Dostoevsky on Russia’s Mission

Philosopher Nikolai Onufriyevich Lossky (1870-1965) outlines Fyodor Dostoevsky’s vision of Russia’s transcendent mission – to bring the world to the God-Man Christ, Whose fullest expression is found in the ancient faith upheld by Byzantium and adopted by Grand Prince Vladimir in 988. Salvation comes from the East. Translated by Mark Hackard.

Knowing the deep religious basis of the Russian spirit, Dostoevsky, despite all the shortcomings of the people, believed that it stood to the Russians to carry out a great mission in Europe. He saw “the essence of Russia’s calling” in “revealing to the world the unknown Russian Christ, Whose principle lies in our native Orthodoxy” (Letter to Strakhov, 1869, No. 325). In view of the breadth of the Russian mind and character, Dostoevsky was confident that the Christian spirit would be expressed in the ability to develop a synthesis of opposing ideas and aspirations that divide the peoples of Europe, whence would be achieved not only theoretical but practical reconciliation of all disputes.

It is remarkable that this ability and passion of the Russian mind for all-encompassing synthesis was noted long before Dostoevsky, as B. Yakovenko shows in his History of Russian Philosophy, by many Russian writers, such as Prince V.F. Odoevsky, Belinsky, Kireevsky, and Shevyrev.[i]

In the 1861 magazine Vremya, Dostoevsky wrote that the basic aspiration of Russians was “universal, spiritual reconciliation.” “The Russian idea with time will become the synthesis of all those ideas that Europe for so long and with such persistence produced in its individual nationalities.” Western peoples seek to “find a universal human ideal in themselves and by their own powers, and therefore they altogether harm themselves and their cause.” “The idea of universal humanity ever more wears away between them. Among each of them it takes a different type, dulls, and assumes in consciousness a new form. The Christian bond that up to this time united them loses strength with every day.” To the contrary, in the Russian character, “the capability for high synthesis, a gift for universal reconcilability and humanity is predominant.” “He gets along with everyone and is accustomed to all. He sympathizes with all that is human regardless of nationality, blood, and soil. He finds and immediately allows for reasonableness in all, if only there is to be some universal human interest.” “This is why Europeans completely do not understand Russians, and the greatest feature of their character they have called impersonality” (Ibid, III). In the work of Russia’s greatest poet, Pushkin, this “Russian ideal – integrality, universal reconcilability, and humanity” was incarnated (Ibid, V).

Namely the Russians, thought Dostoevsky, would set the basis for “the universal reconciliation of peoples” and the “renewal of men upon Christ’s true principles” (Diary of a Writer, 1876, June). The Eastern ideal, i.e. the ideal of Russian Orthodoxy, is first the spiritual unity of humanity in Christ, and then, by virtue of this spiritual uniting of all in Christ, surely the proper sovereign and social unification” (Diary of a Writer, 1877, May-June). Such an ideal is the application of Khomyakov’s formulated principle of catholicity [sobornost] not only to the order of the Church, but also to the sovereign order, the economic system, and even to the international organization of humanity.

The Spirit of the People, by Mikhail Nesterov.

The Soul of the People, by Mikhail Nesterov.

The Pushkin Speech that Dostoevsky delivered on June 8th, 1880, in Moscow was a supreme expression of his conviction that “Russian populism’s force of spirit” was the “its drive toward universality and universal humanity as a final goal.”

Concerning the interior order of the Russian body politic, here Dostoevsky also saw something akin to catholicity, pointing to the democratic ethos of all classes of Russian society. “Honesty, selflessness, directness, and the openness of a democratic ethos in the majority of Russian society are not subject to any doubt,” says Dostoevsky. In Europe, this ethos “up to this time announced itself everywhere only from below and is still barely fighting, while the vanquished (supposedly) upper classes still put forth terrible resistance. Our upper class was not vanquished; our upper class itself became democratic, or more accurately, of the people.” Therefore, in Russia “temporary adversities of the demos will be improved under the tireless and constant influence henceforth of such tremendous elements (for to call them otherwise is impossible) such as the universal democratic temperament and general agreement with this of all Russians, starting from the very top” (Diary of a Writer, 1876, May).

In the chapter “Dostoevsky’s Religious Life,” I posed the question whether Orthodoxy was for Dostoevsky a value in itself or only a means necessary for Russian political life. The answer given was the following: loving the Russian people, Dostoevsky began to look into what was dear to them and how their virtues were expressed; through this he discovered the inherent value of Russian Orthodoxy. The current chapter on the character of the Russian people should serve as a final confirmation of the notion that division of means and ends doesn’t have any meaning here: love for the Russian people and love for Russian Orthodoxy composed in Dostoevsky’s soul an organic unity, the two sides of which support and substantiate each other.

The course of Russian history seemingly disproves Dostoevsky’s conviction that the Christian spirit is the expression of the Russian people’s essence. Namely the Russian people enacted the most savage anti-Christian and principally atheist revolution. In answer to this apprehension it is worth reminding that revolution is a transitory condition of society. The Great French Revolution, despite brutal persecutions of the Catholic Church, did not destroy Catholicism in France. According to information from Russia, the Bolsheviks themselves admit that the Russian people’s religiosity is strong to this day. We can hope that after severe trials, Russian Orthodoxy will not perish, but will rather ascend to an even higher stage of consciousness and spiritual purity. Then shall the words of Elder Zosima be fulfilled, even if not in the way that Dostoevsky hoped:

The people shall meet the atheist and overcome him, and Orthodox Rus shall be as one.

[i] Б. Яковенко. «Dejinyruske filosofie», pg. 17.