1) Generational Sins: The War on the Family
Before our philosophy of life develops, before our religious worldview forms, before our political convictions solidify — there exists the family. Dostoevsky’s novels and short stories are packed with familial themes because, apart from his later Christian faith, his experiences as a child and young adult had profound and lasting consequences — just as they do for all of us.
No big secret here.
But where Dostoevsky’s study of the institution of the family and its relation to society and politics goes from “some fairly obvious observations” to “a wealth of discerning insights” comes in just how much importance for almost everything he places at the feet of the family. His respect for this sacred institution only increased with age as he began to comprehend progressives’ militant disdain for the family, for marriage, and for any other type of education save the kind they — the revolutionaries who would one day rule the nation — provided. Consequently, Dostoevsky’s later books, such as The Adolescent, Brothers, and Devils, focus on these themes with characters overwhelmed by their family’s past.
In Devils, the character Peter Verkhovensky poses as a beguiling and well-connected socialist dissident. We learn that his father, a former professor named Stepan Trofimovich, abandoned him as a child to be raised by intellectuals at various academies and universities. Peter’s odd choice of his own home province in the Russian countryside for the site of a cultural coup suddenly makes more sense: he wants to make his dad and those in the community suffer and feel humiliation. He craves payback for a miserable childhood. And what better way than to pose as a “man of the people” who is simply trying to overthrow greedy capitalists and oppressive religious traditions?
The reality: Stepan Trofimovich did in fact abandon his son. And the seeds of skepticism and rebellion against authority that Stepan’s generation had sown appeared fully realized in their offspring.
The results were disastrous. Just as they are in any culture where abdication of the primal duty to take care of your own children is tolerated (or worse still, encouraged). Because Stepan Stepan Trofimovich disregarded his family, and consequently his son grew up to want to destroy everyone else’s.
But the attack on the family, and the exploitation of the difficult or disillusioned childhoods many young people in 1870s Russia experienced, was not enough. Progressives knew this, and so did Dostoevsky. For even in the worst of circumstances, in the most broken of homes, faith still endured in the hearts of many Russians. Like Alyosha, the saintly youngest brother in Brothers Karamazov, the spiritual convictions of millions in Mother Russia would not die only through the undermining of the family. Something bigger had to be done. Someone bigger had to go.
They needed to murder God.