The 19th century was a difficult time in Russia. The four czars who ruled the land during this time had widely different ideas about government, from Alexander I, who flip-flopped on policy and created massive instability for the Russian people, to Alexander III, a cruel tyrant who was short-lived. This era in Russia was filled with revolts, instability, and insecurity. The government and laws changed by the year, leaving Russians uncertain about the future of their country. The one stable foundation to hold onto was religion.
From ancient times, Russia’s main religion was Christianity – specifically the Russian Orthodox Church. This sect was similar to both the Roman Catholic Church and the Greek Orthodox Church. Orthodox Russians went to their local cathedral for a three-hour service in a language they could barely understand. They had to stand the entire time, although they could light candles and pray to the saints and to Jesus, all of whom were represented by icons. Icons were religious paintings depicting important figures in Christian tradition, and they were hung all over the walls of the cathedrals. These traditions are still continued to this day in Russia.
The Russian Orthodox Church, like the Roman Catholic Church at the time, was focused primarily on fulfilling ancient traditions. The priests used rote, memorized prayers that the congregation would follow along with and insert their parts at the correct times. There was no mention of a personal relationship with God, and people were encouraged to pray to the saints more than to God himself, since they were told their prayers would be heard faster this way. For generations, Russians accepted this form of worship – they didn’t know there was any other way. Up until the early 1800s, in the Napoleonic Era, Russia had been very sequestered from the rest of Europe, suspended in almost a Dark Age. After the Napoleonic Era, however, this began to change. The czars began to open up the country, initiating trade and modernizing Russia with new industries and technology.
It was during this period of enlightenment that Fyodor Dostoevsky lived. He was profoundly affected by the influx of new ideas during the 19th century, including new philosophies about religion. Dostoevsky was a very introspective and philosophical writer whose works, particularly his final work, The Brothers Karamazov, touched on sensitive themes such as government and religion. In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky explored the idea of atheism or anti-theism through the character of Ivan Karamazov, the second of the four brothers. During a conversation with the third brother, Alyosha, Ivan recites a prose poem he has created called “The Grand Inquisitor.”
The poem begins with Jesus returning to earth again as a human, performing miracles and healing the sick and teaching, as he did the first time. An inquisitor, or Orthodox priest, detains Jesus and lectures him. He accuses Jesus of burdening humans with too much free will for them to bear. He explains that by refusing the people signs and wonders – by refusing to come down from the cross – Jesus really overestimated mankind’s ability to seek God for his own sake instead of for the sake of his miracles. “Is it the fault of the weak soul that it is unable to contain such terrible gifts?” he demands of Jesus. “Can it be that you indeed came only to the saints and for the saints? But if so, there is a mystery here, and we cannot understand it. And if it is a mystery, then we, too, had the right to preach mystery and to teach them that it is not the free choice of the heart that matters, and not love, but the mystery, which they must blindly obey, even setting aside their own conscience. And so we did. We corrected your deed and based it on miracle, mystery, and authority. And mankind rejoiced that they were once more led like sheep, and that at last such a terrible gift, which had brought them so much suffering, had been taken from their hearts. Tell me, were we right in teaching and doing so? Have we not, indeed, loved mankind, in so humbly recognizing their impotence, in so lovingly alleviating their burden and allowing their feeble nature even to sin, with our permission?” The poem ends with the inquisitor sentencing Jesus to death, just as the priests and scribes of the Bible had nearly two thousand years before.
Through the character of Ivan, Dostoevsky prodded religious adherents to question their traditions. Jesus came and preached salvation by the free choice of the will, not bound by miracles but by devotion and love. Dostoevsky, through the poem, seemed to take the side of the Orthodox and Catholic priests, arguing that their simplification and distortion of Jesus’ message was out of sympathy for people’s desire to be “led like sheep.” However, it is obvious that he truly believed the opposite. Through “The Grand Inquisitor,” he demonstrated the absurdity of the church’s meaningless traditions and emphasis on mystery, and how unlike Jesus’ message they had become.