where the writers are
Dostoevsky: A Writer's Diary: Volume II, 1877-1881

If you don't love Dostoevsky or Russian literature of the 19th century, or if you are not an historian, this probably is a volume you can skip.

But if you are an historian in particular--more than a lover of Dostoevsky and literature of his century--you probably would want to read this book and think about what it means in the 21st century.

Here there is one overwhelming issue, what Dostoevsky calls "The Eastern Question."  This is the issue that pertains to Russia's mission, driven by Orthodox Christian values, protecting the Slavs of the Balkans and thereabouts from Islamic Turkey's encroachment and Western European machinations.

Second, one is exposed to Dostoevsky's almost irrational passion about the Russian "People," in contradistinction to the Europeanized class (he was a member) who mistook Russia's fate as lying in the west.

In combining these two issues (The Eastern Question and  The People) by virtue of Orthodoxy, Dostoevsky exhibits a genteel but Leninesque intensity that rejects anything other than either a universal or perhaps simply Asian fate for the Russians.

He argues, argues, argues, and you wouldn't want to try to wear him down. We are the true children of Christ, he says, whereas Rome is a secularized version of Christianity that when it lost true power through the Vatican picked it up in France and then ran smack into Lutheran Germany.

And Asia, including Constantinople, is Russia's destiny.  Likewise, one presumes, though he doesn't make the case, the Levant, including Palestine (now Israel.)

That Dostoevsky would blog at a length comparable to War and Peace on matters of political and military consequence is almost astonishing.  Here you have the master psychological novelist giving up his greatest strength--characterization--in order to try to make an abstraction called the People central to his writing.  It doesn't really work. He is syrupy in his devotion to these peasants. He overlooks what we can safely assume is a full quotient of human fraility and venality.  He insists that Christ dwells within the reaper's heart and the sweat on her back and the warts on her chin. And he rather genially won't give up, employing vast rhetorical skills and that unmistakable energy of his, the energy that created Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, and so many other much more compelling--riveting--novels and stories.

The level of historical and contemporary information he attains is nothing short of awesome. This is before the Internet, remember. This is before fresh newspapers at your doorstep.  People did have newspapers, of course, but they arrived late, and you had to recompose chronologies and reimagine realities out of sequence.  So one assumes he read all he could and did what people used to do: talked with others whenever he wasn't writing.

Toward the end of his diaries, just before his death, Dostoevsky muses about whether Russia shouldn't just forget about Europe for a while and concentrate on Asia.  He's prescient, in a way. He understands the minerals, oils and gases out there in Siberia and down in the Caspian basin. He foresees the geo-political fact that is beginning to dawn on the rest of us (here in the U.S.).  Europe is really only a little piece of what we call Eurasia, giving Europe far too much credit.  It's Asia that is humanity's fulcrum, not Europe, and not North America.  Hence, when we ponder Putin, we are well advised to ponder Russia's passion for authority at the top. This man is a czar reincarnated.  Mere ideology (Marxist-Leninism) isn't enough to hold 11 time zones together. For that the Russians expect a kind of demi-god to do the job, or the demi-god expects that of himself.

There are passages in this volume devoted to literature and society--particularly one incident in which a pregnant woman throws her step-child out a window and the child survives a forty foot fall--but these passages are diversions from the main argument: Russia is an Orthodox country, full of Christian believers, destined to bring the world a new "word."  It is almost impossible to believe that a writer so gifted in portraying impassioned evil could be such an advocate for self-sacrificing faith, but to a lesser extent, Tolstoy and Solzhenitsyn were cut from the same cloth. This is the way Russia is: on the margins of the world and determined to change all that, placing itself at the center.