History of Literature

Russian literature



Aleksandr Radishchev

born Aug. 20 [Aug. 31, New Style], 1749, Moscow, Russia
died Sept. 12 [Sept. 24], 1802, St. Petersburg

writer who founded the revolutionary tradition in Russian literature and thought.

Radishchev, a nobleman, was educated in Moscow (1757–62), at the St. Petersburg Corps of Pages (1763–66), and at Leipzig, where he studied law (1766–71). His career as a civil servant brought him into contact with people from all social strata. Under the influence of the cult of sentiment developed by such writers as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, he wrote his most important work, Puteshestvie iz Peterburga v Moskvu (1790; A Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow), in which he collected, within the framework of an imaginary journey, all the examples of social injustice, wretchedness, and brutality he had seen. Though the book was an indictment of serfdom, autocracy, and censorship, Radishchev intended it for the enlightenment of Catherine the Great, who he assumed was unaware of such conditions. Its unfortunate timing (the year after the French Revolution) led to his immediate arrest and sentence to death. The sentence was commuted to 10 years’ exile in Siberia, where he remained until 1797.

Radishchev’s harsh treatment chilled liberal hopes for reform. In 1801 he was pardoned by Alexander I and employed by the government to draft legal reforms, but he committed suicide a year later. Though his work has slight claim to literary quality, his fame was great and his thought inspired later generations, especially the Decembrists, an elite group of intellectuals and noblemen who staged an abortive rebellion against autocracy in 1825.


Alexander Nikolayevich Radishchev (Russian: Алекса́ндр Никола́евич Ради́щев; 31 August [O.S. 20 August] 1749 – 24 September [O.S. 12 September] 1802) was a Russian author and social critic who was arrested and exiled under Catherine the Great. He brought the tradition of radicalism in Russian literature to prominence with the publication in 1790 of his Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow. His depiction of socio-economic conditions in Russia earned him exile to Siberia until 1797.

Radishchev was born into a minor noble family on an estate just outside of Moscow. His youth was spent with a relative in Moscow, where he was allowed to spend time at the newly established Moscow University. His family connections provided him with an opportunity to serve as a page in Catherine's court, where his exceptional service and intellectual capabilities set him apart. Because of his exceptional academic promise, Radishchev was chosen of one of a dozen young students to be sent abroad to acquire Western learning. For several years he studied at the University of Leipzig. His foreign education influenced his approach to Russian society, and upon his return he hoped to incorporate Enlightenment philosophies such as natural law and the social contract to Russian conditions. He lauded revolutionaries like George Washington and praised the early stages of the French Revolution. His most famous work - A Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow - is a critique of Russian society. He was especially critical of serfdom and the limits to personal freedom imposed by the autocracy.

Catherine the Great read the work, viewed Radishchev's calls for reform as evidence of Jacobin-style radicalism, and ordered copies of the text confiscated and destroyed. He was arrested and condemned to death. This sentence was later commuted to exile to Ilimsk in Siberia, though before his exile he underwent both physical and psychological torture.

Radishchev was freed by Catherine's successor Tsar Paul, and attempted again to push for reforms in Russia's government. Under the reign of Alexander I, Radishchev was briefly employed to help revise Russian law, a realization of his lifelong dream. Unfortunately, his tenure in this administrative body was short and unsuccessful. In 1802 a despondent Radishchev - possibly threatened with another Siberian exile - committed suicide by drinking poison.


The Journey From St. Petersburg to Moscow (in Russian: Путешествие из Петербурга в Москву), published in 1790, was the most famous work by the Russian writer Aleksandr Nikolayevich Radishchev.

The work, often described as a Russian Uncle Tom's Cabin, is a polemical study of the problems in the Russia of Catherine the Great - serfdom, the powers of the nobility, the issues in government and governance, social structure and personal freedom and liberty.

The book was immediately banned and Radishchev sentenced, first to death, then to banishment in eastern Siberia. It was not freely published in Russia until 1905.

In the book Radishchev takes an imaginary journey between Russia's two principal cities; each stop along the way reveals particular problems for the traveller through the medium of story telling.

The book itself represented a challenge to Catherine in Russia, despite the fact that Radishchev was no revolutionary - merely an observer of the ills he saw within Russian society and government at the time.

Published during the period of the French Revolution, the book borrows ideas and principles from the great philosophes of the day relating to an enlightened outlook and the concept of Natural Law.



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