Volksbühne Berlin am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz
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Die Brüder Karamasow

based on the novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky


“There are two Europes”, Heiner Müller wrote in 1989. “One was shaped by Rome, the other by Byzantium.” Berlin once represented the geographic border between these two cultural spheres, but in the meantime the line has shifted across the Dnieper river, where a war is taking place.

The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s last novel, unfolds the ruling ideological and philosophical voices of West (liberalism) and East (orthodoxy) in a strikingly modern, “polyphonic” way (Michail Bakhtin). In the guise of a crime story, Dostoevsky deals with last questions, the question of existence, the conundrum of the God-man and with an ideal society, while on the surface a murder tale is told - the murder of Fyodor Karamazov and the suspicions that fall on his sons Dmitry, Ivan and Alyosha. The driving force behind the sons' entanglements in a web of emotions and infringements is always love – love for Grushenka, for example, the femme fatale. Dostoevsky, the harbinger of modernism, knows perfectly well that love needs money – 3,000 roubles, to be precise - like fire needs the air. But the novel is also a book of reasoning and argument; the protagonists argue at length and in great detail. On the one hand there is the principle ANYTHING GOES. It relates to thought but also to the body, which in the course of the twentieth century has got rid of most moral constraints. It’s called emancipation. Dostoevsky, however, endows it with a double - the underground of dark obsessions. For instance in the form of the physically handicapped Liza, who cannot decide whether she loves Alyosha or not, and who, in a masochistic, auto-aggressive act, bruises her fingers in the door. The subsequent appetite for sweets, for pineapple jam! Hans Henny Jahnn will elaborate on the theme at a later time, the destructive force of the sexual and desire. ANYTHING GOES. Destruction is followed by extinction. In Smerdyakov's interpretation (Pavel Fyodorovitch, the son of Fyodor Pavlovitch, is still a Fyodorovitch, and therefore a Karamazov!) it means: patricide by calculation. In the bigger political picture, the rationale behind the crime looks like an anticipation, like the condition of possibility of things to come. Of a time, when anything that can be thought will actually be put into effect – the death of millions of people in the fascist war of annihilation and the holocaust, but also in the wake of Stalin's murderous labour camp policies.

After history's zero hour, after Auschwitz and the 8th of May 1945 everything had to change. One notorious cultural refuge was America, the American way of life. And on Dostoevsky's shoulders, this way of life is fought over and represented as ideological struggle between two political systems. In the 1958 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film version of Karamazov featuring Yul Brynner, Dmitry is depicted as a cowboy, smart and glorious. But what's more, the honest man falls victim to a legal scandal in a country from which, as the film suggests, one cannot but flee. Emigrate to the far away side of the ocean, to the garden of Eden where freedom and justice flourish. Mosfilm's answer to this takes more than 10 years to be produced. In the Soviet film version of 1969 Dmitry will counter the Hollywood interpretation with the crucial words: „I love you, Russia!“ And: „I could never survive in a foreign country!“ And: „There will be justice on earth one day!“

The film, produced during the atheist Breshnev era, lacks the interpolated narrative of the grand inquisitor the novel features, the conversation with Jesus about how the Catholic Church ties people to it by virtue of miracle, mystery and authority. On a second plane, this critique of Rome makes a case for Byzantium – it's a silent kiss of selfless love on the lips of the inquisitor. Orthodox thinking as a counter concept to liberalism was one of Dostoevsky's main concerns ever since he wrote the novella “The Landlady”. Shortly before his death in 1881 the novelist sums it up: “The Russian people live fully in orthodoxy and related concepts. Apart from that there is nothing, and they have nothing – and they need nothing else, because orthodoxy to them is everything, it is the church, and the church is the crown of this edifice, and that’s for ever.” It is this side of the writer Dostoevsky – „Constantinople must be ours!” – which threatens to divide Europe and today's Russian society.

It's Dostoevsky’s biographical suicide, though. The movement is from anarchism – he once was a member of the Petrashevsky circle – to a politically arch-reactionary stance. In West Germany's postwar society this would translate as a movement from sympathy with the positions of the RAF – for instance against NATO's (west) expansion and related realignments of the European trade zone – to an affirmation of the universal neoliberal doctrine. Say yes to the stress location Germany! And again, a geographical divide. Here we have an expansive production capitalism designed for maximal efficiency plus the related ideology of freedom and liberty. There we got Russia's form of capitalism based on selling resources like oil and gas on a large scale, whose orthodox-nationalist self-legitimation operates with Dostoevskyan vocabulary such as the chosen “God-bearing people” with the gift of “active love”.

DJ Stalingrad has read Dostoevsky carefully, and he is an ardent dissector of ideologies. He builds a tunnel from the nineteenth century to present-day Moscow, the capitalist megalopolis. It’s a situation report. The youth from the Book of Exodus: They, too, are in a constant state of nadryv (надрыв), emotional overstrain; struggling between punk concerts, fights in the metro and outside football stadiums. DJ Stalingrad is a party in and chronicler of these street riots – red skinheads and left-leaning hooligans - an outlaw fighting against neofascist historical revisionism and fundamentalist nationalism alike. A youth without God? A youth full of rage living on the fringes of society?

Nothing seems as obvious as ideological constructions in non-western political systems. But aren't there also tacit rules – Alain Badiou uses the Greek word “doxa” to describe the “belief that does not acknowledge itself as such” - that structure the realm of liberalism to tie “free” human beings to the conformism of hard work? A growth rate of 1.5 per cent is the least one can expect, at any cost, and to the point of exhaustion.
The secret protagonists in Dostoevsky's Karamazov are the children – Ilyushka, who is terminally ill, and the prepotent 12-year-old socialist Kolya. History propels them into the future, and they, the next generation, will have to accept an old insight. There is one fight we are all going to lose for sure: the fight for immortality.

Text Sebastian Kaiser; translation Bettina Seifried