Elijah the Prophet in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment

Throughout his writing career, Dostoevsky was preoccupied with evil as a Christian metaphysical problem. It is a problem that crosses most people’s minds, consciously or half consciously, but is seldom answered in a world where the struggle for one’s daily bread precludes prolonged contemplation of cosmic dilemmas. Formulated simply, the problem is: why did God (in all His infinite love for mankind) create a universe that is so terribly cruel? Why did He choose such an incomprehensible law that entails constant suffering and atonement for sin? Why does there have to be so much suffering and why is it so randomly and poorly aimed? Why can’t God be a straight shooter? Why do little children and innocent people have to suffer so unfairly? Why couldn’t God create a more rational, humane and enlightened system? This metaphysical question is asked by Dostoevsky’s first fictional hero, Makar Devushkin, and by Ivan Karamazov in the writer’s final novel. It looms between the lines throughout most of his fiction, where the vengeful prophet Elijah, biblical symbol of Retribution and Judgment Day, lurks as an emblem of God’s wrath, of His irrational universe filled with suffering and pain. Elijah is Dostoevsky’s foremost symbol of the fierce, wrathful godhead — of God’s cruel, irrational cosmic realm.

According to ancient Russian folk belief, thunder is produced by Elijah’s chariot as it rumbles across the clouds and the fiery prophet flings down lightning bolts to remind mortals of the Last Judgment. Thunder, fire and lightning were believed to be the special provenance of Elijah, and people expected a thunderstorm each year on Elijah’s feast day (July 20, Old Style). The young nihilist Bazarov in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons speaks scornfully of this folk belief as a reflection of Russia’s backwardness:

"… The people imagine that when thunder sounds the prophet Elijah is riding across the sky in his chariot. What then? Are we supposed to agree with them?…"

Goncharov’s Oblomov provides further testimony to a widespread familiarity with the folklore of Elijah:

The thunderstorms there are nothing to fear; they were only beneficial. They always come at the same established time, almost never missing Elijah’s Day, as though to confirm the popular folk belief.

The belief is truly ancient, rooted in pre-Christian, pagan lore surrounding the foremost deity in Slavic myth, the thunder god Perun. After Russia’s conversion in 988, the important functions of Perun were in part transferred to Elijah, giving him a special significance in the nation’s new Christian pantheon. Elijah became the new wielder of lightning bolts, the new provider of rain.

With a dragon and a thunder god in their own pagan myths, the Slavs’ attention was naturally drawn to Elijah the Prophet and the dragon of the Apocalypse. In 1st Kings 17-21, Elijah is given the divine power to control the rainfall, and he invokes fire from heaven to ignite a burnt offering in a duel with the priests of Baal. He brings down the same lightning fire onto the soldiers of Ahaziah in 2nd Kings 1. In 2nd Kings 2, Elijah ascends to Heaven on a chariot drawn by fiery steeds in a whirlwind of fire. In Revelation 11, two "witnesses" oppose a "beast from the netherworld," one of the apocalyptic symbols of evil who is sometimes equated with the dragon in Chapter 12. According to Orthodox Church tradition, the two witnesses are Elijah and Enoch the Righteous. A number of religious texts, such as The Revelation of Methodius of Patara, refer specifically to Elijah and Enoch. According to Methodius, whose Revelation was well known in Kievan Russia, Elijah and Enoch will expose the Antichrist before the Last Judgment. In the Revelation of St. John, the two witnesses are said to have the power to control the rain while they deliver their prophecies. Malachi 3:2-3 compares Elijah with a refiner of gold and silver who will purify souls in his furnace at the time of Judgment.

Elijah’s associations with fire, rain, lightning and a god-like trek across the sky made it almost inevitable that the Slavs would perceive him as a Christian counterpart to their pagan god of thunder and lightning. This perception was reinforced by the fact that Elijah’s feast day comes in late summer when thunderstorms are most frequent. The Elijah-Perun connection seems to be reflected in the procedure that was followed, according to a chronicle account, when the Kiev Princes concluded treaties with Constantinople in the middle of the tenth century. The pagan members of the prince’s retinue swore to the treaty by the idol of Perun, while those who were Christians took an oath in the Church of Elijah the Prophet.

Elijah’s feast day was a major holiday that attracted huge throngs to the Petersburg Church of Elijah at the Powderworks. Dostoevsky perceived the importance of Elijah as a specifically Russian folk and religious symbol. Obsessed with the problem of Russia’s national identity, of Russian spirituality and "the Russian soul," he repeatedly weaves the Russian image of Elijah the Prophet deep into the fabric of his highly symbolic fiction. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that Elijah is the foundation upon which a number of Dostoevsky’s works are constructed.

The Elijah leitmotif was discovered by a Russian researcher, Yuri Marmeladov, a century after Dostoevsky's death. Publication of his discovery was initially blocked by the skeptical Soviet academician G. Fridlender, but his findings were finally published by the Russian Academy of Sciences in 1992 (Tainyi kod Dostoevskogo), as the old regime crumbled.

Marmeladov's book focuses first on Crime and Punishment, probably because it is the most widely read work by Dostoevsky. He shows that the stern and fiery-tempered assistant police superintendent to whom Raskolnikov eventually confesses is an earthly reflection of the wrathful Elijah. This policeman is portrayed with abundant imagery pertaining to thunder and lightning. His name Ilya points directly to the Biblical prophet (Ilya-prorok), and his nickname, Porokh (‘Gunpowder’), alludes to the explosions of Elijah’s thunder and to the Petersburg Church of Elijah the Prophet, located at the powderworks. (The church was consecrated to the fiery prophet so that he would protect the gunpowder factory from fire and explosions.)

The novel’s action covers roughly fifteen days until Raskolnikov’s confession. Because the action starts "in the beginning of July," the confession comes on or near the holiday of Elijah, July 20, when the Russian people always expected a thunderstorm. Before confessing, Raskolnikov wanders around Petersburg all night during a spectacular thunderstorm beneath flashes of lightning that last nearly five seconds — Elijah’s frightful reminder of one’s transgressions and of the hellfire which awaits lost sinners after the Last Judgment. When Raskolnikov reports to Ilya Petrovich, he symbolically surrenders to God’s "policeman" Elijah.

Svidrigailov commits suicide during the thunderstorm beneath the watchtower of a fire station. The watchtower is suggestive of a divine presence with dominion over fire — God and Elijah the Prophet once again.

Raskolnikov’s landlady (as Georgii Meier noted before Marmeladov) is a symbolic emanation of Raskolnikov’s conscience — of a spiritual awareness of right and wrong — as her late husband’s "assessor" title hints. Her last name is Zarnitsyna, derived from zarnitsa (‘sheet lightning’), suggestive of the quiet illuminations of conscience and of a close bond with the lightning-wielding prophet. Her first name, Praskov’ia, is a russified variant of Paraskeva (St. "Friday") the female saint whose Friday celebration ushered in the holiday of Elijah in late July. The Chapel of St. Paraskeva stood alongside the Church of Elijah at the Powderworks and was a focal point of the Elijah Day celebration, which continued from around July 15 until July 20.

Marmeladov proceeds to show how Dostoevsky weaves his Elijah symbolism into many of the novel’s nooks and crannies, including seemingly trivial details such as a doctor’s recommending a "powder" as a remedy for Raskolnikov’s ailment. (Here the allusion is to the Church of Elijah at the Powderworks.)

For further information about the Elijah theme in Crime and Punishment and about Yuri Marmeladov's discoveries see:

F. M. Dostoevsky, The Landlady: new translation with new commentary based on the recent discoveries of Yuri Marmeladov (The Birchbark Press, Karacharovo, 2002). ISBN 0-938618-01-6

Piatoe koleso: a video program about Russian folk and religious beliefs reflected in the fiction of Dostoevsky. Features Natalya Antonova.  Aired by Leningrad Television in 1991.

Gabriel Choreb, Hogtown: English translation of Gavriil Khorev's Master i Marmeladov (Karacharovo, 1998) -- of interest to all admirers of Bulgakov and Dostoevsky. A Russian view of academia in America. Yuri Marmeladov attempts to teach Dostoevsky at a small American college where the faculty must compete for advancement. The college is suddenly visited by Woland & Co. ISBN 0-936041-11-0

Yuri Marmeladov, Jay MacPherson et al., The Brothers Karamazov ... an Unorthodox Guide: a new commentary on The Brothers Karamazov incorporating the latest scholarship. Marmeladov traces the theme of Elijah the Prophet throughout The Brothers Karamazov. ISBN 0-93618-02-4


In Russian:  Iu. I. Marmeladov, Tainyi kod Dostoevskogo. This Academy of Sciences edition was printed in only 1000 hardbound copies (St. Petersburg, 1992).  It traces the leitmotif of Elijah the Prophet throughout the major fiction of Dostoevsky, with three chapters devoted to Bunin, Goncharov and Ostrovsky. ISBN 5-8460-0005-3

I Recant!

  They tell me I can't recant. But I'm going to do it anyway. When conscience gets the best of you, you eventually have to take action... before you die. It's hard to do much of anything after you're dead and gone.   My first choice was to recant in a refereed journal. I figured that would put more authority behind my recanting, but the referee wrote me: "You can't recant in a scholarly journhal. Journals are for saying something, not for taking back what you said long ago. If you believe you were a fool to have said something, then a fool you will remain until Judgment Day, when your foolish ideas can be placed in the dented old tin pan of the Scales of Justice and weighed there amid the paying members of AATSEEL and the rest of the Heavenly Host." I sat down to write a rebuttal but, after chewing up the entire eraser on my new pencil I realized there was no real answer to such a highly spiritual argument. And right then a special delivery letter came by Fedex. It read: "And besides, this journal is devoted to Russia, which is very, very orthodox. You are proposing that we print something that is very unorthodox. We have never done that before, nor do we plan to break with precedent to suit your personal whims. Besides, how do we know that next year you won't want to recant your recantation all over again - once again on the pages of our esteemed journal?"   So I decided to go green and recant in a forum that is purely digital. I figured that would save a very small pine tree. (Now, each time I walk through the nearby park, sliding my walker ahead of me, I imagine that the trees are giving me thankful nods of approval. But that's neither here nor there.)  How should one begin when one is recanting? A formal recanting is an unfamiliar genre nowadays, so don't tell me one should simply get to the point without weaving a lot of words. Because, whatever the genre looks like, I can guarantee you it is an extremely longwinded tradition. People take forever when they are confessing their errors and transgressions.  However, don't think that I am beating around the bush. By no means. I am more eager than my few living detractors to recant my ridiculous theories - theories that certainly elicited smirks and chuckles when first published long ago in a bygone era.  Allow me to begin with Dostoevsky. Now that was sure a wild theory, wasn't it? Take, for example, the idea that Raskolnikov confesses on Elijah's Day. If Dostoevsky had intended such a symbolic chronology, then certainly he would have outlined a precise chronology of events. Instead, the only shreds of flimsy evidence for this idea are the opening words of the novel ("In the beginning of July") and the fact that a terrible thunderstorm is unleashed over Petersburg as the murderer is in the throes of a spiritual struggle. True, two weeks go by in the interim, which takes us somewhere close to July 20, but just because people always expected a thunderstorm on Elijah's Day one cannot conclude that Raskolnikov necessarily turns to Il'ya "Gunpowder" precisely on July 20. Elijah's provenance in Russian folk belief was thunder, rain, fire and lightning - so the storm in which Raskolnikov wanders around town all night could very well be one of Elijah's other storms, not necessarily his annual, proverbial storm of Elijah's Day itself. The date might be July 16 or July 22. Who knows? Moreover, I previously tried to make a big deal out of the the assistant police superintendent's nickname: Gunpowder (Porokh). My Lord! Dostoevsky couldn't help it if the Church of Elijah in Petersburg happened to have been built at the gunpowder factory. Long before he was even born they placed it there so that Elijah would protect the factory from fire and explosions. After all, fire, lightning and loud booms were believed to be in his control. So there is absolutely no reason to suppose that the nickname Gunpowder (Porokh) links the assistant superintendent Il'ia Petrovich with Il'ia-prorok in any meaningful way. After all, Il'ia Petrovich is not the bellringer at the Church of Elijah! The same must be said about my futile attempts to connect Il'ia Petrovich's "thunderous" and "fiery" gaze with the thunder and lightning of Elijah the Prophet. Pure coincidence precipitated by the fact that Il'ia Petrovich happens to be a passionate personality, prone to anger. And his spitting as he talks certainly has nothing to do with the precipitation that the Prophet brings. In brief, the great Dostoevsky scholard Fridlender was sadly on the mark when he wrote, "There is no Elijah the Prophet in Crime and Punishment nor can there be." I recant. If any Slavic scholars were swayed by any of my shaky arguments, I can only say that I apologize from the absolute bottom of my heart. I am sorry and beg for your forgiveness.   Are there any teachers, full professors, half a professor, past professors, or future perfect professors out there who made the mistake of professing that Raskolnikov confesses on Elijah's Day? Let's have a show of hands now! How many of you fell into the trap? Hmmm... Nobody? Thank God! Elijah's Day! It seems a bit ludicrous when our best and brightest are arguing whether Dostoevsky was truly a believer. Sergei Belov makes the argument for atheism. And it truly does seem unlikely that an atheist would plant allusions to Elijah the Prophet in his thriller about an axe murderer.  There are other arguments to dispense with in my former theory about Elijah in Crime and Punishment, especially my doggerel about the landlady Zarnitsyna, whose surname happens to derive from the word for heat lightning, or summer lightning (zarnitsa). As Mikhail Gorbanevskii has said so aptly, what's in a name? Without wasting further valuable cyberspace recounting my argument that Zarnitsyna, too, is associated with Elijah and with Raskolnikov's conscience, let it suffice to say that I recant completely.   And now let us move on to The Village of Stepanchikovo and Its Inhabitants and the laughable things I wrote about it. Thank God, nothing I said has been engraved in stone. It can still be erased, at least with acid, or the books can be burned, providing warmth for the homeless, the humiliated and the injured.  In taking the great leap of faith in my discussion of Stepanchikovo, I used as my leaping off place the story’s denouement, which comes precisely on Elijah’s Day as an ominous thunderstorm rolls in. I made the rather preposterous suggestion that Yegor Il’ich Rostanev is closely associated with the Russian folkloric Elijah. I was lured into this false interpretation by the fortuitous fact that thunder strikes overhead just after Yegor Il’ich states that he is about to voice his “one word”. I foolishly argued that he is man in the likeness of God and Elijah, while the backbiter and conniver Foma Fomich Opiskin, whom Yegor Il’ich throws out as the thunder strikes, is man in the likeness of the Devil. If any of you fine scholars fell for this argument, I go down on my sore knees and beg your forgiveness. I pray to God and all the saints that none of you infected your students with this fallacy. I am consoled by the improbability that any of you asked your students to read Stepanchikovo, even if you required them to read any of Dostoevsky’s works, which is becoming a bit less probable with each passing year...  As the great Fridlender and many other wisemen have noted, Dostoevsky was a realist. The astute Joseph Frank generously responded to the complimentary copy of my book Tainyi kod Dostoevskogo with a small, plain white postcard bearing only nine words: "I do not subscribe to allegorical interpretations of Dostoevsky." I greatly regret that I never heeded his admonition. The thunder that strikes in Stepanchikovo is clearly intended for dramatic effect, not as a way to show any supposed symbolic, spiritual connection between Yegor Il'ich and the prophet Elijah. This is realism at its finest, ladies and gentlemen - realism in its purest, most refined form. And as for the holiday of Elijah, well, it just happens to be the nameday of Yegor Il'ich's son Iliusha. Again, pure realism. We're simply talking about the calendar. No need to bring Elijah into the discussion. That will only impede our understanding of the great writer, who in Stepanchikovo is a great comic writer.   The cleverest of readers will have noted in my previous mad writings how I tried, unsuccessfully of course, to tie the denouement of Stepanchikovo (Elijah's Day storm) with the climactic moment of Raskolnikov's confession in the wake of a storm that comes around July 20. However, one only needs to skim through the writer's biography to see that Stepanchikovo was written a decade before Crime and Punishment. And so, it is unlikely that Dostoevsky even remembered Stepanchikovo by the time he wrote his way to Raskolnikov's going to Assistant Super Il'ia, all muddy and bedraggled from the storm. By comparison, how many of you remember what you were writing ten years ago? Raise your hand if you remember. There. See? No one remembers.

However, the height of folly in my writings about Dostoevsky was my interpretation of The Landlady. Everyone before me had seen the gruff old Il’ia Murin as an embodiment of evil. Neuhauser’s view of Murin as a symbol of tsarist tyranny was often cited - for lack of better interpretations. Most studies of Dostoevsky’s complete works gave the The Landlady little attention because the scholars who wrote these major studies were simply baffled by the tale, which is one of the most original and imaginative of all Dostoevsky’s works. Anyway, fool that I am, I refused to heed the reticence of these erudite men and, like a bull in a china shop, made the audacious claim that Il’ia Murin is an earthly emanation of Elijah the Prophet. I argued that the young Ordynov’s encounter with Murin and the “landlady” leads to a spiritual awakening, and at story’s end we find Ordynov praying in church, having abandoned a utopian treatise that was evidently anti-Church in its orientation.

Just imagine! Il’ia Murin, who turns out to be the ringleader of a den of thieves, employed by Dostoevsky as a symbolic Elijah figure! Floundering with this unlikely argument, I tried to point out that the angelic Sonya Marmeladova is a prostitute and the murderer Raskolnikov follows in the footsteps of the Passion of Christ. I even went so far as to maintain that attributes shared by Murin and the folkloric Il’ia Muromets are to be explained by a close connection seen by Dostoevsky between Elijah the Prophet and Il’ia Muromets. (The name Il’ia Murin, for example, is an infrequent folkloric variation on the name Il’ia Muromets.)

However, as they drove me here to this hospice, I kept thinking about Murin, the blast of his rifle, and the flash of his knife, and I realized that it is time to reel in this whopper of a literary theory and apologize to the scholarly world for my ignorance and impudence. But the worst thing about my landlady theory is the unfortunate fact that an innocent, unwary damsel in Moscow “lifted” my theory of Elijah in The Landlady, incorporating it well-nigh wholesale in her essay posted on the internet. No, I’m not talking about those hefty Eastern European weightlifters who can barely lift their troves of gold medals and exit the Olympic Village before being disqualified for doping infractions. I’m talking about ordinary, everyday plagiarism. However, even though she stole my idea and spends several pages repeating it, I sincerely hope that plagiarizing my ludicrous theory has not made her an outcast among Dostoevsky scholars in the Russian Federation - not because she is guilty of plagiarism (which is the norm nowadays among politicians, First Ladies and innocent young pedagogues hoping to advance their careers) but because of the improbable Elijah theory to which she has fallen victim. It doesn’t get any sadder. The fine lady chose to plagiarize the work of a failed researcher who has now declared publicly that his ideas are a farce! I only hope that the honest plagiarizer knows in her Russian soul that I am the real culprit and she is just an unwitting victim. Propagandist for the unusual depth of the Russian soul, Dostoevsky would do some recanting, too, if he could only see events that are unfolding these days…

As for my claims about Elijah associations in the July storms of The Little Hero and The Eternal Husband, I now solemnly disavow those ludicrous notions. In fact, as I lie here in the peaceful setting of this hospice, my mind is finally free to reason objectively, unfettered by the urge to play hopscotch along the cutting edge of science - that jagged edge that too often leads to bloody fingers, amputations and suicides. In this peaceful setting, I have realized that Dostoevsky in all likelihood hoped to see his works on stage as theatrical dramatizations, and it was with this hope that he included so many thunderstorms in his fiction. The rumble of thunder can be extremely effective on stage, causing the audience to wake up, spill their popcorn, and even give a squeal.

The most embarrassing ideas that I proposed in regard to Dostoevsky’s supposed Elijah symbolism have to do with The Brothers Karamazov. However, things get very complicated here because the letter that was found in Yurii Il’ich Marmeladov’s sport coat when his body was exhumed by Jay Macpherson at the Porokhovoye Cemetery is authentic. After copies were made, the original letter was placed in the custody of the Dostoevsky Study Group in the Institute of Literature and Art of the Academy of Sciences. Marmeladov will have to defend his views as best he can from his position in Porokhovoye Cemetery. I will speak only for myself. 

First, allow me to disavow the nonsense I put forth regarding the arrest of Dmitrii Karamazov during a rainstorm. This happens in the autumn. If the great writer (here I am referring to Dostoevsky and not to myself) had intended for readers to associate the rain with Elijah, then surely he would have included some conspicuous hints such as an icon of Elijah carried by a policeman or a fiery chariot racing across the cloudy sky. My insinuations that the rainstorm at Mokroye is symbolically analogous to the climactic storm in Stepanchikovo and the spectacular thunderstorm that is the prelude to Raskolnikov’s confession should now be completely disregarded. Or, to put it another way, the symbolism of all three storms is indeed identical - there is no symbolism there at all! The storms are simply there like dramatic music in a Hollywood movie. They are there for atmosphere. And the name Mokroye was chosen because it sounds like a real village in a piece of realistic writing, not in order to highlight any supposed spiritual significance of the rain. The fact that a priest from the Church of Elijah (Il’inskii batiushka) leads Dmitry to Dry Village (Sukhoi posyolok) before he is arrested at Mokroye has absolutely nothing to do with the two hypostases of Elijah that are revered in Russian folk belief: Wet Elijah and Dry Elijah. That nonsense should all be stricken from the record.

Equally absurd was my insistence that the boy Ilyusha and his father Nikolai Il’ich Snegiryov each have symbolic connections with the Russian folkloric Elijah. And now, from the vantage point of my bed hete in this wonderful hospice, I can assure all students of Dostoevsky that his use of the name Il’inskii instead of Karamazov in the first drafts of the novel is irrelevant for interpreting the final draft, where it has been completely replaced with the name Karamazov. Let’s not confuse Elijah with kara+maz! Il’inskii was probably just a random name chosen by the author. Or perhaps it was the name of an actual acquaintance who behaved a bit like Dmitrii. Realism, realism, realism!

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