I was chairman of the Annual Confederate Flag Day at the North Carolina State Capitol in March of 2019 when our commemoration was besieged by several hundred screaming, raging demonstrators—Antifa-types and others. It took a mammoth police escort for us to exit the surrounded Capitol building.
I clearly recall the disfigured countenance, the flaming eyes, the foul imprecations of one of the protesters: he was young, white, and obviously not impoverished, probably the son of some well-to-do parents who had shelled out thousands of dollars for his education at one of North Carolina’s premiere universities. His contorted, angry grimace was that of a possessed soul, made mad by years of slow and patient educational indoctrination from our complacent society which tolerates and encourages everyday evil in nearly every endeavor we experience.
I remembered that day—that face—over two years later as I finished watching a made-for-television Russian series titled Demons. Based on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1872 novel of the same name (also known as The Possessed), the plot is fairly complex and difficult to compress into a filmed series. Yet, enough of that complexity and meaning still comes forth while watching its English subtitles.
I read the novel many years ago. Even back then it was a difficult read, especially for someone unfamiliar with Russian history of the mid-19th century and Dostoevsky’s interest in the ideological visions of various revolutionary and nihilist movements then existent in Imperial Russia.
But the television series does an admirable job of encapsulating the novel’s main themes and storyline. And like much of Dostoevsky, the theological questions of good and evil, sin and redemption, and order and disorder are never far from the surface. For the great Russian author saw deeply into the hearts of his fellow men, particularly those vacuous and empty souls of the fanatical idealists who professed a secular vision of a future socialist and globalist utopia on earth, a paradise without the encumbrances and limits of tradition, tsarist authority, and God. But it was precisely such natural and real lineaments which both regulate our innate freedom of will (so that it may not become license), and also provide a safe and ample space for our existence.
In tracing the evolution of revolutionary thinking personified in his diverse characters, Dostoevsky captures and illustrates—as perhaps no other author before or since—the true nature of evil which inevitably ends not only in the destruction of the individual, but eventually also spurs the dissolution and decay of the social fabric of society.
That evil—and it is pure demonic evil as Dostoevsky reveals in Demons—is all consuming, a madness which he both historically and theologically identifies with rebellion against God and, in his particular view, in opposition to the traditional Russian Orthodox Church. But that meaning is applicable for all of traditional Christianity.
In another Dostoevsky novel, The Brothers Karamazov, his worldly and secular character Ivan makes a statement often expressed as: “If God does not exist, everything is permitted.” By novel’s end he realizes that God does—must—exist, and therefore there must be—and are—rules and law, both divine and human, that must be observed for there to be any kind of human society. Indeed, without them there can be no genuine liberty, no justice, no true happiness.
In Demons the revolutionary cell in Dostoevsky’s imagined provincial town is composed of mostly young members of the upper classes, a couple of disaffected military officers and intellectuals, and the magnetic personality of Nikolai Stavrogin. Stavrogin is highborn, refined, handsome, self-assured, and intelligent. And yet there is, as the narrator of the story informs us, something repellent, deeply cynical, and inherently foul about him. The other revolutionaries are fascinated by him, specifically Pyotr Verkhovensky, perhaps the most loathsome and manipulative character Dostoevsky ever created, a man capable of murder simply on caprice or whim, without any apparent sense or thought of regret. Truly he is a man possessed.
Verkhovensky, who claims to be taking orders from a central committee in St. Petersburg, is bedazzled by Stavrogin and wishes him to lead the revolutionary efforts; but Stavrogin hesitates. In the depths of Stavrogin’s consciousness, there is that awkward awareness of his own misshapen and fatally damaged soul. Finally, after some hesitation, he visits a spiritual guide, Father Tikhon, where he confesses that he has lost any sense of good and evil, and that all that remains is simply avarice. Stavrogin is a man who refuses God, but in his frustration he innately realizes that nothing else can satisfy that emptiness. Indeed, without God, without the fullness of faith, it is the Devil, Evil Incarnate, who fills the void. Without God, everything is permitted.
Ivan Shatov is perhaps the character with whom Dostoevsky most closely identified. He had once idolized Stavrogrin and looked up to him as a potential leader who would inspire Russia to Christian regeneration. Disillusioned, he has now come to regard him as an irresponsible man of idle luxury. Stavrogin, he declares, is driven by a passion for inflicting torment, not merely for the gratification he receives in hurting others, but to torment his own conscience and wallow in amoral carnality.
Verkhovensky detests and hates Shatov, and conceives a plan to assassinate him, for Shatov, he believes, stands in the way of the triumph of the revolution. And, in fact, one of the conspirators lures Shatov to a remote location where he is cruelly murdered, much to the insane delight of Verkhovensky.
But the conspiracy unravels, and the conspirators are arrested or, in the case of Verkhovensky, flee to St. Petersburg where he can again work his revolutionary mischief. And Stavrogin, understanding finally the futility of his life, and understanding more profoundly than any other of the revolutionaries the nature of the revolutionary contagion—a true “demonic possession”—does what for him is the only logical action: he hangs himself. Unable or unwilling to make repentance, and knowing darkly that he has been possessed by demons, but refusing the mercy of God, like a brightly burning supernova, he collapses upon himself, extinguished and damned.
Of all the great counterrevolutionary works—novels, autobiographies, narrations—Dostoevsky’s stands out for its very human, very real description of the sheer personal evil and demonic lunacy of the then-nascent Marxist revolution incubating in Russia. In more recent times, we have a George Orwell, an Arthur Koestler, and an Aleksander Solzhenitsyn who recount what they experienced or what they saw and observed. But it was Dostoevsky who with deep insight visualized it a century earlier, who plumbed the depths of the human psyche and the inherent and personal nature of what is essentially a “revolution against God and Man.”
For the rejection of God as He desires to be known and obeyed through his Word, His law, and through His church does not result in a secular utopia, a kind of secular parousia or Second Coming. The revolutionary madness is, as Dostoevsky declares, a form of possession of men who have misshapen and empty souls which have then been occupied by demons, by evil.
Thus, as I watched Demons I remembered that day over two years ago with its seemingly possessed protesters. I also recalled images flashed across the television screen more recently of our latter-day violent Verkhovenskys and Stavrogins, those deracinated students, wooly-brained woke academicians, effete Hollywood celebrities and media personalities, and political epigones who have turned the American republic into a charnel house where the bones of a once-great nation lie in trash heaps.
Over the past many decades, we have permitted our government to impose on us and much of the world what is termed liberal democracy and something we call “human rights.” But those precepts and vision are of a secular, globalist world where the Verkhovenskys dominate a complacent and obedient population, where our culture has been so infected and so poisoned that, as William Butler Yeats prophesied a century ago, “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
It does not and will not end well. The “American Century,” without the kind of repentance that was offered to Nikolai Stavrogin, and which he would not accept, is over. And despite our insouciance and material gratification, there will be a price, a severe and heavy price to pay.
The Barbarian is discoverable everywhere in this that he cannot make; that he can befog or destroy, but that he cannot sustain; and of every Barbarian in the decline or peril of every civilisation exactly that has been true.
We sit by and watch the Barbarian, we tolerate him; in the long stretches of peace we are not afraid.
We are tickled by his irreverence, his comic inversion of our old certitudes and our fixed creeds refreshes us: we laugh. But as we laugh we are watched by large and awful faces from beyond: and on these faces there is no smile.”
Dostoevsky, through Father Tikhon, reminds us that there is a way out of the fetid and poisonous bog we are drowning in. In his day it was not taken by the revolutionaries who eventually would have their way in Russia and later in the world, with the charnel house counting eventually 100 million victims.
Like Verkovensky, that frenzied youthful demonstrator against Confederate symbols back in March 2019 was possessed, incapable—unlike Stavrogin—of recognizing his diabolical possession.
Good and evil stand in eternal conflict; one must triumph and one must be extinguished. Dostoevsky fully understood that, and so must we.
above: detail of Portrait of Feodor Dostoyevsky , oil on canvas, by Vasily Perov, 1872 (Tretyakov Gallery/Wikimedia Commons)