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Dostoyevsky Experts Strike Back At Belarusian Leader

  • Richard Solash

Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's speechwriter would be well-advised to start brushing up his resume -- if, that is, he was behind the gaffe committed by Lukashenka during his annual address to the nation on May 8.

Alarm bells should have immediately gone off for the attentive listener when, in the middle of a rambling, two-hour speech, the man once dubbed "Europe's last dictator" made the unfortunate choice of quoting Russian literary giant Fyodor Dostoyevsky out of context.

Dostoyevsky has been dead and buried for well over 100 years, but he may have shifted, if not rolled over, in his grave when the Belarusian leader quoted the line, "There is nothing more unbearable for a man than freedom."

The great novelist's words were being used, it seemed, to justify Minsk's crackdown on civil liberties.

Scholars of the famous writer are less than amused -- and if Lukashenka understood his error, they say, he would want to hide his head in the sand, too.

The line comes from "The Grand Inquisitor," the famous parable within Dostoyevsky's final novel, "The Brothers Karamazov."

"The genius writer was correct," Lukashenka added. "In obtaining freedom, man suddenly understands that he has shouldered a heavy burden, because freedom involves responsibility. A person must make decisions himself and himself answer for them."

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka delivers his annual address on May 8.

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka delivers his annual address on May 8.

People, Lukashenka concluded, should therefore change their attitude toward the government and realize that freedom cannot occur overnight.

The West, too, he said, should remember the lesson, and understand that spurring Belarus toward that goal is pointless.

Lukashenka's Dostoyevsky quote is actually uttered by a character, the Grand Inquisitor, who has given himself up to Satan.

Fodder For Reflection

In the passage, the Grand Inquisitor says to Christ:

"You want to go into the world empty-handed, with your vague and undefined promise of freedom, which men, dull and unruly as they are by nature, are unable so much as to understand -- which they avoid and fear? For never was there anything more unbearable to the human race than personal freedom! Do you see these stones in the desolate and scorching wilderness? Command that these stones be made bread and mankind will run after you, obedient and grateful like a herd of cattle. But even then they will be ever diffident and trembling, lest you should take away your hand and they lose thereby their bread!"

That's fodder for reflection on free will and human nature, to be sure -- themes that Dostoyevsky grappled with in both his personal life and in his work. According to scholars, the passage is also part of Dostoyevsky's critique of the Catholic Church.

But it is the Grand Inquisitor speaking here and not the author himself, stresses Deborah Martinsen, a professor at Columbia University and the president of the International Dostoyevsky Society.

"Dostoyevsky uses his characters to voice sentiments, ideas, beliefs -- some of which he agrees with, but many of which he does not agree with. And he's definitely polemicizing with the Grand Inquisitor," Martinsen says.

"Dostoyevsky does not hold the Grand Inquisitor's point of view. The Christ figure does not speak once when the Grand Inquisitor speaks, but at the end, he kisses [him]. That's his response. His response, in theological terms, is that he, Christ, can forgive all, including the Grand Inquisitor."

Martinsen adds, "I'm not a political commentator, [but] what I can do is tell you that [Lukashenka's] misquotation says that he's on the side of those who want earthly power and are willing to compromise their souls for it."

'Pathological Thirst For Power'

Vera Biron, the deputy director of the Fyodor Dostoyevsky Literary-Memorial Museum in St. Petersburg, agrees.

"The Belarusian dictator has apparently never read Dostoyevsky. It is known that Dostoyevsky disagreed with [this message] and that 'The Grand Inquisitor' was written against such treatment of people and their freedom," she says.

"My commentary is simple: In Dostoyevsky's terms, Lukashenka would not even be the Grand Inquisitor, but one of the 'demons' who is obsessed, it seems, with one idea -- a pathological thirst for power. He thinks of his own people as a herd of cattle whose obedience is not even bought, but coerced."

In Belarus, where opposition to Lukashenka's hard-line rule continues to simmer, some have suggested that the president's speechwriter wanted to purposely embarrass him. RFE/RL reported that Lukashenka postponed the delivery of his annual address for several weeks amid displeasure with a draft.

If that's not the case, or if Lukashenka inserted the quote himself, someone was apparently not reading carefully enough. But they are now. The Dostoyevsky quote does not appear in the transcript of Lukashenka's address that is posted on his official website.

"It is useless to recommend Lukashenka to read Dostoyevsky. He's incapable of comprehending," says the Dostoyevsky Museum's Biron. "We can only feel for the people who have to exist under that maniac."

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