NIHILISTSbeginnings in turgenev
central tendencies and principles
In late-nineteenth-century Europe, the term nihilist was often used as a synonym for Russian revolutionary. Within Russia, the term was also applied more specifically to members of a social movement associated with a subgeneration of radicals, the younger cohort of the shestidesyatniki (people of the [eighteen] sixties). Scholars have viewed the "nihilism" of this cohort as a symptom of disillusionment brought on by the failure of the 1861 emancipation of the serfs to transform Russia and a simultaneous shift in public opinion toward the right. This disillusionment led to subcultural activity as, for the first time, left-wing activists and intellectuals sought to distinguish themselves visibly from members of polite society. Nihilism as a movement had disappeared by the end of the 1860s. While short-lived, its influence on Russian radicalism, social thought, and literature was lasting.
The nihilist as a cultural type was introduced to Russia on the pages of a novel. Bazarov, the eccentric young hero of Ivan Turgenev's Fathers and Children (1862), dresses oddly, speaks in a curt, confrontational manner, and openly expresses his contempt for ideals cherished by the "fathers," members of the author's generation. Turgenev (1818–1883) calls his hero a nihilist because of his hostility to the values and way of life of Russia's educated elite. Bazarov derides the fathers for their romanticism and, in particular, for their belief in the redeeming qualities of art and the sanctity of love and for their halfhearted commitment to improving the lot of the peasants. His pronouncements about the nature of human relations ranging from marriage to friendship and filial affection are shocking for their lack of feeling. For Bazarov, who wishes to replace the fathers' love of poetry with the pursuit of science, humans are "organisms," and their emotional needs physiological, whereas love is a function of sexual attraction rather than a reflection of an ideal of beauty.
Turgenev's novel sparked heated debate within the Left. The older shestidesyatniki at Nikolai Chernyshevsky's journal Sovremennik (The contemporary) read Bazarov as a slanderous attack on radicals perpetuated by a liberal of an older generation. They disliked the label nihilist, and took issue with Bazarov's rudeness, his less than gallant views on sex, his disdain for the peasantry, and his lack of a political program. In contrast, the twenty-one-year-old Dmitri Pisarev (1840–1868), a critic at Russkoe slovo (The Russian word), the journal favored by younger shestidesyatniki, accepted Turgenev's representation of a young radical as honest if incomplete. According to Pisarev, who was to become the leading spokesman of the nihilists, Turgenev meant Fathers and Children not as a slander but as a question. The novel asked, "Who are you young people?" In the essay "Bazarov" (1862), Pisarev formulated an answer. He described the fictional nihilist as a perfect example of a truly emancipated personality and presented him as a role model for his readers. Bazarov's negative features were portrayed in a sympathetic light. His apparent egotism and cynicism were depicted as a natural consequence of his efforts to reject all authorities and to see the world unadorned by romantic illusions. If Bazarov seemed
rude, it was only because others were uncomfortable with his views. If Bazarov appeared restless, unhappy, or unpleasant in company, it was not because he wished to offend but because he understood that there was no place for him in Russian society.
In explaining Bazarov, Pisarev initiated the effort at self-definition that was to be the central tendency of nihilism. In doing so he helped his contemporaries establish a code of behavior that externalized their alienation. What had previously been an internal phenomenon was in the first years of the 1860s to become visible as the nihilists shed the forms of dress, conduct, and social relations that the intelligentsia had previously shared with the gentry. While Pisarev reluctantly accepted the label nihilist, he preferred to call his like-minded contemporaries "realists," "thinking proletarians," or "new people" because they were not nihilists in the classical sense of the term. They did not lack beliefs. Rather they were philosophical materialists who wanted to create a more just social order. If, unlike the men of the 1840s and the older cohort of shestidesyatniki, the nihilists did not actively pursue this goal, it was because they did not believe Russia was ready; they lacked their elders' optimism. For Pisarev, the first step in Russia's transformation was not revolutionary action, social reform, or overtures to the peasantry but the cultivation of a class of intellectuals that would one day assume leadership of the project of modernization.
In Pisarev's vision, the behavior of the realists was to be guided by several principles. Chief among these was the idea of the "emancipation of personality." Before realists could work to improve society, they needed to reject all authorities and thereby liberate themselves from the deadening moral constraints of the mainstream. This often required abandoning the way of life of one's parents and entering into a relationship with a member of the opposite sex based on equality and in defiance of the conventions of marriage. Another principle, "rational egoism," referred to the utilitarian calculus of pain and pleasure by which realists were to determine the best way to live their own lives. Realists were to accept only those attitudes and behaviors that could be justified by rational argument. Underlying rational egoism was a renunciation of altruism. The old intelligentsia's spirit of self-sacrifice was seen as self-defeating. Realists could pursue their own happiness and the common good simultaneously. Pisarev also preached the "destruction of aesthetics." By aesthetics he meant traditional forms of social life. Often conveyed most clearly in art, aesthetics were stifling of individuality. Their destruction, which entailed a narrowly utilitarian and often hostile attitude toward literature, was a necessary first step in the emancipation of personality. Most important for Pisarev was the formation of an informal curriculum for the education of young radicals. Through essays on a great variety of subjects, he offered them a reading list that included classics of European literature and social thought, but the central element of this curriculum was the natural sciences. Science would provide the technological foundation for Russia's future prosperity while its methods would provide realists with a means for distinguishing truth from fantasy.
In articulating nihilism's core principles, Pisarev was assisted by other writers at Russkoe slovo, including Nikolai Sokolov (1835–1889) and Varfolomei Zaitsev (1842–1882). While Chernyshevsky (1828–1889), the leader of the older cohort of shestidesyatniki, was not technically a nihilist, his novel What Is to Be Done? (1863) accepted the nihilists' cultural agenda and provided the most comprehensive illustration of the life of the "new people."
It is difficult to estimate with any precision whether the nihilists numbered in the hundreds or the thousands. Police reports as well as the memoirs of radicals and their opponents attest to the appearance of nihilists in cities and towns across the country. Often referred to as the Pisarevshchina (followers of Pisarev) or Bazarovshchina (followers of Bazarov), they were evident by their unusual dress. Officials were suspicious of nihilism not as a form of political subversion but as a threat to public morality because nihilist intellectuals were believed to be corrupting the children of the elite. Consequently the Moscow and St. Petersburg police were instructed by superiors in the Ministry of Internal Affairs to identify all nihilists in the capitals and to compel nigilistki (nihilist women), recognizable by their dark glasses, cropped hair, cigarettes, and unconventional apparel, to change their clothes or to remove themselves from the public eye. Yet, the phenomenon remained spectral, as much a product of society's deep-seated fears about modernization as a response to a social movement. The police wrote many reports but were never able to find more than a handful of nihilists. Nonetheless, they harassed the movement's leaders. Russkoe slovo and Sovremennik were both closed in 1866, and by 1870 Pisarev's collaborators were in prison or exile. Pisarev completed most of his writings from prison and died in 1868 at the age of twenty-eight, shortly after his release.
The next intelligentsia generation, the so-called populists of the 1870s, grew up on nihilism but would come to reject it. For them, Pisarev, like Bazarov, was a hedonist, more concerned with his own pleasure than the welfare of his countrymen. The populists wished to return the emphasis of radical thought to the fate of the common people. Some scholars have suggested that the nihilists'
emphasis on a revolutionary elite and personal revolt contributed to the development of anarchist and Jacobin strains within the intelligentsia. Nihilist intellectuals, however, rejected the conspiratorial politics and revolutionary violence characteristic of these movements, and Russian anarchists and Jacobins faulted the nihilists for their extreme individualism. Nonetheless, even after the 1860s, nihilist writings continued to be widely read. Memoirs from the late imperial period of leading political figures on the left (including Bolsheviks and Mensheviks) as well as members of the artistic and scientific communities testify to the importance of the works of Pisarev and other nihilists in their authors' development. Although after 1870 nihilist writings ceased to be taken seriously by leading intellectuals, they became a literature of youth, initiating several generations of high school–age progressives into the oppositional spirit of the intelligentsia and the quasi-bohemian radical counterculture that the nihilists had created and that would remain a central feature of Russian radicalism through 1917. While Russian novelists of the 1860s remained overwhelmingly hostile to nihilism, it preoccupied them. Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821–1881), Ivan Goncharov (1812–1891), Nikolai Leskov (1831–1895), Alexei Pisemsky (1821–1881), and others all wrote antinihilist novels whose central themes, ambivalence about modernity, and fear of social disintegration were similar to those of the police reports. Indirectly, through literature, Russian nihilism was to have an impact on Western thought. For example, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), author of some of the most influential European discussions of nihilism, was influenced by Dostoyevsky's representations of Russian nihilism.
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Peter C. Pozefsky