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Nicholas Chernyshevsky


If Alexander Herzen is often considered to be the main representative of the generation of the ‘noble fathers’, Nicholas Chernyshevsky (1828-1889) epitomizes the type of radical from the new generation of the ‘plebeian sons’. The son of a priest and a typical member of the raznochintsy, Chernyshevsky began his career as a journalist and literary critic whose writings were to make him the main spokesman and ideologue of the younger generation of the radically-minded intellectuals. Dissatisfied with the conditions of the Emancipation Act of 1861, they found in him their leader and source of  inspiration. 


Chernyshevsky is believed to have been one of the main organizers of the ‘manifestos campaign’ of 1861. It was started in St Petersburg, Moscow and other cities, following the publication of the Emancipation Act, by the radicals who circulated political broadsheets and leaflets in which the peasant reform was subjected to severe criticism. These propaganda documents contained threats of popular insurrection if the demands of more radical and consistent reforms were not met. The authorities responded by making a whole series of arrests. Many revolutionaries, including Chernyshevsky, were found guilty of sedition and sentenced to hard labor.

Chernyshevsky’s writings extolled the active position of a free individual who felt himself part of a human collective. Like Herzen before him, he believed that the village commune could become the best form for the realization of collectivist instincts of the individual. The fact that it had survived for so long seemed in itself sufficient proof  that the socialist ideal could, indeed, be translated into life. At the same time, Chernyshevsky’s approach to this antiquated institution of Russian life was more realistic. He saw it, mainly, as a means of combining personal interest of the worker with a collectivist form of production. It was a transitional form towards a collectivist type of economy which would replace capitalism and would combine ‘the owner, the boss and the worker in one person’. He gave some stirring descriptions of cooperative association of workers of the future in his celebrated novel What Is to Be Done?  

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