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Monday, Feb 26, 2024

Happy 200th, Dostoyevsky!

After an incredible day of jeep-touring South Africa’s Kruger National Park with my family, I went to a deckchair located on the balcony of the hotel where I was staying. My view overlooked a stunning panorama of the savanna. I pulled out the book I had started the day before, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.” 

It only took a few minutes for the novel to grab my undivided attention. I was bewitched by Dostoyevsky’s scampering, scuttling prose that transformed a paranoid, melodramatic story into something deeply tragic. I must have read at least a hundred pages that day.

After an hour of reading Dostoyevsky, I stopped when I saw giraffes and warthogs pace across the grassland. The mammals had completely escaped my mind. 

This Veterans’ Day, Nov. 11, was Dostoyevsky’s 200th birthday. Although my favorite Russian author is Leo Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky is definitely the Russian whose fiendishly entertaining works are most relevant to our tumultuous times.

I love all of Dostoyevsky’s major works, so picking a favorite one to review for the author’s bicentennial is quite the challenge. But among these spectacular works, I want to talk about “The Possessed,” Dostoyevksy’s bleakest, most manic novel. Half conspiracy thriller with an equal dash of psychological horror and social satire, the novel (also titled “Demons” or “The Devils” depending on which translation you read) is the best work of fiction I have ever read about the complex issue of domestic terrorism.

Dostoyevsky was in many ways quite the right-winger. After getting arrested by the Tsarist government for his involvement in the Petrashevsky Circle, a radical utopian socialist movement, the author served a five-year stint of hard labor and military service in Siberia. During his sentence, Dostoyevsky turned away from revolution and towards religious and social conservatism. 

“The Possessed” is a screed against Dostoyevsky’s old circles. In the novel, socialists, liberal democrats and armchair intellectuals all unwittingly assist a growing revolutionary terrorist organization. 

But Dostoyevsky’s greatest bugbear in “The Possessed” is the dangers of demagoguery. In the novel, four young men — with the unwitting help of several liberal-minded, wealthy patrons — form an expansive revolutionary terrorist cell in a sleepy, provincial Russian town. Of the group’s four main members, only the pan-Slavist Ivan Shatov demonstrates even a slight interest in actual political theory or the plight of the working people. The rest of the cabal are opportunists in one way or another, using their revolutionary work for their own financial, egotistical or sexual gain. 

The novel’s most terrifying figures are the group’s two leaders. One is the figurehead Nikolai Stavrogin, a former army officer with a history of violence. The other is Pyotr Verkhovensky, the son of Stepan, the town’s most prominent liberal intellectual. Charming, warm and baby-faced, the younger Verkhovensky hides in plain sight by assisting the town’s high-end ladies with civic gatherings such as poetry readings and luncheons. 

We learn pretty quickly that Verkhovensky is also a psychopath. He has little interest in communism’s nuts and bolts, and the primary motive for the violence he inflicts onto the townspeople (and his own group) is his love of destruction and a messianic sexual obsession with Stavrogin. 

Stavrogin’s organization — despite being composed of some outright criminals such as former convict Fedka — is mostly made up of left-wing intellectuals. The organization starts out by orchestrating petty crimes to gain notoriety. But Verkhovensky eventually receives vague orders to escalate their actions. The novel’s body count begins to climb when one prominent townswoman gets trampled by a mob, several of the revolutionaries commit suicide and Stavrogin’s disabled wife is murdered in the middle of the night. 

The climax of the novel is even more violent than its preceding acts. Verkhovensky creates a whisper-campaign against the Slavophile Shatov. The revolutionary eventually orchestrates Shatov’s ’s assassination as a means to unite the politically diverse group of moderates, internationalists and anarchists. 

When the police start investigating and everything goes to hell for the terrorists, Verkhovensky quietly leaves town with ample funds he has acquired through his illegal activities. In a scene that would have had Karl Marx fuming, we last see the revolutionary mastermind getting invited to play bridge with fellow passengers on a first-class train to Saint Petersburg.

The possessed men of the novel are, obviously, communist revolutionaries, so some readers might interpret this novel as an indictment of the far left. I think this reading is understandable, but ultimately hard to defend. For one, the novel presents in full detail the struggles that the town’s impoverished deal with every day as a consequence of being forgotten by the more conservative status quo. And Dostoyevsky makes it pretty clear that the revolutionaries’ main flaws lie not in their political views, but in their lack of compassion and disregard for human life. 

Especially terrifying is the novel’s prescience. A meeting where the syndicate tries to plan an ideological framework gets sidetracked by the mild-mannered Shigalov, who suggests that in order for their uprising to succeed on a national level, a significant chunk of Russians must be stripped of their civil rights. 

You cannot read this book and not see a bit of Vladimir Lenin in Verkhovensky. But it is the proto-totalitarian convictions of the large-eared, seemingly irrelevant Shigalov in this 1870s novel later echoed in the ideologies of Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin which I find most chilling.  

“The Possessed” is an entertaining portrayal of the complex relationship between political means and ends, a haunting indictment of unchecked idealism and a terrifying portrait of how a cult of personality is formed. For American readers, I especially recommend the book for the character Verkhovensky, a huckster who consistently disseminates lies that incite violence. Yes, the novel’s antagonist is a socialist, but it would be wrong to conclude that because of this Verkhovensky somehow resembles Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez more than he does a certain Palm Beach resident. 

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