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Although titled The Possessed in the initial English translation, Dostoyevsky scholars and later translations favour the titles The Devils or Demons. An extremely political book, Demons is a testimonial of life in Imperial Russia in the late 19th century. As the revolutionary democrats begin to rise in Russia, different ideologies begin to collide. Dostoyevsky casts a critical eye on both the radical idealists, portraying their ideas and ideological foundation as demonic, and the conservative establishment’s ineptitude in dealing with those ideas and their social consequences. This form of intellectual conservativism tied to the Slavophile movement of Dostoyevsky’s day, called Pochvennichestvo, is seen to have continued on into its modern manifestation in individuals like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Dostoyevsky’s novels focus on the idea that utopias and positivist ideas, in being utilitarian, were unrealistic and unobtainable. The book has five primary characters representing different idiologies. By exploring their differing philosophies, Dostoyevsky describes the political chaos seen in 19th century Russia. [Plot introduction] The novel takes place in a provincial Russian setting, primarily on the estates of Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky and Varvara Stavrogina. Stepan Trofimovich’s son, Pyotr Verkhovensky, is an aspiring revolutionary conspirator who attempts to organize a knot of revolutionaries in the area. He considers Varvara Stavrogina’s son, Nikolai, central to his plot because he thinks Nikolai Stavrogin has no sympathy for mankind whatsoever. Verkhovensky gathers conspirators like the philosophizing Shigalyov, suicidal Kirillov, and the former military man Virginsky, and he schemes to solidify their loyalty to him and each other by murdering Ivan Shatov, a fellow conspirator. Verkhovensky plans to have Kirillov, who was committed to killing himself, take credit for the murder in his suicide note, but his scheme falls apart.
In undertaking to describe the recent and strange incidents in our town, till lately wrapped in uneventful obscurity, I find myself forced in absence of literary skill to begin my story rather far back, that is to say, with certain biographical details concerning that talented and highly-esteemed gentleman, Stepan Trofimovitch Verhovensky. I trust that these details may at least serve as an introduction, while my projected story itself will come later.
I will say at once that Stepan Trofimovitch had always filled a particular role among us, that of the progressive patriot, so to say, and he was passionately fond of playing the part–so much so that I really believe he could not have existed without it. Not that I would put him on a level with an actor at a theatre, God forbid, for I really have a respect for him. This may all have been the effect of habit, or rather, more exactly of a generous propensity he had from his earliest years for indulging in an agreeable day-dream in which he figured as a picturesque public character. He fondly loved, for instance, his position as a “persecuted” man and, so to speak, an “exile.” There is a sort of traditional glamour about those two little words that fascinated him once for all and, exalting him gradually in his own opinion, raised him in the course of years to a lofty pedestal very gratifying to vanity. In an English satire of the last century, Gulliver, returning from the land of the Lilliputians where the people were only three or four inches high, had grown so accustomed to consider himself a giant among them, that as he walked along the streets of London he could not help crying out to carriages and passers-by to be careful and get out of his way for fear he should crush them, imagining that they were little and he was still a giant. He was laughed at and abused for it, and rough coachmen even lashed at the giant with their whips. But was that just? What may not be done by habit? Habit had brought Stepan Trofimovitch almost to the same position, but in a more innocent and inoffensive form, if one may use such expressions, for he was a most excellent man.
I am even inclined to suppose that towards the end he had been entirely forgotten everywhere; but still it cannot be said that his name had never been known. It is beyond question that he had at one time belonged to a certain distinguished constellation of celebrated leaders of the last generation, and at one time–though only for the briefest moment–his name was pronounced by many hasty persons of that day almost as though it were on a level with the names of Tchaadaev, of Byelinsky, of Granovsky, and of Herzen, who had only just begun to write abroad. But Stepan Trofimovitch’s activity ceased almost at the moment it began, owing, so to say, to a “vortex of combined circumstances.” And would you believe it? It turned out afterwards that there had been no “vortex” and even no “circumstances,” at least in that connection. I only learned the other day to my intense amazement, though on the most unimpeachable authority, that Stepan Trofimovitch had lived among us in our province not as an “exile” as we were accustomed to believe, and had never even been under police supervision at all. Such is the force of imagination! All his life he sincerely believed that in certain spheres he was a constant cause of apprehension, that every step he took was watched and noted, and that each one of the three governors who succeeded one another during twenty years in our province came with special and uneasy ideas concerning him, which had, by higher powers, been impressed upon each before everything else, on receiving the appointment. Had anyone assured the honest man on the most irrefutable grounds that he had nothing to be afraid of, he would certainly have been offended. Yet Stepan Trofimovitch was a most intelligent and gifted man, even, so to say, a man of science, though indeed, in science…well, in fact he had not done such great things in science. I believe indeed he had done nothing at all. But that’s very often the case, of course, with men of science among us in Russia.