Nikolay Chernyshevsky

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Nikolay Chernyshevsky
Никола́й Черныше́вский
Nikolay Chernyshevsky.jpg
Born(1828-07-12)July 12, 1828
DiedOctober 17, 1889(1889-10-17) (aged 61)

Nikolay Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky [lower-alpha 1] (12 July 1828 – 17 October 1889) was a Russian revolutionary democrat, materialist philosopher, editor, critic, and socialist (seen by some as a utopian socialist). He was the leader of the revolutionary democratic movement of the 1860s, and had an influence on Vladimir Lenin, Emma Goldman, and Serbian political writer and socialist Svetozar Marković.

Socialism is a range of economic and social systems characterised by social ownership of the means of production and workers' self-management, as well as the political theories and movements associated with them. Social ownership can be public, collective or cooperative ownership, or citizen ownership of equity. There are many varieties of socialism and there is no single definition encapsulating all of them, with social ownership being the common element shared by its various forms.

Vladimir Lenin Russian politician, communist theorist and founder of the Soviet Union

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known by his alias Lenin, was a Russian revolutionary, politician, and political theorist. He served as head of government of Soviet Russia from 1917 to 1922 and of the Soviet Union from 1922 to 1924. Under his administration, Russia and then the wider Soviet Union became a one-party communist state governed by the Russian Communist Party. Ideologically a communist, he developed a variant of Marxism known as Leninism; his ideas were posthumously codified as Marxism–Leninism.

Emma Goldman Lithuania-born anarchist, writer and orator

Emma Goldman was an anarchist political activist and writer. She played a pivotal role in the development of anarchist political philosophy in North America and Europe in the first half of the 20th century.



The son of a priest, Chernyshevsky was born in Saratov in 1828, and stayed there till 1846. He graduated at the local seminary where he learned English, French, German, Italian, Latin, Greek and Old Slavonic. It was there he gained a love of literature. [1] At St Petersburg university he often struggled to warm his room. He kept a diary of trivia like the number of tears he shed over a dead friend. It was here that he became an atheist. [2]

Saratov City in Saratov Oblast, Russia

Saratov is a city and the administrative center of Saratov Oblast, Russia, and a major port on the Volga River located upstream (north) of Volgograd. Population: 837,900 (2010 Census); 873,055 (2002 Census); 904,643 (1989 Census).

Seminary, school of theology, theological seminary, and divinity school are educational institutions for educating students in scripture, theology, generally to prepare them for ordination to serve as clergy, in academics, or in Christian ministry. The English word is taken from the Latin seminarium, translated as seed-bed, an image taken from the Council of Trent document Cum adolescentium aetas which called for the first modern seminaries. In the West, the term now refers to Catholic educational institutes and has widened to include other Christian denominations and American Jewish institutions.

He was inspired by the works of Hegel, Ludwig Feuerbach and Charles Fourier and particularly the works of Vissarion Belinsky and Alexander Herzen. After graduating from Saint Petersburg University in 1850, he taught literature at a gymnasium in Saratov. From 1853 to 1862, he lived in Saint Petersburg, and became the chief editor of Sovremennik (“The Contemporary”), in which he published his main literary reviews and his essays on philosophy. By the time he graduated from the university, Chernyshevsky developed revolutionary, democratic, and materialist views. From 1851-1853, he taught Russian language and literature at the Saratov Gymnasium. He openly expressed his beliefs to students, some of whom later became revolutionaries. [3]

Ludwig Feuerbach German philosopher and anthropologist

Ludwig Andreas von Feuerbach was a German philosopher and anthropologist best known for his book The Essence of Christianity, which provided a critique of Christianity which strongly influenced generations of later thinkers, including Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Friedrich Engels, Richard Wagner, and Friedrich Nietzsche.

Charles Fourier French utopian socialist and philosopher

François Marie Charles Fourier was a French philosopher, influential early socialist thinker and one of the founders of utopian socialism. Some of Fourier's social and moral views, held to be radical in his lifetime, have become mainstream thinking in modern society. For instance, Fourier is credited with having originated the word "feminism" in 1837.

Vissarion Belinsky Russian literary critic

Vissarion Grigoryevich Belinsky was a Russian literary critic of Westernizing tendency. Belinsky played one of the key roles in the career of poet and publisher Nikolay Nekrasov and his popular magazine Sovremennik.

Chernyshevsky was sympathetic to the 1848 revolutions throughout Europe. He followed the events of the time and rejoiced in the gains of the democratic and revolutionary parties. [4]

Revolutions of 1848 Series of political upheavals throughout Europe in 1848

The Revolutions of 1848, known in some countries as the Spring of Nations, People's Spring, Springtime of the Peoples, or the Year of Revolution, were a series of political upheavals throughout Europe in 1848. It remains the most widespread revolutionary wave in European history.

In 1855, Chernyshevsky defended his master's dissertation, "The Aesthetic Relation of Art to Reality", which contributed for the development of materialist aesthetics in Russia. Chernyshevsky believed that "What is of general interest in life -- that is the content of art" and that art should be a "textbook of life." He wrote, "Science is not ashamed to say that its aim is to understand and explain reality, and then to use its explanation for man's benefit. Let not art be ashamed to admit that its aim is ... to reproduce this precious reality and explain it for the good of mankind." [5]

In 1862, he was arrested and confined in the Fortress of St. Peter and Paul, where he wrote his famous novel What Is to Be Done? The novel was an inspiration to many later Russian revolutionaries, who sought to emulate the novel's hero Rakhmetov, who was wholly dedicated to the revolution, ascetic in his habits and ruthlessly disciplined, to the point of sleeping on a bed of nails and eating only raw steak in order to build strength for the Revolution. Among those who have referenced the novel include Lenin, who wrote a political pamphlet of the same name.

In 1862, Chernyshevsky was sentenced to civil execution (mock execution), followed by penal servitude (1864–72), and by exile to Vilyuisk, Siberia (1872–83). He died at the age of 61.

Ideas and influence

Chernyshevsky was a founder of Narodism , Russian populism, and agitated for the revolutionary overthrow of the autocracy and the creation of a socialist society based on the old peasant commune. He exercised the greatest influence upon populist youth of the 1860s and 1870s.

Chernyshevsky believed that American democracy was the best aspect of American life. He welcomed the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, which he believed marked a new period for "the great North American people" and that America would progress to heights "not attained since Jefferson's time." He praised these developments: "The good repute of the North American nation is important for all nations with the rapidly growing significance of the North American states in the life of all humanity." [6]

Chernyshevsky's ideas were heavily influenced by Alexander Herzen, Vissarion Belinsky, and Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach. He saw class struggle as the means of society's forward movement and advocated for the interests of the working people. In his view, the masses were the chief maker of history. He is reputed to have used the phrase “the worse the better”, to indicate that the worse the social conditions became for the poor, the more inclined they would be to launch a revolution.

There are those arguing, in the words of Professor Joseph Frank, that “Chernyshevsky’s novel What Is to Be Done? , far more than Marx’s Das Kapital , supplied the emotional dynamic that eventually went to make the Russian Revolution”. [7]

Fyodor Dostoyevsky was enraged by what he saw as the simplicity of the political and psychological ideas expressed in the book, [8] and wrote Notes from Underground largely as a reaction against it.

Russian revolutionary and Prime Minister Vladimir Ilyich Lenin praised Chernyshevsky: "..he approached all the political events of his times in a revolutionary spirit and was able to exercise a revolutionary influence by advocating, in spite of all the barriers and obstacles places in his way by the censorship, the idea of a peasant revolution, the idea of the struggle of the masses for the overthrow of all the old authorities” [9]

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels studied Chernyshevsky's works and called him a "great Russian scholar and critic". [10]

A number of scholars have contended that Ayn Rand, who grew up in Russia when Chernyshevsky's novel was still influential and ubiquitous, was influenced by the book. [11]



  1. Russian :Никола́й Гаври́лович Черныше́вский, IPA:  [nʲɪkɐˈlaj ɡɐˈvrʲiləvʲit͡ɕ t͡ɕɪrnɨˈʂɛfskʲɪj]

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  1. Ana Siljak, Angel of Vengeance, page 57
  2. Ana Siljak, Angel of Vengeance, page 58
  3. Hecht, David (1945). "Chernyshevsky and American Influence on Russia". Science & Society. 9 (4): 321. ISSN   0036-8237.
  4. Hecht, 323
  5. Scanlan, James P. (1985). "Nikolaj Chernyshevsky and the Philosophy of Realism in Nineteenth-Century Russian Aesthetics". Studies in Soviet Thought. 30 (1): 7. ISSN   0039-3797.
  6. Hecht, 326
  7. Amis, Martin (2002). Koba the Dread. Miramax. p. 27. ISBN   0-7868-6876-7.
  8. Jane Missner Basrstow Dostoevsky Versus Chernyshevsky in College Literature V, 1. Winter 1978.
  9. "Lenin: 'The Peasant Reform' and the Proletarian-Peasant Revolution". Retrieved 2019-06-02.
  10. Offord, Derek (2004-12-23). The Russian Revolutionary Movement in the 1880s. Cambridge University Press. p. 122. ISBN   9780521892193.
  11. Weiner, Adam. "The Most Politically Dangerous Book You've Never Heard Of". POLITICO Magazine. Retrieved 2019-05-02.

Further reading

  1. The Gift chapter 4