Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s the Possessed (often called Demons in more modern English translations), translated by Andrew MacAndrew, was one of those books. The book is the story of a provincial town in late tsarist Russia that undergoes a short period of chaos when some sons of the town’s prominent citizens return from abroad, university studies, or time in Russia’s crown-jewel cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg. The young men come back with anarchist, atheist, and nihilist views and what seems like a role in an overarching plan to bring down the established government. The young men play off the fears of the older members of the town’s citizenry, which aren’t really fears of government or the future, but more about their place in society and other more mundane fears. Doing this, they wreak havoc messing with romances and balls, get involved with the town’s convicted felons, and even murder someone. What was probably the saddest part of the novel was how after the murder, the victim’s wife and newborn son died. All of it was caused by the anarchists working to spread their ideas and being willing to eliminate their opponents if necessary. After the murder, the anarchists were mostly dealt with by the authorities and things fell back into their routine in the town after a shake-up in the government. Other than the misery they caused, the atheist anarchists accomplished nothing, and that was probably Dostoyevsky’s point in writing the novel: atheism, anarchism, and nihilism are sure ways to bring about one’s destruction and the destruction of those around us. He also noted, as another of the novel’s characters died, that a firm belief in God and Jesus Christ was a sure antidote to those negative philosophies.
As predicted, the novel had dark, brooding, misguided, and certifiably insane characters. It was honestly kind of hard to get through at times. It’s not the kind of book that you pick up one afternoon and finish later that evening because you just couldn’t put it down. On the other hand, it’s very well written, and easy to follow the story, if not always the philosophy of some of the characters, which is probably just because the ideas of nihilism and anarchy are such fringe ideas in our current society. By the end of the book, even with all of the death and destruction that many people consider to be hallmarks of Russian literature, I was a fan. It showed very clearly the depths to which the philosophies of nihilism, atheism, and anarchism can lead people. They lead to destruction on a personal and societal level. They lead to spiritual and physical destruction. While Dostoyevsky didn’t focus on the Christian message very much, he made the point clearly that to redeem oneself and to redeem the human condition, one must accept God and live by the standards that acceptance demands. That is a message worth reading any time.
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