1864: Nikolay Chernyshevsky’s “civil execution”

Add comment May 19th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1864, the Russian writer Nikolay Chernyshevsky was publicly executed in St. Petersburg.

Then he was shipped to Siberia.

Chernyshevsky’s punishment was only a pantomime “civil execution,” somewhat akin to the symbolic executions by effigy elsewhere in Europe. In this case, the faux death penalty was imposed not upon a peeling portrait but on Chernyshevsky’s actual person: “The hangmen led Chernyshevsky to the scaffold on Mytninskaya Square in St. Petersburg, made him kneel down, broke a sword over his head and then chained him to the pillory. Chernyshevsky stood calmly under the rain waiting for this mockery to come to an end.” (Source)

The pillory, exposed to the hoots and brickbats of an offended populace, was supposed to be a humiliation to its sufferer; occasionally, it even proved lethal. Not so for Chernyshevsky: the crowd stood silently. Someone threw a bouquet of flowers.

This ludicrous theater was enacted to punish Chernyshevsky for his leadership of the St. Petersburg intellectual circle that gave birth to the Narodnik movement. Literally “going to the people,” this was a peasant-focused populist-democratic-socialist philosophy paradoxically germinated among Russia’s small coterie of intellectual elites.

Think Marxism for a feudal society here: the Narodnik adaptation was the hope that Russia’s vast peasantry could be roused to serve the part of a revolutionary working class, and skip Russia directly to a socialism still preserving communal traditions unsullied by that interim period wherein (per Marx in the Communist Manifesto) capitalism had “pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties … [and] left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest.”

This is why Chernyshevsky and the Narodniks viewed the “emancipation” of serfs of 1861 with a gimlet eye: it was a shift towards capitalist property relations, in which the feudal shackles were merely replaced with new, and heavier irons. Chernyshevsky subversively urged his “emancipated” countrymen to view the move as a heist.

It is of course unlikely that many of the actual peasant malcontents stirred up in the wake of the emancipation perused Chernyshevsky’s “To the Manorial Peasants from Their Well-Wishers, Greetings”. But other bourgeois radicals who did read that sort of thing would in due time — after the suppression of the Narodniki in the 1860s and 1870s drove its underground remnants to terrorism — spawn the revolutionary network Narodnaya Volya, and assassinate the tsar who enacted that emancipation, Alexander II.

Chernyshevsky was more a writer than a fighter. He spent his pre-“execution” imprisonment in Peter and Paul Fortress forging his definitive contribution to the movement — the novel What Is To Be Done?.*

(Our own Sonechka regards What Is To Be Done? as quite possibly Russia’s single worst literary product, but the didactic novel imagined (in the dreams of its principal character, Vera Pavlovna) an egalitarian future, including for women. Chernyshevsky himself wrote that he “possess[ed] not one bit of artistic talent … any merit to be found in my tale is due entirely to its truthfulness.”)

Whatever its artistic shortcomings, What Is To Be Done? entered the revolutionary literary canon. Vladmir Ilyich Ulyanov — better known as Lenin — wasn’t even born until 1870 but as a young man he admired What Is To Be Done? In 1902 Lenin himself published a political pamphlet under that same title.

Far less impressed were the likes of Dostoyevsky, himself a former radical who also underwent mock execution in his time. Unlike Chernyshevsky, Dostoyevsky apostasized from his revolutionary credo; Dostoyevsky’s 1864 Notes from the Underground is “a bitter artistic answer” to (and in several spots a direct parody of) Chernyshevsky’s magnum opus.

* What Is To Be Done? responds to Turgenev‘s Fathers And Sons. A previous Narodnik classic by Alexander Herzen asked the parallel question Who Is To Blame?.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Artists,Execution,Famous,History,Intellectuals,Mock Executions,Not Executed,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Russia

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