As a young man in the 1840s Fyodor Dostoevsky was intimately involved in the Petraschesky circle, a secret society of liberal utopians dreaming of a general uprising that would revolutionize Russia for the better, as they saw it. Along with several other members of the group, he was caught, tried and condemned to death by a firing squad. At the last minute — the last second by some accounts — he was spared and sentenced to five years of hard labor in Siberia. This provided him with the experience he turned into his novel The House of The Dead and also provided background for the epilogue of Crime and Punishment. It left Dostoevsky permanently scarred, a compulsive gambler, and an epileptic to boot. And it started a revolution in his thinking that apparently turned him from a young idealistic nihilist into a reactionary conservative loyal to the Czar who had saved his life — though he later insisted he remained after many years “an old ‘Nechaevist’ myself.”
In any event, in 1869, he read about the brutal beating and murder of a young student who had sworn allegiance to, and later attempted to leave, a revolutionary group led by the young Sergei Nechaev. It provided Dostoevsky with the material he was determined to turn into a brief tract attacking the nihilists and the revolutionary movement in general. After years of reflection the result was instead his major novel Demons (also titled The Possessed or The Devils, the Russian word suggests all of these possibilities); it became a substantial novel that was more didactic than many of his major works but with many literary qualities that saved it from being simply a prolonged attack on a political group the author was no longer in sympathy with.
In that novel he created the character of the young Pyotr Verkhovensky (called “Nechaev” in the early drafts of the novel) who leads a small, zealous group of nihilists in the direction of revolution. Many of the incidents described in the novel were culled from the newspapers at the time and reflect the atrocities that were being committed on the eve of the Russian revolution that was to erupt with violence in 1917. In his novel, after the murder of the young student — as recreated by Dostoevsky from the events that stirred his creative juices, — one of the young men who devotedly followed Pyotr Stepanovich Verkhovensky reveals to the police the events surrounding several killings and the violent events that led to that horrible murder of the student. In his confession he repeats the platitudes that Verkhovensky put in his mouth and which almost certainly are echoes of the basic nihilistic notions that inspired Sergei Nechaev. To the police who questioned why so many murders, scandals, and abominations had been perpetrated, the young man replied:
“. . .all was for the systematic shaking of the foundations, for the systematic corrupting of society and all principles; in order to dishearten everyone and make a hash of everything, and society being thus loosened, ailing and limp, cynical and unbelieving, but with an infinite yearning for some guiding hands, raising the banner of rebellion, and supported by the whole network of [nihilists], which would have been active all the while, recruiting and searching for practically all the means and all the weak spots that could be seized upon.”
This brings the novel to its unsettling conclusion, but it raises some interesting questions for us in this country in the glow of the recent political triumph of a demagogue who admires the Russians and many of whose activities have disturbing parallels with the events in Dostoevsky’s novel. Not that our fearless leader can be seen to resemble Sergei Nechaev as he lacks the imagination and the intelligence and, so far as we know, is not a sadistic murderer. But he is a bully and is easily led by a stronger personality. And there is a man who lurks in the shadows of his inner circles, the avowed follower of Lenin (a Nihilist with a capital “N”), who appears to have some of the qualities that were apparent in that young man and in Dostoevsky’s character modeled after him.
This may be a stretch, but it does give us pause and requires that we pay close attention to what is going on with an administration that seems to have declared war on social programs and regulatory agencies that have evolved over the years to protect American citizens from the abuses of the wealthy and the power-brokers who would just as soon see America made great again by “shaking its foundations” and transforming it into an imitation of the Russia that its leader seems to admire, an autocratic government without checks and balances and with no concern whatever for the ordinary citizen who struggles to keep his head above the waters of discontent. Would this indeed be a country “ailing, limp, cynical and unbelieving, but with a yearning for some guiding hands”? Let’s hope not. After all, that is merely a fiction.