Nikolai Mikhailovskii

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 It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Mikhailovskii, Nikolai Konstantinovich


(pseudonyms, Gron’iar, Postoronnii [Outsider], Profan [Layman]). Born Nov. 15 (27), 1842, in Meshchovsk, in present-day Kaluga Oblast; died Jan. 28 (Feb. 10), 1904, in St. Petersburg. Russian publicist, sociologist, literary critic, and one of the theoreticians of the Narodnik (Populist) movement. Nobleman. Studied at the St. Petersburg Institute of Mining Engineers.

Mikhailovskii’s literary career began in 1860. He worked for the magazine Otechestvennye zapiski from 1868 to 1884, first as a contributor and later as an editor. In 1879 he established close ties with the Narodnik organization People’s Will. After Otechestvennye zapiski was closed down in 1884, he contributed to the magazines Severnyi vestnik and Russkaia mysl’ and the newspaper Russkie vedomosti. He was banished from St. Petersburg in 1882 and 1891 for his association with revolutionary organizations. From 1892 he edited the magazine Russkoe bogatstvo, the organ of the liberal Narodniks.

A talented publicist, Mikhailovskii enjoyed great popularity among democratic and revolutionary circles in Russia in the late 19th century. In such works as Literary Notes, Notes of a Layman, Letter on Truth and Untruth, Letters to Learned People, and Letters of an Outsider to the Editors of “Otechestvennye zapiski,” he called on the Russian intelligentsia to serve the people, sought to arouse a sense of personal responsibility for the country’s future, defended democratic traditions, and opposed reactionary ideology.

Mikhailovskii considered himself the preserver and continuator of Chernyshevskii’s tradition, but in his world view, especially in his philosophy, he “took a step backward from Chernyshevskii” toward positivism (V. I. Lenin, Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 24, p. 335). In sociology, Mikhailovskii, along with P. L. Lavrov, elaborated the idea of a free choice of an “ideal,” which provided the philosophical foundation for the view that social development could be changed in a direction chosen by the progressive intelligentsia. This idea underlies the “subjective” method in sociology, proclaiming the individual, the “irreducible” element, to be the starting point for historical research and the supreme measure of social progress. Mikhailovskii developed his theories in What Is Progress?, The Method of Analogy in Social Science, Darwin’s Theory and Social Science, What Is Happiness?, and The Struggle for Individuality. Although it was theoretically false, Mikhailovskii’s “formula for progress” coincided with the views of the progressive raznochintsy (intellectuals of no definite class), for it presented the struggle against the existing system as an unconditional duty of the mature individual. Mikhailovskii’s world view determined his ambiguous attitude toward Marx. Although he defended Marx’ Kapital against the attacks of lu. G. Zhukovskii in “Karl Marx as judged by lu. G. Zhukovskii,” Mikhailovskii nevertheless failed to understand the essence of the theory and methodology of the founder of scientific socialism.

Mikhailovskii’s political views were influenced by the revolutionary Narodnik movement of the 1870’s. He concluded that a radical change in the country’s political structure was necessary. In his famous Letters of a Socialist, written in 1879, he denounced apolitical ideology. After the assassination of Alexander II on Mar. 1, 1881, Mikhailovskii edited the letter of the Executive Committee of People’s Will, which presented their demands to Alexander III. The crushing of the People’s Will and the ensuing reaction in politics and social life brought Mikhailovskii to an ideological crisis, expressed in his theory of “heroes and the crowd.” In such essays as “Heroes and the Crowd,” “Scientific Letters: On the Question of Heroes and the Crowd,” “Pathological Magic,” and “Again Concerning the Crowd,” Mikhailovskii explained the mechanism of collective action in terms of a human tendency to imitate. In the 1880’s he criticized the “small deeds” theory and Tolstoyanism. In the early 1890’s he attacked the Russian Marxists, groundlessly accusing them of defending capitalism and abandoning the “heritage of the 1860’s and 1870’s.” Lenin and Plekhanov showed that the doctrine of peasant socialism propounded by Mikhailovskii and other liberal Narodniks was untenable.

As a literary critic Mikhailovskii belonged to the school of Chernyshevskii and Dobroliubov. He regarded the writer as society’s moral judge and literature as the expression of conscience, analyzing reality from the standpoint of a particular ideal. His critical works were devoted to such writers as L. N. Tolstoy, F. M. Dostoevsky, G. I. Uspenskii, V. M. Garshin, and M. Gorky. In two of his most controversial articles, “The Right and Left Hand of Leo Tolstoy” and “A Cruel Talent,” Mikhailovskii attacked both art for art’s sake and naturalism.

Lenin criticized Mikhailovskii’s political errors, showing that his world view was theoretically untenable. Nonetheless he distinguished between Mikhailovskii and the other liberal Narodnik publicists, noting not only his weaknesses and errors but also his historic service to the liberation movement (ibid., p. 336).


Poln. sobr. soch., vols. 1–8, 10 (Index). St. Petersburg, 1906–14.
Poslednie sochineniia, vols. 1–2. St. Petersburg, 1905.
Literaturno-kriticheskie star’l. Moscow, 1957.


Lenin, V. I. “Chto takoe ‘druz’ia naroda’ i kak oni voiuiut protiv sotsialdemokratov?” Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 1.
Lenin, V. I. “Ekonomicheskoe soderzhanie narodnichestva i kritika ego v knige g. Struve.” Ibid., vol. 1.
Lenin, V. I. “Ot kakogo nasledstva my otkazyvaemsia.” Ibid., vol. 2.
Lenin, V. I. “Narodniki o N. K. Mikhailovskom.” Ibid., vol. 24.
Plekhanov, G. V. “K voprosu o razvitii monisticheskogo vzgliada na istoriiu.” In Izbrannye filosofskie proizvedeniia, vol. 1. Moscow, 1956.
Gorev, B. I. N. K. Mikhailovskii. Moscow, 1931.
Bialyi, G. A. “N. K. Mikhailovskii.” In Istoriia russkoi kritiki, vol. 2. Moscow-Leningrad, 1958.
Istoriia russkoi ekonomicheskoi mysli, vol. 2, part 2. Moscow, 1960.
Sedov, M. G. “K voprosu ob obshchestvenno-politicheskikh vzgliadakh N. K. Mikhailovskogo.” In the collection Obshchestvennoe dvizhenie poreformennoi Rossii. Moscow, 1965.
Tvardovskaia, V. A. “N. K. Mikhailovskii i ‘Narodnaia volia’.” In the collection Istoricheskie zapiski, fasc. 82. Moscow, 1968.
Khoros, V. G. Narodnicheskaia ideologiia i marksizm (konets XIX v.). Moscow, 1972.


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