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Nihilism - Nihilism In Russia And As A Russian Export

revolutionary life term nihilist

The term nihilism (nigilizm in Russian) had been used in Russia early in the nineteenth century, but it burst on the scene with particular force and with an entirely new meaning in January 1862, when Ivan Turgenev (1818–1883) published Fathers and Sons. Turgenev's hero, Evgeny Vasil'evich Bazarov, is a man of science, a member of the new generation who has decided that, at least in theory, nothing in the universe lies beyond the explanatory power of the empirical method. He is, in a word, a nihilist. As his callow young friend puts it to members of the older generation (the "fathers"), a nihilist is a man "who approaches everything from a critical point of view … who does not bow down before any authorities, who does not accept a single principle on faith, no matter how much respect might surround that principle." Bazarov dissects frogs (the better to understand human beings), denies the value of artistic expression, and is predictably flummoxed when he finds himself hopelessly in love, that is, in a condition that completely defies the very foundation of his materialist worldview.

If nihilism, as Turgenev's hero understood it, comprised both a thoroughgoing materialism and a thoroughgoing anti-aestheticism, it was already possible to find both in the apostle of the new progressive generation, Nikolai Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky (1828–1889), who would gain notoriety in 1863 as the author of the didactic novel What Is to Be Done? In his master's thesis, The Aesthetic Relation of Art to Reality (1855), Chernyshevsky had denied the existence of beauty as an autonomous quality in art, saying that beauty can be nothing more than life itself. And in The Anthropological Principle in Philosophy (1860), he had reduced human freedom and, for that matter, human distinctiveness, to nothing, arguing that individual freedom is an illusion as much in humanity as in the lower forms of animal life. Chernyshevsky would add a third feature to the definition of nihilism in What Is to Be Done? The idealized characters in his novel behave in accordance with an odd amalgam of utilitarianism and enlightened egoism, thus reducing traditional ethical values to nothing.

After the publication of What Is to Be Done? nihilism as a term or attitude took three principal directions in Russia. First, in literary life, it nurtured the trend toward realism. Dmitry Pisarev (1840–1868), the young critic who in a favorable review of Fathers and Sons helped disseminate a positive image of Turgenev's hero, took Chernyshevsky's anti-aestheticism one step farther in the 1860s, devoting a series of essays to the "destruction of aesthetics" and to the promotion of a rigidly realist style in literature. Second, in political life, the term nihilism came to be used, often with hostile intent, to describe a group within the revolutionary movement characterized by its unscrupulous methods and its unprincipled aims. Fyodor Dostoyevsky helped popularize this sense of nihilism by offering up the savage caricatures of left-wing political operatives that we see, above all, in The Devils (also called The Possessed; 1871). The chief "devil" in this book, Peter Verkhovensky, is a self-described nihilist notable for his desire to bring about terrible destruction and for his utter lack of concern about what might follow that destruction. As Peter Verkhovensky's real-life prototype, the notorious anarchist Sergei Nechaev (1847–1882), had written in the Catechism of a Revolutionary (1869), "The revolutionary disdains all doctrinairism and has repudiated all peaceful science.… He knows one science only: the science of destruction." Third, the term nihilism came to be used, again in political life, in a sympathetic sense to denote the Russian revolutionary movement broadly speaking. The Russian revolutionary Sergei Mikhailovich Kravchinsky (1851–1895; better known by the pseudonym Sergius Stepniak), after fleeing Russia in 1878, spent much of his life publishing—in English and Italian—apologias for the Russian liberation movement that he broadly termed nihilism. And the anarchists Emma Goldman (1869–1940) and Alexander Berkman (1870–1936), both Russian immigrants to the United States, used the term nihilist in their memoirs to refer to the heroes of the Russian revolutionary movement, heroes that had inspired them to embark on their own revolutionary careers.

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