[NOTE: The other day I happened across an old post from March of 2009. As I read it, I realized that I was probably describing one of the earliest manifestations of my change experience, even though I wouldn't have called it that at the time it occurred, back when I was in college. I think it bears repeating, and so here it is, a bit edited and expanded.]
A while back a commenter here offered a link to this page of Lenin quotes. Some of them seem pretty apropos in light of recent developments, and so I offer them to you for your contemplation:
A lie told often enough becomes the truth.
Democracy is indispensable to socialism.
Give me four years to teach the children and the seed I have sown will never be uprooted.
It is true that liberty is precious; so precious that it must be carefully rationed.
One man with a gun can control 100 without one.
The best way to destroy the capitalist system is to debauch the currency.
The goal of socialism is communism.
The way to crush the bourgeoisie is to grind them between the millstones of taxation and inflation.
There are no morals in politics; there is only expedience.
No amount of political freedom will satisfy the hungry masses.
The final quote is of special interest because of the way it dovetails with the insights of the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky. Although Lenin was a mere nipper of ten when Dostoevsky wrote “The Grand Inquisitor” (a chapter from Dostoevsky’s masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov, written in 1880), Lenin seemed to steal a page (or several) out of his book.
Dostoevsky was no stranger to the revolutionary socialist zeal and terrorist nihilism that was already beginning to shake Russia in the second half of the nineteenth century, which terminated in the Russian Revolution and the ascent of Communism there. Although he died in 1881 and did not live to see the final flowering of the movement that had taken root decades earlier, he had been a revolutionary himself in his youth, and had actually faced a firing squad after being arrested for subversive activities.
It was a traumatic experience for Dostoevsky, already a highly emotional and even unstable youth. He and his companions were subject to a mock execution, their sentences commuted at the last moment to years of harsh labor in prison camp. That experience and others made Dostoevsky a “changer;” he later renounced both socialism and a host of other Western ideas, embraced Russian Orthodoxy and a mystical spirituality, and became one of the world’s greatest writers.
I came across Dostoevsky’s works in high school and then again in college, during the period of upheaval and unrest that started in the late 1960s. In high school we were assigned to read Crime and Punishment, as well as the “Grand Inquisitor” excerpt from Karamazov, and in college I read his chilling work The Demons (then titled The Possessed), about the spiritual and moral bankruptcy of the revolutionaries.
Did I understand these works then? Not as well as I think I would understand them now. But of all the lessons I learned during my school days, and of all the books I was assigned to read, these made perhaps the deepest and most powerful impression on me.
Much of school and even college felt like the memorization of dry and irrelevant facts. Many novels seemed obscure and and hardly applicable to my life, and one would have thought that would have been even more true of these startling and intense Russian works from a time that seemed so distant then (although it seems much closer now; odd how that happens, isn’t it?).
But something in them rang a bell, especially as the political upheaval of the 60s progressed. That bell had a sound not only of strange and inexplicable familiarity, it was also an ominous toll of warning. The books seemed to speak to the troubled times in which I was living, and made me realize that there is hardly any new thought under the sun. Those headstrong revolutionaries of the far-off Russian past were not stilted figures in an old and faded photo; they too closely and uncomfortably resembled the rebels of my own generation, who thought they had invented protest and cast off the shackles of the past.
But it was Dostoevsky—as well as other 19th-century Russian writers I was assigned in a college course entitled “Russian Intellectual History,” the single most memorable course of my college career—who informed me across the span of time that my generation was at least as stupid and short-sighted, and even more lacking in knowledge of history, as those Russian firebrands of long ago who thought they were building a better world (some of them thought that, anyway) and ended up constructing a police state and the Gulag in which quite a few of them met their own ends, as well.
I’ve quoted the following excerpt before on this blog. I’m quoting it again now. And I wouldn’t be at all surprised if I have reason to quote it in the future.
In this excerpt Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor is addressing Christ, who has returned to earth but is arrested and imprisoned again:
Oh, never, never can [people] feed themselves without us [the Inquisitors and controllers]! No science will give them bread so long as they remain free. In the end they will lay their freedom at our feet, and say to us, “Make us your slaves, but feed us.” They will understand themselves, at last, that freedom and bread enough for all are inconceivable together, for never, never will they be able to share between them! They will be convinced, too, that they can never be free, for they are weak, vicious, worthless, and rebellious. Thou didst promise them the bread of Heaven, but, I repeat again, can it compare with earthly bread in the eyes of the weak, ever sinful and ignoble race of man?
[ADDENDUM: And then there's Machiavelli.]
[ADDENDUM II: For an interesting discussion as to whether the Lenin quotes are authenticated or not, please see the comments section of the 2009 post.]