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Chernyshevskii, Nikolai Gavrilovich (1828–89)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-E008-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 15, 2024, from

Article Summary

Nikolai Chernyshevskii was the main theorist of the Russian democratic radicalism of ‘the 1860s’ or, more precisely, of the period of political ‘thaw’ and liberal reforms which followed Russian defeat in the Crimean War and the enthronement (in 1855) of Alexander II. He was also the best representative of the non-conformist elements among the raznochintsy, that is, the educated commoners, who at that time began to figure prominently in Russian intellectual and social life. As such, he exerted a powerful formative influence on the Russian intelligentsia.

In 1862 Chernyshevskii was arrested, brought to trial and, despite insufficient evidence, condemned to lifetime banishment in Siberia. In exile, preserving his integrity to the end, he stoutly refused to ask for clemency (as a result, he remained in a remote Siberian village until 1883). In prison, waiting for trial, he wrote the novel Chto Delat’ (What Is To Be Done?) in which he showed the ‘new men’ of Russia – ‘rational egoists’, devoted to the cause of progress, and even a type of ascetic, self-sacrificing revolutionist. Thanks to a strange oversight of the censor the novel was serialized in the journal Sovremennik (The Contemporary) and, despite lack of literary distinction, became a powerful source of inspiration for several generations of Russian progressive youth.

Chernyshevskii’s philosophical reputation was created by the Russian Marxists. The ‘father of Russian Marxism’, G.V. Plekhanov, greatly impressed by Chernyshevskii’s combination of Feuerbachian materialism and respect for Hegelian dialectics, described him as an important precursor of dialectical materialism. This view was taken up by Lenin who in Materialism and Empiriocriticism called Chernyshevskii ‘the great Russian Hegelian and materialist’, the only Russian philosopher before Marxism who was able to defend ‘integral materialism’ against the agnosticism and subjectivism of Neo-Kantians, positivists, Machists and ‘other muddleheads’. Soviet philosophers went even further: Chernyshevskii was treated by them not only as the greatest Russian philosopher before Marxism, but also as the greatest pre-Marxian philosopher of the world, founder of the highest form of pre-Marxian materialism. For several decades this was the obligatory dogma of the Soviet official ideology.

After the breakdown of the Soviet Union, interest in Chernyshevskii’s philosophy almost completely disappeared in Russia. It is impossible, however, to deny Chernyshevskii’s importance in Russian intellectual history. Hence the need of rethinking his philosophical legacy.

Citing this article:
Walicki, Andrzej. Chernyshevskii, Nikolai Gavrilovich (1828–89), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-E008-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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