PRIEST MICHAEL VAN OPSTALL:
“DOSTOEVSKY IS RELEVANT ALWAYS”
Fr Michael van Opstall is a regular American with Dutch roots. He converted to Orthodox Christianity from the Protestant faith, which in the USA is no rarity, and for many years is the Rector of the Russian Church of Great Martyr George in the most Mormon of all states, Utah. But when I heard that he obtained faith thanks to Dostoevsky, I didn’t believe it. But it turned out to be true. As we approach the 200th anniversary of the birth of the great writer, celebrated on 11 November, it seemed to me a story worth pursuing.
– Fr Michael, did you in fact convert to Orthodox Christianity through Dostoevsky?
– Partly yes. I grew up in a Protestant family, studied in a religious college where I studied history and philosophy. That was where I learned about the Orthodox Church, and it seemed that there was something lacking in my life.
Also, at the same time one of my philosophy teachers assigned me to read Dostoevsky. It hooked me, especially The Brothers Karamazov, since it corresponded with my own faith. So I began to ponder Orthodoxy, and selected the Russian Church. This was 23 years ago.
– What was it about Dostoevsky that drew your attention and led you to convert to Orthodoxy?
– I think the way that Dostoevsky treated the ideas of his heroes, for instance, in Crime and Punishment or Demons. They all understand, and the author demonstrates, how the Lord intervenes in all these things. I think that Dostoevsky in his works reveals life the way it really is, including its dark sides.
– Meanwhile, many assume that Dostoevsky has too many of these dark sides. Do you agree? What are the bright, Christian aspects of his oeuvre?
– in the works of Dostoevsky there are many spiritual aspects. Despite the fact that the world is in such darkness, as it is, and that the minds of humans can be darkened, there are many opportunities to overcome this. That happens in the end of Crime and Punishment, when the hero reads the Gospel. In my opinion, the novel contains critiques of various political ideas, but it also contains the promise of redemption.
– Acquaintance with the works of Dostoevsky served as a starter for your move to Orthodoxy. What else played a part?
– I think the first trigger was an interest in history which lay the foundation for studying Orthodoxy. But when I was in college I joined the Antiochian Orthodox Church, but it didn’t give rise to an immediate reaction. Then I began to read more about Orthodox Christians who lived in various eras, even literary characters. Then I began to ponder if I could be a part of this Russian Orthodox tradition. By that time I was studying for my masters’ degree and sought a Russian Orthodox church, and when I found one I began to think how contemporary experience reflects what is written in books.
– How easy or difficult was your path to Orthodoxy?
– It was not very difficult. Converting to Orthodoxy, I felt that I came home. I found that Church whose teaching fully corresponded to what I had always believed.
– Do you share your experience of reading Dostoevsky with your parishioners?
– Sometimes we discuss such things, and people find that it unites us, this common experience. But I would not say that I talk about it often. I don’t consider myself any kind of intellectual, I’m a regular person.
But now, on November 11, we will remember Dostoevsky as we perform a memorial pannikhida for him and will talk about his work a little.
– Why did you decide to perform a memorial service for Dostoevsky? He was neither a bishop nor a priest.
– He was an Orthodox Christian, and so we can serve a pannikhida for him. I think this is good. Sometimes we do such things at our parish. Without a doubt, we do not consider Dostoevsky a saint in any way, but this doesn’t prevent us from remembering him and discuss his works.
– Is it difficult for you as an American do understand Dostoevsky? There are many facets of his work that reflect realities of Russia but unknown in the West.
– I don’t think it was hard, no. The works of Dostoevsky are exactly the kind of literature I sought. In his books I found that which interested me. In my youth I was drawn to darker things. That is what I was thinking about, so studying Dostoevsky was not very difficult. Later, when I began reading his works in Russian, and not in translation, it did in fact become hard [laughing].
– Many consider Dostoevsky to be the most popular Russian author in the US, since his works reflect the realities of today. Do you agree?
– Possibly. I think that the works of Dostoevsky are a kind of counterbalance to the socialist and Marxist movements. Now this is very real. Also, I think that his works—though he wrote of people living in a specific period—remain timeless, which I couldn’t say, for instance, about Tolstoy. His works seem old-fashioned for me, while Dostoevsky is relevant forever.
– What would you recommend to people, say, young Americans, who want to read Dostoevsky?
– Tradition holds that Americans should begin studying him by reading Crime and Punishment, and I would agree. Firstly, this novel is shorter. I think, too, that it is less religious than, say, The Idiot or The Brothers Karamazov, and not as political as Demons. In my opinion, reading this book will make people want to read Dostoevsky’s other works.
11 November 2021