Why did Smerdyakov kill cats? Just because. The lackey is one of the most washed-out faces in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. He is inconspicuous, elusive, slippery, always hiding, always doing things on the sly. And yet behind this mask of anonymity there lies something frightening: a compulsion to do evil for its own sake. When Smerdyakov is introduced, we learn of him that “as a child he was fond of hanging cats and then burying them with ceremony”.

One feels compelled — especially when one comes from Eastern Europe — to look to literature for answers to bigger questions about Russia’s history and presence in the world. The Brothers Karamazov is a highly symbolic book, and Smerdyakov is perhaps the ultimate symbol in it. As he grows up, he gets better and better at gratuitous evil. Now an adult, Smerdyakov teaches kids in the neighbourhood a certain trick: “take a piece of bread, […] stick a pin in it, and toss it to some yard dog, the kind that’s so hungry it will swallow whatever it gets without chewing it, and then watch what happens”.

Why torture the dogs? Why not? Eventually Smerdyakov develops this into a systematic, coherent behaviour. He kills Fyodor Pavlovich without any clear motive; he plans the murder to the last detail and commits it in cold blood, but we don’t know why. He kills just because.

Smerdyakovism is an obscure, yet tremendous force that runs deep throughout Russian history. Its basic principle is formulated succinctly by the lackey himself: “The Russian people need thrashing”. Why? Just because. Smerdyakovism flares up especially in the form of leaders and institutions that rule through terror alone; repression for the sake of repression. Its impact is overwhelming, its memory traumatic, and its social effects always paralysing. Joseph Conrad sees “something inhuman”, from another world, in these Smerdyakovian institutions. The government of Tsarist Russia, relying on an omnipresent, omnipotent secret police, and “arrogating to itself the supreme power to torment and slaughter the bodies of its subjects like a God-sent scourge, has been most cruel to those whom it allowed to live under the shadow of its dispensation”. And that was just the beginning.

It was Stalin who brought Smerdyakovism to perfection. Under his rule, Smerdyakov starved to death millions of Ukrainian peasants and killed tens of thousands of Polish prisoners. In Siberia he built a vast network of camps and prisons whereby a significant part of Russia’s population was turned into slave labor. All this for no particular reason — just because.

In The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn documents the whole thing in maddening detail. The Great Terror that Stalin orchestrated and put into practice with the help of the NKVD in the late 1930s is perhaps the most eloquent example of Smerdyakovism in 20th-century Russia. Without any trace of rational justification, the country’s artistic, scientific, political, and military elites were decimated within a few years. Some of its best writers, scientists, engineers, and generals received then a bullet in the head. Among them was Pavel Florensky (1882-1937), philosopher, theologian, mathematician, physicist — one of the greatest minds Russia ever had, often called the “Russian da Vinci”. And so was Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938), one of its finest poets. But maybe we should not be surprised that Stalin killed poets: after all, Smerdyakov never liked poetry. “Verse is nonsense”, “who on earth talks in rhymes?” he complains. “Verse is no good”.

The more fascinating the philosophical vistas opened up by The Brothers Karamazov, the more puzzling its author. Dostoevsky is a complicated case. As a creative artist, he is as insightful as it gets. He has given us access to regions of the human soul that few before or after him have. He is bold, visionary, and uncannily prophetic. As a novelist, Dostoevsky is a most generous demiurge: each of his novels emerges as a universe in its own right, a polyphonic world where characters have their distinct voices, independent from their author’s. Yet as a journalist Dostoevsky can be embarrassing. He was narrow-minded, often mediocre, and parochial, when not openly xenophobic and anti-Semitic.

This Dostoevsky — the nationalist, the inveterate Slavophile for whom Russia was a “God-bearing country” that had some natural right over others — would have likely approved of Putin’s efforts to save Ukraine from the paws of the godless West. Ever since he died Dostoevsky has not ceased to supply Russia’s political establishment with ideas, one fancier than the next.

We should not be so surprised, though. For that, too, is in The Brothers Karamazov. Throughout the novel, Ivan toys with the idea that “if God does not exist, then everything is permitted”. He drops it carelessly in conversations so that any idiot can pick it up and use it. Then, one day, Smerdyakov tells him that he just used it to murder his father. The killing “was done in the most natural manner, sir, according to those same words of yours”, says the lackey, barely containing, we surmise, sardonic laughter. Smerdyakov is of course lying — he killed Fyodor Pavlovich just because — but his mockery of Ivan’s idea is real. Mocking philosophical ideas is another facet of Russia.

Putin’s spin doctors are always ready to connect his politics to a line of Slavophile thought that runs deep in Russia and leads straight to Dostoevsky himself. Indeed, Putin is often seen crossing himself in the presence of Orthodox clergy and lighting candles in the midst of pious, simple Russian folk. Cameras are always close at hand to capture his churchgoing, just as they are to seize his tiger hunting, horse riding, crane saving, reindeer feeding, topless fishing, tank driving, or jet flying. Putin must be laughing like mad at Dostoevsky’s Slavophilia, just as Smerdyakov was laughing at Ivan’s philosophy. For Putin cares as much about ideas (Slavophile or otherwise) as he does about the tigers he kills.

Putin can be a politician, a thinker, a hunter, a fisherman, a hockey player, a fighter pilot — he can be anything he likes because he is nothing in particular. “He is an excellent imitator”, writes Anna Politkovskaya. “He is adept at wearing other people’s clothes, and many are taken in by this performance”. Journalists have often noticed how difficult it is to “read” Putin, since he is always so slippery. Yet for any serious reader of The Brothers Karamazov this is something familiar. Featurelessness itself can be a feature — that’s one of the indications that you are in Smerdyakov’s presence.

Putin, too, is Smerdyakov. The institution that created him (the KGB) is one of the most Smerdyakovian institutions ever devised. His unapologetic defense of the Soviet Union and his attempts to revive it, his recycling of the Stalinist propaganda machine, the silencing of human rights movements all over Russia, the manner in which he annihilates his opponents — all are signs that Smerdyakovism enjoys a new life in today’s Russia. Most significant of all, however, was Putin’s first vivisection of Ukraine; Smerdyakov’s signature all over it. An army of faceless, nameless, insignia-less “little green men” who steal themselves into the country under the cover of night and, before anyone knows it, cut off a piece of it. Since they do everything on the sly, and the whole operation looks more Mafia-like than military, people liken Putin’s army to a gang of thugs. That’s inaccurate: the “little green men” are not thugs, they are Smerdyakovs in action. There is nothing fake about them; their modus operandi is the lackey’s 100%.

To be sure, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin is not Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin. They are both Smerdyakovian, but, by its very nature, Smerdyakovism is protheic, multidimensional, complex. Stalin’s Smerdykovism manifests itself especially in his “just because” acts, while Putin’s in his anonymous, cowardly mode of operation. But that’s little consolation to an Eastern Europe traumatised for centuries by its stronger, always erratic, always drunk-like neighbor. For these countries the danger does not necessarily come from Putin or Stalin personally, but from Russia’s timeless Smerdyakovism, of which they are only temporary embodiments.

Politically, the tragedy of Eastern Europe comes from the fact that its security ultimately depends on what happens in Russia. Here political legitimacy is produced not through ordinary democratic practices, but through fabricated crises, at home and especially abroad. Putin has staged the farce of free elections several times already; he’s had his fun, but must be tired of it. At the same time, as he well knows, to stay in power he can’t rely on photo ops alone, no matter how lowly they get. Having made a mockery of democracy, Putin has reached a point where only inventing conflicts and invading countries could bring him what, in Russia, passes for political legitimacy. That’s true of the Smerdyakov who rules Russia now, as it is of those who will rule it in the future.


This in an extract from a piece published in the LARB in 2014, after Russia’s invasion of Crimea.

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