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Our Teachers, The Russian Novelists

A reader sent me this wonderful 2016 Heritage Foundation lecture by Gary Morson, who spoke of what conservatives can learn from Russian literature. [1] 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, [2] 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. [1] There’s so much more. What a great essay!


56 Comments (Open | Close)

56 Comments To "Our Teachers, The Russian Novelists"

#1 Comment By Sergeant Prepper On March 15, 2019 @ 6:17 pm

TR asks, rhetorically: “And the Heritage Foundationistas are not ideologues?”

Morson is a professor at Northwestern. To the best of my knowledge, he is not a “Heritage Foundationista” in any obvious sense. It is a rather lazy way to dismiss an interesting thinker.

#2 Comment By Some reader On March 16, 2019 @ 4:51 am

A Russian,

Thank you very much, that was extremely interesting. Yes, I meant the ‘unique way’ idea, not literal Slavophilia.

The main thing I have read on this topic is Solzhenitsyn’s ‘The Russian Question’, which I found quite plausible. I don’t know if you know it; it’s a long-ish essay in which he “retells” Russian history since the Time of Troubles. His repeated theme is that Russia suffered from its involvement in European (political & military) affairs. He says in it that he thought it would take Russia two centuries or so to heal. The idea of the ‘unique way’ (and its ancestor “Holy Rus'”) seem plausible to me. On the one hand, Russia does have its own cultural traditions going back now for more than a millennium, and unique challenges and opportunities arising from its physical location and landscape, and on the other hand, the West will become a less and less attractive model as Europe implodes. So it seems to me that if the idea of the ‘unique way’ did not exist, it would need to be invented; and since it does exist, it can act to some extent as a self-fulfilling prophecy – using what other story can one organize Russian civilization in the long term? —I am told that Putin uses words and phrases deriving from Solzhenitsyn’s Russophilia in his speeches.

On Orthodoxy: I’m sure you’re right about its status now. Through an acquaintance I met a Russian girl from Moscow from a middle-class family who was clearly itching to repudiate Orthodoxy and travel to or at least affiliate herself with the West. But I wonder if this kind of sentiment is sustainable in the long term. Could Russia really repudiate Orthodoxy given its centrality to a thousand years of culture? The split means that the church now has the power to adapt itself to conditions specifically in Russia; and theologically the Orthodox self-understanding of “Tradition” is in some ways quite flexible and open to e.g. greater participation by the laity (to be clear, I mean, flexible not from the point of view of moral doctrine, where I think Orthodoxy is firmer than any Western denomination, but from the point of view of church organization – “Собо́рность”). Solzhenitsyn thought that the liturgy should be translated at least some extent into modern Russian. And inevitably over the long term there will be a shift of emphasis from urban to rural, where religion tends to be more central.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts…

#3 Comment By Fran Macadam On March 16, 2019 @ 11:39 am

“Do you know this? A Russian intellectual on socialism, written in the seventies of the last century. A very intelligent book, in my opinion. [3]

Yup. Wrote a review of it in 1980 for The Christian Inquirer, when I was an editor. I still have a copy.

I think Rod should look it over.

#4 Comment By Rob G On March 16, 2019 @ 1:49 pm

“Morson is a professor at Northwestern. To the best of my knowledge, he is not a ‘Heritage Foundationista’ in any obvious sense.”

Yep. One need not buy into a publication’s or organization’s entire package to write for it. I have friends who’ve written for both Heritage and Commonweal. Go figure.

#5 Comment By Thomas Kaempfen On March 17, 2019 @ 7:44 am

George Orwell fought in the Spanish Civil War (on the anti-fascist side, of course) which included multiple atrocities on both sides. And in his book Homage to Catalonia he noted the way each side decried only the other side’s atrocities and either ignored or excused those of their own side. He concluded (roughly paraphrased) that “If you can’t condemn your own side’s atrocities then you don’t really care about atrocities.”

It’s not at all hard to find the sort of casual dismissal of terrible inhumanity shown by those two college leftists of 1985. And it’s not confined to the left. In 2003, when the entire country was debating whether to invade Iraq, a thoughtless right-wing colleague proclaimed to me, “I don’t care who we bomb, as long as we bomb someone.” Such sentiments were commonly and openly expressed.

The point is not that casual barbarism is characteristic of the left or the right particularly; it’s that inhumanity is itself the problem, and it can be found everywhere on the spectrum, and in every human heart. Probably every one of us at one time or other has defended something we’d find unbearably horrible if done by our political opponents. Most wars are indefensible, and what’s more atrocious then war? Yet there’s always huge constituencies in favor of them.

Rod, you were right to disassociate yourself from people so nonchalant about the murder of an old invalid. Not because they were on the left, but because they were so inhuman.

#6 Comment By Kouros On March 17, 2019 @ 3:10 pm

I think there is a lot of confirmatory bias in Rod’s postings, especially on this new book project that he’s pursuing. And there isn’t much historicity and look at the primary causes.

While I can be accuse of generalizing things massively fundamentally I believe in the Golden Rule as well as in the fact that for the betterment of humanity, society needs a bit of re-shuffling which in my mind I would do it via two methods: economically taxation a la Picketty and politically via random selection of representatives (sortition), the way sexual reproduction with the chromosome recombination works.
These mechanisms could insure a more balanced society, otherwise the polarization could become explosive.
Now, the Anglo-sphere has benefited massively by the fact that always had outlets to allow the overflow of population to disperse, the 100 years war with France, the new worlds (North America, Australia, New Zeeland), the colonies (India, Africa) so they did not benefit from any serious class upheavals. Wat Tylor demands for a changed Magna Carta (which protected only the aristocracy) were quashed, and any class movement starting from the bottom was dully killed (there was a left wing during Cromwell’s Revolution, which was dully killed).
Stealing a cloth would put an English to the gallows before Australian Penitentiary Colony was established. So the Right in the Anglo-sphere was always extremely lucky and savvy in protecting the social hierarchy so much so that, as Orwell nicely describes, the lower classes were willing to defend it (there was always someone lower on the rung – i.e. the Blacks in US, as Lyndon Johnson nicely described). From what I have seen, the level of demonisation that the Anglo-sphere media is capable of exposing when the class structure is at risk (dominion over other nations: the attrocities committed by the Brits in India are great, and even the Irish famine is worth mentioning, hierarchy within) is unparalleled.
There is no equity in comparing Left wing ideologies and Right wing ideologies in their strive for power. Right always had the power and in order to maintain it has used anything to quell rebellions.
The Left, especially in Russia, have ultimately applied scorched Earth in order to consolidate the power. Same with the Nazis or Khmers. The Chinese had more problems with famine than with massive gulags and exterminations. The Chinese didn’t kill their emperor.
The lack of security would push people to extremes. Once the power is entrenched, and a new paradigm fully established, the persecution disappears.
The youth from 1985 that so riled you when faced with the decision to do the deed, probably wouldn’t do that. Throwing words is not killing and unfortunatelly abstractions and abstract ideas (of any nature, communist, theocratic, etc. are not helpful because they lack empathy, which is not something believers own – it has been observed in the animal kingdom especially among mammals quite often).
Any priesthood will go to excesses (Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius) to maintain its hold on the earthly power. Just look at the austerity endorsing economists.
And any revolution (including the woke/sjw) will try to become universal in reach (American Revolutionaries have unsuccessfully attacked Montreal). But this zeal is not supported by the “silent majority” – which, especially in the matter of woke, truly exists. So Rod should relax a little bit.