Part 4: St. Petersburg; First Journey to Western Europe, Section 12

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Part 4: St. Petersburg; First Journey to Western Europe, Section 12

This text was taken from the 1st edition of Memoirs of a Revolutionist, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York, 1899.





    A FORMIDABLE movement was developing in the meantime among the educated youth of Russia. Serfdom was abolished. But quite a network of habits and customs of domestic slavery, of utter disregard of human individuality, of despotism on the part of the fathers, and of hypocritical submission on that of the wives, the sons, and the daughters, had developed during the two hundred and fifty years that serfdom had existed. Everywhere in Europe, at the beginning of this century, there was a great deal of domestic despotism,--the writings of Thackeray and Dickens bear ample testimony to it; but nowhere else had that tyranny attained such a luxurious development as in Russia. All Russian life, in the family, in the relations between commander and subordinate, military chief and soldier, employer and employee, bore the stamp of it. Quite a world of customs and manners of thinking, of prejudices and moral cowardice, of habits bred by a lazy existence, had grown up. Even the best men of the time paid a large tribute to these products of the serfdom period.

    Law could have no grip upon these things. Only a vigorous social movement, which would attack the very roots of the evil, could reform the habits and customs of everyday life; and in Russia this movement--this revolt of the individual--took a far more powerful character, and became far more sweeping in its criticisms, than anywhere in Western Europe or America. "Nihilism" was the name that Turguéneff gave it in his epoch-making novel, "Fathers and Sons."

    The movement is misunderstood in Western Europe. In the press, for example, nihilism is continually confused with terrorism. The revolutionary disturbance which broke out in Russia toward the close of the reign of Alexander II., and ended in the tragic death of the Czar, is constantly described as nihilism. This is, however, a mistake. To confuse nihilism with terrorism is as wrong as to confuse a philosophical movement like stoicism or positivism with a political movement such as, for example, republicanism. Terrorism was called into existence by certain special conditions of the political struggle at a given historical moment. It has lived, and has died. It may revive and die out again. But nihilism has impressed its stamp upon the whole of the life of the educated classes of Russia, and that stamp will be retained for many years to come. It is nihilism, divested of some of its rougher aspects,--which were unavoidable in a young movement of that sort,--which gives now to the life of a great portion of the educated classes of Russia a certain peculiar character which we Russians regret not to find in the life of Western Europe. It is nihilism, again, in its various manifestations, which gives to many of our writers that remarkable sincerity, that habit of "thinking aloud," which astounds Western European readers.

    First of all, the nihilist declared war upon what may be described as "the conventional lies of civilized mankind." Absolute sincerity was his distinctive feature, and in the name of that sincerity he gave up, and asked others to give up, those superstitions, prejudices, habits, and customs which their own reason could justify. He refused to bend before any authority except that of reason, and in the analysis of every social institution or habit he revolted against any sort of more or less masked sophism.

    He broke, of course, with the superstitions of his fathers, and in his philosophical conceptions he was a positivist, an agnostic, a Spencerian evolutionist, or a scientific materialist; and while he never attacked the simple, sincere religious belief which is a psychological necessity of feeling, he bitterly fought against the hypocrisy that leads people to assume the outward mask of a religion which they repeatedly throw aside as useless ballast.

    The life of civilized people is full of little conventional lies. Persons who hate each other, meeting in the street, make their faces radiant with a happy smile; the nihilist remained unmoved, and smiled only for those whom he was really glad to meet. All those forms of outward politeness which are mere hypocrisy were equally repugnant to him, and he assumed a certain external roughness as a protest against the smooth amiability of his fathers. He saw them wildly talking as idealist sentimentalists, and at the same time acting as real barbarians toward their wives, their children, and their serfs; and he rose in revolt against that sort of sentimentalism which, after all, so nicely accommodated itself to the anything but ideal conditions of Russian life. Art was involved in the same sweeping negation. Continual talk about beauty, the ideal, art for art's sake, esthetics, and the like, so willingly indulged in,--while every object of art was bought with money exacted from starving peasants or from underpaid workers, and the so-called "worship of the beautiful" was but a mask to cover the most commonplace dissoluteness,--inspired him with disgust, and the criticisms of art which Tolstóy, one of the greatest artists of the century, has now so powerfully formulated, the nihilist expressed in the sweeping assertion, "A pair of boots is more important than all your Madonnas and all your refined talk about Shakespeare."

    Marriage without love, and familiarity without friendship, were equally repudiated. The nihilist girl, compelled by her parents to be a doll in a Doll's House, and to marry for property's sake, preferred to abandon her house and her silk dresses. She put on a black woolen dress of the plainest description, cut off her hair, and went to a high school, in order to win there her personal independence. The woman who saw that her marriage was no longer a marriage, that neither love nor friendship connected those who were legally considered husband and wife, preferred to break a bond which retained none of its essential features. Accordingly she often went with her children to face poverty, preferring loneliness and misery to a life which, under conventional conditions, would have given a perpetual lie to her best self.

    The nihilist carried his love of sincerity even into the minutest details of every-day life. He discarded the conventional forms of society talk, and expressed his opinions in a blunt and terse way, even with a certain affectation of outward roughness.

    In Irkutsk we used to meet once a week in a club and have some dancing. I was for a time a regular visitor at these soirées, but afterwards, having to work, I abandoned them. One night, when I had not made my appearance for several weeks, a young friend of mine was asked by one of the ladies why I did not appear any more at their gatherings. "He takes a ride now when he wants exercise," was the rather rough reply of my friend. "But he might come and spend a couple of hours with us, without dancing," one of the ladies ventured to say. "What would he do here?" retorted my nihilist friend; "talk with you about fashions and furbelows? He has had enough of that nonsense." "But he sees Miss So-and-So occasionally," timidly remarked one of the young ladies present. "Yes, but she is a studious girl," bluntly replied my friend; "he helps her with her German." I must add that this undoubtedly rough rebuke had its effect, for most of the Irkutsk girls soon began to besiege my brother, my friend, and myself with questions as to what we should advise them to read or to study.

    With the same frankness the nihilist spoke to his acquaintances, telling them that all their talk about "this poor people" was sheer hypocrisy so long as they lived upon the underpaid work of these people whom they commiserated at their ease as they chatted together in richly decorated rooms; and with the same frankness a nihilist would declare to a high functionary that the latter cared not a straw for the welfare of those whom he ruled, but was simply a thief, and so on.

    With a certain austerity the nihilist would rebuke the woman who indulged in small talk and prided herself on her "womanly" manners and elaborate toilette. He would bluntly say to a pretty young person: "How is it that you are not ashamed to talk this nonsense and to wear that chignon of false hair?" In a woman he wanted to find a comrade, a human personality,--not a doll or a "muslin girl,"--and he absolutely refused to join in those petty tokens of politeness with which men surround those whom they like so much to consider as "the weaker sex." When a lady entered a room a nihilist did not jump from his seat to offer it to her, unless he saw that she looked tired and there was no other seat in the room. He behaved towards her as he would have behaved towards a comrade of his own sex; but if a lady--who might have been a total stranger to him--manifested the desire to learn something which he knew and she did not, he would walk every night to the far end of a large city to help her.

    Two great Russian novelists, Turguéneff and Goncharóff, have tried to represent this new type in their novels. Goncharóff, in "Precipice," taking a real but unrepresentative individual of this class, made a caricature of nihilism. Turguenéneff was too good an artist, and had himself conceived too much admiration for the new type, to let himself be drawn into caricature painting; but even his nihilist, Bazároff, did not satisfy us. We found him too harsh, especially in his relations with his old parents, and, above all, we reproached him with his seeming neglect of his duties as a citizen. Russian youth could not be satisfied with the merely negative attitude of Turguéneff's hero. Nihilism, with its affirmation of the rights of the individual and its negation of all hypocrisy, was but a first step toward a higher type of men and women, who are equally free, but live for a great cause. In the nihilists of Chernyshévsky, as they are depicted in his far less artistic novel, "What is to be Done?" they saw better portraits of themselves.

    "It is bitter, the bread that has been made by slaves," our poet Nekrásoff wrote. The young generation actually refused to eat that bread, and to enjoy the riches that had been accumulated in their fathers' houses by means of servile labor, whether the laborers were actual serfs or slaves of the present industrial system.

    All Russia read with astonishment, in the indictment which was produced at the court against Karakózoff and his friends, that these young men, owners of considerable fortunes, used to live three or four in the same room, never spending more than five dollars apiece a month for all their needs, and giving at the same time their fortunes for starting cooperative associations, cooperative workshops (where they themselves worked), and the like. Five years later, thousands and thousands of the Russian youth--the best part of it--were doing the same. Their watchword was, "V naród!" (To the people; be the people.) During the years 1860-65, in nearly every wealthy family a bitter struggle was going on between the fathers, who wanted to maintain the old traditions, and the sons and daughters, who defended their right to dispose of their lives according to their own ideals. Young men left the military service, the counter, the shop, and flocked to the university towns. Girls, bred in the most aristocratic families, rushed penniless to St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Kíeff, eager to learn a profession which would free them from the domestic yoke, and some day, perhaps, also from the possible yoke of a husband. After hard and bitter struggles, many of them won that personal freedom. Now they wanted to utilize it, not for their own personal enjoyment, but for carrying to the people the knowledge that had emancipated them.

    In every town of Russia, in every quarter of St. Petersburg, small groups were formed for self-improvement and self-education; the works of the philosophers, the writings of the economists, the historical researches of the young Russian historical school, were carefully read in these circles, and the reading was followed by endless discussions. The aim of all that reading and discussion was to solve the great question which rose before them. In what way could they be useful to the masses? Gradually, they came to the idea that the only way was to settle among the people, and to live the people's life. Young men went into the villages as doctors, doctors' helpers, teachers, village scribes, even as agricultural laborers, blacksmiths, woodcutters, and so on, and tried to live there in close contact with the peasants. Girls passed teachers' examinations, learned midwifery or nursing, and went by the hundred into the villages, devoting themselves entirely to the poorest part of the population.

    These people went without any ideal of social reconstruction in their mind, or any thought of revolution. They simply wanted to teach the mass of the peasants to read, to instruct them in other things, to give them medical help, and in any way to aid in raising them from their darkness and misery, and to learn at the same time what were their popular ideals of a better social life.

    When I returned from Switzerland, I found this movement in full swing.

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January 21, 2017 17:29:44 :
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