Over the years I’ve read a great deal of nineteenth-century Russian literature. It was a golden age: giving us not just Pushkin, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Gogol, or my personal favourite, Dostoyevsky, but so many others who are perhaps less well known to us in the West: Turgenev (Fathers and Sons), Lermontov (A Hero of our Time), Aksakov (A Russian Gentleman), Kropotkin (Memoirs of a Revolutionist) and Herzen (Childhood Youth and Exile).
Outstanding literature from and about a people that seem to be very much like us, and yet are different. Maybe it’s this uncertainty about Russia and Russians, and their relationship to ‘Europe’, that gives their nineteenth-century literature its appeal. Here was a Christian country on the edge of Europe that freed its white slaves around the same time as the USA freed its black slaves. (Or at least, President Lincoln ‘freed’ the slaves in Confederate-held territory.) An absolute monarchy where opposition was ruthlessly crushed, either by execution or else by being banished to Siberia, the almost incomprehensible emptiness that soon became a byword for exclusion, or a living death.
As I discovered in my long-ago reading tsarist Russia was a complex country where, for example, distance was measured in versts (1 verst = 3,500 feet). Why, I asked myself, did a country as vast as Russia use a measure of distance shorter than an English mile? And why were there so many bloody aristocrats? Answer: it went with the job. If you moved high enough up the imperial bureaucracy then, instead of getting the equivalent of an OBE, you reached the ranks of the nobility. Which I suppose is not really so strange when you recall that hereditary peerages were still being awarded (and sold) in England at this time, plus, of course, knighthoods. And while Church Slavonic could be equated with liturgical Latin, there was nothing in the West to compare to the Old Believers . . . or the Cossacks . . . and Tatars . . .
Yet there were comparisons to be made with other periods of great artistic creativity. For just as the Italian Renaissance took place to a backdrop of intrigue and butchery, so this great outpouring of Russian writing seemed to be prompted by the turbulence of the times. The French invasion forms the theme to Tolstoy’s War and Peace (and also inspired Tchaikovsky to write the 1812). With the empire expanding east and south there were constant frontier wars that saw new lands being conquered and exotic peoples brought under the rule of the Romanovs. This expansion brought Russia into contact with older empires such as Persia, China and Turkey. The British was another empire expanding Russia came into contact with; the bear and the lion amusing themselves playing the ‘Great Game‘. While in Europe there were the Poles, the Finns and other reluctant subjects to keep in check. But more than anything else, it was the political situation in Russia proper that inspired so many of her writers.
Perhaps even its staunchest defenders knew that the tsarist system was indefensible, but were too afraid to say so. Others were not. If we start with the romantic and doomed Decembrists of 1825 and end with the communist takeover of 1917, we have almost a century of opposition taking many different forms. All the great writers I’ve mentioned flourished within this same time frame. Yet of all the idealists, reformers, dreamers and revolutionaries one man stands out for his single-minded ruthlessness: the Anarcho-Nihilist, Sergey Gennadiyevich Nechayev. Let a couple of examples explain what I mean. In 1869 he got fellow-conspirators to sign a petition . . . which he then handed to the police, in order that the brutal treatment they’d receive would harden them! A comrade – Ivan Ivanovich Ivanov – who disagreed with Nechayev was strangled, shot and thrown into a frozen lake through a hole in the ice.
It would be easy to dismiss Nechayev as a lunatic, best forgotten. And indeed, he might have been forgotten had it not been for his legacy, Catechism of a Revolutionary. This remains one of the most chilling documents ever written. It is Nechayev’s manual, telling anyone who reads it what he or she must do, and become, to be the perfect revolutionary. The very first sentence tells you what to expect – “The revolutionary is a doomed man”. But this was a man who practised what he preached. While languishing in the Peter and Paul fortress prison his comrades wanted to break him out, but he told them to focus their energies on assassinating the Tsar. When General Potapov, head of the Okhrana, the tsarist secret police, offered him a deal if he turned traitor, Nechayev struck him across the face. As punishment, his hands and feet were chained, until the flesh began to rot.
Inevitably, Nechayev made it into a number of books. Most famously, The Devils (aka The Possessed), by Dostoyevsky. Though the Catechism itself might have been forgotten if it wasn’t regularly resurrected by fresh groups seeking radical change. Among them Young Italy, the Black Panthers, the Red Brigades. So read the Catechism for yourself, see how you measure up. Ask yourself, ‘Do I want to meet Nechayev’s standards’. The answer will almost certainly be ‘No’. (If it’s ‘Yes’, I don’t know you. Understand!) His one time associate Vera Zasulich who, in 1878, shot and almost killed Colonel Trepov, the police chief of St. Petersburg, said Nechayev “was not a product of our world but a stranger among us”. Many would agree.
The Catechism is available here in PDF format.