Avrahm Yarmolinsky, Road to Revolution: A Century of Russian Radicalism, 1956.

Chapter 1

The Ancestor: Radishchev

In May, 1790, when Catherine II had been on the throne twenty-eight years, copies of a new book, entitled A Journey from Petersburg to Moscow, found their way into one or two bookstores in the Russian capital. The few people who bought it must have gaped as they turned the pages of the bulky volume duly provided with the censor's imprimatur. Indebted to the technique of Sterne's Sentimental Journey, this medley of narrative, argument, invective, and homily, enlivened by thumbnail character sketches sharply drawn and an occasional digression into surprisingly frank autobiography, was least of all a rambling travelogue. It was a political tract of unprecedented boldness. Here spoke, in the rhetorical and tearful accents of the period, not only a sensitive heart that bled at the sight of suffering and swelled with indignation -- an indignation not free from self-righteousness -- at the spectacle of injustice, but also a mind committed to the ideas of a revolutionary age.

While informed with the spirit of Western Enlightenment, the book is deeply rooted in the native soil. Never before had the seamy side of Russian life been so boldly exposed, nor the vernacular used to voice sentiments so unbecoming a subject of the Empress and a member of the Orthodox Church. One chapter intimates that the gaudy facade of Catherine's rule conceals a corrupt and cruelly oppressive regime. By innuendo her favourites, notably Potemkin, are told off as a pack of greedy, incompetent sycophants, mercilessly plundering the people. Nor does the author mince words in denouncing the criminal negligence and venality of lesser officialdom. He is no gentler with those who wear a crown. Of Emperor Joseph II he writes: 'He was a king. Tell me, then, in whose head can there be more absurdities than in a king's?' His political ideal, government by law, is compatible with monarchy. But there is not a little in the book to suggest that the nation would be best off if the throne were to be swept away.

His animus against autocracy is most apparent in the ode entitled 'Liberty,' excerpts from which are inserted in the text. This clumsy and prolix piece -- in its entirety it runs to fifty-four ten-line stanzas -- celebrates freedom as the highest good, godlike in its creative possibilities. Apparently composed between 1781 and 1783, it was to some extent inspired by the American Revolution. The poet apostrophizes Washington as an unconquerable warrior guided by liberty. In lines omitted from the book he thus addresses the American States rejoicing at their newly acquired freedom: 'You jubilate while we suffer here, and all thirst for the same, the same.' If he could at least be buried in America! But no, let him be interred in his native land, so that youth, seeing his grave, may say: 'This man, who was born under the yoke of authority, and bore gilded fetters, was the first to prophesy freedom to us.'

The poet envisions a popular rising against a tyrannical king, his trial by the successful rebels and his death verdict. In this connexion the regicide Cromwell is praised for having taught the peoples to revenge themselves on rulers who violate the rights of man. An accusing finger is also pointed at the Church: in partnership with the State 'faith' oppresses society, the one seeking to enslave the mind, the other to obliterate the will.

The last stanzas are heavy with confused, dark augury, that brightens at the close. They have recently been read, not without some exercise of the imagination, as a foreshadowing of the Russian revolution. The Empire, the poet vaticinates, will go on expanding and, as a result, the bond uniting the several parts will weaken; then the country will pass through a great upheaval; fire and famine and civil strife will lay it waste and shatter it into fragments; they will reunite on a new basis, presumably as a federation, and under the aegis of freedom; this will be crushed by authority; in the fulness of time, however, the shackled people will rise, and on a day that will be 'the most elect among all days' liberty will shine forth.

In prose, and more soberly, the author calls for religious tolerance and the abolition of censorship, citing in this connexion the constitutions of four American states. He seems to be aware that equality before the law is not enough. 'Right, without power,' he remarks, 'has always been esteemed an empty word.' Indeed, on one occasion he mentions 'equality of possessions' as a desideratum. Both as a devotee of liberty and as an egalitarian he attacks the status and privileges of the nobility, particularly its right to own bondsmen. In fact, the main force of his protest is directed against 'the hundred-headed monster' of serfdom.

Solitary voices had called attention to the evils of this institution in the past, and the public prints that blossomed out briefly in the 1770's had helped to make it odious. The Freemasons, whose numbers had grown considerably since the lodges first appeared in the mid-century, had sought to humanize the treatment of the serfs. A Journey goes much further. Later abolitionists were to add nothing to the case against serfdom that is made out in the book. Episode upon episode builds up an accusing story of misery and oppression. 'Greedy beasts, insatiable leeches,' cries the author, 'what do we leave to the peasant? That which we cannot take away: air.' He offers no palliatives. He demands complete, if gradual, emancipation. The serfs must become fully-fledged citizens, owning the land they till.

How is liberation to be brought about? The author has an imaginary sovereign appeal to the owners to take the initiative in freeing the serfs. Morality, religion, the public good, the economic interest of the masters themselves are invoked in turn. There is yet another argument, which a czar will use in a later generation: if freedom does not come from above, it must come from below, the result of 'the very weight of enslavement.' Serfdom is bound to lead to a bloody uprising. The danger is imminent. 'Already Time has lifted his scythe awaiting an opportune moment. . . .' The author, far from being appalled by it, welcomes the prospect of a popular explosion, in which, he knows, the members of his own class stand to lose everything, including their lives. 'Oh, would that the slaves, burdened with heavy shackles, rose in their despair,' he exclaims, 'and with the irons that deprive 'them of freedom crushed our heads, the heads of their inhuman masters, and reddened the fields with our blood!' There are, in A Journey, other less bombastic passages which call to mind the motto coined by another rebel under different circumstances: 'War to the castles, peace to the huts!'


Either the censor approved the manuscript of A Journey from Petersburg to Moscow without looking into it, or he failed to grasp the meaning of what he read. In any event, he had permitted the release of a literary bomb.

It burst in a charged atmosphere, throbbing with the remote thunders of the French Revolution. We have it on the authority of the French Minister to Russia that the news of the fall of the Bastille made a great stir in Petersburg (now Leningrad), as it did in so many European centres. While it caused consternation at the court and in the mansions, it aroused enthusiasm among middle-class people and some scions of the gentry. Strangers embraced in the streets and congratulated each other. The event seems to have been the object of some sympathetic comment even in high places. One evening in the autumn of 1789 a secretary to the Empress arriving home -- his apartment was in the Winter Palace -- found the passage leading to his drawing-room flooded with the light of many candles. His daughter, a precocious child of seven, explained that she had arranged the illumination, a feature of all the parties at the Palace, to celebrate the capture of the Bastille and 'the freeing of those poor French prisoners.'

Citizen Edmond Genet, the new French charge d'affaires, reported to his government that the Russian soil held 'the seeds of true democracy.' He was amazed at the signs of friendliness that he met in many quarters. When it became known that he had been forbidden the Court, many Guard officers called on him to pay their respects. Early in 1790 a Moscow review carried the observation that the preceding year had inaugurated 'a new epoch for mankind.' Even in the provinces news from France was eagerly followed. An alarmed ecclesiastic remarked that due to the emotions 'inflamed by the example of France . . . free talk against the autocratic power' was 'well-nigh universal.' This was in 1790. Two years later a Russian statesman, writing to another Russian aristocrat, deplored the effect of the French revolution, adding: 'Not that it hasn't many partisans among us, as elsewhere.' There was no doubt exaggeration in these statements. Yet it is probable that the French upheaval did stimulate whatever political discontent existed in Russia at this time. At any rate, the more enlightened segment of the literate public, a very limited group indeed, briefly displayed a considerable concern with politics.

Small wonder, then, that A Journey from Petersburg to Moscow attracted attention. It aroused particular interest among what a contemporary called 'the riff-raff.' Before many weeks had elapsed the book was brought to the notice of the Empress. She read it. She was mortified, she was enraged. She covered the margins with angry comment, in ungrammatical Russian. The wretch takes a black view of everything, has an ungrateful heart, is trying to teach his grandmother to suck eggs. He would rouse the people against their superiors. He calls war murder! He exudes French poison. The idea of bewailing the condition of the peasantry! Why, in Russia the lot of a serf owned by a good master is the best in the whole world. This pen-pusher has no regard for the laws, either human or divine, he threatens the foundations of the family, he is against the commandments. Nothing escapes his censure. If he contracted the pox in his youth, it was the Government's fault (the author blames the authorities for his disease because they sanction prostitution instead of trying to eradicate it). He extolls Cromwell and Mirabeau, 'who deserves not one, but several gibbets.' His dislike of monarchs stares you in the eye, he threatens them with the block. And he pins his hopes to the mutiny of the churls. Seditious, criminal pages!

A Journey had been completed, as the Empress was soon to learn, nearly a year before the fall of the Bastille. Also the single passage on revolutionary France in the text conveys a rather dim view of developments there. Noting that despite all the talk of liberty, the National Assembly has not abolished censorship, the author concludes that 'the French should weep, and mankind with them.' Nevertheless, Catherine decided -- and not without reason -- that the book exhibited the temper that was turning France upside down. It was an incendiary work, besides being an affront to her person. The police were ordered to destroy all copies they could lay hands on. As a result, of the six hundred and fifty copies printed, only seventeen are extant. Nor could the author go unpunished. His name did not appear in the volume, but it was easy to identify him.

He proved to be an official in charge of the Petersburg custom-house, a widower, just over forty, by the name of Alexander Radishchev. As a boy he had attended the exclusive Corps of Pages, which partook of the nature of an educational establishment. The pupils served as pages at the imperial court and were instructed in sixteen subjects, all of them taught by a single pedagogue, a Frenchman. In his middle teens he had been sent abroad by the Empress to study law and related subjects. He spent five intellectually profitable years at the University of Leipzig, reading the works of the French philosophes more assiduously than his German textbooks. Back home, he entered government service, but continued to keep abreast of events in the West and of European thought, particularly in the field of economics and politics. He did not shed his radicalism with his youth. He also found time for writing, and among other things gradually composed the chapters that made up A Journey from Petersburg to Moscow. It was run off on his own printing-press by his own serfs, private printing establishments having been permitted in 1783.

Radishchev was arrested and handed over to a prosecutor infamous for his manhandling of prisoners. The outcome of the trial was a foregone conclusion: he was condemned to be beheaded. But he promptly and abjectly apologized, disclaimed any intention other than to acquire literary fame, and pleaded for mercy, protesting his loyalty to the Empress and enjoining his sons in his last will 'to love and respect her sacred person above all.' In view of his recantation, and because peace had just been concluded with Sweden, Catherine commuted the death sentence to a ten-year term of exile to Siberia. At the end of that time he re-entered the service, but soon committed suicide (in 1802, at the age of 53). In A Journey and elsewhere Radishchev had expressed his conviction that a man has the moral right to take his own life if he cannot live it with dignity.


After the Empress had finished reading A Journey, she concluded that, since the author's purpose was no less than to snatch the sceptre from the hands of the monarch, and since he could not carry out this design alone, he must have had partners in crime. Questioned on that point while under arrest, Radishchev's truthful reply was in the negative. He was rather unsociable, he added, and spent his leisure at home composing his 'vile book.'

If he had no accomplices, from the first his book was not without a symapthetic audience. As has been suggested, in the latter years of Catherine's reign her thirty-six million subjects included people infected with democratic ideas. Like so much else in Russian culture they were an importation from the West. French political literature, which played its part in throwing up barricades in Paris, was read and taken to heart in Russia. It helped to form the intellectual climate hostile to the established order. The Empress herself was instrumental in spreading European Enlightenment in her adopted country, particularly during those early years when it pleased her to play the part of a crowned philosopher. She opened schools, encouraged book publishing, sponsored a periodical press, though only as long as the satire in which it indulged remained innocuous. A peasant uprising at home and the turn events were taking in France helped to put an end to her flirtation with liberalism. The regime which had started out as an enlightened despotism ended as despotism tout court. But she could not wholly undo what was, in part, the work of her own hands.

The constituted authorities had nothing to fear from the men who were hospitable to Radishchev's idea and sympathized with the French Revolution. Intellectuals and semi-intellectuals born into the lesser nobility and the third estate, they were a tiny minority, impotent, nearly mute, alienated from their surroundings by education. Cruelly ill at ease, they could only dream of a distant future when, as they might have phrased it, man's natural right to liberty and happiness would be secured by laws grounded on reason and justice.

Some of the Russians staying in France temporarily succumbed to the revolutionary virus. The Russian ambassador in Paris complained that the priest attached to the embassy had got out of hand, the Rights of Man having gone to his head. Among those infected were several scions of the topmost aristocracy who were being educated abroad. Prince Dmitry Golitzyn, aged eighteen, is said to have taken part in the assault on the Bastille. Another raw youth, Count Paul Strogonov, heir to an immense fortune, who was in Paris with his French tutor early in the Revolution, joined the Club des Jacobins -- his membership certificate is dated 7 August, 1790. The idea of returning home, where he would have to breathe the air of despotism, horrified him. But, like Golitzyn, return he did, and eventually both made brilliant careers, one becoming a senator, the other -- Governor-General of Moscow.

One of the women who ruled Russia in the eighteenth century had had to cope with an opposition that stemmed from the top of the social hierarchy. In 1730 a group of great lords, men of ancient lineage who owned vast estates and thousands of 'souls,' attempted to force a charter on Empress Anna, limiting the sovereign's authority, guaranteeing certain basic rights to the population and giving the upper nobility a voice in the affairs of state. Had such a constitution been granted, it would in all likelihood gradually have developed along democratic lines, and the history of Russia and the world would have had a different complexion. But the aristocratic frondeurs failed, and by the time Catherine took power they had ceased to count. By and large, the upper classes, particularly the country squires, were as innocent of political ambitions as the infant third estate and the lower orders. They were solidly behind the autocratic regime, since it guaranteed their economic and social prerogatives, especially the exclusive right to live off the labour of the serfs. Catherine was at pains to formalize the corporative organization of the nobility as a privileged caste. In her reign the nobles had more reason than ever to feel that they were the backbone of the empire, the mainstay of the throne and, indeed, the salt of the earth.

As for the rural masses, they clung to the belief that the occupant of the throne, an anointed ruler, was their protector against the greed and inhumanity of the masters. By giving himself out to be Czar Peter III, a Cossack by the name of Pugachev succeeded in rousing a large segment of the peasantry against the landed gentry, and for two or three years (1773-75) a bloody jacquerie raged throughout the eastern section of European Russia. The rising was crushed, and the lot of the villagers only worsened. While professing liberal sentiments, the 'crowned Tartuffe in petticoats,' as Pushkin called Catherine, actually extended the status of bondsmen to hundreds of thousands of State peasants by making generous gifts of lands that they inhabited to her favourites, as did also her successor. By 1782 the nobility owned fifty-three per cent, of the peasant population. Completely at the mercy of their masters, and more thoroughly exploited than ever before, the serfs were in an ugly mood, but their resentment found vent only in an occasional outbreak of insubordination or the lynching of an exceptionally harsh landowner. Cowed and brutalized, the peasantry was wholly absorbed in the task of keeping above the starvation line.

In short, while abroad revolution was smashing the edifice of absolute rule and feudal privilege, in Russia the finishing touches had been put to it, and it stood there, complete and seemingly impregnable.

Radishchev was, no doubt, aware of this situation. He knew that he had been born too soon, that he would not live to see 'the elect among all days.' He was a near-republican in a semi-Oriental autocracy, a democrat in a squirearchy, an egalitarian in a caste society, an abolitionist in an age that witnessed the expansion of quasi-slavery, a nobleman with a bad conscience in a period when the nobility accepted its privileges as its rightful due. A humanitarian, he denounced the evils of industrialism, describing mines as 'graves in which thousands of men are buried alive.' What sustained him was a sense of the historic significance of his work, the stubborn belief that subsequent generations were certain to heed his message. Like one of the imaginary characters that he used as mouthpieces in his book, he thought of himself as 'a citizen of the time to come.' He concludes his project for the emancipation of the serfs with these words: This is not a reverie: the gaze penetrates the thick curtain of time concealing the future from our eyes; I look across a century.' He could have said with Saint-Just: 'I cast my anchor into the future and press posterity to my heart.'

The excesses of the French Revolution quickly alienated the sympathies of not a few who had begun by applauding it. For some of these enthusiasts devotion to liberty, equality, and fraternity was a passing indiscretion, for others -- a matter of fashion, like Jacobin hats and cravats. Besides, it was becoming distinctly unsafe for Catherine's subjects to show the slightest sign of anything but abhorrence for what she called the French grabuge.

The Empress watched the drastic course of the Revolution with glowing dismay. Her reaction to the news of the execution of the King, as set down by her secretary, was that 'it was absolutely necessary to exterminate everything French, down to the name.' This sentiment, expressed in French, dominated the reporting of French affairs in the Russian press. Not even moderately objective comment on them was tolerated. Although in official utterances Catherine insisted that her empire was immune to the French infection, her fury was not unmixed with fear. She saw conspirators everywhere and imagined that her life was in danger.

The sense of insecurity was not confined to her. On 13 November (N.S.), 1792, Count Vorontzov, Russian Ambassador to Great Britain, wrote to his brother that the world was witnessing a struggle to the death between the 'haves' and 'have-nots,' in which the latter were sure to win, and that Russia too was in the end bound to become a victim of this universal epidemic, perhaps within his son's lifetime. 'I have decided,' he concluded, 'to teach him a trade, that of a locksmith or a cabinetmaker. When his vassals tell him that they no longer need him and wish to divide his lands among them, let him at least be able to earn his bread with his own labour.' A week later the Count returned to the subject of the irresistible onward march of the 'democrats,' winding up dejectedly with the remark: 'Our turn, too, will come....'

Several pamphlets by native authors, directed against the Revolution, made their appearance, and one versifier told the French that they could have enjoyed lasting peace if, like the Russians, they had known how to obey. But the Empress was inclined to rely on police measures rather than on ideological weapons to combat the menace of subversion.

She had always disliked the Freemasons. Now they fell under suspicion as harbouring political designs and she visited her wrath upon them. In vain did they go out of their way to deny any connexion with Radishchev -- his book was dedicatedj to a prominent Mason -- protesting that criticism of the constituted authorities was against their principles. Their lodges were outlawed and their leader, Nikolay Novikov, clapped into jail without a trial and publicly branded as a charlatan. The charitable and educational institutions established by the Masons were disbanded and many thousands of volumes published under their auspices went up in smoke. Among them were copies of a Russian version of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Book burning became a regular police occupation. The umbrageousness of the censors knew no limits. A new translation of Voltaire, the former protege of the Empress, was confiscated by her order, and so was a tragedy by a native playwright celebrating the republicanism of medieval Novgorod. The French residents of the capital were forced to take an oath which amounted to disowning their country, and Russians staying in France were ordered to return home. Whenever possible, French instructors were replaced by Swiss. The royalist emigres, received at Court with open arms, set the tone of polite society, in opinions as well as in sartorial matters. Rarely did a young gentleman display a Jacobin touch in his attire, just for the devil of it, and a lady was apt to wear her hair a la reine and a gown a la contre-revolution in black and yellow, the colours of the anti-French coalition.

Paul I, who succeeded his mother on the throne after her sudden death in November 1796, was at pains to undo her governmental system. But he continued to maintain the quarantine against the French contagion which she had instituted. His unbalanced mind was swayed chiefly by hatred of democratic principles. Russians were forbidden to go abroad, and the country was practically barred to all foreigners except aristocratic emigres. An embargo was placed on foreign literature and music. Everything that smacked of Jacobinism in men's or women's apparel was expressly banned. A special decree proscribed the use in print of certain words, such as 'citizen,' 'fatherland,' 'society.' In the five black years of Paul's reign his subjects had an opportunity to learn more than ever about the abuse of autocratic power, though not as much as their descendants were to be taught in our time.

Official rigours were mitigated by inefficiency. There were chinks in the iron curtain between Russia and the West, rung down by Catherine and reinforced by her son. Intellectual contacts with the outside world did not cease even under Paul. All the French tutors could not be eliminated. Nor were the Swiss who had replaced some of them immune to liberal ideas. One, an instructor in a military college, taught the cadets the Marseillaise. The reactionary regime of the last years of the century silenced but could not, of course, entirely choke off the opposition.

In the summer of 1793 one Fyodor Krechetov, described officially as a dangerous political criminal, was confined until further notice to a solitary cell in the Fortress of Saints Peter and Paul, where Radishchev had spent some time before his deportation to Siberia. One charge against this retired lieutenant was that he had brought out a list of the works he had prepared for publication -- the man was a graphomaniac -- without submitting it to censorship. A more serious accusation was that he had been spreading subversive notions by word of mouth. It was alleged that he had made scurrilous remarks about the Empress and expressed the wish 'to overthrow the autocracy and make a republic or some such thing, so that all should be equal.' His head was full of plans for reforms, and on one occasion he had observed that if the authorities failed to put them into effect, 'a small band, uniting with the discontented, could do for the Government in the twinkling of an eye.' Krechetov and some of his acquaintances were readers of A Journey from Petersburg to Moscow.

Two manuscript copies of the book were in the possession of an army man arrested in 1794. Among his papers were found poems which, in a dithyrambic style resembling that of Radishchev's ode 'Liberty,' urged the people 'to crush the walls of autocracy.' Another military man was overheard saying that all monarchs were 'tyrants and evildoers,' and that all men were equal, which earned him exile to Siberia. This was in 1797. Two years later a small landowner of gentle birth was arrested in Kiev: he had been heard to say that people would be better off if they were 'free and equal,' like the French. In 1798 the police discovered a group of army officers stationed in the province of Smolensk who were meeting secretly to read forbidden books, which, in the words of the official report were certain 'to deprave weak minds and implant in them the spirit of liberty and sympathy with the French republic. . . . The books in question apparently included A Journey fron Petersburg to Moscow. Repeatedly Shakespeare's Julius Caesar was read aloud, and the scene of the murder of the Roman dictator elicited sanguinary remarks directed at the tyrant a home. In their letters the men liked to quote the phrase 'Brutus, thou sleep'st,' adding: 'while the fatherland is in irons. It is reported that a Major Potemkin volunteered to assassinate the Emperor.

A truly seminal work, Radishchev's book continued to be read, sub rosa, mostly in transcripts. More of these are extant than printed copies, and fabulous rentals are said to have been paid for them. The efforts of the authorities to consign Radishchev to oblivion were of no avail. Echoes of his ideas are discernible in the writings of several minor authors who were active at the turn of the century. Nor was his name unknown to the next two generations. But it was in mid-century, when the movement for political and social reform was taking shape, that the significance of his pioneering effort began to be widely appreciated. A reprint of his book appeared in London in 1858. Ten years later the ban on it was removed. Nevertheless, an expurgated edition of Radishchev's writings issued in Petersburg in 1872 was confiscated by administrative order, It was only early in the twentieth century that A Journey became freely accessible to the general public.

By that time his reputation as the first prophet and marty of Russian freedom was firmly established. He was honoured as the Ancestor by both liberals and radicals. The former rightly read A Journey as the first programme of Russian political democracy. The latter hailed it as the fountainhead of Russian revolutionary tradition and Radishchev as the progenitor of radical thought and feeling. They stressed the fact that he sanctioned the use of force for political ends, that he was a militant by temperament as well as by conviction, that he sided with the downtrodden and had a deep faith in the masses as the prime mover of history, that he was indeed the first swallow of the populist spring that was to come generations after his death.

On 22 September, 1918, a statue of Radishchev was unveiled in the garden of the Winter Palace in Leningrad. It was the first of the monuments erected, at Lenin's suggestion, in the capital of the triumphant revolution. In recent years Soviet scholarship has heaped extravagant encomia on Radishchev. One author has blithely declared that he was the greatest political thinker of the eighteenth century. He was actually an apt disciple of Western Enlightenment in its later phase. Convinced that no ruler will give up an ounce of his authority voluntarily, he invoked the arbitrament of force without, however, losing faith in the power of reason to deal with the sources of human suffering. He was clear-sighted enough to examine native realities in the light of his ideas and, his recantation notwithstanding, he was a pioneer in courageously speaking out against the twin evils of Russian life: autocracy and serfdom, although he knew that his was a voice crying in the wilderness.