As the Age of Romanticism began to wax in the latter half of the nineteenth century, Dostoevsky wrote his novel The Possessed (also called The Devils) as a comic portrayal of some of the radical ideas that had begun to spring up in Russian intellectual and political life. During the reign of Tsar Alexander II, there were several new philosophical ideas which began to influence Russians of every social class and education level. The spread of nihilism, started by Ivan Turgenev, instigated the rise of the intelligentsia to change the political schema of Russia by destroying conventional Russian laws and institutions. This eventually led to the Populist movement which sought to instigate the local populace of Russia to overthrow the status quo. It is within this tense environment that Dostoevsky writes this book. Furthermore, another writer named Nikolay Chernyshevsky, wrote a controversial book called What is to be done? which ostensibly proposed a new way of life for Russians apart from the tsars. His book’s undertones suggested revolution and sought to assuage the pressure of the reforms of Alexander II as well as the pressure of Western influence and many other things. Dostoevsky sought to counter those radical ideologies in this book and therefore this essay shall explore the ways in which Dostoevsky reacted to Chernyshevsky’s What is to be done. Due to the prevalence of nihilism in the story, this focus shall be on Dostoevsky’s reactions to nihilism.
First of all, it must be noted that Dostoevsky opposed left winged radicalism and their efforts to undermine the status quo. He opposes the ideologies of those who seek, within this novel, to undermine Russian society and the Russian Orthodox Church. His condemnation of Chernyshevsky’s ideologies begins with his condemnation of nihilism. Nihilism is the idea that commands the destruction of the established social order, the status quo. This would most certainly include the tsars as well as the essentially feudal system of Russia. It must be noted that Chernyshevsky was in favor of destroying the status quo and installing socialism in its place; this is exemplified in his depiction of Vera’s dressmaking shop and her “employees”. Dostoevsky’s attack on nihilism is brought about in the depiction of some of the principal characters. The small town in which the story takes place is described as “a hotbed of nihilism, profligacy, and godlessness” (26). One of our principal characters, Mr. Stepan Trofimovitch is described as one who was “fulfilling the lofty duty of disseminating ideas” (26). His babble of “liberal chatter” is replete with seditious material. He speaks of “Russia and the ‘Russian spirit,’ about God in general, and the ‘Russian God’ in particular” (27). All these ideas are fundementals of nihilism but the best example is in a few poetic lines which Trofimovitch recites to himself repeatedly, “ ‘The peasant with his axe is coming, Something terrible will happen’” (27). This is the thought of uprooting the social order, the peasant mob rising to overthrow the tsars. This idea is repeated on the following page where Liputin talks of serfs rising up and killing their masters. Furthermore, he believes the idea that God is present in himself. Such ideas are threaded throughout the book. This is nihilism at its best. One must also notice that not only does Dostoevsky mention such ideologies in his book but he does so in a demeaning manner. Trofimovitch’s behavior and actions are not heroic at all and are depicted in a rather mean light. His character is squeamish and cowardly at best and his habit of disseminating nihilist ideals is depicted the same way gossips are generally depicted. Such is Dostoevsky’s attack on nihilism and Chernyshevsky.