8. The Khokhlakov Principle: Russian Society in the Mirror of Revolutionary Terrorism
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197 8 The Khokhlakov Principle Russian Society in the Mirror of Revolutionary Terrorism Dostoevsky’s evocation of this mutual responsibility is most successful in the novel-as-allegory: the brothers’ collective guilt for their father’s murder as Russian society’s collective guilt for (attempted) tsaricide.1 In this regard, each of the brothers clearly stands for an estate or social group: Dmitry, for the feckless gentry outraged at being cheated of their inheritance; Alyosha, for the clergy who failed as the nation’s spiritual guides in time of crisis; Ivan, for the Westernized intelligentsia, the primary agent of moral and intellectual corruption; and Smerdyakov, for the resentful dispossessed. The path to redemption, to the salvation of the individual and the community, lies in the assumption of one’s own responsibility for collective guilt. Smerdyakov, the despised illegitimate brother, is the only one who refuses to assume his considerable share of the guilt: he is the brother who actually killed Fyodor Kara­ mazov. Instead, in accusing Ivan of wanting to shift all the blame onto him, he shifts all the blame onto Ivan, contending “You killed him, you are the main killer and I was just your minion, your faithful servant Licharda, and I performed the deed according to your word.”2 Rather than acknowledge even his own guilt, much less his guilt for others, 198 Part Three: “The Little Devil Sitting in Your Heart” Smerdyakov opts out and takes his final revenge against the Karamazov family by committing, like Stavrogin, a perfectly opaque suicide that defies any attempt to make it signify. Each of the groups represented by the brothers bore some measure of direct responsibility, but Dostoevsky was also acutely aware of the complicity that followed from merely being a spectator or bystander, like the loyal subjects who stood breathlessly by during the February 19, 1880 jubilee, wondering if and when the tsar would be blown to pieces. Educated society (obshchestvo) was largely passive, ambivalent, and fickle, and both the regime and the revolutionaries vied for its support. After the assassination of Chief of Police Mezenstsev in August 1878 and again in February 1880, when Loris-Melikov assumed the role of supreme commissioner, the government took the unusual step of actively appealing for the support of obshchestvo in the struggle against sedition. Although these appeals generated an outpouring of letters and projects to combat “the criminal gang of nihilists,” society would remain noncommittal until its longstanding demands for active participation in government, an easing of censorship, and the inviolability of the individual were met.3 In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky lavishes satiric attention on obshchestvo in the person of Madame Khokhlakov. The vain, frivolous, and muddle-headed Khokhlakov is the mirror that Dostoevsky holds up to Russian society so that it can clearly see its own role and responsibility in the crisis. Khokhlakov represents both provincial obshchestvo and Russian obshchestvo’s provinciality; nonetheless, in the chapter “An Ailing Little Foot,” the government (in the person of the dapper official Perkhotin) and the radicals (in the person of the nihilist journalist Rakitin) vie for her “forty-year-old charms.” Early in the novel she is introduced as “A Lady of Little Faith” whose superstitious religiosity has survived the corrosive effects of fashionable atheism, but her most characteristic and fatal shortcoming is her attention deficit and her tendency to forget or neglect “the main thing.” “The main thing is not to forget the main thing,”4 she reminds herself repeatedly, but thanks to her solipsism and the ideological muddle that is her mind, she inevitably does. The tragedy of the novel results directly from her fatal misunderstanding of Dmitry, when he turns to her as his last hope before “killing and robbing someone for the three thousand.”5 Madame Khokhlakov’s salvific plot for Dmitry shows her to be a Grand Inquisitress in her own right (“I will save you, Dmitry Fyodorovich, but you must do as I say!”).6 Dmitry’s frustration understandably grows as Khokhlakov, in raptures over her own beneficence, rather than giving him the three The Khokhlakov Principle 199 thousand categorically declares (this time in a parody of Christ):7 “But to you, to you especially I would not give anything, out of love for you I would not give anything, in order to save you I would not give anything , because you need only one thing: mines, mines, mines . . . !”8 Madame Khokhlakov’s plan for Mitya’s salvation “out of love” was of course the...


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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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