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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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6. Suppressing Demons in Stalin’s Russia 157


CHAPTER 6 Suppressing Demons in Stalin’s Russia In 1928, two years after the first republication of his exchanges with Polonsky, Grossman reissued three of his four articles on Bakunin in Demons. Included in a volume of his collected works, the new edition might have served merely as a duplication of his original essays, were it not for the defensive remarks which Grossman included in his Preface. As if unaware of the contentious nature of his conception and, especially, its implications for Bakunin’s legacy, Grossman confessed to his readers he found it “difficult to explain the unprecedented storm of objections” provoked by his research on the genesis of Stavrogin. Looking back on his public presentation of the thesis in 1923, Grossman recalled how a “prominent” (but unidentified) “theoretician of anar- chism” even accused him of advancing a “criminal hypothesis.” Undeterred by opposition from Polonsky, Borovoi, Komarovich, Otverzhennyi “and a series of other opponents” in discussions and the press, who saw in it only “the fruit of unbridled fantasy,” Grossman resolved to continue work on his “initial the- sis” [èñõîäíûé òåçèñ], whose “correctness,” he asserted, was confirmed with every new extension of his research. Having seen responses to his most recent evidence, Grossman believed that “the passionate intensity of the original attacks” had weakened slightly. Grossman believed, in particular, that Boro- voi, who at first had “assailed [him] sharply,” essentially “admitted” in The Myth about Bakunin that several Bakuninist moments did, in fact, appear in Demons. Citing two positive responses to his discovery, Grossman...

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