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Dostoevsky’s Demonologies of Terror

What the Russian novel’s account of cosmic evil says about radical terrorism

by
Val Vinokur
October 30, 2020
© Andrzej Klimowski, Courtesy of SelfMadeHero
© Andrzej Klimowski, Courtesy of SelfMadeHero
© Andrzej Klimowski, Courtesy of SelfMadeHero
© Andrzej Klimowski, Courtesy of SelfMadeHero

According to a Sufi tradition, Iblis, Islam’s version of Lucifer, is the embodiment of the perfect lover, an angel who fell because he had clung to absolute monotheism even after Allah had asked that his angels bow before Adam. Perhaps no other story better captures the intersection of desire, rebellion, intolerance, and ideological purity that gives rise to evil in its grandiose mode. Relying as it does on a principled individual stubbornness (and on an ambivalent portrayal of Allah, punishing his most devoted angel), this is a supremely sentimental image of cosmic evil, the opposite of Hannah Arendt’s banal one. And while this ideology need not lead to satanic violence, it seems nonetheless closely associated with the romance of terrorism. After all, the ideal terrorist must possess an impossible self-righteousness, godly beyond God, as well as the faith that a brave new world can be formed from rubble and wounds. The ideal terrorist is an expert draftsman of theodicies, even as he rejects those seemingly paltry ones that justify the status quo.

Yet terror mocked seems, at least for a moment, a little less terrifying. Dostoevsky’s terrorists are satirically portrayed: They are exposed, literarily. Raskolnikov, for one, is a most pathetic terrorist, if he is one at all. As Ilja Kostovski writes, “By the murder of one old woman, Raskolnikov wanted to save dying horses, perishing prostitutes, starving children, and drunken fathers. He wanted too much for such small a portion of blood. What poor mathematics. What blood! The blood of an old woman. What bad esthetics.”

Our focus here will be on Demons (1871), the novel begun as a pamphlet about the 1869 Nechaev-Ivanov affair and its revelations about Russia’s violent young radicals, and generally considered to be Dostoevsky’s chief commentary on the culture of revolutionary terror. Sergei Nechaev, Bakunin’s upstart protégé and purported lover, was the reputed author of the Catechism of a Revolutionary, which justified any means in the service of revolution. He founded a small secret revolutionary group, the People’s Retribution, also called the Society of the Axe, based on the principles of the Catechism and requiring its members to submit unquestioningly to his leadership. When I.I. Ivanov (whom Dostoevsky had heard about as a school companion of his brother-in-law) challenged his methods and his authority, Nechaev and his co-conspirators beat, strangled, and shot him, dumping the body in a frozen pond through a hole in the ice. When the crime was discovered, Nechaev escaped to Switzerland, but 67 members of his organization were brought to trial. At the request of the Russian government, Nechaev was arrested in 1872 and extradited to stand trial in Russia, where he was convicted and sentenced to 20 years imprisonment in the Peter-Paul Fortress.

Yet even in Demons, it is difficult to find a terrorist worth taking seriously. Dostoevsky splits his historical model, the scheming and charismatic Nechaev, into the charismatic shell of Stavrogin and the scheming snake Verkhovensky; Nechaev’s “barracks Communism” (as Marx and Engels would later call it) is doled out to a third and minor character, the bloodless theoretician Shigalev, whose “research” forces him to conclude that 90% of humanity must be reduced to slavery (or, as Liamshin suggests, eliminated) so that the “useful” remainder could rule and achieve social progress. In the radical prototype, the manipulative scheming and half-baked theories are masked by seductiveness; the split in the novel is therefore already a demystification of Nechaev.

In his working notes for the novel, Dostoevsky explains that “Nechaev is not a socialist but a rebel. His ideal is insurrection and destruction and then, whatever might come.” Verkhovensky, on the other hand, is an utterly cynical ringleader, “not a socialist but a crook,” as he confesses to Stavrogin; Stavrogin has no clear desire for anything or anyone; and Shigalev seems almost hesitant to share his “findings.” Moreover, the novel excludes perhaps the most important feature of Nechaev’s appeal, the proletarian earnestness of this provincial sign painter’s son, which overwhelmed the better judgments of Bakunin, Herzen, Vera Zasulich, and even his guards at the Peter-Paul Fortress. As a “bored squire” lacking conviction or biographical pathos, Stavrogin’s charisma is much easier for a reader to dismiss: He is a blank slate upon which others project their ideas and desires. Unlike his historical prototype, Stavrogin’s charm is purely aesthetic, without any real moral, political, or ideological claims, however insane these may be in Nechaev’s case.

Although Nechaev’s traits were doled out among several characters partly to allow for the possibility of narrative tension and redemption, the effect is nevertheless to make them transparent and demystified. Whether such demystification is valid or not, one might observe, as Lynn Ellen Patyk does, that Demons is hardly a novel about terrorism at all. With the exception of Shatov’s murder (which is arguably a blood pact between revolutionaries and not a public act of terror) and the burning of Zareche, nearly everything that can be defined as terrorism occurs offstage as hearsay. Many argue that Dostoevsky died before writing his true opus on Russian terrorism: the “second book” of The Brothers Karamazov, in which, according to the evidence marshaled by James Rice, Alyosha Karamazov and Kolya Krasotkin would have become revolutionaries and czar killers.

Aside from the projected second novel, it may be true that The Brothers Karamazov presents the author’s mature thought about the psychology of the Russian terrorist of the 1870s. In this respect one looks to Ivan and his Grand Inquisitor, Krasotkin, Rakitin, and perhaps most of all to the description of Smerdyakov as Kramskoi’s Contemplator, who “perhaps suddenly, having stored up his impressions over many years, ... will drop everything and wander off to Jerusalem to save his soul, or perhaps he will suddenly burn down his native village, or perhaps he will do both.”

The psychological types found in The Brothers Karamazov reflect the most compelling aspect of Russian terrorism of the People’s Will (Narodnaia volia) variety: It was the product of a satanically proud form of compassion, an apocalyptic and heroic spiritual calling, and not simply the inauthentic and anarchic criminality portrayed in Demons, a novel that predated the People’s Will. Patyk writes,

The purpose of Demons was to (dis)abuse Dostoevsky’s political opponents, to malign and vent his spite upon them; the purpose of The Brothers Karamazov was to “teach.” In Demons, Dostoevsky uses caricature and satire to great effect: he demonstrates the bankruptcy of abstract ideas by exposing their disastrous, rather than regenerative effects on the individuals who embrace them, as well as on the larger community. Yet Dostoevsky purposefully—and to the detriment of the persuasive force of his argument—distorts his opponents’ political ideas, makes their spokesmen singularly unattractive embodiments, and allows no true scope for the revolutionaries’ most compelling argument: justice.

It is tempting on this basis alone to dismiss the ability of Demons to teach us anything profound about radical terrorism.

Dostoevsky’s attempt at rapprochement with the young radicals in an 1873 article hardly addressed the dismissive tone in the novel:

In my novel Demons I attempted to depict those diverse and multifarious motives by which even the purest of hearts and the most innocent of people can be drawn into committing such a monstrous offense. And therein lies the real horror: that in Russia one can commit the foulest and most villainous acts without in the least being a villain. And this happens not only in Russia but all over the world, and it has happened since time began, in times of transition. ... But let me say one thing about myself alone: a Nechaev I probably could have never become, but a Nechaevist—well, of that I can’t be sure; perhaps I could have become one ... in the days of my youth.

Here Dostoevsky alludes to the possibility of his seduction by his own Nechaev—“my own Mephistopheles,” Nikolai Speshnev, leader of the Petrashevsky splinter group to which Dostoevsky belonged before his arrest and mock execution. To be sure, Dostoevsky lent certain autobiographical traits to two of the more sympathetic radicals in Demons, the Slavophile Shatov (murdered like the real-life Ivanov) and the proto-epileptic Kirillov. But even these two sincere and decent characters are easy to dismiss ideologically, though their deaths in the novel are ones that a reader might actually mourn.

Then again, one could argue that terrorism is larger than its history or its psychology. Like the problem of evil, terrorism is cosmic: even though its physical destructiveness is always surpassed by that of conventional warfare, crime, accidents, and natural disasters, terror, as a rule-breaking “spectacle of the deed,” seeks to disrupt the unconscious assumptions about a functional universe that make our daily lives possible. One might say that in our violent attempts to shake off the sense of terror awakened in us by the seeming boundlessness of another suicide car bomb, we become open to demonic possession. And in Demons, Dostoevsky constructs a demonology of terror, that is, an account of how cosmic evil possesses us. Or rather he constructs two dueling demonologies, framed by the novel’s dueling epigraphs.

The first is from Pushkin’s 1830 poem, which is, like the novel, titled “Besy,” the native Russian word for demons (as opposed to the Western variant demony). The speaker of the poem finds himself and his coachman caught in the archetypal whiteout of a Russian blizzard; the coachman is the speaker in the first stanza used by Dostoevsky, while the other is in the voice of the passenger-poet:

Upon my life, the tracks have vanished,
We’ve lost our way, what shall we do? [sic: “!” in Pushkin]
It must be a demon’s [bes] leading us
This way and that around the fields.
..........
How many are there? Where are they rushing?
Why do they sing so plaintively?
Are they burying some household spirit [domovogo li khoronyat’]?
Is it some witch’s wedding day?

In light of Pushkin’s earlier “Demon” (1823), which features a classically Western and romantic interlocutor-demon (a Mephistopheles, “an evil genius/spirit—zlobnyi genii”), this later poem is a decidedly post-Byronic, folkloric invocation of Slavic “unclean forces,” and begs to be read as an allegory for Russia’s destiny. Pushkin’s demons, besy, suggest a “deep Russia” that is not simply pagan but godforsaken. They represent the plenitude of being in all its terrifying white noise—a plenitude best captured in Emmanuel Levinas’s discussion of the inescapable “il y a,” the rustling “there-is” of an existence “without existents,” in which even nothing is something. To be sure, Pushkin goes out of his way to name these existents, but his fancy strikes me as an imaginative conceit, the Westernized passenger-poet’s exaggerated attempt to cast a folkloristic sheen over the coachman’s fear (while betraying his own anxiety, perhaps).

Though Dostoevsky cites only the two stanzas above, Pushkin’s poem concludes essentially where it begins, although with the speaker’s heart strained (“Nadryvaia serdtse mne ...”) by the plaintive howling of the blizzard spirits. This epigraph frames a hopeless, godless Russian demonology. A telling throwaway detail here is the paradoxical funeral of the domovoi, a touchy but generally benevolent spirit who must be appeased in order to ensure—and often assist—in the smooth functioning of the household. A domovoi is not supposed to die; in fact, he is like a member of the family, like a grandfather, who must be coaxed and brought along if his mortal kin move to a new house, and to lose a domovoi is a disaster for the family. Interestingly, however, Dostoevsky softens this hopelessness somewhat in the second line of the epigraph when he substitutes Pushkin’s (or the coachman’s) exclamation point (“... what shall we do!”) with a question mark.

The second epigraph, often referred to as the tale of the Gadarene swine, is from the Gospel of Luke (8:32–36, below in Revised Standard Version). The demonology here could not be more different from that of Pushkin’s “Besy”:

Now a large herd of swine was feeding there on the hillside; and they begged [Jesus] to let them enter these. So he gave them leave. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned. When the herdsmen saw what had happened, they fled, and told it in the city and in the country. Then people went out to see what had happened, and they came to Jesus, and found the man from whom the demons had gone, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. And those who had seen it told them how he who had been possessed with demons was healed.

Here the demonic plenitude of being is literally corralled and submerged by a heroic Christ who restores narrative order. Where Pushkin’s “Besy” concludes with free-ranging demons and a poet’s lacerated heart, the epigraph from Luke ends with a healed mind and a frighteningly immanent kingdom of God. Between these two epigraphic demonologies lies the relevance of Demons to an understanding of terrorism.

The two epigraphs also correspond to the splitting of the historical Nechaev prototype into Verkhovensky and Stavrogin (setting aside Shigalev for the moment). The Pushkin poem gestures toward the chaos wrought by Verkhovensky, while the story of the Gadarene swine tempts the reader into hoping that Stavrogin will be cured (and perhaps even cure others) by the end of the novel—which ends not with a demoniac cured and “in his right mind” but with Stavrogin’s autopsy, which mysteriously and “emphatically ruled out insanity.” Even the importance of Stavrogin’s half-hearted attempt at confession is undermined by the ambiguous status of the appended chapter “At Tikhon’s,” which Dostoevsky wrote out of sequence and neglected to insert into the chronology of the novel after it was no longer suppressed by the publisher. The appended chapter, in which Stavrogin recounts how he seduced the adolescent Matryosha, who then hanged herself, might have suggested an echo of atonement in Stavrogin’s eventual suicide by hanging. But the way the chapter physically dangles, side-shadowing the rest of the novel, makes Stavrogin’s death seem little more than an extension of his death-in-life.

Furthermore, Stavrogin seems like an uncanny illustration of Kierkegaard’s expansive definition of the demonic in The Concept of Anxiety (1844) as an “unfreedom [that] wills something, when in fact it has lost its will” and that is characterized by “brooding inclosing reserve,” “silence,” by boredom and a lack of content.In his recent past, Stavrogin’s rebellious charm was characterized by his shameless and anarchic suddenness. Pulling a nose here, biting an ear there, he would give in to the fleeting demonic urges that most of us overcome for moral or practical reasons. By the beginning of the novel, he has become bored with his old self, recognizing that such spontaneity is fundamentally unfree and that it would be far more challenging to decide to be normal.

Of course, Stavrogin is bad at normal. He can embrace neither good nor evil, his “desires ... far too weak,” like the “lukewarm” church of Laodicea in Revelation 3:14, to which the novel refers. And he is so fettered by his own reputation and by the expectations of others that he cannot spare Gaganov’s life in a duel without unintentionally giving offense. The Stavrogin we see in the novel is little more than a brooding zombie, exuding an “oppressive lethargic motionlessness,” occasionally shifting “a little, somehow suddenly, with some strange movement in his face.”

Like the problem of evil, terrorism is cosmic: Even though its physical destructiveness is always surpassed by that of conventional warfare, crime, accidents, and natural disasters, terror, as a rule-breaking ‘spectacle of the deed,’ seeks to disrupt the unconscious assumptions about a functional universe that make our daily lives possible.

Kierkegaard adds that one of the results of this demonic suddenness, when “all the ethical dimensions of evil are excluded, and only metaphysical determinants of emptiness are used, ... is the trivial, which can easily have a comic aspect”—which suggests that although Dostoevsky expressly set out to deride the Russian Left in Demons through satire, the “comic aspect” is also a natural side effect of the demonic. And while Dostoevsky’s understanding of humor was a complex hybrid of Russian and Western views, the fused demonic-comic, as Sergei Averintsev reminds us, is the only approach to laughter in the Russian Orthodox tradition: Gde smekh, tam i grekh—“Where there is laughter, there is sin,” goes the proverb. Given the way laughter can physically seize and possess us, this is an unsettlingly intuitive approach—one that is also suggested by the somewhat silly descriptions of the besy in Pushkin’s nevertheless “heartrending” poem.

Indeed, most of Dostoevsky’s novel lacks the Western option of divine comedy. The guffawing that follows Yulia Mikhailovna’s absurd and diversionary literary fete gives way to the horror of Zareche aflame, with her husband Governor von Lembke staring into the “black skeleton of a nearly burnt-down ... wooden house, with holes instead of windows ... and flames still snaking here and there”—an almost literal image of hell. Nor is there much comedy in the dramatic deaths of Shatov and Kirillov, or in the matter-of-fact deaths of Liza Tushin, Captain Lebiadkin and his sister Maria, Marie Shatov and her child.

Dostoevsky’s theological approach to the problem of political terror recasts the romantic rebel, the “freedom-fighting” Nechaev-figure, into a paragon of unfreedom, possessed of demonic suddenness. It is important to recall that Dostoevsky took seriously a key variant of this figure—the Byronic rebel—and understood him sympathetically as the product of disillusionment with both autocracy and the tragic outcome of the French Revolution. As Patyk notes, Dostoevsky’s radical heroes suggest that for him the “Byronic ‘moment’ was a protracted one indeed, as the revolutionary movement was bound to produce a succession of disillusioned heroes marooned between bankrupt new idols and the old world.” Is this demonic protraction, of which political terror is the secular manifestation, transcended? Is anyone really healed?

The only possible candidate would seem to be Verkhovensky’s father, Stepan Trofimovich, the washed-up liberal of the 1840s, who wanders off at the end of the novel, like a Russian holy tramp or an ersatz Hebrew patriarch. On his deathbed, Stepan muses about the Gadarene swine:

This wonderful and ... extraordinary passage has been a stumbling block for me all my life. ... These demons who come out of sick man and enter into swine—it’s all the sores, all the miasmas, all the uncleanness, all the big and little demons accumulated in our dear and sick man, in our Russia, for centuries, for centuries! Oui, cette Russie que j’aimais toujours. But a great will and a great thought will descend to her from on high, as upon that insane demoniac, and out will come all the demons, all the uncleanness, all the abomination that is festering on the surface ... and they will beg of themselves to enter into swine. And perhaps they already have! It is us, us and them, and Petrusha ... et les autres avec lui, and I, perhaps, first, at the head, and we will rush, insane and raging, from the cliff down into the sea, and all be drowned, and good riddance to us, because that’s the most we’re fit for. But the sick man will be healed and “sit at the feet of Jesus.”

Stepan does not claim to be the cured demoniac—in fact, he suggests he is one of the demons possessing “the sick man” that is Russia. But one may connect him to the healed man from the epigraph precisely because he also identifies himself at the head of the raging Gadarene swine (those sacrificial vessels of the exorcism), an acknowledgment of his irresponsible paternity—biological and spiritual—of “Petrusha ... et les autres.” After all, to accept responsibility is, in a sense, to be healed. A sick man cannot be fully responsible for himself, much less for others.

Stepan’s acceptance of responsibility may also explain some of the mysterious aspects of Luke 8:32–36: How do the demons know Jesus is God? Why do they beg to enter the swine? And why are witnesses afraid? Again, Kierkegaard provides the relevant gloss when he describes the demonic as an “anxiety about the good,” which “manifests itself clearly only when it is in contact with the good. ... For this reason, it is noteworthy that the demonic in the New Testament first appears when it is approached by Christ.” If the demonic becomes evident only in proximity to “the restoration of freedom, redemption, salvation, or whatever one would call it,” then it is understandable that the demons recognize Christ and bargain with him. Likewise, the Gadarenes’ pleading with Jesus to leave their shores after the exorcism may be attributed to their fear of the demonism suddenly manifest among them or, just as plausibly, to their fear of the disruptive immanence of salvation. As Jesus and his followers will discover, not everyone wants to be “saved” right away.

Moreover, Stepan’s declaration echoes Shatov’s about his former comrades, shortly after his wife gives birth and before he is murdered, that “convictions and the man [... are] two different things in many ways. Maybe in many ways I’m guilty before them!” These are awkward precursors to the ethical maxim introduced on Markel’s deathbed in The Brothers Karamazov: “Each of us is guilty for everyone in everything, and I more than the others.” This maxim precludes terror as an option for achieving justice, for if I am indeed responsible more than the others, then I have no right to impose my radical solution upon them, to make them equally or more responsible than I am.

As Nechaev’s Catechism reminds us,

A revolutionary is a dedicated man. He has no interests of his own, no affairs, no feelings, no attachments, no belongings, not even a name. Everything in him is absorbed by a single exclusive interest, a single thought, a single passion—the revolution. ... All the tender and effeminate emotions of kinship, friendship, love, gratitude and even honour must be stifled in him by a cold and single-minded passion for the revolutionary cause. There exists for him only one delight, one consolation, one reward and one gratification—the success of the revolution. Night and day he must have but one thought, one aim—merciless destruction. In cold-blooded and tireless pursuit of this aim, he must be prepared both to die himself and to destroy with his own hands everything that stands in the way of its achievement. The nature of the true revolutionary has no place for any romanticism, any sentimentality, rapture or enthusiasm. It has no place either for personal hatred or vengeance. The revolutionary passion, which in him becomes a habitual state of mind, must at every moment be combined with cold calculation. Always and everywhere he must be not what the promptings of his personal inclinations would have him be, but what the general interest of the revolution prescribes. ... The revolutionary considers his friend and holds dear only a person who has shown himself in practice to be as much a revolutionary as himself. The extent of his friendship, devotion and other obligations towards his comrade is determined only by their degree of usefulness in the practical work of total revolutionary destruction.

Intimacy is the chief obstacle of an apocalyptic or revolutionary politics, which reduces everyone to a bit part in a vast impersonal drama.

At the farcical meeting of revolutionaries in Demons, we are treated to the comedy of the “girl student” and her uncle, the major, who can’t reconcile the rude young radical with the girl he used to carry in his “arms, danced the mazurka with her when she was ten years old. ... She came in today, naturally I flew to embrace her, and she announces to me from the second word that there is no God. If it had been from the third word, not from the second—but no, she’s in a hurry!”

Pospeshysh’, liudei nasmeshysh’, goes the Russian proverb: If you hurry, people will laugh. Everyone in the novel is in a hurry, rushing into the Galilee like the Gadarene swine. Stepan recognizes this, sees his ideological and biological connection to it, and understands that this impatience is a lie, a form of vanity that has little to do with the patience required for true political compassion. Moreover, by invoking and embodying the episode from Luke, Stepan softens the Gospels’ own political impatience. The unspecified “great will and great thought” will come after Stepan. When it comes doesn’t really matter; what matters is the faith that it will and must require—a faith that permits us to live in this world without succumbing to demonic impatience.

And while there is as much bathos as pathos in Stepan’s confession, the comedy is, for perhaps the first time in the novel, gentle and not derisive. Dostoevsky, after all, also believed in the redemptive possibility of humor and considered Don Quixote to be an exemplary Christian character; in The Brothers Karamazov Zosima recalls how after his conversion his former comrades “laughed at [him] and yet they loved” him. As Varvara Petrovna explains to the priest, Stepan “is the sort of man [who will] have to be reconfessed again in an hour.” His deathbed revelation, suffering as it does from his characteristic Gallicisms and “artistic receptivity,” suggests that a modern exorcism will not so much be a complete transformation as it might reveal a cultural “middle.” And it is this middle that can defend itself against the sort of world-unmaking reflected by political terror—of the demonic suddenness that destroys the boring and vital continuity of imperfectly free human beings.

The project of a viable middle is one that has perplexed Russia—so notoriously bipolar—for hundreds of years. For instance, the same Nikolai Berdiaev who could invoke the Russian maximalist creed that “culture ... and institutions belittle life itself,” also realized that “in its struggle against mediocrity and moderation, every culture will tend downward, toward the nether abyss, rather than the chasm above. These modern Scythians sing hymns not to a super-cultural, but to a pre-cultural condition.”

Mikhail Epstein identifies this Russian preoccupation with mediocrity and poshlost, this suspicion of the sorts of “neutral” cultural and civic institutions that came to define the West, as demonic precisely in Kierkegaard’s sense of the sudden. And, uncharacteristically for Dostoevsky’s world, Stepan’s “conversion” is anything but sudden. It is dragged out and ungainly, fed by human and sensory encounters on the road—peasants “studying [him as if he] were guilty before them,” blini and vodka at the tavern, Sofia Matveevna the Bible seller who takes care of him, etc.—and will forever beg interpretation. This is its key difference from the legend Kierkegaard cites as an exemplar for the demonic, in which “the devil for 3,000 years sat and speculated on how to destroy man—finally, he did discover it.” Nor is Stepan like the atheist philosopher in the allegory recounted by Ivan’s devil in The Brothers Karamazov who sings hosanna two seconds upon reaching the gates of heaven after refusing for a thousand years to approach them out of principle. Stepan’s confession contains no such demonic drama; and yet it cannot be dismissed despite—and perhaps precisely because of—its apparent mediocrity and muddle. The laughter it induces is potentially redemptive, in a very un-Russian way.

The novel that began with a sneering biography of Stepan as an effete and grossly irresponsible romantic ends with a loving if ridiculous portrait of his final days as a penitent. The novel that began as a polemic framed by two juxtaposed demonologies ends in a modest synthesis that sets aside both. And it is appropriate that this synthesis, this middle, takes the shape of comedy—in counterpoint to the basic humorlessness of terror, a parallel and opposite response to human corporeality. Comedy is life-as-theater, figuratively loosening us from our bodies. Terror is theater-as-life, literally removing us from our bodies. If, as Kierkegaard suggests, demonic suddenness is “almost comic in [its] involuntary anxiety,” then the ability to laugh at it, to extend it into narrative continuity, is already not demonic.

Demons is not simply a full-frontal satirical attack on the Russian Westernizers and nihilists, as Dostoevsky initially intended. The right-wing fans who still invoke the novel as an exposé of every liberal tendency seldom mention the fact that there are no attractive political alternatives in the novel: The conservative Governor von Lembke—who does “not allow youth”—with his Germanisms and his paper sculptures, is an idiot whose sanity is overcome by the events in the town. Indeed, the novel should perhaps be read as a warning about any form of political earnestness. Dostoevsky’s point (confirmed in his 1873 Diary article about Nechaevism) is that, inasmuch as we are vulnerable to the brooding suddenness of ideological demons, each of us is an unwitting terrorist-in-waiting, a passive nihilist in Nietzsche’s sense, rehearsing that specific scene that would prompt one to disrupt life’s muddy and relentless stream.

Adapted from “All of a Sudden: Dostoevsky’s Demonology of Terror.” In Just Assassins: The Culture of Terrorism in Russia, ed. Anthony Anemone. Copyright © 2010 by Northwestern University Press. Published 2010 by Northwestern University Press. All rights reserved.

Val Vinokur, a professor of literary studies at The New School, is the founding editor of Poets & Traitors Press.

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