Latest in Putin mind-reading: It’s all Dostoyevsky’s fault

Danielle Ryan
Danielle Ryan is an Irish freelance journalist. Having lived and worked in the US, Germany and Russia, she is currently based in Budapest, Hungary. Her work has been featured by Salon, The Nation, Rethinking Russia, Russia Direct, teleSUR, The BRICS Post and others. Follow her on Twitter @DanielleRyanJ, check out her Facebook page, or visit her website: danielle-ryan.com
Latest in Putin mind-reading: It’s all Dostoyevsky’s fault
To understand Vladimir Putin, turn to the writings of Fyodor Dostoyevsky. That’s the latest way to prove you’re in the know about the Russian leader and his deep, dark soul.

An article by Alejandro Jimenez in the Harvard Political Review this week attempted to foster understanding of Putin and his motivations through quotes from Dostoyevsky. To save you the trouble of reading it, here’s the basic concept: Putin has expressed a fondness for Dostoyevsky. Dostoyevsky had a lot of ideas about the Russian soul and Russian destiny. Let’s pick all the bits that sound the worst and use them to prove Putin is an empire-builder on a mission to destroy the West. The end.

By the time I sat down to write this, my attention had been drawn to a second article on the same theme, thanks to a post on historian Paul Robinson’s blog. Only, this second piece, written by Peter Savodnik and published by Vanity Fair, was even more outlandish than the first. This one went so far as to credit Dostoyevsky as the “secret source of Putin’s evil.”

Anyone who follows media coverage of Russia will know that the ability to read Putin’s mind is something most journalists and analysts on that beat claim to possess. It’s truly fascinating to watch. Endless articles have been published wherein the author claims to know exactly what the mysterious and impenetrable Putin wants, feels, or thinks about the topic at hand.

It’s also not the first time journalists have attempted to explain Putin using 19th century writers and philosophers. As Robinson noted on his blog, last year it was Ivan Ilyin — and next year it will probably be someone else who holds the true key to understanding Putin’s soul.

Jimenez describes Putin as a “dangerous product” of the Russian soul as conceptualized by Dostoyevsky. He will stop at nothing to build his empire and is supported by the Russian people who are “seeking proof” of their “superiority among the family of nations.” Interestingly, he neglects to mention that there is another country, whose foreign policy is literally (and proudly) built on a belief in its superiority and exceptionalism.

In Vanity Fair, Savodnik attempts to build a case that Dostoyevsky is the secret source of Putin’s evil, while at the same time positing that Putin probably hasn’t even properly read Dostoyevsky’s work because he’s “a mobster” who betrays “few signs of being especially deep.” So, which is it? Are Putin’s politics informed deeply by the work of Dostoyevsky, or did he just grab the Cliff’s Notes version and wing it?

Both Jimenez and Savodnik’s articles are enlightening only in the sense that they are exactly the opposite of what they claim to be. Both authors, ironically, have put a lot of effort into simplifying a complicated topic. On the surface, pieces like this claim to give the reader a deeper understanding of a man. In reality, the thrust of their argument is simply that he is evil. There is no attempt to understand any of his actions outside of that prism.

But let’s go back to Robinson’s blog post, because it demonstrates how wildly different literary interpretations can be depending on who is doing the interpreting. While Jimenez and Savodnik chose to describe quotes and plots from Dostoyevsky that made Putin sound as nationalistic and maniacal as possible, Robinson instead looked at the lines Putin has himself chosen to quote in various speeches. This would seem to be the natural course of action if the goal is to understand how Putin himself interprets Dostoyevsky.

What Robinson found is entirely different to what Jimenez and Savodnik found. Where Jimenez found a Putin that aspires to empire-building inspired by Dostoyevsky’s “messianic vision” for Russia, Robinson found a Putin who spoke of Dostoyevsky’s understanding of Russia’s “European longing” and desire for reconciliation with the West.

Where Savodnik found a Dostoyevsky and a Putin that “hate” the West and wish to see it destroyed, Robinson found in them great admiration for it. He quotes Dostoyevsky on his admiration for Europeans:

“...who ended the trade in Negro slaves; who ended their own despotic systems; who proclaimed the rights of man; who created science and astounded the world with its power; who brought life and delight to human souls with art and its sacred ideals.”

He quotes Putin at the unveiling of a monument to Dostoyevsky in Germany in 2006. The symbolic gesture of the German authorities, he said, speaks to “how we live in a single European cultural space.

Trying to analyze current geopolitics purely on the basis of a few cherry-picked literary quotes is ultimately a useless exercise. It is highly unlikely, affinities for certain writers aside, that Putin or any other leader for that matter, faced with a litany of modern-day challenges, is basing his entire foreign policy off some grand ideals from 19th century novels. It’s a romantic idea no doubt, but really not a very useful one.

Jimenez claimed that Putin had “twisted, disembodied and fashioned” Dostoyevsky to “fit his interests” — which is ironic really, since it also seems to be exactly what he and Savodnik have done. Oh, as the writer himself might say: “To what a pitch of stupidity a man can be brought by frenzy!

The stupidity is particular great, it appears, if inspired by unqualified hatred for Vladimir Putin.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.