I love Russian literature. I went through a period a few years ago when I couldn’t stop reading it – Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev, etc. Then I got busy reading other things; this is my first foray back into Russian lit since that time. Still love it. Dostoyevsky in particular has always been a favorite of mine. I love that his novels are dark and his characters are a little bit crazy. Or a lot crazy. I love the way he gets into the mind and the psychology of his characters to explain their bizarre actions. The Devils certainly has its share of crazy characters. It’s also more political than many of his other novels, which I, of course, love.
The Devils is Dostoyevsky’s commentary on the socialist revolutionaries that were fomenting change in Russia during his lifetime. The revolutionaries are portrayed as extremists who are willing to go to any lengths to achieve the change they desire. But for many of them it’s not even clear what they desire – they don’t seek to build, but merely to tear down everything about the Russian state as it is. They want to get rid of government institutions and destroy the Russian church. The method of change they have chosen is violent revolution, which will be accomplished by creating so much disorder and chaos throughout the countryside that the people finally rise up. But in addition to being ruthless, the revolutionaries are portrayed as somewhat incompetent. They seek to provoke a nationwide revolution, but they only act in their own small town. They believe there are other “groups of five” throughout the country doing the same thing in their towns, but they have no evidence that this is actually true. If the revolutionaries are portrayed as incompetent, the conservatives representing old Russia are, if anything, even more so. They are incapable of confronting socialism head on, but rather prevaricate and, in most cases, fawn over the socialists without realizing the extent of their ambitions. The only people who seem to realize the danger ahead are those who have embraced the church.
Often when reading Dostoyevsky I’m reminded of Ayn Rand’s major criticism of Russia. She believed that her morality could never thrive in Russia because the people were both communists and still in the thrall of the Russian church, both of which she saw as incompatible with true freedom. In The Devils, Dostoyevsky portrays exactly this dichotomy. The band of nihilistic socialists is set against the older generation of conservative Russians and the Slavophil Shatov, who believes that the Russian identity is indistinguishable from the Russian church. Dostoyevsky himself was a Slavophil, and you can see his obsession with the church come through in most of his novels. So while I love Dostoyevsky’s writing and appreciate his depiction of radical revolutionaries, we part ways at his obsession with the church as the solution to all problems.
One of the more interesting characters is Kirilov, a man who has decided to kill himself to prove that he is a god. He believes that only by asserting his free will in the ultimate way – by killing himself – will he conquer God and therefore become a god himself. At one point he says that “Full freedom will come only when it makes no difference whether to live or not to live.” I thought the quote was interesting because it has echoes of Buddhism. I don’t think Dostoyevsky necessarily meant to draw on Buddhist ideas, but the thought was interesting to me.
Another character, Shigalyov, plays a minor role but gives a speech that, in a way, characterizes everything Dostoyevsky was saying about the radical revolutionaries. Shigalyov explains his social theory and his plan for the future of humanity. Essentially all humans must be equalized at the lowest level and should live in a state of abject slavery. Education should be eliminated because education allows some to excel while others do not, thereby creating inequality. However, a small portion of humanity will rule above all of these slaves, creating a state of absolute despotism. Shigalyov asserts that his goal was freedom but that the only logical conclusion was this state of slavery and despotism. Furthermore, Shigalyov admits that putting his plan into place will require “lopping off a hundred million heads.” In retrospect, this speech is eerily prescient.
Many of the other revolutionaries are more caricatures than characters. One, “the girl student”, has come to town to lecture on the woman question and to rile up other students to revolt. She has numerous debates with “the boy student” and each tries to outdo the other with the extent of their liberal leanings. At one point some of the characters discuss functionalism versus art, with the liberals mocking an older character’s love of the Madonna in the Sistine Chapel. Clearly a water jug is infinitely superior because it is useful. No one likes art anymore. Many of these ideas seem like caricatures now, but I wonder if they did at the time. Have socialists become more subtle over time, or was Dostoyevsky just going to the extremes to make a point?
A final note on the title. In the original English translation it was translated as The Possessed, and more recently has been translated as The Devils. The title is based on a passage from the Bible that one character, Verkhovensky, reads towards the end of the book. In the passage, Jesus drives out devils from a possessed man and causes them to enter a herd of swine, who subsequently drown themselves. Verkhovensky suddenly understands that Russia is like that possessed man, and the Russian church will drive out the devils (the revolutionaries, etc) and Russia will be pure once again. Russia may be the possessed, but the action of the book focuses on the devils, so that title seems more accurate. Much to Dostoyevsky’s chagrin, the devils never were driven out of Russia, but instead succeeded in their plans for violent revolution. And, indeed, millions of heads did roll.