nature as some enormous, implacable and dumb beast, or to put more accurately, as some enormous machine of the latest design which had senselessly seized, crushed and swallowed up a great and priceless Being, a Being worth the whole of nature and its laws, worth the entire earth, which was perhaps created solely for the coming of that being.” Nature here is represented as a powerful “machine,” which destroyed even Christ, the “priceless Being,” although here we should speak of human nature rather than of nature as such, because Christ was not the victim of a devastating disease, but of the violence of his fellow men, as Ippolit himself points out.

The power of death is manifested in the novel especially with regard to Nastasya Filippovna Barashkova. Just seeing her photographic portrait – and this is a further indication of how much Dostoevsky was in step with his times – Prince Myshkin is struck by her beauty. But even from her eyes the prince realizes that the woman must have “suffered terribly,” and expresses not only concern for her, but also hope, because what he sees is “a proud face, terribly proud. But will she be good? Here’s what I can’t say. Ah, if she were good! In that case, everything would be saved.”[6]

It turns out, however, that Nastasya Filippovna is not “good” in a moral sense, and for this very reason she comes to a bad end. She abandons the prince who wants to save her several times, preferring the passionate Rogozhin. The last time is while the prince is waiting for her at the altar to marry her. She does not marry him despite knowing that with Rogozhin “the knife is surely waiting for her,” but precisely because she knows he will eventually kill her. Thus, what the prince had perhaps already feared when he still hoped to save her is fulfilled: Nastasya Filippovna was, after all, condemned to death from the very beginning. And it is certainly no coincidence that the house where she is killed is located in the immediate vicinity of Semyonovsky Square, where Dostoevsky was once to have been executed.[7]

The reason for Nastasya Filippovna’s inner bewilderment is found in the sexual abuse she suffered as a girl. After the impoverishment and premature death of her parents, the girl was entrusted to a certain Totsky, a rich neighbor thirty years her senior. After moving her to a country estate, he discovered her beauty when she was 12 years old. He gave her an excellent education, and four years later began a sexual relationship with her. Now sexual relations have ceased for some time and Totsky wants Nastasya Filippovna to get married, providing her with a considerable dowry, so that the memory of the sexual relationship with her does not damage his reputation and therefore his marriage plans.

Nastasya Filippovna is strong enough to oppose such a project, but she is unable to leave behind the consequences of the sexual violence she has suffered, because she continues to feel guilty. Therefore, she leaves the prince, who is the same age, but inexperienced in life, because – unlike Totsky – she does not want to “ruin a child like him.” Her death is preceded by humiliations with sexual connotations, because, while she is going to church, she hears some onlookers shouting that she “is not the first and will not be the last” to marry without being a virgin, and she is compared to Cleopatra, who in the words of a ballad by Pushkin is described as a man-eating seductress. It is precisely these cries that induce her to interrupt her journey to the church to marry Myshkin, and instead go to Rogozhin, the man who will soon kill her. Even the murder itself suggests sexual abuse, because the wound inflicted by Rogozhin on Nastasya Filippovna is deep: the knife reaches directly to the heart, but the wound is almost invisible because there is hardly any blood. And this is exactly what sometimes happens after sexual abuse: the wound is deep, but (almost) nobody notices it. This is how, just as the mortal machine annihilated Holbein’s Christ, death also destroys Nastasya Filippovna, by the power of sexual violence.

Not even Prince Myshkin with all his good will is able to save her, because soon he is no longer the poor and naive “idiot” who had to return from Switzerland, interrupting his treatment for lack of money, and in whom Nastasya Filippovna had trusted blindly. In fact, the prince inherits a fortune, thus becoming in a certain sense part of the ruling class, while to Nastasya Filippovna his consolatory words appear empty, like “in the novels.” Therefore one is justified in questioning – as Michael Holquist does – the attribution of the role of savior to Prince Myshkin, identifying in the novel some “gaps in Christology.”[8]

A turning point?

However, it is not clear if Nastasya Filippovna is lost forever. In this regard, in fact, it is worth considering – with Tatjana Kaskatkina – a detail. On the very evening of her birthday party, Nastasya Filippovna intends to announce whether or not she accepts Totsky’s proposal to marry Ganya, the secretary of General Epanchin, Totsky’s friend. In addition, Totsky himself would like to marry one of the general’s daughters. General Epanchina’s wife then asks what day it is. When she is told that it is November 27, she reacts by saying: “It is really a good day according to certain calculations.” It is therefore an important date: in fact, on November 27 (according to the Julian calendar) the Orthodox Church celebrates the feast of the icon of the “Mother of God of the Sign.” It is said that during a war, while the bishop of Novgorod was carrying the icon in procession, she suddenly turned around, wept on the bishop’s robes and promised victory, which in fact came to pass.[9] But this is exactly what is said about Nastasya Filippovna: with a beauty like hers, a beauty that bears witness to “much suffering,” “the world can be turned upside down.”[10]

In fact, at Nastasya Filippovna’s birthday party there is a turning point when she refuses to marry Ganya and thus causes Totsky’s marriage plans to fail. The latter is then forced to recognize that Nastasya Filippovna is like a “rough diamond,” and that his efforts to transform her by means of the education he had given her have failed. From that moment on, the very powerful Afanasy Ivanovich Totsky disappears from the novel. Of him, who held Nastasya Filippovna prisoner for a long time, we only hear that “he had given himself up as a prisoner to a French woman passing through, a great lady, […] that they had married and left for Paris, and from there for some place in Brittany.”

Here, in spite of the death of Nastasya Filippovna, we can at least ask ourselves if her surname also refers to a turning point: because “Barashek” in Russian means “lamb,” while the name “Nastasya” (“Anastasia”) refers to “Anastasis” (in Greek, “resurrection”). In this way it is at least possible that Nastasya Filippovna Barashkova remains the immolated “lamb” and the victim of violence (sexual, or with sexual connotations), but perhaps she is also the resurrected victor, who has beaten the powerful and “immortal” Afanasy Totsky. For this reason, in the novel there is at least the idea that it could be true what Mary declares in Luke’s Gospel: God “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly” (Luke 1:52).

‘The Russian God and Christ’

The question of death and resurrection can also be considered from another perspective. The Dead Christ in the Tomb – the painting that could even make some people lose their faith, because it shows the superiority of death – is located in Basel and is a work of Western European art. Dostoevsky contrasts this painting (in stage fiction) with an Orthodox icon of the deposition. In fact, after seeing Nastasya Filippovna killed, Prince Myshkin loses his mind. He is taken back to Switzerland where he remains with his mind completely destroyed, surrounded by men and women as Jesus was surrounded by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, Mary, Mary Magdalene and John.[11] In this way, the Western dead Christ, where the corpse is presented alone and reveals the victory of death, is contrasted with a “deposition” in which the dead Christ is surrounded by a community of living faith. In fact, it is precisely at this moment that General Epanchina’s wife expresses her conviction that the West “is nothing but a chimera,” in which hope is worthless.

Prince Myshkin himself thinks that Russia should not allow itself to be “slavishly lassoed by the Jesuits,” but that “our Christ must shine in full light as a bastion against the West.” In fact, it is legitimate to suspect that, according to Dostoevsky, Western Christianity as such now had only a dead Christ. Protestantism, in fact, had replaced its vision of Christ with an arid moralism, as can be deduced from the story of Marie. This girl, whom the prince had met during his first stay in Switzerland and whom a passing salesman had abandoned after taking sexual advantage of her, is pointed out by the village pastor and teacher as a shameless and corrupt woman. Catholicism, on the other hand, replaces Christ with the omnipotence of the pope, but fails to hide its deception, and thus becomes the cause of atheism. This is precisely why in the future there will be “a renewed and resurrected humanity, perhaps thanks only to the Russian idea, the Russian God and Christ.”

Prince Myshkin – who, as we have seen, is by no means a successful savior – makes a futile attempt to propose the “Russian God and Christ,” in which the “Christ dead in the tomb” has established his kingdom. When Rogozhin shows him his copy of Holbein’s painting, saying that he likes to contemplate it, Myshkin, after a moment of upset, reacts by telling him two stories about the faith of the Russian people. In the first, a peasant spends the night in the room of an inn with a friend. At one point, the peasant discovers that his friend owns a silver watch and is overcome with the desire to get hold of it. Therefore, says the prince, “he took a knife and, when his friend turned around, he cautiously approached him from behind, took up his position, raised his eyes to heaven, made the sign of the cross and, after murmuring an anguished prayer to himself: ‘Lord, forgive me for Christ’s sake!’ with a single blow he slit his friend’s throat as he would a lamb [Baran: the word has the same root as Barashkova] and took his watch.” The interesting thing here is that the peasant, who commits a particularly heinous crime, is presented like a priest who performs a sacrifice, as a victim of his passion and as a person who, despite everything, hopes in God’s mercy.

Then the prince tells of a soldier he would have liked to condemn – although he later refrains from doing so – because he had sold his cross (of baptism) in order to buy alcohol, but he also tells of a young mother who makes the sign of the cross when she sees her child smile for the first time. And she explains why she does this: “You see, the joy a mother feels when she catches her child’s first smile must be just the same as God feels whenever, looking down from heaven, God sees a sinner addressing a prayer to him with all his heart.” And Myshkin concludes: “One grasps first and more clearly than anything else in a Russian heart” that “the essence of Christianity” and “the essence of religious feeling” do not depend on “any reasoning, on any guilt or crime, on any atheistic conviction,” but on God’s paternal love for his children.

The frontier experience and the question of God

With Dostoevsky’s biography in the background, the novel The Idiot invites us to approach the question of God not from the point of view of the moralism (presumed or real) of bourgeois Protestantism or Roman centralism, but from the frontier experience of Russian popular religious piety, as well as from illness (in Dostoevsky’s particular case, epilepsy). According to the novel’s testimony, this can lead to an intense experience of evil, but precisely because of this it can also lead to holiness and forgiveness. Those who believe or are searching are confronted with the power of death, especially when there is (sexual) violence behind it. At the same time, however, this frontier experience allows one to hope for resurrection in spite of everything.

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 5, no. 8 art. 6, 0821: 10.32009/22072446.0821.6

[1].       Cf. E. G. Novikova, “Nous serons avec le Christ”. Roman F. M. Dostoevskogo “Idiot”, Tomsk, Izd-vo Tomskogo Universiteta, 2016, 8f.

[2].      F. M. Dostoevsky, The Idiot. Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations are taken from this novel.

[3].       Cf. N. A. Berdjaev, Russkaja ideja. Mirosozertsanie Dostoewskogo (“The Russian Idea. Dostoevsky’s Worldview”), Moskau, Azbooka-Atticus, 2016, 423.

[4].       Cf. W. Klein, “Propheten / Prophetie”, in Theologische Realenzyklopädie, vol. I, Berlin – New York, Walter de Gruyter, 1997, 473.

[5].      C. M. Martini, Which Beauty Will Save the World? Milan, Centro Ambrosiano, 1999. Cf. F. M. Dostoevsky, The Idiot, op. cit., 554.

[6].       It should be noted that in Russian the same word, litso, means “face,” and also “person.”

[7].       E. G. Novikova, “Nous serons avec le Christ”…, op. cit., 8.

[8].      M. Holquist, “The Gaps in Christology: The Idiot,” in R. L. Jackson, Dostoevsky: New Perspectives, Englewood Cliffs, N. J., Prentice Hall, 1984, 128.

[9].       Cf. T. Kaskatkina, O tworiaschei prirode slowa. Ontologitschnost slowa v twortschestwe F. M. Dostoevskogo kak osnowa realizma w wysschem smysle (“The Creative Nature of the Word. The ontologicity of the word in the works of F. M. Dostoevsky as the foundation of a realism in a higher sense”), Moscow, IMLI RAN, 2004, 255.

[10].    Cf. T. Kasatkina, O tworuschki prirode s?owa…, op. cit., 253.

[11].     Cf. T. Kasatkina, O tworuschki prirode s?owa…, op. cit., 262f.