Amid the consternation that seized the civilized world after Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, a university in Italy briefly cancelled, and then reinstated, a course on the works of Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky (1821–1881). This gut reaction was part of a headlong rush to condemn all things Russian in solidarity with Ukraine’s plight. But Dostoevsky, whose novels speak of universal pain while focusing on distinctly Russian problems, saw and lamented exactly how modernity would deform and distort the country he loved. The irony is that Dostoevsky’s prescient diagnoses of the Russian and the human condition have more to teach us now than ever.

About suffering, Dostoevsky became quite expert from an early age. His beloved mother died when he was 15, and he was left to the untender ministrations of his father, a doctor and small landowner. Dr. Dostoevsky was a capricious martinet ruled by pathological suspicion and severe, nearly constant depression. This whole psychic mess was exacerbated rather than relieved by an inborn sense of spiritual election: as the son and grandson of eminent Orthodox Christian priests, he knew he was one of God’s chosen, and he expected to be treated as such. Fathers were still patriarchs in full force in those days, and Dr. Dostoevsky saw it as his prerogative to determine his children’s professions, their own reluctance and misery

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