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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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2. Demons and the “Bakuninist” Context of the Bolshevik Revolution 33

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CHAPTER 2 Demons and the “Bakuninist” Context of the Bolshevik Revolution The openly tendentious nature of Demons naturally provoked unfavorable comments from liberal and radical respondents like Mikhailovsky and Tkach- ev who, as we have seen, attempted to expose the novel’s artistic weakness by criticizing Dostoevsky’s poorly concealed use of the Nechaev affair; but Demons generally failed to ignite the kind of extended debate over the “nihil- ists” that followed Turgenev’s treatment of Bazarov in Fathers and Children. In all likelihood the reasons for the novel’s relatively quiet initial reception lie mostly in circumstances of the time rather than in any consensus toward the subject of Dostoevsky’s critique. The more literary-minded members of the “intellectual proletariat” were undoubtedly familiar with Demons and may even have read it closely; yet excepting a few examples, there seems to be lit- tle evidence that revolutionists of the early 1870s, deeply occupied in building a movement, paid much attention to an obviously anti-nihilist novel in one of the country’s most conservative journals. Apart from the disapproving re-1 marks of Mikhailovsky and Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, liberal journals like Notes of the Fatherland [Îòå÷åñòâåííûå çàïèñêè] were unlikely to risk their existence by publishing any oppositionist rhetoric which Demons might have provoked among “nihilist” critics. When the last installment of the novel appeared late in 1872, over a year had passed since the details of the conspiracy had come to light through the trial of the “Nechaevists.” By that time the widespread publicity surrounding the trial may have tempered interest...

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