Dostoevsky, Turgenev, and Russian Nihilism--Part 2


Ad Honorem
Mar 2011
The Celestial Plain
All the movement and change in Fathers and Children Bazarov's arrival causes is not so with Stavrogin in Demons. Stavrogin has no natural enemy, although for awhile the town is hostile towards him. The plot in Demons is convoluted and sometimes hard to follow. The character's actions make no sense. And that is precisely the point. Stavrogin cannot be a catalyst in the same way that Bazarov is a catalyst, because that would somehow imply that people's behavior evolves on a rational basis. It would imply that people’s actions are somehow based on reality. But if there is a common denominator in Demons, it is that people’s actions are divorced from reality, operating in their own sphere of logic and delusional grandeur. Action is based on questionable information, as the rumors play an integral part in the plot. Rumors are unreliable, have dubious sources, and seem to form out of nowhere. And like rumors, characters are unreliable, their motives dubious and seemingly formed out of nothing. As the narrator explains;

Various rumors arrived. The facts were generally more or less known, but it was obvious that, besides the facts, certain accompanying ideas also appeared, and, what’s more, in exceeding numbers. That was what was bewildering; there was no way to adapt and find out just exactly what they ideas meant. (Dostoevsky 21)

In short, there is historical or historicized basis for human behavior then. Demons tries to show a universal affliction that transcends historical eras. It could be argued that the fact that the ideas arrived at a certain time means that the ideas are a part of a historical movement. But it is never known why the ideas arrive or where they come from.

The first character introduced is the scholar Stepan Trofimovich, a man with an almost comically high view of himself; “He himself sincerely believed all this life that he was a cause of constant apprehension in certain spheres, that his steps were ceaselessly known and numbered… (8)” This was not a source of apprehension for Stephen; he wanted to be the source of worry, and “he no doubt would have been offended” if proven otherwise. (8) This need to be known is evident in other characters as well. Varvara Petrovna goes to Petersburg with the intentions of starting a journal because “she needed as far as possible to remind the world of herself… (22)” Yulia Mikhailovna befriends Pyotr Stepanovich with the hope of discovering a vast conspiracy of the youth so that she may reconcile the youth to save them; “Not a one of them would perish, she would save them all…and even history and all of Russian liberalism would perhaps bless her name…" (345) And perhaps most strikingly is Kirillov’s self-annihilation to be an example for all of man.

The sheer grandeur of the character’s ambitions is mocked by the pettiness of their circumstances. Stepan hopes to be a great voice to all of mankind. Yet he is effete, living off Varvara for twenty years; when she compels him to marry Darya he surrenders. Despite his fecklessness, he portrays his actions in grandiose terms; he tells Shatov “if you want to overcome the whole world, overcome yourself…Well, now I, too, am prepared to overcome myself and am getting married…(123)” His final speech at Yulia’s ball is mocked by the audience, and even then he cannot help portray himself gloriously as a martyr of truth; “You were not present at my final combat with the people…But you will be told that in our character-impoverished Russia one courageous man stood up and, despite the deadly menace pouring from all sides, told those little fools their truth…"(492) The dramatic irony of Yulia’s desire to uncover a vast conspiracy is that there is no vast conspiracy. The so-called vast conspiracy is a small five some. To achieve the glory that they seek they must distort reality, to imagine things as grander than they really are.

These comically grandiose visions springs from the same well—Russian self-loathing. Every character’s motives are tinged with a desire to transcend their Russianness, either by becoming more European or by portraying their actions in universal terms. Even the narrator takes several shots at Russia, such as describing Stepan as the typically brilliant but useless Russian scholar; “he did very little as a scholar, nothing at all, apparently. But with scholars here in Russia that is ever and always the case." (9) Later the narrator says that the “higher liberal—a liberal without any aim—are possible only in Russia." (33) The discussions the narrator’s group partook were not about problems with Russia but “fell into general human terms.” They wanted to see themselves as important voices and thinkers in a global sense, so they discussed the “future destiny of Europe and of mankind." (34) Stepan also tries to overcome his Russianness with his constant use of French and other foreign terms. The five some Revolutionary group only exists because its members believe that they are a part of a larger European-wide movement. Karminazov outright repudiates his Russian heritage, choosing to directly be something else; he says “Russia as she is has no future. I’ve become a German and count it as an honor." (370) Characters like Yulia and Karminazov are not content with being great in Russia; they want to be known to all of history and mankind. And Kirillov does not kill himself for Russia or for himself, but to show all of man how to become god.

The pervasive belief is that Russia is a backward and bastard nation as described by Pyotr Chaadaev in his “First Letter on the Philosophy of History.” Chaadaev argued that Russia could become an example to the rest of humanity. But other Russian thinkers, such as Alexander Herzen, thought that the hope that Europe would redeem and regenerate mankind was lost after the failure of the Revolution of 1848 to culminate in anything but a bourgeois government. If mankind were to be redeemed, it would have to be in Russia. Only in Russia are men free, as Herzen writes, “because we start with ourselves…we are independent because we possess nothing; we have hardly anything to love…
" (167) In some ways the characters in Demons share Herzen’s view that the regeneration of the human race could only take place in Russia because there were allegedly no existing traditions—that Russian history began “with the negation of the past." (167) Karmazinov shares Herzen’s critiques of Russia, saying that “Russia now is preeminently the place in the whole world where anything you like can happen without the least resistance." (370) But there is a critical difference between Herzen and the characters in the novel; Herzen is a high-minded idealist, whereas the characters in the novel are egoists. They believe that by redeeming themselves they can redeem humanity. It is “self-will” that Kirillov proclaims, and it is a desire to be god, to save others, that drives the characters actions. It is also the desire to be gods that creates the chasm between the older and the younger generation. Pyotr Stepanovich is abandoned by his scholarly father who chooses the life of contemplation over the life of family. Varvara Petrovna worships her son Stavrogin, allowing him to do whatever he wants because he represents her best hope of salvation, which is perhaps why he has no sense of humility or moral bearing. But there is one character who has no desire to be a savior, Stavrogin.

Because of his uniqueness, Stavrogin is seen by characters such as Varvara and Pyotr as a godlike figure that will enable them the redemption they seek. Stavrogin represents different things to different people. He appears as a guise of a “new hope” and a “new dream” to Varvara. He represents somehow the embodiment of the new man to Pyotr. Pyotr tells Stavrogin; “you’re beautiful, proud as a god, seeking nothing for yourself…the main thing is the legend…A new, just law is coming." (422) For both Pyotr and Varvara, Stavrogin will herald a new and better age, someone who can make everything rise. But Stavrogin rebukes these notions. He calls Pyotr’s talk of a new law and order “frenzy.” Pyotr believes in Stavrogin because he sees Stavrogin as one of a kind, something new in a country where everything is the same. Stavrogin is one of a kind, but that is also why he is of no use to Pyotr. Stavrogin is the full embodiment of the Russian affliction, disembodiment. Or, to put it in other words, Stavrogin is uprooted from everything. Stavrogin writes that “Nothing binds me to Russia—everything in it is as foreign to me as everywhere else." (675) Most of the other characters are uprooted as well, but they have one last root to cling to, a sense of obligation to save Russia. Whether its egoism or altruism, the other characters at least seek to redeem others. Stavrogin is a pure egoist, and thus, could not care less about Pyotr’s visions of a new America.

Without roots, without any sense of purpose, without any notion of something greater than self, Stavrogin is driven by an animalistic drive. Much of his iniquities are revealed in the chapter that was excluded from the published novel, “At Tikkon’s.” In that chapter Stavrogin commits all kinds of barbarous acts, such as seducing an 11 year old girl who eventually commits suicide. He is fully in control of himself. He has mastered every passion, indulged every whim without becoming slaves to them. He is truly a god in the sense that nothing has control over him. But he eventually suffers from the same condition that afflicted Bazarov, indifference and boredom. Just as Bazarov eventually became bored with his purposeless work, so Stavrogin becomes bored with his aimless life. It was when he was bored with life “to the point of stupefaction” that he conceived of maiming his life, which is why he marries the mentally slow Marya Lebyadkin. (701) Stavrogin had achieved full mastery of himself, and it meant nothing. Thus, according to Dostoevsky, even at its height atheism can never replace man’s fundamental need to surpass humanity, which can only be attained by surrendering to God.

It is the point of redemption where Dostoevsky and Turgenev differ most fundamentally. Both perceive a sense of alienation in the Russian people, a sense of self-loathing and a desire to transcend Russianness. For Dostoevsky, there can be no salvation outside of God. Both Kirillov and Stavrogin become Gods in that they transcend themselves. Kirillov transcends the fear of death and Stavrogin becomes fully possessed. In the end they both annihilate themselves. There is no regeneration of the human race. For Dostoevsky, death is the logical conclusion of Atheism. Without God and spiritual glory, life is boredom and indifference. If the highest goal is universal happiness, and if, as Kirillovs says, life is “pain, life is fear," (115) then as Kirillov also says, happiness only exists in the moment before death when one knows that all their suffering is about to end. Turgenev's view of humanity is less pessimistic. It is possible for man to be happy outside of God, in fact, it is natural. The tragedy in Demons is that characters die for no reason and without redemption. For Turgenev, nature reconciles all, whether in life or in death. Bazarov dies with dignity, telling Anna; “I’m a giant! Now the giant’s only task is to die in a decent manner… "(152) Bazarov, like Stavrogin, has a god-complex that leads to his demise. But even in death all is well, because nature is everlasting and all return to it, as Turgenev leaves the reader with his final note:

However passionate, sinful, rebellious the heart buried in this grave, the flowers growing on it look out at
us serenely with their innocent eyes: they tell us not only of that eternal peace, that great peace of “indifferent” nature; they tell us also of eternal reconciliation and life everlasting….

Russian nihilism is generally narrated as a historical and sociological phenomenon that afflicted younger generations in late nineteenth-century Russia. Contemporaries of the time such as Turgenev and Dostoevsky saw nihilism as a particular manifestation of the human condition. Undoubtedly they would agree that historical circumstances determined the manifestation of nihilism, but the impulse is universal. Nowhere in this essay is there a discussion of the biographical underpinning of Turgenev’s and Dostoevsky’s views. They are like the characters in their novels. Though they may have different philosophies based on different experiences, they both see a common manifestation that exists in human nature. Like Anna Sergeevna and Princess R, they fundamentally had the same experiences and impulses. As intellectuals of the same time period, Turgenev and Dostoevsky are made from the same clay. Their similarities trump their differences and show, as Marx notes in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, that though men make their own history, they do not make it as they please.

Works Cited
Demons, Pevear and Volokhonsky translation

Fathers and Sons, Norton Critical Edition

A History of Russian Thought from the Enlightenment to Marxism

Five Sisters

Philosophical Letters Addressed to a Russian Lady,
Translated by Nathaniel Night