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Confronting Dostoevsky’s «Demons»

Anarchism and the Specter of Bakunin in Twentieth-Century Russia


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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3. Leonid Grossman’s Art of Scholarly Provocation 65


CHAPTER 3 Leonid Grossman’s Art of Scholarly Provocation The rediscovery of Bakunin’s “Confession” naturally accelerated the reassess- ment of his legacy after 1921, but it also provided the impetus for a reconsid- eration of Dostoevsky’s critique in Demons. Alongside publicity surrounding Dostoevsky’s one-hundred-year jubilee, the new revelations about Bakunin clearly encouraged a provocative attempt by philologist Leonid Grossman to associate the legendary anarchist more closely and directly with the fictional Nikolai Stavrogin, the disturbed figurehead of Verkhovensky’s conspiracy. First presented in a public lecture of 1923 and then reiterated, to one degree or another, virtually to the end of his long and prolific scholarly career, Gross- man’s thesis did not merely locate or identify “Bakuninist” aspects in Demons, but rather utilized them to support a radically different “reading” of1 the novel, one which provoked an extensive debate with Viacheslav Polonsky, a prominent literary critic and journalist of the 1920s, as well as a number of responses from other observers. Those “Bakuninist” elements that occupy the realistic periphery of Dostoevsky’s critique, as we have seen, through Gross- man’s analysis come to comprise its central object. While his case for a direct link between Stavrogin and Bakunin found few supporters, nonetheless scholarship has overlooked the impact of Grossman’s thesis on the post-revolutionary perception of Dostoevsky’s critique. Apart from several important discoveries about Demons as a political novel, the significance of Grossman’s study lies not so much in his theory itself, as in its critical function in the Russian context. Originally framed as...

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