The Archbishop of Canterbury on Dostoevsky, "personalism" and how the story of Christ reminds him of Russian idealsby Lesley Chamberlain / May 26, 2007 / Leave a comment
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…