Starlight in Hell

First Things, June/July 2009 | Published on

By Algis Valiunas

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One cannot say with assurance that Russia has outdone all other modern nations in cruelty; the competition is just too stiff. Nevertheless, the memorabilia of inhumanity with a Russian face are indelible: the birch, the knout, the Cossack’s saber, the cattle car, the Arctic slave-labor camp, the nine grams of lead in the back of the skull. For the past two centuries in Russia, the principal concern for millions was how long they were going to survive.

This preoccupation has been transmitted in Russian literature of a high order. Indeed, inhumanity is perhaps the great theme of Russian literature: War, political devastation, and the savage perversities of the Russian character are nearly always present as the backdrop—at its best, a backdrop for courage, kindness, generosity, sweetness, and nobility. We continue to read Russian literature because it shows the full amplitude of the soul, from the bestial to the holy.

Interestingly, however, that literature most often presents the sacred soul in contrast to the souls of those who live by something other than the sacred, who manufacture themselves in accordance with a master idea—usually a revolutionary political idea—that permits any manner of violence and barbarism to achieve their intentions. Those intentions may seem unimpeachable, but in their realization they prove a horror.

Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1868) sets the stage for this saga, with its depiction of how individuals forget their humanity and plunge into blood. At the battle of Borodino, Tolstoy claims, Russian and French soldiers alike were exhausted by the carnage and could not see any reason to continue. “But though by the end of the battle the men felt all the horror of their actions,” he writes, “though they would have been glad to stop, some incomprehensible, mysterious power still went on governing them, and the artillery men, covered with powder and blood, reduced to one in three, though stumbling and gasping from fatigue, kept bringing charges, loaded, aimed, applied the slow match; and the cannonballs, with the same speed and cruelty, flew from both sides and crushed human bodies flat, and the terrible thing continued to be accomplished, which was accomplished not by the will of men, but by the will of Him who governs people and worlds.”

Tolstoy’s understanding of the cause and prosecution of war is blatantly theological: The hand of God stirs the hearts of whole populations to kill and die, pulls the strings of so-called great men, and determines the outcome of the conflict. In the novel, Napoleon lives for illusory glory to be won by mad and unnatural actions. He does know a momentary moral lucidity at Borodino, where he feels the sufferings and death of the men he sent into battle and fears for his own mortality, but the clarity vanishes as abruptly as it comes:

And again he was transferred to his former artificial world of phantoms of some sort of greatness, and again (as a horse walking about a slanting treadmill imagines it is doing something for itself), he began to obediently fulfill that cruel, oppressive, and inhuman role which had been assigned to him. . . . Never to the end of his life was he able to understand goodness, or beauty, or truth, or the meaning of his own actions, which were too much the opposite of goodness and truth, and too far removed from everything human for him to be able to grasp their meaning. He could not renounce his actions, extolled by half the world, and therefore he had to renounce truth and goodness and everything human.

Napoleon appears to lack the free will of a true moral agent; like an automaton, he does what he is programmed to do to fulfill the destiny of nations. In himself, Tolstoy insists, Napoleon is insignificant.

In War and Peace, the fate of Prince Andrei Bolkonsky is linked with the fate of Napoleon. Andrei’s fate, however, is significant because something beautiful might be made of his soul. In the midst of brutal violence and ambition, which is compelled, in some sense, by divine destiny, Tolstoy shows a glimpse of humanity. As a young man Andrei worships the emperor of the enemy, but, after he is wounded at Austerlitz and has a vision of the “lofty sky” that dispels his aristocratic passion for honor, Napoleon becomes nothing to him.

In due course, however, he finds himself at war again, and at Borodino, when a shell lands beside him and lies spinning like a top, he stands tall and berates another officer for taking cover. The shell explodes, and, while the other officer is spared, Andrei is fatally wounded. Transported to a field hospital, he reencounters Anatole Kuragin, the rake who tried to seduce and elope with Andrei’s former fiancée. Andrei has hated Kuragin more than anyone else on earth, but now, at the sight of Kuragin’s agony, something overflows in Andrei’s heart: “Compassion, love for our brothers, for those who love us, love for those who hate us, love for our enemies—yes, that love which God preached on earth, which Princess Marya taught me, and which I didn’t understand; that’s why I was sorry about life, that’s what was still left for me, if I was to live. But now it’s too late. I know it!”

It is too late for him to live well but not too late to die well. Andrei finds wisdom in fearlessness: “When he regained consciousness after being wounded, and in his soul, instantly, as if freed of the restraining weight of life, that flower of love opened, eternal, free, not bound to this life, he was no longer afraid of death and did not think of it.” The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, Proverbs tells us, but Tolstoy reaches past the beginning of wisdom to its end: The deepest and most revolutionary Tolstoyan teaching is “that there is nothing frightening in the world.”

That Tolstoy could look at life with such detachment is astonishing, for his world was a brutal one. His contemporary Alexander Herzen describes the inhumanities of society under the czars in his 1867 autobiography, My Past and Thoughts. Herzen, one of the least-known geniuses of Russian literature among English readers, turns his experience of unjust arrest, imprisonment, and exile into a fervid indictment of the czarist torture of prisoners, innocent and guilty alike. Political prisoners, most of whom come from the upper classes, are “punished savagely,” but the worst of it falls on the poor. From his prison cell, Herzen hears the beatings of his fellow inmates, their pleas for mercy, the moaning of women. With a caustic sneer he observes that torture has been abolished by imperial decree three separate times, and the law refuses to acknowledge testimony given “under intimidation.”

But intimidation is a mewling euphemism. “All over Russia, from the Bering Straits to Taurogen,” Herzen writes, “men are tortured; where it is dangerous to torture by flogging, they are tortured by insufferable heat, thirst, and salted food. In Moscow the police put an accused prisoner with bare feet on a metal floor at a temperature of ten degrees of frost; he sickened, and died in a hospital that was under the supervision of Prince Meshchersky, who told the story with indignation. The government knows all this, the governors conceal it, the Senate connives at it, the ministers say nothing; the czar, and the synod, the landowners and the police all agree with Selifan [from Dead Souls]: ‘Why not thrash a peasant? A peasant sometimes needs a thrashing!’”

Herzen’s familiarity with official brutality turned him into a master of revolutionary propaganda,
dispensed from London and Geneva during his mid-century exile under the cover of his periodical Kolokol. Unlike Tolstoy, he does not see cruelty as simply the birth pangs of national destiny; for Herzen, cruelty comes when man forgets his humanity and the humanity of his countrymen. The revolution he sought was not a violent leveling spasm but a gradual transformation of human souls, from yoked and cowering to free and upright—though he was enough of an inborn skeptic to doubt whether men truly wanted freedom.

Isaiah Berlin writes of Herzen, “His purely personal credo remained unaltered from his earliest days: ‘Art, and the summer lightning of individual happiness, these are the only real goods we have,’ he declared in a self-revealing passage of the kind that so deeply shocked the stern young Russian revolutionaries in the 1860s.” Yet later even Lenin let fall a word of praise that secured Herzen a place in Soviet thought—though Trotsky mocked him for his pusillanimous failure to go the revolutionary distance. All political persuasions can find something of what they are looking for in Herzen, but it is his hatred of cruelty and his appreciation of free individuality that stand out.

No one has written more searingly of cruelty than Fyodor Dostoevsky. Although the most famous passage in his works, and perhaps in all of Russian literature, is the fable of the Grand Inquisitor recounted in The Brothers Karamazov (1880), the Grand Inquisitor has as its prelude a chapter called “Rebellion” that shows Dostoevsky at his most tortured and passionate. The proto-Nietzschean Ivan Karamazov—who has declared that if there is no God, then everything is permitted—is telling his innocent brother Alyosha tales of the worst human depravity he knows. He starts off with Turkish soldiers’ impaling babies on bayonets before their mothers’ eyes, then proceeds to a Genevan murderer who was reared a brute and, after his capture, is catechized so he can be guillotined in good conscience.

But these are tales of foreigners; Ivan is especially interested in native abominations. He cites a famous poem about a horse being whipped across its eyes and then ups the ante. An “intelligent, educated gentleman and his lady” flog their seven-year-old daughter with a birch, and a jury lets the torturers off. A younger child who wets her bed is beaten, whipped, and kicked, has her face smeared with her own excrement, and is locked into a freezing outhouse overnight. And then there is the story of a young serf who accidentally hurts the paw of his master’s dog and, as punishment, is stripped naked and torn to pieces by his master’s wolfhounds.

Ivan’s outrage goes far beyond Herzen’s political anger: He seethes with horror at this metaphysical injustice and finds human decency incompatible with divine wisdom. “I don’t want harmony,” cries Ivan.

For love of mankind I don’t want it. I want to remain with unrequited suffering. I’d rather remain with my unrequited suffering and my unquenched indignation, even if I am wrong. Besides, they have put too high a price on harmony; we can’t afford to pay so much for admission. And therefore I hasten to return my ticket. And it is my duty, if only as an honest man, to return it as far ahead of time as possible. Which is what I am doing. It’s not that I don’t accept God, Alyosha, I just most respectfully return him the ticket.

This refusal of the consolations of theodicy, of the justification of God’s ways to men, represents more than a mere intellectual dismissal of other men’s explanations. It is the cry of an agonized soul that means to strike at God’s heart. Cruelty—and he takes pains to mention specifically Russian cruelty—is an offense for which Ivan cannot forgive God.

Yet Dostoevsky sees that greater humanity in any abstract sense—the idea of humanity—is not the remedy for the cruelty around him but often its catalyst and justification. Nowhere is the unapologetic savagery of the consuming idea more central than in Dostoevsky’s Demons (1873). Pyotr Verkhovensky, ringleader of a band of murderous nihilistic thugs under the aegis of the Marxist First International, spouts the virtues of “Shigalyovism,” which he esteems as the true theoretical invention of equality: “He’s got it all down nicely in his notebook,” Verkhovensky remarks at one point.

He’s got spying. He’s got each member of society watching the others and obliged to inform. Each belongs to all, and all to each. They’re all slaves and equal in their slavery. Slander and murder in extreme cases, but above all—equality. First, the level of education, science, and talents is lowered. A high level of science and talents is accessible only to higher abilities—no need for higher abilities! Higher abilities have always seized power and become despots. Higher abilities cannot fail to be despots and have always corrupted rather than been of use; they are to be banished or executed. Cicero’s tongue is cut off, Copernicus’ eyes are put out, Shakespeare is stoned—this is Shigalyovism!

Shigalyovism is, of course, a foretaste of Bolshevism, stripped of Marxist-Leninist promises that a heroic, revitalized humanity shall rise from the revolutionary ashes—a usurpation of Herzen’s revolutionary ideal. According to Verkhovensky, the egalitarian future will reduce humanity to brutish contentment, untroubled by desire for anything higher.

Verkhovensky and his fellow conspirators murder one of their associates, whose loyalty has become suspect. Dostoevsky examines the most warm-hearted of the murderers, Erkel, who can kill as ruthlessly as any brute, serving an idea in which he places all his belief and serving a man who embodies that idea for him:

The executive line was what was required by this shallow, scant-reasoning character, eternally longing to submit to another’s will—oh, to be sure, not otherwise than for the sake of a “common” or “great” cause. But that, too, made no difference, for little fanatics like Erkel simply cannot understand service to an idea otherwise than by merging it with the very person who, in their understanding, expresses this idea. Sentimental, tender, and kindly Erkel was perhaps the most unfeeling of the murderers who gathered against Shatov, and, having no personal hatred, could be present at his murder without batting an eye.

Dostoevsky understands how murder—for a pathetic true believer under the influence of a demonic tutor—can be a simple thing. There is bountiful and prescient wisdom in his refusal to cut reality down to the size of an idea.

But the methods of czarist oppression described by Herzen and Dostoevsky were mild compared to those of Soviet communism. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn emerged from the Stalinist prison camps determined to tell the truth about what men, women, and children suffered in the name of the highest socialist ideals. The terrifying czarist Third Department, familiar to readers of Russian literature, never had more than forty-five staff members for its central apparatus; the Stalinist secret police would have more functionaries in its most remote provincial headquarters. The number of political prisoners released from czarist confinement by the February Revolution likely ran to several hundred; the communists’ Gulag swallowed many millions. Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, he writes, would never have stood for such monstrosities as the Soviets practiced, and no one of an earlier time could have imagined that such things might
be done:

If the intellectuals in the plays of Chekhov who spent all their time guessing what would happen in twenty, thirty, or forty years had been told that in forty years interrogation by torture would be practiced in Russia; that prisoners would have their skulls squeezed within iron rings; that a human being would be lowered into an acid bath; that they would be trussed up naked to be bitten by ants and bedbugs; that a ramrod heated over a primus stove would be thrust up their anal canal (“the secret brand”); that a man’s genitals would be slowly crushed beneath the toe of a jackboot; and that, in the luckiest possible circumstances, prisoners would be tortured by being kept from sleeping for a week, by thirst, and by being beaten to a bloody pulp, not one of Chekhov’s plays would have gotten to its end because all the heroes would have gone off to insane asylums.

The Gulag Archipelago (1974) chronicles the horror of what Solzhenitsyn called the Soviet sewage-disposal system. The zek, or camp inmate, lived under conditions that no serf in the previous century had to endure. (Excepting, perhaps, Karamazov’s peasant torn by hounds; one suspects the tale was not completely fictional.) The entire nation had its soul corrupted by unrelenting fear—fear of imprisonment, loss of job or residence, internal exile, or expulsion from the country. Villagers from the Don River valley greeted the invading Nazi army in 1941 with bread and salt, seeing the fascists as liberators.

“These people,” Solzhenitsyn remarks, “who had experienced on their own hides twenty-four years of Communist happiness, knew by 1941 what as yet no one else in the world knew: That nowhere on the planet, nowhere in history, was there a regime more vicious, more bloodthirsty, and at the same time more cunning and ingenious than the Bolshevik, the self-styled Soviet regime.”

Yet, into the depths of Russia’s hell, starlight penetrated—and its radiance transformed souls. Against the parching certitudes of Marxism-Leninism, Solzhenitsyn sets the sort of thinking that gives life—the affirmation, not of the idea of humanity and its destined perfection, nor of endless and irremediable brutality, but of the reality of the human individual with his simultaneous weakness and dignity. In the Gulag archipelago, souls are made or saved, as well as broken or lost. Solzhenitsyn remembers a group of intellectuals at the Samarka camp in 1946, dying of hunger, cold, and exhaustion from relentless labor:

Foreseeing the approach of death in days rather than weeks, here is how they spent their last sleepless leisure, sitting up against the wall: Timofeyev-Ressovsky gathered them into a “seminar,” and they hastened to share with one another what one of them knew and the others did not—they delivered their last lectures to each other. Father Savely—spoke of “unshameful death,” a priest academician—about patristics, one of the Uniate fathers—about something in the area of dogmatics and canonical writings, an electrical engineer—on the principles of the energetics of the future, and a Leningrad economist—on how the effort to create principles of Soviet economics had failed for lack of new ideas.

Death took some of the participants from one session to the next, but the vocation for learning could not be extinguished—and enforced suffering made better men of those whom it did not ravage utterly: “Formerly you never forgave anyone. You judged people without mercy. And you praised people with equal lack of moderation. And now an understanding mildness has become the basis of your uncategorical judgments. You have come to realize your own weakness—and you can therefore understand the weakness of others. And be astonished at another’s strength. And wish to possess it yourself. The stones rustle beneath our feet. We are ascending.” Humanity—real, individual humanity—glimmers even in the deepest hell.

Yet Solzhenitsyn’s affirmation of life is not merely a reaction to twentieth-century bloodshed but a clinging to the true human heart of Russian literature. We glimpse this heart in Tolstoy’s Prince Andrei, see it beat strongly in Chekhov’s characters, and, before either, see its beauty even in Ivan Goncharov’s Oblamov (1859). In this comic and heartbreaking novel, Oblomov is a gentleman who loves sleeping above all else, and the comedy of this preposterous layabout, who always promises to start living fully but never does, manifests the tragedy of the unlived life:

“I too would have liked—liked,” [Oblomov] murmured, blinking with difficulty, “something like that—has nature treated me so badly—no, thank God—I’ve nothing to complain of—” There followed a resigned sigh. He was passing from agitation to his normal state of calm and apathy. “It’s fate, I suppose—can’t do anything about it,” he was hardly able to whisper, overcome by sleep. “Some two thousand less than last year,” he said suddenly in a loud voice, as though in a delirium. “Wait—wait a moment—” And he half awoke. “Still,” he whispered again, “it would be interesting—to know why—I am like that!” His eyelids closed tightly. “Yes—why? Perhaps it’s be cause—” He tried to utter the words but could not.

Rather than search his nature to the bottom, Oblomov gives in to his nature and falls asleep. But then he simply is what he is, no explanations needed; he comes from a long line of dozy provincials and cannot help himself. Goncharov’s, and Oblomov’s, is the languid humanism that generously accepts man, however ridiculous, for what he is: “Give me man—man!” Oblomov cries. “Love him!” Oblomov is beloved, by his friends, by his servant, by the reader, but his life is not an unmitigated triumph. Despite his simple beauty of soul, his existence is shot through with sadness and waste, and it is Goncharov’s enduring achievement that we still love him so much.

The Brothers Karamazov, arguably the greatest of Russian works, may hold the best example of the human heart in Russian literature. After the immemorial evil of parricide for which the wrong man is convicted, after the irradiation of the Russian soul with baneful modern ideas, Dostoevsky enshrines a transcendent moment of ordinary fellowship in kindness. Alyosha delivers a funeral oration for the tubercular Ilyusha Snegiryov, whom his schoolmates had shunned until Alyosha befriended him. The sentiments could not be simpler, but coming as they do, in the wake of moral catastrophe, they pierce the heart: “Ah, children, ah, dear friends, do not be afraid of life! How good life is when you do something good and rightful!” Alyosha’s unfailing goodness is Dostoevsky’s last word, uttered sotto voce in a world of malevolence and pain, yet resounding every bit as clearly as any cry of misery or horror.

With immediacy and profundity, the great Russian writers know human baseness and nobility, suffering and exaltation. It is to them we turn to try to fathom our inhumanity and our humanity.

— Algis Valiunas is a literary journalist and the author of Churchill’s Military Histories (Rowman and Littlefield).