History and Myth in Demons
Dostoevsky had in the past created fictional characters who, as the embodiment of certain social-cultural ideas and attitudes, could be considered “historical” in a broad sense, but not until Demons (Besy) had he ever based himself on actual events that were a matter of public knowledge. Obviously, his novel is not limited to the actual, rather insignificant dimensions of the Nechaev affair. If this had been the case, “the facts” would have given him only a rather pitiful tale of a distressing event that had occurred among a handful of students and hangerson in the student milieu, who had been duped by a revolutionary zealot into the useless murder of an innocent victim. Rather, this incident furnished only the nucleus of Dostoevsky's political plot, and he enlarged and magnified it, according to the technique of his “fantastic realism,” into a full-blown dramatization of the far more ambitious tactics and aims set down in the writings of Nechaev and his supporters.
What happens in Demons is thus myth (the imaginary amplification of the real) and not history, art and not literal truth—just as Raskolnikov may be considered a “myth” engendered by the “immoderate Nihilism” of Pisarev and Zaitsev. Much of what he learned from the documents at his disposal, in any case, hardly taught him anything new, for he could draw on recollections from his own days as a revolutionary conspirator when his secret group had worked in the shadows to manipulate the larger Petrashevsky Circle. Dostoevsky thus remained faithful to the spirit, if not the letter, of what his documentation revealed about the Nechaev affair.
It may seem, at first sight, as if this monster of deviousness, Peter Verkhovensky—who resembles Shakespeare's Iago as a destructive inciter of evil in others— would be light-years removed from any conceivable image of a nineteenthcentury Russian revolutionary or of the real Nechaev in particular. Yet the actions taken by Peter Verkhovensky with such masterful relish are exactly the same ones that Nechaev accomplished, or would have accomplished had it been within his power to turn desires into deeds.
An indelibly vivid portrait of Nechaev at work is sketched in a letter we are