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.
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.
“Man is a mystery: if you spend your entire life trying to puzzle it out, then do not say that you have wasted your time. I occupy myself with this mystery, because I want to be a man.” – Fyodor Dostoevsky
Perhaps the best explanation for the Nostradamus-like talents of can be found in this telling quote from a personal letter he sent a friend upon embarking on a career as a writer. Old Fyodor was an astute student of the human condition, but his motivation did not stem simply from academic purposes or from the fact that he wanted something, like political power.
Dostoevsky, believe it or not, actually valued life and wanted to live it more fully. He sought to realize his own purpose and function, and then to share his findings. He believed that just because we can’t know everything about our existence and the ongoing tale of humanity does not mean we cannot know anything. Nearly all of us say we want to find answers; most prematurely resign from the hunt.
Fyodor never did. And as a result, his novels remain as relevant today as they were 150 years ago.
In the first half of this essay on the 20th century sociopolitical nightmares that Dostoevsky predicted in his novels, we identified three specific areas of the culture that the great Russian writer correctly foresaw would suffer under the rise of secularism and socialism: the institution of the family, the private religion of the people, and the value such a nation puts on human life.
Today we will take a peek under the hood of three more important areas of society that would ultimately sit under judgment of the prophetic pronouncements Dostoevsky made in his impressive body of work:
- Economics of Envy: The War on Private Property
- Idolizing the Intellectual: The War on Higher Education
- and Social Engineering: The War on the Individual
4) Economics of Envy – The War on Private Property
Dostoevsky held a deep-rooted distrust and disdain for centralized power. He also despised the decadence exhibited by many among Russia’s elite. He was a man of the people, not of big government nor big business (which, especially in those days, operated under the protective umbrella of big government).
But some misunderstand Dostoevsky’s aversion to “big” as a condemnation of what we know today as free-market capitalism. The caricatures of wealthy robber barons wearing ivory-rimmed monocles or the Monopoly Man lighting cigars with hundred-dollar bills tend to jump to the front of people’s minds any time a discussion of free-market economics presents itself, whether that be around the water-cooler at work or in the pages of a 19th century Russian novel.
I’ve had friends who lean fiscally Left and know my Dostoevsky appreciation ask me what I think of his anti-capitalistic message. My response is simple: Dostoevsky hated centralized power and licentious living among the rich, all while loving concepts such as private property, personal responsibility, stewardship, and creative innovation. He waxed poetically against socialism, Marxism, and those who thought they knew best how to handle other people’s lives. He wrote extensively on how political and economic freedoms were nothing without the rule of law and a citizenry that strove toward a virtuous society.
To most folks “capitalism” is merely an abstract concept, just as “socialism” is merely a label. The issue is values; Dostoevsky hated what we would consider “progressive” economic and political values. He hated them so much, he understood their deep flaws so well, that he chose to write about them in his books, identifying a root motivation that drove so many on the Left in his day: envy (or covetousness).
Last time, I cited his novel The Devils and the characters of Peter Verkhovensky (an ardent socialist radical) and his hapless father Stepan Trofimovich (a man who dabbled in progressivism, which greatly influenced his son’s future radicalism). In an utterly self-serving manner — though insightful — the father Stepan ponders aloud to a friend why it is his son Peter and his progressive friends seem to be so obsessed with money:
I’ve noticed that all these desperate socialists and communists are incredibly stingy, avaricious, and terribly eager to own things. One might even say that the more ardent a socialist a man is, the stronger is his need to accumulate goods. Why is this? Does it stem from the emotional element of their socialism?
As syndicated radio talk show host Dennis Prager often says, more people died in the 20th century because of class warfare than because of racism, homophobia, and sexism combined (and x 1,000,000). The myth perpetrated by every leftist rabble-rouser from Lenin to Hugo Chavez is that they are “men of the people” who care nothing for power or wealth, only the betterment of the proletariat. But what invariably happens is those who began by chanting “eat the rich” begin to eat (and live) like the rich they ate.
In The Devils, Peter Verkhovensky delivers eloquent monologues in front of his acolytes regarding the need to abolish private property and to redistribute wealth back to the peasants. He then spends a large chunk of the novel fighting tooth-and-nail with his father over the sale of property being held in his own name. He wants that money. He wants the finer things in life. He spends all of his time winning the favor and affections of the wealthy and influential people in his hometown. On the surface he says it is all a ploy to bring the system down, but when push comes to shove, Peter is found out to be a power-hungry, money-loving coward.
Why? The simple answer: envy. Dostoevsky believed that even those who started out with the noblest intentions would succumb to the temptations of wealth and power if their mode of “leveling the playing field” included putting themselves chiefly in charge of the leveling. The use of force to take from some to give to others, the abolition of private property, the high-minded refusal to give a man and his family the chance to own their own plot of earth — these were wicked means to disingenuous ends in his mind. Dostoevsky foresaw that the dissolution of private property would spell the end of freedom for any country that adopted it.
To start an ideology on a lie — revolutionary Marxism’s falsehood that all would magically be equal once these new people were in power — was to render it void of morality and to guarantee havoc if ever given power over the population.
As the saintly character Father Zosima put it in The Brothers Karamazov:
A man who lies to himself, and believes his own lies, becomes unable to recognize truth, either in himself or in anyone else, and he ends up losing respect for himself and for others. When he has no respect for anyone, he can no longer love, and in him, he yields to his impulses, indulges in the lowest form of pleasure, and behaves in the end like an animal in satisfying his vices. And it all comes from lying — to others and to yourself.
It is a lie to say that owning property — whatever form this may manifest itself in — is wrong or immoral. Someone is going to own it, and Dostoevsky quickly identified the collectivist mindset was one that would lead to great human suffering. It accelerates envy and greed because it is rooted firmly in both.
5) Idolizing the Intellectual: The War on Higher Education
Dostoevsky was a brilliant man and had great respect for the cultivation and education of the human mind. But as he gained more notoriety and traveled Western Europe in intellectual circles, he took note of the type of people produced by the Western university. What he found troubled him greatly, and his critique of the modern, progressive intelligentsia was biting and sharp in his later works.
For example, in The Brothers Karamazov — what ended up being his final novel — one of the primary characters is a clear illustration of Dostoevsky’s analysis of what contemporary “higher education” was teaching (and the impact it would have on society should the masses follow the intellectual leader). Ivan Fyodorovich Karamazov is the second son of Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, and the middle brother between Dmitri and Alyosha. He possesses a keen mind and excels in any academic endeavor he undertakes. Because of Ivan’s acutely logical mind, one cultivated in institutions of higher learning in the West, the young man demands a rational explanation for everything that happens in the universe. There is no room for faith, religion, or God (although he is stalked by Lucifer in his mind). He even writes a long parable titled “The Grand Inquisitor” in which Christ returns to earth and is rejected by a cardinal for failing to give mankind what the institutions of man were able to give them.
Grandiose ideas fill his head about the relative value of human life, and he comes to justify his hatred of the institution of the family in academic/philosophical terms (when really he simply had a bad childhood and resents it). The end result is a person who believes himself superior to all others and who is willing to manipulate his own convictions so long as they crush those of the “God, Family, Country” class of Russians he detests.
Sound familiar to anyone?
Although he does not kill Fyodor Karamazov directly, the logical extension and practical execution of his ideas and ethos do, and this drives him to madness.
Now, of course Dostoevsky did not believe that all learned men would reject God, inspire murder, and spend the golden years of their life in insane asylums. But he did believe that ideas have consequences, and the ideas confronting him among the highly influential intellectual classes in Europe were, to say the least, troublesome to his traditional values and patriotic spirit.
I’m going to flesh out social engineering, one of the most common ideas he constantly heard perpetuated among the ruling classes, but it must first be re-emphasized that Dostoevsky was no backwoods anti-intellectual. He didn’t hate all ideas about society, government, and economics — he simply hated many of the ideas arrogantly labeled “progressive.” It was the worship of these men, and the acceptance of bad ideas, he loathed.
As Dr. Thomas Sowell has put it in his book Intellectuals and Society: “Some of the biggest cases of mistaken identity are among intellectuals who have trouble remembering that they are not God.”
6) Social Engineering: The War on Individual Liberty
In the 18th and 19th centuries, thinkers such as Robert Owen, Henri de Saint-Simon, and Friedrich Engels began to lay the intellectual groundwork for socialism’s move from a fringe idea to the most dominant sociopolitical force of the 20th century. They rejected private property. They loathed the excesses and exploits of industrialization. They believed in the supremacy of science and the ability of the enlightened human mind to coordinate the activities of millions of less-enlightened human beings.
Social engineering, an irreplaceable plank in the socialist platform, never works because of the complexities of even the simplest societies. The socialist committed to science and logic is left floating in the wind with an idea that doesn’t produce the results their theories promised.
It is here that the secular collectivist and socialist, realizing that no matter how hard they try they can never fully eradicate man’s primal desire for higher truths and objective standards, begins to invoke language that is soaked in moral, religious connotations.
Words like “justice,” “compassion,” and “fairness” are bandied about on the Left by everyone from Karl Marx to Bill Maher. To compound the confusing, contradictory positions they take, socialists seek out religious leaders sympathetic to their anti-capitalist, anti-establishment message.
Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground was written, at least in part, in response to the influential novel What Is To Be Done? by a Russian critic named Nikolai Chernyshevsky. Chernyshevsky was a socialist, and was heavily influenced by the Utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Like many progressives of his day, Chernyshevsky was certain that human beings are nothing more than the product of their environment, and given the relevant environment, they could be directed to act as saints or as the lowest scoundrels. Thus, what was needed, according to the logic here, is a revolution which would overthrow the Tsarist system prevalent in Russia, and supplant it with a socialist system that would improve the people by providing them with an environment that would create peaceful, productive citizens
Dostoevsky took issue with the notion that human being were anything less than autonomous actors. He despised the notion that levers being pulled in some far-off capital would “fix” anything at all. To get philosophical for a moment, Dostoevsky rejected the idea of determinism, a consequence of which is that people are not really responsible for their own actions. Constantly recurring in his works are themes of individual responsibility, the importance of the irrational (or unexplained) as opposed to cold reason, and the importance of suffering as a purifying influence on the soul.
These ideas and values of a passionate individual who prognosticated the disastrous results of the 20th century should caution leaders in enough countries seeking to silence and suppress the individuals comprising their nation’s population. We would have done well to heed his warnings sooner, but we’d be nothing short of fools to ignore them now.
image courtesy shutterstock / aldorado