Born the son of a priest, Nikolai Chernyshevskii was himself intended for the priesthood. His seminary education, however, was cut short in 1845, but his publicistic writings, characterized by dogmatism, moral fervor, zeal, and dedication, bear its stamp.
In 1846, Chernyshevskii entered the University of St. Petersburg. During his years in the capital, acquaintance with members of the Petrashevskii circle and with the works of many Western thinkers, especially Ludwig Feuerbach, Louis Blanc, P.-J.Proudhon, and Charles Fourier, as well as his witnessing the failed revolutions of 1848, persuaded him of the futility of liberalism and helped him to mold a radical world view. After graduation, he taught in Saratov for several years, but returned to St. Petersburg in 1853 to write his Master’s thesis. His views also found a new outlet: that year, he began his journalistic career, publishing a few articles for the liberal journal Otechestvennye Zapiski (Fatherland notes) before moving to Sovremennik (The contemporary) early in 1854.
Initially he published mainly literary criticism. Like his predecessor Vissarion Belinskii, who deeply influenced him and whose post as leading critic of Russian literature he would later fill, Chernyshevskii demanded civic responsibility in art, believing that literature was one of the key forces of progress. In his work he maintained that the role of art was to portray real life, to make it understandable to the reader, and to pass judgment on it. However, the extreme materialist aesthetics (“beauty is life”) that he formulated in his Master’s thesis, Esteticheskie otnosheniia iskusstva k deistvital’nosti (“The Aesthetic Relation of Art to Reality”), which he defended unsuccessfully in 1855, proved to be as offensive to many of his coworkers as they had been to his thesis supervisor, Aleksandr Nikitenko. He succeeded in alienating many of Sovremennik’s important writers, including Lev Tolstoi, Ivan Turgenev, and Aleksandr Druzhinin, who eventually left the journal. He continued to express and elaborate his views on the role of the writer and literature in a number of critical reviews, most importantly in “Ocherki gogolevskogo perioda russkoi literatury” (1855–56; “Essays on the Gogol Period of Russian Literature”), in which he hailed Gogol’, long revered for what was considered his faithful depiction of the corrupt aspects of Russia, as Russia’s greatest writer.
Supported by the editor, Nikolai Nekrasov, Chernyshevskii was the leading critic of Sovremennik and, by 1856, exerted considerable influence on all editorial questions.
In 1857, Chernyshevskii left Sovremennik’s literary criticism section in the hands of his protégé, Nikolai Dobroliubov. Hopeful about the possibility of reform under the new tsar, Alexander II, Chernyshevskii was pleased to deal more explicitly with socioeconomic questions, although his literary criticism had always served as a forum for critique of the existing order. In 1858 and 1859, he wrote numerous essays about serfdom and the potential value of the peasant commune, as well as proposals for land reform, which have since caused him to be referred to as a “utopian” socialist. For several years he wrote monthly reviews of political and historical events relevant to Russia’s development. In addition to his many articles of a political nature, Chernyshevskii wrote the ethical treatise “Antropologicheskii printsip v filosofii” (1860; “The Anthropological Principle in Philosophy”), which was strongly influenced by the utilitarian principles of John Stuart Mill. In it he maintained that all human behavior is motivated exclusively by self-interest, and that the interests of the individual are inextricably linked to the interests of society; hence man can be taught to serve the common good if he is made to understand that it will ultimately benefit his own interests.
By the close of the decade, however, Chernyshevskii had become doubtful about the prospect of reform from above and began to be recognized as the leader of a section of the intelligentsia which was becoming increasingly radical. Provoked by an alarming rash of peasant disturbances and student unrest, the authorities thought it prudent to remove the apparent leader of the radicals, who had been under surveillance by the Third Section for almost a year. Though they were not able to prove that Chernyshevskii was connected with the events, a letter from Aleksandr Herzen to Nikolai Serno-Solov’evich, in which Herzen offered to print the prohibited Sovremennik in London, gave the authorities a sufficient pretext for his arrest. On 7 July 1862, Chernyshevskii was arrested and imprisoned in the Peter and Paul Fortress. While in prison, he wrote the novel Chto delat’? (1863; What Is to Be Done?), which the censors mistakenly permitted to’ be serially published in Sovremennik. It was Chernyshevskii’s first and last noteworthy work of fiction. Though widely considered didactic and poorly written, the novel was wildly popular and went on to influence a number of later revolutionaries, including Vera Zasulich and Lenin.
Despite an obvious lack of evidence, Chernyshevskii was found guilty of attempting to overthrow the regime, and was sentenced to seven years’ hard labor and exile for life. His unreasonably hard sentence helped further to alienate many from the regime, and assured Chernyshevskii’s status as a martyr. He was finally permitted to return to his birthplace in 1889, where he died later that year.
Nikolai Gavrilovich Chernyshevskii. Born 12 July 1828 in Saratov. Studied at a seminary in Saratov, 1842–45; history and philology at the University of St. Petersburg, 1846–50, graduated 1850. Taught at a gymnasium in Saratov, 1851–53. Married Olga Sokratovna Vasil’eva, 1853: two sons. Returned to St. Petersburg, 1853; contributor, Otechestvennye Zapiski, 1853; contributor, from 1854, and co-editor, 1856–62, Sovremennik. Arrested and imprisoned for criticizing as insufficient the terms of Tsar Alexander II’s emancipation of the serfs, 1862: went through a mock execution, then exiled to Siberia,
1864; worked in silver mines in Irkutsk region for seven years; lived in the Arctic village Vilyuisk for 12 years; suffered from malaria; allowed to return to Astrakhan, 1883, and Saratov, 1889. Died in Saratov, 17 October 1889.
Essays and Related Prose
Esteticheskie otnosheniia iskusstva k deistvitel’nosti, 1855; as “The Aesthetic Relation of Art to Reality,” in Selected Philosophical Essays, 1953
Ocherki gogolevskogo perioda russkoi literatury, in Sovremennik, 1855–56; as “Essays on the Gogol Period of Russian Literature,” in Selected Philosophical Essays, 1953
“Antropologicheskii printsip v filosofii,” in Sovremennik, 1860; as “The Anthropological Principle in Philosophy,” in Selected Philosophical Essays, 1953
Selected Philosophical Essays, 1953
Belinsky, Chernyshevsky, Dobrolyubov: Selected Criticism, edited by Ralph E.Matlaw, 1962
Other writings: the novels Chto delat’? (1863; What Is to Be Done?) and Prolog (1918; Prologue), and some short stories.
Collected works edition: Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, 16 vols., 1939–53.
Frank, Joseph, “Nikolay Chernyshevsky: A Russian Utopia,” in his Through the Russian Prism: Essays on Literature and Culture, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1990
Paperno, Irina, Chernyshevsky and the Age of Realism: A Study in the Semiotics of Behavior, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1988
Pereira, N.G.O., The Thought and Teachings of N.G. Cernyshevskij, The Hague: Mouton, 1975
Randall, Francis B., N.G.Chernyshevskii, New York: Twayne, 1967
Woehrlin, William F., Chernyshevskii: The Man and the Journalist, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1971
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