Few people in the last 200 years understood human nature and mankind’s fallen state quite like Dostoevsky. His uncanny abilities to dissect the pathology of a killer or the spiritual joy of a contented Russian peasant have inspired generations of writers, thinkers, and even psychologists for a century and a half.
But more than simply being an insightful novelist on the human condition, Dostoevsky turned out to be a truly prophetic voice in his predictions of the dangerous and deadly places where certain ideologies and philosophies popular at the time would lead his beloved Russia in particular, and the modern Western world in general.
In the course of a number of his books – The Devils (aka The Possessed) and The Brothers Karamazov, for example – he foretold of the coming socioeconomic and geopolitical nightmares that awaited 20th century societies that would adopt progressivism, nihilism, and socialism as their guiding principles. His words carry with them a deeper weight since Dostoevsky lived during his youth as a progressive ideologue eventually sentenced first to death and then, after a mock execution meant to “get his attention,” to four years of hard labor in Siberia.
He returned a deeply religious man and, after spending a few years in Europe investigating the teachings of leading Western intellectuals, a vehement anti-socialist.
In describing the underlying motivations of the young, radical, rabble-rousing character Peter Verkhovensky in The Devils, Dostoevsky said:
He’s a kind, well-meaning boy, and awfully sensitive…But let me tell you, the whole trouble stems from immaturity and sentimentality! It’s not the practical aspects of socialism that fascinate him, but its emotional appeal – its idealism –what we may call its mystical, religious aspect – its romanticism…and on top of that, he just parrots other people.
Only someone who has known the “other side” of the psychological lines, commiserating among those who wish to tear civilizations and their institutions down from within, can write with such creative specificity.
But again, Dostoevsky’s strength remains the predictive quality of his novels. He identified the strategies the Left would use in the 20th century and their final destinations. Three of these nightmare prophecies stand out: the war on the family, the replacement of old theistic religions for a new (thoroughly secular) one, and the extermination of millions of citizens on behalf of “the cause.”
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.
2) Militant Atheism: The War on God
Socialism, the economic and political theory that advocates for the state to control the means of production and oversee the distribution of resources, was relatively new back in Fyodor’s day, and the assumption among small groups of intellectuals from Moscow to Mexico was that it would inevitably become the way all countries ran their governments, societies, and economies. Dostoevsky not only believed the sincerity in their beliefs, but that their convictions would win out in nations around the globe to cause unprecedented suffering before collapsing under the weight of internal contradictions and weaknesses.
Dostoevsky held that the inherent weakness of the Utopian visions of socialism was a rejection of God and the institution of the family. He saw that for the Left, their politics became their religion. The members of the progressive-Left were demanding that standards of Judeo-Christian morality be replaced with new (arbitrary) standards handed down from central councils and planning committees.
Dostoevsky wrote the following description of the youngest Karamazov brother Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov:
The path he chose was a path going in the opposite direction of many his age, but he chose it with the same thirst for swift achievement. As soon as he reflected seriously on it, he was convinced and convicted of the existence of God and of the immortality of the soul, and at once he instinctively said to himself: “I want to live for immortality with Him and I will accept no compromise.”
In the same way, if he had decided that God and immortality did not exist, he would at once have become an atheist and socialist. For socialism is not merely the labor question, but it is before all things the atheistic question, the question of the form taken by atheism today. It is the question of the tower of Babel built without God, not to mount to Heaven from earth but to set up Heaven on earth.
Dostoevsky believed that if even religious nations could commit heinous acts, a secular state would be capable of unspeakable atrocities.
As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn would later put it: “A great disaster had befallen Russia: Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.”
Side note: In 1958, a film version of The Brothers Karamazov was released and starred Yul Brynner and a young William Shatner. Here’s a clip to whet your appetite:
3) Genocide: The War on Man
From Walter E. Williams’ August 8th column “Liberals, Progressives, and Socialists“:
The unspeakable acts of Adolf Hitler’s Nazis pale in comparison to the horrors committed by the communists in the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the People’s Republic of China. Between 1917 and 1987, Vladimir Lenin, Josef Stalin and their successors murdered and were otherwise responsible for the deaths of 62 million of their own people. Between 1949 and 1987, China’s communists, led by Mao Zedong and his successors, murdered and were otherwise responsible for the deaths of 76 million Chinese. The most authoritative tally of history’s most murderous regimes is documented on University of Hawaii Professor Rudolph J. Rummel’s website here, and in his book “Death by Government.”
The numbers involved stagger the mind. We must shine a spotlight on a truth our modern education system has failed to teach American students: these were all secular, socialist nations that began under the auspices of such lofty-sounding goals as “a workers’ paradise” and “the peoples’ republic.”
Like lambs to the slaughter, millions went simply because dutiful bureaucrats and foot soldiers carried out the orders of philosopher-kings who were ready to sacrifice humanity for the sake of their “rational” and “progressive” and “scientific” system of governance.
And yet this nightmare did not begin to play itself out until a few decades into the 20th century. Some fifty years earlier, a Russian novelist by the name of Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky conceived of characters such as the social theorist “Shigalov” in The Devils who announced to the inner circle of socialist revolutionaries he belonged to the logical long-term plan for ruling the people once the czar was toppled:
Dedicating my energies to the study of the social organisation which is in the future to replace the present condition of things, I’ve come to the conviction that all makers of social systems from ancient times up to the present year, 187-, have been dreamers, tellers of fairy-tales, fools who contradicted themselves, who understood nothing of natural science and the strange animal called man…
I suggest as a final solution of the question the division of mankind into two unequal parts. One-tenth enjoys absolute liberty and unbounded power over the other nine-tenths. The others have to give up all individuality and become, so to speak, a herd, and, through boundless submission, will by a series of regenerations attain primeval innocence, something like the Garden of Eden. They’ll have to work, however. The measures I propose for depriving nine-tenths of mankind of their freedom and transforming them into a herd through the education of whole generations are very remarkable, founded on the facts of nature and highly logical.
To this, the aforementioned ringleader Peter Verkhovensky responds:
“However much you tinker with the world, you can’t make a good job of it, but by cutting off a hundred million heads and so lightening one’s burden, one can jump over the ditch of transforming society more safely. … It’s a new religion, my good friend, coming to take the place of the old one. That’s why so many fighters come forward, and it’s a big movement…
I ask you which you prefer: the slow way, which consists in the composition of socialistic romances and the academic ordering of the destinies of humanity a thousand years hence, while despotism will swallow the savory morsels which would almost fly into your mouths of themselves if you’d take a little trouble; or do you, whatever it may imply, prefer a quicker way which will at last untie your hands, and will let humanity make its own social organisation in freedom and in action, not on paper? They shout “cut off a hundred million heads”; that may be only a metaphor; but why be afraid of it if, with the slow day-dream on paper, despotism in the course of some hundred years will devour not a hundred but five hundred million heads?
What’s one-to-five-hundred million “heads” among friends, right?
Again, keep in mind Dostoevsky penned these words in 1872. Great evils like tyrannical monarchies and human slave-trafficking had existed on planet earth since time began, but this devious mixture of both with a calculated and cavalier attitude toward human life startled those in the 19th century like Dostoevsky who first heard the schemes of the original community organizers (and had the good sense to believe that they’d carry out their plans should they ever gain power).
It’s very difficult for my generation – the current 18 to 35 demographic – to grasp just how much suffering and death and oppression took place in the 20th century. We do not receive a comprehensive version of history in our public schools and institutions of higher education that might shed critical light on ideologies many in academia support. And to be sure, we can’t count on Hollywood and the entertainment industry to pick up any such slack in the culture.
But this matters. Ideas have consequences. Tens of millions died in the last century because of evil ideas.
And if an epileptic, compulsive-gambling, ex-convict in Russia 150 years ago could so accurately peer into the murky future to warn us, the least we can do is simply turn around to take in the much clearer view from this side of world history.
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