Are You Responsible for the Errors of Russia?

The great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky believed that we are individually responsible for the sins of everyone in the world—and it is a mindboggling and soul-shaking meditation that is ripe material for Lent.

There is a whirlwind of speech and speculation in these difficult days concerning Our Lady of Fatima’s warnings regarding the errors of Russia and the annihilation of nations. And with good reason, too. As Russian rockets rain down on Ukraine, there is a plethora of seeming errors pouring from Russia as it seeks to annihilate at least one nation and drives all the others to avoid their own annihilation. Tensions are high, to say the least, this Lent.

In a moment of history so rampant with error—errors committed by Russia and errors in comprehending Russia—there are few to recommend that there are, in fact, Russian eruditions that can serve as remedy. This wisdom is enshrined in the works of the great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky: that we are individually responsible for the sins of everyone in the world—and it is a mindboggling and soul-shaking meditation that is ripe material for Lent.

While the world roils in outrage over the invasion of Ukraine, there can be no place amid such passions for hatred. The ultimate challenge of Christian brotherhood must not be drowned in the blood of victims and martyrs. It must be nourished in that blood together with the Blood that was shed to redeem us all. This challenge is rooted in accepting that we all are our brothers’ keepers. To think otherwise is the inheritance of the first murderer.

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There is a particular call to wrestle with this paradox of brotherly love in societies stewing with Russian grievances given the continuing news of the violence perpetrated by Russian president Vladimir Putin and also the news that the Supreme Court reinstated the death sentence for the convicted Boston Marathon bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who is of Russian background. All things Russian are threatened with cancelation, from vodka to oil, and even the writings of Dostoevsky, as an Italian university absurdly proclaimed and then retracted.

But it is also from Russia, and from Dostoevsky, that we can find remedy for the error of abhorrence. The concept of mankind as a family is deeply ingrained in Russian philosophy and ethics with a sociological principle called sobornost, meaning a spiritual community of many jointly living people. Sobornost, in a nutshell, is a cultural doctrine to promote unity and cooperation as opposed to individualism, and it was eventually taken up as an illustration of the Mystical Body of Christ.

There was a custom in old Russian towns that emphasized sobornost and the mentality that moved people to live out its love. When a criminal was carried off in a cart to execution, the townsfolk would follow behind, weeping for the condemned felon. They would cry out to him, begging him to pray for them, even exclaiming that he went to die in their place, all being worthy of death for one reason or another. Is such compassion misplaced, even toward a grave offender? The only thing to cling to in times of confusion is that hate is not a solution. Pope St. John Paul II befriended his would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Ağca, in prison, living out the words of Dostoevsky: “to love someone means to see them as God intended them.”

We might denounce the international violations of Russia’s invading army, mourn over the tragic deaths of civilians, and sympathize for millions of desperate refugees, but let us not claim sinlessness by casting a stone of base judgment. Can any of us be called guiltless of crime? The attitude of sobornost embraces the guilty, for we should all stand in open acknowledgement of personal guilt for we are all guilty of crimes against Christ.

Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov made this idea of all people being equally guilty and equally responsible famous. His expression of sobornost, however, presents the mindset from a singular angle. “There is only one way to salvation,” Dostoevsky writes in the voice of the Elder Zosima, “and that is to make yourself responsible for all men’s sins. As soon as you make yourself responsible in all sincerity for everything and for everyone, you will see at once that this is really so, and that you are in fact to blame for everyone and for all things.” 

The notion of common concern arising from common culpability gives a powerful yet staggering impetus to this holy and humanitarian philosophy. Given that all men are bound together on this earth, everything that everyone does has some bearing, some effect, some influence, on others, whether known or unknown. “In sinning,” Dostoevsky wrote in Demons, “each man sins against all, and each man is at least partly guilty for another’s sin. There is no isolated sin.” Every man and woman is constantly planting seeds of themselves, wherever they go, whatever they do; and with that, comes the responsibility to put down good seeds, as the mystical reality of the human community unfolds. 

In what way we are all responsible for the sins of terrorists like Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and tyrants like Vladimir Putin is impossible to say precisely—but it rings true if it is true that all men are obliged to love one another and be the presence of Christ to one another. The failure in this latter regard only fosters the failures in following Christ. It is clearly the responsibility of all Christians to provide that example, that care and that love; and the crimes of all people, from your next-door neighbor to Vladimir Putin, reflect on all who have been baptized into Christ. It is for mankind to take responsibility for his fellow men, that no one might be lost to eternal fire.

It often takes a crisis to realize some truth, and the war in Ukraine serves as one of these. Flannery O’Connor was a Catholic author who presented such crises to her readers: moments of violence and grace so commingled they are difficult to prize apart, and that is her point. It is a point O’Connor shared with Dostoevsky, whom she revered and referred to often. In her celebrated and controversial story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” a grandmother finds herself staring down the gun barrel of a serial killer as his cronies murder her family. There is a strange and sublime moment in this horror when, facing death at the hands of a psychopath, she says in the spirit of sobornost, “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!” 

She is shot three times through the chest upon this utterance, but not before she recognizes something profoundly true, seeing her slayer as her child, her responsibility, even in the shadow of death. It is a vision of personal responsibility as a parent to a child. Dostoevsky draws this parallel as well in The Brothers Karamazov, perhaps giving O’Connor her inspiration, when Dmitri says, “we are all responsible for all. For all the babes, for there are big children as well as little children. All are babes.”

We are all responsible for the sins of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Vladimir Putin. These are our babes, our brothers, and this is an attitude to take to prayer and penance. We are responsible, and we should acknowledge not only our culture’s role in creating the cultural sickness all around us but also our own participation in it, from silence when we should speak out to buying-in to the behaviors that distract us and others from God.

Let us bring the principle of sobornost along our Lenten journey and recognize the common plight of all sinners. We look to Ukraine, to Vladimir Putin, and beg forgiveness in the name of all humanity. We look to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as he goes to his death and know that we deserve as much for our sins. In appealing to God for all sinners because we are sinners ourselves, may we find some peace of soul this Lent. 

But peace is a mysterious thing for Catholics who undertake the warfare of the spiritual welfare of the world, accepting responsibility in the knowledge of our own guilt and the gratitude that we can be forgiven. Dostoevsky wrote, “Love a man, even in his sin, for that love is a likeness of the divine love, and is the summit of love on earth.” Let us take these words to heart this Lent and accept the consequences of our humanity with humility and hope.

May God have mercy on us all.

[Image: Portrait of Fedor Dostoyevsky by Vasily Perov] 

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