Terrorist Manifesto: On Dostoevsky’s Demons and the Political Crime

Vadim Shkolnikov, Columbia University

Inasmuch as Dostoevsky endeavors in Demons to conceptualize and come to terms with the evolution of Russian social thought, he remains haunted by a certain notion of “political crime.” The novel presents something like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle of Russian cultural history (from the idealistic aestheticism of the 1840s to the radical utilitarianism of the 1860s to the specter of clandestinely organized violence)—ultimately, in order to demonstrate that the pieces cannot, must not, fit. For Dostoevsky refuses to acknowledge that the stirrings of violent rebellion constitute an organic product of the nation’s sociopolitical development. This paper will describe how Demons, with all its intimations and narrative uncertainties, conjures another text—only to deny it formulation. That text is what I call the “Terrorist Manifesto,” a text that would, perhaps, announce the politicization of violent crime.

Surely, even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, we cannot agree that the social unrest first witnessed by Dostoevsky amounted to a state of temporary insanity, as Demons ultimately postulates. The project of reconstructing Dostoevsky’s worst fears about Russian society aims towards a theoretical elaboration of the intractable and unacknowledged boundaries of the political. In order to suggest an alternative perspective on the social history encapsulated in Demons, my analysis will first turn to Herzen and his “youthful terrorism,” his views on peasant arson, and the fundamental premise of On the Development of Revolutionary Ideas in Russia. The relationship between Bukunin’s “Revolutionary Catechism” and Nechaev’s crimes would further mark the gap in what would be the domain of the “Terrorist Manifesto.” Taking into consideration the fundamental opposition between the terms “politicheskii” and “sotsial’nyi,” as they were used in Russia in the 1860s and 70s, the analysis moves towards reassessing the conspiratorial violence of Demons in terms of the enigmatic notions of “the political crime” proposed in Derrida’s Politics of Friendship, that is, first, “a thinking of that crime in which, allowing for the difference of a repression, the political being of politics, the concept of politics in its most powerful tradition is constituted” and second “the crime against the possibility of politics, against man qua political animal.”