Slot:       29C-2          Dec. 29, 1:30 p.m. – 3:30 p.m.                                                

Panel:     Religious and Philosophical Themes in Russian Literature

Chair:     Tetyana Varenychenko, Holy Family University


Title:       At the Death Bed: Priests Performing Civic Roles in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and The Devils

Author:   Charles Arndt, Rhodes College

“Our priest is not a civil servant after all!” Dostoevsky heatedly exclaims in A Writer’s Dairy, after voicing fears of a perfunctory attitude growing among Orthodox clerics toward their vocation.  Earlier, the novelist personified such concerns in scenes of the dying Marmeladov (Crime and Punishment) and Stepan Trofimovich (The Devils), where the clergymen summoned to administer the sacraments are portrayed as though performing a civic duty, completely out-of-touch both with the feelings of those assembled and the real metaphysical significance of the event.

This paper examines passages in Crime and Punishment and The Devils and attempts to illuminate a key issue that lies embedded within them, namely, the tension between the priesthood as a public office and a spiritual calling.  The assertion will be made that the novelist develops these scenes in such a way as to show the absurdity of the clergymen’s generic approach to their “funeral” obligations. 

The passages also reveal Dostoevsky’s paradoxical views on sermons, which the priests try, but ultimately fail, to deliver.  While several characters in his novels utter homilies, Dostoevsky nonetheless held sermons under suspicion, both as intellectual grandstanding and as doomed attempts to compartmentalize divine mystery.  Moreover, the writer’s fascination with the individual’s own experience of the metaphysical renders a situation in which the “civic” priest appears as an unnecessary and unsuccessful middleman.

Indeed, the role of these priests has not always been correctly understood by scholars.  Sven Linnèr accurately assesses the intentional gulf left by the novelist between Sonya Marmeladova and the priest during her father’s last moments.  D. C. Offord, on the other hand, completely legitimizes the cleric’s words before The Devils’ dying Stepan Trofimovich, using them to characterize the latter’s spiritual awakening. 



Linnèr, Sven.  Starets Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov: A Study in the Mimesis of Virtue.  Stockholm: Almqvist and Wiksell International, 1975.

Offord, D. C.  The Devils in the Context of Contemporary Russian Thought and Politics.”  Dostoevsky’s The Devils: A Critical Companion.  Ed. W. J. Leatherbarrow.  Evanston: Northwestern UP 1999.  63-99.


Title:       Chekhov’s Divine Comedy: Reinterpreting the ‘Little Trilogy’

Author:   Yuri F. Corrigan, Princeton University

Chekhov’s “little trilogy” occurs over a period of three days – it begins in darkness, proceeds to daylight, and culminates in radiant sunshine.  The hero of the first story is desperate to find as tight a prison as possible, and he lives in the society of people who ultimately desire the same thing.  The second narrative, which begins with a drawn-out purification process abounding in overt religious language, presents a protagonist who makes it the sole object of his life to escape the infernal reality presented in the first story.  On the third day, the subject of the tale is love, the loftiest theme of Chekhov’s repertoire, related by a narrator who is, we are told, the noblest of the three characters in the trilogy.

I will argue here for a new interpretation of Chekhov’s trilogy, one that identifies Dante’s Divine Comedy as the thematic subtext.  I will not insist on exhaustive textual interconnections between the two works, but will argue that we can use this classical framework to develop a fuller understanding of Chekhov’s thought.  The argument between Hell and Purgatory abounds in Chekhov’s work—Burkin vs. Ivan Ivanych (the fearful dogmatic insider, against the perpetually frustrated outsider).  The little trilogy is the first of Chekhov’s works to present a potential solution to this existential impasse.  Chekhov thus uses Dante’s structure in order to underscore the upward-moving, transcendent quality of his own trilogy, and in order to develop three distinct modes of existence that characterize his view of reality.


Title:       Chekhov’s Prose Fiction on the Meaning of Life: Thematic and Temporal Problems

Author:   Nikita Dimitrov Nankov, Indiana University

Chekhov is a first-rate literary thinker in the anti-Cartesian Western
tradition, i.e., he places the issue of life’s meaning on the basis of
praxis which precedes rational schemes.  I illustrate this idea by
discussing two topics: 1) the three thematic fields in Chekhov’s prose
fiction which pertain to the meaning of life; and 2) the temporal
foundation of Chekhov’s representation of life’s meaning.

1) In Chekhov’s works, life’s meaning is depicted by three themes of death,
where death is not only a biological fact, but also the limit of one’s self-creation. All three themes lie between two alternatives: life is
or is not meaningful. a) The simplest depiction of life’s meaning
juxtaposes sense as pre-given by God with sense as made by people
themselves acting within a Christian framework as in the stories “Sapozhnik i
nechistaia sila” or “Pari.” b) Death is presented as an existential
issue as in “Ogni,” “Skripka Rotshilda,” and “V ssylke.” The arguing
voices here are either personified by different characters (in “V
ssylke,” Tolkovyi is opposed to the Tatar and Vasilii Sergeich) or are
depicted as two stages of a character’s life (Iakov Ivanov in “Skripka
Rotshil’da”). c) In “Uchitel slovesnosti” or “Nevesta,” the limit of
free self-creation is presented not by death, but by day-to-day
banality (“poshlost”).

2) Temporality in Chekhov has been discussed often (Gorkii,
Vorovskii, Dzhonson, Aikhenvald, Merezhkovskii, Gippius, Bunin, Turner
and Kirianov, Bitsilli, Gracheva, Goriacheva, Shatina). I draw on and
develop this tradition. One of Chekhov’s cardinal artistic features is
the concurrence of and the tension between what phenomenology terms
existential temporality (the time of consciousness) and physical
temporality (time measured by the movement of celestial
bodies). As a rule, the characters that build the meaning of their
lives freely act in both physical time and existential time.
Conversely, characters that live a non-human life and whose life is
meaningless, exist solely in objective time. The two temporalities are
exemplified by “Pridanoe” and “Skripka Rotshilda.”


Title:       Changing Perceptions of the Antichrist in Russian Literature and Culture

Author:   Michael Pesenson, Swarthmore College

In his novel The Idiot Dostoevsky, through his hero Myshkin, famously proclaims that Catholicism preaches the Antichrist and that the atheism and nihilism rampant in nineteenth century Europe were a natural outgrowth of the spiritual emptiness of Catholic doctrine.  In doing so, Dostoevsky unites two traditional Russian representations of the Antichrist: the first identified the Antichrist with Catholicism and the Pope, while the second identified the Antichrist with atheism and materialism. In both cases the Antichrist is associated with unwelcome “Western” intrusion upon traditional Russian society.  In fact, Dostoevsky makes sure that his most “Anti-Christian” characters spend a considerable amount of time in Europe.  The aim of this paper is to trace the evolution of so-called “antichrist polemics” in Russia and discuss the gradual shift in discourse from focusing on Catholicism and the Pope as Russia’s apocalyptic enemy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to addressing the perils of godlessness and materialism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This shift may be seen to reflect the gradual secularization of Russian society and the changing nature of the perceived apocalyptic threat.

Two particular apocalyptic figures marked this transition away from the common identification of the Antichrist while still retaining some connection with the image of the “Papal Antichrist.” Old Believer writings on Peter the Great as the Antichrist focused equally as much on his alleged atheism, paganism, and debauchery as on his abolishing the Patriarchate and proclaiming himself to be the head of the Church.  By the beginning of the nineteenth century, Russian literature identifying Napoleon Bonaparte as the Antichrist hardly mentions his usurping Papal power at all, focusing rather on the emperor as the embodiment of the typical evils of the French Enlightenment – godlessness, freethinking, and anarchy, all of which were championed by the radical intelligentsia of Dostoevsky’s day.