Spengler on the Russian Soul, on Dostoevsky vs Tolstoi

10 posts

This was posted by Camacho in the old Salo right before its demise. It's worth re-posting.


This Muscovite period of the great Boyar families and Patriarchs, in which a constant element is the resistance of an Old Russia party to the friends of Western Culture, is followed, from the founding of Petersburg in 1703, by the pseudomorphosis which forced the primitive Russian soul into the alien mould, first of full Baroque, then of the Enlightenment, and then of the nineteenth century. The fate-figure in Russian history is Peter the Great, with whom we may compare the Charlemagne who deliberately and with all his might strove to impose the very thing which Charles Martel had just prevented, the rule of the Moorish-Byzantine spirit.

The possibility was there of treating the Russian world in the manner of a Carolingian or that of Seleucid-- that is, of choosing between Old Russian and "Western" ways, and the Romanovs chose the latter. The Seleucids liked to see Hellenes and not Aramaeans about them. The primitive tsarism of Moscow is the only form which is even to-day appropriate to the Russian world, but in Petersburg it was distorted to the dynastic form of western Europe. The pull of the sacred South-- of Byzantium and Jerusalem-- strong in every Orthodox soul, was twisted by the worldly diplomacy which set its face to the West. The burning of Moscow, that mighty symbolic act of a primitive people, that expression of Maccabbean hatred of the foreigner and heretic, was followed by the entry of Alexander I into Paris, the Holy Alliance, and the concert of the Great Powers of the West. And thus a nationality whose destiny should have been to live without a history for some generations still was forced into a false and artificial history that the soul of Old Russia was simply incapable of understanding.

Late-period arts and sciences, enlightenment, social ethics, the materialism of world-cities, were introduced, although in this pre-cultural time religion was the only language in which man understood himself and the world. In the townless land with its primitive peasantry, cities of alien type fixed themselves like ulcers-- false, unnatural, unconvincing. "Petersburg," says Dostoyevski, "is the most abstract and artificial city in the world." Born in it though he was, he had the feeling that one day it might vanish with the morning mist. Just so ghostly, so incredible, were the Hellenistic artifact-cities scattered in the Aramaic peasant-lands. Jesus in his Galilee knew this. St. Peter must have felt it when he set eyes on Imperial Rome.

After this everything that arose around it was felt by the true Russdom as lies and poison. A truly apocalyptic hatred was directed on Europe, and "Europe" was all that was not Russia, including Athens and Rome, just as for the Magian world in its time Old Egypt and Babylon had been antique, pagan, devilish. "The first condition of emancipation for the Russian soul," wrote Aksakov in 1863 to Dostoyevski, "is that it should hate Petersburg with all its might and all its soul." Moscow is holy, Petersburg Satanic. A widespread popular legend presents Peter the Great as Antichrist.

Just so the Aramaic Pseudomorphosis cries out in all the Apocalypses from Daniel and Enoch in Maccabaean times to John, Baruch, and Ezra IV after the destruction of Jerusalem, against Antiochus the Antichrist, against Rome the Whore of Babylon, against the cities of the West with their refinement and their splendour, against the whole Classical Culture. All its works are untrue and unclean; the polite society, the clever artistry, the classes, the alien state with its civilized diplomacy, justice, and administration. The contrast between Russian and Western, Jew-Christian and Late-Classical nihilisms is extreme-- the one kind is hatred of the alien that is poisoning the unborn Culture in the womb of the land, the other a surfeited disgust of one's own proper overgrowths.

Depths of religious feeling, flashes of revelation, shuddering fear of the great awakening, metaphysical dreaming and yearning, belong to the beginning, as the pain of spiritual clarity belongs to the end of a history. In these pseudomorphoses they are mingled. Says Dostoyevski: "Everyone in street and market-place now speculates about the nature of Faith." So might it have been said of Edessa or Jerusalem. Those young Russians of the days before 1914-- dirty, pale, exalted, moping in corners, ever absorbed in metaphysics, seeing all things with an eye of faith even when the ostensible topic is the franchise, chemistry, or women's education, are the Jews and early Christians of the Hellenistic cities, whom the Romans regarded with a mixture of surly amusement and secret fear. In Tsarist Russia there was no bourgeoisie and, in general, no true class-system, but merely, as in the Frankish dominions, lord and peasant.

There were no Russian towns. Moscow consisted of a fortified residency (the Kreml) round which was spread a gigantic market. The imitation city that grew up and ringed it in, like every other city on the soil of Mother Russia, is there for the satisfaction and utilities of the Court, the administration, the traders, but that which lives in it is, on the top, an embodiment of fiction, an Intelligentsia bent on discovering problems and conflicts, and below, an uprooted peasantry, with all the metaphysical gloom, anxiety, and misery of their own Dostoyevski-- perpetually homesick for the open land and bitterly hating the stony grey world into which Antichrist has tempted them. Moscow had no proper soul. The spirit of the upper classes was Western, and the lower had brought in with them the soul of the countryside. Between the two worlds there was no reciprocal comprehension, no communication, no charity. To understand the two spokesmen and victims of the pseudomorphosis, it is enough that Dostoyevski is the peasant, and Tolstoi the man of Western society. The one could never in his soul get away from the land; the other, in spite of his desperate efforts, could never get near it.

Tolstoi is the former Russia, Dostoyevski the coming Russia. The inner Tolstoi is tied to the West. He is the great spokesman of Petrinism even when he is denying it. The West is never without a negative; the guillotine, too, was a true daughter of Versailles, and rage as he might against Europe, Tolstoi could never shake it off. Hating it, he hates himself and so becomes the father of Bolshevism. The utter powerlessness of this spirit, and "its" 1917 revolution, stands confessed in his posthumously published A Light Shines in the Darkness. This hatred Dostoyevski does not know. His passionate power of living is comprehensive enough to embrace all things Western as well-- "I have two fatherlands, Russia and Europe." He has passed beyond both Petrinism and revolution, and from his future he looks back over them as from afar. His soul is apocalyptic, yearning, desperate, but of this future certain.

"I will go to Europe," says Ivan Karamazov to his mother, Alyosha; "I know well enough that I shall be going only to a churchyard, but I know too that that churchyard is dear, very dear to me. Beloved dead lie buried there, every stone over them tells of a life so ardently lived, so passionate a belief in its own achievements, its own truth, its own battle, its own knowledge, that I know even now I know I shall fall down and kiss these stones and weep over them."

Tolstoi, on the contrary, is essentially a great understanding, "enlightened" and "socially minded." All that he sees about him takes the Late-period, megalopolitan, and Western form of a problem , whereas Dostoyevski does not even know what a problem is. Tolstoi is an event within and of Western Civilization. He stands midway between Peter and Bolshevism, and neither he nor these managed to get within sight of Russian earth. The thing they are fighting against reappears, recognizable, in the very form in which they fight. Their kind of opposition is not apocalyptic but intellectual. Tolstoi's hatred of property is an economist's, his hatred of society a social reformer's, his hatred of the State a political theorist's. Hence his immense effect upon the West he belongs, in one respect as in another, to the band of Marx, Ibsen, and Zola.

Dostoyevski, on the contrary, belongs to no band, unless it be the band of the Apostles of primitive Christianity. His "Daemons " were denounced by the Russian Intelligentsia as reactionaries. But he himself was quite unconscious of such conflicts; "conservative" and "revolutionary" were terms of the West that left him indifferent. Such a soul as his can look beyond everything that we call social, for the things of this world seem to it so unimportant as not to be worth improving. No genuine religion aims at improving the world of facts, and Dostoyevski, like every primitive Russian, is fundamentally unaware of that world and lives in a second, metaphysical world beyond. What has the agony of a soul to do with Communism? A religion that has got as far as taking social problems in hand has ceased to be a religion. But the reality in which Dostoyevski lives, even during this life, is a religious creation directly present to him. His Alyosha has defied all literary criticism, even Russian. His life of Christ, had he written it as he always intended to do, would have been a genuine gospel like the Gospels of primitive Christianity, which stand completely outside Classical and Jewish literary forms. Tolstoi, on the other hand, is a master of the Western novel-- Anna Karenina distances every rival and even in his peasant's garb remains a man of polite society.

Here we have beginning and end clashing together. Dostoyevski is a saint, Tolstoi only a revolutionary. From Tolstoi, the true successor of Peter, and from him only, proceeds Bolshevism, which is not the contrary, but the final issue of Petrinism, the last dishonouring of the metaphysical by the social, and, ipso facto , a new form of the Pseudomorphosis. If the building of Petersburg was the first act of Antichrist, the self-destruction of the society formed of that Petersburg is the second, and so the peasant soul must feel it. For the Bolshevists are not the nation, or even a part of it, but the lowest stratum of this Petrine society, alien and western like the other strata, yet not recognized by these and consequently filled with the hate of the downtrodden. It is all megalopolitan and "Civilized"-- the social politics, the Intelligentsia, the literature that first in the romantic and then in the economic jargon champions freedoms and reforms, before an audience that itself belongs to the society. The real Russian is a disciple of Dostoyevski. Although he may not have read Dostoyevski or anyone else-- nay, perhaps because he cannot read, he is himself Dostoyevski in substance; and if the Bolshevists, who see in Christ a mere social revolutionist like themselves, were not intellectually so narrowed, it would be in Dostoyevski that they would recognize their prime enemy. What gave this revolution its momentum was not the intelligentsia's hatred. It was the people itself, which, without hatred, urged only by the need of throwing off a disease, destroyed the old Westernism in one effort of upheaval, and will send the new after it in another. For what this townless people yearns for is its own life-form, its own religion, its own history. Tolstoi's Christianity was a misunderstanding. He spoke of Christ and he meant Marx. But to Dostoyevski's Christianity the next thousand years will belong. (Vol II p. 194-196)

And from p. 219:

..... and so we come back to the contrast of Tolstoi and Dostoyevski. Tolstoi, the townsman and Westerner, saw in Jesus only a social reformer, and in his metaphysical impotence like the whole civilized West, which can only think about distributing , never renouncing -- elevated primitive-Christianity to the rank of a social revolution. Dostoyevski, who was poor, but in certain hours almost a saint, never thought about social ameliorations-- of what profit would it have been to a man's soul to abolish property ?
Cadavre Exquis

These passages are interesting.

In Crime & Punishment, Porfiry comments:

And another thing, I'm convinced there are lots of people in Petersburg who talk to themselves as they walk. This is a town of crazy people. If only we had scientific men, doctors, lawyers and philosophers might make most valuable investigations in Petersburg each in his own line. There are few places where there are so many gloomy, strong and queer influences on the soul of man as in Petersburg. The mere influences of climate mean so much. And it's the administrative centre of all Russia and its character must be reflected on the whole country.

The building of St Petersburg begins the process of a 'Europeanisation' of Russia that will lead to (or is already a sign of) the entire country's moral, psychological and spiritual decline. The peasant and religious fanatic Nikolay is corrupted by the city and seeks redemption by admitting to a crime he didn't commit, which in itself is a Christ-like act.

On Petersburg:

There is a novel of the same name by the Russian symbolist Andrei Bely -- fitting, since Petersburg was the center of symbolist activity in that country -- which embodies the schizophrenic identity of that city in the form of a dispute between a father, Apollon, a stodgy bureaucrat in the Tsar's service, and his son Nikolai, a politically restless socialite who finds himself collaborating with a half-insane terrorist named Dudkin. Although at the beginning of the novel Nikolai does not yet shun the refined, Western manners common to his class, we see him gradually grow more and more 'Eastern' -- he wears a Tatar skullcap, he walks in a Bukhara wedding gown, his room is stuffed with exotic oriental knickknacks and decorations, etc etc. His father, meanwhile, is characteristically Petrine and familiar with all things Western, especially philosophy and politics (he is shown reading Mill's Logic, for instance); he is a Westernizing liberal, like Herzen, but not a revolutionary. Eventually, Dudkin convinces Nikolai to attempt an assassination of his own father (which fails). Here the 'destruction of the old Westernism' is depicted as patricide, in the city founded by the 'father' of modern Russia, Peter the Great.

(Although the novel should not be read merely as an allegory, as it is an excellent piece of modernist prose in the Joycean tradition and should be appreciated primarily on its merits of style.)


I agree with this. However, the final work of Tolstoi, the excellent Hadji Murat , published postumously, is an "eastern" work, which praises the fierce Caucasian Avar warriors in detriment of the decadence of Russian army officials. I was always surprised by this. It's also a bloody work, filled with violence, far from the pacifism Tolstoi was supposed to believe in. Perhaps he never meant to publish it.

"Tolstoyism" is the result of the laborious efforts of a mediocre intelligence to test all the foundations of human life, created by men of genius, by saints, by the spirit of great nations. And because that mediocre intelligence proves incapable of understanding the meaning of all these foundations, laws, and institutions, it is brought to deny them.

-- Fr. Alexander Elchaninov

Cadavre Exquis

The thoroughly Westernised Nabokov's take on the greatest Russian writers and their search for Truth:


This, for me, demonstrates why Spengler hits the nail on the head in the OP.

President Camacho

Another relevant Spengler passage as a corollary to this:

But when Jesus was taken before Pilate, then the world of facts and the world of truths were face to face in immediate and implacable hostility . It is a scene appallingly distinct and overwhelming in its symbolism, such as the world's history had never before and has never since looked at. The discord that lies at the root of all mobile life from its beginning, in virtue of its very being , of its having both existence and awareness, took here the highest form that can possibly be conceived of human tragedy.

In the famous question of the Roman Procurator: "What is truth?" -- the one word that is race-pure in the whole Greek Testament-- lies the entire meaning of history , the exclusive validity of the deed, the prestige of the State and war and blood, the all-powerfulness of success and the pride of eminent fitness. Not indeed the mouth, but the silent feeling of Jesus answers this question by that other which is decisive in all things of religion-- What is actuality? For Pilate actuality was all; for him nothing. Were it anything, indeed, pure religiousness could never stand up against history and the powers of history, or sit in judgment on active life; or if it does, it ceases to be religion and is subjected itself to the spirit of history.

My kingdom is not of this world . This is the final word which admits of no gloss and on which each must check the course wherein birth and nature have set him. A being that makes use of a waking-consciousness, or a waking-consciousness which subjects being to itself; pulsation or tension, blood or intellect, history or nature, politics or religion-- here it is one or the other, there is no honest way of compromise. A statesman can be deeply religious, a pious man can die for his country-- but they must, both, know on which side they are really standing.

The born politician despises the inward thought processes of the ideologue and ethical philosopher in a world of fact-- and rightly. For the believer, all ambition and succession of the historical world are sinful and without lasting value-- he, too, is right. A ruler who wishes to improve religion in the direction of political, practical purposes is a fool. A sociologist-preacher who tries to bring truth, righteousness, peace, and forgiveness into the world of actuality is a fool also.

No faith yet has altered the world, and no fact can ever rebut a faith. There is no bridge between directional Time and timeless Eternity, between the course of history and the existence of a divine world-order , in the structure of which the word "providence" or "dispensation" denotes the form of causality. This is the final meaning of the moment in which Jesus and Pilate confronted one another. In the one world, the historical, the Roman caused the Galilean to be crucified-- that was his Destiny. In the other world, Rome was cast for perdition and the Cross became the pledge of Redemption-- that was the "will of God."

Religion is metaphysic and nothing else -- "Credo quia absurdum" -- and this metaphysic is not the metaphysic of knowledge, argument, proof (which is mere philosophy or learnedness), but lived and experienced metaphysic that is, the unthinkable as a certainty, the supernatural as a fact, life as existence in a world that is non-actual, but true. Jesus never lived one moment in any other world but this. He was no moralizer, and to see in moralizing the final aim of religion is to be ignorant of what religion is.

Moralizing is nineteenth-century Enlightenment, humane Philistinism. To ascribe social purposes to Jesus is a blasphemy. His occasional utterances of a social kind, so far as they are authentic and not merely attributed sayings, tend merely to edification. They contain nothing whatever of new doctrine, and they include proverbs of the sort then in general currency. His teaching was the proclamation, nothing but the proclamation, of those Last Things with whose images he was constantly filled, the dawn of the New Age, the advent of heavenly envoys, the last judgment, a new heaven and a new earth. Any other conception of religion was never in Jesus, nor in any truly deep-feeling period of history.

Religion is, first and last, metaphysic , other-worldliness ( Jenseitigkeit ), awareness in a world of which the evidence of the senses merely lights the foreground. It is life in and with the supersensible. And where the capacity for this awareness, or even the capacity for believing in its existence, is wanting, real religion is at an end. "My kingdom is not of this world," and only he who can look into the depths that this flash illumines can comprehend the voices that come out of them. It is the Late, city periods that, no longer capable of seeing into depths, have turned the remnants of religiousness upon the external world and replaced religion by humanities, and metaphysic by moralization and social ethics.

In Jesus we have the direct opposite. "Give unto Ceasar the things that are Ceasar's" means: "Fit yourselves to the powers of the fact-world, be patient, suffer, and ask it not whether they are 'just.'' What alone matters is the salvation of the soul. "Consider the lilies" means: "Give no heed to riches and poverty, for both fetter the soul to cares of this world." "Man cannot serve both God and Mammon"-- by Mammon is meant the whole of actuality.It is shallow, and it is cowardly, to argue away the grand significance of this demand. Between working for the increase of one's own riches, and working for the social ease of everyone, he would have felt no difference whatever.


In Spengler’s scheme, Nobility and Priesthood are the two great Estates, related to each other as Fact (“Actuality”) and Truth, Deed and Thought, Blood and Intellect, Time and Space, Being and Waking-Consciousness. During the Late period of all Cultures degraded forms of these Estates begin to predominate—economic powers (merchants, financiers, politicians, etc) supplant Nobility while “intellectuals” and “scientists” (social and physical) supplant the Priesthood.

Dostoyevsky and Tolstoi are both “priestly” archetypes (though the former may be more properly called “prophetic”), but Tolstoi—the student of Late Western, “Civilized” society—assumes the form of the degraded priest (an “intellectual”), while Dostoyevsky retains the metaphysical profundity characteristic of the young and developing Russian Culture.
Ibsen doesn't really belong with the other two, and the widespread image of Ibsen as some sort of political radical appears to be based on A Doll's House , one of his lesser works, and spurious readings of his other plays. His vision in his more overtly political plays is decidedly pessimistic towards the idea of reform, such as in An Enemy of the People , where the radicals are depicted as demagogues and hooligans.

And in his private life, he was loyal the monarchy:
You can read more about this here:
President Camacho
Spengler doesn't lump Ibsen in with Marx and Zola because he was "left wing", but because he was a modernist. Even his praise of monarchy is not based on a cultural or spiritual predilection, but on some sort of Enlightenment (ie, English) respect for "individual liberty".

Ibsen, with his incessant moralizing, his focus on "women problems", championing of social issues and reforms, his preaching style of delivery to the captive audience-- is a far cry from a Dostoevsky, who confronts truly universal issues and not those merely relevant to modern Western megapolitans.
Niccolo and Donkey