Fyodor Dostoevski was nearly fifty years old when the final version of The Possessed appeared. Because of his poverty, he had been forced to write the book first in serial form for a Moscow literary review. Many readers thought the novel raged so wildly against liberalism and atheistic socialism that they concluded the once progressive author must have become a reactionary. Dostoevski himself lent credibility to this notion by his public statements. In a famous letter to Alexander III, Dostoevski characterized The Possessed as a historical study of the perverse radicalism that results when the intelligentsia detaches itself from the Russian people. In another letter, he proclaimed, “He who loses his people and his nationality loses his faith in his country and in God. This is the theme of my novel.”
Given the nature of Dostoevski’s personal history, a movement toward conservatism would not have been illogical. An aristocrat by birth, Dostoevski had involved himself deeply in the Petrashevski Circle, a St. Petersburg discussion group interested in utopian socialism. Part of this group formed a clandestine revolutionary cadre, and Dostoevski was arrested for his participation in the conspiracy. There followed a mock execution, four years of imprisonment, and another four years of enforced service as a private in the Siberian army. Although he was freed in 1858, Dostoevski remained under surveillance and his right to publish was always in jeopardy. He thus had every inducement to prove to government censors his fidelity to the regime and its principles.
The Possessed is not a reactionary novel, nor does Dostoevski in the book defend the institutions of monarchy, aristocracy, or censorship. He upholds Russian orthodoxy in a way that suggests a theocratic challenge to the status quo. His exaltation of the peasantry constitutes no defense of capitalism or imperialism. While appearing to embrace Russian nationalism, he presents an image of small-town culture that is anything but approving. His portrait of the ruling class is as devastating as any essay on the subject by Karl Marx or Friedrich Engels.
Dostoevski’s critique of radical political ideas proceeds from a basis other than that of extremist conservatism. The key to that basis is partially revealed in Shatov’s statement that half-truth is uniquely despotic. The Possessed is at once a criticism of a variety of political and philosophical half-truths and a searching toward a principle of wholeness, a truth that has the capacity to reunite and compose the fragmented human psyche, the divided social and political order, and the shattered relationship with God. Dostoevski does not describe that truth, believing the truth too mysterious and grand to be expressed in human language. Rather, he points to it by showing the defects and incompleteness in positions that pretend to be the truth.
It is through the enigmatic character of Nikolay Stavrogin that Dostoevski most fully carries out his quest for...
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