Two sons of wealthy aristocrats in 19th-century Russia attempt to foment a leftist revolution, but only succeed in leaving an inept trail of murders, chaos, and recrimination in their wake. Pyotr Verkhovensky is a bitter, ambitious young man. Nominally estranged from his wealthy father, Stepan, an intellectual who fancies himself an enlightened socialist and surrounds himself with like-minded young men for regular political discussions, Pyotr, now in his twenties, finds himself back home and part of his father's idealistic, but politically-impotent, inner circle.
This isn't enough for Pyotr. He dreams of something bigger for himself and his homeland. He claims to have contact with other socialist cells in towns across Russia, but his inaction and feverish ineptitude undercut these claims. In fact, it's only once he becomes close with another young man on his estate, Nikolai Stavrogin, the son of a neighboring aristocrat, that Pyotr sees his opportunity for action at last.
Nikolai is charismatic and exudes a kind of aggressive, moral nihilism, giving the impression that he is up for anything. To Pyotr, this makes him perfect as the point man in Pyotr's schemes to foment a revolution of the radicals and downtrodden. Pyotr uses Nikolai to seduce the wife of the provincial governor, and convince her to throw a party where Pyotr's group can incite an uprising. The governor's wife agrees. The party is a success. Pytor's group mocks the ruling elites, stoking the anger of the middle-class and lower-echelon aristocrats attending the party. Their anger erupts into the streets. But it backfires when they set fire to the poor sections of the town, whose oppressed residents are supposedly who leftist radicals like Pyotr are fighting for.
Meanwhile, Pyotr has Nikolai's secret, mentally-handicapped wife murdered, which Nikolai does little to stop. The governor's wife finds out about both the secret wife and her murder, but the same mob that burned the poor parts of town, and which has grown even more out of control, murders her before she can do anything about it.
In the aftermath, Ivan Shatov, a member of Pyotr's group, feels uncomfortable with what they've done and attempts to leave the group. Pyotr has him murdered and convinces another member, whose own nihilism has progressed to its logical endpoint of fetishizing the prospect of his own suicide, to kill himself and take credit for Shatov's murder in his suicide note.
Even after these seemingly successful schemes, Pyotr's zealotry leads to mistakes that cause everything to fall apart. He is forced to flee the country he so desperately wanted to transform and leaves the remaining members behind to be arrested for the murders he masterminded. Nikolai, whose veneer of sociopathic amorality has steadily been cracking and falling away throughout the novel, is unable to reconcile his new moral awareness with the horrible crimes he has participated in and kills himself.
Best scene in story:
The most tragically effective scene is where Shatov first begins to realize that this isn't the life he wants, that he has it in him to be a good man, loyal and loving to his wife -- just before Pyotr and his group have him murdered.
Opinion about the main character:
Pyotr was obnoxiously nihilistic, but Nikolai, the other main character, proved he had some depth.