Nina Khrushcheva, great granddaughter of the late Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, writes the following: “Russia is a hypothetical culture. Ruled by despots for most of our history, we are used to living in fiction rather than reality.” But if Russia exists in a fictional world, laced with larger-than-life characters and theatrical plots, what can we say about its notorious leader, Vladimir Putin? How can classic Russian fiction cast light on the leader and his aggressive policies?
Take the very real and consequential political drama in the Crimea, for example. A conflict that’s far from over, the Ukraine crisis has devolved into the bloodiest power struggle in eastern Europe since Yugoslavia was still a country. It started as a suspension of trade talks between Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych and the Kremlin, escalating into gun violence between pro-Western protestors and local law enforcement, leaving ample room for the opportunist Russians to infiltrate Crimea. But to Putin, his action wasn’t just about quelling the unrest. It was a matter of national greatness.
Andrew D. Kaufman, a scholar of Russian literature at the University of Virginia, claims that the Ukraine conflict “is not merely geopolitical. It’s a deep-seated drama of the Russian soul that has been around for centuries.” To Kaufman, the drama is suggestive of what 19th century Russian writers, particularly Fyodor Dostoyevsky, recognized as the Russian Soul. This soul is one that lends itself to imperialist authoritarianism.
The president’s actions in 2014, then, weren’t an isolated occurrence nor were they unique to him. With a nearly 70 percent approval rating, Putin stands on a firm base of support. But why? What about Russian society has given rise to this aggressive autocrat? To truly understand Vladimir Putin, we should turn to Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s writings that have consummately characterized the Russian Soul. As conceptualized by Dostoyevsky, the Russian Soul sheds light on Putin’s politics in dealing with the Crimea and Russia’s eastern neighbors.
When newly inaugurated president George W. Bush met Vladimir Putin for the first time, he was quick to appraise his character. “I looked the man in the eye,” Bush said in a press conference after the meeting. “I was able to get a sense of his soul.” The Slovenia Summit, as the rendezvous was later called, sought to establish a diplomatic relationship between Russia and the United States and establish a foundation for future negotiations. Throughout the meeting, Bush tried to assess Putin’s true intentions for Russia in a Post-Cold War era.
Because of conflicting visions for Russia as a world power, the United States took a closer look at Putin. His autocratic tendencies at home and intimidation of weaker nations abroad clashed with the Bush and Obama administrations. During his time in office, the Russian president has been an impenetrable, mysterious, stern figure. He envisions a powerful Russia that tightens its grip on citizens and neighboring countries in the name of patriotism. Joe Biden, in response to a Russian hacking incident that threatened to compromise the 2016 U.S. presidential election, dubbed Putin a dictator — “a man who confuses bluster with strength.”
Of course, despotism and aggression aren’t new to Russia nor Putin; the country has grappled with its national identity for centuries. A confused history of autocracy has shaped a Russian Soul that assures itself of Russia’s greatness and decisive role in world affairs. Bush didn’t need to look into Putin’s eye to get a sense of that; he could have turned to the Russian writers that have clearly identified it. Indeed, Putin is a product—a dangerous, tangible reflection—of the Russian Soul. And Russian literature, as Kaufman says, is “the place we see it in full flower.” The drama that unfolds in the Kremlin to this day can be traced back to the messianic vision of Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
Capturing the Russian Soul
Dostoyevsky believed that Russia had a heavenly ordained mission to lead a Pan-Slavic Christian empire. “Russia will thereby conquer and finally attract the Slavs to herself,” Dostoyevsky wrote in his Diary of a Writer, “At first they will apply to her in times of calamity, but subsequently, some day, they will come back to her, and they will all press themselves to her, with complete, childish trust. They will all return to their native nest.” Russia, in Dostoyevsky’s opinion, is the most spiritually developed of all Slavic nations. As the mother country of an intimate family of states, it would inevitably absorb these nearby countries and peoples back into the fold. And its leaders should work toward this motherly mission.
In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the spiritual turmoil that came with it, Russians clung to this triumphalist, messianic thinking. “After all the tragedies of 20th century Russian history, and the humiliations of the past 20 years in particular, many ordinary Russians are seeking unequivocal proof of their national worthiness—indeed superiority—among the family of nations,” Kaufman says. As opposed to Tolstoy, who was certainly a patriot but recognized the uniqueness, value, and humanity of every nation, Dostoyevsky claimed that Russia’s mission was “the general unification of all the people of all tribes of the great Aryan race.” As the Cold War dust began to settle, Russians embraced his idea of a nation destined to unite and rule over the near abroad.
Putin has appealed to this precise idea. “It is well known that Putin has circulated some of [Dostoyevsky’s] writings to his provincial governors,” said Dr. William Mills Todd, professor of literature at Harvard, in an interview with the HPR. Putin’s affinity for Dostoyevsky and other messianic writers over Leo Tolstoy attests to his preferred viewpoint—his thirst for a unified bloc of Slavic nations with Russia at the wheel. When Putin speaks of his “brothers in arms” or the restoration of unity between the Ukraine and Russia, he is echoing Dostoyevsky himself. When he made the aggressive move to seize the Crimea and annex it into the Russian Federation, he acted on the Russian Soul.
The Danger in Putin’s Interpretation
Dostoyevsky was a believer in the basic tenets of God-fearing Christianity and tailored his view of Russia with Christ at its center. Russian leaders, in Dostoyevsky’s utopia, would rule the Pan-Slavic empire with pure intentions, humility, and love. A Russia built on Christian principles of selfless charity would be non-coercive and welcoming to its neighbors in the Crimea. As a victim of state repression, Dostoyevsky was viscerally opposed to press suppression, political manipulation, and reckless, overly powerful government—all of which Putin exercises with abandon. He has moved to strip top media outlets of their independence and has turned them into channels for the Kremlin’s propaganda. Influential journalists critical of Putin’s administration like Anna Politkovskaya have been deliberately targeted and assassinated. To cause domestic unrest and legitimize his authoritarian actions, he propagates talk of foreign spies and Western interference in Russian affairs.
Putin, therefore, has twisted, disembodied, and fashioned Dostoyevsky to fit his interests. “As is so often the case with cultural borrowings, Putin has taken only those aspects of Dostoevsky’s message that he finds congenial to his purposes,” emphasizes Kaufman. Putin panders to a citizenry that feels a strong national identity and harnesses the public’s desire for a superior nation. He rarely quotes Tolstoy’s anti-nationalism and consistently cites 20th-century messianic philosophers. He paints a Russia divinely foreordained to lead in the future. And Putin will fashion his empire at all costs, even if that means spiting the West.
In a Kremlin influenced by Russian literature, Vladimir Putin embodies Dostoyevsky’s grand vision for Russia. It is a vision for Russia’s role on the world stage. It is one of Russian pride. He is “as soulful a Russian as they come,” adds Khrushcheva. “Yet he has the courage to live in the real world.” As he stands in a position of international prominence, Putin leans on the philosophical and cultural structure that Dostoyevsky built nearly one and a half centuries ago.
Image Source: Global Panorama/Flickr
Correction, January 13: a previous version incorrectly described the influence of Dostoyevsky’s philosophical and cultural structure as beginning nearly two and a half centuries ago. The correct date is nearly one and a half centuries ago.