Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time

By Joseph Frank; Mary Petrusewicz | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 25

Portrait of a Nihilist

Despite the overheated expectations of the young radicals, there is no reliable evidence that the stability of the regime was ever seriously threatened. Peasant discontent with the terms of the liberation, at Bezdna and elsewhere, was remarkably peaceful, nonviolent except for a few isolated cases, and inspired by unbroken loyalty to the tsar; the violence came entirely from the government. Dostoevsky's opinion on how the authorities behaved at this critical juncture may be surmised from a scene in Demons that can be read as a comment on their lack of judgment. When a loyal delegation of factory workers comes to protest, on behalf of their comrades, against a rascally overseer who had swindled them of their wages, Governor-General von Lembke is terrified out of his wits and orders them flogged. Mistakenly assuming their appeal for justice to be a revolutionary uprising, von Lembke responds with force, and his deluded severity only serves to unleash all the social chaos that then breaks loose.

Even if no revolution was imminent in Russia during the early 1860s, however, the events we have been chronicling signify the sensational advent on the Russian historical scene, in full force and as a dominating group, of a new generation of the intelligentsia largely different in social composition from the previous one and bringing with it a whole new set of ideas and values. Everyone was aware of the change, and it was stated in telling words at the beginning of the next decade by N. K. Mikhailovsky, who now occupied the place of Belinsky and Chernyshevsky as the leading radical publicist: “What happened?—the raznochintsy arrived. Nothing further happened. Nonetheless this event … created an epoch in Russian literature.” 1 Mikhailovsky confines his remarks to literature, because to speak openly of politics in this connection would have been dangerous, but of course his readers would easily take his meaning.

Who and what were the raznochintsy?. They were the sons of priests, petty officials, impoverished landowners, sometimes serfs, enfranchised or not, all of whom had managed to acquire an education and to exist in the interstices of the Russian caste system. They had been nourished on the writings of the older

1 Cited in Istoriya Russkoi literatury XIX v., ed. N. D. Ovsyaniko-Kulikovsky, 5 vols. (Moscow,
1915), 3: 45.

-341-

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