‘But worse than all else about Europeans is their slovenliness! The Kirgiz in his yurt has cleaner habits (even cleaner than those in Geneva). I am horrified. Before, if someone had told me this about Europeans, I would have laughed in his face. But the devil take them! I detest them beyond all measure!’
– Fyodor Dostoevsky in a letter to A.N. Maikov, 1868
Dostoevsky loved Russia and hated Europe, where he spent about four years of his life. It was in Europe that he restored the state of his health, gambled away his money in a German casino, and all the while yearned for his homeland.
Slovenliness is the least of his reproaches against Europeans. Other sources of dissatisfaction were far more profound:
Their mores are altogether primitive. If you only knew what they hold to be good and what they consider evil. Meanness, backwardness: the drunkenness, thievery, and petty fraud that govern their trade practices . . . ( In Germany I was most astounded by the stupidity of the people; they are unspeakably stupid, immeasurably so) . . .
About five years ago, I published an article in Austria entitled ‘Goodbye, Europe!’. The premise of the piece is that, starting from the time of Peter the Great (who reigned from 1682 to 1725, and accomplished tremendous reforms), Russia has vacillated between an urge towards greater social and cultural proximity to Europe, and alienation from it. It seems clear to me that during the past ten years, Russia has reached the apex of its estrangement from Europe.
The views I expressed in my article caused a storm of indignation, which, I must admit, surprised me. It turns out that a large number of my compatriots are of the opinion that Russia is travelling a ‘third’ path – neither European nor Asian, but rather an idiosyncratic one, a path peculiar to Russia. In a certain sense, this notion is justified: seventy years of Soviet and post-Soviet power did, indeed, represent a third path. A Soviet one.
From our vantage point in the present, it is difficult to know whether Dostoevsky would have accepted the Soviet system; and, more poignantly, whether the Soviet system would have accepted him. He died in 1881, nearly four decades before the new dispensation was established and some of his novels banned.
Dostoevsky was a great Russian patriot. He did not like Europe. And he has many kindred spirits in Russia to this day. Last year, during a talk, I said in a rather offhand way that Russia was lagging behind Europe by about 150 years. I actually think that in some respects it lags behind by well more than 150 years. But how much vehement backlash there was! The most striking response was from a gentleman who insisted that Europe had received from Russia not only its knowledge of hygiene, but the sewage system itself.