Print Essay | Close Window


by F. Derek Chisholm

(please note that some formatting has been lost from the original essay)


In 1873 Fyodor Dostoevsky published his novel Demons1. The novel recounts the intrigues of a group of political conspirators that culminate with the murder of one of their group members at the instigation of their leader. Two theses are developed in this paper. The first thesis is that the novel Demons accurately applies New Testament texts from Luke's gospel and Revelation on the demonic to Russian political extremism and the foundations of Russian communism. Second, that the formation of Russian communism by Lenin and Stalin provides an insightful case study of the demonic in politics.

Section II briefly outlines the novel's content and its relationship to excerpts from Luke's gospel and Revelation. Section III examines the novel in relation to the life experiences of the Vladimir Ilich Lenin who founded Russian communism, and Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin2 who was Lenin's successor. Section IV concludes the paper by commenting briefly on the relationship between the political and the demonic.


This section begins with a brief summary of Dostoevsky's novel Demons. Then the novel's plot and central ideas are discussed in relation to the New Testament texts from Luke's gospel and Revelation on the demonic.

The Novel
Dostoevsky's Demons is the third of his four great murder novels, which also include: Crime and Punishment (published 1866), The Idiot (published 1868) and The Brothers Karamazov (published 1880). It is fascinating that Dostoevsky built the central theme in Demons (his second last novel) around a conception of evil and the demonic similar to what is put forward by Boyd (1997). However, in his last novel, Dostoevsky builds his plot on the alternative, more philosophical conception of evil (that Boyd (1997)attributes to St. Augustine)3 as a foundation.

The theme of Demons is the arrival in Russia of supposedly rational, secular ideas from Western Europe that turn out to be demons. Dostoevsky's novel is based on his personal experiences associated with an actual political conspiracy murder. In 1869 Dostoevsky resided in Dresden, Germany, where he was visited by his brother-in-law, Ivan Snitkin, who was a student at the Moscow Agricultural College. Snitkin recounted to Dostoevsky a powerful story about his fellow student, Ivan Ivanov, who had been a Nihilist4, but who changed his convictions. Shortly after the departure of Dostoevsky's brother-in-law, Ivan Ivanov was murdered on November 21, 1869 by five of his former Nihilist associates. The man who was imprisoned for the murder was Sergei Nechaev. Nechaev was a Nihilist leader who had recently returned to Russia from western Europe, where he had been a disciple of Mikhail Bakunin.5

With a mandate from Bakunin's International Brotherhood Nechaev organized a series of cells that ere conspiratorial groups of five individuals each that operated within Russia during the late 1860s in a terrorist organization called "The People's Justice" or "People's Retribution". Their objective was to provoke an uprising throughout all of Russia on February 19, 1870, which was the ninth anniversary of the abolition of serfdom in Russia. However, the conspiracy was derailed because Ivanov objected to Nechaev's dictatorial methods and fraudulent techniques. Nechaev responded to Ivanov's objections by instigating the cell to a group murder of Ivanov that was intended to smother any other further deviations within the cell. The group murder of Ivanov led Nechaev to flee abroad, but he was eventually apprehended and returned to Russia for trial.

Dostoevsky's novel re-casts Ivanov's murder as the plot for Demons. This lengthy novel6 narrates the infectious radicalism that occurs when a group of political radicals move into an unnamed provincial town where little has occurred since the arrival of Stepan Verkhovensky. Verhovensky is a somewhat dated and pretentious flunky from the liberal Russian circles of the 1840s who becomes attached to the Stavrogin household where he tutors the children. Stephan Trofimovich Verkhovensky is portrayed as a liberal, but his son Pyotr is portrayed as a murderous conspirator who lures the jaded Nikolai Stavrogin to lead a group of political conspirators. Stavrogin in turn becomes a perplexing presence who leads a cell of political conspirators that intend to completely overthrow the prevailing political and social structure. He is a powerful and attractive, but evil personality that engenders evil aspirations in each of his troubled followers within his conspiratorial political cell. He arranges for his wife to be murdered and sexually abuses a young girl. One of the conspirators, called Kirillov, is a completely isolated individual who believes that Stavrogin has "inspired" him to believe that his suicide can change the world. However, Kirillov's eventual suicide does nothing to change the world. Shigalov is the theoretician of the cell and he summarizes their creed by claiming that "I begin by proposing unlimited freedom, but end in absolute despotism." Another conspirator is Shatov, who is an idealistic nationalist, and believes that Stavrogin has inspired his nationalism.

Shatov loses his faith in the cause and the other conspirators decide that he must be executed, believing that execution will weld together the other conspirators7. The "mighty undertaking" of Shatov's murder is completed but it fails to bind the conspirators together and their leader Stavrogin loses his taste for leading a revolutionary movement. Stavrogin refuses to proceed further with the political aspirations of the conspirators. He proved to be only temporarily intrigued by ideas that lead to cynical, small-scale and crude social engineering experiments and murders or suicides of his associates. Their deaths intoxicate Stavrogin with the baseness of his actions. Ultimately, his boredom with these actions and his possession by evil spirits is still so strong that he feels shame at being remorseful about the murders and suicides that he instigated. Stavrogin's arrogance ravages his conscience and leads him to not only renounce faith in God, but also to renounce an atheistic rejection of God. Stavrogin's life has no meaning and the novel concludes with his suicide.

The Novel and the New Testament
The name for the novel's central character, "Stavrogin" is a Russian word that is derived from the Greek word "stavros," which is equivalent to the English word cross. Stavrogin is a cross and his fate in the novel symbolizes secular Russia's rejection of God and her sacrifice by demonic ideas about social and political change. The novel uses ideas that were derived from New Testament texts in Luke's gospel and the book of Revelation relating to the demonic.8

Demons opens with Luke 8: 32 - 36, which serves as the epigraph for the entire novel. This passage from Luke's gospel is an excerpt from the healing of the Gerasene demoniac that is narrated in Luke 8: 26 - 399. Before he began writing the novel, Dostoevsky confided to a friend how he saw the application of this portion of Luke's gospel to Russian conditions:

This [i.e., the description in Luke 8:32-36] is exactly the way it has gone with us...The evil spirits have come out of the Russians and have entered into a herd of swine - Nechayev [sic] and his peers in other words. They have either already drowned or will do so in the future, but he who is cured, he whom the evil spirits have left, sits at the feet of Jesus. Indeed that is how it had to be. Russia has vomited up the swinishness with which it has been fed, and in these vomited-up scoundrels there is of course nothing that is Russian left. And mark this, dear friend: he who loses his people and his nationality loses also the faith of his fathers and his God. That is also the theme of my novel. It is called Evil Spirits [sic], and is a description of how these evil spirits have entered into a herd of swine. Kjetsaa (1987, p. 252-3).

The eventual novel envisages the evil spirits not as "coming out of the Russians" but as coming to the Russians as foreign secular ideas that are imported by "Nechaev and his peers." Dostoevsky's copy of the New Testament indicates that he believed the book of Revelation was an eschatologically prophetic book that was being fulfilled within late nineteenth century Russia. This is a variation on the futurist scheme for interpreting the book of Revelation.10 This approach to interpreting Revelation insists that the visions in the book are forecasts of what will occur toward the end of this present age and usher in Christ's return.

Pytor Verkhovensky and Nikolai Stavrogin are described in ways that are derived from images that are presented of Satan's two evil accomplices in Revelation 13. In his chapter entitled "The Cunning Serpent," Dostoevsky introduces Pytor Verkhovensky into the novel with a description that is strongly suggestive of a snake:

No one would call him bad-looking, but no one likes his face. His head is elongated towards the back and is flattened on the sides, giving his face a sharp look. His forehead is high and narrow, but his features are small-eyes sharp, lips long and thin. Dostoevsky (1994 [1873], p. 179).

Based on Dostoevsky's annotations of his New Testament, Kjetsaa (1987, p. 253-6) shows that Verkhovensky is modeled after the beast that rose out of the earth in Chapter 13 of the book of Revelation. Snakes rise out of the earth and have an association with Satan and the perpetration of evil that goes way back. Stavrogin is modeled after the beast from the sea described in Revelation 13:11-18. Stavrogin is described as being a "beast of prey" that has "ungovernable wildness" and "superhuman strength." In the book of Revelation the beast that rose out of the earth prepares the way for the beast that rose out of the sea. In the novel Verkhovensky prepares the way as Stavrogin's subservient follower:

"Stavrogin, you are beautiful!" Pyotr Stepanovich cried out, almost in ectacsy. "Do you know that you are beautiful! The most precious thing in you is that you sometimes don't know it. Oh, I've studied you! I've often looked at you from the side, from a corner! There's even simpleheartedness and naivety in you, do you know that? There is, there still is! You must be suffering, and suffering in earnest, from this simpleheartedness. I love beauty. I am a nihilist, but I love beauty. Do nihilists not love beauty? They just don't love idols, but I love an idol! You are my idol! You insult no one, yet everyone hates you; you have the air of being everyone's equal, yet everyone is afraid of you-this is good. No one will come up and slap you on the shoulder. You're a terrible aristocrat. An aristocrat, when he goes among democrats, is captivating! It's nothing for you to sacrifice life, your own or someone else's. You are precisely what's needed. I, I need precisely such a man as you. I know no one but you. You are a leader, you are a sun, and I am your worm...'

He suddenly kissed his hand. A chill ran down Stavrogin's spine, and he jerked away his hand in fright. They stopped. Dostoevsky (1994 [1873], p.419).

Verkhovensky becomes even more like the beast that rose out of the earth as described in Revelation 13:13 "even causing fire to come down from heaven to earth in full view of men" (NIV). In the novel Verkhovensky sets the fire that kills Stavrogin's wife. Also in Revelation, the beast that rose out of the earth is given the power "to give breath to the image of the first beast, so that it could speak and cause all who refused to worship the image to be killed," Revelation 13:15 (NIV). In the novel, the above excerpt reveals how Verkhovensky attempted to "give breath" to Stavrogin. He also instigates the murder of Shatov, who refused to worship the idol of socialism.

Dostoevsky thus synthesizes material from Luke's gospel and the book Revelation to remold Nachaev's murder of Ivanov into his novel Demons, which is his third great murder novel. The prophetic aspects of this novel can be discerned in the light of recent new historical evidence on the foundations of Russian communism.


Recent biographies of Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin11 that make use of new documentary evidence from archival sources that were previously closed, permits us to compare Dostoevsky's Demons with the evidence from the new historical accounts. This section begins by sketching the central features of Marxism and its transformation into Marxism-Leninism. Then the new biographical information on Lenin and Stalin will be examined in relation to Dostoevsky's Demons.

Marxism and Marxism-Leninism
Marxism is a philosophy that combines the economic model of the English political economist David Ricardo with the idealist philosophy of history developed by Georg Wilhelm Hegel. Ricardo's model was developed to explain the distribution of national income between landlords, capitalists and labourers, while Hegel's philosophy of history explains historical change as the outcome of a three stage process - thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. Marx attempted to weld together Ricardo's model and Hegel's philosophy into the materialist interpretation of history, which he believed could scientifically explain how history occurs.

Marxist doctrines received a distinctive twist in Lenin's works. While the Marxist scheme emphasizes the key role of advances in production technology, Lenin shifts the emphasis to class hatreds. Lenin's writings are premised on acceptance of the dubious assumption that early 20th century western capitalist economies had eliminated scarcity and consequently the prevailing class structure, comprising owners and workers was now obsolescent. Hatred of workers for capitalist owners is a basic necessity in Lenin's view, since it is assumed that the capitalist system has become obsolescent. Lenin's writings and his leadership of Russia were premised on another serious modification of Marxist doctrine. Marx had overwhelming faith in spontaneous revolutionary outbursts by workers that would revolutionize the social structure. However, Lenin was firmly committed to revolutionary outburst as the task of small conspiracy of specialists. Lenin's modification of Marx established the direction for the foundations of Russian communism.

Lenin as the Beast That Came Up From the Earth
Lenin's career is central for the foundations of Russian communism. It is generally agreed that he shaped the revolution in a more forceful way than any of his fellow conspirators. I believe that the new historical evidence that has recently become available reveals that Lenin's life has parallels to the Pytor Verkhovensky figure in Dostoevsky's Demons.

Vladimir Illich Ulyanov was born in 1870 at Simbirsk on the Volga River about 600 miles southeast of Moscow. His maternal grandfather was Jewish and his father was an inspector of state schools. There were seven children in the family (three boys and four girls). It was a middle class family that esteemed academic achievement. Lenin's mother even inherited a landed estate and the income derived from this estate supported Lenin throughout most of his life.

Lenin's older brother, Alexander, achieved high grades in the local Simbirsk schools and won a place at St. Petersburg University where he studied science. Lenin esteemed his brother's intelligence and achievement and also sought to achieve academic success himself. However, the family's entire situation changed drastically in 1886 and 1887. In January 1886 Lenin's father, Dimitri Illich, died suddenly at the age of 53 from a brain haemorrhage. In St. Petersburg, Lenin's older brother became involved in a political conspiracy to assassinate the Czar. The conspiracy was discovered and in a spectacular trial Alexander refused to plead for clemency and was executed. This led to the isolation and alienation of the Ulyanov family from the provincial Russian society where they had once been firmly established. The alienation and isolation undoubtedly hardened Lenin's personality and led him to burn with a pronounced hatred for the existing social structure.

Lenin followed in the mold of his brother. He was an academic achiever who excelled in the classics. However, he quickly became a political protester when he entered the University of Kazan, from which he was soon permanently expelled. He eventually qualified as a lawyer by completing correspondence courses, but his career as a lawyer lasted for only 18 months. He became increasingly involved with political conspirators and lived in exile throughout western Europe on the income derived from his mother's estate. His political career took a decisive turn in 1903 when he split the Russian Social Democratic Party into two factions - Mensheviks (meaning minority faction) and Bolsheviks (meaning majority faction). He emerged as the undisputed leader of the Bolsheviks, who were a much smaller group, firmly committed to violent overthrow of the Russian government and establishment of a dictatorship.

In the absence of World War I the Bolsheviks would most likely have remained a splinter group of political conspirators with little impact on Russia. Russia's lackluster participation in the war engendered widespread domestic apathy that contributed to an overthrow of the government in February 1917. Russia's new leaders promised to initiate democratic reforms and also continue the war against Germany. However, the German leadership wanted Russia out of the war and established contact with Lenin and his fellow conspirators in Switzerland. Lenin was promised a "sealed train" across Germany through Sweden and Finland to Russia and was given large amounts of money12 to lobby for peace. He returned to St. Petersburg in April 1917 an immediately began plotting the overthrow of the three-month old provisional government. An initial July 1917 attempt to seize power was unsuccessful and Lenin escaped to Finland to direct the next seizure of power in November. Lenin's directives promised that the Bolsheviks would bring peace by taking Russia out of the war, provide land to the landless peasants, and end the hunger that was increasingly evident. These promises were the exact opposite of what eventually occurred, but conflicts between what is promised and what occurs is characteristic of the demonic in politics, as Dostoevsky's novel emphasized.

The eventual November seizure of power was less of a heroic, mass uprising than the achievement of a fanatical fringe group against a vacillating and confused regime. In power, Lenin proved to be much like the fictional Pytor Verkhovensky figure in Dostoevsky's Demons. Recent scholarship has noted that the Sergei Nechaev who had inspired Dostoevsky's novel was an important influence on Lenin:

The Bolshevik Vladimir Bonch-Bruevich recalled Lenin discussing Nechaev, who had been depicted by Dostoevsky in his novel The Possessed, [sic] which fictionalized the murder of a student by Nechaev and his 'Secret Reprisal' [sic] group: "Even the revolutionary milieu was hostile to Nechaev, forgetting", Lenin said, "that he possessed a special talent as an organizer, a conspirator, and a skill which he could wrap up in staggering formulations." ' [Lenin] also approvingly quoted Nechaev's reply to the question of which of the house of the Romanovs should be killed: 'The entire House of Romanov!' Volkogonov (1994, p. 22).

Lenin instigated the November revolution with public promises of peace, land for the peasants and bread.
Instead of peace, the Communist seizure of power led to a humiliating surrender to the Germans. Under the Brest-Litovsk Treaty of March 1918 Russia was forced to surrender 34 per cent of her population (55 million people), 32 per cent of her agricultural land, 54 per cent of her industrial enterprises and 89 per cent of her coal mines.13 In power, the new regime was distinguished by hatreds, which are the distinguishing feature of Marxism-Leninism. Lenin in power has been accurately described as:

...a man of one dimension. He hated the autocracy, the bourgeoise, landowners, Mensheviks, Socialist Revolutionaries, kulaks, the clergy, religion, liberals, the lower middle class, parliaments, reformism, compromise, social democracy, the Russian intelligentsia, the hesitant and confused - all those who were not on his side. He hated the entire old world, and therefore once the Bolsheviks were in power, it had to be swept away... (Volgokonov (1998, p.2-3).

Instead of peace the new regime's perverse, demonic outlook led to painful destructive civil war from 1919 until 1922, which led to the deaths of 13 million and the exile of an additional two million. In the midst of the civil war Lenin was loyal to his hero, Nachaev and arranged the execution of the entire Romanov family. Instead of the bread that had been promised, poor weather conditions and the disruptions of the civil war led to five million deaths in the Volga famine of 1921-2.

Lenin seized power in his 48th year. Prior to the seizure of power he had earned his own income by working for only 18 months, so the stress of completely destroying the old and building a new society endangered his health. New documentary evidence reveals that in 1920 and 1921, Lenin believed that he was going insane. His health deteriorated further in 1922 and 1923 as a result of a series of strokes that culminated with his death in January 1924 at the age of 54. Lenin has characteristics of the demonic that correspond with those of the beast that rose out of the earth in the book of Revelation. In Revelation the beast that rose out of the earth has the power "to give breath to the image of the first beast, so that it could speak and cause all who refused to worship the image to be killed." This characteristics of first beast that rose out of the sea bear remarkable similarities to Lenin's successor, Joseph Stalin.

Stalin as the Beast That Came Up From the Sea
Lenin was the founder of Russian communism, but Joseph Stalin was its most powerful practitioner. It was once claimed that Stalin was an aberration and that he twisted Lenin's views. However, the new evidence reveals that Stalin built firmly on the foundations that Lenin had established. Stalin's life also has close parallels to the Nikolai Stavrogin figure in Dostoevsky's Demons.

Iosef Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili was a Georgian who was born in 1879 at Gori in Georgia. His parents were poor peasants, who later became poor town-dwellers. They had three sons, but Michael and George both died before reaching their first birthday. Stalin's father, Vissarion, was an alcoholic cobbler who frequently beat his wife and son. These undeserved punishments hardened Joseph and he soon developed a cunning approach to interpersonal relationships that became a distinguishing characteristic. Stalin's mother, Yekaterina, was very dedicated to her son and she arranged for his acceptance at Gori Theological School and Tiflis Seminary where he studied for 10 years. As a student Stalin showed "boundless interest in both the Old and New Testaments, and assimilating religious texts faster than the other boys, he tried to comprehend the notion of the one God as the bearer of absolute good, absolute power and absolute knowledge." Volkogonov (1991, p. 6). However, sometime after the completion of his seminary training and the beginning of his priesthood, Stalin became completely enchanted with Marxism and radical conspiratorial politics.

Unlike Lenin, Stalin's periodic imprisonments for political conspiracies after 1901 never led him to flee abroad. He remained a relatively minor figure in the October 1917 seizure of power, but Lenin gave him responsibility for the nationalities that had made up the Russian imperial empire. When Lenin's health began to fail he gave Stalin greater responsibilities. However, as Lenin approached death in during 1923 and 1924 he became apprehensive about Stalin and his approach to politics. Shortly before his death Lenin wrote an extremely critical appraisal of Stalin, but Stalin arranged for its concealment. Upon Lenin's death in January 1924 Stalin began his devious yet skillful ascent to the Soviet leadership. By 1928 he achieved his objective and the most brutal phase of Communism soon began. As the absolute dictator, Stalin began the collectivization of agriculture and the forced industrialization of the economy. Collectivization of agriculture was disastrous. From1930 to 1935 the collectivization of agriculture cost 9.5 million lives. Of these, more than a third had been shot or tortured to death, or perished on the long death marches into exile, or had died in the frozen wastes of Siberia and the far north. The remainder died from famine. The agricultural sector was never able to adequately feed the population.

The aspect of Stalin's rule that most clearly reveals the demonic and most closely parallels Dostoevsky's Demons are the notorious purges of the 1930s. Like Stavrogin, Stalin became a "beast of prey" with "ungovernable wildness" that arranged murders of most of the Bolsheviks who had seized power in 1917. The 'great purge' of 1937-9 led to the arrest of five million people and the execution of almost a million, Volkogonov (1998, p.105). Stalin always claimed that he was loyally and faithfully implementing Lenin's ideas. Millions of Lenin statutes were erected and Stalin caused "those who would not worship the image of the beast to be killed." (Revelation 13:15) Nikolai Bukharin, who was an Bolshevik14 expressed the demonic presence in Stalin as follows:

[Stalin] is even unfortunate in not being able to convince everyone, including himself, that he is bigger than everyone. If someone can speak better than he can, that person is doomed, as he won't remain alive, because that man is a constant reminder to him that he is not the first, not the very best. If someone writes better than he writes, that person is in trouble...this is a little, evil man, no, not a man, a devil." Volkogonov (1998 p. 97).

The purges of the 1930s also cut out the elite of the armed services, which enabled Germany's Russian invasion of 1941 to almost succeed.


The case study of Russian communism, as shaped by the life and work of Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin, fulfills the prophetic insights of Dostoevsky's novel Demons. Lenin's political attitude and outlook is the tragic consummation of the attitude and outlook of Pytor Verkhovensky in the novel. The debatable aspects of Marxism, which is nothing more than a curious mixture of German philosophy, French politics and British political economy became an instrument of the devil. Lenin implemented his demonic ideas as the beast that came up from the earth. Stalin's further implementation of Lenin's demonic ideas is the tragic consummation of the attitude and outlook of Nikolai Stavrogin in Dostoevsky's Demons. As the beast who came up from the sea Stalin shaped Russian communist outlooks and attitudes in ways that lasted until the collapse of the Soviet Union and Russian communism in 1991.

Lenin, Stalin and Russian communism provide an insightful case-study in how the demonic infects the political. Chapter 13 of Revelation introduces Satan's two evil accomplices. The beast that rises out of the earth and the beast that rises out of the sea. Together, these three evil beings formed a demonic trinity in opposition to God the father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Similarly, Marx the Father wrote the foundational texts for his son, Vladimir Lenin and his spirit Joseph Stalin. This latter unholy trinity attempted to overthrow both the church and civilization. However, the new historical evidence that has recently become available makes it clear that they have been thrown into history's lake of fire and sulfur like the beasts in the book of Revelation.

Boyd, Gregory (1997) God at War: The Bible and Spiritual Conflict, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor (1994 [1873]) Demons: A Novel in Three Parts, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, New York: Knopf.

Figes, Orlando (1996) A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924, London: Pimlico.

Gleason, Abbott (1985) "Nihilism," in Handbook of Russian Literature, Victor Terras editor, New Haven: Yale University Press.

Kjetsaa, Geir (1987) Fyodor Dostoyevsky: A Writer's Life, translated by Siri Hustvedt and David McDuff, New York: Viking.

Service, Robert (2000) Lenin: A Biography, Cambridge Mass: Harvard University Press.

Smith, Warren, (1962) "Revelation," in The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, Charles F.Pfeiffer and Everett F. Harrison, editors Chicago: Moody Press.

Volkogonov, Dimitri, (1991) Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy, translated and edited by Harold Shukman, New York: Grove Weidenfeld.

--------------------------, (1994) Lenin: A New Biography, translated and edited by Harold Shukman, New York: Free Press.

--------------------------, (1998) Autopsy for an Empire: The Seven Leaders who Built The Soviet Regime, translated and edited by Harold Shukman, New York: Free Press.

Print Essay | Close Window