Dostoevsky wrote the book on culture wars



The anarchist Peter Kropotkin called it the “mad summer of 1874”. Thousands of radical students poured out of the universities in Moscow and St Petersburg and journeyed into the countryside to, in the words of the historian Orlando Figes, “start out on a new life with the Russian peasantry”, among whom they hoped to find “a new brotherhood of man”. As I reread Figes’s superb cultural history of Russia, Natasha’s Dance, the episode stood out for certain irresistible modern parallels.



The idealistic young students, Figes writes, were “riddled with the guilt of privilege”. The peasants had been emancipated by Tsar Alexander II only a few years previously and the adherents of what became known as “going to the people” were keenly aware of the older generation’s complicity in the terrible injustice of serfdom. They were desperate “to free themselves from their parents’ sinful world, whose riches had been purchased by the people’s sweat and blood”. The “nihilist” movement that arose at the same time was founded on the total rejection of the principles of the previous generation as irredeemably corrupt. (…)