Tibor Szamuely
The Russian Tradition

The acceptance of revolutionary upheaval as the only solution to their country's problems sprang from the intelligentsia's rejection of the existing order, on the one hand, and their messianism, on the other. It was an unqualified attitude, attractive in its simplicity: the question was one of total evil or total good. In mid-nineteenth century Russia there were no signs of a possible half-way house between the two; the path from the one to the other could lead only through total destruction. The kingdom of absolute justice was attainable, but it would come only as the result of a gigantic cataclysm. The mentality of the radical intelligentsia took on an apocalyptic hue; the exultant expectation of an inevitable catastrophe became one of its most characteristic features. No matter that a social convulsion might well bring new suffering in its wake—as long as it ended the existing order. This longing for a catastrophe that would sweep away the wickedness and injustice of Russian life distinguishes, in particular, the social outlook of Chernyshevsky, the most influential of the radical ideologists. In Chernyshevsky's diary we find his views expressed with great intensity of feeling:
Here are my thoughts about Russia: an overwhelming expectation of the coming revolution, a longing for it—even though I know that for a long time, perhaps for a very long time nothing good can come of it, that maybe for a long time to come it can only lead to even greater oppression. Does it matter? The man who is not blinded by idealization, who is capable of deducing the future on the basis of the past, and who glorifies certain [revolutionary] epochs of history, despite all the evil they initially created—such a man cannot be scared off by apprehensions of this nature. He knows that nothing else is to be expected, and that peaceful and calm development is impossible. Far better that I should be seized by convulsions, for I know that without convulsions there could never have been a single forward step made in history.
The 'revolutionism' of the Russian intelligentsia manifested itself in a variety of forms. The majority were never more than ineffectual dreamers, revolutionary Walter Mittys, but their most radical contingent—largely nurtured on the writings of Chernyshevsky—not content with passive expectation of the cataclysm, threw themselves into actively promoting its arrival. But, even when not carried to its logical conclusion, the basic attitude of 'heroic defiance', of constantly challenging the existing order, of joyfully hoping for the inevitable revolution, of justifying its excesses and admitted member of the intelligentsia—even when their external way of life came more and more to resemble the comfortable bourgeois existence of the Western middle classes. The evergreen revolutionary romanticism of the progressive Russian intelligent was the source of his invincible contempt for so-called 'small deeds'—i.e. any kind of social, philanthropical, educational etc. activity which was aimed merely at improving the people's lot and reforming the existing system of society—and of the cult of violence (of violence in a progressive cause, that is), to which he invariably subscribed.

The intelligentsia's idealization of revolutionary action at any price distinguished them from the first. Nikitenko, the well-known liberal professor of literature, remarked upon this propensity, and its probable outcome, in his diary under April 1862:
A terrible fate is being prepared for our country by all these ultra-progressives. And what is it they want? Instead of gradual reforms, instead of rational development, they want a violent transformation, a revolution, which they are trying to induce artificially. The blind fools! As if they didn't know what kind of revolution is the only possible one in Russia! They want to posture on the stage, they want to play at making history—but inevitably they will be the first to be ground down by history and swept away in its maelstrom.
It would be an error to ascribe the romantic messianism and the faith in revolutionary violence to simple bloody-mindedness, or to isolation from more sophisticated Western ideologies, or—as is often done—to an intense desire to assume the leading role in society. There is no ground to impugn their motives, which invariably, and quite sincerely, were of the highest. Nothing could be more alien to them than sordid worldly considerations, whether of ambition or aggrandisement. They wanted nothing for themselves; what they sought, with a single-mindedness and a readiness for self-sacrifice that was probably unequalled since the Age of Religion, was the happiness of all.

By 'the happiness of all' they meant the happiness of 'the people'. The elusive concept of 'the people' constituted the heart of every doctrine that held sway among the intelligentsia. Although the term 'Populism', strictly speaking, refers to one particular—albeit the most influential—current of thought in Russia, it can be fairly stated that almost every section of the intelligentsia shared in the extravagant idealization of 'the people'. In whatever philosophical theory it was decked out, this remained at bottom cleanse the intelligentsia themselves, corrupted as they were by worldly education and material goods. 'The people' became a highly-coloured icon that bore little if any resemblance to the actual peasantry; it was worshipped with religious fervour, and its absolute and everlasting happiness became the object of the intelligentsia's hopes and endeavours.

But worship at the altar of 'the people' went hand in hand with a deep-rooted conviction that 'the people', left to themselves, were incapable of overthrowing oppression and achieving the just society. This was a curious attitude, combining deification with a marked condescension towards the object of idolatry; 'the people', for all their mystic virtues, were regarded as an immature mass, whose salvation could only come from outside. Devotion to an idealized concept of 'the people' was blended with an almost aristocratic contempt for the actual down-to-earth, prosaic propensities of the real people—whenever the intelligent came into contact with them—and a disbelief in their political maturity. From Herzen on, the radical intelligentsia maintained that the people were indifferent to politics and incapable of independent political action. Chernyshevsky developed this idea in one of his widely-read articles:
This is how all changes occur in the State, whether for better or for worse: the relationship between its material interests and political change. This indifference of the mass is the main factor which makes possible the very idea of changes in political life...The mass is simply the raw material for diplomatic and political experiments. Whoever rules it tells it what to do, and it obeys.
Here we have a striking example of the dichotomy which characterized the intelligentsia's, attitude to the people: Chernyshevsky, its outstanding radical spokesman, a man who was to spend twenty-seven years in prison and remote exile without wavering in his devotion to the populist cause, expressing his patronizing disdain for the people for whom he sacrificed his life!

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.