Dostoevsky and Nationalism

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An Imperial Russian Flag with a Coat-Of-Arms.

One of the defining characteristics of Dostoevsky’s life was his relationship with Russian nationalism and the State. In the 1840s, early in his literary career, Dostoevsky joined a variety of literary groups who discussed topics such as socialism, Orthodox Christianity, and liberalism, in the context of the contemporary political debate between the Westernizers and the Slavophiles (Hudspith 18-19). In 1847, Dostoevsky joined a circle called the Petrashevsky Circle, named after Mikhail Petrashevsky. In this circle, Petrashevsky circulated many banned or otherwise suppressed books amongst its membership. In 1849, members of this circle, including Dostoevsky, were arrested by the police and sentenced to death by the Tsar until their sentence was changed to exile at the last moment.

Dostoevsky’s time in Siberia radically altered his political views. Before his arrest and mock execution, he was involved in and influenced by liberal and socialist literary circles like that of Petrashevsky’s and Vissarion Belinsky’s. Afterwards, he renounced Utopian Socialism as unfitting to the realities of the life and the limitless idiosyncrasies of the individual and their free-will (Hudspith 23-24). While Dostoevsky rejected some of the negative connotations of the label “Slavophile”, arguing that it need not represent reactionary attitudes or imperialistic pan-Slavism (Hudspith 86), he did find commonality with the Slavophiles in one key area: that of Russian nationalism and the cultural and spiritual importance of the Russian people. As Sarah Hudspith writes: “For Dostoevsky, it appears that to be a Slavophile in the truest sense means to uphold the Russian idea, founded on Orthodoxy, and to assert one’s Russianness… by loving Europe with a spiritually motivated love that expresses the innate Russian desire for universal brotherhood” (Ibid).

In 1861, returning to liberal St. Petersburg after his exile, Dostoevsky and some of his close companions began publishing a periodical called Vremya (Time) and started calling themselves pochvenniki: men rooted in the soil (Kohn 392). When he was forced to live in Western Europe for a time to escape his debtors, Dostoevsky wrote letters to friends and acquaintances describing his hatred for the West and emphasizing, in contrast, Russia’s own nobility and superiority (Kohn 393-4). For Dostoevsky, Russia deserved “loving intuition” because of its unique humility and understanding of the ills of the world (Kohn 399). He defended and praised the Tsar, the autocratic system, and the Orthodox Church as “necessary for Russian power and therefore for human salvation” (Kohn 400-1), and because he thought “… the higher classes… would use political liberty to subordinate the simple folk to their interests and ideals” (Hackard). Indeed, Hans Kohn argues that the most important parts of Dostoevsky’s political ideology were anti-Western sentiment and extreme Russian nationalism. In Dostoevsky’s mind, the Church served a vital role in the creation and maintenance of Russian identity. To be an atheist is to be anti-Russian due to a lack of belief in the “Russian God which is none else than the Russian nation” (Kohn 401).

Dostoevsky's Influence on New-Nationalism and Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation (1999-2008; 2012-Present) and notable admirer of Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Over 140 years after his death in 1881, Dostoevsky's rhetoric on Russian nationalism and the role of the Russian Orthodox Church in society can still be felt to this day, reverberating in the ears of the Russian populous and notably, throughout the halls of the Kremlin. As articulated by Peter Savodnik, Dostoevsky's novels (particularly Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, Demons, and The Brothers Karamazov) were not simply written to be entertaining, but to present a particular vision or philosophy, which for Dostoevsky meant portraying a dystopian version of Russia which had strayed too far from its 'pre-Petrine origins' (Savodnik). Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, nationalist sentiments have only grown with time, most notably in the resurrection of religion and the Russian Orthodox Church, both of which play an integral role in Dostoevsky's conception of Russian nationalism, combined with their steadfast opposition to the West and their ideals.

One individual who Dostoevsky's works and philosophy have left an indelible impact on is Russian President Vladimir Putin. Along with Leo Tolstoy, Putin has indicated in multiple interviews that his favourite author is Fyodor Dostoevsky, with The Brother Karamazov and Crime and Punishment being his two favourite books. As we learn from Linton Weeks, it seems that the latter author and their philosophy have won out over the former, following the 'Dostoevskian tradition' of the establishment of a wide-reaching Christian empire under Russian leadership contrasted with the 'Tolstoyan tradition' of being patriotic, but nationalistic, "believing in the dignity of every human being and culture" (Weeks). Back in April 2005, Putin made the following remarks in a speech to the Russian people: "Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century. As for the Russian nation, it became a genuine drama. Tens of millions of our co-citizens and co-patriots found themselves outside Russian territory. Moreover, the epidemic of disintegration infected Russia itself" (Kremlin, 2005). Although Dostoevsky's nationalism encourages the creation of a society which strives for the common good and an "environment that is suited to the cultivation of the soul and the pursuit of perfection," how that ought to be achieved is not as clear (Parapella). For Putin, this has, in part, meant strengthening his ties with the Russian Orthodox Church and its primate, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, the Church's wider role in Russian society, and confrontation with the West in order to preserve his vision of the heritage and traditions of Russian society.

Dostoevsky's endorsement of the Tsar's autocratic regime and orthodoxy of the Church would lead one to safely assume that he could have supported Putin's initiatives in the renewal of Russia's place in the world as a model for mankind (Brinkof). Dostoevsky's influence on the New-Nationalism ideology (combining aspects of populism, nationalism and Pan-Slavism) professed by Putin and his United Russia party is hard to dispute. Recent military actions undertaken against Ukraine in February 2022 appear to support the notion of Russian exceptionalism and that Dostoevsky's works and the philosophy he espoused through them have the potential for real-world consequences.


Brinkhof, Tim. “What Classic Russian Literature Can Tell Us about Putin's War on Ukraine.” Big Think, Freethink Media, 5 Mar. 2022,

Hackard, Mark. “Dostoevsky and the State.” The Soul of the East, 27 Feb. 2015,

Hudspith, Sarah. Dostoevsky and the Idea of Russianness: A New Perspective on Unity and Brotherhood. Routledge, 2014.

Kohn, Hans. “Dostoevsky's Nationalism.” Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 6, no. 4, 1945, pp. 385–414. JSTOR,

Paparella, Emanuel L. “The Nexus Religion/Nationalism in Today's Russia: Are The Roots Buried in Dostoevsky's Novels?” Modern Diplomacy, Modern Diplomacy, 15 May 2017,

Savodnik, Peter. “The Secret Source of Putin's Evil.” Vanity Fair, Condé Nast, 10 Jan. 2017,

Weeks, Linton. “Vladimir Putin Is Right out of a Russian Novel.” NPR, NPR, 29 Mar. 2014,