Nikolai Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky

The Russian radical journalist Nikolai Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky (1828-1889) was a literary critic and social theorist. His best-known work, the novel What Is To Be Done?, became a classic of the Russian revolutionary movement.

The son of a priest, Nikolai Chernyshevsky was born on July 1, 1828, in Saratov. He started his literary career in 1855 with a master's thesis on esthetics which he submitted at the University of St. Petersburg. In this work Chernyshevsky attacked contemporary esthetic theory, which held that art was an independent transcendent realm. He argued that the arts in general, and literature in particular, could justify their existence only by accurately describing, explaining, and evaluating the actual in terms comprehensible to all—by being a "textbook of life." This utilitarian view made a strong impact and later assumed a quasi-official status under communism, serving to sanction government regimentation of the arts.

From 1855 to 1862 Chernyshevsky worked as a writer and editor for the radical journal Contemporary. His preoccupation with esthetic theory led to a series of literary studies. He then became increasingly engrossed in the domestic and foreign scene and wrote numerous essays on philosophy, politics, and economics.

For Chernyshevsky, ethics, like art, must be based on the philosophy of utilitarianism. He held that human behavior is motivated by self-interest. He believed that knowledge inevitably leads people to choose good rather than evil, and he attributed human wickedness to ignorance of the advantages of avoiding evil.

Chernyshevsky's economic theories were socialistic. He loathed the principle of laissez-faire, since he believed unrestricted competition sacrificed the weak to the strong and labor to capital. He held that free enterprise distributed goods unfairly and failed to stimulate production. Chernyshevsky's "toiler's theory" embodied his economic thought. By toiler he meant both the worker and the peasant; for him the muzhik (peasant) was the person of destiny for Russia.

The toiler's theory was based on Chernyshevsky's beliefs that the welfare of the individual was of paramount importance and that goods rightfully belonged only to those who had produced them. He advocated economic equality and elimination of unproductive social classes. Although he was ambiguous about the nature of the controls that would achieve these ends, Chernyshevsky did not call for a centrally planned, nationalized economy. Instead, he envisioned a loose aggregate of communities resembling phalansteries (voluntary associations, each engaging in both industry and agriculture on a cooperative basis). The voluntary associations were to be autonomous units, democratically administered and independent from central authority.

In 1862 Chernyshevsky published in Contemporary a series of open letters to an unnamed person who was clearly none other than Czar Alexander II. The Czar had emancipated the serfs in 1861, but Chernyshevsky pointed out that, although this reform had affected the appearance of the relation between master and serf, little real change had occurred. He hinted that revolution was perhaps the only way to completely abolish serfdom.

Because of his criticism of the government Chernyshevsky was watched carefully by the czarist secret police, and in 1862 his name headed the list of political suspects. That year he was arrested and imprisoned. While in prison he wrote the novel What Is To Be Done? (1863). In it he rejects such concepts as honor, conscience, duty, and self-sacrifice. What Is To Be Done? soon became the bible of the radical youth. It called for freedom in personal relations and for dedication to society, and it contained effective arguments for women's emancipation, for socialism, and indirectly for revolution. Lenin called it "one of those books the impact of which lasts a lifetime."

In 1864 Chernyshevsky was exiled to Siberia. Broken in health, he returned to civilization in 1883. He died in Saratov on Oct. 29, 1889.


Further Reading on Nikolai Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky

Chernyshevsky's Selected Philosophical Essays (1953) contains a large collection of articles. His What Is To Be Done? Tales about New People (1961), with an introduction by E. H. Carr, is important as an intellectual document and as a prototype of later didactic radical novels. Recommended for general historical background are Tomas G. Masaryk, The Spirit of Russia: Studies in History, Literature, and Philosophy (2 vols., 1913; trans. 1919; 2d ed. 1955), and Franco Venturi, Roots of Revolution: A History of the Populist and Socialist Movements in Nineteenth Century Russia (1960).

Additional Biography Sources

Paperno, Irina, Chernyshevsky and the age of realism: a study in the semiotics of behavior, Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1988.

Pereira, N. G. O. (Norman G. O.), The thought and teachings of N. G. Chernyshevsky, The Hague: Mouton, 1975.