The Archbishop of Canterbury on Dostoevsky, “personalism” and how the story of Christ reminds him of Russian ideals
LC Fifty years ago, it was hard to have a decent western education without coming away with a notion of the great Russian soul. One read Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, steeped oneself in Kazimir Malevich and the Russian experiment in art, listened to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and tried to link that whole explosion of modern creativity over 50 years, from around 1870, to the hopes raised by the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. Archbishop, both you and I went through that kind of initiation—in the same home town, Swansea, as it happens—and your deep interest in Russia is well known. Tell me about how that interest first converged with the development of your faith.
Rowan Williams It began in my teens. I read the great Russian novels, listened to the great composers, watched Eisenstein’s films. I became intensely aware of an alien cultural presence on the other side of Europe which had a hinterland of imagery both odd and seductive. I moved from music and literature inexorably to Russian religious philosophy.
LC For those of us steeped in Russian culture, the relationship between literature and religious thought always seemed very inspiring, but it’s exotic and strange from a British viewpoint. How would you describe it?
RW The key for me is the concept of “personalism”—a fascination with the unfathomable in each person. Russian personalism comprises a sharp reaction against collectivism, which, as we know, is odd given the dominance of collectivist tendencies in Russian history. But there’s a tension there. There’s a wonderful expression of personalism in Boris Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago, when Yuri Zhivago speaks of a time when “There will be no spare people any more. Everyone counts.”
LC There’s also a long-standing tension with western individualism in Russian personalism, isn’t there?
RW Personalism creates a kind of way through to community and freedom at the heart of human life. It doesn’t set individual dignity and integrity against anything. Dostoevsky dismisses western individualism as “wills asserting themselves against reality, as opposed to finding the way through from personal freedom to the freedom of God.”
LC Can we unpack that? It seems important, but the language can be offputting for contemporary readers.
RW Dostoevsky and some of his followers would say ethics is not about good and evil; it’s about truth and falsehood, reality and illusion. The right way to live doesn’t amount to a series of approved actions. It’s about living in recognition of reality.
LC I like this idea of a true reality beaming its message out from Dostoevsky’s great novels, but on the face of it it’s so airy-fairily metaphysical I wonder whether we can persuade many people today to buy it.
RW Reality is an underlying conviction of harmony. The sense that there is a unity to human experience, that somewhere every river runs into the same sea.
LC I’m sceptical here. Reading Kant 30 years ago persuaded me that great visions of unity, utopias, were the way of the imagination, of dreams. Clearly, though, your faith gives you a reason for believing in the reality of an underlying harmony. So what can sceptics like me do to understand you better?
RW Go back to aesthetics. Focus on the instinct towards unity or harmony which many people have. Most working artists find language of this kind sooner or later. They talk about their quest for underlying form. But also think about our immediate world. Are we content to rest with the idea that, say, what is good for Africa and what is good for the west are different? Do we want to say their needs are not interdependent? Surely most people would be outraged to think of them as different. Interdependence is a way through to reality.
LC You’re retrieving here perhaps the leading idea from the Russian spiritual tradition, of an all-embracing creative principle that foments unity and that makes equal sense whether we’re thinking about art or economics.
RW Sergei Bulgakov wrote about this idea 100 years ago. In his early work he picked up the language of creativity and applied it to civic relations. He proposed understanding business, commerce and, in fact, much of daily life in the context of creativity. In his book The Philosophy of Economy (1912) he said there was no such thing as economic man, homo economicus, which was to say, no set of economic answers that could tell us how society ought to be run. The context was Russia’s first 20th-century attempt to modernise by borrowing economic ideas from the west, and already Bulgakov was arguing, against certain German economists, that pure economics wouldn’t work in Russia. You can see a reflection of Bulgakov in the contemporary idea that pure economics is a fiction; that you need to factor in externals like trust to get a true picture. The Cambridge economist Partha Dasgupta strikes me as writing in a Bulgakovian spirit.
LC Bulgakov, a Marxist who trained as an economist but went on to take holy orders, was of course expelled from early Soviet Russia for having a view of economics quite out of tune with Lenin’s. But it’s interesting to see how we go on facing these same tensions a century later, about market solutions versus people’s needs for community and trust. This brings us back to what you were saying about reality as an ethical concept.
RW Exactly. Reality is a sense that life coheres. If, for instance, you establish economic relations that destroy trust, you threaten that sense of reality on which people depend for their sense of “what it means.” Reality takes its revenge if you undermine those relationships.
LC Let’s talk solutions. You’re saying that if we all could take a more creative view of our social roles, then we might foster this sense of a coherent life at the same time as keeping up productivity and growth.
RW The extreme statement of the Russian ideal comes in Father Zosima’s sermon in The Brothers Karamazov: “You have to take responsibility for everything and everyone.” It’s a radical demand to make. But it’s also a way of countering an overheated view of creativity that many of us tend to adopt, and of allowing creativity more scope in life generally. I mean, if you only hold a romantic view, then of course everyone wants to be a poet and no one wants to be a bus driver. But imagine a vision of creativity which gives equal weight to both. Both bus drivers and poets have unlimited scope for taking responsibility for everyone and everything.
LC That takes me back to the early days of the Russian revolution and the kind of crazy, inspiring idea that got swept aside in the torrent of political violence. I wouldn’t mind seeing it revived. Only, do we have to believe in God to hold this view of unlimited social creativity?
RW Dostoevsky famously said: “If there’s no God, then everything is permitted.” It’s a view the west might consider more often. Dostoevsky’s not saying that if there’s no God then no one’s watching us and we can do what we like. He’s really asking: what’s the rationale for living this way and not otherwise? If there’s no God, then there’s no shape to our lives. Our behaviour needs to be in tune with something. If there’s no divine tune, how do you know where to go, what to do? To believe in God is not a business of rewards, but an ability to make sense of things.
LC And this ability can’t come from our experience of love and art, say?
RW How do you see to it that one thousand flowers bloom and not one thousand weeds? The problem is one of the irreduceable divergence of moral ideals.
LC It seems to me that you’re saying we’re torn between a kind of voluntaristic chaos on the one hand, in which many of us might try to realise good ideas in our lives, as we see them, and on the other finding some binding principle of self-limitation and guidance we can accept.
RW Both of these forces, the anarchism and the limitation, are at work in Dostoevsky. That’s why he’s so interesting to read and why, like Hegel, he spawns radically different political interpretations. There are ultra-right Dostoevskians who are looking for the principle of order, and ultra-left Dostoevskians who see him as a prophet of creative anarchy. I admire Bulgakov when he says: “Yes, you can hold on to this radical tradition and make something civic out of it. It’s not impossible.”
LC You and I, having worked on the history of Russian thought, know how difficult it has been for Russian thinkers to reconcile their spiritual vision of the good life with any kind of workable civic order. The idea that every man is responsible for another, to the extent of being ready to stand in his place, doesn’t easily translate into a political tradition. Russia, especially, is a country where individualistic anarchy, whether or not creative, and repressive order have been constantly at war. Why do you think the Russian ethical tradition we have been talking about has borne so little fruit in its own country?
RW Three answers to the first question. Firstly, Russia is very big and difficult to govern. It’s not an 18th-century German principality, open to refined ideas of the aesthetic progress of mankind. It’s always been difficult to build in accountability. Second, the idea since the 16th century that the tsars owned the whole land hindered the development of a civic tradition. Bulgakov was one of those who believed that the spiritual tradition could be merged with something of a liberal project for Russia. Yet he found his own months as a deputy in the Duma, before the revolution, the most frustrating of his life. Third, and here I would go back to Dostoevsky, the creative potential of every person is an abyss of risk and danger. In the Russian tradition, human beings are regarded as mysterious and impenetrable, so you have to govern with a rod of iron—otherwise you don’t know what they might do.
LC This is the heart of one’s equivocal admiration for the Russian soul, isn’t it? A world that has that sense of individual spiritual depth and mystery and power set against a completely unworkable political reality. What do you think the west today might take out of the Russian tradition?
RW For most of us it’s a question of what authority we are prepared to recognise, and I think authority often comes from something endured, either by ourselves or someone else. Think of Nelson Mandela. Think also of Gee Walker, the mother of the murdered Liverpool teenager Anthony, who forgave her son’s killers. Suffering confers a certain authority. We learn from it. Dostoevsky is often accused of masochism. But he’s not saying suffering is good for you. He’s saying suffering is how you are likely to learn. Don’t be frightened when it happens to you.
LC Vladimir Solovyov, Dostoevsky’s friend and contemporary, once wrote that what was desirable was “a just social environment in which human freedom is limited for the sake of love.”
RW It’s a wonderful statement, but who does the limiting?
LC That’s what we’ve been talking about: how to get some kind of unity and emotional coherence in our lives without infringing personal freedom.
RW We find the answer when we tell us ourselves the story of God, whose own freedom was restricted by love in creating the world. We find it in the way God chose to redeem the world on the cross, not in triumph and power. The Christian story in turn brings to mind certain Russian ideals. The Russian tradition has always attached great importance to the humiliated and the marginal, and to abandoning self-interest.
LC I think we both know we’re going to have a hard job selling the abandonment of self-interest widely. The good news—as we sit here in your extraordinary library of Russian books, archbishop—is that you are writing a book on Dostoevsky, in which I hope we’ll find some of these ideas expanded upon. I’d like to thank you very much for talking to me.