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Russian radicals, race theory, and the peasants

November 7, 2011

Recently I was up late finishing a very good library book that had been recalled, and I came across yet another passage of interest for American slavery / Russian slavery comparisons. Apparently Varfolomei Zaitsev, one of Pisarev’s fellow critics at The Russian Word, invoked Darwin to claim that, among humans, some races were inferior to others, and Pisarev defended him when this proved controversial (cf. the U.S. Progressive Era and eugenics). Perhaps more surprising – though here I’m extrapolating from summaries and quotations – Zaitsev appears to have also considered the Russian peasantry biologically inferior. Here’s Joseph Frank:

This glorification of the heroic individual [that is, “Pisarev’s interpretation of Bazarov as a sort of left-wing Superman”] was reinforced, if only for a short while, by Social Darwinism, which Zaitsev invoked to defend the enslavement of the colored races on the grounds of their natural inferiority; and Dostoevsky specifically parodies this opinion in one of the notes for the planned continuation of his satire [The Crocodile]. Ivan Matveich’s skin color darkens in the crocodile, and this is used as an additional reason why he has no right to ask that his interests be put over those of the German owner of the crocodile, a member of the dominating white race (5: 389). In harmony with such an emphasis, The Russian Word also abandoned that Populist strain of Russian radicalism which involved a deep emotional commitment to the values of the people and believed in their immense potential. Zaitsev, for example, minces no words in expressing his lack of regard for the people, whom he called “coarse, stupid, and, as a result, passive; this is of course not their fault, but so it is, and it would be strange to expect any sort of initiative from them.” Whatever his disagreements with Chernyshevsky, Dostoevsky had shared with the radical democrats a much more favorable view of the people; and this had created subliminal bonds of sympathy. (365)

Frank adds in a footnote:

In an article devoted to a book on The Unity of the Human Race by the French naturalist Jean Louis Quatrefages, Zaitsev argued that, because of the biological inferiority of the colored races, their only hope of survival in competition with the superior whites was to remain in a position of subordination in which their interests would be safeguarded. Open competition would mean their extinction. The tone of his remarks was sharp and derisive: “Sentimental enemies of lack of freedom,” he writes, “are only able to cite texts and sing psalms, but they cannot point to a single fact capable of showing that education and freedom could transform negroes into whites so far as mental capacity is concerned… Only tender-hearted gentlewomen like Mme Beecher-Stowe can insist on brotherhood between the races.”

Pisarev came to Zaitsev’s defense in the ensuing uproar. “Zaitsev uttered the by no means eccentric thought,” he wrote, “that Darwin’s law also applies to the human races.” Later, he argued that Darwin’s law should not stand in the way of the struggle against slavery; but he continued to believe that social inequality was ultimately rooted in biological differences. (365n)

Unfortunately Zaitsev’s article doesn’t seem to be available online – I could get just far enough to figure out that the original behind Frank’s “Sentimental enemies of lack of freedom…” is apparently “Сентиментальные враги невольничества умеют только цитировать тексты и петь псалмы…” For some context here is Pisarev on Darwin and evolution in a multi-part article called “Progress in the World of Animals and Plants” (firstsecondthirdfourthfifth parts) that ran from April to September 1864.

It’s interesting to see Dostoevskii mocking Zaitsev for his skin-color prejudices, rather than, say, the nihilists reproaching Dostoevskii for biases rooted in anti-Semitism or Russian nationalism. (What moral blind spots and misinterpretations of science will the twenty-third century see in us?)

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