Dostoevsky & the Third Section

The following is a chapter from Russian author Eduard Makarevich’s book on espionage and subversion, Sekretnaya Agentura. Translation by Mark Hackard.

The great Russian writer Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky couldn’t avoid the temptation of revolution. He was already famous as the author of the short story “Poor Folk” when he had a meeting with a certain Mikhail Petrashevsky. The liberal views of the bureaucrat from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs made an impression on the young Dostoevsky. He was only 26 years old at the time – an age of great hopes and desires for changing the world. It was with such intentions that the writer began to visit Petrashevsky’s secret club. Various people gathered there: intellectuals of non-noble birth, representatives of officialdom with liberal views, officers carried away with socialist ideas, etc.

Someone was expounding upon the next chapter from the teachings of French utopian socialist Charles Fourier when polemics went into full swing over the essence of the matter of discussion. Dostoevsky showed himself a fiery debater; he parted ways with Petrashevsky over views on patriotism. As a keen Westernizer, Petrashevsky rejected national feeling, to which he related patriotism. With some kind of hurried enthusiasm, he addressed the gathering with one and the same thesis, though he’d spin it in different variations. The thesis ran:

Only by developing, that is by losing its individual traits, can a nation achieve the height of cosmopolitan development. The lower any people are located on scale of moral, political or religious development, the more sharply their nationality will manifest.

Dostoevsky objected and spoke harshly. This harshness came from an intelligent faith and from the fact that the brilliant literary critic Vissarion Belinsky, whom the young writer greatly respected, held the same convictions. These objections were, of course, in defense of nationality:

Long have we admired everything European, and only because it is from Europe and not Russian. But the time has come for Russia to develop on its own. Within us national life is strong, and we are called to speak our word to the world. A people without nationality is like a man without a personality. The greatness of the poet is that he comes to embody nationality in the highest degree.

The frenzy of discussions in Petrashevsky’s Circle overcame any desire to act – a typical condition of intellectuals. Some were not terribly bothered by this wish, but Dostoevsky was tormented by inaction. Debates didn’t bring any peace to his soul. At the moment this spiritual discord had stricken Dostoevsky, a certain Nikolai Speshnev had appeared in the circle.

A relatively wealthy landholder, handsome, a carouser, romantic and lady-killer, Speshnev belonged to those Russians who look upon life as a field of battle. Dostoevsky got along with him immediately, calling him “my Mephistopheles.”

Speshnev initially attacked Petrashevsky through ideas for spreading socialism, atheism and terror. For this underground printing presses would do. He unceremoniously sent the socialist theorizing of the utopian Fourier by the wayside and proposed an orientation toward the Communist Manifesto, which Marx and Engels had already written by that time. And his next proposal was remarkable in its extreme radicalism. He spoke, no more and no less, about an armed coup with a strike force of terrorist groups – “cells of five.”

Petrashevsky panicked – such proposals did not fit into his way of life and the goals of his circle. It was Dostoevsky who saved the situation with the revolutionary program. Without any qualifications he told Speshnev, “We aren’t on the same path as Petrashevsky. We need our own circle, a secret society. We’ll look for the right men.”

After such a frank announcement, he made his first visit to his friend Apollon Maikov, the same poet who wrote:

Divine secrets of elemental harmony

Won’t be discovered in wise men’s books:

By chance and alone wandering the banks of quiet waters,

Listen with your soul to the whisper of the reeds.

What sort of conversation took place between them we will convey in this accurate and well-founded description from Yuri Seleznev, one of Dostoevsky’s biographers:

“Of course you understand,” began Dostoevsky, “that Petrashevsky is a chatterer, an unserious man and that nothing will come from his undertakings. And therefore a few serious people have decided to break off from his circle and form a special, secret society with secret printing press for publishing various books and even journals. There’s seven of us: Speshnev, Mordvinov, Mombelli, Pavel Filippov, Grigoriev, Vladimir Miliutin and I. We have chosen you as the eighth; would you like to join the society?

“But what’s the objective?”

“To carry out a coup in Russia, of course…”

“And I remember,” Maikov would relate about this night after many years, “Dostoevsky, sitting like a dying Socrates before his friends, in a night shirt with an unfastened collar, exerting all of his oratory on the sacredness of this cause, on our duty to save the Fatherland…”

“So yes or no?” he concluded.

“No, no and no.”

The next morning after tea, as he was departing:

“No need to say that there shouldn’t be a word about this?”

“Of course not.”

It didn’t work out with Maikov, but with others he met success. With Nikolai Grigoriev, for example. This gentleman became especially close to Dostoevsky, almost his right-hand man in creating the new secret society. A chief of staff, as it were. All organizational matters were discussed with him, and there was much to discuss. Dostoevsky was in elated expectation. The perspectives, the goal, the activities – all raised his spirit.

And then a ruthless and precise blow fell upon him. At the end of the night on April 23rd, 1849, gendarmes came knocking. Dostoevsky was arrested, and with him his colleagues from the new circle. Petrashevsky and his fellow-travelers were also hauled in. All were brought to Fontanka Building 16, the headquarters of the Third Section. There they were met by Leontii Vasilevich Dubelt, then the deputy chief of the Third Section, headed by Count Aleksei Orlov. Dubelt directed the entire operation to crush Petrashevsky’s Circle.

Dubelt’s professional duties primarily dealt with investigations and running secret informants, and he managed his agents artfully. Dostoevsky and Petrashevsky’s groups were seized with such mettle and in such thorough fashion because of a penetration within the latter’s circle by one of the Third Section’s best agents, Ivan Liprandi. Of Italian heritage, he was a state official in Russia and during the investigation of the Decembrist plot had given very useful information. At that point he was asked by the Third Section to engage in joint work; he didn’t hesitate long in his decision and answered in the affirmative. Liprandi turned out to be a competent agent. And his best work – his best achievement – was gaining membership in Petrashevsky’s Circle, a feat punctuated by notable speeches, general polemics and confidential relationships, both with colleagues and Petrashevsky. And it was he who paved the road into the club for another agent of Dubelt’s, Antonelli.

Imam Shamil's surrender in 1859. By A.D. Kvishenko.
Imam Shamil’s surrender in 1859. By A.D. Kvishenko.

It was Antonelli that Liprandi had in mind when he had thought up a way to discredit Petrashevsky and place him under arrest. Liprandi’s plan was jesuitically simple. Antonelli was to advise Petrashevsky to meet in secret with Shamil’s men, the same Imam Shamil who headed a rebel movement in the Caucasus, and against whom the Russian army was fighting. If this meeting took place, then Petrashevsky and his circle would be judged under the law for establishing liaison with an enemy of Russia. This wasn’t just discussion of Fourier’s theories anymore; for that it was difficult to land someone in jail. The operation was being prepared, and two Circassians from a company of the Emperor’s bodyguard were even chosen for the role of Shamil’s emissaries. But suddenly the preparations stopped. All of it smelled thickly of a provocation, and Dubelt couldn’t make up his mind. Besides, another basis for initiating an investigation and arrest was announced – the reading of a banned letter from Belinsky to Gogol. Liprandi promptly delivered this information to his chief.

Dubelt handled his agent well, setting tasks, giving advice and resolving situations that arose. And Liprandi also put forth plenty of effort. His thanks would be the rank of colonel and work on the staff of the Third Section. Such a move from the status of agent to officer was an unheard-of case in the history of the security services. Dubelt made him responsible for political censorship and agents in political circles, taking into account his penchant for fabrications and his “fantasy” potential. Liprandi was already known as the author of interesting historical treatises.

The Petrashevsky organization was dismantled at its base. Dubelt assigned this operation great significance because it concerned, first and foremost, an organization of the intelligentsia. And the intelligentsia, in his reasoning, were people who generated ideas, and from their ranks emerged the masters of men’s thoughts. Under their influence, the fate of Russia could be changed. And here we must understand who exactly Dubelt was.

Leontii Vasilevich Dubelt was a splendid find of the original head of the Third Section, Count Benckendorff. Quick-witted and brave, Rotmeister Dubelt had acquired a taste for military service from the age of 15. He never bowed to bullets, but even so, one of the accursed projectiles managed to wound him at Borodino. Having been noticed for his courage and organizational skills, he served as an adjutant for General Dokhturov and then the renowned Raevksy. Dubelt fought in the Russian campaigns across Europe and finished the war in Paris.

Oh, Europa, Europa! Civilization at the beginning of the 19th century evoked images of roads, consumer goods and liberty. In Russia, meanwhile, secret officers’ societies were forming, and Leontii Vasilevich was close to them. The future Decembrists S. Volkonsky and M. Orlov were both his friends, and the ideas of liberty seemed indivisible from the shine of the dashing colonel’s epaulettes.

After the rebellion on Senate Square, infantry regiment commander Dubelt was not arrested; he had engaged in conversations about liberty, but he was not a member of a secret organization. Yet he did make it onto a list of suspects and stood before an investigative commission appointed by the Emperor. It was here that Benckendorff spotted him while sitting on that very commission – seeing him and committing him to memory, the chief of the Third Section was pleased with the colonel’s behavior. Dubelt avoided a trial, but remained in a register of “undependable” figures. He also wasn’t making life easy for his own superiors, with whom he was conflicting. At some point he didn’t hold back and demonstratively resigned from service; the army wasn’t upset over the brilliant colonel’s departure. At this dramatic hour, Benckendorff invited Dubelt to work under him in the Third Section.

Gendarmes Squadron. Adolf Gebens, 1857.
Gendarme Squadron. Adolf Gebens, 1857.

The head of the secret service’s move was strange and unexpected, though like Dubelt, he had also been in Paris. But he returned with different impressions. As S. Volkonsky told it:

Benckendorff returned from Paris…and as an impressionable and thinking man, saw the utility of France’s gendarmes. He assumed that on honorable foundations and by choosing honest and bright men, the introduction of this branch of overseers would be useful to the Tsar and Fatherland, and therefore prepared a project for the formation of this directorate. He invited us, many among our comrades, to enter this cohort of what he called benevolent thinkers…

And he did convince Dubelt to join that cohort called the Third Section. From the army to the gendarmes, but on an honorable basis. Having agreed, Dubelt would write his wife that he requested Benckendorff not to have any plans for him if he would have to assume ignoble duties. He would not agree to enter the Corps of Gendarmes if he were “given orders that a good and honorable man would find terrible to contemplate.” Yet Benckendorff sincerely considered service in the gendarmes a noble cause and could convince even the quite jaded of this. And so the infantry colonel became a gendarme colonel.

And what a talent was discovered in the field of investigations! Dubelt had the incredible ability to build a picture of a case from a few facts and then make a prognosis. In such a way he guessed what the fate of Pushkin would be. Within five years Dubelt was already a general and the chief of staff of the Corps of Gendarmes, and later was managing the Third Section. The harsh and direct character that had hindered his career in the army didn’t impede his service with Benckendorff, and he was appreciated not only in the secret service, but also by his very operational targets.

Dubelt’s work was with educated men of letters; in Benckendorff’s department he was considered the most enlightened and literate, and he even wrote a bit himself. He worked with editors of thick journals, with people like Pushkin and Herzen. They knew his main method – convincing and persuasion. This was Benckendorff’s style magnified by Dubelt’s literary sensibility, his tolerance and light touch, his sympathy and empathy. The gendarme officer felt that the tragedy of those he investigated was their “going in the wrong direction.” He sincerely sympathized with them and attempted to change that direction. Herzen here is close to Benckendorff when he noted that Dubelt was the smartest man in the Third Section, and smarter than all three sections of the Imperial Chancellery put together.

The Petrashevsky and Dostoevsky cases led to the arrests of 37 people. The prisoners were treated courteously, and while they were unmistakably in jail, the regime there was at least tolerable. The suspects were mainly accused of reading and discussing Belinsky’s banned letter to Gogol, one that was written in 1847 in connection with Gogol’s publication of the book Correspondence with Friends. Gogol welcomed the idea of monarchical rule in Russia and came forward as a defender of established relations; he saw the Church as the ally of the Tsar in cultivating within the Russian people a spirit of loyalty to the regime. Belinsky denounced him angrily and passionately: Russia, he said, was a country where “people trade people,” where there are “no guarantees for the individual,” but only “huge corporations of various state thieves and robbers.” And the Church was “always a buttress for the whip and a lackey of despotism,” while the so-called deep religiosity of the Russian people was more a myth than reality.

Dubelt ran the interrogations himself; even so, at times these were less interrogations than discussions and arguments on points of worldview. Dubelt spoke as an opponent and a mentor, reasoning and convincing. And as it happened, this turned out to be far from useless. He had the gift of reasoning, which was a priceless quality for an officer of the political police. When it’s there, the effect can be striking – as in the case of Dostoevsky, upon whom the depth of Dubelt’s judgments produced an enormous impression.

In thesis form, these judgments came down to the following:

  1. Life should indeed be fair and just. But this is impossible as long as the people are not enlightened and educated. And if the people are to be enlightened and given an education so that a sense of honor and dignity is cultivated in them, then one can take not a beast, but “half a man” and make him fully a man. Only after this can he be given freedom. Education and upbringing are a forerunner to freedom.
  2. In relation to liberty the matter is two-sided. Will an enlightened peasant plow the soil, or will he set out to search for the “truth?”
  3. Your debates over the letter led to the conspiracy, and conspiracy is the path to disorder and chaos. But aspiring to chaos is not a quality of intelligent men.
  4. The main duty of an intelligent and honorable man is above all to love his Fatherland, and this means to faithfully serve his Tsar.
  5. People wholly absorbed with worldly, earthly cares do not comprehend the meaning of life and do not notice any message addressed to their souls from the Most High; this is the tragedy those who have lost their way.

And one more reason from Dubelt, the sixth of his delivered theses. What is Russia without the Tsar, without Orthodoxy? Nothing! Revolutions, coups d’etat – all of it comes from Europe. We have our way, the Russian way.

Leontii Vasilevich was obviously drawn to Slavophilism, and at times he spoke like Gogol. By this he was able to convince Dostoevsky, who took his conclusions to heart. The arguments weren’t rejected, even if they did issue from a general of the police. Dostoevsky would make his message to the investigative commission under Dubelt’s influence. He said that he had read Belinsky’s letter, but could the man who informed on him say to which of the two, Belinsky or Gogol, he was more partial? The writer also made it known he was always for the Fatherland and progressive changes to improve life, and that this should emanate from authority without any revolutions or upheaval.

Dostoevsky had only just assimilated the content of his discussions with Dubelt, integrated his new position of thought and elaborated it to the investigative commission when a new blow was dealt – the decision of the court.

The military court finds defendant Dostoevsky guilty of having received a copy of Belinsky’s criminal letter and reading this letter at meetings. Dostoevsky was at defendant Speshnev’s during the reading of the inflammatory composition of Lieutenant Grigoriev under the title, ‘A Soldier’s Discussion.’ And therefore the military court has sentenced retired Engineer-Lieutenant Dostoevsky for not informing the authorities to be deprived of rank and all rights of property and be subjected to death penalty by firing squad.

For Dostoevsky the sentence was a shock; the world had ended and turned black. And so it was for 36 days, until the day the sentence would be fulfilled.

Peter and Paul Fortress, where Dostoevsky was imprisoned. I.I. Charlemagne.
Peter and Paul Fortress, where Dostoevsky was imprisoned. I.I. Charlemagne.

And then a miracle took place. Nicholas I issued a final verdict: “Four years of hard labor and then service in the army as a private.” Along with a jesuitical, pedantic remark: “Announce amnesty only at that minute when everything is already prepared for carrying out the execution.” So it was done, and again a shuddering blow. Although it was December 22nd, 1849, at seven in the morning with darkness and frost shrouding Semenovsky Square, for Dostoevsky the world was resurrected and began breathing in new colors and sounds.

Following one after the other, these nervous shocks created such emotional tension that all of Dubelt’s exhortations were etched into his memory, and they didn’t leave Dostoevsky up to the end of his creative days. Namely under Dubelt’s influence, and under the impression produced by debates with him, Dostoevsky after his return from hard labor in Siberia had become a staunch Orthodox monarchist and a conscious opponent of revolution and all its contagions.

If we read between the lines in the following compositions, letters and diary notes of Dostoevsky and look at his initiatives in the social sphere, we can spot Dubelt’s shadow. You be the judge. In a letter to the very same Maikov, sometime after 1859, Dostoevsky writes:

I read your letter and did not understand the main point. I am speaking of patriotism, about the Russian idea, about a sense of duty, national honor, about everything that you speak of with such rapture. But my friend! Were you ever of another mind? I always shared these feelings and convictions. Russia, duty, honor – yes! I was always truly Russian – I speak to you frankly…Yes! I share with you the idea that Europe and her purpose will be finished by Russia. For me this has long been clear…

One almost waits for Dostoevsky to finish his profession to Maikov with Dubelt’s phrase: “We have our way, the Russian way.”

When Dostoevsky was still in the settlement, carrying out service as a junior officer in command of a platoon, at night he would compose his short story “The Village of Stepanchikovo.” It was hard to write and even more complicated to reach readers. At the magazine Russky Vestnik, edited by Mikhail Nikiforovich Katkov, everyone was in doubt: did they really need to print this? Sovremennik took it, but Nikolai Alekseevich Nekrasov, the main editor, also couldn’t decide. His refusal, it’s true, he veiled with reference to the paltry fee that was available to be paid in case the piece was printed. Dostoevsky rejected such an honor, and finally Andrei Aleksandrovich Kraevsky agreed to publish the story in Fatherland Notes with a fee of 120 rubles per print edition.

What was so terrible in the story that had caused the above-mentioned editors to be seized with a sense of danger, with Nekrasov even saying, “Dostoevsky is past his prime, he won’t write anything significant anymore”? It was the terrible and ridiculous character that Dostoevsky had brought out in the person of Foma Fomich Opiskin, a local-level ideological dictator. Opiskin was a false prophet possessed by a fetish for social change, grasping at the ideas of unconditional freedom along with patriotism, and he had set about enlightening the local villagers. He taught liberty and patriotism while hating Russia, and he taught in order to satisfy his own political vanity, his power over other souls, who in turn were deceived and debauched by the ring of liberal and patriotic phrases. The people, mesmerized by such “academic” impudence, kept on swallowing this poison, accepting the preacher as a genuine life-teacher.

When Dostoevsky was writing “The Village of Stepanchikovo,” Dubelt’s words remained with him: “Will an enlightened peasant till the land? Will he not become the slave of a harmful idea, will he set out in search of ‘truth?” One can read how the story is an illustration of the words of a general from the Third Section. Is this why the work intimidated the enlightened editors of Russia’s leading literary journals?

Dostoevsky continued his dialogue with them when he was composing the text to announce the launch of the journal Vremya. The journal’s basic idea was the affirmation in the social consciousness of a new path of state development founded on the resolution of the question of the peasantry – the abolition of serfdom. Dostoevsky considered such a decision a social revolution of enormous significance. Therefore in addressing subscribers, he doesn’t forget to emphasize: “This revolution is the fusion of education and its representatives with the source of the people and the communion of the whole Great Russian people with all elements of our current life.”

And Dubelt spoke of the same. After all, ten years earlier he had suggested to Dostoevsky:

Life should indeed be fair and just. But this is impossible as long as the people are not enlightened and educated. And if the people are to be enlightened and given an education so that a sense of honor and dignity is cultivated in them, then one can take not a beast, but “half a man” and make him fully a man. Only after this can he be given freedom. Education and upbringing are a forerunner to freedom.

And again from Dubelt, an already familiar credo: “We have our own way, the Russian way.” Dostoevsky seemingly develops this: “We now know…that we are not in the condition to squeeze ourselves into one of the Western social forms lived out and produced from their own principles…We have finally become convinced that we are also a separate nationality, in a higher degree unique, and that our task is to create for ourselves a new form, our own native form taken from our soil, from the popular spirit and popular elements…” And he adds almost as an incantation: “Here the first and main step is the strengthened expansion of education.”

In the spring of 1870, Dostoevsky, living at that time with his family in Italy, read in a local newspaper an article from Moscow: “At the Petropavlovskaya Academy in the Razumovsky neighborhood, a student by the name of Ivanov was found murdered. The details of the crime are dreadful. His legs were wrapped in a hood loaded with bricks…He was on scholarship at the Academy and was giving over the greater part of his money to his mother and sister.” Then other details appeared; it turned out that the student Sergei Nechaev had founded a terrorist organization in Moscow and named it “The Committee for People’s Reprisal,” the emblem of which was an axe.

Starting out, Nechaev decided to organize terrorist cells of five; these composed The Committee for People’s Reprisal. Those men who bound themselves into a cell renounced their humanity and took a vow to serve the cause of terrible and ruthless destruction. This Committee was to make preparations for a political revolution, having initially organized the fury of the masses. But the student Ivanov, a member of the Committee spoke against such a plan and engaged in a long and fierce argument with Nechaev over the matter. The debate ended badly: Ivanov was “sentenced” by secret decision, i.e. murdered, and his body thrown into a hole in the ice, his legs weighed down by bricks.

That’s the whole story, but it shook Dostoevsky. It was as if everything had returned full circle twenty-some years ago. The figure of Speshnev surfaced, along with his scheming program for an armed coup, where the strike force would be those very same cells of five.

Revolutionaries meet to plot. Painting by Vladimir Makovsky.
Revolutionaries meet to plot. Painting by Vladimir Makovsky.

Speshnev was a forerunner to Nechaev. Where would the fate of Dostoevsky himself have inclined toward if Dubelt’s agents hadn’t stopped that unrestrained rush to political terror? Dostoevsky admits: “I probably could not have ever been a Nechaev, but a Nechaevite, I don’t guarantee, perhaps, I could have been…in the days of my youth.”

Dostoevsky’s reflections on the appalling story of the student Ivanov, on Speshnev, about himself, and again about Dubelt, preceded the excision of a demand to speak out, and in a certain measure repent, before the world. At first he thought about a political pamphlet, but the more he pondered, the clearer his idea for a novel became. A novel as an act of repentance, a novel and a warning, a novel about his fate, thank God, that never came to pass.

He titled the story Demons, and the main actors, all of these demons, are in large part based on real people. The murderer Nechaev turned into Pyotr Verkhovensky, while the murdered student Ivanov, taking views that clashed with Nechaev’s plan, acquired the name of Shatov. Shatov searches for new meaning, but he reels from his intellectual conclusions. There is also the elder Verkhovensky, Pyotr’s father, whose character is meant to expose fathers’ and sons’ differing interpretations of the problem of contemporary nihilism, from which only evil comes. It is a continuation of the ideas of Ivan Sergeevich Turgenev, whose Fathers and Sons became for Russia a novel and a warning about the awful power of nihilism. It wasn’t in vain that the Third Section expressed its gratitude to Turgenev for revealing the unattractive figure of the nihilist revolutionary Bazarov.

From the problem of nihilism, Dostoevsky went further to the idea of demonism, the idea of total destruction and disintegration, but under the mask of the struggle for man, for justice and a coming better world. The disguised ideas of demonism ultimately grind man into dust and result in bloodshed. This is what Dostoevsky sought to express in his work.

But who in Demons is the main hero, the bearer of the demonic ideal? Stavrogin – so Dostoevsky named his ideologue. Stavrogin is the central character, around whom spins a vortex of diabolism. Uncovering Stavrogin’s essence and line of thought, Dostoevsky in point of fact exorcised from himself the young man who would have been ready to follow Speshnev twenty years earlier.

And at the finale of this demonic drama there is…soap that Nikolai Vsevolodovich Stavrogin smeared onto the rope from which he hung himself. Was this novel, though written voluntarily, perhaps the product of an implicit order from the Third Section? They had approved of Turgenev for Fathers and Sons, after all. Dubelt would have been satisfied; the prevention of demonism corresponded to his views, as well as the overall goals of the secret service.

Demons is Dubelt’s epitaph, a novel to the glory of the Third Section.

6 thoughts on “Dostoevsky & the Third Section”

  1. Many thanks for your work, Mark! The article’s emphasis on Dubelt’s influence may be the “missing link” in understanding FM’s transition from revolutionary to patriot.


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