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Myths of the extremist past

May 16, 2014

This discussion between Tom, Scott Bailey, and between4walls has me thinking about how writers in the 1860s could have or did imagine Revolution. For me it’s a given that a Chernyshevskii or a Dostoevskii couldn’t anticipate the purges and engineered famines of the Soviet 1930s; events are contingent, and it’s only in hindsight that you might think you can draw a line from Stalin back to NEP, October 1917, February 1917, the SRs, 1905, the terrorist campaign of the 1870s, Karakozov, the nihilists of the 1860s, and the idealists and abolitionists of the 1840s. Even if you take it all as predestined, so that even Radishchev already had all the tragedy of the twentieth century within him, there’s no way Chernyshevskii could have known that.

But as Tom says, if they couldn’t know the future, they could know the past, the “last revolution that came out of the radical Enlightenment,” or the French Revolution. I think Tom means 1793 more than 1789.

Now, just as they could imagine many futures, they could mythologize multiple pasts; the radical Enlightenment led to the American Revolution too (and I think Russian observers took their 1860s contemporary Abraham Lincoln’s war against the Southern planters in an Enlightenment vein). The “disasters of 1848” were on the minds of Russian radicals in the 1860s, and they may have seen reaction as a bigger threat than a new Robespierre. Similarly they saw the Roman Republic as defeated by a reactionary Empire, not as a caution about the evils that might come after a successful revolution. The problem was beating the autocrat in the first place.

That said, there’s a lot of evidence that Tom’s right and the French Revolution was a, or the, key myth of the past in the Struggle for Freedom. In his “Song for Eremushka” (Песня Еремушке, 1859) Nekrasov tried to have a peasant nurse sing to her charge about “brotherhood, equality, freedom” instead of Russian folk tales, but to get it past the censors, he had to change it to “brotherhood, truth, freedom.” And in The Devils (Бесы, 1871-72) the embodiment of the 1840s, Stepan Verkhovenskii, complains in a speech half in French that his son, the unidealistic 1860s revolutionary Petr, “puts the guillotine front and center, and with so much enthusiasm.”

That last quote comes up in an article by Lidiia Lotman. LL’s case is that Dostoevskii was concerned about violent, left-wing revolutionary extremism, but only as a special case of the problem of ideas causing intelligent people to lose their humanity and become cruel. Raskolnikov acting on nihilist ideas pushed to their logical extreme is the purest realization. In The Devils (cf. Leskov’s At Daggers Drawn) it’s a second-order danger as an opportunist uses revolutionary ideas to push others into violence.

But the problem went beyond sincere and insincere radicals. Here’s Lotman:

Recall that it wasn’t only in fiction that Dostoevskii drew a “straight line” from fanaticism to terrorism. There he usually “revealed” the hidden tendencies of ideas and personalities, the consequences when they were pushed to their logical extremes. He drew the same straight line when evaluating phenomena from real life.

In 1861, criticizing the Slavophiles’ position on writers who did not accept their doctrine, Dostoevskii wrote this about the intolerance of K. Aksakov: “How can one dare to speak of ‘censuring our nation [народность] not out of an indignant, passionate love, but out of an internal wickedness that is instinctively hostile to every sacred idea of honor and duty’? What sort of fanatical hostility is that? […] Is loving one’s country and being honest a privilege given to Slavophiles alone? Who could say that, who would make up his mind to write that, except a man in an extreme frenzy of fanaticism…? You can practically smell the bonfires and torture chambers.”

Thus he did not consider fanaticism to be the exclusive property of political radicalism. The images of torture chambers and burning people at the stake [образы пыток и костров] that here symbolize the terrorism of fanatics are sooner associated with the religious fanaticism of the Spanish Inquisition than with the excesses of left-wing extremism. (Russian text)

So we have a symmetry of sorts: the guillotine of the French Revolution and the bonfires of the Spanish Inquisition, with the evil found not in the ideas but in the lengths people will go to to try to realize them. You can say it’s a false equivalence to weight one non-fiction quote about Aksakov against two long novels, but LL makes the additional good point that in a third major novel, the Spanish Inquisition shares certain qualities with the revolutionaries of The Devils:

The cynical adventurer Petr Verkhovenskii understands that the tactics of conspiracy, making “secrecy” and authority absolutely essential (the same political tactics that Ivan Karamazov attributes to the Grand Inquisitor in the author’s last novel: The Brothers Karamazov, book 5, chapter 5) makes it possible to substitute one set of basic principles for another, to transform them. In place of unity in the struggle, there is suspicion; in place of sincerity and honesty, there is deception; in place of freedom, there is enslavement. Not for nothing does the perceptive Stavrogin ask Petr Verkhovenskii “Listen, Verkhovenskii, you’re not from the secret police [высшая полиция], are you?” The answer given by the leader of the conspirators is also telling: “No, for now I’m not from the secret police.” (Russian text)

A separate interesting point from LL: Dostoevskii read a lot of Voltaire, Diderot, and other French Enlightenment authors while working on The Devils, and not only “to test his faith.” He admired and borrowed from Voltaire’s narrative technique, in which, he said, the writer’s “last word” is hidden behind “mocking remarks, hints, and things left half-said or unsaid.” Does Voltaire go as far as sideshadowing? I haven’t read enough of him to know.

See L. M. Lotman, “Problema Velikoi frantsuzskoi revoliutsii v literaturnoi polemike kontsa XIX—nachala XX v. (A. Frans i Dostoevskii),” in Velikaia frantsuzskaia revoliutsiia i russkaia literatura, ed. G. M. Fridlender (Leningrad, 1990), 362-96.

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