Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Chernyshevsky invents the Bolshevik - he would always eat apples, but never apricots

“It's the scene for which, I believe, the entire novel was written to bring into the world, the reason Nikolai Chernyshevsky sat down in his cell at the Peter and Paul Fortress prison and began the book” writes Scott Bailey.  It’s Part 3, chapter xxix, “An Extraordinary Man.”  You always know something is up when Chernyshevky gives a chapter a title.  With minor changes, the chapter could be an independent short story.

The story is the biography of Rakhmetov, revolutionary superhero. 

The ideal of the disciplined, dedicated revolutionary, coldly Utilitarian and even cruel to himself and others, but warmed by a love for mankind that he sternly represses for rear of weakening  his resolution; the iron-willed leader who sacrifices his private life to the revolution, and who, since he looks on himself only as an instrument, feels free to use others in the same way – in short, the Bolshevik mentality, for which it is impossible to find any source in European Socialism, steps right out of the pages of What Is To Be Done?  (199)

That is Joseph Frank again, actually from the same page of Through the Russian Prism that I quoted yesterday.  Chernyshevsky invented the Bolshevik.  Or Chernyshevsky plus Vladimir Lenin.  This chapter did a lot of damage.  On the same page, still, down in the footnote about Emma Goldman’s sewing cooperative, I learn that the anarchist Alexander Berkman, when he planned to assassinate Henry Clay Frick, used “Rakhmetov” as his pseudonym.  Imitation Rakhmetov’s began to pop up all over, including in Dostoevksy’s Devils (1872).  Crime and Punishment’s Raskolnikov (1866) is a relative, too, an inversion or parody.

So what is Rakhmetov like?  He is amazing.  Some quotations:

… he needed to eat beef, a great deal of beef.  So he did.  He regretted every kopeck spent on any other kind of food…

Therefore, if fruit was served, he would always eat apples, but never apricots.  (281)

This is because he only eats the food not eaten by but potentially available to the common people.  Thus he will eat meat pies, “[b]ut he wouldn’t eat sardines.”

The things he used to say and do on such occasions are beyond comprehension.  (284)
Yes, however rude Rakhmetov’s manners, everyone remained convinced that he acted as he did because it was the most sensible and simplest way to act…  In spite of this phenomenal rudeness, he was basically a very tactful person.  (286)

As a teenager, Rakhmetov works to become super-strong.  He is a wealthy aristocrat, but he works as a Volga river bargeman to improve himself, and is eventually capable of legendary feats of strength (279).  Later he stops a runaway carriage by grabbing “the rear axle.  He brought the carriage to a halt and then fell down.”  Had Chernyshevsky been reading Les Misérables, published the previous year?  Rakhmetov is as strong as Jean Valjean.  I will try not to mention it again, but Chernyshevsky has an obsession with upper body strength that appears throughout the book, often in strange contexts, people lifting each other over their heads for fun, that sort of thing.

When he hears about revolutionary political ideas, Rakhmetov becomes an instant convert.

He asked, “What books should I read first?”…  He acquired what he needed and then read for more than three days and nights in a row, from 11 A.M. on Thursday to 9 P.M. on Sunday, a total of eighty-two hours.  (280)

“[E]ight glasses of strong coffee” keep him going for a while, but eventually he “collapsed on the floor and slept for about fifteen hours.”  You may wonder why I am not more sympathetic with Rakhmetov – that is my question; that is just how I read! 

About a year before he vanished from Petersburg for the second and probably the last time, Rakhmetov said to Kirsanov, “Give me a rather large amount of ointment for curing wounds inflicted by a sharp instrument.”  (288)

Rakhmetov is testing his strength by sleeping on a bed of nails, like an Orthodox martyr.  He is preparing himself for torture.  Or he is a lunatic.  “’Now I know I can do it.’”

Because of the censorship, anything about Rakhmetov’s revolutionary activities are hidden, thus that odd bit about vanishing, but obvious enough that the publication of the chapter is almost miraculous.

Forget what happened later, and forget the reality of the character, which is non-existent.  Rakhmetov, a blend of philosopher, Orthodox ascetic, folk hero, and Hugo is an extraordinary, rich imaginative creation.  That anyone wanted to be him, that seems crazy to me.  But of course writers, critics and revolutionaries wanted to do something with him.  For a cartoon character, he is strangely complex.


  1. You really do expect him to wear a red leotard beneath his wool suit, a large R emblazoned across his immense pectorals. He flies, too, through the sky. But why does Rakhmetov abandon Europe after visiting each nation and learning about each nation's proletariat, that's my question. Lupokhov also flees the narrative, but he comes back (under an assumed name, sure, but he does come back). Maybe Rakhmetov is assumed to show up after Vera's fourth dream, in that Sternesque missing chapter?

  2. Wait, who's Rakhmetov in Devils? I read it a long time ago.

  3. This is second-hand - haven't read Devils - but the Rakhmetov figure is the violent Pyotr Stepanovich Verkhovensky, inspired by the young punk who must have been the first real-life Rakhmetov, Sergey Nechayev.

    If I am following the revolutionary interpretation, Rakhmetov returns to Russia underneath that line of asterisks denoting Revolution. Thus the strange language of that line above - "probably the last time" R. vanishes from St. Petersburg. Next time, the revolution! and the end of all need to vanish.

    I'm going to try to write about this kind of coding later today. Expect vagueness and semi-formed ideas.

  4. Verkhovensky is indeed Nechayev with a name change, but the mysterious figure who appears and disappears, who has a profound effect on the other characters but is shrouded in a frustrating vagueness, is Stavrogin.

    You would love Devils. I think it's phenomenal that someone could write a political rant in novel form that's still so utterly enjoyable and compelling even if one disagrees with every word of it.

    Then there's Lebezyatnikov from the C&P, the same kind of "sympathetic fool" we've been constructing.

    Somehow I feel like Frank is overstating the case for that particular type of revolutionary coming entirely out of this book- I'm sure I've seen it earlier, in history as well as literature (there are characters from the French Revolution who would probably fit the bill). Though I can't think of any examples from European Socialism. Plenty of republican or nationalist conspirators, though...

  5. Which is not to say that I can think of lots of Rakhmetovs- he's a very weird character. But I can think of lots of characters who fit Frank's description, which is significantly less weird.

  6. So Rakhmetov's characteristics are split up among different characters? Sure, that makes sense.

    I have been emphasizing the relationship between What Is To Be Done? and Notes from the Underground because it is so direct, but re-reading Chernyshevsky - and it helps that I have read a lot more Dostoevsky since the last time - it is amazing how often Dostoevsky returns to these characters and ideas afterwards.

    I wondered about Frank's description, too. He emphasizes the uniqueness of the saintly Orthodox side of Rakhmetov, of the character's - I have to look this word up - kenostic side, where he empties the self in service of some other ideal, not God but revolution or something. The ideal, frankly, seems too abstract to me, making Rakhmetov too much of an empty vessel. But of course that is just what Lenin needed. What was missing was ideology.

    Otherwise he is the Count of Monte Cristo creating tangled revenge schemes against the Czar.

    I think what I was trying to do with this post was something like what you are saying in the second comment - I wanted to move back to Rakhmetov's weirdness. Eighty-two hours? Meat pies, yes; sardines, no?

    1. He's weird when you get his biography, and especially when you get the scenes with the barge and the bed of nails (rustic hero and aesthete saint!), but in his dialogue with Vera he is just like every other male character in WitBD?: a talky robot ("Do not react until I have finished my speech, I implore you, madam. At that point, you will quite naturally agree with me.").

    2. And just to query the title of your post a Chernyshevsky inventing the Bolshevik, or rather the Russian revolutionary generally?

    3. Oh, yeah, I have ignored the dialogue chapter. Back to the usual stuff there. Lenin must have liked it, though.

      I really give Chernyshevsky co-credit for the imaginative creation of the Bolshevik hero. So, yes, the uniquely Russian revolutionary type that eventually was mixed with Marxism to create the Bolshevik hero.

  7. As Stendhal wrote (some would say, ironically wrote):
    ‘Politics are a stone attached to the neck of literature, which, in less than six months, drowns it. Politics in the middle of imaginative interests are like a pistol-shot in the middle of a concert. The noise is deafening without being emphatic. It is not in harmony with the sound of any of the instruments. This mention of politics is going to give deadly offense to half my readers, and bore the other half, who have already found far more interesting and emphatic politics in their morning paper.’

  8. Ironic or not, that's a good passage. The pistol shot is excellent.

  9. Thanks very much for this post; it helped concentrate my thoughts and focus my reading. I have reported on it here:

    (Never too late to take part in a group read, say I!)

  10. My pleasure. Thanks for joining the group-read! Not remotely too late.

    The best group-reads have turned out to be the most preposterous group-reads.