Undermining the Foundations: Lessons From Fyodor Dostoevsky’s ‘Devils’

March 30, 2021 Updated: March 30, 2021

Early in March, I was sucker punched by a Russian. A dead Russian, as a matter of fact.

Let me explain.

Late in December, I made a New Year’s resolution to read at least six classics that were new to me in the coming year. Sir Walter Scott’s “Ivanhoe” was my first choice, and I found that excursion into the days of King Richard and Robin Hood an agreeable adventure.

Next up for investigation was Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Devils,” the Constance Garnett translation that had sat unopened on my shelf for years. Long ago, I’d read “Notes From the Underground,“ The Brothers Karamazov,” and “Crime and Punishment,” and I later taught these last two books to my Advanced Placement Literature students.

And so I began “Devils,” unfazed by the novel’s length—almost 700 pages—and inspired to make my march through that story by the book’s blurb, which proclaimed that the novel centered on a group of radicals and revolutionaries in 1860s Russia, a “prophetic account of modern morals and politics, with its fifty-odd characters, amazing events and challenging ideas.”

For almost 200 pages, I read of love affairs and intrigue, listened in on bizarre conversations, and met strange characters like those who inhabit all the books I’ve read by Dostoevsky. “So where are the radicals?” I kept asking myself, and was shocked when the author revealed that several of them were already planted in the story. Like real revolutionaries, they had hidden themselves away until the time came to put their plans into action.

That was the punch that knocked me to the canvas.

Now let’s look at “Devils.”

book cover for The Devils
The title of Dostoevsky’s “The Devils,” has also been translated without “The” and also as “The Demons” and “The Possessed.”

The Plot

The above subhead is a double entendre, for here I will briefly summarize a complicated plot that in fact involves a plot. Also titled “The Demons,” “The Devils,” or “The Possessed,” depending on the translator, “Devils” involves a group of conspirators in a fictional provincial town that has links to other cells of those seeking to overthrow the government.

Composed primarily of atheists, socialists, idealists, adventurers, and criminals, this collection of radicals intends to seize control of society and begin the process of leading the Russian people toward a heaven on earth.

Eventually, a sort of rebellion takes place. At first, a few people are murdered or commit suicide—Dostoevsky based the execution of one man on a real-life incident of a revolutionary murdered because he wanted out of the movement—but by the end of the novel, the pages are littered with more bodies than at the close of “Hamlet.”

Some of the key figures in this movement are Stepan Trofimovitch Verhovensky, a school teacher and liberal idealist who unintentionally helped create some of these radicals; his son Pyotr Verhovensky, who is a leading figure among the revolutionaries; Ivan Shatov, who initially is a member of the group but comes to despise their ideas; and the charismatic Nikolay Stavrogin, who tests the limits of morality while acting as a skeptical commentator on the plans of the radicals.

Difficulties

“Devils” is not an easy read. First, the Russian names ring unfamiliar in the ears of most of us, and so many characters step in and out of the story that for a while keeping track of them was difficult for me.

Moreover, as I wrote above, the blurb mentions “fifty-odd characters,” referring, of course to the number, but if we remove that hyphen, the description would be just as apt. Here are odd souls indeed, men and women very different from fictional American characters then or now.

Dostoevsky’s Russians dash from self-pity to anger, from love to hatred, in the blink of an eye. The stiff upper lip and restraint associated with such American characters like Natty Bumppo in “The Leatherstocking Tales” or even the obsessed Captain Ahab in “Moby Dick” stand in stark contrast to the nervous tics of the inhabitants of Dostoevsky’s novels.

A tip: Readers who decide to undertake reading “Devils” might consider using the online sites that distill the plot, themes, and characters of this novel as guides for this journey.

Prophecies and Philosophies

Despite these stumbling blocks, “Devils” has much to say to our own time.

When the Russian Revolution occurred, many contemporaries of that event pointed to Dostoevsky as a prophet, a prognosticator who had foretold this upheaval. I would go even further than these men and women of letters and declare “Devils” a crystal ball in which the author predicted the totalitarian movements of the last 100 years, with their statist philosophies, their utopianism, and their willingness to murder, often on a grand scale, to advance an agenda and to seize power.

portrait of Dostoyevski by Vasily_Perov
Apparently, Dostoevsky could foretell the future. Portrait of Fyodor Dostoevsky, 1872, by Vasili Perovby. Tretyakov Gallery. (Public Domain)

In “Part Two: Chapter Seven: A Meeting,” for example, we encounter a gathering of “the flower of the reddest Radicalism of our ancient town.” This assemblage discuss subjects as diverse as the family (“a superstitious form”), a moral compass (“There’s no such thing as moral or immoral”), and “the division of mankind into two unequal parts,” with one-tenth, an elite, acting as governors while the others “have to give up all individuality and become, so to speak, a herd, and through boundless submission, will by a series of regenerations attain primeval innocence, something like the garden of Eden.”

The More Things Change, the More They Remain the Same

As Pyotr Verhovensky says, “It’s a new religion, my good friend, coming to take the place of the old one.”

At one point, Pyotr Verhovensky tells Stavrogin: “A teacher who laughs with children at their God and at their cradle is on our side. The lawyer who defends an educated murderer because he is more cultured than his victims and could not help murdering them to get money is one of us … The juries who acquit every criminal are ours. The prosecutor who trembles at a trial for fear he should not seem advanced enough is ours, ours. Among officials and literary men we have lots, lots, lots, and they don’t know it themselves.”

Sound familiar?

Ultimate Goals

Near the end of “Devils,” one of the radicals confesses his part in the attempted uprising. When asked what was “the object of so many murders and scandals and dastardly outrages,” he replies: “It was with the idea of systematically undermining the foundations, systematically destroying society and all principles, with the idea of nonplussing everyone and making hay of everything, and then, when society was tottering, sick and out of joint, cynical and skeptical though filled with an intense eagerness for self-preservation and for some guiding idea, suddenly to seize it in the hands, raising the standards of revolt….”

Sprinkle this explanation with some of the obscenities used by today’s radicals, and you could well be listening to a member of Antifa spelling out that organization’s goals.

Schongauer_Anthony-demons attacking St. anthony
Dostoevsky depicted demons, possessed by revolutionary furor, attacking the foundations of civilization. An engraving, “The Temptation of St. Anthony,” circa 1480–90, by Martin Schöngauer. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (Public Domain)

This year marks the 150th anniversary when installments of “Devils” first began to appear in “The Russian Messenger.” Given humanity’s various catastrophes since then, we are apparently a race of slow learners.

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust On Their Wings,” and two works of nonfiction, “Learning As I Go” and “Movies Make The Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.