Completed in 1872, Demons is rivaled only by The Brothers Karamazov for the place of Dostoevsky’s greatest work. A study of political terror and modern ideology, the novel powerfully predicts the revolutionary tendencies that would kill 100 million people – the total, in The Black Book of Communism, of the deaths in the 20th century owing to communism. This seminar series will center on a close reading of Demons and what the novel can teach about the nature, logic, and social origins of revolutionary politics.

This seminar will meet online weekly on Tuesdays from 6 to 8 PM ET. All course materials will be provided. Fellows will receive a $200 stipend contingent upon participation in the course and completion of a brief response paper and evaluation.

Image: Vasily Perov, Portrait of Fyodor Dostoevsky, 1872 |The Assassination of Alexander II of Russia on March 1, 1881

Jacob Howland on teaching Demons


Jacob Howland

Jacob Howland is McFarlin Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at the University of Tulsa. He has written about Plato, Aristotle, Xenophon, Kierkegaard, the Talmud, the Holocaust, ideological tyranny, and other subjects. His most recent book is Glaucon’s Fate: History, Myth, and Character in Plato’s Republic.

Flagg Taylor

Flagg Taylor is an Associate Professor of Government at Skidmore College, and serves on the Academic Council of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. He is editor most recently of The Long Night of the Watchman: Essays by Václav Benda, 1977–1989. He is currently writing a book on Czech dissent in the 1970s and 1980s.

Preview the Syllabus by Week/Session




  1. What expectations are generated by Demons’ two epigraphs?
  2. Why does Demons begin with Stepan and Varvara? What impressions of the old liberal elite might one draw from these characters and their relationship?
  3. What is the source of Stavrogin’s charisma? How did he come to be so violently unstable? Does he resemble Shakespeare’s Prince Harry?
  4. What sort of men are Shatov and Kirillov? What philosophical or religious ideas have “crushed” or gripped them? How do they differ from the likes of Liputin, Lebyadkin, and Virginsky?
  5. Why does Dostoevsky write so humorously about the old liberals and young socialists? How does the narrator regard Stepan? What is the significance of the narrator’s encounter with Karmazinov?




  1. Who is the “wise serpent” of Demons? What game is Verkhovensky playing? What is the nature of his relationship with Stavrogin?
  2. Why does Marya reject Stavrogin? How does her character lend mythical and religious depth to the story of Demons?
  3. How does Christianity inform the thinking of Stavrogin and his disciples Shatov and Kirillov? Is Stavrogin an Antichrist? Is Verkhovensky?
  4. Why does Shatov break with Stavrogin?
  5. Why does Kirillov speak so strangely? Why does he intend to commit suicide? How does Dostoevsky indicate the tragic contradictions of his plan?
  6. What is the point of the duel? Is Stavrogin the victor?




  1. Is it significant that the major players in the town are women? Why do Yulia and Varvara so readily embrace Verkhovensky? How is his influence on them reflected in their language?
  2. What explains the behavior of the circle of young people that forms around Yulia? What is revealed in their visit to the “holy fool” Semyon?
  3. How does the way Verkhovensky treats his revolutionaries differ from his behavior toward the old oligarchs, including von Lembke and Karmazinov?
  4. What insights into the nature and logic of revolutionary socialism, and the character of those who are attracted to it, are contained in the darkly comic and prophetic chapter “With Our People”?
  5. Why does Verkhovensky need Stavrogin? Does he love him or hate him, respect him or despise him?
  6. How does Tikhon differ from Semyon, his Dostoevskian “double”? What effect does Tikhon have on Stavrogin? Why can’t Stavrogin be saved?




  1. To what extent is Yulia responsible for von Lembke’s breakdown, and more generally for the fateful events of the novel?
  2. Has Stepan changed since being subjected to his son’s abuse at their first meeting? Does his speech at Yulia’s fête merely repeat views he voiced during his days in Petersburg? Can his position withstand criticism?
  3. In the chapters on the fête, comedy and pathos reach a pitch unsurpassed in any other modern novel. Why did Dostoevsky choose to write about shocking and terrible events in such a manner?
  4. What does the spectacular bursting of bubbles in Demons teach us about the sickness of Russian society—and of our own?
  5. Why does Liza rush off to Stavrogin? How and why does Dostoevsky employ religious symbolism in describing her death? What did she mean to Stepan?




  1. Why does Fedka turn against his “natural master” Verkhovensky? Are the novel’s young “progressives” any more decent to former serfs and other social inferiors than their supposedly liberal parents?
  2. Erkel is described as “sentimental, tender, and kindly.” What explains Verkhovensky’s influence over such men, including some who are vehemently opposed to Shatov’s murder but nonetheless participate in it?
  3. Does Kirillov succeed in becoming a man-god? How does his anguished death help to establish the identity of socialism and nihilism?
  4. Oates claims that Stavrogin becomes “a hero” through his “magnanimous” suicide. Do you agree? Is it significant that Verkhovensky alone escapes punishment?
  5. In the epigraph from Luke, the formerly mad Gadarene, purged of demons, sits healed at Jesus’s feet. To whom do these words of salvation refer in Demons?
  6. To what extent is Demons a mirror of our times? Does the novel leave us with grounds for hopefulness?

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