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Confronting Dostoevsky’s «Demons»

Anarchism and the Specter of Bakunin in Twentieth-Century Russia

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James Goodwin

Although criticized at one time for its highly tendentious spirit, Dostoevsky’s Demons (1871-1872) has proven to be a novel of great polemical vitality. Originally inspired by a minor conspiratorial episode of the late 1860s, well after Dostoevsky’s death (1881) the work continued to earn both acclaim and contempt for its scathing caricature of revolutionists driven by destructive, anarchic aims. The text of Demons assumed new meaning in Russian literary culture following the Bolshevik triumph of 1917, when the reestablishment and expansion of centralized state power inevitably revived interest in the radical populist tendencies of Russia’s past, in particular the anarchist thought of Dostoevsky’s legendary contemporary, Mikhail Bakunin (1814-1876).
Confronting Dostoevsky’s ‘Demons’ is the first book to explore the life of Dostoevsky’s novel in light of disputes and controversies over Bakunin’s troubling legacy in Russia. Contrary to the traditional view, which assumes the obsolescence of Demons throughout much of the Communist period (1917-1991), this book demonstrates that the potential resurgence of Bakuninist thought actually encouraged reassessments of Dostoevsky’s novel. By exploring the different ideas and critical strategies that motivated opposing interpretations of the novel in post-revolutionary Russia, Confronting Dostoevsky’s ‘Demons’ reveals how the potential resurrection of Bakunin’s anti-authoritarian ethos fostered the return of a politically reactionary novel to the canon of Russian classics.

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Introduction: Dostoevsky’s Demons as Polemic 1

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INTRODUCTION Dostoevsky’s Demons as Polemic Few works of literature have seen a more dramatic reversal of official fortune in Russia than Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Demons [Áåñû]. Beginning with its first complete publication in 1873, Demons enjoyed decades of renown as Russia’s most scathing fictional treatment of destructive tendencies in the revolutionary movement. With the consolidation of Stalin’s dictatorship by the end of the 1920s, however, Demons failed to appear in print for nearly thirty years, and the number of scholarly studies of the text diminished sharply. Despite greater scholarly recognition during the Dostoevsky jubilee celebration of 1956, on the seventy-fifth anniversary of the writer’s death, the Khrushchev and Brezh- nev eras produced only two editions of Demons, both of them subsumed with- in larger sets of the author’s collected works. The novel’s circulation in Russia did not begin to meet popular demand until the final years of perestroika, which saw the first separate edition of Demons in nearly a century. Over the1 next six years, from 1989 through 1994, Russian publishing houses produced at least eighteen new editions of Demons with a combined circulation of 1,870,000 copies, an impressive figure during the economic duress of the early 1990s. By the end of the twentieth century, Demons had emerged from of-2 ficial obscurity to become one of Dostoevsky’s most widely publicized works. In view of the great interest in Demons at the dawn of the post-Communist epoch, an obvious paradox arises from Dostoevsky’s well-known vow to sacrifice his novel’s “artistic side...

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