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Radishchev, Alexander Nikolayevich


(17491802), poet, thinker, and radical critic of Russian society.

Alexander Nikolayevich Radishchev was arrested for sedition by Catherine II in 1790 for the publication of a fictional travelogue. Newly promoted from assistant director to director of the St. Petersburg Customs and Excise Department, he had benefited from Catherine's earlier enthusiasm for the European Enlightenment. Following service as a page at the Imperial Court from 1762 to 1767, he had been selected as one of an elite group of students sent to study law at Leipzig University, where he had absorbed the progressive thinking of the leading French philosophes. After completing his studies in 1771 he returned to Russia, where he responded to Catherine's encouragement for translating the works of the European thinkers of the Enlightenment. His first literary venture, in 1773, was a translation of Gabriel Bonnot de Mably's Observations sur l'histoire de la Grèce, which idealized republican Sparta. Radishchev's first significant original work, published in 1789, was his memoir, Zhitie Fedora Vasilevicha Ushakova (The Life of Fedor Vasilevich Ushakov ), recalling idealistic conversations with a fellow student in Leipzig on oppression, injustice, and the possibilities for reform. This was a prelude for Puteshestvie iz Peterburga v Moskvu (A Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow ), in which an observant, sentimental traveler discovers the various deficiencies in contemporary Russian society.

At each staging post, an aspect of the state of Russian society is revealed. For example, at Tosna, the traveler observes feudalism; at Liubani, it is forced peasant labor. Chudovo brings unchecked bureaucratic power to his attention; he learns of autocracy at Spasskaya Polest; and at Vydropusk his attention is taken by the imperial court and courtiers. Other stops along the road illuminate issues such as religion, education, health, prostitution, poverty, and censorship in an encyclopedic panorama of a sick society. No single cure is proposed for Russia's ills, but the underlying message is that wrongs must be righted by whatever means prove to be effective.

Deeply affected by the French Revolution of 1789, Catherine now read the work as an outrageous attempt to undermine her imperial authority. An example was made of Radishchev in a show trial that exacted a death sentence, later commuted to Siberian exile. He was permitted to return to European Russia in 1797, but he remained in exile until 1801. Crushed by his experiences, he committed suicide the following year. His Journey remained officially proscribed until 1905. Its author's fate, however, as much as the boldness of its criticism, had won Radishchev the reputation of being the precursor of the radical nineteenth-century intelligensia.

See also: catherine ii; enlightenment, impact of; intelligentsia


Clardy, Jesse V. (1964). The Philosophical Ideas of Alexander Radishchev. New York: Astra Books.

Lang, David M. (1959). The First Russian Radical: Alexander Radishchev (17491802). London: Allen and Unwin.

McConnell, Allen. (1964). A Russian Philosophe: Alexander Radishchev 17491802. The Hague: Nijhoff.

W. Gareth Jones

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