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The “rational socialism” of Pisemskii’s Library for Reading

June 20, 2020

Mogilianskii’s chapter about the non-fiction Pisemskii published and (co-)wrote while editing Library for Reading from late 1860 to early 1863 gets pretty far from Pisemskii’s literary prose, and long sections of it seem like their main purpose is to rehabilitate Pisemskii’s reputation from a Soviet point of view, but if you want to know what a writer Pisemskii published had to say about Proudhon’s views on progressive taxation, read on!

Pisemskii as section editor, co-editor, and editor of Library for Reading and Art

Pisemskii joined Druzhinin’s Library for Reading in 1857, but as a subordinate felt limited in how freely he could express himself (76). He felt freer at a small journal called Art (Искусство) that he co-edited in 1860 with the composer Aleksandr Serov (1820–1871; father of the artist Valentin Serov), and in November 1860 he took over Druzhinin’s position as editor of Library for Reading (76). Library for Reading presented itself as a moderate liberal publication, but Druzhinin’s infamous article about Marko Vovchok’s stories (which provoked a sharp response from Gertsen’s The Bell) showed that Druzhinin’s program as editor was actually conservative (76).

When Pisemskii took over Library for Reading, the journal had a bad reputation; even Turgenev, who published there, put it down in private (76). People formed an unappealing idea about Pisemskii’s ideological position based on the fact that he had worked with Druzhinin (76). But Pisemskii took bold steps to remake the journal, hiring two raznochintsy from the clerical caste, E. F. Zarin and D. F. Shcheglov, becoming close to a third raznochinets who was a historian of classical antiquity, M. S. Kutorga, and bringing in his friends from Moscow University (M. N. Lopatin) or their connections (Professor N. N. Sokolov) (76–77). Pisemskii abandoned Druzhinin’s ”pure art” position (77). The political journalism section (публицистический отдел) of the journal featured articles signed “M. K.,” which were Kutorga’s initials, but the articles were written by different people working separately or together: Kutorga, Shcheglov, or Pisemskii (sometimes with Zarin) (77).

Atheism: Pisemskii’s journal’s position in the polemic between Chernyshevskii and Iurkevich

One part of Pisemskii’s ideological program for the journal was atheism, and in the June 1861 issue three long articles with an atheist point of view appeared at once (77). The first was by I. A. Piotrovskii, a revolutionary democrat who also contributed to Nekrasov and Panaev’s The Contemporary, and the second was by A. P. Piatkovskii, who would later contribute to The Contemporary (77).

Piatkovskii’s article was marked by both atheism and (philosophical) materialism, but Pisemskii’s version of materialism (as shown by his publishing Piatkovskii’s article and by a separate, later article by Pisemskii and Zarin) was different from Chernyshevskii’s version of materialism (77). Piatkovskii’s article had a passage about how it was natural for human beings at the beginning of recorded history, who did not yet have a scientific explanation for phenomena like electricity, to imagine a being much like themselves who was in control of nature, but now, in 1861, we have the ability to provide natural explanations for what once seemed to be supernatural and miraculous (77–78).

Pisemskii and Zarin’s article “On a Journal Polemic. A Misunderstanding All Round” (По поводу журнальной полемики. Повальное недоразумение) was a reaction to the famous battle in print between Chernyshevskii (science, positivism, materialism) and Iurkevich (religious idealism) (78). Broadly speaking, they sided with Chernyshevskii on substance, while critiquing Chernyshevskii’s contemptuous tone and his tendency to get too far ahead of what scientific evidence had thus far shown (78–79). The end of Pisemskii and Zarin’s article shows their materialist position: “physical science penetrates the endless labyrinths of the organic world only one step at a time; but its steps grow surer and surer, its horizon opens up wider with every day; and there is no reason to think it will not ultimately arrive at the possibility of effectively analyzing the most complex of phenomena, in which free will and individuality are involved” (79).

Library for Reading did not always take this position under Pisemskii. In January 1863, the first part of M. A. Tarakhov’s article “The Shaky Points of Contemporary Realism” (Шаткие пункты современного реаплизма) attacked Chernyshevskii and Antonovich of The Contemporary, capitulating to some of Iurkevich’s arguments (79). This was at the end of Pisemskii’s time as editor, and the continuation of Tarakhov’s article wasn’t published until Boborykin had taken over Library for Reading (79).


Sokolov is now thought to have written a multi-part anonymous article called “Darwin and His Theory of Species” (Дарвин и его теория видов, 1861) (79). Sokolov is critical of Darwin but emphasizes his strong points: “a good classification must also be a genealogy,” the understanding of instinct as “inborn habit,” etc. (80).

Pisemskii himself edited all the journal’s articles on natural history, sometimes contextualizing them with short introductory notes (80). They were always against religious and idealistic interpretations of natural phenomena, as, for example, with Boskovits’s article about Od (80).


Most of the historians who contributed to Pisemskii’s Library for Reading were democrats who supported the views of A. P. Shchapov, such as N. Ia. Aristov and S. S. Shashkov (80). The militantly democratic Aristov was very critical of S. M. Solov’ev’s magnum opus, The History of Russia from Ancient Times (История России с древнейших времен, 1851–79), and compared Solov’ev unfavorably to Shchapov (80). In “Consequences of the Decline of the Elective Element in the Peasant Commune” (Следствия падения общинного выборочного начала, 1862), Aristov called for “the free right of elections” for everyone under the guise of reviewing a particular volume (80–81).

It was impossible, given censorship, for Library for Reading to openly call for a republican form of government obtained by revolutionary means, but this was the goal that seemed to fall out from isolated remarks in various sections of the journal (81). Writing about a revolution in Greece, for example, the Library for Reading writer would adopt an enthusiastic tone; the human cost of revolution was presented as trivial; parliamentary systems were praised (81).

A good example is an article by A. Dmokhovskii that was suppressed by the censor and never published, “Our Legislature’s View of the Right to Assemblies and Meetings” (Взгляд нашего законодательства на право собраний и сходбищ, planned for 1862), which argued that the Mongol/Tatar Yoke had been an unfortunate incursion on Russian traditions of liberty, and this incursion on liberty was then continued by the Romanov dynasty, in particular through laws passed by Peter I and Catherine II that remained in effect in 1862 (81–82). These laws prohibited various kinds of meetings and civil organizations (82). Censorship of books was now widely acknowledged to be harmful; the current government had already wrecked parts of the edifice of censorship built before them, and it was now time to raze censorship to its foundation and replace it with a new “building” in the European style (82). Aristov took a similar view of the rights to free assembly and elections in Russia; the works of both were imperfect as history, but unambiguous as opinion pieces (82).

How Library for Reading reacted to the Emancipation

Library for Reading had less to say than other journals about the Emancipation of 1861, but what it did say was in line with its overall political position (82). The journal raised questions about what the “peace arbitrators” (as far as I can tell, that’s the term used in English for мировые посредники, though I’m surprised it’s that kind of мир) were doing and called for continued reforms (82). In 1862 Library for Reading noted that Katkov had taken a conservative turn after the emancipation and was now all but saying that “our people (narod) is not yet mature enough to be emancipated from the state of serfdom and from the lash,” and for Katkov the peasant “is always guilty of everything, and even those who in some dark corner might take it into their heads to protect him and his interests are guilty too”; Katkov used to insist that land should come with freedom, but now he said peasants should just work harder, and not for themselves but for someone else (82–83).

How the staff of Library for Reading wrote about other journals

Once he took over from Druzhinin, Pisemskii was quick to have Library for Reading position itself as a friend of The Contemporary (83). The journal positioned itself against Katkov’s Russian Herald and especially against the Slavophiles, as with an 1861 article by Pisemskii and Zarin attacking the Slavophile journal Day (83–84). The most anti-Katkov article came out in December 1862, but before that a version of that article proposed for October 1862 had been suppressed by the censor (84). In the version that couldn’t be published, Library for Reading took the side of not just Chernyshevskii, but also Gertsen, against Katkov, and wrote that Katkov, “taking everywhere without exception the side of the wealthy classes against the poor ones, the side of former slaveholders (помещики) against their former peasants, is thinking only of increasing the income from his journal, because it is the wealthy who subscribe to journals, not the poor; slaveholders, and not peasants” (84).


Library for Reading devoted the least attention to polemicizing with the Dostoevskii brothers’ journal Time (84). One reason may have been that Shcheglov (who wrote under the pseudonym K. Okhochekomonnyi) had come to Pisemskii’s journal from the Dostoevskiis’ in December 1861, having published articles in the May, June, and November issues of Time (84–85). Shcheglov adapted to the “rational socialist” views of Library for Reading, which included a still positive but more nuanced view of Proudhon (85). In Shcheglov’s later career he wrote about the history of socialist ideas; I. I. Zil’berfarb called Shcheglov a “compendium of misanthropic perorations” (сборник человеконенавистнических разглагольствований), but this was in Mogilianskii’s opinion unfair, as Soviet scholars have proved that actual revolutionaries used Shcheglov’s work to propagandize socialist ideas (85–86). It’s still true that Shcheglov wavered ideologically and later became a political moderate, largely because of his incorrect resolution of the national question (86). Shcheglov had once studied with Dobroliubov and didn’t get along with The Contemporary; Zarin also had written against The Contemporary before coming to Pisemskii’s journal (86). During the conflict between Library for Reading and The Contemporary, Shcheglov and Zarin were too willing to take too active a role (86).

Shcheglov criticized Proudhon for not taking progressive taxation seriously enough, and he said that there was no progressive income tax in England because “Parliament is not the representative of the people (narod), but the representative of gentlemen of the industrial class” (86–87). This kind of thing was good, but Shcheglov also sometimes got things wrong, as when in an otherwise progressive and substantive article he said that institutions (meaning the form of government) mattered less than people thought when it came to education (87). Shcheglov was more willing than Pisemskii or Zarin to find common ground with the Slavophiles on isolated questions (87). In an article critical of bourgeois Russian economists, Shcheglov said it had been “proved with mathematical precision” that there was no such thing as the harmony of interests (87). In the same piece he took issue with the idea of a natural wage, saying that the wage Western European workers took to avoid dying of hunger was not natural; what would be natural would be “that wage which gives the means for a person’s true material well-being, which does not deprive one of the possibility of education, and which one accepts from an entrepreneur after coming to an agreement an equal with an equal, and not as oppressor and oppressed, not as someone hungry and someone full, as it is well known that someone who is full cannot understand someone who is hungry” (87–88). For all his commitment to socialist ideas, Shcheglov did not know philosophy as well as others at Library for Reading and brought the level of the journal down in this respect (88).

Socialist ideas from other contributors

An 1862 article by N. N. Voskoboinikov in Library for Reading about factory workers in Russia discussed how their situation was different from that of factory workers elsewhere (Russian factory workers were peasants without sufficient land, not an urban proletariat) and spoke of unsafe working conditions and child labor; Soviet commentator B. P. Koz’min said positive things about this article in 1932, but “forgot” about it when characterizing Pisemskii’s journal in general in 1950 (88–89). A short (and nightmarish) piece accompanying Voskoboinikov’s article, “The Life of a Factory Worker” by Blakhin, was the first time a member of the working class was able to defend his own interests in print in a Russian thick journal (90).

M. N. Lopatin, father of the famous idealist philosopher L. M. Lopatin, wrote a long article spread out over three 1861 issues of Library for Reading about Western European economic ideas and socialism (90). In some ways he deviated from the journal’s and Pisemskii’s views (as when he disputed the idea that the proletariat was “a product of necessary laws of economic development”), but he got a lot right (as when he praised the French Revolution for ending feudalism and mixing the social estates) (90–91).

The “rational socialism” of Library for Reading implied a role for workers’ associations, modeled on English trade unions and cooperatives (91). There was also to be an association of associations (91).

Pisemskii’s ideas about revolution in 1861–62

Pisemskii wrote a pessimistic feuilleton in November 1861 under the pseudonym Neskazhus’ (“Mr. I-Won’t-Tell”); Boborykin also wrote under that pseudonym or Petr Neskazhus’, but this one was by Pisemskii (92). The feuilleton shows that by late 1861 Pisemskii had lost faith in the possibility of a revolution in the near term (92). Therefore people who say that events of 1862 scared Pisemskii away from revolutionary thinking are wrong (92).

Evolution of Pisemskii’s aesthetic views

Pisemskii’s ideas had changed somewhat since the 1855 article where he laid out his aesthetic views (92). While Pisemskii was involved with Library for Reading, his materialist views, influenced by French and English positivism, leaned on the findings of the exact sciences (92). He grew close to the pioneers of French naturalism (92). He wrote that a work of art should strive to precisely depict reality (92). It is as if we were seeing an outline for the later theories of Émile Zola as expressed in “The Experimental Novel” (“Le Roman expérimental,” 1880) (92). In 10 or 15 years, Pisemskii would hang a portrait of Zola in his office, and while he was still alive he would be compared to Zola in print (92–93). Pisemskii also helped train Boborykin, the writer who would so impress Tolstoi with his naturalist novel On the Road! (В путь-дорогу!, 1862) (93).

See chapter 6, “Писемский-публицист [Pisemskii the Political Journalist],” in A. P. Mogilianskii, Pisemskii: Zhizn’ i tvorchestvo (Leningrad, 1991), pp. 76–93.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. languagehat permalink
    June 20, 2020 7:57 am

    Thanks for laying all this out so accessibly for those of us who would never read such a book!

    the “peace arbitrators” (as far as I can tell, that’s the term used in English for мировые посредники, though I’m surprised it’s that kind of мир)

    Well, it was spelled мировые rather than міровые, and Wikipedia says:

    Главный комитет по крестьянскому делу предположил для разбора споров между помещиками и водворенными на их землях временно-обязанными крестьянами учредить мировых судей и уездные расправы. […] Ввиду того что предположенные крестьянские учреждения должны были иметь по преимуществу характер посреднический и административно-судебный, а вместе с тем рассматривались как учреждения временные и исключительные, комиссия, во избежание смешения понятий, название мировых судей заменила именем мировых посредников.

    So apparently the idea was that they were there to keep the peace between landowners and former serfs.

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