Five Books to Understand the Modern World Part Five: ‘Demons’

How does a society fall apart? How can a small band of revolutionaries create a whole project of terror – as happened in France and Russia?

The answer provided by the greatest of all novelists, Fyodor Dostoevsky, is that there is nothing more powerful in any given nation than sets of ideas which can take possession, like demons, of a few committed men and women, and ready them to die for a cause.

His 1872 novel, ‘Demons’, is set in a small town just outside St Petersburg, in which a small band of nihilistic terrorists attempt to spark a nationwide revolt against the Tsar, the idea of a Russian nation, and the Russian Orthodox Church.

The revolt does not succeed, but in laying out a tale of how it almost did, Dostoevsky prophesied the future of his country – literally – at one stage he has a manic Lenin lookalike take the podium, “a man of about forty, bald front and back, with a grayish little beard, who…keeps raising his fist over his head and bringing it down as if crushing some adversary to dust.”

One of the other revolutionaries, Shigalyev, insists that any socialist revolution can only take the following scheme. “My conclusion,” he says, “stands in direct contradiction to the idea from which I started. Proceeding from unlimited freedom, I end with unlimited despotism.”

In this Shigalyev’s vision, ninety percent of society is to be enslaved to the remaining ten percent. Equality of the herd is to be enforced by police state tactics, state terrorism, and destruction of intellectual, artistic, and cultural life. It is estimated that about a hundred million people will need to be killed on the way to the goal.

Stalin and Mao would fulfil his vision quite admirably…

Dosteovsky’s novel begins with an epigraph from the episode of the possessed man in the country of Gerasenes, from Luke’s gospel:

“Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.

“When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they 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. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed.”

But understanding why the passage was relevant to Dostoevsky’s vision of the future requires some knowledge of the novel’s plot.

And for such an intricate plot, any kind of synopsis is difficult to render – suffice to say that the story is told by an inhabitant of this town who wants to give an account of the recent upheavals experienced there.

These upheavals revolve around a wealthy landowner and her son, and her resident liberal freethinker and academic (whom she patronises to remain fashionable) and his son.

Stepan, the freethinker, imagines himself as a force for enlightenment in backward Russia, and thus a kind of threat to the establishment (who are probably not aware that he exists).

Vervara, the wealthy lady who maintains him on her estate, has plans for her son to marry well, but on his return from Moscow, she hears rumours of strange affairs, and a possible marriage to a local invalid, an insane, destitute woman, Marya, who represents the Russian tradition of a holy fool – a character whose innocence and naivety reveals a deeper wisdom.

Her son, Stavrogin, upon his return to the town, is accompanied by Stepan’s son too, Pyotr, as well as by a former student of Stepan’s, Shatov, whose estranged wife has also been implicated in some kind of scandal with Stavrogin.

Stavrogin is clearly the figurehead of the band, and as time passes, we see that Pyotr, the ringleader of this cell of terrorists, looks to him as a kind of despot who can lead their revolution, owing to a kind of dark charisma within him.

Shatov, meanwhile, has been alienated from the group – paradoxically by Stavrogin, who preaches him of the majesty of the ideal of a traditional Russia, guided by its Christian nationalism and love of its peasants and its Tsar, and then mocks Shatov that he cannot find genuine faith in this vision, much like Stavrogin himself.

Yet when we learn more of Stavrogin, we understand that he himself believes in nothing. He mistreats women on a gross scale, merely to attempt to feel guilt. He describes his deep nihilism in the following terms: “I neither know nor feel good and evil and that I have not only lost any sense of it, but that there is neither good nor evil… and that it is just a prejudice.” This sense of prejudice extends to Pyotr’s fervent socialism too – Stavrogin seems to regard both a Christian or a socialist Russia as equally meaningless.

Shatov sees through Stavrogin, realises he has in fact married the insane Marya simply to mock her and ‘play’ at feeling guilt. Stavrogin confirms Shatov’s suspicions when he allows his invalid wife and her brother to be murdered to further the cause, by order of Pyotr.

Shatov himself will recover his own faith too late, when his estranged wife returns bearing Stavrogin’s child, and he commits to being restored to his wife and her child, but is murdered by Pyotr’s band to keep him quiet and to bound the group together in a communal act of murder. His wife and her child die in the cold as they search for the missing Shatov.

Pyotr himself is not merely the blood son of Stepan – but his spiritual offspring too. Stepan has dallied with revolution his whole life- but is appalled when he sees the violence and murder so readily undertaken when his son takes his beliefs one logical step further.

This was Dostoevsky’s great criticism of the intellectual class of his days – their relativist liberal ideals could not avoid being embraced by revolutionaries, ready to commit violence in order to de-moralize the spirit of the ruling and middle classes and usher in a general uprising. Abandon an ideal of the highest good, and why not embrace bloody revolution for the cause of some kind earthly utopia.

Yet Pyotr fails in his revolt. Despite bringing down the town’s governor, and setting the town on fire, he cannot keep Stavrogin for the cause. Instead, Stavrogin abandons everyone. He makes some kind of effort to confess sins to a holy man, but cannot sum up the belief in any real moral order. Instead he hangs himself in his home, while Pyotr leaves town and abandons his comrades. All of the women involved in Stavrogin’s life die by murder or neglect, and one young girl he rapes, hangs herself.

Meanwhile Stepan dies of a fever in the house of a woman selling copies of the gospels, and is reunited with Vervara, and recognizes the fraudulence of his life and declares his love for God.

The demons have gone out of him, but at a tragic cost to everybody else – who are busy rushing to their deaths.

Within fifty years, Lenin would let loose his Cheka on the Russian population, slaughtering the Tsar and his children, and anybody else who stood in his way. In so doing, he embraces the concept of revolutionary terror.

After him, his close companion, Stalin, would establish the Gulag, and liquidate millions of his fellow citizens.

What does ‘Demons’ tell us today?

First of all, ideas are contagious, and can possess people.

Second of all, that lazy and loose thinking can lead to dangerous ideas taking hold of our spiritual heirs.

Third, that these ideas, like demons, can destroy our humanity.

Today, more than ever, we need an Exorcist, so we can be clothed, and placed in our right mind.