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Conservative mockery of an unlikely radical coalition

July 28, 2011

In the 1860s, what group did Russian radicals in St. Petersburg and abroad think was their likeliest ally? “The people” isn’t specific enough.

The March 1867 issue of Russkii vestnik, which begins with Turgenev’s Smoke (Дым), ends with “Gertsen’s Party and the Old Believers” (Партия Герцена и старообрядцы). It argues that Gertsen and company mistakenly thought the Old Believers could be persuaded to embrace “socialism and materialism.” The conservative journal had predicted in 1862 that the Old Believers would consider the London agitators the Antichrist, and cites a text that seems to bear that out.

Here’s how Russkii vestnik saw the issue in 1867:

Recently, as everyone knows, all of Russia’s internal and external enemies have counted on the schismatics as their allies. Thus before their last uprising, the Poles hoped that as soon as they raised the banner of rebellion in Warsaw, an uprising would begin in Russia too, in which the Old Believers would play a most important part. […] Our home-grown revolutionaries, those unfortunate and confused young men who have taken it into their heads to turn everything in Russia upside down, also counted on the schismatics: the disgraceful proclamations of 1861 and 1862 mentioned the schismatics directly. […] The Polish party in Turkey also counted on the Old Believers at the height of the Polish uprising in 1863 […] (401-02).

The parts I skip over explain how each group of “enemies” had its hopes dashed.

This idea also comes up in chapter 8 of Leskov’s “An Enigmatic Man” (Загадочный человек, 1870). Artur Benni, the quixotic, cosmopolitan idealist, has joined forces with a Siberian merchant he met through Gertsen’s circle. They have agreed to spread revolutionary propaganda in Siberia, but the merchant has no intention of following through, and instead drinks and gambles his way around Western Europe with Benni in tow as an unpaid interpreter. Here is how the narrator explains Benni’s willingness to stay:

If this Siberian merchant’s companion were not Artur Benni but instead anyone you like who wasn’t entirely muddled, who hadn’t had his head filled up with nonsense and been taught to see in each act of insolence, rudeness, and stupidity by an ordinary Russian a sign of some particular exalted qualities unique to Russians of common stock, then that person would long ago have seen he was being made a fool of by a fool, and would have abandoned the fool right where he was. But it had been demonstrated so thoroughly to Benni that there was no one in the world more revolutionary than the Russian schismatic, and that however queer and eccentric he, the schismatic, might be with his frank manner, still no one could hope to match him in intelligence, firmness, or reason. In that naive time, such things were believed in more places than London. (290-91)

A footnote by I. Z. Serman says the idea of Old Believers as potential revolutionaries originated with Afanasii Prokop’evich Shchapov in 1858.

Update: from chapter 15 in “An Enigmatic Man”:

Benni, with a purely childish curiosity, wanted an explanation of why the people gave for the church, when he had been told that no one in Russia liked the church and the people belonged to the Schism, since the Schism was cover for the revolution? Nichiporenko explained to him that “that didn’t mean anything.” (308)

So 1860s radicals, according to Leskov in 1870, were guilty of overestimating their potential support among Old Believers, and also the number of peasants who were Old Believers.

Update 2: from chapter 27 of “An Enigmatic Man”:

Where was this Schism, about which he had heard so many wondrous things in London from Bakunin and Vasilii Kel’siev? The Schism did not want so much as to look at anyone who sought it for some other purpose and not for the Schism itself. Where was this party of vieux bojards moskowites? […] (336)

Update 3 (March 5th, 2013): for another example see part 6, chapter 18 (“The Agitator and the Schismatic”) of Pisemskii’s Troubled Seas (Взбаламученное море, 1863 in Katkov’s Russkii vestnik), where the execrable Viktor Basardin, at that moment a radical traveling in England, has his overtures rebuffed by an Old Believer merchant:

“Well, no one can reproach us, at any rate,” objected Viktor, shaking his head, “for failing to love the common Russian and to wish him well.”

“Our humble thanks for that, sir! Only it would appear that we have no need of that: you gentlemen [баре] are your own thing [сами по себе], and we peasants [мужики] are our own thing. You, for instance, say bad things about the Sovereign Emperor, while we are grateful to him and suppose that it’s a dog’s howl carried by the wind… And then you write that one should not believe in God, and even to this we say nothing: we consider it to derive from your lack of reason.”

[and a few lines later:]

Basardin at last got up.

“Then one cannot have any hope in you…!” he said.

“Not just no hope, but if this were in France or Austria, I would report you to a commissar to protect myself,” the merchant answered impressively.

Update 4 (October 17th, 2013): I’ll keep adding examples here, now from book 2, chapter 9 (“Two Kinds of Mushroom in the Borscht”) of Leskov’s No Way Out (Некуда, 1864). Rozanov has met an Old Believer who seems both capable and potentially sympathetic to the revolutionary worldview, and Arapov instantly wants to meet him:

Arapov just fixed his eyes on Rozanov.

“Definitely introduce us. You must introduce me to him. I am not asking out of curiosity, rather it’s necessary. We do not have a single schismatic, and they are a force. Give me this thing.”

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