Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and the Russian Revolution; or, Mystical Materialism

Oxford University Press recently sent me some beautiful cloth-covered volumes of Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Karenina and Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.  They are fairly sleek volumes, each a single color with author’s name, the title, a simple representative image, and the press in a single vertical line on the front and spine.  They are each translations from their Oxford World’s Classics series, which one can get in paperback.

The War and Peace volume is based upon the translation by Aylmer and Louise Maude from 1928-37, so hardly a new translation here.  But it has been revised, edited, and generally updated by Amy Mandelker in 2010.

By contrast the Anna Karenina volume is a recent translation by Rosamund Bartlett from 2014.

Only the Crime and Punishment translation is completely new with a translation by Nicolas Pasternak Slater and notes by Sarah J. Young, both copyrighted in 2017.

To be completely honest, I love Russian novels, though I clearly prefer Dostoevsky to Tolstoy.  I also really like Bulgakov’s Master & Margarita.  I read the Brothers Karamazov for fun at the beach as an undergraduate.  I was riveted.  When I taught Crime and Punishment for Columbia’s Core Curriculum, I even had the thought that if I had been exposed to the works of Dostoevsky especially when I was much earlier in my career (say, perhaps first year of college), my career path may have followed Russian language and literature rather than ancient Judaism and Christianity.  Maybe.

I personally wondered why OUP would publish cloth-bound books of volumes one can simply get in paperback or regular hardback.  They have done this with a lot of their classics, but it turns out my receipt of these particular volumes is part of a promotion for the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution.  So, this raises the question: what do Tolstoy and Dostoevsky (and their works) have to do with the Russian Revolution?  Especially given the strong Christian undercurrents in these novels?

When I taught my Global Christianity course at Illinois College, this was something that came up when looking at Russian Christianity of the late 19th and 20th centuries.  As Philip Walters notes, “In the Russian Empire, and later in the Soviet Union, political and social debate always tended to be initiated in literature.  Writers were regarded as prophets and as such taken much more seriously than in Western countries” (“Eastern Europe Since the Fifteenth Century” in A World History of Christianity, ed. Adrian Hastings, p. 308).  After Tolstoy wrote these two great novels, he had a religious crisis, which led him to a simple lifestyle, doctrines of non-violence, and a repudiation of the state.  He was excommunicated by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1901.  Dostoevsky moved from socialist circles to a conversion to Orthodoxy after he was imprisoned.  His novels play with the issues of sin and redemption (Crime and Punishment), to be sure, but also the contradictions of living a simple, moral life and modernity (The Idiot, Brothers Karamazov).

Still, what has this to do with Marxist materialism?  Dostoevsky at least started out in socialist circles, which led to his imprisonment for four years.  Moreover, Tolstoy sought a simple life of the people, and, through it, criticized the state (that is, the Russian empire before the Soviet Union).  Tolstoy himself was later admired by the Soviets for his criticisms of the church and monarchy.  Dostoevsky, however, since his career moved the other direction, did not find a similar place in the Soviet canon, especially perhaps due to his Devils, which critiqued the revolution from a spiritual perspective.  Nonetheless, in the 1960s and 1970s various people would come together seeking a religious renewal and apply Christian teachings to social problems.  For these figures, Dostoevsky would be one of the people they turned to for inspiration.

In short, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky used their novels to explore difficult social, psychological, and religious issues.  But they were ultimately also political.  The religio-political character of the novels – often inspired by a 19th century interest in Byzantine Hesychastic mysticism (see especially Brothers Karamazov) – were part of the moment of turmoil moving from the late empire and early Soviet republic in a moment when spirituality, being pure in heart (see Sofia in Crime and Punishment), and materiality, especially the poor and class conditions, were not opposed, but brought together in complex and overlapping ways in a spiritual concern for the poor and simple inspired by or inspiring a mystical materialism.


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