Friday, July 4, 2014

Dostoevsky anti-Semitic?

Dostoevsky in 1876

I just finished reading a remarkable book about Dostoevsky’s philosophy(1). One chapter of the book particularly caught my attention. The author demonstrates that the charge of anti-Semitism leveled against the writer is unfounded. It reminded me of an article that I published here in September 2012: “A spot on the beautiful garment”. It was about a so-called anti-Semitism of Dostoevsky. When that article was published, Pierre Lamblé sent me a comment in which he strongly disagreed with this assertion. He wrote: “The anti-Semitism of Dostoevsky is a myth based on nonsense, on a misunderstanding on the nature of his work, of his conditions of work and production, and on anachronisms. We cannot comment on what D. wrote about the Jews in his time with our current criteria of reading; in reality, he consistently expressed feelings of sympathy for the Jews in general, and especially in his works of fiction”. And he invited me to read a chapter he devoted to this issue in his book. I followed his advice and found convincing answers in the ten pages he dedicates to the question, in a section entitled “The Politics of Dostoevsky”. In these pages, Lamblé criticizes a book published in 1976 by David Goldstein, under the title “Dostoïevski et les Juifs” (Dostoevsky and the Jews).

However, before I address a few arguments developed by Lamblé, one must remember that Dostoevsky is dependent on the prevailing mentality of the Orthodox society of his time and that he adopts many common anti-Jewish stereotypes: taste for money, rootlessness, subservience, etc. But, as Lamblé explains it, by having some of his characters take on these traits, the writer joins his readers in their prejudice so as eventually to better underscore their vanity. We find a similar “strategy” in the French writer Léon Bloy, friend of Jews and slayer of anti-Judaism. In Le Salut vient des Juifs (Salvation comes from the Jews), Bloy, too, highlights several typical clichés of Christian anti-Judaïsm, but it is from this apparent attribution made of the average anti-Semite that he operates a shift and asserts that “the Jewish people stop the History of nations as a dam bars the course of a river, to raise its level”. Following a recent attempt to censor Le Salut vient des Juifs, Alexis Galperin, the great-grandson of Léon Bloy wrote: “The book explicitly adopts the method of St. Thomas, which consists in exhausting every objection, that is, in letting the opponent spit his venom ad nauseam. So, after the first pages, in which Drumont, trampling the holy image of Moses, is lambasted as ‘turlupin sacrilege’, the writer opens the window to the great medieval rush of anti-Jewish violence, plunging, without hiding from it, into an abyss of feelings from which he himself was not exempt. This is what he calls ‘the premises of calculated violence’. In a perfectly planned ‘mise en abyme’(hall of mirrors effect) the crescendo of hatred stops suddenly, abruptly, so that a rise in the glory of Israel can eventually be realized, with an incomparable power”.

Impossible to summarize here all the argumentation of Pierre Lamblé. Let us look, with him, at two characters explicitly identified as Jews by Dostoevsky: Isaiah Fomitch in Notes from the House of the Dead and Lyamshin in Demons. Of course, both characters have somewhat ridiculous, and even rude, personal aspects. But, observes Lamblé, “far from attracting to him the violence of those who surround him, [Fomitch], on the contrary, attracts general sympathy (...) Dostoevsky has taken up the caricatured figure of the Jew, but it is in order to reverse fully the meaning it had...” As for Lyamshin, Lamblé notes that in the group of conspirators who instigated the assassination of Chatov “Lyamshin the Jew is the only one to react humanely to the terror that seizes him in front of the monstrousness of the murder”. And when Dostoevsky writes that, under the influence of this terror, “Lyamshin shouted with a voice that was no longer human but animal”, he suggests that the man expels these “demons” who took possession of the conspirators (and that the novel's title evokes). “While all the others, ethnic Russians, are from now on possessed by the devil, by the ritual murder committed in common, only Lyamshin, the Jew, is able to resist and expel him (...) as he is protected by his religion and by his God, whom the Russians had lost. We find, in this privilege granted by Dostoevsky to his Jewish character, a mark of the utmost respect, and even, on the part of a Christian, a quite extraordinary respect to the Hebrew religion and the sons of Israel”.
Notes for The Brothers Karamazov
On the other hand, about the article in the Writer’s Diary entitled “The Jewish Question” Pierre Lamblé refutes once again, in a very clear way, the charge of anti-Semitism. As he wrote in the comment he sent me in 2013, Dostoevsky published work in newspapers only for financial reasons and “he admitted himself that these articles were only commercial products without real meaning”.

Besides that, since his conviction for participating in Petrashevsky’s socialist circle in 1849, the writer was the object of closely scrutiny by imperial censorship, especially in his articles, and was careful to appear loyal to the regime which, as we know, was hardly favorable to the Jews. Finally, as I remarked in “A spot on the beautiful garment”, the article on “The Jewish Question” is immediately followed by another which shows a real sympathy for the Jews and places them in the perspective rather of a “brotherhood”.

Finally, in underlining the lack of seriousness of the criticism developed by David Goldstein, Pierre Lamblé points out that even the author of Dostoïevski et les Juifs is compelled not to withhold the fact that, in several of his writings, Dostoevsky systematically takes to heart “the defense of the Jews in terms that do not contain any ambiguity”. But, notes Lamblé with humor, the only way for Goldstein to explain this attitude, which completely contradicts his thesis, is to describe it as the result of a “momentary aberration”!

Ivan Kramskoi (1837-1887) Insulted Jewish boy
With his extensive knowledge of Dostoevsky's work and his penetrating analysis of the writer’s thought, Lamblé does not hesitate to assert that “there is probably no other Christian author who has brought respect for the Jewish tradition to this level”. And he adds: “Let us compare what Dostoevsky, in his Diary, writes elsewhere about French people (vomiting), Englishmen, Germans, Poles, Catholics and the Pope, and finally Protestants (without speaking of Russians themselves!) and we shall be forced to recognize objectively that, far from mistreating Jews in particular, Dostoevsky shows them a quite amazing benevolence”. Is this not heartening?


(1) Pierre LAMBLÉ, La métaphysique de l’histoire de Dostoïevski. La philosophie de Dostoïevski, tome 2. Essai de Littérature et Philosophie Comparée, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2001.


  1. I have wondered about these issues and appreciate the clarification. In my own reading of Dostoevsky, I have not noted anti-Semitism in particular. Within the current culture of Eastern Europe, however, I have experienced that it often manifests itself, unfortunately.

  2. Thank you Iulia for your comment.
    Today, anti-Semitism, especially in Europe, is no more the result of old Christian prejudices (as "Deicide" or "replacement theology"), but it is, in large part, mediated by political Islam and powered by the Arab-Israeli conflict.
    Fighting against anti-Semitism remains an important challenge.

  3. I think that both those who declare Dostoyevsky an antisemitic and those who want to view him as a Jew apologist (like you) badly trivialize him. I particularly do not like the dismissal of the article "The Jewish Question". I find his opinion on Jews contained in it to be coherent. Jews for him are the same flawed people as Russians and other nations.

    Concerning the antisemitism in the Eastern Europe: it's quite a complex problem. One of its dimensions is disloyalty to the nation/state. Another of the dimensions is that Jews are often perceived as a part of elite that is phobic and exploitative against 'natives'. In Russia it's a common nationalist idea that ever since the Bolshevik revolution Russia lost its national elites and what we have now are half-bloods of mixed Jewish/Ukrainian/Russian descent who are usually very Russophobic and thus oppress the 85% of population (ethnic Russians).

    1. I leave you the responsibility of your opinion. I simply point out that I did not make Dostoïevski an apologist of the Jews. By evoking Pierre Lamblé's research work, I simply wanted to counterbalance the judgment which I had emitted in another article (A spot on the beautiful garment). As if to looking for "motives" in the anti-Semitism, is it not another indirect way to justify it?

    2. Hatred of others is always justifiable - that is, for someone. Humans hated and killed each other long before the Jewish people formed, during their existence and possibly long after Jews will be forgotten. Just this autumn I read a long thread of comments by readers of NY Times - who I assume are fairly liberal and humane toward those less fortunate in life, judging by what they are reading and who they do vote for - in which they argued with passion for genocide and ethnic cleansing of ethnic Russians. Did they have motives, justifications? Probably. Russians, just as Jews, are not the most likable nation on this Earth, and people have a lot of grudges against us too. But ultimately, the reason for all of this is always that we are all flawed, sinful creatures regardless of our roots and nations. Delving into motives for anti-semitism is perhaps too unseemly (taboo?) for a polite company, but seeing as how I have a real chance to end up a radioactive ash within a year, I prefer to tackle that sort of problems head-on.

      Roman (ethnic Russian)

    3. "We are all flawed, sinful creatures regardless of our roots and nations". I fully endorse that statement. Jews are not, in se, better people than the others. But why are they so much more hated and persecuted?