Chernyshevskii, Nikolai

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Chernyshevskii, Nikolai Gavrilovich


Born July 12 (24), 1828. in Saratov; died there Oct. 17 (29), 1889. Russian revolutionary, writer, economist, and philosopher.

Chernyshevskii was the son of a priest. From 1842 to 1845 he attended the theological seminary at Saratov, and in 1850 he graduated from the department of history and philology of the University of St. Petersburg. His world outlook, basically formed during his student years, was shaped by the reality of serfdom in Russia and the revolutionary events of 1848–49 in Europe. Chernyshevskii’s views were influenced by the classics of German philosophy, English political economy, and French Utopian socialism—including G. Hegel. L. Feuerbach, D. Ricardo, and C. Fourier—and especially by the works of V. G. Belinskii and A. I. Herzen. By the time he graduated from the university, Chernyshevskii was a confirmed democrat, revolutionary, socialist, and materialist. From 1851 to 1853 he taught Russian language and literature at the Saratov Gymnasium; he openly expressed his convictions to his students, many of whom later became revolutionaries. In 1853, Chernyshevskii moved to St. Petersburg. He began to write for Otechestvennye zapiski and then for Sovremennik, where he assumed a leading position shortly thereafter.

The underlying principle of Chernyshevskii’s world outlook was anthropological. Starting from general ideas about human nature and man’s tendency to act in his own interest. Chernyshevskii drew revolutionary conclusions on the need to change social relations and forms of ownership. According to Chernyshevskii, the anthropological principle consistently applied coincides with the principles of socialism.

In adopting the positions of anthropological materialism, Chernyshevskii considered himself a follower of Feuerbach, whom he called the father of modern philosophy. In Chernyshevskii’s view, Feuerbach’s teaching represented “the culmination of German philosophy, which—having now for the first time achieved positive solutions—has abandoned its former scholastic type of metaphysical transcendentalism and, admitting that its own results are identical to the teachings of the natural sciences, has merged with the general theory of natural science and anthropology” (Poln. sobr. soch., vol. 3, 1947, p. 179). In Chernyshevskii’s elaboration of Feuerbach’s ideas, what was regarded as the criterion of truth was practice—”that immutable touchstone of all theory” (ibid., vol. 2, 1949, p. 102). Chernyshevskii counterposed the dialectical method to abstract metaphysical thought, recognizing the class and party nature of political theories and philosophical teachings.

In 1855, Chernyshevskii defended his master’s dissertation, The Aesthetic Relation of Art to Reality, which laid the basis for the development of a materialist aesthetics in Russia. Criticizing Hegel’s aesthetics, he affirmed the social basis of the aesthetic ideal and formulated the thesis that “beauty is life” (ibid., vol. 2, p. 10). According to Chernyshevskii, the sphere of art is not limited to the beautiful: “what is of general interest in life— that is the content of art” (ibid., vol. 2, p. 82). The goal of art is to reconstruct life, to explain it. and “to pass judgment on its manifestations.” Art should be a “textbook of life” (ibid., pp. 90. 85, and 87). Chernyshevskii’s aesthetic precepts struck a hard blow against the apolitical theory of “art for art’s sake.” At the same time, Chernyshevskii considered such aesthetic questions to be merely a “field of battle.” His dissertation proclaimed the principles of a new revolutionary trend.

Chernyshevskii’s journalistic activities were devoted to the struggle against tsarism and serfdom. In Lenin’s words, “he approached all the political events of his times in a revolutionary spirit and was able to exercise a revolutionary influence by advocating, in spite of all the barriers and obstacles places in his way by the censorship, the idea of a peasant revolution, the idea of the struggle of the masses for the overthrow of all the old authorities” (Poln. sobr. soch.. 5th ed., vol. 20, p. 175).

From 1855 to 1857, Chernyshevskii’s published articles were mainly on literary history and criticism; defending the realist trend in literature, he propagandized the idea that literature should serve the interests of the people. His study of Russian journalism and public opinion from the late 1820’s to the 1840’s (Essays on the Gogol Period of Russian Literature, 1855–56) carried on the tradition of Belinskii’s democratic criticism. In his analysis of the period of the Enlightenment in Germany “as adapted to our domestic circumstances” (Lessing: His Time, Life, and Work, 1857), Chernyshevskii examined the historical circumstances in which literature could become “the principal motive force of historical development” (Poln. sobr. soch., vol. 4, 1948, p. 7). Chernyshevskii had a high regard for A. S. Pushkin and especially for N. V. Gogol; he considered N. A. Nekrasov the best contemporary poet.

In late 1857, Chernyshevskii turned over the department of criticism to N. A. Dobroliubov and devoted himself entirely to economic and political problems. He joined the campaign waged in the magazines for discussion of the impending peasant reform; in a series of articles, such as “On the New Conditions of Rural Life” (1858), “On Methods of Buying the Peasants Out From Serfdom (1858), “How Difficult Is the Redemption of Land?” (1859), and “The Way of Life of the Pomeshchich’i Krest’iane” (1859), Chernyshevskii criticized the reform plans of the liberal nobility and proposed instead a revolutionary-democratic solution of the peasant question. He advocated the abolition of the system of landownership without redemption payment to the landowners. In December 1858, finally convinced that the government was incapable of satisfactorily resolving the peasant question, Chernyshevskii warned against the unparalleled impoverishment of the peasant masses and called for a revolutionary end to the reform.

Going beyond anthropologism, Chernyshevskii came close to a materialist interpretation of history. He repeatedly pointed out that “intellectual development, like development in any other area, including the political, depends on economic circumstances” (Poln. sobr. soch., vol. 10, 1951, p. 441).

In order to substantiate his political program, Chernyshevskii studied economic theory and. in the words of K. Marx, “has thrown the light of a master mind on an event which is a declaration of the bankruptcy by bourgeois economy” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 23, p. 17). Chernyshevskii’s studies included “Economic Activity and Legislation” (1859), “Capital and Labor” (1860), “Comments on the ’Principles of Political Economy’ of J. S. Mill” (1860), and “Essays on Political Economy (According to Mill)” (1861); here the author exposed the class nature of bourgeois political economy and contrasted to it his own economic “theory of the working people,” which demonstrates “the need to replace the present economic system with a communist one” (Poln. sobr. soch.,\o\. 9, 1949, p. 262).

Chernyshevskii’s economic theory represented the high point of pre-Marxian economic thought. Chernyshevskii rejected the inevitability of exploitation and maintained that economic forms such as slavery, feudalism, and capitalism were transitory. In his judgment, the criterion for the preeminence of one form over another was the ability to ensure growth in the productivity of social labor. It was on such grounds that he was able to make his exceptionally profound criticism of serfdom.

Recognizing the relative progressiveness of capitalism, Chernyshevskii criticized it for the anarchy of its production, for its competition and crises, for its exploitation of the workers, and for its inability to maximize the productivity of social labor. He considered the transition to socialism to be a historical necessity, determined by mankind’s entire development. Under socialism “the separate classes of hired worker and employer will disappear, being replaced by a single class of people who will be workers and managers at the same time” (ibid,, p. 487).

Chernyshevskii saw that Russia’s economy was already coming under the influence of the laws of capitalism, but he wrongly believed that Russia could avoid “the plague of proletarianism,” since the question of the “nature of changes in Russian economic life” had not yet been resolved. In such articles as “On Land Ownership” (1857), “Critique of Philosophical Prejudices Against Communal Ownership” (1858), and “Superstition and the Rules of Logic” (1859), Chernyshevskii proposed and justified the idea that Russia might skip the capitalist stage of development and pass to socialism through the peasant commune. In Chernyshevskii’s opinion, this possibility would open up as the result of a peasant revolution. In contrast to Herzen, who believed that a socialist system would evolve independently in Russia out of the patriarchal peasant commune, Chernyshevskii considered the assistance of industrially developed countries a necessary guarantee of such development. This idea, which became a reality for the backward countries with the victory of the October Socialist Revolution in Russia, was Utopian in the historical conditions of that earlier time. Together with Herzen, Chernyshevskii was one of the founders of narodnichestvo, or Populism.

By early 1859, Chernyshevskii was generally recognized as the leader of revolutionary democracy, and his journal Sovremennik as its militant organ. Convinced of the inevitability of an imminent popular uprising, Chernyshevskii inclined toward a peasant revolution and developed a political program for revolutionary democracy. In a series of articles on the history of France in which he analyzed revolutionary events, he sought to bring to light the leading role of the masses and their interest in fundamental economic changes. In his article “A Russian at an Assignation” (1858), which he wrote in reference to I. S. Turgenev’s novella Asya, Chernyshevskii showed the practical impotence of Russian liberalism. His monthly surveys of international events (Politika, 1859–62) relied on the historical experience of Western Europe to throw light on pressing questions in Russia and to indicate possible solutions.

Chernyshevskii’s article “The Anthropological Principle in Philosophy” (1860) was a systematic presentation of his philosophical views and set forth his ethical theory of “rational egoism.” Chernyshevskii’s ethics does not separate the interest of the individual from that of society; “rational egoism” is the free subordination of personal advantage to the general cause— whose success, in the final analysis, contributes to the individual’s personal advantage as well.

In his “Introduction to Current Austrian Affairs” (February 1861), Chernyshevskii responded directly to the peasant reform with the argument that absolutism could not allow the destruction of feudal institutions and the establishment of political freedom. At the same time he organized a small group of like-minded associates who decided to appeal to various sections of the population. In his proclamation “Greetings to the Landlords’ Peasantry From Their Well-wishers,” which was confiscated during the seizure of the illegal printing house, Chernyshevskii exposed the predatory quality of the peasant reform; he warned the pomeshchich’i krest’iane (peasants owned by noble landlords) against uncoordinated spontaneous action and called on them to prepare for a general uprising upon a signal from the revolutionaries. From the summer of 1861 to the spring of 1862, Chernyshevskii was the source of ideological inspiration and advice for the revolutionary organization Land and Liberty. In his “Letters With No Address” (February 1862, published abroad 1874) he laid before the tsar two alternatives—renunciation of autocracy or revolution.

Fearing Chernyshevskii’s growing influence, the tsarist government put a forcible stop to his activity. The Sovremennik was banned for eight months; Chernyshevskii, who had been under secret police surveillance since September 1861, was arrested on July 7, 1862, and imprisoned in the Aleksei Ravelin of the Peter and Paul Fortress. The arrest was made on the grounds of a letter, written by Herzen to N. A. Serno-Solov’evich and intercepted by the police, in which Chernyshevskii was named in connection with the proposed publication of the banned Sovremennik in London. In solitary confinement and unable to engage in journalistic activities, Chernyshevskii turned to literature.

In his novel What Is to Be Done? (1862–63), Chernyshevskii described the lives of new types of persons—the “rational egoists,” who live by their own labor, lead a new kind of family life, and disseminate the ideas of socialism in practice. Among Chernyshevskii’s characters are Rakhmetov, the first professional revolutionary in Russian literature, and Vera Pavlovna, a progressive Russian woman who devotes her life to socially useful work. The novel popularized the ideas of women’s equality and artel production; foretelling the victory of the people’s revolution and depicting the coming society, the book was a synthesis of Chernyshevskii’s sociopolitical, philosophical, and ethical views and provided a practical plan of action for progressive youth. Published in the Sovremennik in 1863 because of careless censorship, the novel had a great effect on Russian society and contributed to the education of many revolutionaries.

While in the Peter and Paul Fortress, Chernyshevskii also wrote the novella Alfer’ev (1863), Tales Within a Tale (1863–64), and Brief Stories (1864). Despite the lack of evidence and his brilliant self-defense, Chernyshevskii in 1864 was found guilty, through false testimony and provocation, of “taking steps to overthrow the existing system of government.” He was sentenced to seven years’ penal servitude and lifetime residence in Siberia. After the ceremony of “civil execution” in Mytninskaia Square on May 19,1864, Chernyshevskii was sent to the Nerchinsk hard labor camps (Kadaia mine; transferred to the Aleksandrovskii plant in 1866). In 1871, having completed his term of hard labor, he was sent to jail in Viliuisk.

While serving his sentence, Chernyshevskii wrote the partly autobiographical novel Prologue (1867–69; part 1 published abroad 1877), which portrayed the social struggle on the eve of the peasant reform. Of the works he wrote in Siberia, some others that have been preserved are a portion of the novel Reflected Radiance, the novella Story of a Girl, and the play Madam Master-Troublemaker. In these works Chernyshevskii sought to present his revolutionary views in the guise of conversations “on seemingly extraneous matters.”

The Russian revolutionaries made some bold attempts to free Chernyshevskii from his Siberian isolation; such an attempt was made by G. A. Lopatin in 1871 and by I. N. Myshkin in 1875. In 1881 the Executive Committee of the People’s Will, in its negotiations with the Sviashchennaia Druzhina (Holy Host), made the freeing of Chernyshevskii the first condition for the cessation of terror. It was only in 1883 that Chernyshevskii was transferred to Astrakhan under police supervision, and in June 1889 he was allowed to return to his birthplace.

While in Astrakhan and Saratov, Chernyshevskii wrote the philosophical work The Nature of Human Knowledge as well as various reminiscences—for example, about Dobroliubov and Nekrasov; he also prepared his Materials for a Biography of N. A. Dobroliubov (published 1890) and translated 11½ volumes of G. Weber’s Universal History, supplemented by his own articles and commentaries. Chernyshevskii’s works remained banned in Russia until the Revolution of 1905–07.

K. Marx and F. Engels studied the works of Chernyshevskii and called him a “great Russian scholar and critic” and a “socialist Lessing” (Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 23, p. 18; vol. 18, p. 522). V. I. Lenin believed that Chernyshevskii had “made a great stride forward as compared with Herzen. Chernyshevskii was a far more consistent and militant democrat, his writings breathing the spirit of the class struggle” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 25, p. 94). Compared to the other pre-Marxist thinkers, Chernyshevskii came closer to scientific socialism. Because of the backwardness of Russian life, he was not able to attain the dialectical materialism of Marx and Engels, but according to Lenin he was “the only really great Russian writer who, from the fifties until 1888, was able to keep on the level of an integral philosophical materialism” (ibid., vol. 18, p. 384).

Chernyshevskii’s works as well as the image he presented of himself as revolutionary—steady in his convictions and actions— served to educate many generations of Russian progressives. He exerted a great influence on culture and social thought in Russia and among the other peoples of the USSR.


Poln. sobr. soch., vols. 1–16. Moscow, 1939–53.
Sobr. soch., vols. 1–5. Moscow, 1974.
Izbr. ekonomich. proizvedeniia, vols. 1–3. Moscow, 1948–49.
Izbr. filosofskie soch., vols. 1–3. Moscow, 1950–51.
Estetika. Moscow, 1958.
Chto delat’? Iz rasskazov o novykh liudiakh. Leningrad, 1975.


Lenin, V. I. Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed. (See Index Volume, part 2, p. 484.)
N. G. Chernyshevskii v vospominaniakh sovremennikov, vols. 1–2. [Saratov] 1958–59.
Delo Chernyshevskogo: Sb. dokumentov. Saratov, 1968.
N. G. Chernyshevskii: Stat’i, issledovaniia, materialy, vols. 1–7. [Saratov] 1958–75.
Chernyshevskaia, N. M. Letopis’ zhizni i deiatel’nosti N. G. Chernyshevskogo, 1828–1889. Moscow, 1953.
Plekhanov, G. V. Izbr. filosofskie proizvedeniia, vol. 4. Moscow, 1958.
Steklov, Iu. M. N. G. Chernyshevskii: Ego zhizri i deiatel’nost’, 2nd ed., vols. 1–2. Moscow-Leningrad, 1928.
Lunacharskii, A. V. Stat’i o Chernyshevskom. Moscow, 1958.
Bogoslovskii, N. V. N. G. Chernyshevskii, 1828–1889, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1957.
Istoriia russkoi ekonomicheskoi mysli, vol. 1, part 2. Moscow, 1958. Pages 592–786.
Bursov, B. I. Masterstvo Chernyshevskogo-kritika. [Leningrad] 1959.
Ocherki istorii istoricheskoi nauki v SSSR, vol. 2. Moscow, 1960. Pages 7–65.
Riurikov, B. S. N. G. Chernyshevskii. Moscow, 1961.
Lebedev, A. A. Geroi Chernyshevskogo. Moscow, 1962.
Porokh, I. V, Gertsen i Chernyshevskii. Saratov, 1963.
Pokusaev, E. I. N. G. Chernyshevskii, 4th ed. Saratov, 1967.
Istoriia filosofii v SSSR, vol. 3. Moscow, 1968. Pages 29–100.
Koz’min, B. P. Literatura i istoriia. Moscow, 1969.
Vodolazov, G. G. Ot Chernyshevskogo k Plekhanovu. Moscow, 1969.
Skaftymov, A. P. Nravstvennye iskaniia russkikh pisatelei. Moscow, 1972.
Pantin, I. K. Sotsialisticheskaia mysl’ v Rossii: perekhod ot utopii k nauke. Moscow, 1973.
Solov’ev, G. A. Esteticheskie vozzreniia Chemyshevskogo i Dobroliubova. Moscow, 1974.
Volodin, A. I., Iu. F. Kariakin, and E. G. Plimak. Chernyshevskii ili Nechaev? O podlinnoi i mnimoi revoliutsionnosti v osvoboditel’-nom dvizhenii Rossii 50–60-kh gg. XIX v. Moscow, 1976.
Tamarchenko, G. E. Chernyshevskiiromanist. Leningrad, 1976.
Istoriia russkoi literatury XIX v: Bibliografich. ukazatel’. Moscow-Leningrad, 1962. Pages 773–91.
N. G. Chernyshevskii: Ukazatel’ literatury, 1960–1970. Saratov, 1976.


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