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August 24, 2013

Rohit Reviews: Demons


I would say something about my long absence from this loathsome affair, but is there even a point any more? You, dear readers, should know not to expect anything of me—I told you as much last year.

I return today to this miserable site to review Demons, Fyodor Dostoevsky's 1872 novel about political intrigue and revolutionary conspiracies in nineteenth century Russia, which I finished while traveling through India earlier this year. This being the last of Dostoevsky's major works on my reading list after Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamozov (review here), The Idiot (review here), and Notes from Underground (review here), I was expecting to be somewhat disappointed—how could this novel possibly match up to those awesome works of literature? Instead, I was rather pleasantly surprised.

Demons, which is loosely based on an actual political murder that occurred in 1869, is principally the story of Nikolai Stavrogin, a seemingly sociopathic aristocrat actually consumed by guilt over his various misdeeds, and Pyotr Verkhovensky, a leftist plotting to overthrow the government and foment revolution. The story takes place in the small town where Stavrogin resides and follows Verkhovensky's conspiracy to murder a former conspirator who subsequently renounces the leftist agenda. In the course of the novel, Dostoevsky introduces us to a number of conflicting ideologies that all collided in nineteenth century Russia and ultimately led to the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917—conservatives of the established (and decaying) order, liberal idealists of the 1840s focused on utopian existence, and various socialistic and nihilistic radicals spawned by the deterioration of those liberals' ideas. What ultimately emerges is a terrifying and prophetic study of the demons, or nihilistic concepts, that would consume the first half of the twentieth century, with horrifying consequences for those who lived through that time.

As with many of Dostoevsky's novels, Demons is a case study of rich literary voices, from the drunk (and dangerous) Captain Lebyadkin to the nihilistic Kirillov (obsessed with the idea that suicide is the only path to freedom). But, more so than Dostoevsky's other works and despite the extraordinarily dark subject matter, I also found Demons to be Dostoevsky's funniest and fastest moving novel. I don't ever recall laughing out loud while reading a Dostoevsky novel, but in this one I did—multiple times. Who knew nihilism and murder could be downright hilarious? (Then again, maybe that's just me.)

At another level, however, it is a poignant reminder that the most dangerous thing in the world is an idea. Dostoevsky's central thesis of the novel—that the seemingly benign ideas of the utopian reformers of the 1840s spawned the much more pernicious ideas of the socialists and nihilists of the 1860s—is just as salient today as it was nearly 150 years ago. Similar (and similarly failed) utopian ideologies saw a resurgence within my parents' lifetime (the 1960s) and still find favor among loathsome hippies and bums on the streets of Berkeley and San Francisco. And the world was still dealing with the scourge of what the 1860s Russian socialists and nihilists unleashed on the world (Soviet communism) in my lifetime.

Settling on a rating for this book is difficult. Most people who are Dostoevsky fans do not consider it to be his best effort, and I can see why. It's hard to compete with the philosophical tour de force of The Brothers Karamozov or the penetrating insight of Crime and Punishment, and objectively, Demons probably does not do so on either front. At the same time, this might be the one I found to be most interesting of all his works (perhaps because of my general interest in the history and politics of that era). So where does that leave me? I'm probably at 4.5 stars on this book, but I generally truncate decimals for reviews: four stars of five.


Great review. I am also a big Dostoevsky fan and have read most of his books. Demons was hard going for me and probably the most difficult to get to grips with in terms of the large number of different characters and the masses of french being spoken. Cool website I enjoyed reading the reviews.

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