Petrashevskii Circle

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 It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Petrashevskii Circle


a group of young people who in the second half of the 1840’s met at the home of M. V. Petrashevskii in St. Petersburg. The Petrashevtsy (members of the circle) were Utopian socialists and democrats who sought a new order in the Russia of autocracy and serfdom. They were active at the very beginning of the process of the formation of the revolutionary democratic camp, whose ideologists then were V. G. Belinskii and. A. I. Herzen. V. I. Lenin wrote that the history of the socialist intelligentsia in Russia began with the Petrashevskii circle (see Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 7, p. 438, footnote).

The meetings at Petrashevskii’s began in 1844, and from the autumn of 1845 were held every Friday. They were attended by civil servants, teachers, writers, artists, students, and officers. Among the Petrashevtsy were D. D. Akhsharumov, A. P. Balasoglo, V. A. Golovinskii, N. P. Grigor’ev, I. M. Debu, K. M. Debu, M. M. Dostoevsky, F. M. Dostoevsky, S. F. Durov, A. I. Evropeus, N. S. Kashkin, F. N. L’vov, V. N. Mai-kov, A. P. Miliukov, V. A. Miliutin, N. A. Mombelli, A. I. Pal’m, A. N. Pleshcheev, M. E. Saltykov, N. A. Speshnev, F. G. Tol’, P. N. Filippov, A. V. Khanykov, and I. L. Iast-rzhembskii.

The social composition and ideology of the Petrashevskii circle reflected the characteristics of a transitional period of the Russian liberation movement. At a time when the crisis of the serf-owning system was intensifying, revolutionary activity of the dvorianstvo (nobility or gentry) was giving way to that of the raznochintsy (intellectuals of no definite class). The Petrashevskii circle lacked a formal organization and an elaborate program. The circle’s tasks were initially limited to self-education and to acquiring a familiarity with the theories of materialism and Utopian socialism. Its members were attracted by the extensive library of banned literature Petrashevskii had assembled. The works of C. Fourier and L. Feuerbach enjoyed particular popularity.

The first attempt to spread the ideas of democracy and Utopian socialism among a wider audience was the publication of the Pocket Dictionary of Foreign Words (fascs. 1-2, 1845-46), which Petrashevskii undertook with the participation of V. N. Maikov, R. R. Shtrandman, and others. The Revolution of 1848 in France and the exacerbation of the domestic situation in Russia caused a revolutionary mood to ripen among the Petrashevtsy in 1848 and 1849. Along with theoretical problems (for example, the atheistic reports of Speshnev and Tol’ and Iastrzhembskii’s lectures on political economy), political questions became a subject of discussion at the Friday gatherings. The Petrashevskii circle defined its attitude toward the expected peasant revolution in meetings attended by a more limited group in Petrashevskii’s study and in the apartments of the Debu brothers, of Kashkin, and of Durov. In the fall of 1848, Petrashevskii and Speshnev attempted to work out a plan for a peasant uprising. The uprising was to begin in Siberia, spread to regions with old traditions of popular movements (the Urals, the Volga, and the Don), and conclude with the overthrow of the tsar. At “conferences of the five”—Petrashevskii, Speshnev, Mombelli, L’vov, and K. Debu —in December 1848 and January 1849, the creation of a secret society and the nature of the society’s program and tactics were discussed.

With respect to the immediate goals of the society, disagreement arose between those who favored preparatory propaganda and Speshnev, who supported immediate insurrection. Many of the Petrashevtsy believed an illegal organization to be necessary. The question arose of writing works of propaganda for the people, works that would criticize Russia’s sociopolitical system. Toward this end, Miliukov composed an adaptation of F. Lamennais’s Words of a Believer that unmasked the clergy; Grigor’ev wrote Soldier’s Conversation on soldiers’ lack of rights; and Filippov wrote The Ten Commandments, which dealt with the situation of the enserfed peasantry. Speshnev and Filippov prepared equipment for an underground printing press. The printing of Belinskii’s “Letter to Gogol” was planned; the letter was first read publicly in the Petrashevskii circle at a ceremonial dinner in memory of Fourier held on Apr. 7, 1849. The Petrashevtsy proclaimed themselves fighters for a socialist society and stressed the necessity in Russia for linking socialist propaganda with the struggle against the autocracy.

Denounced by a provocateur, the Petrashevtsy were arrested on Apr. 23, 1849. On the 123 persons investigated, 22 were court-martialed; all but one were sentenced to be shot. On Dec. 22, 1849, the condemned were taken to the Semenovskii Drill Ground in St. Petersburg to be executed. At the last minute, the execution was halted by order of Nicholas I, and the Petrashevtsy were given terms of hard labor, sent to penal battalions, or made privates in the regular army. In 1856 they were amnestied, and by the early 1860’s all except Petrashevskii had their civil rights restored. Some returned to the social struggle: they became journalists for Siberian newspapers (Petrashevskii, Speshnev, and L’vov), championed the interests of the peasants during the implementation of the Peasant Reform of 1861 (Evropeus, Kashkin, Speshnev, and Golovinskii), or worked as teachers (Tol’).

Although the Petrashevtsy shared common premises— Utopian socialism, a democratic spirit, and enlightenment—their philosophical, sociopolitical, and literary aspirations remained complex, diverse, and contradictory. In philosophy, many of the Petrashevtsy were influenced by Belinskii and Herzen, and some became materialists and atheists. The circle’s economic demands did not go beyond the bourgeois development of Russia. The Petrashevtsy supported industrial development and the abolition of serfdom, but differed in their definitions of the conditions and methods for the emancipation of the peasantry. The circle’s basic revolutionary nucleus, which included Petrashevskii, Speshnev, Khanykov, and Mombelli, linked the country’s future to the development of the peasant economy. The opposite position was taken by liberal sympathizers, such as N. Ia. Danilevskii and A. P. Beklemishev, who favored the development of the landowner economy. The most radical views were those of Speshnev, who regarded himself as a communist and demanded nationalization of the land and the chief branches of industry. Although they criticized Western European capitalism, the Petrashevtsy acknowledged its relatively progressive nature, and saw in it the “threshold” of socialism. Following Fourier, they believed that the socialist system conformed to human nature; in contrast to the Western European Utopian socialists, however, they hoped to achieve socialism by revolutionary means. The majority of the Petrashevtsy did not accept the theory of noncapitalist development proposed by Herzen, and only a few, for example, Khanykov and Golovinskii, ascribed particular importance to the obshchina (peasant commune). The circle’s socialism was combined with a democratic spirit and was the ideological matrix of the group’s struggle against serfdom. The Petrashevtsy understood that a fundamental reordering of social relations in Russia was impossible without political change. They dreamed of a republic or, at the least, a constitutional monarchy. Unlike the Decembrists, they regarded the people as the chief revolutionary force.

The ideas of the Petrashevskii circle were reflected in the poetry of Pleshcheev, Pal’m, Akhsharumov, and Durov; in the early prose of Dostoevsky (for example (Poor People); in such early stories by Saltykov as Contradictions; and in the journal articles of V. N. Maikov and V. A. Miliutin. In addition, the young L. N. Tolstoy, A. A. Grigor’ev, and A. N. Maikov were influenced by the ideas of the Petrashevtsy.


Petrashevtsy: Sb. materialov, vols. 1-3. Moscow-Leningrad, 1926-28.
Delo petrashevtsev, vols. 1-3. Moscow-Leningrad, 1937-51.
Filosofskie i obshchestvenno-politicheskie proizvedeniia petrashevtsev. Moscow, 1953.
Poety-petrashevtsy, 2nd ed. Leningrad, 1957.


Semevskii, V. I. M. V. Butashevich-Petrashevskii i petrashevtsy. Moscow, 1922.
Nifontov, A. S. Rossiia v. 1848 g. Moscow, 1949.
Fedosov, I. A. Revoliutsionnoe dvizhenie v Rossii vo vtoroi chetverti XIX v. Moscow, 1958.
Istoriia russkoi ekonomicheskoi mysli, vol. 1, part 2. Moscow, 1958.
Leikina-Svirskaia, V. F. Petrashevtsy. Moscow, 1965.
Usakina, T. I. Petrashevtsy i literaturno-obshchestvennoe dvizhenie sorokovykh godov XIX v. [Saratov] 1965.
Istoriia filosofii v SSSR. vol. 2. Moscow, 1968.


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