Nihilism and Nihilists

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Nihilism was a tendency of thought among the Russian intelligentsia around the 1850s and 1860s; nihilists, a label that was applied loosely to radicals in the intelligentsia from the 1860s to the 1880s.

Although the term intelligentsia came into widespread use only in the 1860s, the numbers of educated young Russians of upper-or middle-class origins had been growing for some decades before that time, and under the influence of the latest Western philosophical and social theories, the Russian intelligentsia had included members with increasingly radical ideas in each new generation after the 1840s. "Nihilism" was a term that was first popularized by the novelist Ivan Turgenev in 1862 (though it had been used in Russia and abroad for several decades before that time) to characterize the rebellious and highly unconventional youths who had appeared in Russia by the late 1850s. The nihilists rejected the idealism and relative optimism of the heroes of a previous generation of the Russian intelligentsia, who had been led by the essayist Alexander Herzen and the literary critic Vissarion Belinsky. Nihilism, with its "critical realism," gave intellectual respectability to a rebellion against the established values and conventions of polite society that defended the institutions of family, nobility, church, and state. Many of the young nihilists belonged to the growing numbers of the raznochintsy, or the people of various ranks in society, such as the sons and daughters of priests, lower officials, and others of strata below the aristocracy.

One of the models for the nihilists was Dmitry Pisarev, a literary critic who attacked the world's most famous products of art and literature and took an extreme position in favor of naturalistic realism and scientific utiltarianism. The most famous prototype of the nihilist was the character of Bazarov in Turgenev's novel Fathers and Sons (Otsy i deti ), who repudiated all conventional values and standards. That novel aroused a storm of controversy with its depiction of a schism between the idealistic Russian liberals of the preceding generation and the apparently amoral nihilists of the younger generation. While leading figures of the previous generation who had endorsed liberal principles and socialist ideals had held out the hope of gradual reform in society and improvements in the moral consciousness of individuals, the nihilists called for revolutionary changes, with the complete destruction of established institutions. It is often said that the rise of nihilism in the intelligentsia reflected the weakness of social roots and affiliation with the traditions of the past among many young members of the intelligentsia. Turgenev himself continued to be sympathetic toward gradual reforms, but Pisarev welcomed the label of nihilist as a form of praise.

The nihilists flaunted their unconventionality and supposedly hardheaded realism. As Adam Yarmolinsky describes in Road to Revolution: A Century of Russian Radicalism (1962), "to the conservatives frightened by the threatening effects of the new freedom, nihilism connoted atheism, free love, sedition, the outraging of every decency and accepted belief by men, and as often, by the unwomanly 'emancipated' woman." And yet the term "nihilism" was a misnomer from the start. Though the nihilists were often described as people who no longer believed in anything, in actuality they believed in their own ideas with passionate and indeed fanatical intensity. The nihilists believed that "the emancipation of the person," or the emergence of independent, critically thinking individuals, whose outlook had replaced sentimental idealism with scientific rigor and realism, was the means of leading the way to a new society, since it was possible for only an exceptional minority to achieve enlightenment. The nihilists were influenced by theories that had come from Western Europe, including German philosophy and French socialist thought, but they were most impressed by new discoveries and theories in the realm of the natural sciences, so that they virtually worshiped science, which they saw as guiding individuals of the new type who would usher in a new society.

Nihilism was soon succeeded by populism among the radical intelligentsia. The distinction between nihilism and populism is blurred in many accounts, as indeed it was in the writings of many observers from the 1860s to the 1880s, who referred to Nikolai Chernyshevsky, the great hero of the populists, as a nihilist. In reality, although the populists were deeply influenced by the nihilists, there were sharp differences between the two schools of thought. While the nihilists had glorified the minority of supposedly brilliant, bold, and unconventional intellectuals, and felt disdain for the unenlightened majority in society, the populists idealized the Russian peasants as morally superior, and were theoretically committed to learning from the peasants, who for a new generation of radicals constituted the narod (the people). While the populists agreed that revolutionary change was necessary, they believed that the peasant commune could be the basis for a uniquely Russian form of socialism. The nihilists had never developed any coherent program for political change. This may explain in part why they were succeeded by the populists, even though the populist strategy for transformation had some gaps of its own.

See also: bazarov, vladimir alexandrovich; intelligentsia; pisarev, dmitry ivanovich; populism; turgenev, ivan sergeyevich


Kelly, Aileen M. (1998). Toward Another Shore: Russian Thinkers Between Necessity and Chance. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Tompkins, Stuart Ramsay. (1957). The Russian Intelligentsia: Makers of the Revolutionary State. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Venturi, Franco. (1960). Roots of Revolution: A History of the Populist and Socialist Movements in Nineteenth-Century Russia, tr. Francis Haskell. New York: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Alfred B. Evans Jr.