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

Chapter 5


The news of Nicholas's death brought a general sense of relief. All thinking people felt that the event marked the end of an era, and that there were bound to be decisive changes. The long winter had come to an end and the tumult of spring was sweeping through the political air. Tongues were loosened, minds were aroused. 'Whoever was not alive in Russia in 1856,' wrote Tolstoy, 'does not know what life is.'

At first the new Czar, busy bringing the war to an end, could not give thought to the great reforms awaited by the country. He did, however, show a concessive spirit in various small ways. Restrictions on the number of university students were lifted and difficulties in the way of foreign travel removed. Some Decembrists and Petrashevists were amnestied. One or two notorious obscurantists were dismissed from high posts. Each liberal or humane measure, however trivial, was greeted with enthusiasm and served to sustain the great expectations that buoyed up all hearts. Hints at coming reforms were read into official pronouncements. The time for patchwork measures seemed at an end.

The slogan of progress was on every tongue. It was the refrain of the books and periodicals that were appearing in greater numbers. The press was given licence to touch on questions of foreign and domestic policy, although certain topics, notably the abolition of serfdom -- the pivotal issue of the day -- could not be mentioned. Forbidden subjects were aired in manuscript pamphlets by both Slavophils and Westernists. In their eagerness to work for a regenerated Russia the two camps were ready to bury the hatchet. Not that the Westernists were all of one mind. They had a left wing with its own organ, the Petersburg monthly Sovremennik (The Contemporary). The magazine was controlled by Nikolay Nekrasov, a civic poet of great popularity, who was also a shrewd editor. He leaned heavily on a young man by the name of Nikolay Chernyshevsky.

The radicals had a somewhat uncertain ally in the handful of expatriates captained by Herzen. A few days after the beginning of the new reign he addressed an open letter to the Czar. Acknowledging himself 'an incorrigible socialist' and his addressee 'an autocratic Emperor,' he declared that nevertheless the two had in common a love for the Russian people. In the name of this love he urged Alexander II to free the press from censorship, abolish corporal punishment and wipe out the blot of serfdom. He promised 'to wait, obliterate himself, speak of something else,' as long as he could hope that the government would accomplish these great things. He did not know how to obliterate himself and he could not speak of other things, but he did observe a kind of private truce with the Czar during the years that preceded emancipation.

The open letter was printed in the first number of a review which Herzen issued from his Free Press in July, 1855, on the anniversary of the execution of the Decembrists. He called it The Polar Star, after the miscellany that Ryleyev had once edited, and he provided it with a frontpiece showing the profiles of the five who were hanged. His previous pamphlets lay on the shelves of a shop in Paternoster Row gathering dust. The Polar Star, however, found its way into Russia and was eagerly read. It was a year old when Herzen started another publication: Voices from Russia, in which he printed some of the political literature that circulated in manuscript.

He soon perceived that there was need of yet another organ which could more readily keep up with the rapid pace of events at home, and which, being less bulky, could be more easily smuggled across the border. Accordingly, on 1 July, 1857, he launched Kolokol (The Bell), first a monthly, then a bi-weekly. He now had the help of Ogarev, who had joined him in London the previous year. The Bell summoned the living -- Vivos Voco was its motto -- to bury the dead past and work for the glorious future. It undertook to be everywhere and always on the side of freedom and against oppression, for reason and against prejudice, for science and against fanaticism, for progressive peoples and against backward governments. Specifically, The Bell was devoted to 'the liberation of Russia.'

In addition to being an ideologue and a memoirist of high distinction, Herzen was a crusading journalist possessed of a powerful pen. And he had the inestimable privilege of freedom from censorship. The office of The Bell was flooded with communications from home, and there was a constant stream of Russian visitors of both sexes and all sorts and conditions to the house in Putney where Herzen lived and worked. With their help and that of scores of correspondents scattered through the country, Kolokol conducted a most successful muck-raking campaign. It cited particulars and named names. Minutes of the secret sessions of the highest bodies appeared in its columns. Fear of exposure there became a deterrent to administrative abuse. There was talk in high places of buying Herzen off, perhaps with an important post. The journal was read by all literate Russia, from the Emperor down to high school boys. The smuggled sheets were sold almost openly and were transcribed or mimeographed to meet the demand. The handful of London expatriates were a power.

When The Bell first began pealing from the shores of the Thames, Russia had known peace for more than a year. As soon as the war was over, the Czar had turned his attention to domestic matters. He was not a reformer either by temperament or conviction, but he was statesman enough to perceive that the Empire could not muddle along in the old way. Naturally, the peasant question was the first to engage him. It was increasingly obvious that the system of serf labour was choking the life of the country, economically and otherwise. Furthermore, the discontent of the masses was mounting. At the height of the war there were peasant riots in several provinces. They were caused by a rumour that the emancipation ukase had already been signed but was kept from the people by the officials. According to another rumour, the treaty that terminated the hostilities contained a secret clause which obligated the Czar to free the serfs.

The peace of Paris was signed on 30 March, 1856 (N.S.). Less than a fortnight later the Czar startled a gathering of nobles in Moscow by observing pointedly that while he did not intend to abolish serfdom with a stroke of the pen, the existing order could not be left unchanged, and that in any event it was 'better that bondage should be abolished from above than from below.' Nearly seventy years earlier Radishchev had had an imaginary czar advance this very argument. The serf owners, however, failed to take the hint. A secret commission was set up to study the problem, but made no headway. Finally, on 20 November, 1857, the Emperor took a long step toward emancipation by authorizing the gentry of three north-western provinces to form committees to discuss the terms of the measure.

This first public move in the direction of the epoch-making reform was greeted with enthusiasm by all the progressive elements. It rejoiced the hearts of Westernists and Slavophils, liberals and radicals. Herzen delivered himself of a paean to the Czar, saying that he was 'as much an heir of 14 December as of Nicholas.' He declared: 'We go with him who liberates,' adding cautiously: 'and as long as he liberates.' The Contemporary, too, called down blessings on the Emperor's head. Momentarily even the most radically-minded entertained the belief that the system could be overhauled under the existing regime painlessly and gradually, yet thoroughly.


The state of harmony between the Government and the public was short-lived. The Czar had wanted the initiative in the matter of abolition to come from the serf-owners, and he was willing to have committees of them debate the details of the measure. But he relied on the administration to formulate and carry out the reform and he made it plain that he would brook no nonsense from the gentry. In the autumn of 1859 delegates from a number of provincial committees were summoned to the capital to confer with the officials. They criticized the plans of the administration as both unjust and illegal. One of them wrote to the Emperor urging him to let the nobility have a hand in working out the measure instead of merely offering suggestions. The delegates were rudely reprimanded, and two or three of the bolder spirits, including a former Petrashevist, were deported.

Like the aristocratic frondeurs of the previous century, the malcontents among the gentry sought political power as a compensation for the threatened loss of economic privilege. To the Slavophils, wedded as they were to the principle of autocracy, constitutional guarantees limiting the sovereign's authority were anathema. But they allowed themselves to speak out for freedom of conscience and to harp on the necessity of an 'understanding' between the people and the state. As a result, some of their organs were hounded out of existence.

The deliberations dragged on. Were the freedmen going to be provided with land? How large would the allotments be? Would these be redeemed by the peasants or the Treasury? How onerous would the terms of redemption be? Would the obshchina be perpetuated? Would there be a transitional period, and of what duration? Would the landlords retain any of their authority over their former serfs? These momentous questions hung in the balance. They were guardedly debated in the press and were the chief subject of discussion in the publications issued by the London expatriates.

When Herzen had first considered the terms of emancipation, before any steps had been taken toward it, he had argued that in fifty years liberation 'without land' would turn Russia into another, and more wretched, Ireland. And, of course, he pleaded for the preservation of the peasant commune. This was Cinderella's dowry, the only precious possession of a backward, poverty-stricken nation. The salvation of Russia, perhaps of the world, lay in the obshchina. For did it not hold the germ of the collectivist society, toward which all mankind was striving? These views determined the position of The Bell on the peasant reform. Since what Herzen was to call the muzhik's 'religion of land' had as its cardinal dogma a man's right to the land he tilled, it followed that, if the expectations of the freedmen were to be met, they must be allotted gratis at least the acres they had worked under serfdom for themselves. Naturally the land would be held collectively and redistributed periodically on an equalitarian basis.

Although Herzen lost no opportunity to repeat that he would welcome liberation, whether it came from above or from below, in reality he heavily discounted the latter alternative. At first he expected that the progressive elements of the gentry would exert a decisive influence in shaping the reform. He also conceived the curious notion that the Czar could be persuaded to establish a species of agrarian socialism with a stroke of his pen. Only reluctantly did he accept the principle of redemption, preferring a money settlement to the bloody insurrection that the landowners' resistance to even partial confiscation would provoke.

Whenever the Government seemed to yield to reactionaries intent on sabotaging the emancipation, he would savagely turn on the Czar. 'We have nothing to expect from the Government,' he declared, when a notorious anti-abolitionist was appointed to head the commission that drafted the emancipation statutes. And he urged boycotting the reform. Nevertheless, his confidence in the Emperor's noble intentions persisted. He continued to imagine that 'the imperial dictatorship' could embrace the cause of the masses and overcome the resistance of the propertied classes without danger to itself or a breach of the public peace, and a Romanov become the crowned head of a Socialist state. [In 1890 Konstantin Leontyev, a reactionary thinker of some originality, threw out the suggestion that some day a czar might put himself at the head of the socialist movement and organize it, the way Constantine the Great had organized Christianity.] Lassalle's notion of an alliance between the King of Prussia and the working class comes to mind. For all his dislike of centralized political authority, Herzen's thinking reflected the strong tendency of native scholars to cast the monarchy in the role of the protagonist in the drama of Russian history.

Herzen's stand earned him criticism both from the moderates and the extremists. One liberal told him that no educated Russian had any use for his chimerical theories, least of all for 'social democracy.' What the country needed was freedom of the press and a way to liberate the serfs without shattering the whole body politic. And he pleaded with Herzen to stop telling the West that the muzhik was destined to bring socialism into the world. The plea went unheeded. In the columns of The Bell and elsewhere Herzen continued to harp -- in general terms, as usual -- upon the promise of 'Communism in bast shoes.' Nor was he any more willing to heed another liberal who reproached him for philippics that only irritated the authorities who were engaged in the delicate task of untying age-old knots. And he continued to reflect on the sad state of the West, what with political rights vanishing in Europe and slavery flourishing in America.

On the other hand, the small contingent of radically-minded intellectuals that sprung up during the first years of the new reign was far from pleased by the course the London emigres were pursuing. The issue of The Bell, dated 1 March, 1860, contained a letter to the editor signed 'A Russian.' It painted a black picture of the way in which the peasant reform was being mishandled. The serfs were exploited more ruthlessly than ever by the masters, who knew that tneir days of power were numbered. The peasants were desperate and ready to rise. Meanwhile the liberals were babbling of peaceful progress. The writer reproached Herzen for echoing them. 'Our situation is terrible, intolerable,' he concluded, 'only the axe can save us, and nothing but the axe! . . . You have done all you could to promote a peaceful solution of the problem. Now change your tune and let your Bell not call to prayers, but ring the alarm! Summon Russia to seize the axe! Farewell, and remember that trust in the Czar's good intentions has, for hundreds of years, been ruining Russia. It is not for you to support that faith.'

Herzen's retort, printed with the letter, was that the country really needed not an axe but a broom. In Russia the old order was without any genuine strength, and a painless transition to a better society was quite within the range of possibility. In any event, force was to be appealed to as the last argument. He confessed that since the butchery he had witnessed in Paris in 1848 he had conceived a horror of blood. (Had he forgotten his hosannah to 'chaos and destruction'?) True, the Government was cowardly and the serf owners were holding on to their 'baptized property' with the tenacity of a steppe wolf clutching a bone. Nevertheless, some progress had been made. Besides, there was no unanimity in the ranks of the opposition, and where were the troops of the revolution? It was possible that the people would swing axes without prompting. That would be a great misfortune, he wrote; 'let us do everything in our power to prevent it.' At any rate, he could not issue a call to arms from his safe retreat in London. 'And who, except the Emperor,' he asked, 'had in recent years done anything sensible for the country? Let us render unto Caesar,' he concluded, 'the things that are Caesar's.'

The identity of 'A Russian' has remained undisclosed. It was probably either Nikolay Chernyshevsky, the right hand of the editor of Sovremennik, or some member of the group that revolved about that publication, possibly Dobrolubov, one of its contributors. At the beginning of the new reign he had not reached his twentieth birthday, while Chernyshevsky was only half a dozen years older. Both came from ecclesiastical families and had attended divinity school. In fact, the elder of the two was expected to become a luminary of the Church. Like so many of their contemporaries, they lost their faith, not without help from Feuerbach and with no little travail of spirit. Chernyshevsky entered the University of Petersburg, Dobrolubov a normal school. But if they repudiated the beliefs and traditions in which they had been reared, they retained certain traits associated with the religious habit of mind: the dogmatism, the moral fervour, the missionary zeal, the sense of dedication.

A voracious reader, Chernyshevsky early became acquainted, for the most part at second hand, with the ideas of such writers as Louis Blanc, Proudhon, and Blanqui, and his contacts with Petrashevists further stimulated his interest in Socialism. As a student, he was nicknamed Saint-Just. Barely twenty when the revolution of 1848 broke out, he followed its course closely. Its failure did not lead him to turn his back on the West as was the case with Herzen, but the march of events in Europe confirmed him in his impatience with political liberalism. He disliked those gentlemen, he wrote in his diary, who paid lip service to liberty and equality, but would not lift a finger to destroy a social order under which nine-tenths of the people were 'slaves and proletarians.' The important thing, he reflected, was not king or no king, constitution or no constitution, but an economic system which would prevent one class from 'sucking the blood of another.' He fancied himself 'a partisan of socialists, communists, and extreme republicans, decidedly a Montagnard.' His distaste for palliatives and half-measures was to survive his youth.

The self-styled Montagnard confided to his diary the thought that for a caste society the best government was dictatorship or absolute monarchy, provided it championed the cause of the toilers and abdicated the moment it brought about real equality: 'paradise on earth.' Before long, however, he repudiated this fantasy, which was to have such a hold on Herzen. Monarchy, he decided, was the natural ally of the aristocracy, not of the masses. The people would only get their rights by fighting for them. The monarchy must perish, and the sooner the better. The monarch's authority gone, he argued, the plundering of the poor by the rich would become more shameless, and this would hasten the hour of reckoning.

He did not doubt that a revolution was irnminent in Russia, though he was not certain of its success. 'There is not a single forward step in history without convulsions,' he noted in his diary. Moreover, he felt that, in spite of the physical cowardice with which he was cursed, he was capable of 'the boldest, maddest, most desperate acts.' He would lay down his life for 'the triumph of liberty, equality, fraternity,' and, he added, 'the abolition of poverty and vice.' He told his fiancee: 'We shall soon have an uprising, and if we do I am sure to be in it. Neither filth nor drunken peasants with cudgels, not even slaughter, will frighten me.' He was then teaching in a school in his native Saratov, but he said things in class that 'smelled of penal servitude.' He was also preparing for a university career. Having failed of his professorial ambitions, in 1856 he joined the staff of Sovremennik, to which he had for some time been a contributor.

Chernyshevsky was a man of wide interests and varied, if somewhat shaky, learning, incurably didactic and given to ex-cathedra utterances. Modesty was not his forte. In his youth he felt that he was destined to change the course of history, that he was 'one of God's greatest instruments for doing good to mankind.' Not until he was twenty-five did he give up the idea of building a perpetual motion machine which was to abolish poverty and make him the greatest benefactor of man, in the material sense, as he put it in his diary. Later he dreamed of vast systematic treatises, the crown of which was to be an Encyclopedia of Knowledge and Life, and a popular, semi-fictional abridgement of it designed for those who read only novels; all these books were to be written in French, 'the common language of the civilized world.' His ambition was to be 'a good teacher of men during centuries,' a second Aristotle. His fate was to be the most casual of authors. His writings are a huge miscellany of occasional pieces, loosely reasoned, clumsily thrown together and swollen with acrimonious polemics. Moreover, like all radical writers, he had to play hide-and-seek with the censor, as one historian phrases it. Consequently he was forced to resort to the 'Aesopian' language of indirection, allusion, camouflage. But then the public had to perfect the art of reading between the lines. It was possible to smuggle in a surprising number of ideas dangerous to the established order. In the matter of thought control, as in other respects, the successor of the imperial government has proved vastly more efficient.


Chernyshevsky had first won the public ear with a Master's dissertation on aesthetics. Submitted at the University of Petersburg the very year Alexander II ascended the throne, it was the earliest manifesto of the new era. His thesis, which delighted the iconoclastic young, was that the arts generally, and literature particularly, could justify their existence only by accurately depicting, explaining, evaluating the actual in terms accessible to all, by being 'a textbook of life.' It was an attempt to bring the Muses down to earth and put them to socially useful work, a protest against the prevalent conception ofart as an autonomous transcendent realm. Unable to assault the established order on the political or economic level, the young man attacked the enemy's aesthetics. In the decades that followed, this utilitarian view exerted a strong influence. It assumed a quasi-official status under the Soviet regime, serving to sanction the regimentation of the arts by the State.

Chernyshevsky's venture into aesthetic theory was followed by a series of literary studies, in which he worked the vein of civic criticism opened up by Belinsky. His interest in belles-lettres fed on the conviction that in Russia they were the chief vehicle of intellectual energies. Before long, however, as virtual editor of Sovremennik he handed over the department of literary criticism to Dobrolubov, himself concentrating on surveys of the domestic and foreign scene and on essays in philosophy, politics, economics.

His ethics, too, were ultilitarian. He told his readers that at the root of human behaviour is self-interest. This doctrine eliminated hypocrisy and had the virtue of being 'scientific' -- he fervently believed in the infallibility of what he mistook for science. But to pursue one's self-interest one must be free to do so and one must know wherein it lies. Chernyshevsky attributed the greatest importance to knowledge as a power for good. People were wicked, he believed, because they did not know that it was to their advantage to eschew evil. His shibboleth was enlightened egoism. This, he held, precluded narrowly selfish, anti-social acts. It led the individual, naturally and effortlessly, to identify his own happiness with the happiness of all, his private advantage with the public weal. Furthermore, he argued that since man belongs in the order of nature, he is a creature of circumstance, shaped as an ethical being by society. Consequently, in the last account, moral responsibility lies there.

He loathed the principle of laissez-faire. This is the clue to his, as to Lassalle's, anti-liberal animus. Unrestricted competition sacrificed the weak to the strong, labour to capital, he insisted. He laid at the door of free enterprise not only unfair distribution of goods, but failure to stimulate production. Both the theory and practice of what he called capitalism had in him an implacable if muddle-headed, enemy. Marx observed that Chernyshevsky 'had no conception of the capitalist mode of production,' but he commended the Russian's critique of 'bourgeois' economics in no uncertain terms. Indeed, one of the reasons why he learned Russian was to read Chernyshevsky.

Having arrived independently at the concIusion that economic doctrine mirrored class interests, Chernyshevsky sketched out 'the toilers' theory,' as opposed to the economics favouring the rich. By 'toiler' he meant both the industrial worker and the peasant. For him, as for Herzen, the muzhik was the man of destiny as far as Russia was concerned, and the welfare of the individual the supreme good. 'The toilers' theory' rested on the proposition that labour alone was entitled to the goods produced and called for economic equality and elimination of socially wasteful enterprises. Chernyshevsky was vague as to the nature of the controls that would achieve these ends. At any rate, he did not advocate a centrally planned, nationalized economy. If to a lesser degree than Herzen's, his thinking was tinged with wariness of Leviathan. What he wanted was a loose aggregate of communities resembling phalansteries: voluntary associations (tovarishchestva), each engaging in both industry and agriculture on a co-operative basis, and large enough to use machinery. They were to be autonomous units, democratically administered and free from dictation by a central authority. The state was to have a hand in financing the associations, but would wither away once they had brought about abundance, as they were bound to do.

This was Chernyshevsky's conception of Socialism. It plainly stemmed from Fourier and Louis Blanc. He set it forth, taking care not to call it by its right name, as the system that had the backing of reason and justice alike, and was favoured by objective conditions as well. Unlike Herzen, he did not reject Communism. In fact, he intimated that it embodied a higher ideal than a co-operative society.

He realized that capitalism, i.e., industrialization, was making headway in Russia. But he believed that the process would be less cruel than in the West, and that indeed it might be arrested, the country entering the socialist phase at a leap. What would enable Russia to do this? The obshchina, of course. Chernyshevsky believed with Herzen that this institution made a short-cut to the new order a distinct possibility. In the West, Socialism involved the extirpation of inveterate habits of thought and action (Herzen likened the old order there to an elephant's tusk, blackened, diseased, yet deeply rooted in the jaw). Not so in a country where collective land tenure was an immemorial custom. Unlike the expatriate, Chernyshevsky saw in the village commune nothing peculiarly Russian or Slavic. In his judgment it was a relic of mankind's common past, preserved because the Empire had failed to participate in the onward march of the European nations. Yet Russia's backwardness was an opportunity: the country might avoid the mistakes made by the older peoples. History, he wrote, like a grandmother, loves her youngest grandchildren best; she gives them the marrow instead of the bones, in the breaking of which their elders have badly bruised their fingers. Further, Chernyshevsky did not share Herzen's distrust of the revolutionary potential of the European working-classes or his messianic dream of Russia bringing the new order into the world single-handed. In fact, he had it that the transition from the obshchina to Socialism was contingent on the triumph of the social revolution in the West. The idea of Socialism-in-one-land was alien to him. He went beyond Herzen in suggesting that, by abandoning the repartition of its acreage and by mechanizing production, the obshchina could easily take the tremendous step from communal land tenure to communal cultivation. Chernyshevsky seems to have been the first Russian to recognize the nexus between Socialism and the machine.

In any event, Socialism was a distant goal and Communism belonged to an even more remote future. The issue of the hour was liberation of the serfs. He had hailed the initial step toward the reform with no less enthusiasm than had Herzen, trusting with the latter to the Emperor's good intentions. Within the limits set by censorship, he fought with his pen for terms which he believed at once favourable to the interests of the peasantry and beneficial to the economy of the country as a whole. Realizing that the total expropriation of the landowners was out of the question, he pleaded for providing the freedmen with sufficient allotments on condition that the burden of the redemption payments should be borne by the entire population. That the peasants alone should pay for the land they had worked for themselves under serfdom he recognized as a crying injustice. Needless to say, he spoke for the preservation of the obshchina. After some two years, while the reform was still being shaped, he decided that the battle for true emancipation was lost, and he ceased to discuss the subject, except incidentally.

He continued to expound his ideas covertly in the pages of Sovremennik, often using an episode in recent European history as his text. He was at pains to drive home to his growing audience certain political lessons. The chief of these was that in the last account the masses had only themselves to rely upon. Their interests could only be secured through an independent organization formed by the people themselves and eschewing entangling alliances. The frank supporters of the existing order were, of course, the enemy, but so were also the counsellors of moderation and gradualism. In fact, one gets the impression that the liberal, rather than the conservative, was the villain of the historical drama, as seen by Chernyshevsky. He pictured liberals as born compromisers, ready to sell out at the first opportunity. At best, they were gullible triflers content with patchwork; at worst, adventurers seeking to fill their pockets while babbling of the rights of man. At heart they feared the masses and could only lead them astray. Confused souls, they failed to grasp that what the vast majority wanted was bread, not suffrage, that 'a poor man's freedom was a form of slavery.' Chernyshevsky was largely responsible for the fact that 'liberal' became a term of opprobrium in advanced circles. In a glossary of foreign words compiled by a budding agitator about 1861 a 'liberal' is defined as a liberty-loving individual, usually a landowner, who loves the liberty of idling and going to balls and theatres.

The masses from whom Chernyshevsky hoped so much remained inert and inaccessible. There were times when he must have felt as did the hero of an autobiographical novel of his who, looking about him, exclaimed: 'A nation of slaves, slaves from top to bottom.' The review that he directed had a relatively large following, but this was a political factor only potentially. The radical camp was still practically non-existent, and he had broken with the liberals, Slovophils as well as Westernists, and all but parted company with the London expatriates. Intellectually he owed a heavy debt to Herzen, but his admiration of this thinker was never entirely uncritical. And now he found much to his distaste in the policy of The Bell. Aside from the note of confidence in the Czar, he deplored the failure of the publication to espouse a definite programme of political action. As for the journal's denunciation of administrative abuses, he wondered if this did not help the regime, since the attack was directed against minor defects of the system, not against the very principle of autocracy, which was in substance a dictatorship of the upper classes. In the summer of 1859 Chernyshevsky visited Herzen in London, and it is reported that he left his host under the impression of having dealt with a craven liberal.

What Herzen thought of his visitor can only be guessed at. He had been annoyed by a tendency of some Sovremennik authors to dismiss the intellectuals of the previous generation -- that to which he himself belonged -- as blue-blooded drones and dreamers. Also he was angered by the fact that the review lampooned the mild muck-raking in which the press indulged. This campaign of ridicule, he wrote, played into the hand of reactionaries. He even insinuated that the jesters were officially inspired and were to have their reward. Herzen was moved to print a retraction, but as the months went by his irritation with the Sovremennik crew did not abate. There was something about these radicals of plebeian extraction that rubbed him the wrong way. They were morbid men, with mangled souls and 'curdled amour-propre.' Many things about them distressed him: they were ruthless, they took malicious pleasure in negation, they had no traditions, nothing of their own, 'not even habits' -- this from one who rejoiced volubly that the dead hand of the past did not weigh on his compatriots -- they viewed the present with such 'studied despair.' Perhaps he was inclined to misjudge the temper of these youths, whom he knew only by the few who visited him. If the immediate prospect filled them with despondency, they were buoyed up by the belief that the future would yet be theirs. Chernyshevsky, for one, was confident that many battles would be lost, but in the end the war would be won.


The Emancipation Manifesto was signed on 19 February, 1861. Some twenty-three million serfs, owned by roughly a hundred thousand pomeshchiks (landowning nobles), were granted their personal liberty. For the loss of his 'baptized property' the master received no compensation, but he retained possession of the acreage of which his bondsmen had had the use. He was, however, required to provide them with allotments, including house-and-garden plot, ploughland, pasturage, and wood-lot. On their part, the freedmen were obligated to accept the allotments and keep them for at least nine years, recompensing the owner with services or moneypayments. Within two years of the date of the emancipation the size of the allotments and the rental were to be fixed by mutual agreement between master and men, or, failing that, by rather loose official regulations. This relationship, which rendered the freedmen 'temporarily obligated' might last indefinitely. Under certain conditions they might end it by purchasing their allotments, and the Government undertook to finance the transaction by remunerating the landlord and raising annual redemption payments from the peasants.

All agreements were made not with individual peasants but with village communities, which were often the old obshchinas under a different name. The householders who made them up were jointly responsible for their obligations to their former owners and the state. Thus where collective land tenure with periodic repartition had been in existence it was preserved and indeed strengthened by investing traditional practices with the force of law. What the radicals imagined to be the seed of Socialism the Emperor's advisers regarded as a pillar of the existing order: a guarantee against the rise of a proletariat and a means of assuring the Treasury (and later the zemstvos) of revenue and the landowner of his rent. The peasant class was accorded a form of self-government, but its institutions were under the thumb of the landed gentry and officialdom. Several ukases issued between 1859 and 1866 extended the emancipation to the millions of peasants settled on state and crown lands. (In 1857 they numbered close to eight million, and eight hundred and fifty thousand males respectively.)

This was scarcely 'the freedom' for which the peasants had waited. In their minds personal liberty was inseparable from owning either collectively or individually, the land that they and their forebears had worked for themselves and for their masters. And now they were required to pay for their plots, in fact' more than what these were worth, since alike the statutory rent rates for 'the temporarily obligated' and the redemption payments were excessive. Moreover, the manor lords were permitted to reduce the acreage that the former bondsmen had previously worked for themselves, and in many other ways the law favoured the interests of the masters. Indeed, the status of the 'temporarily obligated' bore a striking resemblance to serfdom. Surely this was a false 'freedom.' The true one, written in 'a golden charter' signed by the Czar, had been concealed by the officials and priests whom the landlords had bribed. To the peasant a person clothed with authority, be it of Church or State, was an alien and hostile force, to be endured like heat or cold, but the half-mythical Czar was still the image of justice and mercy.

As a result, in many localities the peasants opposed the reform. Their resistance was largely passive. The freedmen refused to continue rendering services or paying money-dues to their former masters. Nor would they sign agreements with the landlords, as required by the new law. The notion had arisen that the true 'freedom' would be proclaimed at the end of the transitional two-year period, and that its benefits would be lost to the households that had acquiesced in the false one. Often the resisters believed that they were doing the Czar's will. According to one of the rumours that circulated in the countryside, he had been wounded by the hirelings of the gentry and had fled abroad, commanding the people to oppose their masters. In some instances violence flared up, but unlawful seizure of land and attacks on landowners and officials were not frequent.

The Government having made no effort to explain the intricacies of the new law in simple language, disorders were sometimes due to a fantastic interpretation of the statutes. The villagers, faced with a stout book couched in complicated legal phraseology, would hire some half-literate leader who would leave confusion worse confounded or discover in the text what his hearers wanted to find there. In some regions where Russian was understood imperfectly or not at all, no translation into the local vernacular was made available.

There was much nervousness in high places immediately after the publication of the historic ukase. The authorities anticipated trouble and took measures to cope with it. Special emissaries were sent to the provinces, instructed to deal firmly with peasant insubordination. The frequent use of troops made for some bloodshed; there was much flogging, and there were also arrests and deportations to Siberia. In the provinces of Penza and Tambov the disturbances assumed the proportions of an insurrection, involving hundreds of hamlets. The peasants had come to believe that the Czar had given them with their liberty all the land and the other possessions of the gentry. They occupied a manor house, seized a pomeshchik's livestock, helped themselves to timber from another landowner's forest. There was talk of slaughtering the masters and setting their houses on fire. Leaders, including a veteran of the Napoleonic wars and a religious sectarian, sprang from the ranks and gave the movement the semblance of an organized attempt. Agitators visited neighbouring villages, carrying a red flag mounted on a wheel as a symbol of the true 'freedom.' A police officer who tried to make arrests was put in irons, and the peasants routed a small company of soldiers sent to subdue them. It took a large detachment of troops to restore law and order.

The most sanguinary incident occurred in the village of Bezdna, province of Kazan. Here the ringleader was a schismatic and visionary by the name of Anton Petrov. Having persuaded himself by reading the statutes that this was a false 'freedom,' he enjoined his fellow villagers to stop working for the landowner or paying him quitrent and to disobey the officials. Crowds of peasants from all over the district flocked to him. He declared them free, told them that all the land belonged to them, and urged them to elect new starostas (village elders) and send the rural constables packing, which they did. When troops arrived on the spot to arrest Petrov, the peasants refused to surrender him, and as the crowd assumed a menacing attitude the soldiers fired. After the fourth volley Petrov voluntarily gave himself up. The police reported that the shooting had resulted in sixty-one killed and 112 wounded. The unofficial estimate of the casualties was much higher.

According to police records, in the course of the year some one thousand two hundred estates were the scene of disorders, and in putting them down, the troops killed 140 and wounded 170 peasants. 'During these three miserable months [after the emancipation],' wrote a radically-minded contemporary, 'the people endured so much sorrow, so many tears were shed, and so much blood flowed, that the joy of liberation was extinguished.'

The spring and summer witnessed a wave of disturbances in the villages. Autumn brought serious disorders in the universities. At the beginning of the reign the restriction on the number of students in the schools of higher learning was removed and their doors thrown open to all comers, irrespective of social status. Thereupon, crowds of young men had flocked to the universities, some of them deserting military colleges and divinity schools to do so. The capitals were veritable magnets. In the University of Moscow the number of students doubled; in that of Petersburg it grew fourfold. During the 'sixties two new universities were added to those already in existence. An increasing number of youths came from plebeian families that were unable to support them at school. They had left home, some of them travelling long distances on foot, in the hope of making their way by tutoring and odd jobs. But there were not enough of these or of government scholarships either. In 1859 only 360 out of the 1,019 students of the University of Petersburg paid the modest tuition fee; in 1863 half of the students of the University of Moscow needed financial aid. Some of the young people lived on the edge of starvation. Typhus and tuberculosis decimated the student body. All this exacerbated the unrest natural to youth.

The students gradually acquired various liberties and developed a strong espirit de corps. They got into the habit of publicly voicing their approval and disapproval of lecturers, held meetings on the campus, ran co-operative libraries and eating houses, had publications and even courts of their own.

Clashes with the authorities over the behaviour of some particularly unpopular professor or over a fresh effort to enforce a distasteful disciplinary measure had occurred in previous years, but they were minor affairs compared to the events of the autumn in 1861. During the spring semester the students had been in such a turbulent state that the Emperor had planned to close some of the universities. Instead, in May, he sanctioned a new university statute, which called for a drastic cut in the number of Government scholarships and the abolition of the students' right to hold meetings. In July the newly appointed Minister of Education adopted even more stringent regulations. As soon as the University of Petersburg opened after the vacation, the fat was in the fire. An incendiary leaflet, calling on the students to take 'energetic measures,' appeared on the campus. Then a crowd broke into the locked auditorium and held a stormy protest meeting against the new rules. The next day the students, in a body, marched across the city to the home of the rector, who had refused to receive a delegation at the University. When the procession reached Nevsky Prospect, the French coiffeurs ran out of their shops and, excitedly rubbing their hands, shouted: 'Revolution! Revolution!'

The authorities would not yield ground, and the students boycotted classes. In the end several hundred young men, some of whom had been roughtly handled by policemen and soldiers, found themselves behind bars. The tedium of captivity was relieved by the singing of forbidden songs, political discussions, concerts, and private theatricals. One prisoner remembered those days as among the happiest of his life. A shadow was cast over the companionable hours by the news of the death of Dobrolubov. After being detained two months the youths were released. Some of them were deported to the provinces, and the University was closed. It did not reopen until the autumn of 1863. A group of liberal professors started a 'free university,' but this was short-lived.

From the northern capital the disturbances spread to other cities. In Moscow a student demonstration in front of the Governor's residence resulted in arrest for many participants and for others in body injuries inflicted by gendarmes, plain-clothesmen, and a ruffianly crowd. The mob seems to have been aroused by a rumour that the students were either rebel Poles or young masters protesting against the abolition of serfdom.

The student movement did not achieve its objectives. The new university statutes introduced in 1863 granted the faculty a large measure of autonomy, but banned all student corporate organizations.

It was suspected in high places that the disorders in the universities were part of a revolutionary conspiracy. As a matter of fact, they were literally an academic affair, with only faint political overtones, and quite spontaneous. It is true, however, that the students were more hospitable to radical ideas than any other group. As far back as 1860 they had made the first attempt to produce underground literature, chiefly reprints of Herzen's writings. They looked for guidance to the London expatriates, to Chernyshevsky, Dobrolubov and writers of that ilk. One campus sheet was entitled Messenger of Free Opinions, another was called The Bell. The students were already beginning to enjoy the extraordinary prestige that was to be theirs for generations. In 1861 a group of Moscow professors drew up a memorandum in which they noted disapprovingly that the public regarded these youths not as learners but as teachers, and looked upon them with pride and respect. For at least three decades the revolutionary movement was to be a youth movement, manned chiefly by undergraduates. If under Alexander I the army had been a hotbed of active insurgence, under his namesake that role was played, with a difference, by the institutions of higher learning. It should be added that the student body was very small. While figures on the total number of students are unavailable, it is known that at late as 1880 there were no more than 8,193 in all the universities of the Empire.

The Bell met the Act of 19 February enthusiastically. It hailed the Czar as 'the Emancipator.' Within three months it ran 'An Analysis of the New Serfdom' in several issues. Each instalment ended with the words that were to become the burden of every radical comment on the reform: 'The people have been deceived by the Czar.' The author, Ogarev, urged all 'honest men' to break with the Government. News of peasant resistance to the reform elicited from Herzen an article entitled 'The Giant is Awakening.' The massacre at Bezdna moved him to an angry outburst: 'You hate the landlord,' he wrote, addressing himself to the peasants, 'you hate the official, you fear them and you are right. But you still trust the Czar and the priest. Don't trust them! The Czar is with them and they are with him.'

Herzen's own distrust of the Emperor was not complete. The previous year, as he had watched the swing toward reaction, he had allowed that a constitution might restrain a despotism running wild, as a strait-jacket restrains a maniac. He agreed with Ogarev that before anything more drastic was tried in Russia, the various elements of the opposition should unite to induce the Czar to convoke a General Assembly -- the term used was Zemsky Sobor, the quasi-parliamentary institution that had functioned in old Moscovy. A representative regime, he argued, might prevent a popular revolution and prove a stepping stone toward greater goals.

Such a united front was advocated by a short-lived group of self-styled 'Russian Constitutionalists,' which appeared on the scene soon after the emancipation. In the summer and autumn they put forth three issues of 'a gazette' entitled The Great Russian, one of the earliest examples of underground literature produced at home. As a matter of fact, it was run off on the press of the General Staff in the capital. Speaking in the name of a 'Committee' not otherwise designated -- its membership has remained a secret to this day -- and addressing itself to obshchestvo (the educated public), it advocated trie end of absolutist rule. Can a Romanov function as a constitutional monarch? The Committee had its doubts, but was willing to give the Czar a chance. Convinced that all would soon share this view, it counselled patience and moderation, and suggested a mammoth petition to the Emperor as the first step, adding airily that the undertaking involved no risk.

A draft of the petition was appended to the final issue of The Great Russian. It urged that the peasants' expectation of receiving gratis the land they had worked under serfdom should be met, the former owners to be compensated by the Treasury. 'Deign, Sire,' the petition concluded, 'to convoke representatives of the Russian nation in Moscow or Petersburg, so that they may draw up a constitution for Russia.'

The petition was still-born. Not that the constitutional movement completely lacked support. While the peasant reform was still in the planning stage some liberal members of the gentry had come to believe that a democratic regime under a constitutional monarch was its logical consequence. Now that the serfs were freed and the bungling administration was sowing dragon's teeth, the sentiment in favour of representative government had grown. The nobles were able to address remonstrances to the throne through their corporate organizations. Here and there they were touched by something like the generous spirit that had animated the spokesmen of the French noblesse on the historical night of 4 August, 1789. Early in 1862 Ivan Aksakov, a leading Slavophil and the scion of a venerable house of gentlefolk, suggested in print that the nobility be permitted 'solemnly, in the face of the whole of Russia to effect the great act of abolishing itself as a separate estate.' The gentry of Smolensk passed a resolution to the same effect on the initiative of a prince. The nobles of Tver took a similar step. In their address to the Emperor they urged him to shift the burden of the redemption payments to the shoulders of the entire population and to initiate other reforms, concluding that these could only be successfully carried out by an assembly of representatives freely elected by the whole nation. Moreover, a group of Tver country squires who acted as arbiters between the masters and their former serfs, finding the emancipation statutes unsatisfactory, practically declared that they would not be guided by them. They were forthwith arrested and given prison sentences, which were, however, annulled.

The incident aroused much indignation. One member of the gentry, V. V. Bervi, of whom more later, expressed his disapproval in a communication to the Emperor and the marshal of the nobility of the Tver province. He also apprized the British Ambassador of his protest, requesting that he make it known to the people of the United Kingdom. 'For I do not wish,' he wrote, 'that so honourable a nation should believe that the despotic and oppressive actions of the Russian Government go unprotested by its victims.' The man was committed to an insane asylum for observation and eventually deported to Siberia.

The Slavophils held to the quaint proposition that civil liberties would be safer under a Czar than under a constitutional monarch. A parliamentary regime was opposed by some liberal Westernists on the ground that the people were not ready for it. A correspondent of The Bell, writing in the issue of 15 September, 1861, spoke for the leftist fringe when he said that the people were to be appealed to and counted on, not 'the educated classes.' The interests of these were identical with those of the Government. There were among them, however, individuals ready to go over to the masses. United in secret societies -- the only weapon of men under the yoke of despotism -- they would be a formidable force capable of leading the masses to victory. A limited monarchy guaranteeing civil liberties was preferable to autocracy, but it was not enough. 'We' should neither help nor hinder the Constitutionalists.

In his rejoinder Ogarev granted the need for secret societies, but pleaded for co-operating with all the elements of the opposition to the end of limiting the Czar's authority, for even a constitution favouring the upper classes, he argued, was bound to assume a democratic character. As a matter of fact, with Herzen's approval he drafted a petition to the Emperor, similar to that of The Great Russian. Turgenev found the piece somewhat Machiavellian in that it seemed to appeal alike to liberals and disgruntled anti-abolitionists, and refused to sign it. Printed abroad, the petition was circulated in Russia, along with other documents of the same sort, and with no more effect.

It should be noted that 'the Russian Constitutionalists' did not intend to limit themselves to peaceful methods. The last issue of The Great Russian contained a broad hint that 'the Committee' might resort to revolutionary tactics: 'Should we see that the liberals fail to act, we shall have no choice but to speak another language and talk of other things.' Before the summer of 1861 was over, an attempt to speak 'another language' was made by a group that gravitated toward Chernyshevsky and the periodical he directed.

Sovremennik had met the Act of 19 February with eloquent silence. Since criticism of the statutes was forbidden, this was the only course open to the review. The issue for March, 1861, commented indirectly on the great event by carrying a translation of Longfellow's Poems on Slavery and an article on the Negroes in the United States, asking what would happen 'if the enslaved Samson should rise.' How Chernyshevsky felt about the reform may be inferred from an autobiographic novel that he wrote after emancipation had been in force for half a dozen years and which was not intended for publication at home. Taking the extremist's the-worse-the-better attitude -- years later Lenin will display it -- the hero, who is the author's alter ego, regrets that the terms of the loathsome measure were not even more onerous, since that would have hastened the hour of a popular explosion. The landowners haven't the right to a groat of redemption,' he says; 'whether or not they are entitled to an inch of Russian land must be decided by the will of the people.'

At the time when Chernyshevsky wrote these lines he was very sceptical about the prospects of a popular rising in Russia. But early in 1861 he was in a different frame of mind. It was a tense moment, electric with excitement. Together with several other men, he appears to have become convinced that the liberation of the serfs had precipitated a situation alive with revolutionary possibilities. Accordingly they conceived the plan of circulating inflammatory appeals, each addressed to a sector of the population that could be relied upon to support revolt. They were not backed by anything remotely resembling a conspiratorial organization, and altogether the enterprise was an example of premature action, against which Chernyshevsky had been repeatedly warning his readers.

Only one leaflet, entitled To the Younger Generation, was printed. It starts off by excoriating the peasant reform. What is this freedom, it asks, but a bone you throw to an angry dog to save your calves? The emancipation is the last act of 'a dying despotism.' The Romanovs have disappointed the people and must go. The liberals want a laissez-faire economy and a constitutional monarchy. This means a society burdened with a proletariat, an aristocracy, an oppressive state power. That is the way of the West. 'Why shouldn't Russia establish a new order unknown even in America?' All that is necessary is to develop the principles inherent in the life of the Russian folk, above all that of collective land tenure. Sale and private ownership of land must cease. A peaceful change, while preferred, is not the only one envisaged. 'If, in order to achieve our objectives, to distribute the land among the people, it would be necessary to slaughter a hundred thousand landowners, that would not frighten us.' Supporters of the Government and champions of privilege should no more be spared than you spare weeds when you clear the ground for a kitchen garden. The hope of Russia is 'the popular party,' that is, the oppressed masses and the educated youth.

The pamphlet concludes: 'Speak oftener to the people and the soldiers, explain to them what we want and how easy it is to get it. . . . Form circles of like-minded persons. . . . Look for leaders capable of and ready for anything. Let the shades of the martyrs of 14 December lead you into battle and, if necessary, to a glorious death for the salvation of your fatherland.'

To the Younger Generation was a product of the joint efforts of two contributors to Sovremennik, Shelgunov and Mikhailov. It was run off at the Free Press in London and smuggled into Russia in the early autumn. Shelgunov also composed a leaflet addressed to the soldiers, but it remained in manuscript. So did an appeal to the peasants believed to have been written by Chernyshevsky himself. In simple language he told them that the so-called freedom the Czar had given them would turn them into paupers, that indeed under autocracy there could be no freedom, and that to get it they must gradually and secretly prepare for an armed uprising, making common cause with the soldiery. At the proper moment, he promised, the revolutionaries would come out of hiding and declare themselves to the people.

Betrayed by a comrade turned informer, Mikhailov was arrested in September, took upon himself the blame for the composition of both leaflets, and suffered an early death in penal servitude. The appeal to the peasants was soon to play a fateful part in Chernyshevsky's life.

A revolutionary situation failed to develop in 1861. By the fall of the year the disorders in the villages had subsided, while the disturbances in the Universities had resulted merely in the deportation of scores of youths to the provinces. In Government circles reaction was on the rise. The appearance of incendiary underground sheets naturally enhanced this trend, which, indeed, had set in as soon as the emancipation manifesto was published. It was as though the administration were recoiling before its own audacity in freeing the serfs.