Dimitri Von Mohrenschildt, Toward a United States of Russia: Plans and Projects of Federal Reconstruction of Russia in the Nineteenth Century, 1981.

Petrashevtsy and Federalism

And for mankind a new life will begin --
A life imbued with harmony.
Then will people and nature change.
And there will reign on earth --
Peace, happiness and freedom.

-D. D. Akhsharumov

The group of intellectuals which gathered on Fridays at the home of M. V. Butashevich-Petrashevsky from 1845 to 1849 discussed a great variety of subjects pertaining to contemporary Russian political and social life. However, the primary interest of the group centered on the writings of Fourier and the French utopian socialists.1

An active and articulate participant, D. D. Akhsharumov (1824-1910), described the circle, writing some thirty-five years later: We were not organized as a [secretJ society and had no general plan of action. Once a week we met at Petrashevsky's home. There were not always the same people, some came frequently, others seldom but one could always see some new person whom one had not seen before. [The conversations] were an interesting kaleidoscope of varied opinions about contemporary events, government decrees, and literature on a variety of subjects. One could hear town gossip, and everyone talked aloud without constraint. From time to [32] time someone with a special knowledge of some subject would give a lecture on it. lastrzhembovski, for example, lectured on political economy; Danilevsky on the system of Fourier. At one of the meetings Dostoevsky read Belinsky's Letter to Gogol, written on the occasion of the appearance of Gogol's Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends.... At these meetings there was never elaborated any definite plan or conspiratorial action, but condemnation of the existing order was expressed, as well as derision [of the government] and complaints about our own situation.

At the end of the 1840s our small circle, centering around Petrashevsky, carried the seeds of all the reforms of the 1860s.... We were all what is now called liberals but there was no conspiracy among us.... A number of us called themselves Fourierists, because they were admirers of Fourier's works and his system. In the achievement of his plan of organized labor they saw the liberation of society from all evils, calamities and futile revolutions.... It would have been more accurate to call us "Russian socialists of 1849," in the sense of the social teachings then current in France. Our excited and protesting state of mind was a reaction to European events of 1848.2

Unlike the Decembrists, the Petrashevtsy were not a revolutionary organization. Most of the participants were not specifically interested in questions of the political reconstruction of Russia, and some had, in fact, rather negative views of Western constitutions because they tended to concentrate political power in the hands of the rich. Their main interest centered rather on reconstructing society on the basis of Fourier's phalansteries, voluntary associations of workers aiming at a more just distribution of wealth.3 I. L. lastrzhembovski, a Polish member of the group, used to say that "as a convinced follower of Fourier I am not at all interested in political questions and am indifferent to the various forms of government."4 Nevertheless, the Petrashevtsy were cognizant of the problems of the multinational empire and were sympathetic to the principles of federalism.

The majority regarded the circle as a discussion group. Only a few -- N. A. Speshnev, N. A. Mombelli, R. A. Chernosvitov, and to some extent Petrashevsky himself -- spoke occasionally of spreading propaganda among peasants and [33] soldiers as a preparation for revolutionary insurrection.5

As a group, the Petrashevsky circle produced very little; only a small encyclopedia, A Pocket Dictionary, of which only two issues appeared, hence the publication terminated on the letter O. It was jokingly said that the Christians had the Bible, the Marxists the Capital, and the Petrashevtsy "a pocket dictionary."6

An officer, N. S. Kirilov, was putting out the dictionary for commercial reasons. Petrashevsky offered him his services and was accepted. Thus he used this opportunity to express veiled criticism of the contemporary situation in Russia and to convey socialist ideas based on the works of French utopian socialists.

One achievement of the circle was the organization of a lending library of works on contemporary social and political problems. It was created on a cooperative basis-only those who could afford it paid fees. Predominant In the library were the works of French socialists: Charles Fourier, Louis Blanc, E. Cabet, P. Proudhon, V. Concideront.7 One may note that the works of Proudhon, the foremost contemporary exponent of federalism, were, according to Speshnev, widely read." In his sketch of Petrashevsky, Herzen wrote that Proudhon's Contradictions econorniques (1846) was sold openly in Russia until February 1848, because of the negligence of the police. Issues of the Representent du peuple, which entered Russia illegally, "were literally learnt by heart." A. de Tocqueville's De la democratie en Amerique (Paris, 1835) was also a popular item in the library. According to Petrashevsky, "it showed how society should be organized."10

This lending library was important, first, because it united members of the circle around one common subject; second, it provided information to many intellectuals, not only members of the circle. According to Akhsharumov, it was formed in 1844 and thereafter it was used by many people, some of whom left the capital for all parts of the country.11

An examination of Petrashevtsy's testimony before the Investigating Commission as well as their writings shows that [34] many, perhaps the majority, sympathized with the federalist principle and favored autonomy and self-government for various regions of the empire.

In "My Aphorisms," written about 1840, Petrashevsky expressed himself in favor of a republican form of government along federal lines: "Each state," he wrote, "should contain one nation and the relationship between the nations should be like those of the states in the United States of North America, or between provinces of the same state.... All officials should be elected, and all the huge military forces maintained at present would not be necessary for then war could not take place."12

In the Pocket Dictionary "nationality" is defined as a sum total of typical characteristics (language, customs, religion, ways of life, etc.) which distinguish one people from another. The less developed a nation is, the more prominent such characteristics are, the further it is from the ideal of a supranational society, toward which all nations are gradually evolving. It is only when the ideal society is reached that each nation would contribute its own peculiar culture to the general treasure house of humanity. Russia, he thought, had a great future in this respect.13 One must point out, however, that Petrashevsky's views on nationalism and national movements were not consistent and often seemed contradictory. Socialism for him was a higher concept than nationality, since the latter was bound to disappear in time, and consequently national movements were harmful to socialism because they deflected the society's energies from the economic issues and led to increased armaments and conflicts.14 On the other hand, at various times, as in his conversations with Speshnev, he showed willingness to discuss the possibility of inciting rebellions in the borderlands -- Poland, the Caucasus, the Ukraine, and Siberia.15

The most important evidence on Petrashevsky's views of the future of the Russian Empire come probably from the reports of the agent Antonelli, who infiltrated the circle.16 According to these reports, based on conversations written down by Antonelli, Petrashevsky considered revolution in [35] Russia possible, but only after a prolonged period of propaganda. The empire, he thought, was held together only by force: "The unity of Russia is supported only by Russia's military power, and when this will be destroyed or, in any case, weakened, then all the peoples composing Russia will separate into independent tribes and Russia will then become like the present day United States of North America."17 He did not elaborate on this, but at the inquest, when confronted with the above statement, he did not deny it but said that this idea seemed now "strange and absurd" to him. Since that time, he averred, he had realized that the unity of the state did not depend entirely on military power but depended also on moral ties, and that as society develops, the "coming together" of nationalities must mediate against the breakup of the state.18 This idea that states are "coming together" and eventually would merge, forming one happy a family, was shared by many Petrashevtsy. Thus one member of the circle, A. P. Balasoglo, wrote: "I think that perhaps in hundreds of years or even more, every civilized state, not excluding Russia, will no longer live in accidentally formed, wretched conglomerates of peoples who squabble with each other for gold or bread, but in communes where everything will be common property and where everybody would share the same reasonable goals of the association."19

No detailed political program for the future organization of Russian society was apparently developed by Petrashevsky or anyone in the circle. Some details, however, could be surmised from the so-called treatise which ostensibly Petrashevsky dictated to Antonelli and which was intended to be used as propaganda among the Circacians in the Tsar's convoy.20 According to this document, supreme power would belong to the Supreme Council elected by all classes of the population to a unicameral parliament from the bottom up. There was to be wide autonomy and self-government since every nation had the right to govern itself and not to be subjected to the rule of another."21

There was, of course, no general agreement among the Petrashevtsy on these questions, as on many others. However, [36] at least three members of the circle -- Mombelli, Chernosvitov, and Speshnev -- shared Petrashevsky's views on the national movements in the empire and the possibility of rebellions in the borderlands.

An impoverished lieutenant in the Moscow Guard regiment, N. A. Mombelli (1823-1902), was invited by Petrashevsky to join the circle in the fall of 1848.22 Mombelli's diary, kept between 1843 and 1847, and the comments of the Investigating Commission show his intense interest in the poet Taras Shevchenko, and the Ukrainian national movement. He followed eagerly all the rumors about the arrest of members of the Saints Cyril and Methodius Society and speculated as to how serious the Ukrainian "conspiracy" was.23 "As everybody knows," he wrote, "the Ukrainians are lazy people but once they are aroused one could not pacify them until they have achieved what they had set out to do. An uprising in the Ukraine would set in motion the Don which had been displeased with the government for a long time; then the Poles would take advantage of this and, finally, all the Russian South West would be in arms."24

Mombelli knew Polish and was sympathetic with the Polish national struggle. In his papers was found his translation into Russian of Mickiewicz's poem about the Decembrists addressed "To the Russian Friends":

Do you remember me? When I think about my friends, executed, exiled, imprisoned, I am thinking of you all. . . .25

"A passionate ardent soul," wrote Antonelli, "whose misfortune was to start his education too late under the influence of Butashevich-Petrashevsky."26

R. A. Chernosvitov (1810-?) was the circle's specialist on Siberia and was very popular at Petrashevsky's Fridays. A poor officer, he lost a leg in the Polish campaign of 1830 and, after retiring from the army, served for a time as a police officer in the Urals, where he took part in the suppression of a peasant revolt. He was accused of having spoken of Eastern [37] Siberia as a separate country "destined to become an independent empire."27 He denied this and testified that he was carried away by his enthusiasm for Siberia, which he loved and often called in exaggerated language "America, California, El Dorado, Russian Mexico" largely for effect, he claimed, without implying that it might ever separate from Russia.28 He also denied other accusations that he had an influence on Governor-General Muraviev, in whose entourage he served as an officer for a time, and that he had contacts with the raskoiniki.29

N. A. Speshnev (1821-82), a well-to-do landowner who had traveled extensively in Europe, was one of the more radical members of the group. He admitted discussing with Chernosvitov peasant revolts in the Urals and Volynia. The Urals, he thought, would be easy to stir to action, for the Volga peasants would readily join the rebel troops.30 Antonelli's testimony presented additional evidence on the discussions of peasant revolts in Siberia between Petrashevsky, Chernosvitov, and Speshnev.31

Recent Soviet investigators, V. Leikina, V. E. Evgrafov, I. A. Fedosov and others, tend to emphasize the revolutionary character of the circle. They argue that the Petrashevtsy went beyond Fourier's theory of peaceful introduction of socialism and should, therefore, be considered forerunners of contemporary revolutionary socialism. Fedosov writes, "The peculiarity of utopian socialists of that time is their active revolutionary character, which combines socialist ideas with the struggle for political freedom and the aspiration to resolve social questions in a revolutionary way."32 It is generally acknowledged that, with the exception of Speshnev, the Petrashevtsy did not know Marx's work; they had no idea of class struggle or "the class nature of autocracy." Their views of the state were utopian, pre-Marxist, and there is not much evidence to show that they had at any time "a passionate desire to smash autocracy." Some, as Fedosov acknowledges, actually believed in "the progressive character of autocracy."33

Following Fourier, the Petrashevtsy generally had a negative [38] attitude toward large cities. Akhsharumov, for example, thought that the state was repressive because people lived in large aggregates, and that it was desirable to break them up into small communities.34

There is no question that the village commune formed an important part of the Petrashevtsy's outlook. The idea was not central, perhaps, but it was in the background. Because of this interest and their general concern for the peasant, they could be considered precursors of the populist movement of the 1860s and 1870s. At any rate, they have certainly exercised an influence on one trend associated with the populists and the SRs -- the cooperative movement of the early twentieth century.

The cornerstone of the Petrashevtsy ideology was faith in small, voluntary communities and in the goodness and perfectability of men. In time this would lead, in their view, to an ideal society and universal harmony. Their view of federal organization as one starting from the bottom up was not unlike that of Bakunin and his followers. In his address to the League for Peace and Freedom in Geneva in September 1867, Bakunin stated: "Starting out with the organization of the lowest nucleus and proceeding upwards, federalism becomes a political institution of socialism, the free and spontaneous organization of popular life."35 To this the Petrashevsky circle would have subscribed with enthusiasm.


1 . The most important source material on the Petrashevsky circle is in P. E. Shchegolev, comp. and ed., Delo petrashevtsev 3 vols. (Moscow-Leningrad, 1937-51). The best single work on Petrashevsky is by the prerevolutionary scholar V. I. Sernevsky, who started a long study on the Petrashevsky circle but did not finish it before his death. The first part was brought out posthumously by V. Vodovozov: M. V. Butashevicb-Petrasbevsky (Moscow-Leningrad, 1922). Besides Shchegolev, the following Soviet scholars have published significant works on the Petrashevtsy: V. E. Evgrafov, V. Leikina, and I. A. Fedosov.

2. P. E. Shchegolev, comp. and ed., Petrasbevtsy v vospominaniakh sovremennikov. Sbornik materialov (Moscow-Leningrad, 1926). pp. 54-61. Originally Akhsharumov's memoirs were published in St. Petersburg in 1905. [39]

3 Petrashevsky's testimony given in May-June 1849 denied all revolutionary intent. Delo petrashevtsev, 1:28-30.

4. Shchegolev, Petrasbevtsy v vospominaniakh, p. 11.

5. Delo petrashevtsev 1:414, 462-63, 488; Semevsky, p. 202.

6. The full text of the Karmannyi slavar inostrannykh slov is included in V. E. Evgrafov, ed., Filosofskie i obsbcbestvenno-politicbeskie proizvedeniia petrasbevtsev (1953). The first issue of the dictionary was published in 1845, the second in 1846. It was soon stopped by censorship and later all the copies were destroyed. (V. Leikina, Petrasbevtsy (1924), p. 74.)

7. 1. A. Fedosov, Revolutsionnoe dvizhenie v Rossii.... (Moscow, 1958), p. 294.

8. Evgrafov, p. 778.

9. A. Herzen, "Herzen o Petrashevskom," in Shchegolev, Petrasbevtsy, p. 92.

10. Delopetrashevtsev, 3:387.

11. D. Akhsharumov, Iz moikh vospominanii (Moscow-Leningrad, 1926), p. 17.

12. Delo petrashevtsev, 1:546-47.

13. "Karmannyi slovar inostrannykh slov," in Evgrafov, pp. 192-93.

14. Delo petrasbevtsev, 1:95.

15. Ibid., 3:8-9, 386-87.

16. Antonelli's testimony is largely in volume 3 of Delo petrashevtsev; see also Sernevsky, M. V. Butasbevich-Petrasjevsky (Moscow, 1922), pp. 138-39, 147-83.

17. Delo petrashevtsev, 1: 160; 2:8, 220; Sernevsky, p. 138.

18. Delo petrashevtsev, 1:160-61.

19. Ibid., 2:96; for Mombelli's views on the subject, see 1:290.

20. Ibid., 3:383-85.

21. Ibid., p. 385.

22. V. Leikina, Petrasbevtsy (Moscow, 1924), pp. 121-22.

23. Delo petrashevtsev, 1:310-12.

24. Ibid., pp. 312, 339.

25. Ibid., p. 338.

26. Fedosov, p. 302.

27. Delo petrashevtsev, 1:462.

28. Ibid.

29. Ibid., p. 463.

30. Ibid., pp. 488-89.

31. Ibid., 3:8.

32. Fedosov, p. 379; see also a biographical sketch of Petrashevsky in Eygrafov, pp. 748-50 and V. Rozhkov's introduction to Shchegolev, ed., Petrashevtsy, p. xix.

33. Fedosov, p. 339.

34. Delo petrashevtsev, 1:334.

35. G. P. Maximov, ed., The Political Pbilosophy of Bakunin (Glencoe, Ill., 1953), pp. 273-74.