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Belarus

Dostoyevsky Experts Strike Back At Belarusian Leader

Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky
By Richard Solash
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.
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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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Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Sey from: World
May 11, 2012 05:47
Well, people misunderstand, misquote, and give their own interpretations meant to fit their interests to sensitive texts such as the Bible and the Koran.
In Response

by: Christopher from: USA
May 11, 2012 15:56
As an American who has read the literary works of Dostoyevsky, I feel for the citizens of Belarus. Freedom does come with a price, and if you want to eliminate Lukashenka the dictator, you must unite and step up to earn freedom. Around the world, many people in bondage are stepping up and ridding their countries of corrupt dictators and welcoming freedom. Dostoyevsky's hard work must not fall on deaf ears, people must unite, committ and fight for freedom.
In Response

by: Jeff from: California
May 12, 2012 17:35
Christopher, beautifully said.

by: Bozoglan Han from: Worldstan
May 12, 2012 09:57
Of course, the Belarusian President is a dictator, but compared to the Turkmen president, he seems like an angel. The Belarusian president is being supported by ordinary people who are grateful that he hasn’t allowed oligarchs and foreign businessmen to plunder their country. It’s obvious the Turkmen president is less educated and greedier than the Belarusian one. Unlike his Belarusian counterpart, he does his best to keep his people unemployed and uneducated while dozens of Turkmen youth struggle to get some education in Belarus and other countries. According to international organizations such as Crude Accountability and Global Witness, he steals the country’s gas revenues in the shadow of so-called construction boom involved with the Turkish and French companies. Now, thanks to some hidden and unhidden American lobbyists, the Turkmen dictator opens his country to the Americans too. I don’t think it will help the RFE/RL to start the kind of campaign it has been leading against Iranian and Belarusian presidents. On the contrary, it will continue turning a blind eye on the Turkmen dictatorship while the White House embraces its double standard policies. It might be funny for you, but it’s not funny for us.
In Response

by: Ilya
May 13, 2012 03:40
RFE reports on Turkmenistan as well. If Luka's as popular as you say then he shouldn't be afraid of democracy.

by: Eugenio from: Vienna
May 13, 2012 05:55
It's interesting to see how RFE/RL is enlarging the scope of broad themes that it choses to cover: first it was SPORTS with an increadibly important and timely discussion of whether one should or should not attend football events in Ukraine.
Now it is the COPARATIVE LITERATURE that interests RFE/RL and its authors: what did Dostoyevsky really mean when he said this or that?
SOCIETY is another important topic of course: we all could enjoy in the last few weeks reading "articles" on the "Ukrainian Barbie" and on the "Georgian Show for the Blonds" - again, extremely important and timely.
MUSIC, of course, is another important theme: should Armenia attend the Euro-"song" contest in Baku or not?
The only topics that are OF NO INTEREST to the RFE/RL are the ones related to ECONOMICS: what will be the consequence of the never-ending Euro-debt crisis? What to do with the unemployment level of more than 20 % in Greece and Spain? What consequences is the looming Greek departure from the Euro-zone is likely to have for the EU? Obviously, who cares about these boring unimportant topics, when there is Dostoyevsky, the Eurovision, football and Georgian blonds?
Thank you RFE/RL for helping us stay in touch with the REAL problems of modern times!
In Response

by: EDWARD J SCHUMANN from: KEY LARGO FLORIDA USA
May 17, 2012 21:02
Eugenio from Vienna,Never better words said about what is now the most importent issues for RFL/RL. Do they have anything better to do then to harass THE ELECTED PRESIDENT of THE REPUBLIC OF BELARUS ,Alexander Lukashenko,who because of hard work and uncorruptable principles is now the leader of his country. AND NOW FOR Mr. CHRISTOPHER from USA . ???? WHEN is President Lukashenko "corrupt" for the last 10 years he was never called by his biggest enemy Poloand ,corrupt or by the EU. leaders that he was corrupt , but now the 'GENIUS' from the USA found him to be corrupt, this is news to me and his EU and plitical enemies , They have attacked him for everything in the book ,but corruption NEVER!

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