Hillary and the Grand Inquisitor

Jon Meacham

Winter 2017

The setting, at least for the historically-minded, was a familiar one: the hall at Moscow State University in which Ronald Reagan had hailed the “Moscow spring” of two decades before, in the waning hours of the Cold War. In that classic Reagan speech, the American president struck characteristically optimistic notes. “Freedom is the right to question and change the established way of doing things,” Reagan said. “Freedom is the recognition that no single person, no single authority of government, has a monopoly on the truth, but that every individual life is infinitely precious, that every one of us put on this world has been put here for a reason and has something to offer.” Now, in the autumn of 2009, the American Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, stood before a colorful mural featuring a hammer and sickle—the bust of Lenin from Reagan’s day had been removed—to address the students not of the Soviet Union but of Russia. And while Lenin was gone, the Russian past, and her own, was very much on Clinton’s mind.

Asked from the floor about what book had “changed [her] life”—it was a university crowd, after all—the Secretary of State cited Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s epic The Brothers Karamazov. Recalling two readings of the sprawling philosophical nineteenth century novel, Clinton singled out “The Grand Inquisitor” section of the book, what Dostoyevsky’s atheistic narrator Ivan refers to as a “poem” he recites to his devout brother, Alyosha. Conventionally interpreted as a depiction of Roman Catholic certitude against a more personal and Protestant understanding of faith, the scene features a cardinal of the church describing the perils of free will to a Christ who has returned to sixteenth century Spain. A long lament that God had made faith a matter of choice, the cardinal’s monologue

Jon Meacham, a biographer, teaches at Vanderbilt and at The University of the South. He lives in Nashville.

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