Given the oppressive power of the state under Nicholas I and the weakness of civil society in Russia, the political ferment that rocked Europe during the 1840s took the relatively subdued form of discussion groups meeting secretly in private homes. The most important of such groups met on Friday evenings in the St. Petersburg home of a young official of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mikhail Butashevich-Petrashevsky, from late 1845 until the group was disbanded by the police in a wave of repression following the revolutions that erupted in Western Europe in 1848. More than one hundred members of the group were arrested and interrogated, and twenty-one of the leading figures were condemned to death. In an infamous instance of psychological torture, on December 22, 1849, the condemned men were led to the scaffold and hooded, and the firing squad ordered to shoulder arms, before an imperial adjutant rode up with a last-minute reprieve commuting the sentences to imprisonment or banishment. Among those sent to Siberia was the novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who later depicted the members of the group in his novel The Possessed.
The meetings of the Petrashevtsy, as the police labeled the men who met in Petrashevsky's home, were open to invited guests as well as regular members. Thus, over the course of the group's existence, several hundred men took part in the discussions. Some attendees were wealthy landowners or eminent writers or professors, such as the poets Alexei Pleshcheyev and Apollon Maikov and the economist V. A. Milyutin. The majority, however, were of modest means and held middle- or low-ranking positions in state service or were students or small-scale merchants. Serious about political ideas, they amassed a large collection of works in several languages on political philosophy and economics. While Petrashevsky himself was committed to the utopian socialism of Charles Fourier, and socialist thought was the dominant theme of the discussions, members of the group held a range of ideological and tactical approaches to the problem of transforming Russian society. Their most important project was the publication in 1845 and 1846 of A Pocket Dictionary of Foreign Terms, an effort to propagate their ideas through political articles disguised as dictionary entries. The censors eventually realized the subversive nature of the dictionary and ordered it confiscated, but not in time to prevent the sale of part of the second, more radical, edition.
The Petrashevtsy were not opposed in principle to a violent overthrow of the tsar's government, but in practice most saw little hope of a successful revolution in Russia and therefore advocated partial reforms such as freedom of speech, freedom of press, and reform of the judicial system. The more radical members, led by Nikolai Speshnev, hoped to transform the group into a revolutionary organization that would prepare the ground for an armed revolt. Through subsidiary discussion circles that branched off from the original group, such as the one to which the novelist Nikolai Chernyshevsky belonged while a university student, the Petrashevtsy played an important role in propagating socialist ideas in Russia.
See also: chernyshevsky, nikolai gavrilovich; dostoyevsky, fyodor mikhailovich; nicholas i
Seddon, J. H. (1985). The Petrashevtsy: A Study of the Russian Revolutionaries of 1848. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.