Sunday, 23 November 2014

A Point of View: The writer who foresaw the rise of the totalitarian state

The 19th Century Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote about characters who justified murder in the name of their ideological beliefs. For this reason, John Gray argues, he's remained relevant ever since, through the rise of the totalitarian states of the 20th Century, to the "war against terror".
When Fyodor Dostoyevsky described in his novels how ideas have the power to change human lives, he knew something of what he was writing about.
Born in 1821, the Russian writer was in his 20s when he joined a circle of radical intellectuals in St Petersburg who were entranced by French utopian socialist theories. A police agent who had infiltrated the group reported its discussions to the authorities. On 22 April 1849, Dostoyevsky was arrested and imprisoned along with the other members, and after some months of investigation they were found guilty of planning to distribute subversive propaganda and condemned to death by firing squad.
The punishment was commuted to a sentence of exile and hard labour, but the tsar's authority to decree life or death was confirmed by forcing the prisoners to undergo the ordeal of a mock execution.
In a carefully stage-managed charade Dostoyevsky and the rest of the group were taken on the morning of 22 December 1849 to a regimental parade ground, where scaffolding had been erected and decorated with black crepe. Their crimes and sentence were read out and an Orthodox priest asked them to repent.
Three of the group were tied to stakes in readiness for execution. At the last moment there was a roll of drums, and the firing squad lowered its rifles. Reprieved, the prisoners were put in shackles and sent into Siberian exile - in Dostoyevsky's case for four years of hard labour, followed by compulsory service in the Russian army. In 1859 a new tsar allowed Dostoyevsky to end his Siberian exile. A year later he was back in the literary world of St Petersburg.
Dostoyevsky's experience had altered him profoundly. He did not abandon his view that Russian society needed to be radically changed. He continued to believe that the institution of serfdom was profoundly immoral, and to the end of his life he detested the landed aristocracy. But his experience of being on what he'd believed was the brink of death had given him a new perspective on time and history. Many years later he remarked: "I cannot recall when I was ever as happy as on that day."
From then onwards he realised that human life was not a movement from a backward past to a better future, as he had believed or half-believed when he shared the ideas of the radical intelligentsia. Instead, every human being stood at each moment on the edge of eternity. As a result of this revelation, Dostoyevsky became increasingly mistrustful of the progressive ideology to which he had been drawn as a young man.
He was particularly scornful of the ideas he found in St Petersburg when he returned from his decade of Siberian exile. The new generation of Russian intellectuals was gripped by European theories and philosophies. French materialism, German humanism and English utilitarianism were melded together into a peculiarly Russian combination that came to be called "nihilism".
We tend to think of a nihilist as someone who believes in nothing, but the Russian nihilists of the 1860s were very different. They were fervent believers in science, who wanted to destroy the religious and moral traditions that had guided humankind in the past in order that a new and better world could come into being. There are plenty of people who believe something similar today.
Dostoyevsky's indictment of nihilism is presented in his great novel Demons. Published in 1872, the book has been criticised for being didactic in tone, and there can be no doubt that he wanted to show that the dominant ideas of his generation were harmful. But the story Dostoyevsky tells is also a dark comedy, cruelly funny in its depiction of high-minded intellectuals toying with revolutionary notions without understanding anything of what revolution means in practice.
The plot is a version of actual events that unfolded as Dostoyevsky was writing the book. A former teacher of divinity turned terrorist, Sergei Nechaev, was arrested and convicted of complicity in the killing of a student. Nechaev had authored a pamphlet, The Catechism of a Revolutionary, which argued that any means (including blackmail and murder) could be used to advance the cause of revolution. The student had questioned Nechaev's policies, and so had to be eliminated.
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