In January 2012, I taught a monthlong course at my alma mater, Middlebury College, on the intersection of Russian literature and politics. I had 18 students, mostly freshmen and sophomores. We met two hours daily, four days a week, in a building they called the Chateau, because the French department was housed there, and because it looked like a miniature chateau. We read three novels: Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done? The goal was to foster a debate, as it were, between the characters in the novels, all published in the 1860s, about what was happening to Russia. I focused on the 1860s because that was when everything seemed to pivot just so, and the arc of history started to bend in a more precarious direction, toward a precipice that few could have foreseen more than a half-century before the revolution: civil war, tyranny, starvation, mass imprisonment, mass murder.
I began our first class by saying that I was wary of historical analyses that sought to trace major events like the Russian Revolution to any one turning point, but that we might think of this period, starting with the liberation of the serfs and culminating with Sergei Nachayev’s Catechism of a Revolutionary, as the moment, or series of moments, when the language of nihilism and death acquired a certain currency and the possibility of the end of the old order came into focus.
At the time, it felt so academic. Abstract. At a safe remove. The college, by dint of its collegeness, its quintessential New Englandness, encouraged this delusion. The old limestone buildings, the sprawling quad, the snow, the trees, the impenetrable quiet, the cafeteria fare one dines on (mediocre but with stimulating conversation), the conversations one has (on, say, the difficulty of translating Ovid, or whether it’s best to spend one’s junior year in Chengdu or the Galapagos), the timbre, the air, the monastic rhythms of the college in the middle of winter—one feels as if one is doing something terribly deep and unimportant at the same time. It is true that the decisions that shape our daily lives are mostly made in faraway cities, but the ideas that inform those decisions are learned, promulgated, hotly debated on campus.
In retrospect, I think my motives for teaching were not purely academic. In 2012, I was scheduled to turn 40 and get married, a double whammy of adulting in a world increasingly leery of it, and I suspect my desire to return to Middlebury had something to do with revisiting the past, recalling my former self before bidding farewell.
But there was something else, less obvious and more frightening, and that has become clearer, more haunting, in the eight years since: The metaphysical gap between mid-19th-century Russia and early-21st-century America is narrowing. The parallels between them then and us now, political and social but mostly characterological, are becoming sharper, more unavoidable.
We can reassure ourselves by repeating obvious truths: The United States is not czarist Russia. The present is not the past. History does not repeat itself. But those facts are not immutable laws so much as observations, and even though they are built on solid foundations, those foundations are not impervious to shifting sands. We can go backward. We can descend into a primal state we thought we had escaped forever. That is the lesson of the 20th century.
The similarities between past and present are legion: The coarsening of the culture, our economic woes, our political logjams, the opportunism and fecklessness of our so-called elites, the corruption of our institutions, the ease with which we talk about “revolution” (as in Bernie Sanders’ romanticization of “political revolution”), the anger, the polarization, the anti-Semitism.
But the most important thing is the new characters, who are not that dissimilar to the old ones.
Consider Yevgeny Bazarov. To Bazarov, one of the sons in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, the whole of Russia is rotten, and anyone who can’t see that is an idiot or a knave, and the only solution is to raze everything. There is a logic to his thinking. Russia was ruled by a backward-looking monarchy. The nobility was complicit in perpetuating grotesque inequality. The Orthodox Church was allied with the ruling classes. And the ruling classes moved glacially to liberalize. (In Western Europe, the feudal system started to collapse nearly four centuries before it did in Russia.)
One can imagine arriving at the conclusion that Russia would never reform itself, that the only way to liberate it from its medievalism was to start over. Bazarov, a doctor whose empirical nature, we are led to understand, informs his nihilism, is convinced that Russia must start over, and everything about him—his sarcasm, his lack of empathy—is meant to convey disdain, destruction, a sweeping away of the old. He is openly disrespectful of the fathers in the novel—Nikolai Petrovich and Vasily Ivanovich—because they’re old. They’re fathers. They come before, so they are necessarily less developed. To Bazarov, those who do not see the world exactly as he does—most people—are simply roadblocks or enemies. They are not really people. They are not wholly human.
One wonders if Bazarov is that different from today’s protesters and statue-topplers, the 20-somethings sowing discord in our newsrooms, the cancellers, the uber-woke, the sociopaths who police our social media feeds, those who would massage or rewrite history in the service of a glorious future. Like Bazarov, they are incapable of empathizing with those who do not view the world the way they do. Like Bazarov, they assume that the place they come from (America) is cancerous to the core—regressive, hateful, an affront to right-thinking people everywhere. Like Bazarov, there is about them a crude sarcasm (or snark). Like Bazarov, there is a logic to their outrage: Today, we are witnessing Americans revolting against the vestiges of a barbaric, racial hierarchy that was constructed four centuries ago. That hierarchy continues to be felt. It is not unreasonable to wonder, When will we finally transcend the past?
The only important obvious difference between the fictional, Russian nihilist and his nonfictional, American counterpart is the lens through which they view history. Bazarov’s radicalism, descending directly from Marx, amounts to a typical economic determinism—a conviction that the entire human story can be boiled down to those with the means of production exploiting those without it. Today, the radicals have mostly abandoned economic determinism in favor of a race-gender, or identitarian, determinism that also claims to explain the whole of us—our etiology, our political and economic development, our moral worth. This appears to be the animating force, for example, behind The New York Times’ 1619 Project, which squeezes the entire American story into the Procrustean bed of race relations.
There are many reasons for the jettisoning of Marxist economic determinism: the rise of capitalism in China and India, the Soviet collapse, the remarkable growth of the American economy in the 1980s and ’90s, and, by extension, the rise of the internet, a more interconnected, global economy and the dramatic reduction in extreme poverty around the world. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is the nature of both radicalisms, Marxist and post-Marxist, is the same: mean-spirited, anti-intellectual, reductionist in the extreme. Bazarov and his present-day analogue are both freighted with a totalizing faith, convinced of the unimpeachability of their cause and trapped inside a windowless cell created for them by other people. They cannot escape because they do not know they are prisoners.
Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov knows he is a prisoner, but he misunderstands the nature of his imprisonment. He believes the only thing stopping him from becoming the man he’s meant to be is money, which leads him down the slippery slope of rationalizations he tells himself—if I have more money, I can complete my studies; if I complete my studies, I’ll become an important thinker; if I become an important thinker, the world will thank me for whatever sins I committed to become that person—before he kills the pawnbroker and her half-sister.
As Dostoevsky sees it, Raskolnikov is held back not by poverty but by a lack of faith—godlessness. He has been corrupted by a secular materialism that has spread from the West, pandemiclike, and engulfed St. Petersburg’s educated classes. His soul, like that of Russia, has been fractured. (In Russian, raskol means split.) He is confused, in a semipermanent stupor, malnourished, unkempt, wandering. He is a metaphor for a country that no longer knows what it is supposed to be.
He also anticipates the angry young man of early 21st-century America—the alt-righter, the neo-Nazi, the consumer and trafficker of the mythologies coursing through the QAnon-Gab-r/The_Donald-subreddit fantasyland. The parallels between the fictional Russian and the nonfictional composite American are striking: Both imagine themselves living in a sick world. Both imagine themselves saving the world by committing acts of great violence. Both are conflicted about that violence—Raskolnikov spends six chapters arguing with himself about the murder before going through with it; the white nationalist takes to social media to advertise the crime he’s about to commit. Both, one imagines, would have been stopped had they found love before it was too late. (Raskolnikov is, perhaps, the first incel to appear in modern literature.) Both are consumed by self-loathing: They hate that they are alienated, and they blame themselves for their alienation.
Most ominously, both are leading indicators of national implosion. Their crimes are pointless and desperate. Their goals, unachievable. Their violent outbursts are not part of some very smart, nefarious plot to turn the world white but the death throes of a place that is coming apart in slow motion.
One imagines there is still time to right this ship. The best evidence of this is the absence of any Vera Pavlovnas in America right now. Vera Pavlovna is the heroine of What Is to Be Done? and Chernyshevsky’s response to Bazarov. He destroys. She builds—an independent life, a sewing collective, a feminist movement. While Bazarov drips with sarcasm and disdain, Vera is earnest and unflappable. He bulldozes the past; she creates a new future. Her story is weirdly uplifting, and it is meant to inspire, and it does: Lenin named his 1902 political pamphlet after the novel.
The great Dostoevsky scholar Joseph Frank credited What Is to Be Done? with supplying the Russian Revolution with an “emotional dynamic” that eclipsed that of Marx’s Capital. But unlike Bazarov, who would have been recognizable to any number of mid-19th-century Russian intellectuals, Vera Pavlovna is a fantasy, and her singular achievement—the creation of a revolutionary consciousness—is a dream. It was a dream then, and it is a dream now, and we should hope and pray that it remains that way.
Any comparison of or generalization about historical periods—especially one that reaches across cultures and involves fictional characters—is necessarily sloppy. There are obvious incongruities. But that shouldn’t stop us from acknowledging the psychological similarities, or forces, which are universal. (Bazarov, like Raskolnikov, is a great literary character precisely because of his universality.) We should be able to agree that, in today’s ever-coarsening discourse, there are dangerous echoes of these fictional characters who anticipated the Bolsheviks and Stalinists—the destroyers of ancient civilizations who burned it all down only so they could rebuild the world in their own image.
We know how this turned out, and for those who have forgotten, or for those who are too young or ignorant to know, we should remind them over and over: Those who questioned the revolution, objected to any of its ends or means, thought there might be something worth preserving, were deemed hostile combatants or hapless chumps whose false consciousness inhibited progress. In the end, they were all airbrushed. In the end, the way one escaped this airbrushing was to signal, with a great and inauthentic virtue, that one was not a hostile combatant by spotlighting the real enemies of progress. Whether these enemies were real or “real” was immaterial. Only idiots worried about the truth. There was no truth. What was most important was to keep one’s head down and, if need be, accuse wantonly. Accuse! Accuse! Accuse! Or as Americans like to say, the best defense is a good offense. Everyone knew this would never lead to the place they had been promised it would lead to, but what else was there to do? As the violence ratcheted up, it was necessary to signal with ever greater ferocity, to name more names, to out more wrong-thinkers, until all that was left was the pathetic, bloodless corpse of a country dislodged from itself.
When I imagine this people we are becoming, I think of old men I have interviewed, in Moscow, Minsk, Brest, Kiev, Tblisi, Novosibirsk, Irkutsk, Khabarovsk, Vladivostok, who once spent a year or two or 10 or 20 in a camp in the far north or far east of Russia. This was in the 1940s and ’50s. Their crime was usually petty or not even a crime. It often had to do with survival—stealing a stale loaf of bread. Or talking to the wrong person, or saying something impolitic. Or being accused, without any evidence, of something worse.
The most striking thing about these men was not the suffering they had endured but the way they talked about it: These were the things that had to be done; Stalin was the right man at a difficult time. Anything that enabled them to retain their core beliefs. This was what I found most jarring, the cognitive dissonance, the inability to surrender an ideological commitment in the face of overwhelming evidence of that commitment’s illogic—including one’s own misery.
The reason we will not be able to agree that there is any parallel between then and now—to say nothing of the possible danger posed by that parallel—is that it is exceedingly difficult for us to surrender our ideological commitments. It is hard for us to think. The woke are convinced of their rightness, and if you do not agree—loudly, with sufficient passion—you risk marginalization. We’ve been told, repeatedly, that these are the voices of children and outliers, that once they graduate they’ll shed their more outlandish ideas, that the forces of establishment will keep the radicals at bay. But now Vice News says we should blow up Mount Rushmore, and Time, hoping to make itself relevant again, is rethinking superheroes. Every white woman over 40—all 50 million of them—is suddenly a Karen.
Self-righteous progressives smirk and shake their heads and say something about white fragility, but one detects—for the first time—just the tiniest glint of fear. The old smugness colliding with the rioters and the airbrushers and those who keep chanting, yelling, roaring that everything they know, everyone they love is corrupt, evil, white, that the only way forward is a permanent contrition. Meanwhile, the angry right, which is most of the right, is watching this, on its screens and Main Streets and in the squares where the old statues used to stand, and it is horrified and scared. It feels disconnected from the same country over which it is said to exercise an overwhelming and all-pervasive racist supremacy. It knows not where to go or whom to look to. It is an acephalous mass. Partly, this has to do with demographics—race, religion, geography. And partly it has to do with the fact that its leader is an incompetent mountebank whose buffoonery has destroyed countless lives. But it also has to do with the new economy, the culture, the technology. The angry right believes, with reason, that it is cornered, that its time is limited.
The white, suburban gentile with moderately conservative views and a family and a mortgage and two cars and a paunch and season tickets, he who fashioned himself the backbone of postwar America, the America that was until a few minutes ago, is now being stripped of his past and future. He’s being told that everything he came from is morally bankrupt, and soon his services will no longer be needed—and who cares about him anyway, he’s not a blue check. What’s a blue check? He’s spiraling and livid, so much so that he thinks the act of putting on a face mask to protect his life and the lives of his children and parents is a capitulation. He would prefer to die.
It is worth recalling, in this summer of our discontent, how Bazarov died. Much to his surprise, he had fallen in love with the beautiful widow Anna Sergeyevna, and then he had confessed his love to her, and then Anna Sergeyevna had rejected him, and, finally, he had come home, to his parents’ house, in the country. His parents were overjoyed to see him, but they worried. It was so easy to annoy Yevgeny Vasilevich. His mother was reluctant to ask whether he’d prefer cabbage broth or beet-root soup for dinner. His father, a retired army surgeon, happily put up with his son’s nasty digs at his rural ways. They didn’t want him to leave. They would do anything to spend a little more time together.
Then, a peasant in the village contracts typhus and dies. Bazarov volunteers to conduct the autopsy and, while doing so, cuts himself, and soon he, too, has typhus. Confined to his parents’ house, he asks to see Anna Sergeyevna, and she quickly makes her way to the village, and soon after, he succumbs. We realize then that Bazarov’s death is not really an accident—that his heart was shattered.
Bazarov might like to pretend that he’s a radical, that he’s bigger than romantic love or bourgeois convention, that he is a man of History. But he’s not. He is incapable of that. The hope that Turgenev seems to be hinting at is that no one is, or, at least, most of us are not. This is a good thing.
It is more important now than ever to read, to return to, to reflect on Turgenev. I am not terribly hopeful that we will reverse the processes that have been started, though I am not without hope. I believe that so long as there are thoughtful people, and so long as there is a place for a sharing of ideas—a robust engagement that will inevitably offend or startle—there is cause for cautious optimism. It is this sort of engagement, the uncomfortable tangling of ideas and arguments and contradictory worldviews, that enables us to preserve or pry open that microscopic space inside our heads where we can retain some last little dollop of doubt. That doubt, that suspicion that we may be wrong—about something we believe, about those with whom we disagree—is the only thing that can save us.
Peter Savodnik is the author of The Interloper: Lee Harvey Oswald Inside the Soviet Union. He writes for Vanity Fair, among other publications. He can be found on Twitter @petersavodnik.