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“The Devils” and Putin: a Dostoevskian reflection

Moscow’s brutal actions in Ukraine and at home offer an insight into a country struggling with conceptions of morality. Indeed, Putin’s Russia now appears to be gripped by a nihilism described in detail by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Amid such uncertainties, it is almost impossible to predict the country’s future.

April 23, 2024 - Serghei Sadohin - Articles and Commentary

Illustration for Dostoevsky's "The Possessed" by Mstislav Dobuzhinsky (1913)

“Yes, we are doing it. But who started it?” This was Vladimir Putin’s nonchalant retort following the extensive bombardment of Ukrainian energy facilities and civilian areas during the harsh winter of 2022. With a devilish smirk and a champagne glass in hand, the Russian president’s demeanour seemed to be lifted straight from the cinematic portrayal of a bloodthirsty dictator. Yet, two years on, this dismissive gesture has emerged not as mere folly but as a strategically crafted public relations manoeuvre, resonating with a significant portion of his domestic support base.

As the world continues to speculate on the core motivations of modern Russia, it seems that the country itself has lost track of what it stands for. It no longer spearheads the missionary global communist idea – now even critiquing the Bolsheviks for their supposed role in “fabricating” the Ukrainian state. It shuns overt fascism, despite flirting with its imagery. It proclaims moral and Christian superiority over what it views as a decadent West, even as it engages in actions that betray the most basic ethical principles. These include withholding the return of opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s remains to his grieving mother. The once prominent geopolitical narrative of NATO’s threat to Moscow has also faded. What remains is a cynical celebration of power and impunity, symbolized by Putin’s iconic smirk over a champagne glass.

In The Devils, also known as The Possessed, Fyodor Dostoevsky offers a narrative that traces the arc of Russia’s historical progression to its modern-day nihilistic reality, passing through 70 years of Soviet despotism. Through the lens of his characters, Dostoevsky uncannily prefigures the rise of nihilistic materialism, a hallmark of the approaching communist era: “The one thing lacking in the world is discipline… We will annihilate the desire for property by promoting drunkenness, slander, espionage, and unfathomable corruption… We aim for complete equality… Only the necessary is necessary, that’s the motto of the whole world henceforward.”

Yet, Dostoevsky’s foresight extended beyond the demise of materialist communism to a more pervasive and nihilistic “anti-idea” – a carnival of destruction that seems to have engulfed Putin’s Russia today. Examples of this reality include the macabre public celebration of Navalny’s murder, the forced adoption of abducted Ukrainian children by Russian officials, and the grotesque glorification of violence by popular vloggers. Following the recent terrorist attack at Crocus City Hall in Moscow, the knife that was used to cut off one of the suspected terrorist’s ears was sold through a public auction. Putin’s new Russia no longer conceals its atrocities but brandishes them as trophies, catering to the basest instincts of a large segment of its population.

And it is this brazen display of wrongdoing that Dostoevsky feared most: a society not just committing crimes but celebrating them openly. Such was the theme ignited by the political murder of a student named Ivan Ivanov, catalysed by Sergey Nechayev’s nihilist manifesto, The Catechism of a Revolutionary, which inspired The Devils. Dostoevsky responded to Nechayev’s manifesto by creating Nikolai Stavrogin, the novel’s antagonist, who epitomizes the darkest aspects of nihilism and atheism. Stavrogin’s interaction with Tikhon, a priest, about his plan to publish a detailed account of his vile act against a young girl that drove her to suicide, underscores the extreme version of the moral bankruptcy inherent in Nechayev’s ideas. Stavrogin is the novel’s symbol of the decline of Christian faith in Russia. “If there is no God, everything is permitted,” is the well-known Dostoevskian – and to a large extent, Russian – fear.

The Devils explores the essence of the Russian revolutionary spirit through the dialogue of Semyon Karmazinov, a figure mirroring the author Ivan Turgenev, whose Fathers and Sons critiques nihilism. Karmazinov presents this spirit not as a traditional ideology but as a counter-ideology, marked by a stark rejection of honour. “No, in Europe they wouldn’t understand it yet,” Karmazinov asserts, “but that’s just what we shall clutch at. For a Russian, a sense of honour is only a superfluous burden, and it always has been a burden through all his history. The open “right to dishonour” will attract him more than anything.”

But there was hope for Dostoevsky. Intrigued by paradoxes, he speculated that Stavrogin (read – “Russia”), by embracing the depths of depravity, would emerge as a beacon of Christian faith, leading a resurgence of spiritual values. Here, the priest Tikhon’s insight into Stavrogin’s soul is poignant: “The complete atheist finds himself on the ultimate step just before the pinnacle of complete faith (whether he steps beyond it, remains to be seen), while someone who is indifferent has no faith, only a lowly fear.”

Stavrogin, indeed, was far from indifferent to faith but was actually the embodiment of its annihilation. So was Soviet Russia, which destroyed its churches throughout its 70-year communist rule, only to rebuild them in a rush after the regime collapsed.

In retrospect, Russia seemed to have embraced the spiritual renewal that Dostoevsky envisioned after the Soviet Union’s collapse. Yet, under Putin, it is delving into a new phase of nihilism, unique to the post-Soviet landscape. Whether this represents the peak of nihilism in Russia is a question for history. What is clear though is that the Soviet Union’s demise did not eradicate nihilistic tendencies. Instead, they continue to influence the path of a country still grappling with the legacy of its past.

Serghei Sadohin is the author of Hiding in Plain Sight: What Language Says About Being Human.

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