Russia’s Twisted Optimism

When the impoverished Tess – the main character of Thomas Hardy’s 1891 British novel, Tess of the D’Urbervilles – sets off to make her fortune, her fate progresses from tragic to downright calamitous. “Where was Tess’s guardian angel?” the narrator asks, as Tess is raped by the profligate son of the old widow for whom she has been forced to work. “Where was the providence of her simple faith? Perhaps… he was talking, or he was pursuing, or he was in a journey, or he was sleeping and not to be awaked.” [1] Tess’s story ends tragically.

Emma Bovary, of Gustav Flaubert’s 1856 French masterwork Madame Bovary, doesn’t fare much better. After a string of unsatisfying romantic encounters, Emma ends up deeply in depression and debt. “It seemed to her that Providence pursued her implacably,” the narrator observes. “She would have liked to strike all men, to spit in their faces, to crush them.” [2] Emma, too, is ultimately doomed to misery.

Why, then, did the Russian literature of the nineteenth century – while that of England and France was gothic and fatalistic – persistently insist on a peculiar twisted optimism in the face of despair? These Russian writers, indeed, repeatedly depicted characters who – despite unimaginable misfortune – experience soft joy, eternal joy, and joy from the simply unexplainable.

In Ivan Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Sketches (1852), for example, the narrator discovers “Lukerya, our smart Lukerya, whom all our lads were courting,” who – though once beautiful – has succumbed to a mysterious degenerative disease and now subsists, alone and paralyzed, in an abandoned garden shed. Lukerya exhibits an alarming optimism.

‘Why, some haven’t a roof to shelter them, and there are some blind or deaf; while I, thank God, have splendid sight, and hear everything—everything. If a mole burrows in the ground—I hear even that. And I can smell every scent, even the faintest! When the buckwheat comes into flower in the meadow, or the lime-tree in the garden—I don’t need to be told of it, even; I’m the first to know directly. Anyway, if there’s the least bit of a wind blowing from that quarter. No, he who stirs God’s wrath is far worse off than me. Look at this, again: anyone in health may easily fall into sin; but I’m cut off even from sin. The other day, father Aleksy, the priest, came to give me the sacrament, and he says: “There’s no need,” says he, “to confess you; you can’t fall into sin in your condition, can you?” But I said to him; “How about sinning in thought, father?” “Ah, well,” says he, and he laughed himself, “that’s no great sin.”

‘But I fancy I’m no great sinner even in that way, in thought,’ Lukerya went on, ‘for I’ve trained myself not to think, and above all, not to remember. The time goes faster.’ [3]

The lonely Petersburg “Dreamer”, in Dostoevsky’s White Nights (1848), displays a similar perverse optimism – concerning, in this case, his rejection at the hands of the love of his life, Nastenka.

The walls and floors looked discoloured, everything was dark and grimy, and the cobwebs were thicker than ever. I don’t know why, but when I looked out of the window, the house opposite, too, looked dilapidated and dingy, the plaster on its columns peeling and crumbling, its cornices blackened and full of cracks… I saw myself just as I was now fifteen years hence, only grown older, in the same room, living the same sort of solitary life… But that I should feel any resentment against you, Nastenka! That I should cast a dark shadow over your bright, serene happiness! That I should chill and darken your heart with bitter reproaches, wound it with secret remorse, cause it to beat anxiously at the moment of bliss! That I should crush a single one of those delicate blooms which you will wear in your dark hair when you walk up the aisle to the alter with him! Oh no—never, never! May your sky be always clear, may your dear smile be bright and happy, and may you be for ever blessed for that moment of bliss and happiness which you gave to another lonely and grateful heart!

Good Lord, only a moment of bliss? Isn’t such a moment sufficient for the whole of a man’s life? [4]

In a final example – as strikingly similar in abstract feeling as it is radically different in thematic content – Raskolnikov of Crime and Punishment (1866), despite seven years of imprisonment awaiting him in Siberia, finds improbable hope.

They had another seven years to wait, and what terrible suffering and what infinite happiness before them! But he had risen again and he knew it and felt it in all his being…

Everything, even his crime, his sentence and imprisonment, seemed to him now in the first rush of feeling an external, strange fact with which he had no concern. But he could not think for long together of anything that evening, and he could not have analysed anything consciously; he was simply feeling. Life had stepped into the place of theory and something quite different would work itself out in his mind.

Seven years, only seven years! At the beginning of their happiness at some moments they were both ready to look on those seven years as though they were seven days. He did not know that the new life would not be given him for nothing, that he would have to pay dearly for it, that it would cost him great striving, great suffering.

But that is the beginning of a new story—the story of the gradual renewal of a man, the story of his gradual regeneration, of his passing from one world into another, of his initiation into a new unknown life. [5]

We’ve seen evidence of the robust presence of optimistic suffering in Russian literature. How can we understand it?

Suffering

The Russian temperament is historically troubled.

The Russians have suffered more than their share. In his Sketches, Turgenev graphically depicts the troubled economic circumstances of Russia’s rural serfs. “Your honour, he has ruined us utterly,” a peasant pleads. “Two sons, your honour, he’s sent for recruits out of turn, and now he is taking the third also. Yesterday, your honour, our last cow was taken from the yard, and my old wife was beaten by his worship here: that is all the pity he has for us!” [3] In the city, life was no better: it was degrading, and humiliating. Nikolay Gogol describes Russian urban life – shackled by a crushing, bureaucratic service system – in his legendary short story, The Overcoat (1842). “There is nothing more irritable than departments, regiments, courts of justice, and, in a word, every branch of public service,” Gogol begins. “No respect was shown [Akakiy Akakievitch] in the department. The porter not only did not rise from his seat when he passed, but never even glanced at him, any more than if a fly had flown through the reception-room.” [6]

This persistent hardship was to become, eventually, philosophically important.

Christianity

Russia has embraced the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church. Suffering itself was surely a cause of this acceptance.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, in The Brothers Karamazov (1880), describes the role of suffering in engendering conditions fertile for the acceptance of Christianity. “The poorer our Russian peasant is,” insists the Russian monk Father Zosima, “the more noticeable is that serene goodness… God will save His people, for Russia is great in her humility. I dream of seeing, and seem to see clearly already, our future… We preserve the image of Christ, and it will shine forth like a precious diamond to the whole world. So may it be, so may it be!” [7]

The church’s influences in Russia today are quotidian and universal. The Russian word for Sunday, for example, is “Resurrection”. Begging women on Moscow’s streets repeatedly perform the sign of the cross upon themselves. A peasant, in Turgenev’s Sketches, addresses a fellow with “Good day to you. Is God merciful to you?” [3] Christianity seeps from the Russian existence.

Optimism

Optimistic suffering is the literary manifestation of this Russian Christian tendency.

Indeed, optimistic suffering is canonically Christ-like. In the famous seven sayings of Jesus on the cross, Jesus’ optimistic suffering becomes starkly visible. In the Gospel of Luke, one of the thieves crucified alongside Jesus – after, unexpectedly, defending Jesus against His attackers – asks, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” Jesus responds, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.” [8] This well-known remark displays a distinctive brilliance amid deep pain.

Likewise, our Russian writers depict brightness in the midst of despair. Lukerya learns to appreciate her surrounding nature. The Dreamer preserves love in the face of rejection. Raskolnikov discovers hope. These stories exude Christian substance.

Optimistic suffering is inextricably linked with Christianity. It should be no surprise, then, that the Russians – driven by political and cultural factors towards suffering, and by suffering, in turn, towards Christianity – should select, as their ultimate literary theme, optimistic suffering.

The English and the French have surely also suffered. Why did the Russians, in particular, turn to optimistic suffering? This, perhaps, remains to be answered.

It’s this incredible phenomenon which makes Russian literature so fascinating.

  1. Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles
  2. Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary
  3. Turgenev, Sportsman’s Sketches, Vol. 1 Turgenev, Sportsman’s Sketches, Vol. 2
  4. Dostoevsky’s White Nights
  5. Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment
  6. Nikolay Gogol’s The Overcoat
  7. Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov
  8. The Gospel of Luke, Chapter 24
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One comment on “Russia’s Twisted Optimism

  1. Sasha Gombar says:

    As to the question you pose at the end (“Why did the Russians, in particular, turn to optimistic suffering?”), England and France were hotbeds of the Protestant Reformation; cynicism toward religious institutions is part of the culture, and it’s possible that this is why their characters are unable to find redemption…because there is no Christ, or Christ figure, to redeem them. Indeed, in Flaubert’s first novel, “November, ” the nameless narrator describes himself as a “child of Voltaire” when explaining his agnosticism.

    I think it’s also important to note that the secular nature of English and French religion does not necessarily correspond to a more secular population — simply a more secular intellectual class. Often times, French and English works that criticized the church were scandalous and panned by critics (“Wuthering Heights,” is one example). Flaubert and Hardy specifically had very fraught relationships with the Church; Hardy, for example, stopped training to be an Anglican priest when he realized he was an atheist. Writers like Charlotte Bronte, who had a more positive personal relationship with the church, in turn wrote novels that were more optimistic in nature. Therefore, I would caution against using certain works to make statements about the overriding national culture rather than the individual views of their authors, or the unique perspective of the intellectual class. Having said that, many of the most prominent events during the Reformation concerned the upper class (the English Reformation, for instance, was led by the king, and therefore doubtless affected the nobility more immediately than the peasantry), so I think isolating the opinions of intellectuals from that of the main population only makes the link between the Reformation and this literary cynicism more clear.

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