I was inspired by A N Wilson’s critique a few weeks ago of the new translation of Dostoyevsky’s book ‘The Demons’, published by Penguin, and I have bought a copy.
I had read the book in an earlier translation when was entitled ‘The Devils’ and was struck by its relevance to our times.
Dostoyevsky tells the story of how people with ‘advanced liberal views’ in an unnamed town in Russia are enchanted by a group of nihilists, and pander to them. In the end the nihilists embark on an orgy of mayhem including murder.
A. N. Wilson gives the synopsis much better than I can, but what struck me in my first reading (and other readings from Dosteyevsky and other authors) was how Russian society at that time was not as repressive as has since been painted by the communists in justification for their revolution of 1917.
Yes, the serfs had only just been freed; yes, parliamentary democracy was not yet in place; yes there were the secret police. But things were moving. By the early 1900s there was a parliament, the Duma, and after the humiliation of the 1905 Russo-Japanese war, the Tsar had to defer to it more and more. The First World War was the watershed, but even then, the Germans had to transport Lenin from his exile in Switzerland in a sealed carriage (in Winston Churchill’s words – like a plague bacillus) to Russia before it was possible for the Bolsheviks to take over.
I have only just started to read the new translation and it gives an opportunity to revisit some of the points I had missed first time round.
For example in chapter 1, we are introduced to Ivan Pavlovich Shatov, the son of a serf. He is described as sullen but intelligent, outwardly coarse, but inside very sensitive.
In this introductory chapter Stepan Verkhovensky, a pseudo intellectual, who is sustained by Varvara Stavrogin the local baroness as a sort of pet, Stepan extols the great thinkers of the time ‘who knew how to love their people, they also knew how to suffer for them and at the same time they knew how, when necessary to maintain a distance from them, knew how to avoid pandering to them when it came to certain ideas. Belinsky (one of his heroes) after all could not possibly have sought salvation in Lenten oil or in radishes with peas.’
‘These men of yours never did love the people, didn’t suffer for them, and sacrificed nothing for them, no matter how they themselves might have imagined they did to make themselves feel good’
‘Are you saying that they did not love the people’ Stepan begins to shriek, ‘Oh, how they loved Russia?’
‘Neither Russia nor the people’ Shatov shrieks. ‘It is impossible to love what you don’t know, and they had no understanding of the Russian people! All of them including you have turned a blind eye to the Russian people… It’s not enough that you overlooked the people; you treated them with sickening contempt. All those who cease to understand their own people and lose their ties with them, immediately and to the same extent lose the faith of their fathers and become either atheists or indifferent…. And that’s why all of you and all of us now are either vile atheists or indifferent rubbish and nothing more’.
This passage strikes a chord. I recall reading an interview with Jean-Paul Sartre, whom I admired for his novel ‘The roads to Freedom’. But in the interview, I was irritated by his constant reference to ‘the masses’. Even then I wondered what he knew about the masses. It seemed that he suffered from a certain intellectual arrogance. Had he ever been one of the ‘masses’? Never! He falls neatly into the bucket that Shatov has created for the likes of him.
Even today, Dosteyevsky’s novel is a salutary parable for our times. Nihilists seem to be always with us. There is always a cadre who wish to destroy everything, to create a new Eden because they can’t live in present times. And those who don’t conform to the new Eden, well then they can be liquidated, in the most painless way possible, by guillotine or by bullet in the back of the neck.
The only regret that I have in reading Dostoyevsky’s novel is that I did not read it 40 years ago.
‘Demons’ should be required reading for schoolchildren. It would also make an excellent drama for BBC television.