Бесы [book review]

Demons (or The Possessed) is a book of Dostoevsky I read many (many) years ago.  Thirty-five years, maybe more. I remember finding this old nrf edition of the book in a local fair (local as deep inside the Norman countryside!). With pages roughly cut and a definitely yellow paper. And reading the book then with some degree of disappointment about the shallowness exhibited by the revolutionaries. Hence ranking it [in my personal hit list] of lesser importance than the masterpiece Brothers Karamazov. I took the book with me on my August travel(s) thinking it would be a perfect read for long plane trips, but ended up reading it rather quickly over the first week of vacations.

This second and more recent read of The Possessed led me to reconsider and opt for a much more balanced perspective on the book, which as I remembered does show the local revolutionaries as shallow dupes, their leader as a cynical crowd manipulator, and the few deep thinkers in the group set aside and eliminated. But Dostoevsky actually draws a very bleak picture of the entire Russian society in this book, with no group or category escaping shallowness and pettiness. No one seems to escape Dostoevsky’s cruel depiction, including the liberal elites represented by  Stepan Trofimovich and Varvara Petrovna, which are depicted as ready to cater to any revolutionary group to keep their influence, while still living on serfdom revenues. And the governor circle, which is essentially clueless. The only character escaping this dreadful condition is Nikolai Stavrogin, whose quest beyond good and evil turns him into a fascinating (and monstrous) anti-hero. The tension around belief and nihilism, the rejection of the influence of the West and a return to the roots of the Russian soul, a prescience of the incoming dictatorial follow-up to a revolution Dostoevsky saw as inevitable, all those threads make The Possessed a major book I should have re-read years ago…

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