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G. Vissarion Belinsky, 1811-1848


Vissarion Belinsky

Belinsky was a literary critic. Lenin called him, together with Herzen and Chernishevsky, one of the founders of Russian socialism. In "What is To Be Done?", he wrote: "Now we can speak about the fact that the role of a vanguard fighter can only be performed by a party guided by a vanguard theory. In order to understand what this means concretely, let the reader remember such forerunners of Russian social-democracy as Herzen, Belinsky, Chernishevsky and the brilliant constellation of revolutionaries of 1870's".

Belinsky is known for the thought that through their literature, the Russian people are gaining self-consciousness, a feeling of self-dignity.

In 1960's and 1970's, in the USSR, when it was impossible to speak the truth, the role of self-consciousness was played by the street songs played by bards, the most brilliant of whom was of Vladimir Visotsky . It was through his poetry that the Soviet people straightened their back before the Soviet top brass bureaucracy.

The question which we ask is who plays a similar role today? Who becomes the self-consciousness of modernity? Who gives the people a feeling of self-dignity, self-worth? For a brief moment, I saw such tendency during the so-called "Orange Revolution" in 2004 in Ukraine, when people started slogans like "Мы не быдло", "We are not the cattle". For a brief moment, I saw such a tendency in the international "Occupy" movement in 2011, when democracy on the streets was saying "We're the 99%". For a brief moment, I saw such a tendency in the Ukrainian "Euromaidan" protests in 2013, when people spoke with hatred about the corruption. Perhaps in the modern times, only large movements can speak in the name of the people, calling them to self-consciousness and self-dignity. However, the masses still need their singers, their poets, their artists and their leaders. So, who speaks for the masses today?

H. Mikhail Lermontov, 1814-1841


M. Lermontov. A self-portrait.

Lermontov, whose social origins were in the class of nobility, felt the decline of the social order under which he was living, the uselessness of the class to which he belonged. This appears both in his poetry and prose. In poetry, for example, the poem "Demon", 1839, starts like this:

"Печальный Демон, дух изгнанья,

Летал над грешною землей,

И лучших дней воспоминанья

Пред ним теснилися толпой..."


"A sad Demon, a spirit of banishment

was flying over the sinful Earth

And memories of the better days

were crowding before him..."


Pechorin, "The Hero of Our Times"

In prose, the main work of Lermontov is "A Hero of Our Time". There are several films based on the novel, one of which, made in the USSR in 1965, can be seen here. The film talks about a young officer of the czarist army, Pechorin, who seems to fall in love with a daughter of a Caucasian prince. In reality, he is bored with life and finds a new amusement in this affair. He obtains the love of the girl, but soon becomes bored by her. He is about to leave her, when she is murdered by a Caucasian bandit, who also wants her.

Belinsky, a contemporary of Lermontov, described Pechorin like this:

"a resolute person, hungry for anxiety and storm. A mysterious person, with a strong will, brave, not scared by any danger, asking for storm and troubles, in order busy himself with something and fill the bottomless void of his own spirit. There are two persons within him: first acts, and the second observes. The reasons for quarrel with oneself are very deep and there is a contradiction between the depth of the soul and the shallowness of actions. In his very vices there are flashes of something great, as a lightening in the black clouds, and he is beautiful and full of poetry".

Pechorin was an example of a "superfluous person". Wikipedia defines it thus: "an individual, perhaps talented and capable, who does not fit into social norms. In many cases this person is born into wealth and privilege. Typical characteristics are disregard for social values, cynicism, and existential boredom. Typical behaviors are gambling, romantic intrigues, and duels. He is often unempathic and carelessly distresses others with his actions".


Jamie Johnson

Pechorin is a representative of a class in decline. Through him, we become conscious of its decline. A parallel we find today in some of the best representatives of the class of capitalists. For example, there is Jamie Johnson, a hair to the billion dollar fortune of the company "Johnson and Johnson". He has made the film "The One Percent" about the lives of the richest 1 percent of the Americans. In this movie he asks his family rather uncomfortable questions. The movie shows signs of confusion and uselessness of the ruling capitalist class.

The movie has come to my attention due to the "Occupy" movement in 2011, where one of the main slogans was "We're 99%", i.e. in opposition to the families portrayed in the movie "The One Percent". This movie, and this movement is a sign of a developing revolutionary situation in the U.S., and in the world at large.

I. Ivan Turgenev, 1818-1883

Turgenev by Repin

Ivan Turgenev, by Ilya Repin, 1874

Turgenev was one of those who has painted the life of common people. While he himself was a landlord, he was deeply sympathetic to the peasants and the working people.

Among his main compositions we find:

1) "Moomoo", 1852 (see a 1959 film ). Gerasim is a collective image of the Russian people: strong and dumb. A cantankerous mistress of a manor first takes a bride from Gerasim, then his dog. He leaves the manor and goes back to his village.

2) "On the Eve", 1860 (see a 1960 film ). A young girl from aristocracy breaks with her family to marry one Insarov, a revolutionary from common people.

3) "Fathers and Sons", 1862 (see a 1958 film ). A nihilist Bazarov, from a family of an army doctor, shocks relatives of his college friend, who is from a landlord family, with his principle of "negation of everything". Then Bazarov falls in love with a mistress of a manor. He cures peasants and in the process falls sick and dies.

Wikipedia writes about Turgenev that his leaving a periodical "Sovremennik" (a Contemporary) signaled his break with the radical camp of N. Chernishevsky and N. Dobrolyubov. Thus, life paths of Russian writers foreshadowed the future of the Russian social-democracy, its split into two camps: the reformers and the revolutionaries.

J. Nikolai Chernishevsky, 1828-1889


Nikolai Chernishevsky, 1859

One of the forerunners of "narodiks" is Nikolai Chernishevsky. Chernishevsky, through a periodical "Sovremennik" (a Contemporary), criticized the tsarist government in regard to the coming peasant reform. For this, and other oppositional activity, he was first taken under secret surveillance by the tsarist police, then confined for two years to a solitary cell in the Peter and Paul fortress (in St. Petersburg). During this time, he has written his main novel, "What is to be done?", 1863 (see a 1970's film ). After the imprisonment, he was sent for the rest of his life to an exile in Siberia. 

The novel "What is to be done?" has a subtitle: "From stories of the new people". Who are these "new people"? Who were they in those times, and who are they today? What did they do in those times, and what do they do today?

The basic idea is that “the new people” take control over their own lives into their own hands. This happens in all spheres of social life. First, this manifests itself in development of a person's character in his/her youth.

The novel starts with a dilemma that seems insoluble: a powerful and rude mother, with financial aspirations, attempts to sell her daughter to the highest bidder in the comedy called “modern love” (remember David Bowie song). What options does the daughter, who is a gentle and innocent flower, have?

Help first appears in the form of solidarity among women – an expensive French prostitute arranges a marriage, instead of a love affair for the young girl. But she doesn’t want that. Instead, she opts to marry a young men who helps her to get a job outside her house, so that she may escape the bonds of her family.

So, on the one hand, the novel is about the problem of relations of sexes. Chernishevsky doesn’t really propose a radically new answer to the old problem. Instead of “a wicked marriage”, i.e. one based on crude material calculations, he proposes a marriage based on love, i.e. active sympathy between the sexes. Difference between the two is merely subjective (although an important one).

The most important question is what a woman decides to do once she is married. Here, we see Vera Pavlovna (our heroine, the “innocent” girl) deciding to start her own seamstress shop. On the surface, this appears merely like starting her own business, using the small capital accumulated by her husband as a teacher. She rents a shop, hires girls (about whom she inquires carefully), and gets the French prostitute to bring her first orders. But the reality is deeper than simply starting her own business. For after the girls were distributed their salary, they were given the bonuses, out of the portion which the shopkeeper would usually keep as a profit. Vera Pavlovna's goal is not capital accumulation. Rather, it is to arrange work and living of common girls in a communal way: they go to picnics together; later, they move into a large apartment, where they each have separate rooms but share common meals and other necessary items, such as umbrellas. Vera Pavlovna educats these girls, by reading to them first during work, then at specially designated times. She even hires teachers on special subjects to lecture to the girls. She teaches most talented of them to manage the shop, thus eliminating the need for the “shop owner”. 

N.Chernyshevskiy - Chto delat'
Eventually, Vera Pavlovna decides to take a swing at the highest, and become an equal to a man. She decides to go to college, and study medicine, like her husband (the second one, at this point in the novel). She is not satisfied with merely a qualification of a seamstress, even the main one, the manager. She wants to attain the higher reaches of human intellect. And her husband is leading the way, for he is not merely a practicing doctor; rather, he is a biological scientist, researching what is new. As a doctor, he takes on the most incurable patients, and attempts to help them and study their diseases. He is more than a doctor; he is an excellent human being, which helps him in his medical profession. For when he sees a patient who suffers not because of physical ailment, but rather out of sickly love (which she hides from her father), he understands the cause of her malady. He gets into her trust, and eventually arranges the matters thus that she is cured of her infantile love.

The novel is not only a proposal for a collective living; it is a novel discussing the relations between sexes. A husband and a wife, the author suggests, should have their own space to which they usually retreat in the evening. Sleeping together should be an exception. In this way, distance is preserved, and thus a certain respect for one another. 

An important condition for a happy life in marriage is freedom to divorce, as soon as one starts to feel that one doesn’t love the other. The ability to divorce was revolutionary in the days, and in the country, where Chernishevsky was writing (XIX century tsarist Russia, where marriage was sanctified by the Church, and hence formed “an insoluble union”).

Vera Pavlovna has a dream, which indicates that she doesn’t love her first husband (who helped her to escape the marriage arranged by her mother). Her husband understands the dream perhaps even better than she does; in fact, it seems he is also bored with her. So, he takes the matter in his own hands. He brings his wife closer to his friend, who loves her. This is Alexander Kirsanov, Vera Pavlovna’s second husband. The first husband (Lopukhov) drops out of their lives under the guise of a suicide.

A curious but passing character on the scene is Rakhmetov. He is the guy who passes on the “suicide note” of Vera Pavlovna’s first husband to her. He is the vision Chernishevsky has of a young man of the future. His traits are: reads monumental works in all aspects of human knowledge (picks up Newton in the cabinet of Vera Pavlovna), travels a lot, makes himself very strong physically (for this, he becomes a manual worker for several hours a day). Rakhmetov got acquainted with “the new people” (i.e. the revolutionaries), and avidly desired to learn from them. He started reading under their guidance. He has adopted certain life principles and followed them strictly. Some of these are: no alcohol and no women. He feels solidarity with the common people, even though brought up as a wealthy young man. He eats what common people eat. He leads a Spartan life. Rakhmetov is very economical with time, and hence is able to accomplish a lot. He is very abrupt with people who simply chatter. His rest is a change of activity. His friends is the circle of the “new people”, like Kirsanov and Vera Pavlovna. He needs them as sources of information and contacts in society. Relationship to all other people is strictly business. In his daily routine, he manages to combine theoretical knowledge with various practical activities. In practical activity, Rakhmetov attempts to concern himself only with most important things, perceiving that secondary matters will get arranged by themselves. Rakhmetov is a person going straight to the business, to the essence of any matter. He has no “private life”. Rather, he concerns himself with the business of others. Rakhmetov can not get married. This is because marriage leads to “responsibilities”, and hence to lack of freedom for husband and wife. Rakhmetov can afford to go traveling around the world, to find out about the various countries, nations, their customs and political-social institutions. This gives him food for thought. But he comes back to Russia after a few years. On the way, he gives money to a famous European philosopher.

In the novel, there is also Chernishevsky’s vision of how people will live in the future: they will eat and work together in the fields, away from the cities, in beautiful common houses of steel and glass, with electricity. There is a vision of “terra forming”, i.e. changing the climate and shape of the earth to suit our needs.

Next: The anarchists

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