Nikolay Chernyshevsky and the ‘New People’

In 1863, whilst imprisoned in the infamous Peter-Paul Fortress for his political dissidence, a man sat down, picked up his pen, and began to write. The man was Nikolay Chernyshevsky, a seminary graduate turned revolutionary, and the novel he produced was What is to be done?

This novel introduced the idea of ‘New People’, who were to take on new ideals and new aspirations. The ‘New People’ were to be fundamentally different from all the people who had ever lived before. This, in turn, started a wide-scale debate regarding the future attitudes and lifestyles of human beings, which dominated Russian mass culture. The idea of ‘New People’ will be traced here from its foundation in the early 1860s to the end of the 1930s in Stalinist Russia.

In the days of the Tsars

What is to be done? was but a thinly veiled platform for Nikolay Chernyshevsky’s radical vision of a new Russia, with ‘New People’ to populate it. These ‘New People’ were to be dedicated, educated people, who devoted themselves to the creation of a better society and who shunned worldly goods and pleasures. The vision was perhaps made all the more emotive by the trials and sufferings of its creator; Chernyshevsky’s imprisonment was only the beginning of his punishment. It was followed by exile to Siberia and seven years hard labour. When he died, in 1889, he was in many ways a broken man, physically and mentally exhausted. Yet in the eyes of many of his devotees, he was a hero and a martyr.

Either way, What is to be done? was a story which ensnared its readers and which helped to shape generations of radicals. In much the same way that Union soldiers during the American Civil War are said to have marched South against the Confederates with Uncle Tom’s Cabin in their pack, Russian revolutionaries manned the barricades with a fervour inspired by Chernyshevsky’s novel.

LeninThis fervour was so great that over thirty years after its publication, the influence of What is to be done? was still being felt. In 1902 a certain gentleman by the name of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin published his own call to arms, a pamphlet which took its name almost directly from Chernyshevsky’s novel. The man who was to later lead the October Revolution, and who attained a cult-like status within the Soviet Union, read and was influenced by Chernyshevsky.

The importance of What is to be done? cannot be understated, but it must also be borne in mind that Chernyshevsky died long before the 1917 Revolutions and did not play a direct role in many revolutionary activities after the mid 1860s. Although the term ‘New People’ originated with Chernyshevsky’s story, the idea came to play a wider role in the history of Modern Russia. While the term was certainly significant to those radicals who modelled themselves of Chernyshevsky’s protagonists, in the urbanised and industrialised world of Late Imperial Russia, the ‘New Man’ and the ‘New Woman’ were not always self-denying radicals.

The ‘New Man’ could be any number of things in the increasingly fast-paced consumer culture. He could take the shape of the strong, virile archetype of masculinity. He could be one of the new urban city dwellers, who grew as more and more migrants left the country for the city. However, the ‘New Man’ was not always a positive figure. He could be weakened and emasculated, particularly in relation to the ‘New Woman’.

The ‘New Woman’ could take a number of forms, ranging from a ‘modern’ woman who abandoned her domestic duties in favour of education and a career, to a dangerously over-sexed figure who endangered the stability of society and traditional (male) authority.

‘New People’ after 1917

With the October Revolution of 1917, the idea of ‘New People’ became fundamentally linked to Bolshevik ideology. However, this does not mean that the concept became simple or unchanging. During the dangerous years following the Revolution, when famine, civil war and unrest stalked the land, the ‘New People’ were supposed to return to Chernyshevsky’s ideals. They were to sacrifice everything for the good of the Revolution, in order to ensure that Communism would triumph. Revolutionary values included self-sacrifice, unswerving devotion to the cause and militaristic obedience to ensure Communist victory.

In the 1920s, when the nation was recovering from the horrors and destruction of war, the ‘New People’ were supposed to be sober and hard-working. The vigour of the war years became somewhat forgotten. Yet it has already become clear that the image of the ‘New People’ was not a constant one. With the ascendency of Joseph Stalin and the drive for industrialisation in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the image changed again.

There was a reversion back to the ideals of the 1917 Revolution, the depictions of the ‘New Man’ and ‘New Woman’ became increasingly militaristic, emphasising strength and power. Whereas the ‘New People’ had previously fought in war, however, they now had to fight to ‘build’ socialism and a modern, industrial society and economy.  This period of intensity began to subside, somewhat, after the declaration that socialism had been achieved in the Soviet Union during the Congress of Victors in 1934, where delegates fell over themselves to congratulate Stalin on his supposed achievements. Idealised images of ‘New Men’ and ‘New Women’ then began to appear. Domestic, motherly depictions of women became popular once again. After all, socialism was supposed to be a Utopia.

It is clear then, that the ‘New People’ were a central image throughout the history of Modern Russia, and crossed the bridge of the Revolution between Tsarist and Bolshevik Russia. However, regardless of the centrality or prevalence of the ‘New People’ in society, they were not a fixed constant. They changed regularly and rapidly, yet this idea of the image in flux, is perhaps what makes them, as an image, so very interesting and which could be said to sum up this era of Russian history, as an era of great and significant change.

Mallory Russell

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See also The Russian Revolution: History In An Hour available in various digital formats and also as downloadable audio and Stalin: History In An Hourboth by Rupert Colley and published by Harper Press.