Dostoevski had worked for several years on a novel to be called “The Life of a Great Sinner.” This became THE POSSESSED, the story of Nikolai Stavrogin, a spiritual nihilist.
The account of Stavrogin’s degradation is fused with a “pamphlet novel” describing the machinations of a group of political radicals. Taken together, the two plots give a bleak picture of human alienation--from God, from country, from fellow humans. Dostoevski’s Christian ethic and love of Russia are felt everywhere in THE POSSESSED.
Dostoevski got the idea for a novel about political radicals from the murder in 1869 of a young Moscow student named Ivanov by a group of revolutionaries. The rebels were inflamed by a leftist agitator named Sergey Nechaev.
In THE POSSESSED, Nechaev becomes Pyotr Verkhovensky, who takes over an innocuous liberal discussion group from his father and urges the members to perform acts of unrest and incendiarism. One feature of the plot is the disgrace of the writer Karmazinov, intended to represent the great Russian author Ivan Turgenev, who also wrote about Russian nihilism.
Another important revolutionary is Shatov, a devout Russian nationalist crippled by his lack of genuine religious faith. Shatov’s opposite is the engineer Kirillov, who rejects his Russian heritage for Western values. Together, Shatov and Kirillov dramatize the tension in nineteenth century Russia between Slavophiles and Westerners....
(The entire section is 506 words.)