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Russia in the 1860’s was a place of turmoil, a battleground of radical political ideals where Populism and nihilism, wielded by radical intelligentsia, clashed against the status quo of Russian autocrats and orthodoxy. It was in this time period that some historians argue that modern terrorism was spawned. Contrary to the previous age, intelligentsia sought to wield the bomb or gun rather than the pen in opposition to the corruption they saw in the Russian state. As Jesse D. Clarkson writes in his book, A History of Russia, “the Great Reforms—both in themselves and in their incompleteness—alienated many elements and failed to win new friends for the autocracy.”[1] Instead of appeasement and winning the mob and the intelligentsia, the Great Reforms, enacted by Alexander II in the middle of the 19th century, found itself drowning in “strong currents of revolutionary thought[2].” While the mob, the “freed” peasantry and lower classes, exerted some force of resentment and revolution, it was not as bold as the work of the intelligentsia, particularly the raznochintsy[3]. The combined “forces” of the raznochintsy, the urban middle and lower classes, as well as some intelligentsia executed various acts of terrorism upon members of the autocracy as well as other members of the government. Their radical ideas were mostly German in origin and got their revolutionary ideas from post-Kantian German idealism[4]. The intelligentsia in particular “spent their energies in abstract metaphysical disputes about moral problems[5].”Their work was necessarily encouraged solely by their own willpower; they had some written encouragement. Nikolai Chernyshevsky was one of those encouragers who wielded the pen rather than the sword against the corrupted state of Russia. He took advantage of the moderate censorship under Alexander II and wrote his very controversial book What is to be done? wherein he stressed socialism and a break from the status quo. One of his most important philosophies in this area is the fact that he argued for the “scientific necessity of radical action, a pre-Marxist idea[6].” The ideals and beliefs in this novel inspired the intelligentsia to become radical and to take his ideas into action. This essay will seek to uncover how Chernyshevsky inspired these ideals in his novel. Furthermore, Dostoevsky’s The Possessed will be examined to see how he, Dostoevsky dealt with Chernyshevsky’s movement with sympathy and irony.

As Michael R. Katz and William G. Wagner state in their introduction to Chernyshevsky’s novel, What is to be done was a proposal for amending the social ills of Russia and other problems which irritated the intelligentsia[7]. His work condemned “the patriarchal and authoritarian nature of the family, social, and political relations as the primary source of Russia’s social inequality, oppressiveness, and economic backwardness[8].” Moderate reforms enacted by autocrats and corrupt government would not do; rather, “individuals would play an active role in social development and moral regeneration[9].” Such is the premise of his novel. Chernyshevsky seeks to use his characters, individuals, to accomplish reform—to create a utopia. But before the book is opened, I feel it is necessary to see exactly when and which philosophies crept in Chernyshevsky’s mind; the reason being that those philosophies he learned and believed wholeheartedly inevitably end up in his novel as the basis for reforms and the values of Populism, etc. While at Saratov seminary, Chernyshevsky’s beliefs and personal philosophy remained close to his fathers’[10]. He retained the same Christian and left Hegelian mindset until he was sent to study at St. Petersburg University[11]. Chernyshevsky soon became entwined with French utopian philosophers such as Charles Fourier, Victor Considerant, and even the German Ludwig Feuerbach[12]. Such philosophies were characterized by atheism, materialism, and a rejection of sociopolitical norms. After some studying and inner turmoil, he rejected his faith in Orthodoxy and followed Feuerbach down the path of materialism[13]. It was at this same time that also threw off his loyalty to the tsars and therein began his flirt with radicalism and socialism[14].

When one studies a philosophy or religion he believes to be life changing and society changing, he cannot stop at telling it to others. Just as Peter and John could not help preaching the Gospel in spite of the Pharisees’ persecution, Chernyshevsky could not keep his philosophy to himself and wrote What is to be done[15]? There are two major values which Chernyshevsky idealizes in his novel. Since the novel is seen as proposed plan to counteract the status quo of Russian politics and society, the first tenet can be seen as hatred or revolt against the status quo and the second an endorsement of a utopia.

The first value to be idealized in this novel is rebellion to the standard norms of society. While most of the values which Chernyshevsky discusses and idealizes are open rebellion to social norms, the actions and words expressed in this segment will deal more with rebellion or aggressive action against social norms, not the establishment of new social norms or utopias. Such antagonisms toward the standards of Russian society are expressed in the areas of religion, the authority of parents, and the standard relationship between husband and wife. Each of these will be examined in the actions and words of Vera Pavlovna, the central character of the novel who embodies the very values and beliefs of Chernyshevsky’s utopia.

As a small child, Vera shows little respect for religion, let alone anything else, even her mother. Her mother catches her staring at a church on her way to market and receives a stern reprimand: “Instead of gawking at the church, you idiot, why don’t you cross yourself? Can’t you see that all good people cross themselves?[16]” Even as a child her contempt for the standard things of Russian life are illustrated for us to see. This is very important to understand since Russia’s people and culture has never been separated from the Orthodox Church. The way of the church was the ordinary way of life until the intelligentsia began to read French and German philosophies which advocated atheism and socialism. The other major issue wherein the novel advocates rebellion to social norms is the rebellion within family life. This starts out with Vera’s rebellious behavior to her mother, Marya. Marya, like any good mother of that time period, takes it upon herself to marry her daughter off to a man of her choosing (Marya’s). Vera doesn’t want to marry just anybody, especially since the men her mother wants her to marry are “vile” and “base.[17]” Vera, in rebellion to the bad choice of her mother, talks a suitor into leaving the house and never coming back, locks herself in her room away from her mother, says unkind words to her mother (phrases like I hate you, etc)[18]. This rebellion to the status quo of society continued in Vera’s mature years once she got married, though it was manifested in a different manner. I am speaking of her relationship with her husband, Dmitry Sergeich Lopukhov.  As Katz and Wagner point out in their introduction, Chernyshevsky believed that “if this revolution was to succeed, it would need to overturn the patriarchal relations that existed within the family as well as between social groups and between the state and society[19].” With this in mind, Chernyshevsky was successful in describing family life without the patriarchal elements. Within their marriage, their behavior to one another is almost characteristic of either very affectionate brother and sister or mere friends; there isn’t any sort of erotic love going on. In fact they probably hardly ever sleep in the same bed. In between their bedrooms, there are “neutral rooms” which serve as a buffer between their own intimacies[20]. Within their utopian household, there are no servants though Vera does the housework, her “dearest” goes off to work until suppertime, and they live in the same house but hardly ever get in close proximity of one another[21]. In a normal patriarchal society, the husband and wife would be much more intimate with one another,  there would be children, and the husband would be head of the house, not a mere cohabitant with Vera. Such is the rebellion against the social norms of Russia.

Another primary value which Chernyshevsky idealizes in this book is the idea of socialism. Chernyshevsky was perhaps one of the first Russian writers to advocate socialism and he does it through his character Vera. In the book, Vera tells her husband that she wants to have a dressmaking shop. Katz and Wagner state that not only was Chernyshevsky an advocate of socialism but also of women’s rights[22]. Both of these are combined in the story. Vera’s shop is well run and as the job gets more profitable, she turns to socialism and divides the money up amongst the seamstresses[23]. This system enacted by Vera is known as the cooperative form of labor which was advocated by utopian socialist philosophers that Chernyshevsky read[24]. In discussing her methods with the seamstresses, Vera states her reason for following this system is for her own enjoyment[25]. Such is the premise of any utopia. Thus Chernyshevsky uses his characters to advocate a system he wishes Russia would enforce for their own enjoyment.

While Chernyshevsky’s book was an obvious manual for radical reforms to replace the present system with an atheist socialist utopia, Dostoevsky’s The Possessed (or The Devils) was a commentary on the results of the philosophies and mantras of Chernyshevsky and his Western compatriots. Dostoevsky’s position on Chernyshevsky’s book and ideals is one full of sympathy and irony.

As far as sympathy goes, Dostoevsky does not treat these values with the same sympathy or pity that Vera treated her mother[26]. Instead his sympathy can be understood as the approval of some of the ideals and actions of the radical intelligentsia, although it is perhaps not as prevalent as his ironic treatment of Chernyshevsky’s ideals. He sympathizes with the movement through the approval of some words and actions which are rebellion to the established order of Russia. Nihilist or radical intelligentsia ideas are raised in the novel and in the portrayal of some characters, these ideals are advocated and put in a good light. Such is the case in a debate on nationalism between Trofimovitch and Shatov. While Trofimovitch is hailed as an advocator of “ ‘charming’, ‘clever’, ‘liberal’ old Russian nonsense”, Shatov advocates nihilism as he states that the Russian leaders, the tsars and their reforms, didn’t love the people of Russia and describes the problems of society and why they were caused by the tsars[27]. Here Dostoevky sympathizes with Shatov, whose argument is more logical and founded than Trofimovitch, whose buffoonery he condemns throughout the novel.

While he sympathizes with some of the ideals of the nihilists and the Populists of the radical intelligentsia, Dostoevsky also treats their ideals and actions with bitter irony. His irony is aimed at the hilarious actions of the nihilists throughout the novel. Throughout the novel there are arsons, murders, and suicides, each of which involves some member of the radical intelligentsia.  Each act of violence, particularly those of Stavrogin, is made to look as if he was mad and his attacks were not as a result of his radical leanings. Stavrogin acts in violent ways throughout the book; he attacks the governor, beats another man up, and is described as a man who would very easily kill a man for insulting him[28]. Such is Dostoevsky’s ironic treatment of the values of What is to be done?

While Chernyshevsky had no qualms about expounding his ideas openly, Dostoevsky was more subtle and perhaps wiser in his own writing methods. Chernyshevsky idealized a new utopia where radical ideas were enacted peacefully and without bloodshed. This is perhaps what he ideally wanted but Dostoevsky’s novel describes the consequences of his writings, the actual birth of terrorism. While some advocated the gradual reformation of society through writings and individual efforts to reform, some took that individualistic idea to a whole new level. In fact, they took that idea and killed their tsar with it.


[1] Clarkson, Jesse D. A History of Russia. 2nd ed. New York: Random House. 1969. 317.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 318.

[4] Ibid., 319.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 322

[7] Michael R. Katz and William G. Wagner, introduction to What is to be done, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989. 1.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 9.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 10.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., 10-11

[15] Acts 4:18-20.

[16] Nikolai Chernyshevsky. What is to be done? (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989) 52.

[17] Ibid., 74.

[18] Ibid., 65, 66, 64.

[19] Katz and Wagner, 14.

[20] Chernyshevsky, 199.

[21] Ibid., 200.

[22] Katz and Wagner. 4.

[23] Chernyshevsky, 190.

[24] Ibid., 191.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid., 66.

[27] Fyodor Dostoevsky. The Possessed. Trans. by Constance Garnett. New York: Macmillan. 1948. 30, 31.

[28] Ibid., 252, 185.

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