LONDON—Is Europe having a Dostoyevsky moment? Or is it a Pushkin moment? French President Emmanuel Macron cited Dostoyevsky’s speech about Pushkin—in which the writer makes a dramatic appeal for Russian universalism—in a press conference with Vladimir Putin in Saint Petersburg on May 24. Then, on Tuesday, the prime minister of Italy’s new populist government, Giuseppe Conte, paraphrased—or perhaps mis-paraphrased—the same Dostoyevsky speech in his first address before the Italian Senate.
Dostoyevsky delivered his rousing speech in 1880 at the dedication of a statue of Pushkin, the poet who was the godfather of Russian literature. In it, he re-interpreted Pushkin’s epic poem Eugene Onegin to fit his own vision of the world, finding its heroine, Tatiana, the apotheosis of Russian womanhood and offering an ecstatic vision of the Russian soul as a truth-bearing instrument. He concluded with a similarly expansive vision of Russia’s relationship to Europe, a vision that wowed both Slavophiles and Westernizers, two Russian schools of thought that still resonate today.
“The peoples of Europe have no idea how dear they are to us,” Dostoyevsky wrote. “I believe we, future Russians … will comprehend that to become a genuine Russian means to seek finally to reconcile all European controversies, to show the solution of European anguish in our all-humanitarian and all-unifying Russian soul, and to embrace in it with brotherly love all our brethren and finally, perhaps, to utter the ultimate word of great, universal harmony, of the brotherly accord of all nations abiding by the law of Christ’s Gospel.”
This is the passage that Macron seized on last month. Appearing next to Putin at a press conference that also touched on Trump, NATO, and Syria, Macron cited the speech as offering a basis for how France and Russia could find common ground. “We all have European contradictions to resolve within our peoples, but we know and we have known from the past, and we will also know tomorrow, how to construct a real common ground,” Macron said.
In citing one of Russia’s most important writers, Macron is in a long line of French presidents who have used culture and soft power as a way of forging or strengthening economic and political ties. He is also one of the most cultivated politicians on the world stage today, which of course doesn’t always play well in a moment of populist anger at elites, and he has been criticized at home for failing to deliver on his rhetoric. (A soaring speech to U.S. Congress last month failed to convince Trump to keep the Iran deal or back down on imposing tariffs on Europe.)
In contrast, in his speech before the Italian Senate on Tuesday, Conte cited Dostoyevsky’s speech but seemed to emphasize the relationship between the elites and the people, a theme that isn’t at the heart of the speech, if it’s present at all. “We’ve been accused of being populist, anti-system,” Conte said. “These are linguist formulations that everyone is free to use.” He added, “If populism is the attitude of the ruling class to listen to the needs of the people, and here I get inspiration from Dostoevsky on Pushkin, if anti-system means to aim for and introduce a new system, then these political forces deserve this formulation.”
Conte is an unknown lawyer who was tapped by Italy’s anti-establishment Five-Star Movement and right-wing League party to lead a coalition government—the first populist government in a founding core member of the European Union. That government finally came into being last Friday after an 11 1/2th-hour attempt by Italy’s president to install a technocrat failed. That attempt in turn came after the president rejected the parties’ request to appoint a Euroskeptic as finance minister. After days of insane maneuvering, during which Conte stepped down then returned, the two political parties ultimately agreed to share power in a political government with someone less controversial as finance minister.
Conte’s speech to the Italian Senate came ahead of a vote of confidence in the new government, which it passed today in the Senate and must pass on Wednesday in the Lower House. Conte’s citing Dostoyevsky on Pushkin was a warmup to the main takeaway about Russia in his speech: that Italy seeks “an opening” toward Russia, and the lifting of sanctions, starting, he said, “from those that damage civil society” in Russia.
This is not entirely new for Italy. During his tenure from 2014 to 2016, the center-left Prime Minister Matteo Renzi also called for a loosening of Russia sanctions. Italy has always been Russophilic—from having the largest communist party in the West, to former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s personal friendship with Putin. Businesses in Northern Italy, the stronghold of the right-wing League party, do a lot of business with Russia.
The League’s leader, Matteo Salvini, who has emerged as the strongman in this government and is now interior minister, hasn’t cited Dostoevsky on Pushkin. He tends more toward Viktor Orbán and Marine Le Pen, but is an admirer of Putin’s rhetoric about safeguarding the Christian West. Salvini now oversees Italy’s police and intelligence services. The peoples of Europe are still very dear to Russia indeed.