“There is something horrible, dirty and bloody on your soul.”
Fyodor Dostoevsky based his powerhouse novel Demons on a real-life murder case that occurred in 1869 involving a student named Ivanov. Dostoevsky’s brother-in-law was personally acquainted with the victim who was lured into a park and horribly murdered by a group of his fellow revolutionaries led by Sergei Nechaev. Nechaev, ostensibly dedicated to revolutionary activities, used a range of tactics–including blackmailing friends–in order to rope them into his revolutionary organization.
Demons is a vast, complex novel that examines Russian society through a large cast of characters. Dostoevsky’s novel begins with the introduction of Stepan Verkhovensky–a middle-aged, would-be intellectual whose early claim to fame is that he wrote an inflammatory, revolutionary tract or two decades early. Stepan fancies himself as a scholar and a radical, and he’s encouraged in this idea by his wealthy patroness, Varvara Stavrogin, the widow of a general. The relationship between these two has worked quite well for years, but when the novel begins, the relationship is about to enter a tumultuous stage. After a visit from a St. Petersburg friend, the indomitable Varvara has illusions of herself as a society hostess and she drags Stepan off to St. Petersburg. Here, she “invented a costume” for Stepan, her resident pet dissident, with the intention of holding radical meetings in her salon, and she eventually even establishes a radical political magazine. After Varvara’s endeavors fail abysmally, she returns to the provinces, and her disgruntlement falls squarely on Stepan.
Varvara’s son, the elegant and cold lady-killer Nikolai Stavrogin returns to his mother’s estate after some years of absence. At the same time, Stepan’s estranged son, Pyotr also shows up, and these two young men are part of a secret circle of conspirators whose radical ideas include plotting the deaths of the Tsar and his family. Absolute abandonment of all moral codes of behaviour, and total blind obedience is demanded from the group’s members. Pyotr is a master manipulator who convinces his followers that one of the members of the secret society, Shatov, is about to inform against them. While Pyotr has his personal reasons for destroying Shatov, he enjoys playing the puppet master and manipulating everyone else to commit the crime.
Demons is not without its problems. It’s wildly discursive, and Dostoevsky is not concerned with standard forms–as a result there are some loose ends. Most of the characters are extremely unlikable, and while the first section of the novel is surprisingly funny, the novel soon assumes dark, ominous tones. Varvara is a major character for the first part of the novel, and then, frustratingly, she all but disappears from the pages until the very end, but in the meantime, Dostoevsky ‘replaces’ her with a doppelganger in the form of the character of Yulia, the vain wife of the new governor. But in spite of its flaws, it cannot be denied that Demons–with its intricate demonstrations of the complexities of human relationships–is anything less than brilliant, and the new smooth translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky is pure joy to read. Dostoevsky seems to delight in illuminating the absurdities of his characters’ many weaknesses. There’s Kirillov, the structural engineer who frets about exercise and health while being obsessed with the notion of suicide as the ultimate act of free will, and there’s the new governor who is alternately flattered and manipulated by Pyotr’s attention. But above all the absurdities and pettiness of human nature, Pyotr–one of the greatest literary personifications of evil ever created–is seen as a chilling precursor of the Bolsheviks–a man who contemplates the deaths of millions as a political expediency, and who, with perfect ease, ensnares everyone with an intricate net of deceit. If you are interested in reading more about Nechaev, I recommend Bakunin and Nechaev by Paul Avrich.