Fyodor Dostoyevsky “My Paradox” (Extract)


Fyodor Dostoyevsky in 1863.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky in 1863.

Again a tussle with Europe (oh, it’s not a war yet: they say that we – Russia, that is – are still a long way from war). Again the endless Eastern Question is in the news; and again in Europe they are looking mistrustfully at Russia. . . . Yet why we should go running to seek Europe’s trust? Did Europe ever trust the Russians? Can she ever trust us and stop seeing us as her enemy? Oh, of course this view will change someday; someday Europe will better be able to make us out and realize what we are like; and it is certainly worth discussing this someday; but meanwhile a somewhat irrelevant question or side issue has occured to me and I have recently been busy to solve it. No one may agree with me, yet I think that I am right – in part, maybe, but right.

I said that Europe doesn’t like Russians. No one, I think, will dispute the fact that they don’t like us. They accuse us, among other things, of being terrible liberals: we Russians, almost to a man, are seen as not only liberals but revolutionaries; we are supposedly always inclined, almost lovingly, to join forces with the destructive elements of Europe rather than the conserving ones. Many Europeans look at us mockingly and haughtily for this – they are hateful: they cannot understand why we should be the ones to take the negative side in someone’s else’s affair; they positively deny us the right of being negative as Europeans on the grounds that they do not recognize us as a part of “civilization”. They see us rather as barbarians, reeling around Europe gloating that we have found something somewhere to destroy purely for the sake of destruction, for the mere pleasure of watching it fall to pieces, just as if we were a horde of savages, a band of Huns, ready to fall upon ancient Rome and destroy its ancient shrines without the least notion of the value of the things we are demolishing. […] But Europeans do not trust appearances: “Grattez le russe et vous verrez le tartare”, they say (scratch a Russian and you’ll find a Tatar). That may be true, but this is what occured to me: do the majority of Russians, in their dealings with Europe, join the extreme left because they are Tatars and have the savage’s love of destruction, or are they, perhaps, moved by other reasons? That is the question, and you’ll agree that it is a rather interesting one. The time of our tussles with Europe is coming to an end; the role of the window cut through to Europe is over, and something else is beginning, or ought to begin at least, and everyone who has the least capacity to think now realizes this. In short, we are more and more beginning to feel that we ought to be ready for something, for some new and far more original encounter than we had hitherto. Whether this encounter will be over the Eastern Question or over something else no one can tell! And so it is that all such questions, analyses, and even surmises and paradoxes can be of interest simply through the fact that they can teach us something. And isn’t it a curious thing that it is precisely those Russians who are most given to considering themselves European, and whom we call “Westernizers”, who exult and take pride in this apellation and who still taunt the other half of the Russians with the names “kvasnik” and “zipunnik?” [cf.: vatnik. – Sergey Armeyskov]. Is it not curious, I say, that these very people are the quickest to join the extreme left – those who deny civilization and who would destroy it – and that this surprises absolutely no one in Russia, and that the question has never even been posed? Now isn’t it that truly a curious thing?

[…] This is what I think: does not this fact (i.e., the fact that even our most ardent Westernizers side with the extreme left – those who in essence reject Europe) reveal the protesting Russian soul which always, from the very time of Peter the Great, found many, all too many, aspects of European culture hateful and always alien? That is what I think. Oh, of course this protest was almost always an unconscious one; but what truly matters here is that the Russian isntinct has not died: the Russian soul, albeit unconsciously, has protested precisely in the name of its Russianness, in the name of its downtrodden and Russian principle. People will say, of course, that if this really were so there would be no cause for rejoicing: “the one who rejects, be he Hun, barbarian, or Tatar, has rejected not in the name of something higher but because he himself was so lowly that even over two centuries he could not manage to make out the lofty heights of Europe.”

People will certainly say that. I agree that this is a legitimate question, but I do not intend to answer it; I will only say, without providing any substantiation, that I utterly and totally reject this Tatar hypothesis. Oh, of course, who now among all us Russians, especially when this is all in the past (because this period certainly has ended) – who among all us Russians can argue against the things that Peter did, against the window he cut through to Europe? Who can rise up against him with visions of the ancient Muscovy of the tsars? This is not the point at all, and this is not why I began my discussion; the point is that, no matter how many fine and useful things we saw through Peter’s window, there still were so many bad and harmful things there that always troubled the Russian instinct. That instinct never ceased to protest (although it lost its way so badly that in most cases it did not realize what it was doing), and it protested not because of its Tatar essence but, perhaps, precisely because it had preserved something within itself that was higher and better than anything it saw through the window. . . (Well, of course it didn’t protest against everything: we received a great many fine things from Europe and we don’t want to be ungrateful; still, our instinct was right in protesting against at least half of the things.)

I repeat that all this happened in a most original fashion: it was precisely our most ardent Wesernizers, precisely those who struggled for reform, who at the same time were rejecting Europe and joining ranks of the extreme left. . . . And the result: in so doing they defined themselves as the most fervent Russians of all, the champions of old Russia and the Russian spirit. And of course, if anyone had tried to point that out to them at the time, they would either have burst out laughing or been struck with horror. There is no doubt that they were unaware of any higher purpose to their protest. On the contrary, all the while, for two centuries, they denied their own high-mindedness, and not merely their high-mindedness but their very self-respect (there were, after all, some such ardent souls!), and to a degree that amazed even Europe; yet it turns out that they were the very ones who proved to be genuine Russians. It is this theory of mine that I call my paradox.

Vissarion Belinsky, lithograph by Kirill Gorbunov, 1843.
Vissarion Belinsky, lithograph by Kirill Gorbunov, 1843.

Take Belinsky, for example. A passionate enthusiast by nature, he was almost the first Russian to take sides directly with the European socialists who had already rejected the whole order of European civilization; meanwhile, at home, in Russian literature, he waged a war to the end against the Slavophiles, apparently for quite the opposite cause. How astonished he would have been had those same Slavophiles told him that he was the most ardent defender of the Russian truth, the distinctly Russian individual, the Russian principle, and the champion of all those things which he specifically rejected in Russia for the sake of Europe, things he considered only a fantasy. Moreover, what if they had proved to him that in a certain sense he was the one who was a real conservative, precisely because in Europe he was a socialist and a revolutionary? And in fact that is almost the way it was. There was one huge mistake made here by both sides, and it was made first and foremost in that all the Westernizers of that time confused Russia with Europe. They took Russia for Europe, and by rejecting Europe and her order they thought to apply that same rejection to Russia. But Russia was not Europe at all; she may have worn a European coat, but beneath that coat was a different creature altogether. It was the Slavophiles who tried to make people see that Russia was not Europe but a different creature altogether when they pointed out that the Westernizers were equating things that were dissimilar and incompatible and when they argued that something true for Europe was entirely inapplicable to Russia, in part because all the things the Westernizers wanted in Europe had already long existed in Russia, in embryo or potentially at least. […]

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, A Writer’s Diary (1873-1876).

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