restricted access 4. Dostoevsky’s Counterterrorism: “The First Step”
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125 4 Dostoevsky’s Counterterrorism “The First Step” When Nechaev was eventually tried in January 1873, his trial attracted remarkably little attention, and a guilty verdict was handed down after less than an hour’s deliberation. The trial itself had lasted only five hours. What need was there to try Nechaev again, contended the prosecutor , when the Swiss Canton Court had judged him guilty of a common rather than a political crime prior to rendering Nechaev to the tsarist police for deportation to Russia? But there was at least one other trial of Nechaev in absentia: the trial of the Nechaevtsy was already underway when Dostoevsky returned to Russia on July 8, 1871, after a hiatus (in flight from his creditors) abroad. As Joseph Frank notes, “Some of the essential documents, including the cold-bloodedly Machiavellian Catechism of a Revolutionary . . . were placed in evidence and made publicly available on the very day that Dostoevsky stepped off the train.”1 Ironically, the most detailed and perhaps the most damning portrait of Nechaev emerged in the speech of the defense counsel, V. D. Spaso­ vich, who defended three of Nechaev’s associates, Alexei Kuznetsov, Peter Tkachev, and Elizaveta Tomilova. Not only did these speeches appear in the government bulletin, but Spasovich republished them in 126 Part Two: Apparitional Terrorism in Demons his memoir Za mnogo let, 1859–1871 the next year, 1872, while Dostoev­ sky’s novel was still being serialized. Since there was no possibility of exonerating Kuznetsov, who had confessed to participating in the murder of Ivanov, the brilliant and rhetorically gifted defense counsel’s strategy was to stake a claim to the court’s condescension by demonstrating “how difficult it was to resist fascination” with Nechaev.2 By that time, Part I of Demons and the first two chapters of Part II had already appeared in Katkov’s Russian Messenger, and thus Dostoevsky’s characterization of the principles, Nikolai Stavrogin and Peter Ver­ khovensky, was also part of the public record. Literary historians have extensively considered how closely Peter resembles his historical prototype , but the questions in reverse—To what extent did Dostoevsky’s creation influence contemporary perceptions of the real Sergei Nechaev? And possibly have influenced the outcomes of his trials?—are likely unanswerable. What is certain is that while Dostoevsky claimed that he was not at all interested in portraying actual individuals, Spasovich purportedly was, and his Nechaev bears an uncanny resemblance to Dostoevsky ’s Peter, with the notable exception that Peter does not fascinate anyone, least of all his creator (“In my opinion, these pitiful freaks are not worthy of literature,” Dostoevsky wrote to Katkov).3 The power of fascination is instead invested in Nikolai Stavrogin, while Peter “adopts the role of his own person” and is, in his own words, “the golden mean—neither stupid nor smart, rather giftless, and dropped from the moon.”4 This self-characterization proceeds from an inspiration that visited Dostoevsky in mid-August 1870 and is recorded in his notebook under the heading “Something New.” The entry reads, “And Nechaev’s appearance on the scene as Khlestakov.”5 Almost simultaneously, Dostoevsky adds this revelation: “Everything is contained in the character of Stavrogin. Stavrogin is everything.”6 The implications of this shift in characterization and the novel’s center of gravity cannot be overstated. “No longer Bazarov or Pechorin, Nechaev (Peter Verkhovensky) is here reimagined [my italics] as the ingratiating, fast-talking, and totally deceptive impostor in Gogol’s Inspector General, who now, like everyone else, revolves around Stavrogin and becomes an insidiously dangerous and semicomic rogue. Once this change had been made, the structural problems that had been plaguing Dostoevsky resolved themselves.”7 This one change is pivotal not only to the novel’s structure, but to the counterterrorism strategy that the novel employs. I use the term “counterterrorism” to suggest that in taking Nechaev apart and putting him back together (“The Prince and Dostoevsky’s Counterterrorism 127 Nechaev are tied to each other”) Dostoevsky sought first to dismantle and thereby disarm, but in that very process discovered the symbolic center of what would become “the Russian Method.” The cardinal problem confronting revolutionaries at this juncture was how to start a revolution. In the 1868 Principles of Revolution, Nechaev, Tkachev, et al. professed to believe in inexorable historical laws; however, the principles and methods of previous revolutions might, due to different historical circumstances, need to be tweaked a bit. In Demons, Dostoevsky finds many occasions to belabor the Russians’ imitation...


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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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