One of the most popular songs in the United States in 1956 was entitled “Two Different Worlds”. The title of this song can easily describe one of the many themes which took place in The Uncle’s Dream by Fyodor Mikhaylovich Dostoevsky (1821-1881). Like most, if not all, of Dostoevsky’s novels there are numerous themes working their way through this novel at the same time.
This novel takes place in a small provincial town called Mordasov which has within it what might be referred to as a mini-salon; similar to those in St. Petersburg. However, it is much smaller and of less significance. The main character is a rather shallow woman named Maria Moskalyova. She is more interested in appearances than substance and would be considered “plastic” in American society. She is deceitful, a liar, but, unlike many “plastic” people she lacks any sort of power.
Maria has a very attractive, head strong daughter named Zina. She has a desire to be honorable in her dealings with men, but lacks a suitable female role model and she also considers herself to be too good for the local men. As a result of this Zina is very confused. Her father, Afanasy, is not exactly an ideal male role model.1
Afanasy is a completely ignorant fool who received his position as a result of his connections. He is completely clueless and dominated by Maria. Her father is not exactly the ideal role model when his young daughter is looking for a husband. In fact, he is the type of man that Zina would not be attracted to at all. Is it any wonder why she is confused?
Zina is a pursued by many men, but one, in particular, was a rather sympathetic character known as “The Prince”, a man distantly related to the old gentry of Russian society. This character calls to mind Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin from Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot. Prince Myshkin is a beautiful soul that he is often taken for an idiot, and indeed, he considers himself to be stupid. However, while he suffers from mental illness, he is only “simple” in the sense that he cannot grasp evil. He thinks good of everyone he meets and expects that everyone else does too. This simple acceptance of people, and his simple way of living, leads those around him to befriend him and yet to feel themselves smarter and better than him.2
The Prince has a small fortune and some land, but, like almost all the characters in this novel, he is as clueless about the world as anyone else. He is a much older man with several health problems. Even though there is a major age difference between the Prince and Zina, Maria encourages the relationship as a way of assuring her family that they will inherit the Prince’s fortune. Actually, the primary concern is that she and Zina will inherit this fortune. There is very little indication that Maria is concerned about her husband at all.
Another major character is Pavel Morglyakov. He is very attracted to Zina and Maria decides to use the prince as a way of getting Pavel out of Zina’s life. The Prince is invited to Zina’s home, given quite a bit to drink, and Zina begins to sing various songs which are meant to inspire feelings of love. This plan works. The Prince proposes to Zina and her mother encourages her to go along with this plan. Zina is not particularly interested in marrying a much older man who is in such poor physical condition, but Maria finally explains to her the morality of this act.
Pavel overhears the conversation between Zina and Maria and informs the Prince of this plan. Pavel realizes that Maria is doing this for the purpose of her own personal advancement and is aware that she will be throwing a major ball for all the most important people in the town so that she can announce Zina’s engagement. Pavel’s plan is to convince the Prince that this entire event was only a dream, which does not take a great deal of effort given the Prince’s state of confusion.
At this banquet, Maria is waiting for the proper moment to make the announcement; however, the Prince is now convinced that the entire event was a dream. Maria is mortified and does what she can to maintain her dignity, but the Prince is convinced that it was a dream. Maria is so frustrated that she calls the Prince “an imbecile” and the entire event is a major humiliation for Maria. A short time later the prince dies.3
Zina finds out that Vasya, a poet who Zina loves, is dying and she spends every moment at this bedside. Vasya is a romantic. He is intelligent, artistic, and more concerned by his work and the arts than about money. As you imagine, such a relationship between Zina and Vasya would never appeal to Maria. There is no ability for personal advancement if your daughter marries a penniless poet.
What does all this have to do with “two different worlds”? Well, the reality is that there are two completely different worlds in this novel. The Prince represents “Old Russia”. Old Russian culture, life in Russia prior to the influence of western culture, was very appealing to Dostoevsky. In The Idiot, Prince Myshkin is also representative of Old Russia. Its values and traditions appeared to be outdated and dying among those who accepted post-Petrine Russian society. Old Russian culture can be seen in the characters of Alexei and Dmitry Karamazov in The Brothers Karamazov as well as Sonya in Crime and Punishment.
Dostoevsky would definitely have been considered a Slavophile. Slavophiles believed that the Russians have a special relationship with authority. The people lived as if they are in a "contract" with the civil system - they are community members, they have their own life, you - the power, you have your own life. Konstantin Sergeyevich Aksakov (1817-1860) wrote that the country has a deliberative vote, the force of public opinion, but the right to make the final decision belongs to the monarch. An example of this relationship may be the relationship between the king and the Zemsky Sobor (first Russian parliament in the 16th Century) in Moscow between the state, which allowed Russia to live in a world without the shocks and the revolutionary upheavals like the French Revolution. "Distortion" in Russian history Slavophiles associated with the activities of Peter the Great (1672-1725), who "opened a window to Europe" thus violating the contract, the balance in the life of the country, and knocked her off the path charted by God.4
The Prince represents simplicity and grace. He is the only one to refer to the Old Russian religion as he prepares to spend time with Father Michael at a nearby monastery. In a telling and comic line in this story, the Prince tells a local gathering at Maria’s house that he is going to go abroad to soak in the “new ideas” of western Europe, just after returns from the monastery. Those two ideas are opposites, and the Prince has no idea that they are, having no concept whatsoever what the “new ideas” are in western Europe, he just knows that the elites speak this way, therefore, he must as well. It is obvious that he is completely out of place in modern Russia.5
In contrast, Maria is presented as a representative of modern Russia culture. She is an opportunistic, self-absorbed, uncaring woman who will even go so far as to use her daughter in order to accomplish her personal goals. The only thing which is important in modern culture is a manifestation of power which is falsely associated with strength and virtue. This idea is associated directly with the writings of Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527), particularly his novel The Prince.
Maria is the exact opposite of Old Russia. She does not believe in its values, but she attempts to make use of these values in order to accomplish her own agenda. Dostoevsky emphasizes this point by situating this novel in a small insignificant town instead of St. Petersburg. She presents herself as an extremely large fish is a very small pond.
It is highly unlikely that Maria and her friends would have understood the philosophical foundation associated with bringing western culture to Russia or the possibility that such changes might destroy their homeland. Instead, they were concerned about what benefits they could receive from such changes and if people’s lives were destroyed in the process that would simply be the end result of “progress”.
Between the Prince and Maria, there are several characters that represent a bridge between these two different worlds. Zina, for example, is confused. Even though she finally goes along with her mother’s plan to deceive the Prince, she does not believe this is right, but is not sure why. On the one hand, she finds something very appealing about the culture of Old Russia, but she is heavily influenced by her mother.
In The Idiot, this character is represented by Nastasya Filippovna. Prince Myshkin professes his love for Nastasya and she finds something very appealing about him, but the westernized culture of St. Petersburg pulls her in the direction of Parfyon Rogozhin who turns out to be a poor choice for her. Nastasya felt caught between the culture of Old Russia and the “progress” of modern Russia. This tension becomes a major source of conflict throughout the rest of this novel.
The 1956 song I mentioned at the beginning of the article speaks about two people who come from two different worlds, but they have come to believe that their love will overcome this divide. If these people can come together from two completely different worlds it can be a wonderful experience. Potentially, this is also true when it comes to two different cultures within one nation.
One of the major challenges is that there is really no way to blend these two cultures. Instead of being harmonious, one culture will succeed and one will fail. Even though students from the former USSR are required to read classic Russian novels as part of their education, there is very little indication that these novels are read by many of them after their formal education is finished or that they have a great appreciation for the culture that these novelists were espousing.
As a result of Russia having kept the West at a distance, by her refusal to imitate the intellectual forms of the Western world, Russia was spared many of the problems which faced the West. Her westernizing philosophers and rulers were erroneous, for they were importing the seeds of revolution and class war. For Russia, the patristic tradition from Greece and the Near East was a holistic way of thinking, taking to itself faith, social life, society, and philosophy into a larger whole animated by the Holy Spirit, rather than becoming a sect dedicated to the teachings of one man or office. The spirit was internalized, and authority was something shared by the body of believers guided by the hierarchy (though not entirely by them), rather than alien ideas spoken in an alien tongue. The notion of the state and law immediately followed from this, for the state was not a cold and distant monster, but was represented by the “little father” who shared their concern and pain. However, the invasion of western ideas was starting to vitiate this idea. For the Slavophiles, the structure of the basically independent commune was always to be the living answer to the West and the guarantee of the communal and cultural idea of liberty that the West had long forgotten; of course, Aleksey Khomyakov also believed that Russia was heading down that same path if the state continued her centralizing and standardizing tendencies.6
Based upon my conversations with many friends in the former USSR, life has not changed for the better as a result of introducing Western culture. Contrary to Orthodox tradition, the culture has become more materialistic and people are becoming more selfish. It is very sad that my friends have experienced this, but if this is a reality for the vast majority of the people it is not only sad, but dangerous.
The younger people seem to show little or no interest in their heritage, but want to become more “American” (the premier representative of Western culture). One major challenge is that Western and Eastern culture are vastly different. This is based upon a variety of factors including location and the influence of the Orthodox Church in the East.
Instead of being happy with these changes, my sense is that many of these people are confused. Internally they realize that there is something very unique and special about their culture, but they are having Western ideas thrust upon them. This confusion leads to a sense of sadness which may not be easy to vocalize.
Living on the border between two different worlds can be challenging for anyone. In order to so properly it is important to have a proper understanding of both worlds so that a proper decision can be made regarding which world a person chooses to live in. Giving up one’s world (culture) without a profound understanding of it will not only lead to confusion, but a feeling of being lost because they have turned away from one culture while not being fully accepted by the other.
1) Matthew Raphael Johnson The Ancient Orthodox Tradition in Russian Literature (PA: Deipara Press, 2010), p. 152
2) “A Truly Beautiful Soul” http://www.suite101.com/content/the-idiot-by-fyodor-dostoevsky-a123952 (accessed 4/15/12)
3) Johnson, p. 157.
4) “Westerners and Slavophiles” http://istorya.ru/referat/referat2/23642.php (accessed 4/21/12)
5) Johnson, p. 158
6) Johnson, p. 223