Editor’s Note: This article was first published in two parts here and here as “Dostoevsky’s 6 Nightmare Prophecies That Came True in the 20th Century” It is being reprinted as part of a new weekend series at PJ Lifestyle collecting and organizing the top 50 best lists. Where will this great piece end up on the list? Reader feedback will be factored in when the PJ Lifestyle Top 50 List Collection is completed in a few months… Click here to see the top 25 so far and to advocate for your favorites in the comments.
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.