THE HISTORICAL CONTEXT FOR THE DEVILS
An understanding of the historical context of The Devils is key for understanding the statements Dostoevsky was trying to make about the revolutionary movement. Dostoevsky was a man of the 1830's-40's. This first generation of Russian thinkers built itself on German Romanticism and Idealism. Their literary culture was stimulated by Belinsky to address the 'burning questions' of the time. Belinsky, the editor of some major journals, established an ethic in Russian literature to only write for the purpose of making a statement. As a result, writers like Herzen, Chaadayev, and Turgenev focused on questions like: What is art? What is History? What is Philosophy?
The young men of this generation were the first intellectual revolutionaries and liberals. They advocated the end of serfdom, and realized their goal when Alexander II emancipated the serfs in 1861. However, the subsequent social reform did not change much, and as a result it appeared as though the romantic, idealistic intellectuals had failed to accomplish anything.
The subsequent generation, the intellectual youth of the '60's, would have no time for romanticism and idealism. Thus a generation gap formed, rivaled only by the one that occurred in America 100 years later. The youth of the '60's would not submit to any authority, denied everything. They shunned romanticism and the arts, embraced rationalism and science. It was in Turgenev's Fathers and Son's, a book about this generation gap, that the term for such an ideology was coined. He called it Nihilism. These youth became increasingly radical as the decade progressed. In the beginning they were stressing realism in art (Chernachevsky), and by the middle of the decade Dimitri Pisarev was insisting that literature and art had no place in society. The nihilists' rein over the intellectual culture ended with the Nechaev affair. (See "Link to Nechaev Affair")
The Devils is about that very episode, and illustrates much of what was going on at the time. Peter Verkhovensky is the chief nihilist, playing the part of Nechaev. His disrespect for his washed up father is characteristic of his generation. Stephan Verkhovensky is the main representative of the older generation. His pathetic, shallow, Euro-centric romanticism is all a satire of the men of the 40's. One reason why Dostoevsky made a point to satire Turgenev with the character Karimazinov is that he felt that Fathers and Sons was not harsh enough in its treatment of the nihilists. Furthermore it was the fact that Turgenev failed to make a stand in his masterpiece that caused his literary downfall. It is clear that Dostoevsky made that stand.