In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Demons, a novel set in the politically tumultuous Moscow of the 19th century, Dostoyevsky writes about the competing political philosophies of the time by establishing five characters that each represent an influential philosophy. The action of the story is based around the attempts of one man, Pyotr Verkhovensky, to consolidate these men, despite their major differences, in order to unite several different movements and inspire a revolutionary fervor to overthrow the church and czar. However, Pyotr, the son of a liberal intellectual, seems less concerned with releasing Russia from the grip of royalty, like his father, but is lustful for power in-itself. He is ready and willing, through devious and wicked actions, to sacrifice these men to wield power and make himself the leader of a revolution.
The many ways in which Pyotr Verkhovensky’s actions foreshadow Lenin and the Bolsheviks has inspired the description of the novel and of Dostoevsky himself as Orwellian. In truth, (and less anachronistically), Dostoevsky’s novel was inspired by the murder of Ivan Ivanov in 1869 by the anarchist Sergei Nechaev who shot Ivanov in the head after he changed political convictions and Nechaev feared he would turn informer. The murderous extension of politics and the cunning war among Russian’s various political zealots – an anarchist and anti-anarchist, a few nihilists, leftists, and a few plain, good old fashioned Tsar-killing, church-overthrowing revolutionaries – comprise the bulk of this book. But while Dostoevsky exposes the hypocrisy and insincerity of these revolutionaries his novel is also truly comedic in showing how bamboozled young political revolutionaries can be.
I want to focus on Dostoevsky’s politics and the title he gave this book. While there is much I’d like to say after a week of reading this book non-stop, I’d like to convince you to take on the task of reading this book yourself based on the achievements of the author, the specifics of his intentions and the importance of his topic.
The Demons was the second Dostoevsky novel recommended to me by Aunt Lia. It was first recommended to me as The Possessed, the title it was called in its first English translation. Every English translation has come to grapple with the translation of the title of this book and the title’s translation is important to what we view as Dostoevsky’s antagonist in this book. One might reconcile this controversy of translation by just calling it by it’s Russian name Besy, until we realize that what you just read is not its original title either, not at all actually, it having not been written in the Cyrillic alphabet.
In a book like The Demons, this point is extremely important, because the title is not just the indicator of a complete text but actually seems to inform us of how we should view the characters. If the title is ‘The Possessed,’ it seems to imply that the book’s young, smart intellectuals have fallen victim to an evil that has taken over their beings. If the book is called ‘The Demons,’ it either describes the violent revolutionaries as demons or, what I happen to feel is true, indicates that Dostoevsky views the ideas themselves, the great –isms of the 19th century, as the Demons, and thus the book is not about people possessed, but about these very demons themselves: communism, anarchism, socialism, nihilism, and a plethora of other materialistic ideologies.
Like many young liberal revolutionary writers Dostoevsky grew more conservative as he grew older. His need to ridicule and to expose the many –isms of 19th century Europe seems to have been based in the ideas of the Slaviphilism movement in Russia (yes, yet one more –ism) whose adherents expressed great distaste for the ideas coming into Russia from Europe, whether they be political, philosophical or religious. While not a strict Slaviphil, Dostoevsky did believe in the sanctity of Russia and of the institutions that sprung from its land: the church, the tsar, and the manifestation of the ideals of the Russian peasant. He viewed ideologies from Europe as foreign and their seeming possession of young intellectuals as infectious and invasive.
The Demons then is Dostoevsky’s opportunity to, scene after scene, demonstrate how these leftist Western ideas are baseless and flawed and how those who lead groups based upon these ideas are nothing more than power hungry fools who have chosen vanity over truth, power over freedom. All their goals are for naught, and while fighting ferociously and valiantly against Tsar and Oligarch, or any who would inhibit man’s freedom, our revolutionaries discover the enemy of despotism within themselves. Dostoevsky devotes many pages, expending his full rhetorical powers, to the exposure of the paradoxical revolutionary who is willing to kill and to betray in the name of freedom. Because these ideas were tied to well known conflicts and political events at the time, such as the murder of Ivanov by Nechaev, these themes would have been easily apparent to the readers of late 19th century Russia.
Why should everyone read The Demons? Because it extends as far and as penetratingly into our recent history as any book possibly could. It informs ideas on political figures as varied as Che’, Lenin, President Obama, Neo-conservatism, Hitler, and Bin Laden. Being now 11 books into the year’s 52 recommendations, and having now read all of Dostoevsky’s works, I recommend that everyone read The Demons first, before any other book I have recommended yet, and before reading any other Dostoevsky book. It’s an unforgettable education on the major political movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, while being a Daily Show expose’ piece that uses satire and laughter to deal with the horrors created by violent men with twisted ideas. It demonstrates that the most dangerous revolutionaries are the ones who refuse to continue learning and growing and whose revolutions, like Lenin’s, fail because they fail to understand the people they pretend to be fighting for.
Note: In all translations from Bibles to Homer to Dante, there is often much more at stake for the translator than just staying true to the original intention of the text and they are greatly influenced by the politics and issues of their time period. I trust Pevear and Volokhonsky for Russian translations because their text comes to life more, and is more enjoyable to read. I know that rendering a great and perhaps essentially complex and dense book into easy English prose can, at times, be done only to expand an audience and to sell more books. But, in Pevear and Volokhonsky’s case, this is not their aim. I believe this only after having waited hours on several occasions to see them read from their translations and to hear them discuss the rich academic details of their translation styles. Additionally, there is a well known fact that gets told at these events: that when their literary agent let the husband/wife team know that Oprah wanted to make their translation of Anna Karenina part of her book club, neither of them knew precisely who this Oprah was, Richard Pevear remarking, “Why would a country western singer have a book club?” This then is why I continue to read their translations and why I read The Demons: if they don’t know who Oprah is they are truly free from influence.