Dostoevsky and Elijah the Prophet

by Robert Mann

No one taught you that Raskolnikov confesses on Elijah’s Day, a major holiday in prerevolutionary Russia. On this holiday up to 100,000 people would gather near the Church of Elijah, which was built beside the gunpowder factory to protect it from explosions. Elijah was believed to control rain, fire and lightning, a provenance that he inherited from the Slavic thunder god Perun when ancient Rus’ transitioned to the Christian faith. When more rain was needed for crops, people turned to Elijah. When there was too much rain, again they appealed to Elijah. In some communities Elijah had two hypostases and even two churches: Wet Elijah (needed in times of drought) and Dry Elijah (who could stop excessive rain). As a harbinger of the Last Judgment he was seen as fierce, fiery and ominous, but at the same time he was the generous provider of rain and abundance. All rain, thunder and lightning came from Elijah. Even in the early twentieth century, Russian folk would make the sign of the cross at the sound of thunder. The rumbling was attributed to Elijah’s chariot as it lumbered across the stormclouds. And a thunderstorm was always expected on Elijah’s Day (July 20 on the old calendar, August 2 on the new).

How do we know that Raskolnikov confesses on Elijah’s Day? It really makes little difference whether the spectacular thunderstorm that is the prelude to his confession is precisely the Elijah’s Day storm that was expected each year or just another one of Elijah’s rainstorms. However, we can say with confidence that it is the proverbial storm of Elijah’s Day, July 20, that soaks and batters Raskolnikov as he wanders around the city all night in spiritual torment. The first words of the novel are “in the beginning of July”. One can assume, therefore, that the action begins sometime in the first week of the month. Although the story’s chronology is not explicitly defined, it appears that around fourteen days go by before the confession. This takes us to the period July 15-22. For over two weeks there has been no rain in Petersburg. It is hot, humid and unpleasant. And so, looming behind the storm is the traditional folkloric expectation of a storm on July 20. (“It might not rain today, but surely there will be rain on Elijah’s Day.”) In addition, it is a very special thunderstorm – a spectacular, torrential deluge with lightning that illuminates the sky for five seconds at a time. Ilya Petrovich, to whom Raskolnikov confesses, is a reflection of Elijah as he is perceived in popular belief. His name is Ilya ‘Elijah’. He is fiery-tempered and is depicted with all sorts of imagery pertaining to thunder and lightning. He lets loose “with all his thunderbolts” at one visitor. His nickname is Gunpowder, which elicits associations with the boom of thunder and with the Church of Elijah at the gunpowder factory. (In the water of the Rzhevka, just upstream from the church, you can still see the huge millstones that were used for grinding the powder ingredients.) Thus, beaten down by Elijah’s storm, Raskolnikov confesses on Elijah’s Day to a booming Elijah, who is an assistant superintendent in the police force – much as Elijah in folk belief functions as a sort of policeman at God’s side, reminding mortals of their sins and Judgment with his lightning.

The imagery and symbolic filigree go far beyond the few details I have mentioned here. The discovery of the Elijah leitmotif in Dostoevsky’s fiction is perhaps the most far-reaching of all textual discoveries in his works, although it has been completely ignored among Dostoevsky scholars. Significantly, this symbolism begins in his early works written before his arrest and exile. The enigmatic novella The Landlady is virtually deciphered by the Elijah allusions. Its central, mysterious figure – the gruff old Ilya Murin – is an earthly emanation of the fierce Elijah, not a demonic power as he is ordinarily seen by readers who aren’t aware of Elijah’s role in early Russian culture. And, as with Raskolnikov, Elijah is victorious in the end – the same Christian pattern that we find in Dostoevsky’s later writing. The rebellious young freethinker returns to the flock.

All of the storms that one finds in Dostoevsky’s fiction were associated in the writer’s mind with Elijah. I am always asked why Dostoevsky employed Elijah symbolism so frequently. The answer lies in his overarching theme – his focus on conscience, Judgment, and his belief in a uniquely Russian spirituality, the “Russian soul”. In order to portray that spirituality he needed emblems of a specifically Russian Christianity. Jesus and Mary, as portrayed in the Bible, are universal figures in the Christian faith; there is nothing specifically Slavic about them. By the time he began his writing career, he settled on the Russian folkloric Elijah and all the beliefs pertaining to him as his chosen emblem of an exceptional Russian spirituality.

The storms in The Eternal Husband, The Insulted and Injured, The Little Hero, The Brothers Karamazov, “Mr. Prokharchin” and other works all evoke the Russian folkloric Elijah. However, only in one work does the author lay bare the Elijah associations in an explicit fashion: The Village of Stepanchikovo and Its Inhabitants. In this humorous Christian allegory of good and evil, the kind and magnanimous Yegor Ilyich Rostanev is a reflection of God and Elijah, while the nasty backbiter Foma Fomich Opiskin is a reflection of the Devil. The denouement comes precisely on Elijah’s Day, the nameday of Rostanev’s son Ilya. And it is during the Elijah’s Day storm that Rostanev finally ejects Foma from his home. As he contemplates his decision, he sits down in a corner and says he will now state his final word. There is a moment’s silence and then the most deafening of all thunder strikes overhead. The gathered visitors and spongers make the sign of the cross and exclaim “Elijah the Prophet!” The thunder is Rostanev’s final word, so to speak – the word of Elijah, the voice of Judgment.

For scholars who know little about Russian folk tradition and have difficulty dealing with spiritual symbols and allegory the climactic expulsion of Foma during the Elijah’s Day storm should be a wake-up call – a signal that Dostoevsky attached special value to Elijah as he is perceived in folk belief. The storm at the climax of Stepanchikovo is a precursor of the punishing storm of Judgment that leads to Raskolnikov’s confession. (A thunderstorm also serves as the backdrop to the finale of The Insulted and Injured, which was published in the seven-year interim between Stepanchikovo and Crime and Punishment.)

The Brothers Karamazov is replete with evocations of Elijah. Various details and motifs link the dying boy Ilyusha, his father Snegiryov and Pyotr Ilyich Perkhotin with Elijah. The conflict between Dmitrii and his father can be compared with Ordynov’s and Raskolnikov’s rebellion against God’s order. And, once again, the climactic moment in the novel’s action – that of Dmitrii’s arrest – comes on the background of a rainstorm. In his desperate quest for money Dmitrii has just gone to Sukhoi Posyolok (Dry Village), led there by a priest from a Church of Elijah (Il’inskii batiushka). But the trip is only a hellish purgatory for Dmitrii. The lumber dealer he finds there is drunk and unconscious, and Dmitrii is nearly asphyxiated by a faulty flue as he tries to sleep. This, so to speak, is the punishing ordeal of Dry Elijah. Soon he is arrested at Mokroye (Wet Village) as the rain comes down. On a spiritual, symbolic level this is the retribution of Wet Elijah.

In the first draft of the novel, Dmitrii is named Il’inskii after a real-life prototype whom the writer met in Omsk prison. Il’inskii had been imprisoned for patricide and served seven years but was subsequently exonerated. Given the Elijah symbolism that Dostoevsky had already been using before his arrest, Il’inskii’s surname must have been an additional factor that played with the writer’s imagination along with the horrific circumstances of the elder Il’inskii’s murder.

bookkod jpeg.JPG.opt173x242o0,0s173x242BrothersJPG.JPG.opt169x235o0,0s169x235This blog piece, by necessity brief, is a tiny introduction to Dostoevsky’s Elijah symbolism, which is examined in greater depth in an ebook that I have published with Amazon called Dostoevsky: What They Don’t Teach You in School. Related titles on paper are The Brothers Karamazov: an Unorthodox Guide; The Landlady; and Tainyi kod Dostoevskogo – Il’ia-prorok v russkoi literature.


Robert Mann is a researcher in Russian literature. His interest in early Russian epic and folklore led to his theory of Kievan tales in which Elijah the Prophet destroys the idol of his pagan predecessor Perun. He maintains that the folkloric hero Il’ia, known as Muromets in recent times, derives directly from the prophet Elijah in tales of the conversion period. His study of Elijah in oral lore led to his discovery of the Elijah leitmotif in Dostoevsky. 

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One thought on “Dostoevsky and Elijah the Prophet

  1. What about Mendelssohn’s Elijah oratorio, or Melville’s minor character Elijah in Moby Dick, or Allston’s Elijah in the Desert? I see the cultural geography element here, but is there any temporal element at play with Dostoevsky’s interest in Elijah? Maybe this leitmotif was partly influenced by Gothic aesthetics, or does that get too murky? The blog post somehow reminded me of Tarkovsky’s use of rain, incidentally, maybe supporting the blogger’s argument about Russianness?

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