If you remember one quote from Peter Leithart’s book, Fyodor Dostoevsky, remember this:
“Absurdity can be highly destructive” (136).
Such is the nature of tyranny, whether in 18th century Russia or 21st century America.
Leithart’s short book (193 pages, including references) is (largely) a series of fictional conversations between Dostoevsky and his friend Maikov, his second wife, Anna, his brother Mikhail, his lovers, his rivals, his enemies, his admirers, and himself. Thirteen chapters describe Dostoevsky’s life from childhood to the grave, including his arrest and sentencing to death by firing squad. Dostoevsky stands in line watching his colleagues being shot and awaiting his turn when an Imperial messenger arrives. The Czar has commuted the death sentences (of those who haven’t yet been shot) to hard labor in a Siberian prison. Of his time in prison, Leithart has Dostoevsky say this:
“It is true. It was a physical shock like nothing I had experienced before, but it was more shocking than that. It challenged everything I had ever thought. No, ‘challenge’ is too weak. It was a crossroads. No, too weak again. It dismantled me, flayed me, tore me into pieces, killed me, and then made me again. Belinsky made me an atheist, but there in Siberia I found Christ, found Him again” (page 43).
Leithart illustrates Dostoevsky’s Christian faith clearly but with a refreshingly light hand. In Chapter 4 “Seraph’s Blaze” the Siberian prison becomes Dostoevsky’s Sinai, the place all Christians must go prior to salvation: “He found me. Siberia was a tree of knowledge. I never saw anything until I had gone to Siberia, nothing at all; my eyes were closed tight” (page 43). In contrast to the treatment of Dostoevsky’s faith, the desire of the Russian elites to destroy Christianity was shown with hammer-like force:
“He was like all the rest [says Dostoevsky of Mikhail Bakunin, a Russian revolutionary]. They began with the fact that, in order to achieve peace on earth, the Christian faith has to be exterminated; large states destroyed and turned into small ones; all capital be done away with so that everything be in common, by order, and so on. All this without the slightest proof; all of this memorized twenty years ago, and that’s how it has remained…. It is a religion, but it is a religion of violence, blood, horror, terror, and destruction. Redemption by destruction, that is their gospel” (133).
A lighter moment in Dostoevsky’s intense and often difficult life is a brief musing on how he might escape his ever-present creditors. “I am at a crossroads…. Whether to go back to the roulette tables of Western Europe or retreat into monastic exile in Jerusalem or Constantinople” (108). An equivalent moment from fifty years ago might be the desire to run away from home and join the circus. (Today? When children live with their parents until they’re 35 years old, they have no debts and few worries that aren’t of their own manufacture. Their entire life is an escape to the circus. But I digress.)
Leithart’s Fyodor Dostoevsky is intended to highlight a life such that we might learn from that life. The author accomplishes this goal in an entertaining and engaging way that honors the literary giant who gave hope to the Russian people he loved, and perhaps hope to us as well.
I received a copy of the book at no cost from Thomas Nelson publishers in exchange for a review of the work.