All the frogs croak before a storm: Dostoevsky versus Tolstoy on Humanitarian Interventions

Dostoevsky was in favor of military intervention in the Balkans, Tolstoy opposed to it. The arguments they put forward are surprisingly relevant to our own current wars.

A little background – in the summer of 1875, Orthodox Christians in Herzogovina revolted against their Ottoman overlords. In 1876, the Slav principalities of Serbia and Montenegro declared war on Turkey, and there was an uprising in Bulgaria. In Russia, there was fervent support for the Serbian cause. Russians voluntarily sent money and medical supplies to the Orthodox Slavs, and many Russian volunteers went to the Balkans to fight. Russian newspapers took up the Serb cause, as is reflected in this fictional discussion between Koznyshev and Prince Shcherbatsky from Tolstoy's novel Anna Karennina:

"All the most diverse sections of the educated public, hostile before, are merged in one.  Every division is at an end, all the public organs say the same thing over and over again, all feel the mighty torrent that has overtaken them and is carrying them in one direction."

"Yes, all the newspapers do say the same thing", said the prince. "That's true.  But so it is the same thing that all the frogs croak before a storm. One can hear nothing for them."

From the summer of 1876 to the spring of 1877, there was heated public debate in Russia over whether to engage in the conflict in the Balkans. Fyodor Dostoevsky was passionately in favor of military intervention, for humanitarian and patriotic reasons – Leo Tolstoy, although not yet a fully-fledged pacifist, could not see the point of Russia getting involved.

Dostoevsky was in tune with the popular mood. His serialised publication A Writer’s Diary, which ran around this time, often reminds me of the U.S. “war blogs” of 2002-3. It’s fascinating how Dostoevsky’s various motivations for supporting the war merge and reinforce each other. His most laudable motive is his acute empathy with suffering, the sense of humanitarian urgency he has about putting an end to atrocities committed by the Turks. But he segues easily from reporting horrific massacres to fantasizing about a Russian conquest of Constantinople, the center of Orthodox Christianity. Dostoevsky admires Russian heroes and despises foreign diplomats, and condemns those who “rattle on about the damage that war can cause in an economic sense.” He is sublimely confident the Serbs will welcome Russian intervention, and that those who don’t are an unrepresentative class out of touch with their own people. He has no sense that atrocities are occurring on both sides.

Dostoesvsky feels that a national malaise has been conquered in Russia, and that the extent of popular support for the Serbs is proof of the spiritual superiority of the people to the intelligentsia. He is angry with those Russians who feel sympathy for the Turks. He is completely certain of victory and of being on the side of history, and has suggestions about what to do once the Ottoman Empire is completely crushed. He is convinced of his own country's exceptionalism, that the pro-war movement “in its self-sacrificing nature and disinterestedness, in its pious religious thirst to suffer for a righteous cause, is almost without precedent among other nations.” and has a hard time crediting the good faith of anyone who sees things differently. Sometimes he talks in terms of a “crusade,” and indulges the apocalyptic dream of a final war between Christianity and Islam.

In England, the leader of the Opposition, William Gladstone, was appalled by Turkish atrocities in Bulgaria and thought England should help drive the Turks out of that country -- but the Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, in a spirit of realpolitik, maintained the official British policy of siding with Turkey against Russia. That Disraeli was a Jew provided Dostoevsky with some scope for conspiracy theorizing.

Meanwhile Tolstoy was finishing Anna Karennina. When Vronsky goes off to war after Anna's suicide – equipping a squadron at his personal expense – this is the war he’s headed for. Katkov's Russian Herald, which was serializing Tolstoy's enormously popular novel as it came out, declined to carry the eighth part, instead printing the following note –

“In the previous issue, the words 'to be continued' appeared at the end of the Anna Karennina installment. But with the death of the heroine the novel really comes to an end. The author had planned an epilogue of a few pages, in which we learn that Vronsky, distraught and grieving, left for Serbia as a volunteer in the army. The other characters are all well, but Levin, in his country retreat, remains hostile to the volunteers and the Slavophiles. Perhaps the author will add chapters to this effect in a special edition to this novel.”


The Herald slyly implies that Levin – the character in Anna Karennina most directly based on Tolstoy – is not quite well. While killing off Anna at the end of the penultimate issue may have been bad timing suspense-wise, the real problem was probably that the Herald was campaigning for intervention in the Balkans, in the face of Czar Alexander II's continued hesitation.

 Levin in Part Eight is actually not so much “hostile” to the Slavophiles as baffled by them. In conversation with the likes of Koznyshev, Levin is not even confrontational enough to keep up the argument for very long. His attitude, basically Tolstoy's own, is of bewilderment that so many people are passionately committed to actions in a place they know little about – it's a feeling I sometimes have myself when listening to defenses of our current involvement in Libya. Levin suggests that, when people become passionately committed to a faraway cause, instead of devoting themselves to problems nearer at hand, the reason is probably to be found in their own psychological makeup.

This seems like a perceptive diagnosis in Dostoevsky’s case. The sheer number of arguments Dostoevsky has for going to war raises the suspicion that none of them are the real reason – Slavoj Žižek has made a similar point about George W. Bush and the Iraq War. In A Writer’s Diary, Dostoevsky suggests that war is the only way to unify Russia's different classes, that Russia has a moral duty to seize this chance for an “unprecedented war for the sake of the weak and oppressed” and fulfill Russia's world-historical destiny. Where Dostoevsky insists that the right answers are best found in deep emotion, and faith that the world is ripe for transformation, Tolstoy favors a dispassionate, clearheaded solution. Of course, Tolstoy’s politics are equally a reflection of his own emotional state -- his sense of alienation with the pro-war hysteria raging around him may have deepened his sense of personal crisis and paved the way for his later pacifism.

Tolstoy brought out Part Eight of Anna Karennina in a separate edition at personal expense. When Dostoevsky read it, he was outraged. Dostoevsky's response in A Writer’s Diary is to juxtapose the terrible image of a girl forced to watch her father being flayed to death with the image of Levin remaining philosophically serene on his large estate. Pacifism requires one to maintain a certain emotional distance. Dostoevsky bypasses Tolstoy with a direct emotional appeal -- how can we just stand by and do nothing while such terrible things are being done? And Dostoevsky may have a point that Tolstoy's privileged lifestyle contributes to his sense of detachment.

By this point in their argument, Russia had formally declared war on Turkey. The war lasted about a year, there were systematic attacks by Cossacks against Muslims and Jews, and by 1879, one-third of all the Muslims of Bosnia-Herzogovina had either emigrated or been killed. An intriguing piece of historical trivia is that this war gave birth to the word “jingoism,” coined from a British music hall song of the time –

“We don't want to fight but by Jingo if we do
We've got the ships, we've got the men, we've got the money too.
We've fought the Bear before, and while we're Britons true
The Russians shall not have Constantinople.”

In the event, the British largely kept out of the war – although they did send a fleet to Constantinople when the Russian Army was getting near that city. A Russian-Turkish treaty was signed by which Russia won most of her demands – including Serbian independence, self-rule in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and eased restrictions for Christians under Turkish rule – but the united European powers demanded a revision of the treaty, and at the Congress of Berlin these Russian gains were reversed. The Congress of Berlin allowed Austria-Hungary to occupy Bosnia-Herzegovina and -- following a geopolitical logic that puzzled commentators even at the time -- Britain to take over Cyprus. Lasting peace did not ensue in any of these places.

The longer-term consequences of the war are addressed by a later great Russian novelist, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, in his historical work The Russian Question. Solzhenitsyn notes that there were four eighteenth-century and four nineteenth-century Russo-Turkish wars. Solzhenitsyn writes, “Two wretched ideas relentlessly tormented and pulled all our rulers in succession: to help and to save the Transcaucasian Christians, and to help and to save the Orthodox in the Balkans. One can acknowledge the loftiness of these moral principles, but not to the extent of total disregard for the interests of the State...”

Solzhenitsyn singles out the 1877 war for special censure -- “Such a ‘victorious’ war is worth no more than a lost one – cheaper yet, to not start it at all. Russian military and financial strength was undermined, the public’s spirit fell; and it was then that the revolutionary era with its terrorism began to gain momentum...”

The main long-term impact of the Russo-Turkish wars was to weaken both Empires to the point of collapse, with resulting humanitarian disasters exceeding those that Dostoevsky justly condemned. While the impulse towards humanitarian intervention is a worthy one, the results may be protracted civil war, escalating carnage, and the weakening of the intervening countries. Will future historians record that a spate of early twenty-first century wars in the Arab world were among the key factors that brought the American Century to a close?

About the author

James Warner is the author of All Her Father's Guns, a Bay Area novel, published in 2011 by Numina Press. His short stories have appeared in many publications. His personal website is here

His openDemocracy column is Standing Perpendicular