Why Dostoevsky Loved Humanity and Hated the Jews

The case of the literary master helps explain why people who devote themselves to compassion for all so often make an exception for Jews.

From a portrait of Fyodor Dostoevsky by Vasily Perov, 1872. Wikipedia.

From a portrait of Fyodor Dostoevsky by Vasily Perov, 1872. Wikipedia.

Dec. 4 2023
About the author

Gary Saul Morson is the Lawrence B. Dumas professor of the arts and humanities at Northwestern University and the author of, among other books, Anna Karenina in Our Time (Yale).

Call it the Dostoevsky problem, although it concerns more than Dostoevsky. On the one hand, he was the great writer of compassion for all who suffer. On the other, he became, toward the end of his life, an extreme anti-Semite. So the first question is: how was it possible for these two impulses to cohere in the same consciousness, and how did Dostoevsky reconcile them? The second is: how and why did he become such an anti-Semite, apparently in 1876, when he had never been especially concerned with Jews and a decade earlier had advocated equal rights for them?

The Dostoevsky problem raises issues that have bothered me since my college years and that have acquired new urgency recently. What makes people hold horrendous beliefs? How could so many well-educated people have embraced anti-Semitic ideology? The usual answers beg the question. We are told: they were anti-Semitic because they were filled with hate, which reminds me of the character in Molière who explains that poppy makes people sleepy because it has a soporific principle. Or: they are afflicted with “virulent” anti-Semitism, as if some pathogen outside their control had commandeered their will. (Virulence is, in biology, a pathogen’s ability to damage a host cell.) That explanation seems like an updated version of demonic possession.

Trying to understand Soviet interrogators who tortured prisoners they knew to be innocent, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn points out that no one (or almost no one) thinks of himself as evil. In their own eyes, such people are doing good. He mentions the wife of an interrogator who was proud of his ability to get confessions: a night with her husband, she boasted, and they all come around. I grew up among American Communists and wondered how otherwise decent people, who knew what Stalin had done, could support him. Members of my own generation had nice things to say about “the chairman” at the height of the Cultural Revolution. Today, it’s students devoted to social justice who support Hamas.

Time and again, people who think of themselves as devoted to the good, and who in other circumstances behave with gentleness and consideration for others, cheer for butchers. The Dostoevsky problem, precisely because he was the supreme apostle of compassion, may help us grasp evil sincerely done in the name of good.

To understand how evil arises is not to excuse it. The French proverb—tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner—is not true. There have been times when, coming to understand how people thought, I realized they were even worse than I had imagined.

Dismissing people as “hateful,” calling their beliefs “virulent,” or referring to their “psychopathology,” does not advance our understanding. If butchery appealed only to a handful of mentally ill people, it would not take over whole nations. If we are to counter evil effectively, we must grasp how it happens.

Doing so can be unpleasant, because it demands a kind of empathy with people who endorse or do horrible things. When historians examine distant periods with values very different from our own, they do not (or should not) just condemn their benightedness. Good anthropologists must suspend their own moral standards if they are to describe remote cultures. Only then can they help us grasp why beliefs we regard as absurd seemed reasonable. In the same way, we must, so far as possible, enter into the minds and hearts of those who accept awful beliefs.

When I first became aware of the Dostoevsky problem a half century ago, I set out to explore how Dostoevsky scholars had addressed it, only to discover that, by and large, they hadn’t. To begin with, it was an embarrassment to the profession and, for Jewish scholars who loved Dostoevsky, an obstacle they would rather circumvent. It was easy to do, because anti-Semitism is almost entirely absent from Dostoevsky’s great novels. There is no Fagan or Shylock. The only scholar I found who addressed the question seriously was Joseph Frank, then embarking on his masterful five-volume biography of Dostoevsky. At first Frank referred to Dostoevsky as a “guilty anti-Semite,” and I took him to task for this quasi-apology. But as a true scholar devoted above all to the truth, Frank changed his mind. By the time he wrote his biography’s final volume, he showed me that it was my criticisms of Dostoevsky that were understatements.

I begin here by examining Dostoevsky’s profound and compassionate understanding of suffering. Knowing the dark sides of human nature better than any other writer, he depicted cruelty, and the pain it caused, as never before or since. Then I turn to the appalling anti-Semitic articles of his last years. Finally, I explore the various solutions that have been advanced to solve the Dostoevsky problem, including my own. I conclude with some observations on what we can learn from Dostoevsky’s example.


I. A Devotion to Compassion and Vicarious Suffering


Dostoevsky’s devotion to compassion could not have been more fundamental to his thought and art. Because he makes us share vicariously his characters’ intense suffering, reading his novels can be unpleasant. The radical critic Nikolai Mikhailovsky famously referred to Dostoevsky as the “cruel talent”—cruel especially to his readers. No one else, Mikhailovsky declared, had so realistically depicted, and “in such great detail, . . . the feelings of a sheep being devoured by a wolf,” along with the feelings of the wolf devouring the sheep.

Suffering is not just one element of a Dostoevsky novel’s overall structure, not just a part of his readers’ aesthetic experience. We cannot distance ourselves from it that way. The English critic and novelist John Cowper Powys compared the experience of reading Dostoevsky to a physical assault. It resembled being “hit in the face, . . . followed by the fumbling of strange hands at one’s throat,” because in representing suffering Dostoevsky “has no mercy.” He almost makes you forget that the people he describes don’t exist, and countless readers have testified that his characters continue to haunt their imaginations.

Dostoevsky regarded himself as a Christian, and what Christianity above all meant to him was pity for all who suffer. He called Dickens the most Christian of writers not because his novels contained theology—they don’t—but because they made readers empathize with the unfortunate.

In the depiction of suffering, Dostoevsky surpassed even Dickens. His first work, the novella Poor Folk, focused not on material deprivation but on the psychological effects of poverty. The hero has internalized society’s view of him as worthless. Even in the privacy of his thoughts, he reproaches himself for having the temerity to complain. When Russia’s greatest literary critic, Vissarion Belinsky, read the manuscript of this novella, he enthused to Dostoevsky:

have you yourself comprehended all the terrible truth you have shown us? . . . This wretched clerk of yours . . . has brought himself to the point where his humility will not even allow him to acknowledge his own wretchedness; . . . he does not dare claim even the right to his own unhappiness. . . . We critics only talk about such things, . . . but you, an artist, immediately and with one stroke reveal the very essence of an image . . . so that the most unthinking reader suddenly understands everything!

Dostoevsky called one early novel The Insulted and the Humiliated, but, really, all of his novels could have that title. Humiliation is so painful because what matters most to people is not their well-being, as utilitarians naively suppose, but their sense of self-worth. Above all, one cherishes one’s dignity, one’s humanness, what Dostoevsky called “the person in the person.”

Dostoevsky describes humiliation and its psychological distortions as never before. He depicts the exposure to public ridicule of characters’ most shameful secrets. They suffer insults as readers have probably never imagined. In Dostoevsky’s second novella, The Double, Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin, another wretched and constantly humiliated clerk, escapes from his self-image as a complete nonentity by going mad. He generates a double, another Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin, whom he first befriends. In this way, “Golyadkin junior” learns Golyadkin senior’s most intimate fears and hopes, only to betray them. And so the apparent escape into madness soon makes the hero’s suffering even worse.

Golyadkin’s double mocks him by repeating in a sarcastic tone the phrases the poor clerk uses to comfort himself and lessen his sense of worthlessness. Any talented writer could show a person shamed by hostile outsiders, but Dostoevsky contrives mockery that seems to come from within. Facing it, Golyadkin is utterly defenseless, completely naked. (The name Golyadkin means “naked.”) In fact, he is worse than naked, like the hero of the 1864 novella Notes from Underground, who compares himself to a person not only stripped to the skin in a cold wind but flayed.

As if such mockery were not enough, Dostoevsky goes a step further by narrating the story in the double’s mocking voice! The universe itself seems to shame the hero at every turn. As the philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin observes, “the narrator picks up on Golyadkin’s words and thoughts, intensifies the teasing, mocking tones embedded in them. . . . One gets the impression that the narration is dialogically addressed to Golyadkin himself; it rings in Golyadkin’s own ears as another voice taunting him.” I know of no other writer who has made the very form of narration a humiliating taunt in this way—perhaps because no one has understood humiliation so deeply.

Readers feel a degree of compassion they have probably never felt before. They find the hero alternately repulsive and ridiculous—a grim humor pervades the work—and every time they laugh they sense their own complicity in the hero’s suffering. Dostoevsky was keenly aware that even good people, against their will, sometimes love witnessing the suffering of others. They thereby become morally implicated in it. They may try to assure themselves that looking by itself has no moral value—“a cat can look at a king,” as the proverb goes—but in the end they recognize it simply isn’t true. Looking is itself an action and, as the word “voyeurism” suggests, can be an immoral one.

Raskolnikov, the hero of Crime and Punishment, gets to know the drunkard Marmeladov, who feels so unworthy of his high-born but impoverished wife Katerina Ivanovna that he escapes by drinking, which only makes his family’s condition worse. His daughter Sonya must become a prostitute to support them, and the fact that she understands her father’s weakness and does not blame him only makes him even more ashamed, which drives him, yet again, to drink. Crime and Punishment began as a novel called “The Drunkards,” exploring the psychology of alcoholism as a disease of humiliation and self-punishment feeding on itself.

At last, the drunken Marmeladov is run over in the street. Raskolnikov brings the dying man home and witnesses his tubercular wife and hungry children sharing a room with many others. In such Dostoevskyan conditions, the most private events become public. Almost immediately a crowd of spectators gathers. The dying man lies in a room “so full of people that you couldn’t have dropped a pin.” Katerina Ivanovna flies into a fury: “‘You might let him die in peace, at least,’ she shouted at the crowd. ‘Is it a spectacle to gape at?’” It is, of course, as is her tubercular fury interrupted by coughs signaling her horribly fascinating illness. “You should respect the dead at least!” she shouts, and we imagine how Marmeladov, who is still alive, hears these words.

The narrator observes that the lodgers were not bad people, but could not help staring at what they should not be witnessing. Then there occurs a sentence that only Dostoevsky could have written: “The lodgers, one after another, squeezed back into the doorway with that strange feeling of inner satisfaction which may be observed in the presence of a sudden accident, even in those nearest and dearest to the victim, from which no living man is exempt in spite of the sincerest sympathy and compassion.”

The narrator of The Possessed offers a similar observation about those who stare in horrible, voyeuristic fascination at a house on fire. It is as if the horror produced “a certain concussion of the brain” that exposes “those destructive instincts which, alas, lie hidden in every heart, even that of the mildest and most domestic little clerk. . . . This sinister sensation is always fascinating.” Of course, we ourselves read these pages with a similar fascination that creates the special thrill readers of Dostoevsky experience.

Dostoevsky, in short, makes his readers into voyeurs, resembling those people crowding in from the staircase or riveted to a house on fire. We recognize our own sinfulness and, perhaps, our responsibility for the suffering of others to which we are contributing. Evoking an uncannily intense compassion, Dostoevsky’s novels make us sense how everyone’s suffering is our responsibility. As Father Zossima, the elder monk in The Brothers Karamazov, asserts: “everyone is responsible for everyone and everything.” Does Zossima’s compassion extend to the Jews, too? Is everyone responsible for their suffering?


II. Dostoevsky’s Anti-Semitic Articles


Dostoevsky was deeply compassionate in his personal life. He was only briefly married to his first wife before she died, but he assumed responsibility for her ne’er-do-well son who wouldn’t support himself. When Dostoevsky’s brother Michael died, he assumed responsibility for Michael’s family, another reason Dostoevsky lived almost his entire adult life from hand to mouth. So it is not surprising that he wrote an essay describing Jewish poverty and calling for reconciliation, even love, between Christians and Jews. How bad an anti-Semite could he have been?

Very bad indeed. In 1876 and 1877 Dostoevsky published A Writer’s Diary: A Monthly Publication, a periodical consisting entirely of his own work. Intended as a new literary genre, the Diary combined diverse material: fiction, including some of his best stories; plans for future stories; autobiographical sketches; dreamy musings; and diverse kinds of journalism that included some of the best crime reporting ever done, philosophical arguments about responsibility, and countless articles on foreign policy. The plan was for each variegated issue to form a coherent whole that, month by month, would trace Russia’s spiritual development. The first issues worked beautifully, but before long Dostoevsky became obsessed with foreign affairs, especially when Russia intervened on behalf of the Slavic peoples oppressed by their Ottoman overlords, an issue that became known as the Eastern question. He hoped that Russia would smash the sultan’s empire, liberate its subject nationalities, and seize Constantinople, the capital of Orthodox Christianity.

When Russia failed to realize these goals, Dostoevsky looked for a reason why—which happens to be the point that articles on the Jews begin to appear in the Diary. One reason, Dostoevsky supposed, was that Britain under “the Yid Disraeli” opposed Russian expansion and thereby sanctioned the unspeakable tortures (which Dostoevsky describes in detail) inflicted by the Turks on Serbs and Bulgarians, fellow Orthodox Slavs for whom Orthodox Russia, he believed, was responsible.

When Dostoevsky received correspondence reproaching him for disparaging Jews and using the pejorative term “Yids” (zhidy), he vehemently denied having any ill feeling towards Jews—in language that, in fact, amply proved the opposite. In the March 1877 issue of the Diary, he replied to one such letter from a figure who might have emerged from one of his novels. Avraam-Uri Kovner, a Jewish atheist who had converted to Christianity just before marrying a non-Jewish woman, was a political radical convicted of embezzling exactly 3 percent (he justified that calculation morally) of the profits of Russia’s richest bank. Agreeing that Jews were often exploiters, and repudiating the Jewish religion, Kovner nevertheless faulted Dostoevsky for his mean-spirited comments.

Dostoevsky quotes generously from Kovner’s letter. Kovner asked: why do you reproach Jewish exploiters rather than “the exploiter in general”? Why is exploitation by “Germans, Englishmen, and Greeks, of whom there are such numbers in Russia—better than exploitation by Yids?” Don’t Russian “kulaks” (a term for well-off peasants) also exploit Russian peasants? Why should Jews not enjoy equal rights, like all other nationalities in Russia? Dostoevsky denounces Jews as if they were uniformly wealthy, Kovner points out, but almost all of Russia’s 3 million Jews live in extreme poverty and “are morally purer than the Russian people whom you deify.” Why hold Jews responsible for Disraeli, who may have been of Spanish Jewish origin, but obviously did not “regulate English Conservative policy from the point of view of a ‘Yid’”? And why use the offensive word “Yid” instead of “Jew” [evrei]?

In reply, Dostoevsky insists that he harbors no hatred for Jews. “What surprises me is how and why I could be placed among the haters of Jews as a people, as a nation,” he begins. “When and how did I declare my hatred for the Jews as a people? Since there was never any such hatred in my heart, . . . I from the very outset reject this accusation once and for all.” What follows so obviously demonstrates the opposite that another form of the Dostoevsky problem presents itself: how can Dostoevsky think that he harbors no hatred even while making hateful statements?

As for using the word “Yid,” Dostoevsky explains, “I never thought this was so offensive” and, in any case, I used the term only to name a “well-known idea: ‘Yid, Yid-ism, the Kingdom of the Yids,’ etc. These designated a well-known concept, . . . a characteristic of the age [evidently a materialist view of life],” by no means limited to Jews. In any case, Dostoevsky insists that it is Kovner who displays a condescending view of Russian peasants. If this is what an educated Jew thinks, Dostoevsky asks, “what feelings must [uneducated Jews] have toward the Russians?”

The fact is, Dostoevsky continues, that no one has complained as much as the Jews, who “complained constantly, at every step and every word, about their oppression, their suffering, their martyrdom,” when, in fact, they are more sinning than sinned against. “One would think that it is not they who rule in Europe, not they who . . . control the stock exchanges there and, accordingly, the policy, the internal affairs, and the morality of states.” Even if Disraeli had forgotten his descent from Spanish Yids (though Disraeli “certainly hasn’t forgotten,” Dostoevsky interjects), it is still clear that “he regulated English Conservative policy . . . in part from the viewpoint of a Yid—of this, I think, there can be no doubt.” The oppression of the Jews, Dostoevsky continues, does not compare with the suffering of Russian peasants before serfdom was abolished in 1861. Serfs were essentially slaves, so why do Jews complain that they lack complete freedom of residence? And did the Jews who scream about oppression pity the poor serfs? Were they not “foremost in taking advantage of their weaknesses? Who, in their eternal pursuit of gold, set about swindling them?” I know the Jews will say all this is untrue, Dostoevsky asserts, but he just read in The Russian Messenger that Jews in American southern states “have already thrown themselves en masse on the millions of liberated Negroes and have already got them in their clutches.” Dostoevsky claims to have predicted just such a course of events, and anyone who doubts these accusations can “just reach over to the first newspaper that happens to be lying next to you and take a look at the second or third page: you’ll certainly find something about the Jews. . . . And so you have to agree this really does mean something.”

Here we encounter a way of thinking by no means unique to Dostoevsky (or limited to anti-Semitism), a closed circle of confirming evidence. One wants to ask: is it not possible that the Russian press is less than careful in reporting derogatory information about Jews? Doesn’t the press too assume that, as we say today, if something fits “the narrative,” it must be true? If Dostoevsky anticipated that the Jews would exploit liberated American slaves, does that not indicate why he was so ready to believe reports that they did?

Dostoevsky apparently anticipates such objections and counters them with an argument I have discovered to be commonplace in Russian and Middle Eastern anti-Semitic propaganda: “if everyone, to the last man, is lying and is obsessed with such hatred, then this hatred must have stemmed from something; . . . . ‘the word everyone means something, after all!,’ as Belinsky once exclaimed.” The proof that Jews deserve universal hatred is that everyone hates them.

Ideological systems often develop defenses against their own disconfirmation. If you object to Marxism, you are expressing your class interest; question hardcore Freudianism and you are simply exhibiting psychological “resistance.” Dosteovsky knew this. As the hero of Notes from Underground observes: “man is so fond of systems and abstract deductions that he is ready to deny the truth intentionally; he is ready to deny what he can see and hear just to justify his logic.”

In the March 1877 article’s most chilling passage, Dostoevsky asks what would happen if the situation were reversed, and there were 80 million Jews and only three million Russians. How would the Jews treat the Russians? “Would they allow them to become their equal in rights? . . . Would they not turn them directly into slaves? Even worse: would they not strip them utterly bare? Would they not massacre them altogether, exterminate them completely, as they did more than once with alien peoples in times of old in their ancient history?”

How can Dostoevsky make these charges and still sincerely believe that he feels no hatred for Jews?

Once again, as if he overheard this question, Dostoevsky continues: the Russian people entertain “no preconceived hatred” of the Jew, but “there is, perhaps, an antipathy, in certain areas particularly, and even a very strong antipathy, perhaps.” However, this is not due to “racial or religious hatred of any sort but comes from other motives, for which it is not the native people but the Jew himself who is responsible.” Evidently, “preconceived hatred” is one thing, but antipathy arising from specific offenses is another. Hating a person without cause differs from disliking him for things he has done. It is a distinction we all make, of course.

And yet, the ground has shifted. We have moved from “there was never any hatred in my heart” to there was never any preconceived hatred. This is a momentous step, and one that, it would seem, lies behind the puzzling assertions by other people who attribute awful crimes to the Jews but say, sometimes sincerely, that they are not anti-Semitic. After all, any one of us might say: “if I dislike the Taliban or Hamas, it is not because I am prejudiced against Afghans or Palestinians, but because of their behavior and goals.” This formulation allows for strong “antipathy” and differs from irrational “preconceived hatred” because it is based on facts.

In cases like these, the issue may come down to: what are the facts? If Jews did indeed commit ritual murder of Christian children, exploit newly liberated Russian serfs and American Blacks, or plot to dominate the world and enslave Christians, then antipathy to Jews would indeed be justified, just as Jewish antipathy for Hamas is justified.

A person may hate Jews simply because they are Jews (as Hamas does) or because he believes heinous charges against them (as many of Hamas’s Western defenders do). It can be hard to distinguish these possibilities because those who simply hate often justify their hatred by advancing such charges. One way to tell the difference may be to see whether the person can be moved by demonstrations that the supposed facts are not facts at all. We must believe that is sometimes possible, or why would we often try to inform people they omit key facts or accept demonstrably false statements?

Consider those dedicated American Communists, many of them Jews, who denied or apologized for Stalin’s deliberate starvation of millions of peasants. It might seem that nothing they could learn would shake their Stalinist beliefs. And yet, when Stalin signed a pact with Hitler, some (by no means all) changed their minds and left the party. That happened again after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

Could we be witnessing something similar today? Hamas’s barbarity shocked some apologists and showed them just what Israel was facing. Others, by contrast, discovered reasons why the barbarity was justified. The dividing line between an incorrigible anti-Semite and someone mistaken about the facts is an important one.

If we are to change minds, we have to admit the possibility that doing so is possible. We must ask ourselves: why is this person anti-Semitic? And then we must recognize there is more than one answer, and that we must craft an appropriate reply. I have often encountered people who are suspicious of any attempt to draw such distinctions, as if doing so is necessarily a form of apology. Yes, it seems much easier, clearer, and more comfortable just to condemn. But it may also be counter-productive.


III. The Jewish Idea


One key to the Dostoevsky problem may be that, in justifying antipathy to Jews, he reveals his deepest fears about humanity’s approaching destiny. He repeats a statement that Jews found especially puzzling: however much some Jews profess atheism, he declares, “a Jew without God is somehow unthinkable; one can’t even imagine a Jew without God.” The reason is that belief in God is part of something fundamental to the Jewish worldview: the unshakable conviction that “there exists but one national individuality in the world—the Jew.” The Jewish God promised them: “thou art the only one before God; destroy the others or enslave and exploit them. Have faith in thy victory over the whole world,” however long it may take. It is this “idea of the Yids” that explains why they avoid intermingling with others and how they could persist for 40 centuries. “That we have something here which has a predominantly religious character—that is beyond doubt. That their Providence, under the former, original name of Jehovah, with His ideal and His covenant, continues to lead his people to a fixed goal—that is certainly beyond doubt.” That is why “it’s impossible, I repeat, even to imagine a Jew without God.”

Dostoevsky believed that Jews have infected Europe with their materialist spirit. To be sure, he concedes, materialism and selfishness have always existed, but they were not until recently traits regarded as virtuous or “scientific.” The West has adopted materialism as a fundamental principle.

And so it is not without significance that the Jews reign over the stock exchanges there [i.e., in Western Europe], . . . that they are the ones who control the whole of international politics; . . . their reign, their complete reign is drawing nigh! Coming soon is the complete triumph of ideas before which the feelings of love for humanity, the longing for truth, Christian feelings, the feelings of nationhood and even of national pride of European peoples must give way. What lies ahead . . . is materialism, a blind, carnivorous lust . . . for personal accumulation of money by any means . . .

So while there are good Jews like the late James Rothschild, Dostoevsky allows, but what is important is not specific Jews but the “Jewish idea,” “the idea of the Yids.” Such thinking makes empirical disproof impossible.

One might suppose that such views would leave a deep trace on Dostoevsky’s novels, especially The Brothers Karamazov, written soon after the essays on the Jewish question. On the contrary, Jews play almost no role in Dostoevsky’s fiction. To be sure, one scene in Karamazov has struck readers concerned with understanding his anti-Semitism, but I think they read too much into it. They read this scene as if Dostoevsky’s articles on the Jews were part of the novel, but they are not. Read on its own—as a literary work must be first of all—the scene’s point is something else entirely.

In the chapter “A Little Demon,” the young Lise summons the saintly Alyosha Karamazov to describe her desperate state of mind. She has not only discovered evil but is also horrified to find it attractive. She is “in love with disorder.” What attracts her most is the voyeuristic pleasure of watching others suffer, a desire that (as we have seen) affects everyone and may constitute evidence of what theologians call original sin. Ivan Karamazov asks whether evil is just a matter of some surface-level bad qualities, which could be changed, or is inherent in human nature—and concludes it is the latter. His brother, Dmitri, disagrees, pointing out that the capacity for good is no less essential to our nature. As he says, “God and the devil are fighting, and the battlefield is the heart of man.” Dostoevsky largely agreed with Dmitri: our potential for evil is an essential part of our nature, but so is our capacity for good. There is original sin, to be sure, but also an original capacity for self-mastery that triumphs over sin.

Lise wants to set fire to the house on the sly (“it must be on the sly”) in order to watch others try to extinguish it. The pleasure lies in spying. “It’s your luxurious life,” Alyosha opines, meaning that that too much wealth distorts our moral character and makes us self-indulgent. “That’s what your monk taught you,” Lise answers venomously. “Let me be rich and all the rest poor; I’ll eat sweets and drink cream and not give any to anyone else.” What matters is not the cream but watching hungry people desiring what they cannot have. There are few pleasures like exciting envy.

“What will they do in the next world for the greatest sin?,” Lise asks. “God will censure you,” Alyosha replies, meaning that the ultimate punishment is not some burning lake but awareness of God’s disapproval. Lise answers: “That’s just what I should like, I would go up and they would censure me and I would burst out laughing in their faces.” Committing the greatest evil appeals to her because it will allow her to watch God and the angels as she laughs maliciously at them.

“You take evil for good,” Alyosha observes, before writing it off as a “passing crisis, . . . the result of your illness, perhaps.” As Alyosha knows but seems to forget here, to ascribe a person’s ideas or behavior to a physical condition is to deprive her of responsibility, to infantilize or dehumanize her, because humanness consists precisely in one’s ability to choose. That is why Lise replies: “You do despise me though! It’s simply that I don’t want to do good, I want to do evil, and it has nothing to do with illness.”

“Why do evil?” Alyosha asks, and that, of course, is the central question of the book. Lise’s answer is straightforward: “So that everything might be destroyed.” For her, evil is its own reward, because the desire for it is essential to our nature. It is a point that neither Bentham nor Smith nor Kant understood, although perhaps the Marquis de Sade, who fascinated Dostoevsky and is mentioned in Karamazov, did.

Lise now expresses the desire to do something so hideous that when everyone finds out they “would stand round and point their fingers at me and I would look at them all. That would be awfully nice.” Again, the point is not just to do evil but to stare defiantly at those appalled by it. Yes, Alyosha reflects, “there are moments when people love crime,” love it just because it is crime. Lise agrees: “Yes, yes! . . . They love crime, everyone loves crime, they love it always, not ‘at some moments.’ You know, it’s as if people have made an agreement to lie about it and have lied about it ever since. They all declare that they hate evil, but secretly they love it.” Everyone pretends to be horrified that Dmitri murdered his father, she continues, but everyone “loves his having killed his father.” “There is some truth in what you say about everyone,” Alyosha concedes.

It is at this point that Lise mentions Jewish ritual murder, which she herself would like to commit. She has read a book about the trial of a Jew who crucified a Christian child and watched as the child groaned. “That’s nice!,” she adds, so nice that she would like to do the same thing and, while the child hung there groaning, she would eat “pineapple compote.” Lise asks: “is it true that at Easter the Jews steal a child and kill it?” Alyosha replies: “I don’t know.”

This scene has shocked readers for two reasons. First, how could Dostoevsky have even mentioned so horrible a slander? Second, how could he have had the saintly Alyosha say he didn’t know? I think the first question is anachronistic. Nobody Americans ever encounter today believes the blood libel, but that was not true a century-and-a-half ago, especially in Russia. The second question reflects a failure to read the novel as a novel, in which characters speak according to their psychology and education.

Read in the context of the whole novel, which says very little about Jews, the scene’s significance lies primarily in Lise’s desire to commit two evil acts, extreme cruelty to a child and voyeurism. That it mentions a slander against Jews is incidental to Dostoevsky’s artistic purpose and, at the time would have been regarded, even by those who knew better, as repeating a commonplace. In Dickens and other English writers, the association of Jews with moneylending was a cliche; in Russia, alas, the same was true of more serious assumptions about Jews. If we did not have Dostoevsky’s appalling articles in The Diary of a Writer, this scene would make us uncomfortable but would not demonstrate that Dostoevsky was obsessively concerned with Jews or especially anti-Semitic.

Why are readers so surprised by Alyosha’s answer? Of course he wouldn’t know! He resides in a monastery, where some monks have extremely primitive views: Father Ferapont imagines that he converses with the Holy Ghost and has caught a devil by the tail by slamming a door on it. Alyosha has dropped out of the gymnasium (high school). One might expect that this poorly educated, would-be novice would find the accusation credible. The fact that he withholds judgment testifies to his reluctance to accuse anyone of such a crime.

Alyosha answers as he does because Dostoevsky the realist knew that that is how he would answer. We can be confident of this because if Dostoevsky had given his saintly hero his own opinion, Alyosha would have confirmed the slander! When Dostoevsky was collecting examples of child abuse for Ivan’s attack on God, he commented in a letter on a trial of nine Georgian Jews in the Kutais district accused of murdering a Christian girl who had disappeared on the eve of Passover. Although the indictment did not explicitly mention ritual murder, that is how it was widely discussed in the Russian press. As Joseph Frank observed, “it says much for the reformed Russian judicial system that the Kutais Jews, against whom there was no evidence at all, were acquitted.”

Dostoevsky drew the opposite conclusion. “How disgusting that the Kutais Jews are acquitted,” he wrote in a letter. “They are beyond doubt guilty. I’m persuaded by the trial and by everything, including the vile defense by [the defense attorney] Alexandrov.” As Frank comments, Alexandrov had defended the terrorist Vera Zasulich, about whose guilt there was no doubt at all, “and this may have influenced Dostoevsky’s judgment.” All the same, Frank observes, it is truly shocking that, despite the lack of evidence, Dostoevsky was so certain that the accusation must be true. He believed it, I suppose, because it fit the “narrative.”

If we confine ourselves to the novel itself, as most readers do, this chapter testifies to nothing worse than the usual attitudes of the day. In the context of the Diary and Dostoevsky’s letter to Kovner, it reads very differently.


IV. Solving the Dostoevsky Problem


Scholars have addressed the Dostoevsky problem in several ways. In his article “Dostoevsky and Jewry” (1928), Aron Z. Steinberg ascribed Dostoevsky’s anti-Semitism to messianic rivalry. He faced “a stubborn contradiction,” Steinberg argued. On the one hand, he wanted to believe that Russians were God’s chosen people, His instrument for saving humanity; on the other, the God of the Old Testament had already designated the Jews as chosen. Dostoevsky thus arrives at a radical, and particularly Russian, version of supersessionism, the theological claim that Jews have been rejected as God’s chosen people and superseded by the Church—a view that has often driven Christian anti-Semitism. Only in this case, it is not the Church but Russia that does the superseding. To Steinberg, Dostoevsky is saying:

there is only one truth, . . . and therefore only one of the peoples can have the true God. . . . Therefore it’s either we, Russians, or you, Jews; or, to be more exact, the true Israel today is the Russian people. If the Russian people but once renounces the faith that it alone has just claim to the centuries-old messianic idea of the Old Testament Jews, . . . [it] will forthwith . . . dissolve into ethnographic material. But the reverse is also true: if . . . the future and salvation of the whole human race has been entrusted by Providence to Russia and Russians, then all these Jews still wandering the world are but historical dust.

Steinberg did not exaggerate Dostoevsky’s messianic views about Russia’s special role in human history. In his June 1876 article “The Utopian Understanding of History,” Dostoevsky maintains that Russia differs fundamentally from all other nations. They act out of self-interest, but Russia always acts selflessly. It conducts its foreign policy “as service to the whole of mankind. Indeed, when and how often did Russia act out of a policy of direct benefit to herself? To the contrary, through the whole Petersburg period . . . did she not more often unselfishly serve the interests of others?” Today it is perfectly clear, he continues, that “Russia’s whole power, her whole personality, . . . and her whole future mission lie in her self-denying unselfishness.” Even in the 21st century, many Russians share this view of their country’s history—one to which Poles, Ukrainians, and other peoples strenuously object, of course.

Tracing Russian history since Peter the Great, Dostoevsky maintains that Russians absorbed flawlessly each European nation’s way of thinking in all its particularity, a feat attributable to the uniquely Russian ability Dostoevsky called otzyvchivost’ (receptivity)—“the capacity to discover the truth contained in each of the civilizations of Europe or, more correctly, in each of the personalities of Europe.” Only in this way could Russia satisfy its “need to be just and above all to seek only the truth.” Now, though, the time has arrived for Russia to stop absorbing others’ words and to speak its own “word” to achieve “universal reconciliation,” once and for all.

To fulfill its mission, Dostoevsky supposes, Russia must liberate first the Slavs and then all other Orthodox Christian peoples. Then Russia must seize Constantinople, the traditional center of Orthodoxy, at which point the millennium will be at hand.

The imminent conquest of Constantinople will “happen of its own accord, precisely because the time has come . . . [or] is at hand, as all the signs indicate. This is a natural result decreed by Nature itself, as it were.” It will not be mere seizure of territory, as Westerners presume, but an entirely millenarian achievement:

There truly will be something special and unprecedented here: . . . it will be a true exaltation . . . of the cross of Christ and the ultimate word of Orthodoxy, at whose head Russia has long been standing. It will be a temptation for all the mighty of this world who have been triumphant until now and who . . . do not even comprehend that one can seriously believe in human brotherhood, in the universal reconciliation of nations, in a union founded on principles of universal service to humanity and regeneration of people through the true principles of Christ.

Whenever he expresses such views, Dostoevsky anticipates the scorn of the sophisticated. “Heavens, what a mocking smile would appear on the face of some Austrian or Englishman if he had the opportunity to read all these daydreams!” But events will confirm Dostoevsky’s predictions. “And if believing in this ‘new world’ . . . is a ‘utopia’ worthy only of ridicule, then you may number me among these utopians, and leave the ridicule to me.”

There is another role usurped by the Jews. In addition to rivalry in messianism, Dostoevsky sees rivalry in suffering. Russia is the “man of sorrows” mentioned in Isaiah 53:2, “despised and rejected” by other nations and “acquainted with grief” that those nations cannot even imagine. That is why he seems particularly irked by Kovner’s descriptions of unsurpassed Jewish misfortune. As the epigraph to Karamazov suggests, suffering offers the only path to transcending ordinary human egoism and achieving holiness: “Verily, verily I say unto you, except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit” (John 12:24).

Not Jews but Russians exemplify such suffering! “Can one really claim that the Russian people have endured fewer misfortunes . . . than the Jews?,” he demands. “Our great people . . . have suffered torments . . . for all their thousand years of existence, torments such as no single nation of the world could have borne without disintegration and annihilation.” Of course, as Dostoevsky well knew, the Jews have existed and suffered still longer.


V. Christianity Rethought


Much of this opposition to Jews and Judaism clearly stems from Dostoevsky’s Christianity. In her rare and brilliant study Redemption and the Merchant God: Dostoevsky’s Economy of Salvation and Anti-Semitism (2008), the critic Susan McReynolds traces the evolution in Dostoevsky’s understanding of Christianity. She isolates three constants in his thought and links all three to anti-Semitism: his attitude to children, his rejection of utilitarianism, and his insistence that nations must observe the same moral laws as individuals.

Readers of Dostoevsky’s novels recognize the important role children play. Before the age of seven, Dostoevsky declared, children are innocent and supremely vulnerable. The ultimate crime is child abuse, which repeats the torments inflicted on the wholly innocent Christ. The greatest crime reporter who ever lived, Dostoevsky attended and reported on child-abuse trials for part of his career. He also collected press accounts of cruelty to children and, in reporting on Turkish atrocities, focused on those inflicted upon children.

When Ivan Karamazov indicts God, he draws on these sources, which Dostoevsky’s readers would have recognized as real. “People talk sometimes of bestial cruelty, but that is a great injustice and insult to the beasts,” Ivan begins his conversation with Alyosha. “A beast can never be so cruel as a man, so artistically cruel. The tiger only tears and gnaws,” but the Turks “took pleasure in torturing children, . . . in cutting the unborn child from the mother’s womb and tossing babies up in the air and catching them on the points of their bayonets before their mother’s eyes. Doing it before the mother’s eyes was what gave zest to the amusement.”

But Turks are amateurs compared to some educated Russians. “There was a little girl of five who was hated by her father and mother,” highly respected and well-educated people. “You see, I must repeat again, it is a peculiar characteristic of many people, this love of torturing children. . . . To all other types of humanity these torturers behave mildly and benevolently, like cultivated and humane Europeans. . . . It’s just their defenselessness that tempts the tormentor, just the angelic confidence of the child who has no refuge and no appeal, that sets his vile blood on fire.”

And so these well-educated parents beat their daughter until her body was one bruise. When that amusement grew stale, they shut her up at night in the cold privy and smeared her face with excrement, “and it was her mother, her mother, that did this.” Ivan asks Alyosha: “Can you understand why a little creature, who can’t even understand what’s done to her, should beat her little aching heart with her tiny fist in the dark and the cold, and weep her meek, unresentful tears to dear, kind God to protect her? Do you understand that, friend and brother, you pious and humble novice?”

Alyosha will eventually reply that Ivan’s indictment of God would be correct if there were only God the Father. But that is precisely how Christians differ from Jews and Muslims. The essence of Christianity lies in the idea that there is also God the Son, who voluntarily shared human suffering. The incarnation makes all the difference. But Ivan has been waiting for this objection, so he could deliver his reply to it—the attack on Jesus in the novel’s next chapter, “The Grand Inquisitor.”

It might seem that Dostoevsky would foreground the Crucifixion as the vehicle of salvation, but the very opposite is the case, in McReynolds’s view, because the Crucifixion seemed to rely on utilitarian logic, which Dostoevsky found repellent. Utilitarianism, he maintained, justifies cruelty so long as it promotes the greatest good of the greatest number. When the hero of Crime and Punishment is contemplating murder, he overhears a conversation that voices his own thoughts. A student and an officer discuss whether it would be permissible on utilitarian grounds to kill the venomous old pawnbroker woman. If one adopts the utilitarian viewpoint, that murder would be not only morally permitted but absolutely mandatory. Just tally up the costs and benefits:

On one side we have a stupid, senseless, worthless, spiteful, ailing, horrid old woman, not simply useless but doing actual mischief, who . . . will die in a day or two in any case. . . . On the other side, fresh young lives thrown away for want of help by thousands. . . . Kill her, take her money, and with the help of it devote oneself to the service of humanity. . . . One death, and a hundred lives in exchange—it’s simple arithmetic!

This novel also suggests, and The Possessed makes explicit, that utilitarian reasoning justifies political mass murder as well.

For Dostoevsky, the main problem is not that the calculus of costs and benefits is wrong or unknowable. Even if one could be sure that killing the pawnbroker would bring far more benefit than harm, it would be wrong.

Dostoevsky came to believe, McReynolds argues, that such utilitarian reasoning underwrites the traditional Christian idea of redemption, which, like all theodicies, depends on the idea that suffering exists because it is required for the ultimate good—a view he found intolerable. Still more troubling was the role played by the Crucifixion in Christian thought. Dostoevsky came to regard it as a case of child abuse, a Father torturing his Son the way those cruel parents tortured their daughter. The fact that He did so to save humanity only makes matters worse because it implicates Him in utilitarian logic.

In his notebooks for Karamazov, Dostoevsky cryptically jotted down: “God as a merchant,” a comment McReynolds reads as a reference to God’s utilitarian trading in human suffering. Like a merchant—like a Jew!—God calculates costs and benefits. Ivan Karamazov poses a question to Alyosha that goes to the heart of Dostoevsky’s problem with these aspects of Christian thought:

“Tell me yourself, I challenge you—answer. Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making people happy, . . . but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature—that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance—and to found the edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions?” . . .

“No, I wouldn’t consent,” said Alyosha softly.

If so, then the traditional Christian scheme must be reconsidered. In McReynolds’s view, Dostoevsky did so by identifying its utilitarian logic with the Jews and thus as alien to true Christianity. “Over the years,” she explains, “Dostoevsky came to the never-explicitly-stated belief that the God of the Crucifixion is a bad Jewish utilitarian whose presence within Christianity is intolerable.”

Dostoevsky therefore bypassed the Crucifixion and, instead of the Father sacrificing his Son, stressed Jesus’s voluntary self-sacrifice. For Dostoevsky, this was the true Christian idea. In adopting it, he cleanses Christianity by transferring God the Father’s guilt to the Jews. Of course, McReynolds notes, such thinking is entirely heretical. But it accounts for why Dostoevsky’s anti-Semitism arose when it did, in the late 1870s: “his anti-Semitism emerges as his heretical ideas ripen.” It also explains why, since he blamed the Jewish God for child sacrifice, he was so sure that Jews sacrificed children.

McReynolds argues that Dostoevsky came to identify Christianity with Christ alone. Eventually, even that emphasis gave way to another in which the Russian people became the self-sacrificing agent of human salvation. Thus he returns to the realm of and obsession with foreign policy.

Dostoevsky adamantly rejected the idea that what is immoral for a person can be moral for a state, an apparently “sophisticated” realpolitik idea common in Europe and invoked often by Russian intellectuals. If it is immoral to allow the innocent to suffer, Dostoevsky believed, then it is also immoral for England to let the Ottoman empire’s Slavs suffer in order to preserve the “balance of power” or European prosperity. For Dostoevsky, such cynicism, like utilitarianism, represents the Western adoption of “Jewish” principles.

Dostoevsky is confident that Russia will, by contrast, deny those principles and save the world because it has become (or even superseded) Christ.


VI. Anti-Semitism and Millenarianism


When I began working on the Diary 50 years ago, I had been reading Norman Cohn’s classic study, The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages (1957), which suggested another explanation of the Dostoevsky problem. Cohn described medieval movements anticipating an apocalyptic time when it would be possible neatly to separate Christ’s saints from sinners following Antichrist and to cleanse the world of evil forever. I was struck that Russian revolutionaries, whose ethos was defined by priests’ sons (like the revolutionary novelist Nikolai Chernyshevsky) and former seminarians (like Stalin), thought in just this apocalyptic way, as Cohn seemed to recognize. In one passage, he identified medieval millenarian “free spirits,” who affirmed a “freedom so reckless and unqualified that it amounted to a total denial of every kind of restraint and limitation,” as precursors of the Russian revolutionary anarchist Michael Bakunin. For 19th-century Europeans, medieval mystical anarchism lay in the remote past, but for Russians it was palpably present, only superficially updated so that materialist laws rather than divine intervention would realize the millennium.

Cohn stressed that medieval millenarianism was almost invariably accompanied by anti-Semitic violence, partly because of the tradition, dating to the 2nd and 3rd centuries, that the Antichrist would be a Jew of the tribe of Dan and would exalt Jews over all other peoples. Jewish control over world events would be a sure sign that the end was near. While Catholic theology downplayed the apocalypse as either remote or allegorical, Russian Orthodoxy placed special emphasis on it. Atheist Russians inherited this apocalypticism. Is it any wonder that anti-Semitism played a major role in Russian thought?

Indeed, Dostoevsky’s anti-Semitism coincided with his growing certainty that the end was at hand. Time and again, he asserted that the world was on the verge of unprecedented changes, utterly unlike what could be produced by forces familiar to “English and Austrian” diplomats. “I repeat, . . . hour by hour Europe is becoming different,” he exclaimed. “The fact is, we are certainly on the eve of the greatest and most stupendous changes and revolutions in Europe herself, and I say this without the least exaggeration.” Dostoevsky is sure that “Europe is awaiting enormous upheavals, of a sort that the human mind refuses to believe, thinking that such things must be utterly preposterous.” “Now for everyone in the world ‘the time is at hand,’” he writes, quoting the book of Revelation “And it’s about time, too.”

Practical people assume that tomorrow will be like yesterday, Dostoevsky continues, but sometimes—and especially in the Last Days—that rule fails. Such people regard those who can foresee greater changes around the corner as quixotic. But when the end approaches, it is the Don Quixotes who see most clearly. “Believe me, Don Quixote also knows where his advantage lies and is capable of calculation.”

When Dostoevsky’s apocalyptic fever rages most intensely, he envisages a final battle between Christians and Jews or, more accurately, between “the Christian idea” of idealistic self-sacrifice and “the Jewish idea” of utilitarian materialism. Again, not just Jews but Western Europeans generally think in the Jewish fashion. That is why it is no coincidence that Disraeli governs England. I think we can now appreciate why for Dostoevsky it makes no difference that individual Jews like James Rothschild can be good people. The problem is not individual Jews but the Jewish idea, whoever may accept it.

Interestingly enough, Dostoevsky sometimes sets aside his concern with the Jewish idea and instead envisages a final battle between Catholicism and Orthodoxy. The Catholic idea, he explains, goes back to the pagan Romans and today is held not only by the pope’s followers but also by atheists, especially French socialists. France so thoroughly imbibed the Catholic idea that even if every Frenchmen were an atheist, France would continue to carry it. Indeed, socialism, invented in France, had already assumed “the Catholic pattern, . . . a Catholic organization, and a Catholic infusion, . . . such is the degree to which this country is a Catholic country.” In the same way, the “Protestant idea” goes back a thousand years before Luther and today is represented not only by believing Protestants but also, and more forcefully, by Germans led by the wily Bismarck.

These “ideas” were for Dostoevsky not mere abstractions but fundamental realities, more real than their present carriers. Their conflict, not the noisy incidents that fascinate journalists, constitutes history’s true pattern.

Only if one appreciates such thinking can one grasp why Dostoevsky believes he sees deeper into historical forces than anyone else. Even today, Russians often imagine that great writers discern what historians cannot; if War and Peace differs from what historical documents show in its descriptions of the Napoleonic Wars, then it is the documents that mislead. Dostoevsky proved especially captivated by such exaltation of novelistic insight. After the first part of Crime and Punishment was written but before it appeared in print, a murder took place astonishingly like the one the novel describes, and Dostoevsky concluded that, with his novelistic discernment into the spiritual state of Russia, he had predicted a real event.

Reading history like a novel, Dostoevsky confidently discerned its plot, and when he spoke of history’s “denouement” he was not just speaking metaphorically. World events raised fundamental “questions,” like the Eastern question, the Catholic question, and the Jewish question. The present was remarkable, and unlike every preceding era, because all “questions” presented themselves in their final form simultaneously, the way the various plotlines of a novel all converge as it approaches its ending. Why is it, Dostoevsky asks, that in recent years “the moment some issue in the world touches on something general and eternal, all the other world problems at once rise parallel to it?” As the Eastern question came to the fore, “suddenly and unexpectedly” there arose “another question of world importance, the Catholic one” along with “still others, and more and more of them will be raised if the Eastern question develops properly.” Now as never before, “all the most important questions of Europe and humanity generally . . . are always raised simultaneously. And this very simultaneity is striking.”

The reason for this “simultaneity” lies not in the usual causal connections any more than the convergence of plotlines in a novel happens because they causally affect each other. They converge because that is how novels achieve closure, and today’s “simultaneity” of plotlines signifies history’s completed design.

Dostoevsky never finally decided whether the final conflict would be between the Jewish and Christian or the Catholic and Orthodox ideas. Was the Antichrist Disraeli or the pope? In this he again echoed medieval apocalypticism, which as Cohn describes it alternated between a Jewish and popish Antichrist. Was the greatest danger Jewish stockbrokers or Polish clerics? Dostoevsky despised Poles almost as much as he hated Jews. Both hatreds have played an important role in Russian ultra-nationalist ideology to this day.


VII. What Dostoevsky’s Example Shows


If Jews like Disraeli allow the Turks to commit barbarous massacres in order to preserve European prosperity, then compassion requires Russia not only to intervene on behalf of the Slavs but also to fight the Jewish idea anywhere. The problem with Dostoevsky’s way of thinking lies not in any lack of compassion but in a failure to ask honestly whether his picture of history is true. He can only imagine objections expressed in the supercilious voice of cynical Austrians. He precludes counterevidence and accepts the anti-Semitic press uncritically.

Ruling out the possibility of counterevidence, alas, is not unique to Dostoevsky. Asked about Hamas’s murder of hundreds on October 7, Piers Corbyn, brother of the former UK Labor-party leader Jeremy Corbyn, insisted: “It was a lie. There was no killing of children. It was a lie, a lie, a lie. The Israeli government admits it was a lie.” On campuses one encounters Hamas supporters who are not merely ignorant but unwilling to consider any sources that might challenge their narrative. During the cold war, I encountered numerous Soviet apologists who thought in the same incorrigible way.

People anywhere on the political spectrum—even centrists—can and do close themselves to possible disconfirmation. While many Soviet citizens accepted falsities because alternative sources were unavailable, Americans willfully blind themselves. When one does that, one can wind up believing anything.

Ironically, Dostoevsky himself understood this point well. In an essay titled “One of Today’s Falsehoods” (1873), he responded to a journalist maintaining that Russian terrorists must be uneducated and thuggish people. Not true, Dostoevsky responds. He reminds his readers that he, too, once belonged to a subversive group that blinded itself and under the right circumstances could have committed heinous acts. And yet, “there was not a single ‘monster’ or ‘scoundrel’” among them. The danger was that “there were not many among us who could resist that well-known cycle of ideas and concepts that had then taken such a firm hold on young society.” The reigning idea then was “theoretical socialism,” but it could have been anything representing itself as humane and sophisticated (like, perhaps, some “anti-colonialism” today?).

Dostoevsky reminds readers that in The Possessed, “I attempted to depict those diverse and multifarious motives by which even the purest of hearts and the most innocent of people can be drawn into committing such a monstrous offense.” He then draws a moral that he should have applied to himself and which we would do well to consider today:

And therein lies the real horror: that . . . 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 today!

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