“Specimens from home”

Elif Batuman, the Turkish-American author of The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them (reviews 1, 2, 3, 4), discusses “reading racist literature” in New Yorker:

There I’d be, reading along, imaginatively projecting myself into the character most suitable for imaginative projection, forgetting through suspension of disbelief the differences that separated me from that character—and then I’d come across a line like “These Turks took a pleasure in torturing children” (“The Brothers Karamazov”).

The sentence Batuman quotes comes from Ivan Karamazov’s invective on human cruelty, especially to children. “These Turks” refers to the Ottoman bashibazouks who committed atrocities in Bulgaria. To the speaker, “these Turks” exemplify the wickedness of humans in general – not some special Oriental perversity – and he proceeds to give examples of sadistic treatment of children by Russians lest this cruelty should seem analgetically foreign.

Our historical pastime is the direct satisfaction of inflicting pain… I’ve collected a great, great deal about Russian children… it is a peculiar characteristic of many people, this love of torturing children, and children only… In every man, of course, a demon lies hidden—the demon of rage, the demon of lustful heat at the screams of the tortured victim, the demon of lawlessness let off the chain…

In the run-up to the Balkan war of 1877-8, reports of Ottoman irregulars murdering and torturing Balkan Slavs in barbaric ways drove thousands of Russians to fight against the Porte as volunteers. One can find an argument on whether it was a worthwhile cause in part eight of Anna Karenina. Levin, Tolstoy’s favorite, takes an unpopular non-interventionist stance. In one of his essays in A Writer’s Diary, Dostoevsky was acutely critical of Levin’s and Tolstoy’s ethics while praising the novel. Gary Saul Morson discusses the two writers’ dialogue in Anna Karenina in Our Time: Seeing More Wisely.

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