Northern Illinois University Press


The Image of Christ in Russian Literature

Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Bulgakov, Pasternak

John Givens

“Givens seeks the role of Christ within the context of Russia’s iconic works, focusing on the paradox of humanity and divinity. The Image of Christ in Russian Literature is a compelling introduction and analysis for scholars from many literary traditions, not just Russian.” —Roy R. Robson, author of Old Believers in Modern Russia

Vladimir Nabokov complained about the number of Dostoevsky’s characters “sinning their way to Jesus.” In truth, Christ is an elusive figure not only in Dostoevsky’s novels, but in Russian literature as a whole. The rise of the historical critical method of biblical criticism in the nineteenth century and the growth of secularism it stimulated made an earnest affirmation of Jesus in literature highly problematic. If they affirmed Jesus too directly, writers paradoxically risked diminishing him, either by deploying faith explanations that no longer persuade in an age of skepticism or by reducing Christ to a mere argument in an ideological dispute.

The writers at the heart of this study understood that to reimage Christ for their age, they had to make him known through indirect, even negative ways, lest what they say about him be mistaken for cliché, doctrine, or naïve apologetics. The Christology of Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Mikhail Bulgakov, and Boris Pasternak is thus apophatic because they deploy negative formulations (saying what God is not) in their writings about Jesus. Professions of atheism in Dostoevsky and Tolstoy’s non-divine Jesus are but separate negative paths toward truer discernment of Christ.

This first study in English of the image of Christ in Russian literature highlights the importance of apophaticism as a theological practice and a literary method in understanding the Russian Christ. It also emphasizes the importance of skepticism in Russian literary attitudes toward Jesus on the part of writers whose private crucibles of doubt produced some of the most provocative and enduring images of Christ in world literature. This important study will appeal to scholars and students of Orthodox Christianity and Russian literature, as well as educated general readers interested in religion and nineteenth-century Russian novels.

May 2018 329 pp., 6x9
ISBN 978-0-87580-779-9
$60.00s Hardcover

John Givens is associate professor of Russian and chair of the Department of Modern Languages and Cultures at the University of Rochester. He is the author of Prodigal Son: Vasilii Shukshin in Soviet Russian Culture, co-translator of Vasily Shukshin’s Stories from a Siberian Village (NIU Press, 1996), and former editor of Russian Studies in Literature.

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ISBN: 978-0-87580-779-9
Hardcover $60.00