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Ivan Timofeev

PhD in Political Science, RIAC Director of Programs, RIAC Member, Head of "Contemporary State" program at Valdai Discussion Club, RIAC member

Fyodor Dostoyevsky is one of the most well-known Russian writers in the West. He is often quoted during discussions about the “mysterious Russian soul.” Indeed, the classical literature of any country helps readers better understand its culture. However, very few people would think about using Dostoevsky for understanding not so much Russia as the West itself. What is happening today in the United States provides a good opportunity to recap the legacy of the Russian classic. Fully aware of the metaphorical and conventional nature of comparisons, the dynamics of the political struggle in the US are reminiscent of the characters of Skotoprigonyevsk − a fictional town in which the story of The Brothers Karamazov unfolds. These characters have the archetypal characteristics of American political forces. Even though any kind of comparative optic invariably distorts, Dostoyevsky’s archetypes provide an interesting picture and food for thought.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky is one of the most well-known Russian writers in the West. He is often quoted during discussions about the “mysterious Russian soul.” Indeed, the classical literature of any country helps readers better understand its culture. However, very few people would think about using Dostoevsky for understanding not so much Russia as the West itself. What is happening today in the United States provides a good opportunity to recap the legacy of the Russian classic. Fully aware of the metaphorical and conventional nature of comparisons, the dynamics of the political struggle in the US are reminiscent of the characters of Skotoprigonyevsk − a fictional town in which the story of The Brothers Karamazov unfolds. These characters have the archetypal characteristics of American political forces. Even though any kind of comparative optic invariably distorts, Dostoyevsky’s archetypes provide an interesting picture and food for thought.

Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov is the central figure in the novel, and is in some ways close to the current resident of the White House. Dostoevsky’s Karamazov Sr. is beyond politics. However, his figure can easily be seen in a politician’s chair. Fyodor Pavlovich is a successful businessman and one of the town’s richest residents. He is good at what he does in the real estate business as he relies on the law and the assistance of his attorneys. Karamazov Sr. is eccentric and cocky, but also assertive when it comes to achieving his goals. As with the current US leader, not everyone in Skotoprigonyevsk likes Fyodor Pavlovich. Some openly wish him bad luck. In addition, Fyodor Pavlovich is a great lover of life, which also annoys many.

Mitya Karamazov is a collective image of the inner circle and the campaign staff of the winning candidate. The trial of Mitya is one of the central themes of the novel. Generally, the drama of a trial with the arguments of the parties and the unpredictable outcome is more a product of American culture. It is all the more interesting that Dostoevsky's description of the court proceedings would have been appropriate in an American literature classic. Mitya claims his innocence during trial. The election headquarters staff similarly insists that they are innocent. Their actions could be described as impulsive or unprofessional, but not criminal. In Dostoevsky’s piece, the jury finds Mitya guilty. The US court acts with similar inexorability. Dostoevsky describes the sincerity and passion of the prosecution. The speech of prosecutor Ippolit Kirillovich in court is a masterpiece of speech craft. Time will tell whether the incumbent’s team will become the unwitting cause of his political death.

Ivan Karamazov quite aptly personifies the collective image of the current US administration. It is well known for its professionalism and rationality. Up until now, it could have been considered an example of Weber's professional bureaucracy − effective and reliable. Ivan Karamazov appears before us with a similar image. A rational cynic, relatively decent and honest, and critical of the antics of Karamazov Sr. He fully understands where the drama is headed. Awareness of his involvement in the unfolding story undermines him morally and physically. Ivan can play a decisive role in assuring that the court hands down a fair ruling. However, being on the verge of insanity, he loses the ability to influence the outcome. At the end of the novel, the fate of Ivan remains unknown. He is on the verge of life and death after a severe nervous breakdown. Dostoevsky leaves his fate for the reader to decide.

The images of Alyosha and Elder Zosima are so firmly associated with Dostoevsky's Orthodox mysticism and Russia that it is difficult to find analogies in the contemporary United States. However, they can be seen, especially if we leave the religious and mystical component aside. The image of Elder Zosima is projected onto a venerable sage who, during the Cold War, held key positions in the administration. In Skotoprigonyevsk, Elder Zosima is revered by everyone, although many secretly envy him. So the great elder of American foreign policy remains an icon and an example for many. However, populists and politicians have drowned his realistic outlook in their blabber, and it remains a guideline only for the chosen ones. Alyosha Karamazov is more of a collective character. He represents young American Russianists: patriots with enough integrity to call things by their names.

Given the nature of Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, there is a place for archetypical Grushenka − Agrafena Alexandrovna Svetlova − in American life. There are so many sex scandals in America that Grushenka could pamper herself with a wide choice of roles. It's hard to imagine Grushenka as an actress in immodest films, but the logic of the relationship between Fyodor Pavlovich and Agrafena Alexandrovna fully corresponds to the spirit of American drama.

Of course, Pavel Smerdyakov is one of the novel’s sinister figures. He appears as an awkward, uncouth, helpless and almost marginal character. At the same time, he’s a resolute, strong character capable of accomplishing things that determine the storyline of the novel: a combination of ignorance and determination as the embodiment of evil. One could be tempted to associate Smerdyakov with what is called the “deep state” in America. The metaphor would be appropriate to describe the current political atmosphere. Smerdyakov is staring at a heavy snuffbox in Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov's office, which he will later use to crack his head open while placing the blame on Mitya. In a sense, this is logical, because Smerdyakov is Fyodor Pavlovich's flesh and blood. However, the murder will predetermine the fate of Smerdyakov himself. His end is well known: a nervous system disease and suicide. No one wants this metaphor to become part of American reality. In the “deep state,” there are probably many who would wish to use a snuffbox to deliver political death to their opponent while blaming the campaign staff. Could that be the beginning of the end of the murderer himself?

Of course, the picture isn’t complete without one more character. The devil. Given the current realities, Russia, or rather the Russian leader, is a good fit for this role. Was the devil involved in the outcome of the trial and the novel itself through the dialogues with Ivan Karamazov? Was there an intervention or not? Was the devil even there? For Ivan Karamazov, who was on the verge of insanity, a conversation with the devil was an indisputable fact. For others, at least a controversial episode. It is symptomatic that the simple-hearted Mitya Karamazov never dealt with the devil. The American public today is so obsessed with the figure that it would have become emotional at the sight of Hollywood-style justice, but with a silver bullet and an aspen stake. However, the devil is cunning and elusive. Interestingly, Dostoevsky’s devil is just an illusion, a simulacrum of evil. The real evil lies in a different realm. And it is triumphant. Dostoyevsky, however, leaves us hope. Presumably, there is hope in real life, too.

Author: Ivan Timofeev is Programme Director of the Valdai Discussion Club, Director of Programs at Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC).

First published in Valdai Discussion Club.


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