Dostoevsky’s “Back to the Soil” (Pochvennichestvo): Its Christian Significance

Presented as a paper, ““Nature and Environment in Dostoevsky’s Writer’s Diary,” at the Nature Philosophy and Religion Society affiliated session of the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy, Thursday, September 23, 2021, in honor of Dostoevsky’s bicentennial birthday year, and slightly revised here.

Mock execution of Dostoevsky ordered by Tsar Nicholas I, leading to his prison sentence and transformed career.

The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky identified with a movement among Russian intellectuals known as the “Back to the Soil” or pochvennichestvo movement. Its ideas overlapped with the earlier Slavophile movement but involved embracing some of Peter the Great’s reforms as historical fact in Russia’s historical trajectory by the mid-19th century as a nation, which could not be turned back or excised. So in some ways it was an attempted reboot of the Slavophile movement, for having Russia at the same poker or chess table with modern European nations while still playing strategy in a distinctively Eurasian or non-Western way. At the core of this difference for Dostoevsky was Orthodox Christianity. But how if at all can the Back to the Soil movement as expressed by Dostoevsky, especially given its name, be interpreted in environmental philosophical terms?

Two sections of Dostoevsky’s journal A Writer’s Diary, in 1873 and 1876, while he was working on or taking a break from his final and most famous novel The Brothers Karamazov, provide insight into this question. However they do so in terms of the larger sense of nature about which Dostoevsky had written, that first modernity had sought to erase God, and then to erase nature. So this is nature not only in the sense of the natural world, but also in the sense of human nature, and an Orthodox sense of natural law, which is more closely identified with grace and mystery than natural law that developed in the Scholasticism of the Latin West.

First, it must be noted that the phrase Back to the Soil as the name of an intellectual movement referred not strictly to agrarianism but primarily to a broader sense of the Russian land and a type of spiritual unity of the Russian people associated with the land. But Dostoevsky in his writings up to the end in his Pushkin Address, suggested that this mystical unity with Mother Russia, more than Slavophilism, indicated a mystical unity for humanity globally in God’s Creation. In bringing out that unity, he argued, Russia would show the way for a West misguided in its industrializing individualism, and potentially for the rest of the world dealing with a globalizing Western colonialism with its flaws. So Dostoevsky’s perspective on Back to the Soil is of interest today not only in terms of environmental philosophy, but also in terms of related concerns with neocolonialism and systemic ideological bias, topics that informed also Dostoevsky’s own anti-Western perspectives. But the interesting thing in all this of course is that Dostoevsky offers such critiques from within a Christian, albeit the Orthodox or Eastern Christian, framework.

The Back to the Soil movement’s orientation might be compared to Bismark’s blood and soil and militant nationalism in Europe leading up to World War I, but it is different because of what Dostoevsky and other Russians referred to as the Orthodox cause. It was in Dostoevsky’s thought not only pan-Slavic but ecumenical in the root sense of universal in application according to its own core rooted in Orthodox faith. And the soil or land was embued not with some sacred nationalism so much as with a combination of sacrifice, memory, and agrarianism, in relation to God’s Creation. This parallels the Anglican philosopher Roger Scruton’s later idea of oikophilia, or love of home, as a prerequisite for an enduring environmental conservation ethos — what Scruton called eco-patriotism.

The two pieces from A Writer’s Diary that I examine today are entitled “Environment,” from the third chapter of 1873, and the subsection entitled “The Land and Children” from the 1876 July-August issue. I’ll start with the latter first, as it voices Dostoevsky’s ideas about land, although polyphonically, through the character of the paradoxicalist. So it is hard to know whether these ideas are entirely Dostoevsky’s and without irony, they probably are not entirely without irony, but they are presented positively. The irony likely reflects Dostoevsky’s apophatic Orthodox sense of the limits of any absolute human knowing. The character of the paradoxicalist, who previously in the Diary had argued for the benefits of war in the spiritual life of people, seems to voice opinions that Dostoevsky finds helpfully subversive of standard Westernizers’ liberal views in his time.

The paradoxicalist begins the article on “The Land and Children” by saying “the land is everything,” and that he makes no distinction between the land and children. He says that problems with land distribution in human societies underlie basic social problems, and uses the example of France, a land idolized by the Russian elite of Dostoevsky’s day, going back to Clovis the German conqueror of the Gauls there. “Everyone should have land,” he argues, and “children ought to be born on the land and not on the street.” Factory work is fine as long as it is pursued alongside land that is already being worked. “Every factory worker should know that he has his own Gqrden somewhere, with golden sun and vineyards, a place of his own or, rather, a communal Garden; and he should know that living there is his wife—a fine woman, not one form the street, who lives him and waits for him; and along with his wife are his children, who play at horsies and who all know their own father.”

In this Dostoevsky’s paradoxicalist is sounding much like an American agrarianist along the lines of Wendell Berry, and also seems to take aim at twenty-first-century culture that with the accomplice of both political bureaucracy and commercial heedlessness in a growing inhumane technocracy, has resulted in a tragic decline of American family life not only in inner cities but everywhere. Even if a family doesn’t have enough land to be self-sufficient in their gardening, the paradoxicalist argues that they should still have enough land for a garden for children to grow up in it, and a school in a field for the children. Then the paradoxicalist expresses his faith that perhaps the factory will be built in the middle of the Garden, but is convinced that there will be a Garden, and expresses the hope that it may be remembered 100 years hence that he had explained this to Dostoevsky in the German resort of Ems, in the middle of an artificial garden among artificial people, as he describes the place. “Humanity will be renewed in the Garden, and the Garden will restore it—that is the formula,” he proclaims.

West Virginia landscape

He goes on to say that cities are a terrible phenomenon of the rise of the bourgeoise. Cities with crystal palaces, which in Notes from the Underground and elsewhere Dostoevsky portrayed as modern inhumane Towers of Babel symbolizing a new world domination of human beings by technology. But the paradoxicalist predicts a third phase of humanity, following feudalism and the bourgeoise, namely regenerated humanity, in a procession from castles to cities to the Garden. Here he may slip into the type of utopianism that Dostoevsky always subverts.

But a nation, he argues, should be born and arise on the land, on the native soil in which its grain and its trees grow. Now the proletariat of Europe, he says, is a creature of the street. But in the Garden, little children will spring directly up from the earth like Adams, and not toil in child labor in factories, “deadening their minds before some common machine to which the bourgeois says his prayers. “they will not exhaust and ruin their imaginations before endless rows of gas lamps [today blue screens perhaps], and ruin their morals through the depravity of the factory, which is such as was never seen in Sodom,” as is happening in Russia, he argues.

But in Russia, the paradoxicalist continues, there is the seed of the idea of the future, the Garden, because among the people still “the land for them is everything, and they derive everything from the land… There is something sacramental I nthe land, in one’s native soil.” But while this is clung to by Russian people, he says it is the normal law of humanity as a whole.

Tenure of land in Russia at the time is in chaos, the paradoxicalist notes, a chaos that will need to be resolved, he suggests, by the same kind of unity of consent of the country, rising up in synergy with the abolition of serfdom. However now he suggests that lack of resolution of the land question is complicated by the rise of a new finance economy, what he calls “a game on the stock exchange, the stirrings of the Jew.” That stereotype reflects Dostoevsky’s bias that existed in its own paradox with his advocacy for equal legal rights for Jews, while he identified them with an economic culture of modernity, as he did also more distantly Americans.

The paradoxicalist indicates that amid an economy increasingly based on financial dealings of the powerful, some kind of agrarian culture is needed as a solution to the woes of not only Russian society but global modernity as well. After the abolition of serfdom, the Russian people he argues still cannot accept freedom without land, that they would prefer land to freedom. “It means that the land came first for them; it was the basis for everything… freedom, life, honor, family, children, order, the church…” Regarding the latter, the Paradoxicalist may echo partially views highlighted by the American agrarian religious writer Ellen Davis in her book Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, which argues that agrarianism is integral to the Bible and faith engaged with Christian Scripture. The land ethos in the Bible, of the land belonging to God, and of the redistribution of land among the Israelites cyclically (themselves including others who came to share their worship and law), restrictions on usury, and encouragement of using marginal fruits of the land for the poor, all point to this in her view.

The paradoxicalist suggests that only through grand and universal consent will an embryo of a new idea of land tenure in Russia, and for the world, be developed, the Garden idea. What form that will take he is not sure. The old idea of the commune he notes can sometimes be a much heavier burden than serfdom, as would indeed be proven under communism which took power not by spiritual unity but by force of a minority empowered by international funding, technology, a totalitarian ideology, and a nihilistic breakdown of Russian culture. But the paradoxicalist suggests still that the idea of the old rural commune contains the seed of something better in future.

Indeed the Russian words for “village commune,” “peace,” and “world” in the sense of inhabited earth, are cognate in the term mir. Solzhenitsyn took up the Dostoevskyian question of agrarianism again as central in his writings, in his great novelistic cathedral of the Red Wheel cycle. There, Solzhenitsyn suggested an answer to the problem in the proposed land reform of the martyred Russian Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin (+1911), who had worked for the shaping of a country of small farmers owning their land throughout much of Russia, a Jeffersonian-style agrarian vision, much like the ideal of the American South, if it had given 40 acres and a mule to each freed slave household at the right time. Solzhenitsyn saw such land reform as a potential historical answer to the land tenure question raised by Dostoevsky, because he viewed the question from the other side of Communist rule, when the kulaks or small farmers had been a target of the cultural genocide of the Bolsheviks, along with the Church.

Little children are the future, the paradoxicalist concludes, in effect stating that for the seventh generation, we should plant a Garden for the children. Solzhenitsyn saw the potential for agrarianism as a source of civil freedoms in Switzerland and in Vermont, his homes in exile, and argued that such Jeffersonian agrarianism on the local level of subsidiarity could have co-existed with autocratic Christian tsarism at the national level in Russia. For implicitly shared in this vision back to Dostoevsky and beyond is the Russian idea of sobnornost, or hidden spiritual unity, the source of the grand consent, and why agrarianism is seen as both distinctly Russian and also a universal by the author, because it is related to the Orthodox Christian idea of a hidden spiritual unity of all those dwelling in the oikumene or mir of God’s Creation.

Finally and more briefly I turn to Dostoevsky’s essay on “Environment,” near the start of his Writer’s Diary. Here he speaks in his own sometimes whimsical and ironic voice as the narrator-persona. He offers a critique of the new legal system adopted from the West, which is a source also of his fictional courtroom scenes in his two greatest novels. He raises the question of the mania of acquittal by jurors in this new system in Russia. Why are they less serious than their English peers about convictions? The influence of the corrupting environment he argues is the explanation given for the high rate of acquittals by jurors of all classes of those charged with crimes, even often when the evidence seems overwhelming for their guilt. There is a process at work by which people in the jury realize they themselves are sometimes worse than the criminal, and thus acknowledge they are half to blame for his crime. “If we were better, then he, too, would be better and would not now be standing here before us.”

But Dostoevsky then offers that this is no reason to acquit criminals. “We must ourselves take on the burden of the sentence, “the pain of the heart,” he argues. This will purge us and make us btter. Then we will also improve the environment and make it better. And this is the only way to do so. “But to flee from our own pity and acquit everyone so as not to suffer ourselves—why that’s too easy.” Then the conclusion will become that the environment is to blame for everything, and crime even a duty and noble protest. This is the nihilism out of which Stéphane Courtois, lead editor of The Black Book of Communism, argued that the all-encompassing organized crime of Communism emerged. Then who will really improve the environment, if people individually are not repenting and cultivating themselves spiritually first? Who will cultivate the Garden so that it is not an artificial utopia, like the supposed Soviet technological marvel of the Chernobyl or Lenin nuclear plant, which went awry to destroy so many literal gardens in a Ukraine that earlier had been the target of the food genocide of the Soviets? The doctrine of the environment is opposed to Christianity, Dostoevsky argues. This too is sobornost, by which the mystery of spiritual unity includes also freedom, in the person of Christ, Who rejects the three temptations of Satan for material gain, self-assertion, and power, and continually does so for us, as in the parable of the Grand Inquisitor. This sobornost or spiritual unity is the Garden for Dostoevsky.

When Dostoevsky tells of how Russians call criminals unfortunates he says this is not due to environmental but Christian philosophy, which sees us all as sinners, and ourselves as contributing to what made criminals stumble. In offering bread and gospels to prisoners, the Russian people in effect ask them to pray for us, and to seek a common repentance, he writes. But he adds that it is energy, work, and struggle that improve the environment, not accepting it as determinative. The latter will only lead us to greater and more organized crimes, like technocracy and totalitarianism in his prophetic vision. That trajectory leads us to what Shoshana Zuboff in her study of surveillance capitalism calls the turning of human beings into products by big tech, to what CS Lewis had called earlier the “abolition of man.”  Dostoevsky draws on his own prison experience to argue that the fruits of the juror taking responsibility for moral choice and the criminal for crime are repentance and that which can improve the environment rather than worsen it as modernity is doing. This is the source of the idea of the Paradoxicalist’s Garden, which is rooted in the sobornost of the Christian church for Dostoevsky’s Orthodox cause of return to the soil. I think Dostoevsky came to realize this in his encounters with the Elders of Optina Monastery, for Orthodox Christian monasticism exemplifies this in many ways, as does the community life of the Orthodox parish.

Ultimately, for Dostoevsky, the land is a living embodied symbol of sobornost or life in communion with God in Creation. However, this exists in tandem with freedom, for man’s fallen environment is renewed by a synergy of divine grace and man’s free choice. All of which raises a question for America today: Our founding documents and principles based on the Creator and Providence and so forth, from the Declaration of Independence strung through the Constitution to Lincoln’s “one nation under God” in the Gettysburg Address, and the agrarianism embedded in the Jacobitism underlying much of America’s historical culture — can it be renewed in sobornost in a way related to Dostoevsky’s vision? I think he would have said yes, but only in tandem with a renewal of traditional Christianity as the source of the country’s hidden unity.


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