book review on Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Historical Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
this is a book review on the novel The Brothers Karamazov, by Dostoevsky. It portrays the conflict between Orthodox (Slavophiles) and Russians with Modern tendencies (Westernizers) viewed as a conflict between brothers in the same noble family. Setting dates from around World War I.

Submitted: May 20, 2008

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Submitted: May 20, 2008



In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky expounds on the conflict between Slavophiles and Westernizers, which has existed in Russia since the reign of Tsar Peter the Great in the 18th century. In The Brothers Karamazov, the Westernizers are represented by the atheistic, intellectual Ivan, while the Slavophiles and/or Russian Orthodox are represented by the loving, ascetic Alyosha. In Russia these two groups are not only two contradictory value systems, but are also politically different.
Alyosha, the brother monk, represents the Slavophile movement, championed and protected by the Russian Orthodox Church. This religion venerates elders to whom a group of monks is bound by absolute obedience until their release by him; the elders and the Tsar are considered saints or gods, deemed perfect instruments of God’s love on Earth towards all humanity. Salvation is attained through expiation, prayers and much suffering, a recurrent theme in the novel. Alyosha is urged and encouraged to bring love to the world and peace to his family by the elder Father Zosima. According to The Brothers Karamazov, “elders were highly esteemed by the people … [who] confessed their doubts, their sins, and their sufferings; and ask[ed] for counsel and admonition”. Such practice could become a two-edged sword, and this is also explained in The Brothers Karamazov: “…moral regeneration of a man from slavery to freedom and to moral perfectibility…may lead some not to humility and complete self-control but to the most Satanic pride, that is, to bondage and not to freedom”. The Russian Orthodox Church does not based its faith on miracles like Catholicism or confession on the belief of Christ as many Protestant sects do; but on deeds, especially love that is totally non-judgmental. This religion is also Dostoevsky’s answer to Nihilism (absolute freedom) and Rationalism (“Man is not a rational animal”). The mysticism or asceticism of this religion can be equated to Hinduism or Buddhism, in which enlightenment or salvation is attained by unity with God, i.e. spiritual vision is turned inward, “The Kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21). The Slavophiles also believed in the ‘sacred kingship’ of the Tsar, representing the humanity of Christ, while the priesthood symbolized His Divinity; the Tsar is considered a Messiah leading his nation into holiness. Women were not permitted to rule legally, this was changed in the 18th century, after the reign of Peter the Great (the Anti-Christ) who was succeeded by Catherine the Great. The Russian Orthodox Church is against the principles of Equality and the ‘pursuit of happiness’ found in the French and the United States Constitutions respectively; and agrees with Aristotle in saying that “Equality breeds mediocrity”, although it condemns science and progress. The Russian Orthodox Church exists to change the world, not to be changed by it.
In contrast, the Westernizers were greatly influenced by French political ideas as expressed in the Declaration of the Rights of Man; as well as those from the French philosophers such as: Voltaire, Diderot and Rousseau. The first Westernizer in Russian history was Peter the Great, among his reforms were: establishment of the Russian navy and the school system; but his most unpopular reform was the creation of the Holy Synod. The Holy Synod enabled him and all the following Tsars to control the Russian Orthodox Church; from then on separation of Church and State completely disappeared.
With the Holy Synod the Russian Orthodox Church became a department of the State and the Patriarchate was abolished in 1721. He also included the Ukrainian clergy in its midst, and even admirers of German Lutheranism among its saints. His reforms continued thru the reign of Tsar Nicholas I (ruled during Dostoevsky’s life), who took power after the defeat of the Decembrist revolution of 1825; and who also emancipated the serfs. In The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan struggles with belief and immortality, life and death, and argues that Man suffers because he does not have the strength for free will. In his poem “The Grand Inquisitor”, he attacks the Roman Catholic Church by saying that it wants power and empire at all costs, even if it goes against God and the Bible. The Catholics prove themselves by ‘miracles’. Ivan affirms that the Church would be more effective in punishing criminals than the State; and that Man prompted to act by self-interest. Ivan accepts God, but not the world he has created. The most famous philosopher among the Westernizers was Chaadaev; who wrote about Kant, materialism, as well as various religious issues. He was a liberal, but among the Westernizers we also find Socialists and Communists. The Communists came to power in 1917, which led to their persecution of the Russian Orthodox Church and all other religions in Russia. Publications of numerous religious ideas were prohibited and countless priests were executed, also religious property was confiscated.
In conclusion, Dostoevsky depicts the conflict between Slavophiles and Westernizers in The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan was the young radical Dostoevsky, who after the publication of his socialist ideas, was sentenced to death, later commuted to hard labor in Siberia. He returned a new man and a convert to the Russian Orthodox religion. After the death of his three-year-old son, Alyosha, he performed a pilgrimage to a monastery.

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