The rise and fall of the first Russian populists


EXCERPT: Americans trace the term “populism” to the 1890s, but Russian “populism” (narodnichestvo, from narod, the people) began in the 1870s. The “narodniks” dominated Russian thought for two decades, and their successors, the Socialist Revolutionaries, became the country’s most influential political party until the Bolshevik coup. The importance of Russian populism lies less in its programs than in its ethos, a guilty idealism that can teach us a lot today—not only about populism itself but also about the clash of any idealism with recalcitrant reality.

Russia’s greatest writers, painters, and composers all reflected on, if they did not participate in, what one historian called “the agony of populist art.” “Agony” is the right word to describe a movement whose greatest artists drank themselves to death, committed suicide, or went insane. Russians’ natural extremism makes the problems inherent in all idealistic movements especially visible.

Jolting from one panacea for evil to another, Russian intellectuals at last arrived at worship of “the people,” a term usually meaning the peasants, who constituted the overwhelming majority of the population. Today, the word “populist” is often used as a term of abuse disparaging boorish, mindless followers of a demagogue, but “narodnik,” though originally pejorative, was soon adopted by the populists themselves to indicate their reverence for the Russian people’s innate wisdom. To argue for a policy it was common not to demonstrate its effectiveness but to show that it was supported by “the people,” as if the people could not be wrong. In Anna Karenina, everyone is shocked when Levin, Tolstoy’s hero, rejects this whole way of thinking. “That word ‘people,’” he says, “is so vague.”

Any ideal worth adopting had to explain the meaning of life. In one of his best stories, “On the Road,” Chekhov reflected on such idealism by telling the story of Grigory Likharev, who finds himself snowed in at an inn on Christmas Eve. There he encounters a noblewoman, Madame Ilovaiskaya, on her way to her father and brother, who without her wouldn’t take basic care of themselves. She listens with rapt attention to the charismatic Likharev’s account of his lifelong embrace of one set of beliefs after another.

[...] Populism fed on guilt, and everything about Likharev, down to his very gestures, expressed a consciousness of guilt about something. The populist ideologists insisted that all high culture depends on wealth stolen from the common people and is therefore tainted by a sort of original sin. [...] If populism fit Likharev’s guilty conscience so well, why did he give it up? Out of guilt, of course. Having run through his fortune and his wife’s, and impoverished their children, he grasped a truth dear to skeptical Chekhov’s heart. Ideologies of all sorts undervalue real people of the present moment and, in pursuit of some superhuman goals, neglect the everyday processes that truly make a life good or bad. “I have lived,” Likharev explains, “but in my fever I have not even been conscious of the process of life itself. Would you believe it, I don’t remember a single spring, I never noticed how my wife loved me, how my children were born. . . . I have been a misfortune to all who have loved me. . . . I cannot even boast, Madam, that I have no one’s life upon my conscience, for my wife died before my eyes, worn out by my reckless activity.”

On the verge of recognizing the harm that ideology does, Likharev converts this insight into yet another ideology. Moved by his wife’s death, he, like other Russian idealists, switches from worshiping peasants to worshiping women and their amazing capacity to sacrifice themselves. More than once, he explains, women have followed his enthusiasms “without criticism, without question, and done anything I chose: I have turned a nun into a nihilist, who, as I heard afterwards, shot a gendarme.” What matters is not what women sacrifice themselves for, but their “wonderful mercifulness, forgiveness of everything. . . . The meaning of life lies in just that unrepining martyrdom.” Russians came to idolize prostitutes and women terrorists as paragons of virtue.

Likharev’s speech mesmerizes Madame Ilovaiskaya. Ever unappreciated, she is amazed that women like herself are his new enthusiasm “or, as he said himself, his new faith!” She is ready to follow him. “With his gesticulations, with his flashing eyes, he seemed to her mad, frantic, but there was a feeling of such beauty in the fire of his eyes, in his words, in all the movements of his huge body, that without noticing what she was doing she stood facing him as though rooted to the spot, and gazed into his face with delight.” He sees this, but leaves without her, and the story ends with his coach disappearing into the storm while “his eyes kept seeking something in the clouds of snow.” Chekhov saw the populist mentality as emblematic of all Russian idealisms—disdainful of everyday experience and, however harmful, immune to any disconfirmation.

[...] The populists’ efforts to “go to the people” failed utterly. Far from embracing their revolutionary ideology, the peasants turned their worshipers in to the police. In despair, many populists—but not Garshin or Uspensky—established the Russian terrorist movement. If Russian history demonstrates anything, it is that nothing causes more evil than the attempt to abolish it altogether. The scarlet flower blooms in the Gulag.

To this day the idea persists that the Russian people, especially the simple rural ones, somehow carry the moral solution to all the world’s ills. Under what Dostoyevsky called their “alluvial barbarism” lies the purest spirituality. For Russians, faith in the people’s virtue is equaled only by another belief: in the moral glory of Russian literature. That belief is warranted.


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