When I first went to Russia, I was told by a Russian advisor that Dostoevsky’s “Brothers Karamazov” was required to understand the Russian. She was right. I particularly discovered in that great book the chapter entitled “The Grand Inquisitor.” It is not only great writing, but as usual, a “third side” of the Russian coin that I always talk about. For if Ivan, the narrator of this chapter, gave us a tirade against the Catholic Church, which seems obvious as it was a tale set in the Spanish Inquisition, what was the hidden meaning? To me it was a veiled attack on the autocracy of Czarist Russia and a prescient preview of the violent revolution that followed shortly after this was written. But even on its surface it is a clever and grand statement for the silent omnipotence of the healing Christ.
In Ivan’s story (he being an atheist) to his brother Alyosha (he being a wannabe Orthodox priest) the Grand Inquisitor in Spain sees a returned Jesus walking out of a city having healed a girl. The Inquisitor orders Jesus arrested and then visits him in prison and lectures the silent Jesus on the folly of freedom and of individual choice and says to him, “There are three forces, the only forces that are able to conquer and hold captive forever the conscience of these weak rebels (the people) for their own happiness—these forces are: miracle, mystery, and authority.” As the monologue continues, the whole rationale for an autocracy, be it religious or political, is explained. Also obvious is the fact that Jesus, in his silence, wins the argument. The Inquisitor’s lengthy exposition does not hold up to reality of man’s potential for self government if set free. In the end, Jesus is released.
Dostoevsky, living in the last days of Czarist Russia, so cleverly made it clear. He wrote into the mouth of the Grand Inquisitor that three things are generic to the traditional Russian character: the idea that good, if any, will come from some unexpected outside source (miracle); that man is not ordained to be responsible for his own welfare and progress (mystery); and that guidance and protection come only from constant dependence on and obedience to another (authority). Today that situation is slowly changing as the young emerge from the shadow of Soviet imperialism, but it is a latent obstacle that still gets in the way at times. You can run into it every day.
Excerpted from “Walking on Ice, An American Businessman in Russia”