Stepan Verkhovensky’s “Dangerous” Poem in Dostoevsky’s Devils

Michael Katz, Middlebury College

In Part One, Chapter One of Dostoevsky’s Devils [Besy], the always entertaining and rarely reliable narrator, Mr. G-v [Govorov], describes a “dangerous” poem written by the young Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky. Although he characterizes the work as “some sort of allegory in lyrical-dramatic form, reminiscent of the second part of [Goethe’s] Faust,” as early as 1902 a scholar of Russian culture, Professor Evgenii Bobrov, in a study entitled Literature and Enlightenment in Russia in the 19th Century (Kazan’), identified the principal source of Dostoevsky’s parody as a work written in 1837-38 entitled “Pot-Pourri, or Ask for What you Want” by the extraordinary and eccentric figure, Vladimir Pecherin (1807-85). The central part of that work, called “The Triumph of Death,” was first published by Alexander Herzen in his Polyarnaya zvezda (1861, No. 6), and subsequently republished in a collection entitled Russian Secret Literature of the 19th Century (London, 1861) edited by Nikolai Ogarev. Stepan’s “dangerous” poem merits consideration on three separate, but related grounds: first, it constitutes a brilliant parody of romantic idealism of the 1830s; second, it is a display of the Dostoevsky’s humor at its most delicious and vicious; and third, it provides an early and often overlooked outline of the main religious theme of the entire novel and in so doing, prophecies its conclusion. This paper undertakes a close reading of Pecherin’s text and a comparison with Dostoevsky’s parody and reveals the wealth of material Dostoevsky had at his disposal and the choices he made. It describes in detail the stylistic devices used to establish bathos (rather than pathos) as the overall tonality of the work. But even more important, given that Dostoevsky’s novel is a profound study of the theme of atheism, it is in this brilliant and wicked parody of Pecherin’s “Triumph of Death” that Dostoevsky first announces his fundamental religious theme, the idea that he will spend the next seven hundred pages refuting. And it is none other than Stepan Trofimovich, author of this atheistic parody, who becomes the primary vehicle for articulating the author’s cherished spiritual message shortly after his departure on his “last journey” in search of Russia, his encounter with the Gospel woman, Sofya Ulitina, and his final confession (“profession de foi”) to Varvara Stavrogina. The ironies proliferate: it was Vladimir Pecherin who had left Russia in 1836 for religious, political, and intellectual reasons – the author of the sacrilegious and atheistic poem Dostoevsky parodies – who then converts from Russian Orthodoxy to Roman Catholicism, a religion that Dostoevsky had nothing but contempt for, and who spends the rest of his life as a preacher, missionary, monk, and chaplain in Western Europe. Which was worse? Pecherin’s early atheism or his subsequent conversion to Catholicism? From Dostoevsky’s perspective, both were fatally flawed and equally reprehensible: there was only one correct answer, and Stepan discovers it in the arms of his two women.