The great Russian novelists Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky lived very different lives. The former, an aristocrat, successful soldier and writer of the sublime piece of Russian propaganda that forms War & Peace only proved a consternation to the authorities after his religious conversion began to spill into political and economic criticisms of the government. Dostoevsky entered and left the army before he could distinguish himself, fell in with a circle of radicals during the revolutions of 1848 and was sent to Siberia until 1854, when Tolstoy was fighting in the Crimean War. On his return, Dostoevsky mixed with the very conservatives who would later persecute Tolstoyans and revolutionaries and began writing his psycho- and existential-dramas.
Without this mid-life trauma, it is impossible that Dostoevsky could have written The Devils, with its bleak view of revolutionary ideals and its farcical do-gooders. The story, written in 1872, is based on two compositions that Dostoevsky merged. One was an account of a revolutionary group called People’s Vengeance, which murdered one of its own members.
Albeit that the story barely begins until the second half of the book, Dostoevsky’s characters are fearsome in the intensity of their convictions. Amongst the ‘circle’ of Pyotr Stephanovich Verkhovensky, are a teeming multitude of ideologies advocating to different degrees the enslaving of one part of society, the complete re-ordering of nature and the performance of suicide in order to disprove that God exists and exercises control over human beings. Such an array would hardly be seen again until Monty Python’s Life of Brian.
Pyotor Stephanovich returns to the town where his father, Stepan Trofimovich, is living in pursuit of the son of Stepan’s patroness and sometime love, Nikolai Stavrogin. Stavrogin’s cold, arrogant and careless actions form a counterpoint to Pyotor’s calculation, and the latter seeks to enlist the former as the leader of a revolutionary movement in Russia. However, Stavrogin is more interested in offending society and taking advantage of the women of the town – behaviour which he is in turn boastful and contrite about.
Stepan Trofimovich is a washed-up old liberal, whose views have become so tame with the passing of time that though he worries incessantly about what might leak back to St Petersburg, no one is really listening to him. He has effectively abandoned his son, and yet is appalled at the nihilish of Pyotor and Nikolai, whom he tutored. Nikolai’s mother contrives a scheme to marry him off, which he rejects in favour of leaving the town, whereupon he finds a girl selling the Gospel and joins her on the road. The travelling and the weather kills him, however, but not before he give this spiritual response to the nihilism of the revolutionaries;
“My immortality is necessary if only because God will not be guilty of injustice and extinguish altogether the flame of love for Him once kindled in my heart. And what is more precious than love? Love is higher than existence, love is the crown of existence; and how is …it possible that existence should not be under its dominance? If I have once loved Him and rejoiced in my love, is it possible that He should extinguish me and my joy and bring me to nothingness again?”
Pyotor and Nikolai wreck havoc with the town in the mean time. The wife of the governor, taken in by Pyotor, puts on a literary ball which descends into chaos as a result of the greed and drunkenness of the working people. Nikolai marries a mentally ill woman abroad as a snub to his high breeding, then seduces the daughter of a noblewoman and acquiesces in the murder of his first wife.
Pyotor solidifies his little circle of revolutionaries by joining them in the murder of one of their number who wishes to renounce their Godless and un-Russian philosophy, then orders Alexei Kirillov to kill himself and take the blame. They do so, and are immediately tormented by grief and feelings of inadequacy, not knowing whether their actions are the first step in a revolutionary movement, or a mere step out of nature.
The Devils is not widely regarded as one of Dostoevsky’s masterpieces, but it has two advantages. One is the way Dostoevsky interprets the gospels, turning the parable of the swineherd into a metaphor for the way that Russia is possessed by revolutionary fervour. The other is that it is a prophetic of the chaos that ensued thirty years after the writer’s death in the actual Revolution. Dostoevsky foresaw what unprincipled and unfeeling scheming was capable of, and in the sacrifice of one soul, was able to portray the loss of millions. Thirdly, it is the ideas that we read Dostoevsky for. Each one has its own life, which acts not only as a mouthpiece but twists it round a human frame and compromises it. For that, and a thrilling conclusion, I recommend this book.