Aleksandr Nikolaevich Radishchev

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Radishchev, Aleksandr Nikolaevich


Born Aug. 20(31), 1749, in Moscow; died Sept. 12 (24), 1802, in St. Petersburg. Russian writer, philosopher, and revolutionary.

The son of a rich landowner, Radishchev received a general education in the Corps of Pages, where he studied from 1762 to 1766. Sent to the University of Leipzig to study law, he remained there from 1767 to 1771, studying the natural sciences as well. The works of French Enlightenment thinkers, particularly those of C. A. Helvétius, had an important influence on the formation of his world view. On his return to Russia, Radishchev was appointed to the Senate as keeper of the minutes. In 1773 he became an ober-auditor (legal adviser) on the staff of the Finland Division in St. Petersburg. His literary career dates from this time.

Radishchev completed a number of translations between 1771 and 1773; the most interesting was his translation of G. B. de Mably’s Reflections on the History of Greece, published by N. I. Novikov (1773). Radishchev annotated this translation, asserting in one of his notes that “autocracy is the state of affairs most repugnant to human nature” and contending that the people have the right to censure a despotic monarch (Poln. sobr. soch., vol. 2, 1941, p. 282, note). In 1775, Radishchev retired from the service but in 1777 joined the staff of the Commerce Collegium, becoming its deputy administrator in 1780. In 1790 he became administrator of the St. Petersburg Customs Office.

Radishchev resolved philosophy’s fundamental problem from the viewpoint of materialism: “The existence of things is independent of our ability to perceive them and exists in and of itself (ibid., p. 59). He defended the idea of unlimited cognition of the world. Cognition is realized by sensory perception, experience, and reason. Radishchev also emphasized that while there existed various types of “ability to perceive,” this ability itself was “one and indivisible.” The principal properties of matter are existence, motion, space, and time. The material instrument of thought is the brain, and the distinguishing characteristic of man is his ability to speak. Radishchev approached the dialectical method when he expressed the idea that continuous evolution is the result of conflict between opposites and contended that “the future state of a thing begins to exist in the present, and contradictory conditions are inevitable consequences of one another” (ibid., p. 98).

Radishchev viewed the historical process as a spiral development, during which periods of regression (“delusions” and “slavery”) alternate with periods of progress (“truth” and “liberty”). From this he concluded that revolutions were inevitable. Man is both a social and an active being. Therefore, in the final analysis, people constitute the motivating force of the historical process; in the past their egoistic “passions” have led to the collapse of “liberty” and the triumph of enslavement. But if people become aware of the destructive nature of these egoistic passions and learn to restrain them, revolution and “liberty” may ultimately triumph.

Proceeding from these conclusions, Radishchev devoted much attention to upbringing. He was the founder of Russian revolutionary pedagogy, ethics, and aesthetics. He believed that the word—literature, poetry, and oratory—had a special role in history. His unfinished allegorical oratorical works, including The Creation of the World (c. 1779–82) and On Lomonosov (1780), were devoted to the active, transforming, creative force of the word. On Lomonosov and A Letter to a Friend Living in Tobol’sk (1782) dealt with the role of outstanding personalities in history and the importance of setting good examples.

The ode Liberty (c. 1783), the first work of Russian revolutionary poetry, generalized Radishchev’s historical and political ideas. Radishchev believed that revolution in Russia was inevitable and that a long time would pass before it comes, and it would take a unique course: during revolution and civil war the immense Russian state would disintegrate into parts that would then unite into a voluntary union of republics. These, in turn, would “crush the predatory wolf” [the autocracy— Ed.] (ibid., vol. 1, 1938, p. 16).

The doctrine of the active man, of the right of the oppressed to revolt, and of the role of the outstanding personality and leader of a revolt constituted the philosophic and political basis of The Life of F. V. Ushakov (1788, published 1789), a biography of a friend of Radishchev’s youth. This work recounted the story of a revolt by the Russian students in Leipzig. Radishchev’s introduction of the idea of man’s dependence on the environment, first and foremost on political and social conditions, and his depiction of how character is formed by circumstances made him the founder of the realistic method in Russian prose.

In the mid-1780’s, Radishchev began writing his chief work, A Journey From St. Petersburg to Moscow, in which he included other works written previously. Acquiring a printing press, Radishchev published A Letter to a Friend early in 1790 and A Journey late in May of that year. The free narrative form of the travel genre permitted Radishchev to describe realistically the diverse classes and various aspects of Russian life and to examine Russia’s political, social, legal, economic, historical, ethical, aesthetic, and everyday problems. Radishchev first depicted the total lawlessness and injustice prevailing in all spheres of Russian life. He then directly indicated the chief sources of this evil—autocracy and serfdom. He revealed how illusory were the views of those who believed that the development of education and trade would improve life; equally deceptive were hopes placed in religion, individual virtue, and strict observance of the laws. Radishchev showed that faith in an “enlightened monarch” was groundless and that there were no prospects of spontaneous peasant uprisings. He led the reader to the conclusion that the only means of changing life was the complete destruction of existing political and social relations and of the system of autocracy and serfdom through a popular revolution. Realizing that the conditions necessary for a revolution did not exist in Russia at that time, Radishchev emphasized: “These are not dreams … I gaze through an entire century” (ibid., pp. 368–69).

Since A Journey is in a narrow sense an example of the educational travel genre, it is very complex both with respect to genre and to literary style. The work is basically realistic in the recreating of the traveler’s own inner world, but there are elements of revolutionary sentimentalism. On the other hand, the ode included in the chapter “Tver’” is a work of revolutionary classicism. Satirical condemnation and emotional self-analysis continually alternate in A Journey with depiction of mores and of scenes from everyday life; political sermonizing and philosophic publicism are interwoven with dramatic confessions and playful admissions; sarcasm and spirited censure of evils are set off by mockery, humor, and everyday sayings. The author introduces into the narrative the protagonist’s meditations, discourses, letters, theoretical projects, historical and literary treatises, poems, comic dialogue, and extraneous stories. Consequently, Radishchev’s linguistic and stylistic scope is unusually broad. It ranges from peasant popular language (but without the phonetic transcription usual in the literature of that period) and a literary language based on conversational speech to publicist discourses and political sermons permeated with archaisms and Old Church Slavonic terms. Rejecting the theory of the three styles and the stylistic rules of sentimentalism, Radishchev created the foundations of realism in literature.

Only three weeks after the book’s publication an investigation was instituted and headed by Catherine II. On June 30, 1790, Radishchev was imprisoned in the Peter and Paul Fortress. The court sentenced him to death, but the empress commuted this to deprivation of his rank in the service and his status as a member of the gentry and to exile for ten years to the Ilimsk Prison in Siberia. During the reign of Paul I, Radishchev was transferred in 1797 to one of his father’s estates, the village of Nemtsovo in Kaluga Province, where he lived under police surveillance. While in exile, he wrote the philosophic treatise On Man, His Mortality and Immortality (1792–95), works in the fields of economics and history, and poetry. His essay Monument to a Dactylotrochaic Knight (1801—02) laid the foundation of scholarly prosody in Russia.

After Alexander I became tsar, Radishchev was “pardoned” and appointed a member of the Commission on Revision of the Laws. In his juridical works and legislative projects of 1801 and 1802, he adhered to his former ideas, demanding the abolition of serfdom and class privileges. Threatened with a new exile and implementing his belief in a person’s right to commit suicide as a form of protest (he had written about this in A Journey and other works), Radishchev poisoned himself.

Radishchev’s chief works were banned until 1905 but were widely distributed in manuscript copies; about 80 such copies of A Journey and nine of Liberty are known. His ideas had an important influence on A. S. Pushkin, the Decembrists, and A. I. Herzen and on all later generations of Russian revolutionaries; they influenced Russian poetry and the development of realism in Russian literature. Radishchev museums are located in Saratov and in the village of Verkhnee Abliazovo (now Rad-ishchevo, Kuznetsk Raion, Penza Oblast), where Radishchev spent his childhood.



Poln. sobr. sock, vols. 1–3. Moscow-Leningrad, 1938–52.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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