Confronting the Fathers’ Demons: Dostoevsky’s Anti-Radicalism

On November 21, 1869, the student Ivan Ivanovich Ivanov was brutally murdered in Moscow by Sergey Nechaev, a member of the secret organisation People’s Reprisal Society. Ivanov, who had previously been a member of the society, had disagreed with Nechaev about the administration of propaganda and grown wary of the latter’s use of deception and increasingly violent ideals, clearly summarised in the extremely controversial and polarising 1869 pamphlet The Catechism of a Revolutionary. As Ivanov decided to leave the group, Nechaev, having convinced his fellow conspirators that the former would move on to work as an informant for the police, lured him to a recess in the park of the Agricultural Academy, shot him in the head and subsequently weighted his body down with stones into a nearby pond.

Fyodor Dostoevsky. Portrait by Vasily Perov. 1872

Fyodor Dostoevsky. Portrait by Vasily Perov. 1872

The murder undoubtedly constituted one of the most debated scandals in XIX century Russia, leading to the arrest of more than 60 members of the People’s Reprisal Society and more than 250 affiliates of other insurrectionist groups, while Nechaev himself managed to flee to Western Europe, before being arrested in Zurich in 1872. As Russian public opinion witnessed the increasing popularity of debates on the methods of the revolutionary cause, the murder also served as the chief source of inspiration for Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1871-72 novel Demons (often translated as Devils or The Possessed).

There is little doubt that Dostoevsky’s literary imagination was, at the time, extremely sensitive to a political murder: his affiliation with the Petrashevsky Circle in St. Petersburg in the 1840s, leading to his arrest in 1849 and eight years of exile and hard labour in a prison camp in the Siberian town of Omsk, certainly contributed to his rejection of radical revolutionary ideologies. In Siberia, in fact, the only text he was allowed to read was a copy of the New Testament, greatly informing his re-discovery of Christianity and, at the same time, his growing belief in the possibility of coming to terms with Russia’s problems, namely the clash of communal and individual interests, via the recognition of traditional national values and Orthodox faith. It is not, therefore, surprising, to notice how frequently Dostoevsky’s post-exile novels feature an extensive questioning of Russian intellectuals’ radicalising tendencies: one can mention, for example, the psychological struggles described in Notes from the Underground, or Raskolnikov’s torment in Crime and Punishment. The first book can conveniently be seen as a direct polemic directed against one of Russia’s most famous novels of the 1860s, What is to Be Done?, written by the leader of the Russian radicalist movement in the early years of the deacade, Nikolay Chernyshevsky. One of the characters of the book, Rakhmetov, soon emerged as the prototype of materialist, pragmatist revolutionary, embodying a profound dissatisfaction with present-day government and proposing a stark, perhaps utopian, rupture with tradition, inspiring virtually all subsequent generations of nihilists and Bolsheviks. Similarly, Dostoevsky wrote Crime and Punishment in order to explore the risks connected with “certain strange, ‘unfinished’ ideas, yet floating in the air” characterising present-day radicalism. Specifically, the insistence upon Benthamite utilitarianism and its dreadful consequences hints at the dangers of an unchecked deployment of a political philosophy based on reason alone.

Sergey Nechaev

Sergey Nechaev

It would be, therefore, reductive to label Demons as a mere novelistic chronicle of the Nechaev affair. Dostoevskij himself admitted, in a letter written to his editor Katkov in 1870, that the novel represents an abstractions, rather than a reproduction, of the events surrounding the murder: “Among the major events of my novel will be the well-known murder of Ivanov by Nechaev in Moscow. Let me quickly make a reservation: I knew neither Nechaev nor Ivanov nor the circumstances of that murder. I only know what I have read in the newspapers. And even if I had known them, I would not have tried to copy them. I take only the accomplished fact. It may well be that my fantasy departs in very great measure from what actually occurred and that my Peter Verkhovensky is nothing like Nechaev. But it seems to me that in my inflamed mind, imagination has created the very figure, the very type, that corresponds to such a crime”.

During the 1860s, Dostoevsky was systematically exposed to the growth of the radical ideology in St Petersburg and must have been particularly intrigued by a number of events taking place in the city: on April, 4th, 1866, the revolutionary Dmitry Karakozov unsuccessfully attempted to murder the Tsar Alexander II, having previously circulated a manuscript entitled To Friends-Workers, inciting the population to revolt. In the aftermath of the events, repression and censorship increased exponentially, forcing revolutionary activities underground. Two years later, however, radicalism re-emerged in the university circles of St. Petersburg: students demanded greater autonomy, loosening of police surveillance and freedom of public assembly. The increasing number of – sometimes violent – demonstrations triggered a wave of expulsions, arrests and exile. At the same time, however, public opinion developed a growing awareness of the growth of radicalism, both at a local and a national level: in Moscow, for instance, the editors of two prominent periodicals, the Moscow Gazette and The Voice, Mikhail Katkov and Andrey Krayevsky, who frequently championed a conservative stance, launched a vehement critique of materialist ideologies, accusing, among others, Mikhail Bakunin, who famously defined Nechaev “the most revolutionary in the world”, of being one of their chief promoters.

The blueprint for the revolution was established in 1862 by an extremely influential book, Fathers and Sons, written by Ivan Turgenev, whom Dostoevsky mocks in Devils through the character of the novelist Karmazinov. Father and Sons, written in the context of the tension between the growing liberal movement of the 1830s and ‘40s, and the emerging first generation of Russian radicals, is widely known for popularising the association of nihilism, namely the complete rejection of Russian tradition, and revolution. It tells the story of Yevgeny Vasil’evich Bazarov, a medical student urging for a dramatic rupture with liberal politics and the tradition of the Orthodox church. In the wake of the publication of the book, and fuelled by the ideas of the revolutionary theorists Nikolai Chernyshevsky and Dmitry Pisarev, who upheld a marked faith in materialism and positivism, nihilism became a central topic in literary and journalistic debates. Yet, its most significant achievement was the creation of the intellectual basis for the men of the sixties, or the new men, a new, post-1848, populist, radical generation of Russian revolutionaries, namely a generation harshly targeted, mocked and derided by Dostoevsky himself.

DemonsDemons begins with two particularly significant quotations: the first, a passage from Alexander Pushkin’s poem Demons, can be seen as a denunciation of the vacuity of the revolutionary ideals of the generation of the ‘60s, as opposed to the concrete commitment to collective good characterising initiatives during the 1840s (one ought not to forget Dostoevsky’s own involvement with the Petrashevsky Circle): “Strike me dead, the track has vanished/ Well, what now? We’ve lost the way/ Demons have bewitched our horses/ Let us in the wilds astray/ What a number! Whither drift they?/ What’s the mournful dirge they sing?/ Do they hail a witch’s marriage/ Or a goblin’s burying?”. While the first quotation hints at the fact that the pars destruens of the revolutionary tendencies of the Russian intelligentsia during the 1860s is simply not accompanied by any meaningful pars construens, Dostoevsky skilfully employs the second quotation, extrapolated from Luke’s gospel (8: 32-37) to explain the perceived significance of this loss of meaning: “And there was one herd of many swine feeding on the mountain; and they besought him that he would suffer them to enter into them. And he suffered them. Then went the devils out of the man and entered into the swine; and then the herd ran violently down a steep place into the lake and were choked. When they that fed them saw what was done, they fled, and went and told it in the city and in the country. Then they went out to see what was done; and came to Jesus and found the man, out of whom the devils were departed, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind; and they were afraid”.

Dostoevsky himself admitted, in a letter written to his friend Maikov in October 1870, that “exactly the same thing happened in our country: the devils went out of the Russian man and entered into a herd of swine, i.e. into the Nechaevs… These are drowned or will be drowned, and the healed man, from whom the devils have departed, sits at the feet of Jesus… And bear this in mind, my dear friend, that a man who loses his people and his national roots also loses faith in his fathers and his God. Well, if you really want to know – this is in essence the theme of my novel. It is called Demons and it describes how the devils entered into the herd of swine. It could not have been otherwise. Russia has spewed out all the filth she has been fed and obviously there is nothing Russian left in those spewed-out wretches”. He, then, clearly wished that Russia could be saved like the healed man sitting at the feet of Jesus, but all he could see around himself, especially in St. Petersburg during the 1860s, was the spread of a dangerous nihilist ideology and hardly any sign of purification or redemption. This is why the central focus of the novel is on a process of degeneration, rather than catharsis.

Great tension can be perceived, in the story, in connection with the character of Pyotr Stepanovich Verkhovensky. Pyotr, whose appearance in the story marks the beginning of the turmoil defining the narration, is the stereotype of the new generation of radical nihilist revolutionaries. Part of the International Workingmen’s Association, the character is the self-proclaimed leader of a conspiracy to overthrow the government and impose, via violent insurrection, socialism: “One or two generations of vice are absolutely essential now. Monstrous, disgusting vice which turns men into an abject, cowardly, cruel and selfish wretch – that’s what we want. And on top of it, a little ‘fresh blood’… We shall proclaim destruction – why? Why? – Well, because the idea is so fascinating! But – we must get a little exercise. We have a few fires – we’ll spread a few legends. Every mangy little group will be useful… There is going to be such a to-do as the world has never seen, Russia will become shrouded in fog, the earth will weep for its old gods”.

A page of Demons' manuscript

A page of Demons’ manuscript

Pyotr’s conspiracy is obviously much smaller in scale and scope, and, while his ambition to trigger at least a local insurrection, which might eventually escalate to national proportions, is often highlighted, one can easily understand this discrepancy as one of Dostoevsky’s condemnations of present-day nihilism. Pyotr, who managed to win his fellow conspirators’ support through “sentimentality”, is also employed by the author to highlight how the transition from the one generation (1840s) to the other (1860s) marked the end of the quest for common good of all people, replaced by an irrational focus on private interests. This intuition is reminiscent, on the one hand, of Dostoevsky’s analysis of the radicalisation of utilitarianism in Crime and Punishment, but, on the other, is brought to a dramatic extreme thanks to the deployment of the concept of Shigalyovism. This notion, presented by a character named Shigalyov, who aspires to create a new social order, but limits his speculation to a political demagogy championing the violent and complete rupture with tradition, without, however, providing any prescriptive indication as to how to revive society after the revolution. Shigalyovism, however, does inevitably lead, in the novel, to a tyrannical, totalitarian political organization: in his description of this doctrine, in fact, Pyotr points out the need to enlighten only a tenth of the population, “terribly few distinct minds”, with no consideration whatsoever for the rest of society.

Pyotr is modelled upon the figure of Sergey Nechaev: it seems, therefore, paradoxically legitimate, that a murder ought to take place in Demons. The victim’s name is Ivan Shatov and parallels with the Nechaev affair are quite evident: much as Ivanov and Nechaev belonged, in fact, to the same secret organization, Shatov initially sides with Pyotr and eventually decides to leave and is consequently murdered. Furthermore, Pyotr’s justification for the murder is the need to strengthen the “knot” among conspirators. It should not come as a surprise to notice that Nechaev adopted a similar rhetoric, urging to strengthen the knots of radical groups via political assassinations.

At any rate, one of the novel’s most significant characters is Pyotr’s father, Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky. Stepan, a disenfranchised former revolutionary belonging to the 1840s generation, is left speechless by the vacuity of the radical ideology of the 1860s. In one of the book’s most powerful and most frequently quoted passages, in fact, he exclaims: “You cannot imagine what wrath and sadness overcome your whole soul when a great idea, which you have long cherished as holy, is caught up by the ignorant and dragged forth before fools like themselves into the street, and you suddenly meet it in the market unrecognizable, in the mud, absurdly set up, without proportion, without harmony, the plaything of foolish louts! No! In our day it was not so, and it was not this for which we strove. No, no, not this at all. I don’t recognise it…”. Stepan Trofimovich can conveniently be seen as a literary reflection of Dostoevsky himself, who believed in the revolutionary initiatives some thirty years prior to the writing of Demons and felt profoundly distressed and discouraged by the deterioration of the ideals he once committed to. This view can be fuelled by another consideration, regarding the author’s own experience of exile in Siberia, when the re-discovery of Orthodox faith served as the basis for the potential regeneration of Russian society and its liberation from sheer materialism. This intuition is mirrored, in Demons, by the Stepan’s story: following his open and heartfelt rejection of the nihilism championed by his own son and consequently losing his reputation in town, he realizes the responsibility of his generation in creating the social and cultural preconditions for present-day nihilism. Therefore, he embarks on a pilgrimage to find the “real Russia”, together with a new friend who sells gospels.

In a particularly meaningful passage, Dostoevsky returns to the gospel story serving as Demons’ epigraph: “‘Now a large herd of swine was feeding there on the hillside; and they begged him to let them enter these. So he gave them leave. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned. When the herdsman saw what had happened, they fled, and told in the city and in the country… those who had seen it told them how he who had been possessed with demons was healed.’ Savez-vous, this wonderful and… extraordinary passage has been a stumbling block for me all my life… dans ce livre… so that I have remembered this passage ever since childhood. And now a thought has occurred to me; une comparaison. Terribly many thoughts occur to me now: you see, it’s exactly like our Russia. These demons who come out of a sick man and enter into the swine – it’s all the sores, all the miasmas, all the uncleanliness, all the big and little demons accumulated in our great and dear sick man, in our Russia, for centuries, for centuries! Oui, cette Russie que j’amais tojours. But a great will and a great thought will descend to her from on high, as upon that insane demoniac, and out will come all these demons, all the uncleanness, all the abomination that is festering on the surface… and they will beg of themselves to enter into swine. And perhaps they already have! It is us, us and them, and Petrusha… et les autres avec lui, and I, perhaps, first, at the head, and we will rush insane and raging, from the cliff down into the sea, and all be drowned, and good riddance to us, because that’s the most we’re fit for. But the sick man will be healed and ‘sit at the foot of Jesus’… and everyone will look in amazement… Dear, vouz comprendrez aprés but it excites me very much now… Vouz comprendrez après. Nous comprendrons ensemble”. Not only is this one of the most impressive sections of the whole novel, but it also allows for a clear understanding of the nature of the Demons of the story: they are not the conspirator, the new men of the 1860s, but the ideas of nihilism, coupled with their violent radical ideology, penetrating the minds of Russian society and condemning them to perish, just like pigs precipitating off the side of the mountain into the lake.

With his masterpiece Demons, Dostoevsky seeks to denounce the lack of philosophical depth characterizing nihilism in contemporary Russia, describing it as an iconoclastic tendency informed by nothing more than uncritical conformity. These considerations are rendered all the more dramatic by the recognition – Stepan’s and, at the same time, the author’s – of 1840s revolutionaries’ responsibility in having laid down the intellectual foundations of this perilous and nonsensical ideology. In this sense, the novel can be read as an all-encompassing criticism stretching between past and present, as nobody escapes Dostoevsky’s powerful indictment: the Petrashevsky Circle, Bakunin, Chernyshevsky, Pisarev, Karakozov, Turgenev, Nechaev, and every single revolutionary, together with the demons they carry, are deemed equally responsible for the infection and self-destruction of the Russian character: some for being bearers of nihilism; others for having created the preconditions for its very emergence. Redemption is, indeed, possible, as the author’s re-discovery of traditional Russian values, as well as Stepan Trofimovich’s embrace of religion seem to suggest. Yet, this solution seems to be relegated to the background and completely crushed by the gravity of the events of the narration and of the book’s context.  This consideration points at one of the most fascinating aspect of Dostoevsky’s writing: his use of a dense and austere prose to depict the most complex and often reprobate mechanisms of the mind (Notes from the Underground, Crime and Punishment), the soul (The Brothers Karamazov) and society (The Idiot, Demons), the surgical illustrations of the brutality of reality, and the compelling depth of his philosophical reflections should serve as a reminder that the only antidote to nihilism, depravation and madness is an excruciating confrontation with one’s demons.

© Alessandro De Arcangelis, 2015

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1 Comment

  1. Great article. I loved it =)

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