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Nihilists repudiated the established order and its standards. They waged an uncompromising struggle against the hypocrisy and dissimulation of the old, received ways of private and public life. However, this positive and healthy side of Nihilism was often outweighed by its negativist attitude to all traditions, a cult of totally destructive criticism,  a rejection of absolute spiritual values. Its maximalism often translated into impatience, intolerance, ideological obsession and fanaticism. 

A nihilist

Nihilists extended their total rejection of current beliefs from morals to religion. Atheism and anti-religious-ness have often been singled out as cornerstones of the intellectual make-up of the Russian radicals. The rejection of religion was connected with their belief in the omnipotence of modern science and in  boundless human progress. For them science was a force capable of resolving any issues -  even those which traditionally belonged to the sphere of religion. They attributed all ills in society not to the frailty of the human condition, but to some extraneous maladjustments of the social mechanism, which could be put right by means of  social reforms based on ‘scientifically correct’, materialistic doctrines.

Their atheism and their trust in science and progress were themselves akin to a naive religious faith. A Russian thinker once observed that: ‘Socialism was Christianity without God’. The young radicals fused socialism, materialism and atheism into a kind of militant, secular religion, which they embraced unquestioningly and dogmatically.

In the materialistic philosophy of the intelligentsia the place of God was taken by the ‘People’, first the peasant and later the proletarian masses. The intelligentsia indulged in a lavish idealisation of the popular masses, based on the belief in their innate socialist qualities. ‘The people’ (in Russian ‘narod’, hence the name of the movement: Narodnichestvo ‘worship of the people’) and their traditional institutions, such as the village commune, were transformed in the minds of radical intellectuals into a highly-colored icon that bore little resemblance to the actual peasantry and its way of life. Members of the intelligentsia combined the deification of the masses with a conviction that they had a mission to save the people from suffering and show it the way to absolute and everlasting happiness on earth. The peculiar fusion of anti-religiousness with the near-religious worship of the people and with a messianic zeal to act as its deliverer has been captured in Simeon Frank’s paradoxical definition of the intelligentsia as ‘a militant monastic order of the Nihilist religion of earthly welfare’.

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