5. Dostoevsky’s Counterterrorism (Continued): Laughter through Fear
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134 5 Dostoevsky’s Counterterrorism (Continued) Laughter through Fear As for rioting, the old Roman way of dealing with that is always the right one; Flog the rank-and-file, and fling the ring-leaders from the Tarpeian Rock! matthew arnold, Culture and Anarchy1 Dostoevsky’s tactic of division effectively renders Peter a “zero,” who like all Gogolian zeroes (Khlestakov, Chichikov) slips the net and is buoyed out of town by his first-class bons vivants. Just so, Spasovich, in his in absentia trial of Nechaev, declared that “there was a lot of Khlestakov in him”—too much for him to be taken entirely seriously.2 Although it is possible to see Demons, as Irving Howe did, as “mocking and lacerating everything within reach” and therefore “entirely subversive in effect,”3 I would argue that there is one thing that Dostoevsky mocks without subversive intent: state terror and its relationship to revolutionary terrorism. Large sections from the early parts of his notebooks are devoted to conversations between Granovsky (who later becomes Stepan Trofimovich) and Nechaev (Peter) and effectively show that Dostoevsky’s Counterterrorism (Continued) 135 Dostoevsky had no doubt about “who was to blame”: the “punks,” as he called them. In the notebooks, the first bout between father and son posits state terror as the necessary and inevitable reaction to revolutionary terrorism: “Granovsky: ‘It’s you who reject discussion and want simply to exterminate the opposition. But if this is so, you leave them with no other initiative but to exterminate you.’ Nechaev: ‘In doing so, we are addressing ourselves to the people, asking for their sympathy.’ Granovsky: ‘That is, they will decide which of us they should pity more.’ Nechaev: ‘Precisely.’”4 Just two pages later, Dostoev­ sky experiments with another expression of the same thought: “Granovsky: ‘Now, as for these punks—it is they and nobody else, who by virtue of their program of action, have created a state of war between themselves and society. Therefore, they must not act surprised, or complain, when society is going to exterminate them.’”5 Only one conversation between father and son, of a purely personal nature, appears in direct speech in the novel, while traces of these draconian debates are reported by Stepan Trofimovich to G__v post factum. “They say that the French mind . . . ,” he began babbling suddenly as if in a fever, “but that’s a lie, it has always been so. Why slander the French mind? It’s simply Russian laziness, our humiliating impotence to produce an idea, our disgusting parasitism among nations. Ils sont tout simplement des paresseux, and not the French mind. Oh, Russians ought to be exterminated for the good of mankind, like harmful parasites ! It was not for that, it was not at all for that that we strove; I don’t understand any of it. But do you understand, I cry to him, do you understand that if you have the guillotine in the forefront, and with such glee, it’s for the sole reason that cutting off heads is the easiest thing and having an idea is difficult!”6 However, rather than call for the extermination of the radicals, as suggested in the Notebooks, Dostoevsky goes for ironic gold by having Stepan Trofimovich propose the extermination of Russians for their parasitical imitation of the French, an imitation that Stepan Trofimovich perceives as boding particular harm. The original sense of the notebook passages shines through, however, once one recalls that the Russians who are intellectually parasitical of the French (who cut off heads) are the radicals. Nevertheless, Dostoevsky has lightened it up and toned it down, and in the process the reciprocal relationship between revolutionary 136 Part Two: Apparitional Terrorism in Demons violence and state terror is almost completely elided, and with it the role played by public sympathy in adjudicating between them. Likewise, the blood-thirsty conclusion that “extermination” (istreblenie) is the exterminators’ just desserts is retained only in the novel’s epigraph from Luke 8:32–34: “Then the demons came out the man and entered the swine and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned.” Revolutionary state terror is not absent from Demons, as we have seen in the dystopian fantasies of Shigalyov and Peter. But the terror of the autocratic state is present in the novel only as slapstick administrative terror, bumblingly executed by the hapless Governor von Lembke and the blustery Filibusterov (and provoked anyway by Peter) or a ridiculous “fable” of state...



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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