1. What Do Nihilists Do?
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43 1 What Do Nihilists Do? The easing of repression marks the most dangerous time for an authoritarian government, and Russia in 1861–63 is an object lesson. Even in advance of the Emancipation, rumors of uprisings, upheavals, and a revolution at the gates were rife and struck fear into already apprehensive hearts. When the long-awaited Emancipation was finally unveiled on February 19, 1861, its primary beneficiaries, the peasantry, greeted its terms with disappointment and outraged disbelief. Between 1861 and 1863 the Empire was convulsed by eleven hundred disturbances deemed “political,” and the first oppositional organization, Land and Freedom (Zemlia i Volia), made its shadowy appearance.1 The most prominent radical literary critic, Nikolai Chernyshevsky, used his critical pulpit at the left-leaning journal The Contemporary to belabor the Emancipation ’s inadequacies and rallied indignant students to the cause. Politically motivated student disturbances began in earnest in autumn 1861, and educated society (obshchestvo) proved a fickle ally, as sympathy with the students’ aspirations and tactics waned while anxiety waxed. While still under a cloud of political suspicion, Fyodor Dostoevsky returned to the capital of the Empire on the exuberant—if jittery—eve of a new era. Eager to resume his place in the thick of literary life, Dostoevsky launched a new journal, aptly entitled Time, with his brother Mikhail as collaborator. The times had indeed changed since 44 Part One: Enigmas of A-synchrony the ascension of the liberalizing Alexander II in 1855, but Peter’s city remained in many respects the same. Yet as a self-avowed fantasist, Dostoevsky was able to detect new stirrings beneath the petrified masks of old types, so that when an insignificant and downtrodden clerk appeared in his feuilleton, Petersburg Visions in Verse and Prose (1861), the plot had a new and unexpected twist. “But one day, overcome by laments and reproaches of his brood of children and shrewish wife, he suddenly lifted his head and spoke out like Balaam’s ass, but spoke out so strangely, that he was carted off to the madhouse!—It has somehow entered his head that he was Garibaldi!”2 Like Gogol’s Poprishchin, who in Diary of a Madman (1835) imagined himself the King of Spain, Dostoevsky’s deranged clerk became obsessed with the Italian fighter for national liberation Garibaldi, to the point that little by little he convinced himself that he was Garibaldi “the filibuster [flibust’er] and destroyer of all things.”3 The hapless madman is fatally struck by the gravity of his crime, which consists simply in being Garibaldi and the challenge that this identity posed to the order of things. “All of God’s world slid before him and flew off somewhere, the earth slid from beneath his feet. He only saw one thing everywhere and in everything: his crime, his shame and disgrace.”4 Neither a social fact nor a brute fact, “Garibaldi’s” crime is not a fact at all, but only a fantasy of identity. Nonetheless, the clerk’s only salvation lies in a grand gesture of self-unmasking and repentance, so that “Garibaldi” falls on his knees before his highness confessing, “‘I am Garibaldi, do with me what you want!’ Well, and they did with him . . . what had to be done.”5 Dostoev­ sky’s final sentence with his signature ellipses betrays some reticence— whether from discretion or ambivalence—about “what has to be done” with someone possessing the effrontery (even if mad) to imagine himself Garibaldi. Dostoevsky’s St. Petersburg vision stands at a critical juncture in his career, in Russian national life, and in the emergence of revolutionary terrorism. Riding the crest of Alexander II’s liberalizing reforms, Dostoev­ sky returned to St. Petersburg with the knowledge that the extent of his involvement in political conspiracy had remained undiscovered : technically, at least, he was “Garibaldi” behind the mask. In lieu of a demonstrative public confession, Dostoevsky launched a journal with a moderately progressive tendency that sought to mediate between the radicals and conservatives. Aside from his own personal political peccadilloes, Dostoevsky had good reason to sense that the “destroyer of all things” was at hand. With his penetrating “Petersburg vision” he What Do Nihilists Do? 45 also revealed the embryo of a novel that constituted the first volume of his terrorism trilogy—Crime and Punishment. If, as the introduction to this book argues, “terrorism” refers not to the act itself, but to the interpretation and reception accorded an act, then it might reasonably be argued that...


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Subject Headings

  • Russian literature -- Political aspects.
  • Terrorism -- Russia -- History -- 19th century.
  • Terrorism in literature.
  • Alexander II, Emperor of Russia, 1818-1881 -- Assassination.
  • Dostoyevsky, Fyodor, 1821-1881 -- Political and social views.
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