The Brothers Karamazov, Part 1

New Warhorn Media post by Nathan Alberson:

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I think there are three other points of context that are good to know when reading Dostoevsky.

  1. Beginning with Belinsky there was an idea in Russia that writing was a higher calling, almost a sacred profession to educate the people and help form society.

  2. The political culture of Dostoevsky’s time was more dysfunctional and destructive than we can imagine. Atheistic revolutionary groups like “The People’s Will” were attracting the flower of Russia’s youth. They were spreading their vile propaganda throughout Russia and both advocating and engaging in political violence and terrorism. Dostoevsky hated these groups and he was right in his abhorrence given that many of their worst elements were absorbed by the Bolshevik party. This helps to explain (A) Dostoevsky’s defense of the Orthodox Church. The church and state were tied together, and as problematic as both were, they were engaged in a life and death struggle against godless revolutionary socialism. If we lived a society offering us an either/or choice between autocracy and Orthodoxy and Bolshevism, I am sure many of us would have sided with the church and state as Dostoevsky did. (B) Because he saw his society in a life and death struggle between a flawed civilization and the barbarism of the revolutionaries and because Dostoevsky believed the writer had a calling to mold society, his work is directed towards obvious social and political ends, which certainly affects the quality of his work.

  3. Dostoevsky sought (ultimately in vain) to show the consequences of embracing atheistic and socialistic points of view. Anyone that reads his works and identifies in a positive way with a character like Dmitri or Ivan obviously doesn’t understand him! He wanted to show that embracing the nihilism and revolutionary ways of thinking so en vogue in his time would lead to insanity, unhappiness, bitterness, and ultimately death and damnation. The clearest example of this is in his best novel, Crime and Punishment. Lebziatnikov shows the shallowness and laughable folly of socialism, Svidragailov shows how embracing a life of hedonism (he is like Dmitri Karamazov on steroids) leads to despair, complete moral depravity, and death, while Raskolnikov shows how repentance can lead to life. He publicly confesses and then confesses to the police, but refuses to repent in his heart and finds himself continually alienated and afflicted in prison. It is only when he repents completely of his ideology and ‘takes up his New Testament’ that he experiences “new life” on the very final page of the novel. Just as one should not read the sins of the saints of the Old Testament as giving one license to sin now, one should not read these characters as justifying sin. If anything, there are a stark reminder of what we all would be apart from the grace of Christ.

As odd and esoteric as Dostoevsky’s “faith” is to our modern sensibilities, it is worth noting that the Soviets suppressed his work because they thought it both undermined socialism and promoted Christian faith. While I agree that he is not of the caliber as Tolstoy, understanding the culture he was working within along with his goals can help one to gain a deeper appreciation of his work.


Looking forward to part 2. I am sorry that these unfortunate personal associations apparently ruined Dostoyevsky for you all, especially that they eschewed Tolstoy, giving the impression that someone can only appreciate one style of Russian novel at a time.

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Hello @MonteKnetter!

I’m sorry it has taken so long for me to respond. I’ve been busy lately, and I don’t know if and when I’ll have time to respond further.

I do have a few things I’d like to add/respond to, but first, wanted to say I appreciate the thoroughness of what you’ve written. Given time constraints providing context, I don’t get to spend as much time as I’d like on every aspect surrounding an author. So your fleshing some of this out was helpful – especially point 2. As for point 1, I was not as familiar as I’d like with Belinsky, so you gave me a good excuse to run down some rabbit trails.

The one thing I’d add to point 2 is that, while I understand what you’re saying, I didn’t see Dostoevsky as being such a consistent defender of the Orthodox Church in what I listened to and read. I partly took this from his portrayal of Father Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov. My understanding is that while Dostoevsky was committed to Christianity, and while his Orthodox upbringing colored much of his later life, this was not simply a cut and dry opposition between Orthodoxy and socialism – in fact, I read somewhere he was sympathetic to Christian socialism even late in life. That said, I don’t know enough about it to stake anything here, so if you have sources, etc., I’d love to know about them.

I write this, also realizing Dostoevsky at some point foresaw the collapse of all Western Society, with Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church being left to bring order to the ruins. I also know he became more conservative as he aged, but that Turgenev said he was the most unpleasant Christian he’d ever met. The way I make sense of all this: a) Dostoevsky was a fallen, inconsistent Christian, like all of us and b) he struggled with real mental illness that became worse as he aged. Finally, and more as an aside – from what I read about the Russian Orthodox Church and its involvement with the state during Dostoevsky’s time, I’m not sure it does him any favors to connect him with it, even if it was to oppose socialism.

As for 3, I think it important to add I like Dostoevsky, especially The Brothers Karamazov. I also agree with your point that Dostoevsky did not intend for us to identify positively with Ivan, though I wonder about Dmitri. The problem is, many young men do. We’ve both seen it, I’m sure. My criticism, here, isn’t of Dostoevsky, but people who don’t know how to read with discernment. I think this is what Nathan and Jake would say as well. My criticism is even stronger of teachers who fail to instruct their students how to read in a way that will edify and strengthen them. I’m glad to know your students up in Wisconsin have you there to help them grow in knowledge and understanding.

My pushback in these areas is always an educational concern. Our culture prizes curriculum over godly instruction. Even Christian education has fallen for this error. The problem is that instruction cannot happen with curriculum alone. Students must have good instructors who will guide and discipline them. The results are evident all around us. Public schools overhaul traditional curriculums and standards only to replace them with contemporary curriculum and standards, while underpaying their teachers and emphasizing all the wrong qualifications for those they do hire. Christian schools prize college admission standards over character, and degrees and certifications over the character of their teachers. There are whole communities who think homeschooling such a sacred institution they never wonder whether certain mothers have the giftings needed to teach. Many classical schools teach students to worship the curriculum of dead authors, while not daring to teach them to also question whether or not Homer or Keats should be absorbed without discerning where they are dangerous (I say this, while having my own children enrolled in a classical school).

Anyways, I hope this helps. And thanks again for the response. If you’re ever in Bloomington, let me know. I think we’d have fun talking about books together.


Bookening Guys,

I love the podcast. Takes my mind off how much I hate exercise. I’m a year behind in your feed, but a friend recommended I give this one a listen as I really enjoy Dostoyevsky. I’m about halfway through right now.




Dude. You haven’t even got to the content of the book yet and here’s the syllogism:
A. The Brothers Karamazov was written by Dostoyevsky.
B. The Brothers Karamazov was not written by Tolstoy.
Therefore The Brothers Karamazov is a bad book.

Okay, I jest. It more seems to be
A. Dostoyevsky can be angsty.
B. Some angsty people we know have done terrible things and also liked Dostoyevsky.
Therefore it is a bad book.

Gents, I can appreciate pastoral perspectives and reading things in light of our own experience, but whatever you’re doing, you’re not reading The Brothers Karamazov. You’re reading this book through your bad experience with others who also read Dostoyevsky.

Please tell me it’s gonna get better…

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Thanks Brandon!

I really appreciate your follow up; I appreciate both your insights and clarifications. And I agree completely with your thoughts on curriculum and instruction. For what it is worth I listened to your episode (from late summer?) where you talked about how you teach in your classroom and I would say it is very close if not identical with the way I conduct myself and try to teach.

I can’t say I am ever in the Bloomington area, but I appreciate the invite!

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Okay…finished the episode. I’ll get to part 2 Friday on my run. My guess is you don’t have a paradigm shift in between these two episodes, so I’ll just offer my (unsolicited) two cents here and now.

Again, love the show. Love the interplay between the three of you. I’ve met Nathan and Jake (Jake introduced me to Parker’s translation of Calvin’s Institutes - many thanks!). Brandon, love the lit bits of your commentary. All that to say this is coming from a friend and an ally. It’s critique, but it’s offered over the proverbial friendly glass of whiskey (my preference is rye).

You gents love to hate The Grand Inquisitor, and it seems that bad experiences with real people who thought they were Ivan colour how you read the book. I get it, at least I think I do. But your argument is awfully close to the same one that sees Satan as the hero of Paradise Lost. And I usually find such views tell me more about the reader than they do about the text. The view is something akin to, the most interesting lines and the most developed characters are usually the preserve of the villains. Here’s the thing, I’m not sure that’s true either in Milton or in Dostoyevsky (hold your horses Brandon - I’m not putting Dostoyevsky in the same league as Milton).

First, Ivan is still a baddie (as is every other male excepting Alyosha). His melt-down at the trial is spectacular. Needless to say, he is not an ultimately sympathetic character. I think Dostoyevsky draws that very clearly, whatever his personal influences that are similar to Ivan’s may be. Ivan is not a role model. He is the closest of his brothers to his father. Dimitri is almost as dissolute as Ivan, but he has a sincerity of soul that separates him from both his father and his brother. Again, clearly not a role model. I’ve never heard of anyone idolising Smerdyakov. Both Ivan and Dimitri are problematic figures. Whatever of their logic is sympathetic to us should tell us more about ourselves than it does about Dostoyevsky. And what we see in ourselves should be concerning. Not excusable. Not sympathetic. Troubling. Why do we think they’re fascinating characters? Maybe because we’re drawn to their logic and we want to excuse their behaviour? That’s a warning sign, and I think Dostoyevsky is deliberate in his portrayal of their ends. Ivan breaks down, and Dimitri suffers the consequences of his lifestyle (if not his direct actions). And if we think Alyosha is lame and unrelatable, again, maybe that tells us more about ourselves than it does about Dostoyevsky’s point in the novel. Me, I find him incredibly sympathetic. And in the story, he seems to be one of the most truly powerful characters (the Liza bit is just strange, I’ll admit). He certainly exerts a most consistent influence over his brothers than they exert over him.

Second, since you love to compare Tolstoy with Dostoyevsky, let’s actually compare them. Particularly their conversion scenes. Which author was it again that has a fallen character reading the Gospel of John and being transformed? What transformations or conversions are there in Tolstoy? Pierre? Wonderful transformation of life. Why? Tolstoy leaves that delightfully vague. He embraces a form of faith, maybe? But it’s far from a scriptural redemption. Anna’s collapse is every bit as spectacular as Ivan’s - perhaps more so. I love Constantine’s ‘conversion,’ but again, no Gospel of John anywhere in the picture. Only a reluctant sort of embrace of something akin to the principles of The Church (I love his ‘conversion’ for so many reasons, I think it is in many ways the answer to the existentialism you see in TBK, but it’s not Christian in any spiritually significant way. Not really).

No, redemption comes from Dostoyevsky. In Alyosha’s influence upon his family, and in Sonya’s - dare I say it - gospel influence over her husband. I’m not arguing who the better writer is (I think you’re right - it’s Tolstoy, but my oh my do his unnecessary sections of War and Peace drag on! And I wait 600 pages for Anna to just jump for crying out loud!), but you critique Dostoyevsky for his lack of redemption. I’m wondering which Dostoyevsky you’re reading.

Third, after analysing Dostoyevsky’s bio (very helpfully done Brandon - thank you!), you made the point that his characters’ madness seemed to stem too much from his own experiences. But then in the same breath you commended Nabokov as a writer, even explicitly mentioning Lolita! Gents, gents, be consistent now. If we’re really going to write off an author’s work because of his own character deficiencies, which great works will we have left? Which of the works you’ve analysed on your show will you have left? Dickens. Nope. Austin…okay. Lewis. Nope. Your beloved Tolstoy? Definitely not. And if you can appreciate the writing talents of a Nabokov in his essays, then at least recognise the mastery of craft that Dostoyevsky possesses. It’s not Tolstoy. Fine. But does it have to be?

Fourth and finally, to your point about people you know who have fallen prey to the influence of the philosophies behind characters like Ivan and Dimitri, I’m sorry, but that is so incredible immature. Not you. The ones saying they’re Ivan or Dimitri. Why again is that Dostoyevsky’s fault (see point one above)? And just because someone takes an author or a story and does horrible things under the influence of that story, does that necessarily invalidate the story? I would suspect that those real people you know would have done the same things regardless of whether or not they had read Dostoyevsky. Much the same way in that I very much doubt Avatar itself actually made people suicidal but only contributed to pushing over the edges those who already had significant problems with handling life.

I have held that in every time you make snide comments about Dostoyevsky. Not because I think he’s the superior Russian novelist, but because I don’t think you’ve ever read Dostoyevsky. You’ve always read emo experiences you had yourself at a younger age or tragic experiences you’ve watched…both coming from an stunted and immature reading of several great classics. There. I said it.

Hope it’s obvious that all of this is offered in good fun and with the goal of participating in a great conversation. This has been most diverting. Almost as good as reading one of the great Russian novelists for myself!


Great stuff. Thank you Brandon for taking the heat off of me. I was scared of what was going to happen the next time I saw Monte after he saw my review (“A 450 page work of life altering genius shoved into 800 pages.”)

I agree with others: I think Alyosha was the only “good guy” here. And I don’t think Dostoevsky romanticizes Dmitri.

The political issues are very interesting and still directly applicable. One thing we’re seeing is that very few individuals or institutions have the antibodies to resist modern vengeful intersectionality. I’m praying that the Church gains a stronger voice and that public and private Christian witness helps people who are being oppressed by the next iteration of leftist ideology.

I’m assuming some great novels are going to come out of our current state and I hope I’m around for (and recognize) them.


It would be easier to see past the emo/tragic experiences if Dostoevsky weren’t such a bad, boring writer. There. I said it. :slightly_smiling_face:

I actually do think we came out of the gate too strong. Hopefully we clean it up in the following episodes to your satisfaction. If not, I can only say:

  1. We can argue that President Trump did not cause the Capitol Riot while still not condoning the irresponsible way he raised the temperature. Dostoevsky may not be responsible for every egregious misuse of Dostoevsky. But who he attracts and why and what they do with it matters greatly. Not to be heavy handed, but it matters to @jacob.mentzel as a pastor charged with protecting the flock. And I think it would be foolish to ignore him here.

  2. I don’t think either Dostoevsky or Tolstoy has a coherent, biblical view of sin and redemption. I suppose Dostoevsky gets points for trying harder and coming closer. But his brand of passive, suffering-for-suffering-sake Russian pietism is not the Gospel. And insofar as it is better dressed up as the Gospel than Tolstoy (who has other things on his mind altogether), that only makes it more deceptive.

  3. Steinbeck’s timshel in East of Eden is not the Gospel either. But Steinbeck is moving and entertaining. Dostoevsky doesn’t move or entertain me. I guess he moves and entertains many people and that’s their business. But I find his characters tiresome. Every one of them seems intent on loudly declaiming their one philosophical point of view to everyone else, and contriving ridiculous, melodramatic ways to act out said view in public. I don’t really know anyone like that, besides maybe teenage girls and Democrats.