Anarchy, Nihilism and Liberalism in Dostoevksy’s Demons

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Demons” (Besy, in Russian, variously translated as “The Possessed” and “Devils”) is a fundamentally political and social novel. It draws directly on the true story of a murder committed in 1869 by Russian anarchist and nihilist Sergei Nechaev (Saunders 324). The peasant reforms (Dostoevsky 370), the third department (Dostoevsky 361) and the emergence of the zemstvo (Dostoevsky 211) all enjoy passing mention. However, it is the Nechaev-like anarchists and older liberals who are the primary players in the Russia of “Demons”. In addition to the facts of the murder, “Demons” depicts a much wider social and political conflict in Russia. Dostoevsky depicts a Russian society divided between ideologies: The westernizing liberals of the 1840s, Slavophiles (Russian isolationists and nationalists), and nihilists. Dostoevsky’s sentiments clearly do not lie with the latter, as “Demons” offers an often satirical and always unflattering portrait of the Russian radical revolutionary movement of the 1860s and 1870s. Dostoevsky’s treatment of the ideological divide between pro-Western liberals and nihilists can be more generally characterized as a generational divide. Stepan Trofimovich best represents the older generation of liberal westernizers, who called for gradual modernization in Russia rather than a radical and rapid transformation of the autocracy and Russian society. While the liberals of Stepan’s generation (the 1840s) engage in vigorous debate, the narrator remarks on the nature of liberalism in Russia during this period:For a while there was talk of us around town, that our circle was a hotbed of freethinking, depravity, and godlessness; and this rumor has always persisted. Yet what we had was only the most innocent, nice, perfectly Russian, jolly liberal chatter. “Higher liberalism” and the “higher liberal” that is, a liberal without any aim are possible only in Russia. (Dostoevsky 33)Stepan’s westward-looking character is established early in the novel, and indeed early in his life: “he managed to publish…in a monthly and progressive journal, which translated Dickens and preached George Sand, the beginning of a most profound study” (Dostoevsky 9). Furthermore, Stepan’s speech is satirically filled with individual French phrases and interjections, reflecting the tendency of the intellectual classes’ use of French. Stepan’s use of French is later parodied as Kirillov composes his suicide note, abandoning Stepan’s francophone niceties in favor of the fiery language of revolution.The narrator notes that Stepan’s theses on European history attract the ire of Slavophiles. The invocation of the Slavophiles and their ability to strip him of his lectureship demonstrates the divide between the nationalist Slavophiles and the westernizing liberals. Dostoevsky does, however, temper the apparent power and influence of the conservative faction by adding that Stepan “could have gone on…if he had simply given the necessary explanations” (Dostoevsky 11). The Slavophiles play a marginal role in the central generational conflict between liberals and nihilists, but their early role in antagonizing Stepan Trofimovich (and vice versa) illustrates the presence of a philosophical debate that is underway in Russia well before the birth of Pyotr Stepanovich. Pyotr Stepanovich Verkhovensky, son of Stepan Verkhovensky, represents a more extreme-left faction of Russian thought than his father. As a nihilist and anarchist, Pyotr advocates the violent demolition and reconstruction of Russian society. His “revolution” would establish Stavrogin as the tsarevitch-in-hiding, who would lead the insurgency. Pyotr’s extremism stands in stark contrast to the relatively passive “higher liberalism” of his father. However, despite the poor relationship between father and son, Dostoevsky establishes several important links between the two generations of Verkhovensky men. Pyotr and his generation of nihilists, in their revolutionary fervor, reject the more purely intellectual nature of Stepan’s “cultural” liberalism in favor of dramatic and even violent action. Thinkers of Stepan’s generation, speaking in more moderate tones, find equally distasteful the extremes to which the anarchists are anxious to explore. Pyotr’s character is clearly based on the real anarchist Sergei Nechaev, who planned an insurrection against the authority of the tsar during the late 1860s. During a brief period of exile in 1869, Nechaev and Bakunin penned “The Catechism of a Revolutionary”, outlining the goals and mechanisms of a revolution. Upon his return to Russia later that year, Nechaev attracted a number of followers at the Petrovskaya Agricultural Academy in St. Petersburg. Among these followers, Ivan Ivanov was believed to be less than loyal, and was considered a threat to the organization (Saunders 324). In winter 1869, Nechaev and several associates murdered Ivanov. The circumstances resemble those found in “Demons”, as Pyotr and members of the anarchist circle murder Shatov. If one accepts that Nechaev is in fact the model upon which Pyotr Verkhovensky is based, it is difficult to argue that Dostoevsky is sympathetic to the anarchist and nihilist cause. Indeed, “Demons” is a strong indictment of the revolutionary movement. Dostoevsky’s unflattering portrait of Pyotr’s ideals and methodology takes two important forms. Pyotr’s organization, a clear parody of Nechaev’s, is a satirical and often amusing blend of chaos and extremism. The individuals involved in the organization – the vocal representatives of nihilism – are severely flawed and are largely unsympathetic characters. “With Our People”, chapter seven of Book Two, recounts a typically disorganized and often hilarious meeting of the revolutionary group. Shigalyov’s attempts to organize the assembled guests are thwarted by the stupid, drunken, or otherwise uncouth interjections of his audience. Dostoevsky’s depicts these revolutionaries as a bumbling, panicked, and generally motley group of fools. A typical exchange from “With Our People” offers a fair example of the flawed and frequently ridiculous meeting:”No, I understand,” a third one shouted, “hand up if it’s yes.””Yes, but what does yes mean?””It means a meeting.””No, not a meeting.””I voted a meeting,” the high-school boy shouted, addressing Madame Virginsky.”Then why didn’t you raise your hand?””I kept looking at you, you didn’t raise yours, so I didn’t either.”(Dostoevsky 399)Comments such as that of the high-school boy reveal a subtler and perhaps more damning indictment of Pyotr. Several of the nihilsts are very young, and still more, such as Lebyadkin, are very stupid. Since these individuals would not likely organize themselves into a group of anarchistic revolutionaries on their own, it falls to Pyotr and Shigalyov to bring them together. In this sense, Dostoevsky portrays Pyotr, and by implication, Nechaev, as talented manipulators, and relegates most other characters to the role of the foolhardy bystander. While they are guilty of nihilism, they are perhaps more guilty of a youthful impetuousness and naivete that appears to pervade the rank and file of the group.The character of the leaders of the group is much more thoroughly questioned. Among these leaders, Dostoevsky does not create a single sympathetic character. Stavrogin often exhibits bizarre and impolite behavior in unsuspecting company, which leads to an abortive duel. Dostoevsky exposes Stavrogin’s sinister manipulation in a conversation between Nikolai Vsevolodovich and Lebyadkin: “Lebyadkin, experienced in the role of buffoon, remained a bit uncertain until the last moment whether his master was really angry or only teasing” (Dostoevsky 268.) Pyotr himself is frequently emotionally and morally vacant, falsely bringing his father under the suspicion of the authorities at the conclusion of Book Three. The apotheosis of this inhuman detachment is, of course, the murder of Shatov. Dostoevksy’s treatment of the nihilist anarchists is considerably different from his treatment of Stepan’s brand of “higher liberal”. Stepan is relatively harmless and charming, and lacks the murderous cold that his son possesses in abundance. However, Dostoevksy maintains an important link between Stepan’s circle of liberals and Pyotr’s group of revolutionaries. In many respects, Pytor’s group is an extreme-left parody of the “higher liberals” of the 1840s. An important element of the parody lies in the international nature of each organization. Stepan’s liberals find their inspiration and conversational fodder in writings from the west. The Russian audiences express admiration for Western thinkers and authors, and Dickens, George Sands, Goethe, and Fourier are mentioned throughout Part One. This admiration for the west and desire to cultivate similar intellectual advances in Russia during the 1840s is continued into Pyotr’s generation, but on an entirely different scale. The influence of the west in the 1870s, as presented in the context of the revolutionary group, is a far more sinister force. Stravrogin and Pyotr spend a considerable amount of time abroad; Dostoevsky frequently invokes Switzerland as a source of revolutionary publications and ideas. Nechaev fled to Switzerland, where he and Bakunin co-authored revolutionary pamphlets. The fugitive Nechaev likely chose Switzerland due to its free press and stability. Despite this historical fact, the role of Switzerland in “Demons” reinforces the link between Pyotr Stepanovich and Nechaev. Membership, real or perceived, in an international organization considerably elevated the status of the revolutionary group in a provincial town. Once again, Pyotr and Stavrogin play the role of manipulators: “You’ve no doubt presented me there as some sort of member from abroad, connected with the Internationale, maybe an inspector?” Stravrogin suddenly asked.”No, not an inspector; the inspector won’t be you; you are a founding member from abroad who knows the most important secrets that’s your role.” (Dostoevsky 386)In addition to adding credibility, an exaggerated international affiliation would have increased the conspiratorial air among the group’s members. Legitimate international influences – Stavrogin and Pyotr’s early but philosophically formative experiences abroad – as well as imagined international supporting organizations are major implements by which Pyotr retains control over the group.As a supposed element of a large international organization dedicated to anarchistic overthrow of government, Pyotr demands absolute secrecy from members of the group. While there is a secret police presence (which Stepan also manipulates when framing his father), Pyotr actively exaggerates and lies about the necessity of absolute secrecy among members of the group. Clandestine practices increase the divide between Stepan’s relatively open and casual intellectual circles and Pyotr’s artificially secretive group. In addition, such secrecy facilitates the unflattering link with Nechaev and drives the plot of the novel: Shatov is lured away to retrieve a strategically concealed printing press.”Demons” is Dostoevsky’s satirical reaction to the nihilistic anarchism of the Nechaev movement. It depicts a generational divide in the Russia of the 1870s, and neatly places Stepan, an intellectual of the 1840s, against Pyotr, his revolutionary, nihilistic son. In his descriptions of Pyotr’s group, Dostoevsky directly parodies the anarchist organization and revolutionary violence of Nechaev’s movement. His caricature of a violent, chaotic, and morally corrupt organization places it in direct opposition to the liberal movement of the 1840s, and the tension between these two creates the societal and intellectual divide central to the novel. Though the two movements are opposed, there is a link between them. While it would be difficult to argue that the nihilist movement grew directly out of the liberal movement of the 1840s, Dostoevsky establishes a literary connection in the relationship between Stepan and Pyotr: the two people (and movements) are ideologically disparate and relations between them are strained at best, but they are nonetheless genetically linked. Dostoevsky’s patterned demonization of Pyotr and the depiction of his society as generally buffoonish soundly reject the principles and the violence of Nechaev, in favor of a more moderate time and temperament.Works CitedDostoevsky, Fyodor. Demons. Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky=2E New York: Vintage Books, 1994.Saunders, David. Russia in the Age of Reaction and Reform: 1801-1881. New York: Longman Publishing, 1992.

Dostoevsky’s Account of the Past, Present, and Future of the Revolution in The Devils

Fyodor Dostoevsky published his novel The Devils from 1871 to 1872 in installments in the joural The Messengerat a time when there was political unrest in Russia, although not yet enough for a real revolution. Inspiration for the novel came from current revolutionary events and the characters involved in them, material which he supplemented with his own experience in a group of young radicals. Each of the characters in The Devils as well as many of the situations and beliefs mentioned are drawn from these two sources, but he also includes ideologies which arguably predict the political circumstances during the Russian Revolution and under the Soviet government which followed. In some cases, Dostoevsky not so discreetly copied personages from his past or present, even leaving first names the same, and other times he incorporates various ideas and actions into the makeup of several scenes or characters.

Dostoevsky’s involvement in Mikhail Petrashevsky’s conversation circle starting in the late 1840s as nothing more than a social activity, although the organization became more formal with the revolutions of 1848 in Europe which spread a rebellious mood among the intelligentsia.When Nikolay Speshnev arrived on the scene Dostoevsky became a part of his circle within the circle, what could have been considered the populist wing of Petrashevsky’s group, a small number of men who adhered to Belinsky’s recent mandate that the solution to Russia’s social problems be worked out in Russian terms. Dostoevsky agreed that rather than looking to Western Europe for answers, foundations for a new society should come from peasant traditions of communal land ownership, wage-sharing, and collective responsibility for tax payments. While he could never be a revolutionary, the mistreatment of the generally less fortunate enraged Dostoevsky and drove him to become involved with Petrashevsky; his revolutionary passion was the emancipation of the serfs which is likely what brought him to the attention of Speshnev as he recruited for his inner circle.

Dostoevsky modeled the character of Nicholas Stavrogin after his “mentor in revolutionary radicalism” Speshnev, physically, temperamentally, and ideologically.Mikhail Bakunin once described Speshnev as “a remarkable man in many ways: intelligent, cultivated, handsome, aristocratic in bearing, not at all standoffish though quietly cold, inspiring confidence—like everyone possessing a quiet strength—a gentleman from head to foot;” remarkably similar to the narrator’s description of Stavrogin, who “was not very talkative, he was elegant without being over-refined, remarkably modest, and, at the same time, brave and self-confident as no one else in our town.” At the surface level, both men come from wealthy landowning families, have traveled to Europe, and enchant women with their handsome features and mysterious auras, but the similarities go deeper. Although a significant figure in the secret group which Peter Verkhovensky so enthusiastically runs and the only character to whom Verkhovensky shows genuine deference, Stavrogin spends the majority of his appearances in the novel standing on the fringes of the movement; he has hardly any memorable lines and disappears entirely at the height of the action, though he retains the respect of the group by speaking with authority when he does open his mouth, not unlike Speshnev’s habit of frequenting Petrashevsky’s library rather than participating in conversations while ensuring his position through the occasional sharp word.

Speshnev found himself attracted to the secret societies of Europe and especially the doctrines of the French, who preached the necessity of violence and a strand of communism which incorporated the philosophy of materialism, atheism, and Utilitarian self-interest. Though Stavrogin does not preach violence, or much of anything for that matter, he exudes a fierceness which makes the narrator believe that when presented with a slap in the face or an insult he would immediately kill the offender without hesitation rather than challenge him to a duel, comparing Stavrogin to a certain Decembrist who actively sought out dangerous encounters with bears and escaped convicts. Based on the narrator’s impression in this moment and Stavrogin’s later admission to the knowledge and passive authorization of his wife’s murder, the young man certainly tolerates violence to a greater extent than the average citizen, if he does not preach it as a necessity for the revolution.

In The Devils, multiple characters feel imprisoned within the system in which Verkhovensky has placed them, living with a constant sense of paranoia which is fostered by Verkhovensky’s insistence that they make up a small part of something immense which they do not and cannot understand. In the end, the majority of the members run from the consequences of their actions, some of them expressing regret, bringing to mind Dostoevsky’s own experience of being stuck in the movement. While one can draw comparisons between Shatov’s attempt to leave the group (based on Ivanov’s actions) and Dostoevsky, it is Captain Lebyatkin who best portrays Dostoevsky’s own experience, caught up in something he does not fully believe in and financially trapped. Lebyatkin explains to Stavrogin that he was drawn into the radical business through friendship, not understanding the importance of his involvement and passing out pamphlets without any serious intent. Dostoevsky, too, became involved with Petrashevsky and Speshnev through mutual acquaintances, speaking (according to him) only on literary or philosophical subjects on the rare occasions he joined the conversation. Lebyatkin takes money from others in his circle in order to support himself but then begins to realize just how radical the propaganda he distributes is and how harshly he could be punished, mirroring Dostoevsky’s own situation in which he received a loan from Speshnev and then felt honor bound to continue working with “him and his” because he could not afford to pay it off. Neither man can escape the revolutionary movement on his own; Lebyatkin finds release through his murder and Dostoevsky also receives a death sentence, although he serves time in Siberia instead.

Even minor details and snippets of dialogue throughout the novel can often be related back to Dostoevsky’s experiences or acquaintances. The secret society established by Speshnev and joined by Dostoevsky, who helped recruit some of the other five men involved, planned to set up a secret printing press, just as Verkhovensky’s group of a similar size printed pamphlets using a printing press in Shatov’s possession. On an oath of allegiance found on Speshnev’s desk after his arrest, the “signer pledged himself to obey the orders of the central committee whenever this executive body decided that the time for a revolution had arrived.” Like Speshnev’s followers, Verkhovensky’s men believed themselves to be part of a vast network of groups of five spread across Russia making up a giant secret network closely connected to the revolutionary movements in Europe, with Verkhovensky at one point justifying his commands saying “I’m acting on the instructions of the central committee, and you must obey.” In a letter rejecting any attempts to establish a metaphysical system, Speshnev wrote: “Is the difference between God-man and Man-god really so great?.” Kirilov echoes these words when he speaks to Stavrogin about faith, saying that “He who teaches that all are good […] will come, and his name will be the man-god.” Stavrogin asks if he means the god-man, to which Kirilov responds: “The man-god; there is a difference there.” Stavrogin, like Speshnev, seems unconvinced of the distinction.

The Devils draws from current events just as much as from Dostoevsky’s past. In 1869, Dostoevsky began following the socialist activity at the school of his brother-in-law, specifically the escapades of a man named Ivan Ivanovich Ivanov as he attempted to remove himself from the socialist group run by Sergei Nechayev. Ivanov inspired Dostoevsky to write the character Ivan Shatov who, like Ivanov after denouncing Nechayev’s radical propaganda, finds himself at the mercy of the other four in his cohort, in his case after rumours that he is an informer. Shatov’s murder scene plays very much like the real-life murder of Ivanov: each of them is attacked by four men, Shatov is shot by Verkhovensky just as Ivanov by Nechayev, and then thrown into a pond after being weighed down with stones much the same as Ivanov was dumped in a frozen river; Verkhovensky even leaves his hat at the scene just as Nechayev left his.

Dostoevsky also includes hints of his own religious and political views in the ideas touted by members of Verkhovensky’s circle. A devout Christian, Dostoevsky did not believe in gray areas, he saw things in black and white, hot and cold, spitting the lukewarm out of his mouth as Jesus proclaimed in Revelation 3:16. He maintained that one should be completely holy and pure or entirely despicable, that once the sinning began it should continue until the sinner hits rock bottom, because it is there that the crisis of faith occurs and one may see the error of his ways and turn back to God. Although Dostoevsky did not apply this belief to Russia’s social issues, some of his characters in The Devilsdo, maintaining that Russia must fall in order to rise again. Verkhovensky tells his recruits that all their actions “must be animated by one aim – namely, to bring everything down with a crash: the State as well as its moral standards,” and Lyamshin reiterates this goal in more detail when the he ultimately reveals the details of Verkhovensky’s operation. When asked why the violence and scandal was necessary, Lyamshin responded:

[F]or the systematic destruction of society and the principles on which it was based, with the object of throwing everybody into a state of hopeless despair and of bringing about a state of general confusion: so that when society – sick, depressed, cynical, and godless, though with an intense yearning for some guiding idea and for self-preservation – had been brought to a point of collapse, they could suddenly seize power, raising the banner of revolt and supported by a whole network of groups of five, which were in the meantime recruiting new members and discovering the best methods of attacking the weak spot.

As with sinners, society as a whole will not realize the necessity of change until it is destroyed, and they have no other option than to rebuild anew.

Dostoevsky’s novel also includes socialist proposals which some claim predict the Russian Revolution and the socialist state of the Soviet Union, meaning that his novel impossibly incorporates past, present, and future political affairs. Verkhovensky warns Karmazinov that the revolution will “start and the beginning of May and will be over by the first of October,” suggesting a drawn out takeover or perhaps that multiple revolutions would be required to completely overthrow the tsarist government. Forty-five years after the publication of The Devils, the revolutions of 1917 began in March and action did not subside until November, three months longer than Verkhovensky’s timeline which, in the grand scheme of the Russian Revolution and the buildup of radical sentiment over several decades, is not a substantial time difference. In 1875, Karl Marx popularized the phrase “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” a slogan which closely resembles Verkhovensky’s proposed new world motto: “Only what is necessary is necessary.”

The ideas presented by Verkhovensky, Shigalyov, and Shatov in The Devils eerily foreshadow the ideology of the Soviet Union and its leaders in their pursuit of radical equality and obedience. Shigalyov introduces a solution to Russia’s social issues which describes the division of “humanity into two unequal parts. One-tenth is to be granted absolute freedom and unrestricted powers over the remaining nine-tenths. Those must give up their individuality and be turned into something like a herd.” Verkhovensky asserts the same mindset when he tells Stavrogin “The thing we want is obedience […] We shall reduce everything to one common denominator. Full equality,” before qualifying this statement and excluding himself and other socialist leaders because “Slaves must have rulers.” Leaders of the Soviet Union followed closely followed these guidelines; members of the elite retained personal wealth and Soviet officials had benefits such as luxurious cars and chauffeurs while the vast majority of citizens dealt with shortages and rationing which the guaranteed income from their assigned jobs could do nothing about. Lyamshin brings up the possibility of violence perpetuated against the people by the government when he says that he would blow up the nine-tenths, the less desirable portion of the population, leaving a small number of educated citizens who would live in peace and science. While this assertion seems outlandish and makes Lyamshin the radical of radicals in that conversation, just over fifty years after the publication of The Devils, Stalin assumed control of the Communist Party, became dictator, and went on to kill tens of millions of citizens of the Soviet Union in addition to those killed as a consequence of World War II.

One aspect of socialist ideology which radicals emphasized before, during, and after Dostoevsky’s time is the importance of atheism. Belinsky wrote in a letter to Gogol that the Russian people are religious atheists in that “their religion is one of superstition and ritual rather than of true inward faith,” beliefs which he believed could accompany progress and enlightenment due to their roots in tradition and not an institution, and the previously mentioned French secret societies which so interested Speshnev held atheism as one of the core components of their doctrine. The complex relationship of faith and socialism appear several times in The Demons, mostly in relation to Shatov and Kirilov and their differing views. Shatov sees atheism as the foundation of revolutionary action in Russia and socialism as “by its very nature bound to be atheist because it has proclaimed from the very first that it is an atheist institution and that it intends to organize itself exclusively on the principles of science and reason,” while Kirilov visibly squirms and avoids answering every time Verkhovensky asks him if he believes in God. The revolution did turn out to be driven partially by atheism; at the time of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the Orthodox Church was integrated into the state, a situation which quickly changed as one of the aims of the new Soviet state was the elimination of religion. The Communist regime shut down thousands of churches, confiscated church property, and large numbers of clergy were shot or sent to labor camps.

Dostoevsky’s fictitious account of revolutionaries in a small town in Russia demonstrates the continuity of certain ideas and archetypes during the period of buildup to the revolution and through to the regime which followed it. Introduced to secret networks, radical propaganda pamphlets, and groups of five by Petrashevsky and Speshnev in his youth, Dostoevsky later saw the same thing happen with the next generation, particularly through Nechayev’s activities. Building off of his experiences and observations, The Devils portrays character and socialist ideals which fit equally well in the 1840s as in the 1860s and all the way up to the fall of the Soviet regime at the end of the twentieth century.