Home/Rod Dreher/Our Teachers, The Russian Novelists

Our Teachers, The Russian Novelists

Fyodor Dostoevsky (Edvas/Shutterstock)

A reader sent me this wonderful 2016 Heritage Foundation lecture by Gary Morson, who spoke of what conservatives can learn from Russian literature. Here’s the summary:

American conservatives can learn much from the great literary output of 19th century Russia. Though seemingly distant in time and place, the great Russian novelists faced intellectual and moral circumstances remarkably similar to those we find today in America and in the West generally. Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov all wrote in opposition to the powerful ruling class emerging in Russia and the West, the intelligentsia. The revolutionary doctrines of the intelligentsia pointed toward authoritarianism, sought the destruction of individuality and religion, and the imposition of pseudo-scientific doctrines onto human life. The weapon of choice for Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov to combat this was literature—the best means both to appeal to man’s sentiments and reason and to demonstrate their opponents’ utopianism and destructiveness.

And here are some excerpts that seemed especially relevant to things I’ve been thinking about lately. To start, the concept of “the intelligentsia,” a term that came to English from Russian:

Is life a matter of grand politics or individual souls? And can it be captured in a theory, or is there always what Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin called a “surplus” exceeding the grasp of any conceivable theory? The intelligentsia believed in theories and crises, the novelists in the complexities of ordinary, prosaic experience. For the novelists, people were not just abstractions or units to be sacrificed in the name of a theory that promised perfection, and they thought that the intelligentsia had far too much confidence—much more than experience could warrant—that their theories were correct and would have the desired effect.

In short, the intelligentsia was ready to sacrifice or enslave individuals, who did not really matter, to achieve utopia. Alexievich refers to such overconfident people as “slavery romantics, slaves of utopia.”


Alexievich quotes Varlam Shalamov, the Gulag’s second most famous chronicler, who declared: “I was a participant in a colossal battle, a battle that was lost, for the genuine renewal of humanity.” Alexievich then continues:

[And] I reconstruct the history of that battle, its victories and its defeats. The history of how people wanted to build the Heavenly Kingdom on earth. Paradise. The City of the Sun. In the end, all that remained was a sea of blood, millions of ruined lives. There was a time, however, when no political idea of the 20th century was comparable to communism (or the October Revolution as its symbol), a time when nothing attracted Western intellectuals and people all around the world more powerfully and emotionally. Raymond Aron called the Russian Revolution the “opium of the intellectuals.”

Today that opium calls itself “social justice.” This phrase has become a magic word, so that instead of arguing for a specific change by assessing costs, benefits, likeliness of success, and possibility of unintended consequences, one just uses the term “social justice.” One then treats all opponents as enemies of justice, the way Marxists treated their opponents. The possibility that people with other views may believe in justice just as sincerely but have different conceptions of what justice is—and the possibility that even opponents who do share the same conception of justice may have different ideas on how best to achieve it—such possibilities are not even imagined or are dismissed out of hand.

I always thought that the “intelligentsia” mean educated people. Not to the classic Russian novelists it doesn’t. Morson says that being one of the intelligentsia required these things:

  1. You had to be on the radical left (no conservative or moderate intelligentsia)
  2. You had to identify with the intelligentsia, over and against your family, your country, and anything else, and therefore be prepared to sell them out for the sake of the intelligentsia’s causes.
  3. An intelligent had to embrace a particular anti-social style of life.

Because of these criteria, none of the classic Russian literary geniuses were proper members of the intelligentsia. Not Dostoevsky, not Tolstoy, not Chekhov.

The intelligentsia, in the Russian conception, believe themselves to be the saviors of mankind, and extend their ideology to all of life. So, writes Morson:

To the extent that a group of intellectuals comes to resemble an intelligentsia, to that extent is totalitarianism on the horizon should that group gain power. I anticipate the real possibility that in the near future, we may live under a Putin-style managed democracy, and not some sort of Swedish-style social democracy, that could soon after morph into a Stalinist state. Or rather, one beyond Stalinism, since Stalin did not have access to today’s monitoring technology. That would make 1984 a libertarian paradise.

Yes! This is what my next book is going to be about — the warning that those who grew up under the communist dystopia created by the intelligentsia are giving us, and strategies for how to resist it! More Morson:

So far as I know, the only 19th century thinker to foresee totalitarianism was Dostoevsky. The reason he could, I think, is that he deeply understood the mentality of the intelligentsia and what it would do with power. Unlike Tolstoy, he had been a radical intelligent and recognized what he himself might have been willing to do. In one article, he refuted the idea, common among conservatives, that young radicals are simply “idle and undeveloped” people, as one journal put it. On the contrary, Dostoevsky declares:

I am myself an old Nechaevist, I myself stood on the scaffold condemned to death, and I assure you that I stood in the company of educated people…. And therein lies the real horror: that in Russia one can commit the foulest and most villainous act without being in the least a villain…. The possibility of considering oneself—and sometimes even being, in fact—an honorable person while committing obvious and undeniable villainy—that is our whole affliction!

And, I might add, it is ours today.

I recall the very moment that I began turning slowly but definitely away from the left. It was the morning of October 8, 1985. As I ate breakfast in my apartment and prepared to go work the left-wing student activist table at college, I turned on the TV news, and saw that Palestinian terrorists had shot and killed Leon Klinghoffer, an elderly American wheelchair-bound Jew, and dumped his body into the Mediterranean from the cruise ship they had commandeered. I was outraged by this act of cruelty, and couldn’t get it off my mind. When I arrived at the table, I told the two older students already there how upset I was by the fate of Klinghoffer.

The tall guy got angry, and said, “You always hear about Palestinian terrorism. How come you never hear about Israeli terrorism?” He went on like that for a minute or two.

Then the short guy, a Puerto Rican with thick glasses that made him look like an owl, said gently, “Well, if he was rich enough to go on the cruise, then he deserved what he got.”

That was it for me and the progressive students. I have to be grateful to them for showing me their cards so early in my involvement with them. I was a naive freshman, but a little less naive after that morning.

Whenever I see the SJWs on campus today, I think of those two fanatical intelligentsia at the table that morning, happy to see an elderly American Jew in a wheelchair shot in the head and dumped overboard, in the first guy’s case because Klinghoffer was a Jew (and that meant tied to Israel), in the second guy’s case because Klinghoffer was rich.

I met a young academic on my travels last weekend, a man who has spent almost half his life studying in a particular field. He told me that it has become so woke that he fears for his career. He is a white male, which means he has a target on his back. He told me specifics of something that just happened in his department — I won’t reveal it here, to protect his privacy — as a result of an event that made national news. What happened is extremely unjust and destructive by any normal person’s reckoning, but of course this is a matter of “social justice,” so all is permitted. That kind of thing reminded me of these bits from Morson’s talk:

Chekhov particularly hated this “artificial, overwrought solidarity,” as he called it, because it entailed not thinking but repeating orthodoxies.

And this quote from Solzhenitsyn:

Ideology—that is what gives…the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination. That is the social theory which helps to make his acts seem good instead of bad in his own and others’ eyes, so that he won’t hear reproaches and curses and will receive praises and honors.

My book will be about how to fight this ideology here and now. The trick is not just to fight it openly, but more importantly, not to let it creep into your heart, your mind, your soul.

Read it all. There’s so much more. What a great essay!


about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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