Who Were the Petrashevtsy?

Alan Kimball
University of Oregon

The original answer to the question above
was published in a larger review essay in
Mentalities in 1988

1.Crisis of Russian social/service hierarchies
2.The very name "Petrashevtsy" given by police procedures
      (E.g., the "Dostoevsky case")
3.Revolutionary movement or fledgling "civil society"?
       (A list of leading figures)
      (Their modest economic situations)
4. Actual group endeavors
5. The relationship of ideas to actions
6. Conclusions

We need to situate the Petrashevtsy in their everyday lives. They and most other Russian social activists have been treated in historical accounts as revolutionary icons or weak and comical utopian dreamers. The story of the Petrashevtsy stretches from the critical months after the outbreak of revolutionary disorder in Western and Central Europe in February 1848, through the arrests which began in Saint Petersburg on 23 April 1849, and on into the later 19th century. We need to look at the whole experience, ranging from the quotidian realities of income and work or profession to the most abstract of philosophical speculation or esthetic sensibility. We need to span the "material culture" and the "mentalities" of what some call the first generation of the Russian raznochintsy "intelligentsia" [ID].

Imagine thirty-six year old Aleksandr Balasoglo, a chinovnik [office holder; bureaucrat] in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He has worked his way up to the seventh grade of civil service on the Table of Ranks [ID]. The seventh grade made him a court councilor [nadvornyi sovetnik], roughly equal to the military grade lieutenant colonel. But he has no property, and his income is so low that he and his family live in miserable poverty. He has tried to make a life in private enterprise as book dealer and publisher, but his projects have met resistance in official circles and have gotten nowhere. He is an active member of a debating society that meets on Friday evenings at the home of Mikhail Petrashevskii. He has come to see that there are others who know similar life situations. They discuss pressing issues of the day and some of the exciting theoretical perspectives on them provided by Charles Fourier, Saint-Simon [ID], and others. It is not unreasonable to imagine him one evening reading Fourier's Le Nouveau monde amoureux over a now cold bowl of macaroni, another in the unvarying sequence of cheap dinners over the past several weeks. His five children whine or sleep in their cramped quarters. Mrs Balasoglo is not visible in the darkness. He will soon be detained and questioned by tsarist police and narrowly escape severe punishment for his bookish projects and association with the Petrashevskii Friday nights.


A full understanding of Balasoglo would be a big step toward a more complete understanding of 19th-century political opposition in Russia. And a fuller understanding requires particular attention to the question of governmental service rank [chin] and the complex social/service hierarchies of imperial society. Changes were taking place in the Table of Ranks in 1845, narrowing access to chin [rank in the civil and military service, but also in the church and imperial court hierarchy]. Very nearly all the Petrashevtsy worked at some point for the state and had chin. The opportunity for advancement was narrowed for those who entered the system at the lower ranks. They had good every-day ordinary reasons to bestir themselves in the Petrashevsky discussion circles. Understanding the tradition of state service in the life of the Russian nobility, and of the whole social structure, is the first step toward defining and understanding the Petrashevtsy.

Balasoglo was described as raznochinets above. Despite heroic efforts towards a clearer sense of this term, serious misunderstanding still plagues accounts of modern Russian history.

{_{ The glossary in J. H. Seddon's The Petrashevtsy: A Study of the Russian Revolutionaries of 1848 (Manchester:1985) defines raznochintsy in more or less the same incorrect manner as John Paxton's Companion to Russian History (NYC:1983) and later slight revision, Encyclopedia of Russian History (Santa Barbara:1993). The excellent reference dictionaries have it right: Sergei G. Pushkarev, Dictionary of Russian Historical Terms from the Eleventh Century to 1917 (New Haven:1970); and Hans-Joachim Torke, Lexikon der Geschichte Russlands von den Anfägen bis zur Oktober-Revolution (Munich: 1985). Forrestt Miller's essay in MERSH,09:46-54 is also good. Also see Christopher Becker, "Raznochintsy: The Development of the Word and of the Concept", ASEER 18,1 (1959):63-74; and V. R. Leikina-Svirskaia, "Formirovanie raznochinskoi intelligentsii v Rossii v 40-kh godakh XIX v." ISSR 1 (1958):83-104.}_}

The most common mistake is to presume that the term raznochinets applied only to non-noble individuals. Some raznochintsy were noble by formal soslovie (class or estate) designation [ID]. Impoverished and declassé service and/or landlord dvoriantsvo (nobility) filled the ranks of the raznochintsy. As these so called elites sought a better life (as seen from the point of view of daily needs, talents or career ambitions) they tumbled (as seen from the point of view of traditional privilege) or vaulted (as seen from the point of view of their sinking noble ship) into the social catch-all category raznochintsy. Balasoglo and his projects illustrate this point.

In the history of Russian political opposition the Petrashevtsy thus represented a time of significant social transition. Such informal gatherings were earlier characteristic of gentry landlords wintering over in the capital cities. Soon these gatherings were the creation of a more permanently urbanized professional class. The Petrashevtsy are a sign of important changes in the social makeup of a fledgling Russian civil society.

{_{ The contrast of these two generations of political opposition should not be exaggerated. Most of the Decembrists, for example, while noble, were of modest means. See S. Chernov, ed., "Imushchestvennoe polozhenie dekabristov", KrA 2(15) (1926):164-213. Herzen, of course, distinguished himself in the Russian opposition by his comfortable noble income, preserved in European political exile by the intervention of the Rothschild banking house. Bakunin was an equally distinguished émigré gentry activist, but was a spendthrift and was forced to live as a freeloader who frequently went hungry.}_}

Some raznochintsy were sons or daughters of the taxed or non-free social formations, even of serfs. Declassé peasants might be said to have found ways to rise into these ranks, motivated like ruined nobles by a desire for a better life. They gravitated into this vague category from all points: nobility, meshchane [middling urbanites], pochetnye grazhdaniny [honorary citizens], certain of the foreign born (even after long residence), Cossacks, and several other vague categories. The squirming social reality which Peter I tried to bolt down with his Table of Ranks in the early 18th century [ID] required a catch-all category, and raznochintsy fit the bill. The Petrine system did not supplant the received traditions of soslovie, it just overlaid them. The system constantly flaked. Any morsel from that highly structured system could pass through an educational institution and find itself severed from its original social formation. Any morsel from the social body could in the process become a raznochinets.

The raznochintsy were simply people of no particular chin or soslovie. Thus they were a sign of decay of old and growth of new social relations. Some uniformity among them is expressed in their education and association with what we might call "the professions". Education to some level beyond literacy, usually through the secondary level, for example in a gymnasium, and frequently through the university, was a diagnostic trait.

The term raznochintsy otherwise had no formal or legal meaning, and it was employed just for that reason. By the late 19th century the term gained a certain customary legal status.

{_{ Becker, "Raznochintsy...," carefully traces the stages in the evolution of the term.}_}

Some word was needed to describe this most significant by-product of that dual process of decay and growth in the body of imperial Russian state and society. On the negative side, the complex and contradictory Russian social and civil service hierarchies were decaying. Unquestionably the most important instance of decay was that of the gentry land- and serf owning nobility. On the positive side, new social and political functions required status and legal descriptions which the Table of Ranks and the old sosloviia [plural] could not provide.

{_{ L. E. Shepelev, in Otmenennye istoriei: chiny, zvaniia i tituly v rossiisskoi imperii (LGR: 1977), describes the constant efforts in the first half of the 19th century to make adjustments in the systems of chin and soslovie. More than once, in mild desperation, high officials recommended scrapping the system altogether. New categories were cooked up. Some stuck, like pochetnyi grazhdanin, and some did not, like kommertsii sovetnik [commercial councilor]. Leikina-Svirskaia, "Formirovanie...," 84-5, describes in some detail the increasing failure of the imperial educational system to graduate each year as many new recruits for either the civilian or military service ranks as those ranks lost in retirements and other departures. Disregarding an important privilege of the wellborn, imperial universities, gymnasia, lyceums, cadet corps, and other special schools opened their doors to talented students from the more common social formations. The state, thus, was the major recruiter into the ranks of the raznochintsy. The Russian state trained its own opposition. For a discussion of this issue in a later era, see Daniel R. Brower, Training the Nihilists: Education and Radicalism in Tsarist Russia (Ithaca NY: 1975).}_}

Just out of the reach of state power "liberal" professions and employments unknown to the imagination of Peter I grew daily in importance. Chin and soslovie progressively lost meaning and contact with what actual people were actually doing. The economic and social system based on serfdom entered clearly into its final decline (serfdom was altogether abolished in 1861 [ID], but significant steps were taken in that direction among the state peasants in the 1830s [ID]). Career opportunities opened in journalism, law, medicine, teaching, the arts, and other areas beyond the static agricultural economy and autocratic governmental machinery (and of the chin and soslovie designations patterned on them). The state opened the halls of learning to talented students from nearly every sosloviia. These were the trends that swelled the ranks of the raznochintsy. Raznochintsy concentrated the energy of an expanding and unstable social system which was pulled first this way then that by exaggerated fears and hopes.


The word Petrashevtsy is a collective noun built in the Russian fashion from the family name of Mikhail Petrashevskii. The convenience of such a collective noun lulls us into thinking that it describes a coherent and organized voluntary society or political party led by Mikhail Butashevich-Petrashevskii (his full name). Even historians who have been clearly aware of the artificiality of the term push the evidence as hard as reasonably possible in the direction of coherence and organization.

{_{ The original edition of Paxton's dictionary opened its brief entry by saying that "Petrashevtsy" was a name given to a large group of people. The revised edition simply states more crudely that the Petrashevtsy were a group. The publisher may have been seeking to edit out every word possible in the revised edition, but there is a serious loss of accuracy from the first to the revised edition.}_}

Making a solid organization out of a looser association distorts the image of the Petrashevtsy and prevents our achieving a fuller understanding of their historical importance. The nature of the evidence--if not the content--conspires with those who accept this distorted picture. We owe the term "Petrashevtsy" to police action taken in the spring of 1849 against more than 200 individuals and their several enterprises--salons, kruzhoks [discussion circles], clubs, and publishing ventures. Scores of people whom we might call "the Petrashevtsy organization" did not form a group on their own. They were first drawn together in carefully gathered police and judicial commission dossiers. A state system, which sought to crush civic activism and which was inclined to identify any form of social independence with criminal conspiracy, created these dossiers and thus might be said to have created the Petrashevtsy as a distinct group.

There are other sorts of evidence, but they are askew in the direction of leaving no actionable traces at all. The private papers of the "Petrashevtsy" and the formally censored publications of the era yield little information about the public lives even of intellectuals who entertained no political intent at all. At every political crisis the atmosphere of Saint Petersburg smelled of burning papers. Secretiveness and dread pervaded the minuscule Russian obshchestvo [civil society] and shaped Russian social and intellectual life in the time of Nicholas I. Serious thought was itself a sort of conspiracy. Even silence and fear conspire with those who would give a conspiratorial revolutionary spin to the story of the Petrashevtsy. All's quiet on the cultural front, too quiet in fact, says the suspicious sleuth.

Furthermore, on the Russian imperial scales of justice, sharing of thought or opinion, like reading Belinskii's harsh letter to Gogol aloud in a private home, was nearly equal in gravity to forming an underground organization dedicated to the violent overthrow of the autocratic system. Under these conditions any cluster of intellectual or social initiatives might be thought a political conspiracy.

The police sensed revolution in every expression of civic vitality, the public feared that any act might be thought criminal, and the state made few distinctions among very different levels of conduct, ranging from freethinking to insurrectionary scheming. We, for our part, risk forming habits of historical thought and cliché terminology under these conditions. We could become as comfortable as tsar Nicholas when we describe this whole scene as "a revolutionary movement". It is remarkable that one or two punctilious investigators on the special commission formed to process the case in 1849 surveyed the prisoners corralled in the police dragnet and concluded that the Petrashevtsy were not a political conspiracy. They predictably failed however to influence their more vengeful colleagues who imposed very harsh sentences on the supposedly leading figures. Oddly many historians since then have sided with the harshest among the tsarist police and apparatchiki in their quick readiness to call the Petrashevtsy a revolutionary conspiracy.

They may be conspirators or revolutionists in some casual and therefore useless sense of the words, but the Petrashevtsy did not form up into one group on their own. And their meetings, in a variety of kruzhoks did not altogether form a purposeful conspiracy. The Petrashevtsy were first gathered together as one nameable group by Nicholas I's infamous personal police agency, the Third Section, and by special administrative/judicial commissions which were set up to process them. The term, in other words, was first a label on a dossier of investigatory materials relating to a vast criminal case, the biggest thing like that since the Decembrist revolt in 1825. In noting this fact, we might also observe that "Decembrists" is a group noun derived from the purely accidental fact that their failed conspiracy occurred in the month of December. Unpacking the particulars from this artificial container-word "Decembrists" is not our job right now. We can say at least that the term "Decembrists", however accidental, at least attaches itself to a failed revolutionary act, an open attack on tsarist authority. The term "Petrashevtsy" attaches itself to nothing that distinct.

The Petrashevtsy, at most, describes a loose group of people who, over a certain period of time, met and talked and shared questionable published and manuscript texts. Some of them felt that more decisive action was called for, but their sense of action centered on secret printing presses, not revolutionary coup d'etat. Furthermore, none of the presses were ever put into operation. If they thought about mass uprising it was for the most part with combined fascination and dread.

The state took testimony on as much of this as it could and handed down its judgments in a vacuum of social restraint or governmental checks and balances, such as no other European people knew in the modern era.

{_{ The two older English-language studies of the Petrashevtsy show some interest in the procedural side of this historical question: Manfred Alexander, Der Petrasevskij-prozess: Eine "Verschwörung der Ideen" und ihre Verfolgung im Russland von Nikolaus I (Wiesbaden: Quellen und Studien zur Geschichte des östlichen Europa, vol. 12, 1979); and John L. Evans, The Petrasevskij Circle, 1845-1849 (The Hague: 1974).}_}

Historians frequently use the word trial (in the singular) to describe the several bureaucratic actions taken against the various debaters rounded up by the police. That is a common but questionable translation of two Russian words. One of these was borrowed from the Latin tradition and packed clear descriptive power, protsess. The other was the purely bureaucratic Russian term, delo (case; collection of official papers, particularly, administrative/judicial papers).

"Petrashevtsy trial" means "the Case of the Petrashevtsy", appropriately suggesting police or detective work, as in a Sherlock Holmes adventure. In Russia, however, the equivalents of Holmes and Scotland Yard not only investigated possible crimes and enforced the laws, they also made the laws and exclusively passed judgment on them. The action here is not so much on the part of the Petrashevtsy as it is on the part of the Russian autocratic state.

English readers may gain a much closer feeling for this sometimes gentle, sometimes astonishingly harsh, patriarchal, autocratic, administrative process in Liza Knapp's presentation of key documents relating to the case of the most famous Petrashevets: Dostoevsky as Reformer: The Petrashevsky Case (Ann Arbor MI: 1987). Here (91) we can read the full text of the document which announced the verdict and sentence in the Dostoevskii case:

The Military Court finds the defendant Dostoevskii guilty of, upon receiving in March of this year from Moscow, from the nobleman Pleshcheev (a defendant), a copy of the criminal letter by Belinskii, having read this letter at meetings: first, at the home of the defendant Durov and then at the home of the defendant Petrashevskii, eventually giving it to the defendant Mombelli to be copied. Dostoevskii was at the home of the defendant Speshnev when the subversive work by the lieutenant Grigor'ev entitled "Soldiers' Conversation" was read. Hence the Military Court has sentenced him, the retired engineer-lieutenant Dostoevskii, for the failure to report the dissemination of the litterateur Belinskii's letter that constitutes criminal offense against church and government and of the pernicious work of the lieutenant Grigor'ev--to be deprived, on the basis of the Code of Military Decrees, Pt. V, Bk. 1, art. 142, 144, 169, 170, 172, 174, 176, 177 and 178, of ranks, of all rights concomitant to his social estate and to be subjected to the death penalty by shooting.


"Death penalty by shooting"! It is wrong in one sense to use the term "trial" to describe what happened to those who were investigated, detained ("arrested"), and/or found guilty and punished. The word "trial" might for some imply courts, a system of precedence law, perhaps adversarial proceedings in the presence of juries and the public [historically this has been one of the most important definitions of glasnost']. Nothing like that happened in Russia in 1849. Dostoevskii was found guilty and sentenced to death by a court-martial, as were other Petrashevtsy whose chin (service category) was or had been military. Others were treated in simple administrative processes.

Tsar Nicholas and many since him--because they have all looked for the wrong thing--failed to perceive the less purposeful or conspiratorial but still very significant implication of the Petrashevtsy. Their threat was not directly organized, rebellious or conspiratorial. It was civil libertarian and activist-democratic. They were not a disciplined party; they were a fledgling civil society. The problem of the Petrashevtsy as revolutionary conspiracy is something like the curious incident of the dog in the nighttime. "The dog did nothing in the nighttime", says Watson. That was the curious incident, says Holmes.

The title of the main published source on the Petrashevtsy reminds us of the administrative/juridical quality of imperial law: Delo petrashevtsev (Moscow: 3 vols., 1937-1951). The imperial state, composed of the administrative, judicial, executive, military, educational and ecclesiastic bureaucracies--altogether the chinovnichestvo--"processed" this case from the first suspicions, through initial investigations, surveillance, employment of spies, preliminary warnings, tightened censorship of published work, and threats of dismissal from government posts. Most of the Petrashevtsy were or had been employed in the civil service or military. The state assumed a nearly all-encompassing position over their lives. Then arrests, imprisonment, interrogations, verdicts, sentences, punishments, and, years later, pardons. Events followed in rhythms set by the state alone.

Nearly everything we know about the literature and the philosophy and the daily life of these people comes from police dossiers.

{_{ Seddon, for example, cites Delo Petrashevtsev in nearly half her footnotes. In Seddon's central chapters on the particular Russian applications of the Petrashevtsy's "Western" ideas and on their revolutionary conspiracies, two-thirds of the notes are to this source.}_}

Seddon's study rescued Nikolai Mordvinov from the shadows of contemporary police neglect. Seddon looks closely at the Russian translation of Lamennais' Paroles d'un croyant. Most agree that this translation is one of the three most "radical" of the works by the Petrashevtsy. The other works are Filippov's "Ten Commandments" and Grigor'ev's "Soldier's Tale", the hearing of which was such an important part of Dostoevskii's death sentence. These works, in conjunction with the earlier publication of the Pocket Dictionary of Foreign Words, are a major component of the Petrashevtsy case.

{_{ Grigor'ev's essay, Soldatskaia beseda, is translated "Soldier's Conversation" in Knapp. Grigor'ev's and Filippov's essays are reprinted in Mikhail V. Petrashevskii, et al., Filosofskie i obshchestvenno-politicheskie proizvedeniia petrashevtsev (MVA: 1953) [hereafter: FOP].}_}


With the word Petrashevtsy we draw into taxonomic association a large number of widely divergent people whose main and clearest shared experience was that in 1849 the Imperial Russian state investigated them and, in a small number of cases, punished them harshly and cruelly for civil actions the state took to be political crimes. Yet most of the literature on the Petrashevtsy searches for further shared experiences, other ways of bringing them together as an historically functioning unity. Seddon is not content to accept the unconvincing "crimes" (reading and listening) on the basis of which the state prosecuted the Petrashevtsy. Seddon thinks the group was larger, more well organized, and guilty of crimes far more substantial than reading Belinskii and listening to Grigor'ev.

On each of these three points—size, organizational coherence and seriousness of "crimes"--Seddon's account marshals the evidence in such a way that readers can draw their own conclusions. Yet, the strong desire to make more of the Petrashevtsy might explain Seddon's reading the important social critic Bervi-Flerovskii's memoirs out of context in a very noteworthy passage. Seddon seeks evidence of the political intentions and organizational connections between the Saint Petersburg metropolis and the Kazan periphery, where Bervi studied in these years. Bervi in fact wrote that influential figures who would four years later be drawn into the Petrashetsy case visited Kazan University. Their purpose was to encourage the local professors and students, "to pursue learning on our own". Bervi emphasized the moral and intellectual influence of Petrashevskii. Under Petrashevskii's personal influence savants organized libraries, book exchanges of suppressed publications and of other books of serious content in a university where the humanities and social sciences, and the library that might have supported them, were inadequate to the needs of aspiring young professionals. Petrashevskii further encouraged impoverished students to pool limited resources in cooperative apartments and related enterprises.

{_{ Vasilii V. Bervi [N. Flerovskii], "Vospominaniia", GoM 3,3 (March 1915):137-8. Also see Vasilii I. Semevskii,"Idei, ob"ediniavshiia uchastnikov kruzhka Petrashevskogo i drugikh", in V. Pokrovskii, ed., Aleksei Nikolaevich Pleshcheev: ego zhizn' i sochineniia; sbornik istoriko-literaturnykh statei (MVA:1911):12-13.}_} The evidence suggests that Petrashevskii emphasized intellectual self-development and cooperation in Kazan. It is not possible to argue as Seddon does that this Kazan kruzhok later became a "major centre of student unrest". {_{ See Alan Kimball, "Student Interests and Student Politics: Kazan University before the Crisis of 1862", Acta Slavica Iaponica (Sapporo) 6 (1988):1-15 (the Institut nauchnoi informatsii po obshchestvennym naukam of the Soviet Academy of Sciences published a Russian-language conspectus of this essay in Referativnyi zhurnal: obshchestvennye nauki za rubezhom, Series 5: "Istoriia", index 89.05.010(Moscow:1989):46-49.}_}

Seddon quotes one of the members of the Speshnev kruzhok (the same kruzhok where Dostoevskii heard the Grigor'ev piece). Dmitrii Akhsharumov wrote that "the state should perish, along with its bureaucracy and tsars, its armies, its capital cities, its laws and temples. In its place, small communities should be set up ... which would constitute wholes and be ... independent from each other and represent, so to speak, microcosms of humanity".

{_{ Seddon:143, erroneously citing DeP 3:100-1 (actually p. 99).}_}

But these lines are taken out of context. Their effect is to make Akhsharumov almost an anarchist. These words give no hint of his cautious parliamentary and civil libertarian political ideas. In the words quoted, Akhsharumov was characterizing views which he could not fully accept. He continued on his own behalf:

One must alter the form of government, but with care so as not to cause too much disorder which would make the old ways attractive again to the narod [people]. I think that if the narod is unable suddenly to free itself of its old ways, in which it has faith and which have put it in a stupor for so many ages, then we must continue to designate a tsar, but we must keep him well in hand. We must have a constitution which would grant freedom of the press and open courts, which would create a special ministry for the overview of new projects designed to make a better life for society [uluchshenii obshchestvennoi zhizni] and to prevent any sort of limitations, any sort of interference in the affairs of private individuals, in whatever numbers they should gather together.

This political stance is very different than that implied in Seddon's quote. It could, of course, still be called radical in many areas of the world today, but Akhsharumov's exposition was moderate and patient with respect to the needs of the narod, while it was sharp and precise with respect to the needs and interests of people like himself in educated civil society. State control of cultural and intellectual life was the central target of his constitutional ideology. Petrashevtsy as civil libertarians has never seemed sufficient to the needs of our historical literature on them.


The literature on the Petrashevtsy seeks to magnify the range of activities and their revolutionary potential, but it also seeks to exaggerate their numbers. Seddon says that between five and eight hundred "known sympathizers" supported the Petrashevtsy, but she does not strive to extend the definition that far. Nor is she ready to say that the more than 200 arrested represent active members. Many of these were quickly released. Seddon does not even identify by name the 122 who were "seriously investigated" by the special Commission of Inquiry. The uncertainty about numbers reflects the insubstantial nature of the proper noun Petrashevtsy.

{_{ Seddon:14, 18, 23. Alexander, Pet-prozess...:212-18, analyses two clusters, the core twenty-one and an expanded cluster of twenty nine. Evans, Petrashevtsy, speaks of twenty five Petrashevtsy. As we work to find a proper measure of the Petrashevtsy, it is useful to remember the comparatively isolated and limited nature of the Russian 1848. Peter H. Amann, in Revolution and Mass Democracy: The Paris Club Movement in 1848 (Princeton NJ:1975), was able to speak of hundreds of thousands of participants. How ever we count the Petrashevtsy, they were a meager horde in comparison with the West European participants in 1848.}_}

For its own part, the tsarist state singled out twenty one individuals for formal punishment. In nine instances it meted out particularly harsh judgments. The following is a table of those twenty-one who are usually taken to be the Petrashevtsy. In the table, asterisks are attached to the nine leading culprits, as defined by the state. I have added to this table the names of three additional activists who escaped the fate of the twenty-one, but whose involvement in the events of 1848-1849 suggests that their escape was a matter of luck or insider protection. I have italicized their names. The table also includes some basic information about these twenty four figures. This is fully explained in the table's legend and glossary. Subsequent reference will be to "Table."



Twenty four Leading Figures among the Petrashevtsy


1 = Name
2 = Year of birth
3 = Social class (Soslovie)
4 = Profession
5 = Service rank (civilian or military; when known)
6 = Economic circumstances (when known)
7 = Nine leading culprits, according to the state
8 = Five most revolutionary, according to Seddon (36)
9 = Membership in Speshnev's kruzhok

NB! Education is discussed in the text below

1                          2      3      4            5    6    7   8  9

Akhsharumov, Dmitrii D 1823 dvr srv-MID 9
Balasoglo, Aleksandr P 1813 dvr srv-MID 7 P
Debu, Ippolit M 1824 dvr srv-MID 10
Debu, Konstantin M 1810 dvr srv-MID 6
Dostoevskii, Fedor M 1820 dvr jrn/pst ? * S
Durov, Sergei F 1816 dvr srv/pst 8 P *
Evropeus, Aleksandr I 1827 dvr gnt (student) 9?
Filippov, Pavel N 1825 dvr (student) no S
Golovinskii, Vasilii A 1829 dvr srv 9 + S
Grigor'ev, Nikolai P 1822 dvr srv (mlt) 10 * + S
Jastrzebski, Jan-F 1814 dvr tgt 9 W *
Kashkin, Nikolai S 1829 dvr gnt/srv-MID 9 W
Khanykov, Aleksandr V 1825 dvr (student) no
L'vov, Fedor N 1823 dvr srv(mlt)/tgt 9 *
Miliukov, Aleksandr P 1817 mex tgt/pst no
Mombelli, Nikolai A 1823 dvr srv(mlt) 12 P * + S
Mordvinov, Nikolai A 1827 dvr srv ? + S
Pal'm, Aleksandr I 1822 dvr srv/pst 10 P
Petrashevskii, Mikhail V 1821 dvr srv-MID/gnt ? W *
Pleshcheev, Aleksei N 1825 dvr gnt/srv/pst no P/W S
Shaposhnikov, Petr G 1821 mex trd no
Speshnev, Nikolai A 1821 dvr gnt no W * + S
Timkovskii, Konstantin I 1814 dvr srv-MID 9 P
Toll', Feliks G [Tol'] 1823 rzn tgt no *

SOURCE: Deiateli revoliutsionnogo dvizheniia v Rossii, volume 1 (MVA: 1928) and Delo petrashevtsev, 3 volumes (MVA-LGR: 1937, 1941, 1951).

dvr = Aristocrat pst = Writer
gnt = Gentryman        rzn = Raznochinets
jrn = Journalist srv = State service
mex = Meshchanin tgt = Teacher
MID = Foreign Ministry trd = Business; trade
mlt = Military        W = Wealthy
P = Poor

We might take the twenty four people listed in the Table as a benchmark. They range in age from Golovinskii and Kashkin, who were twenty in 1849, to Konstantin Debu who was thirty-nine. The average age of the whole Table is twenty-eight.

The formal shared soslovie of all but three of the twenty-four was the good old-fashioned aristocracy. Nearly all were civilian or military servitors to the imperial state and only two or three derived notable income from landed estates. The average service rank was the ninth, a far from impressive or well paid status--titular councilor (civilian), captain (army), lieutenant (navy). The ninth rank was granted to young graduates of the School of Jurisprudence at the beginning of their careers.

Another uniformity in the collective biography of the Petrashevtsy was education. Four on our Table were students at the prestigious Alexander Lyceum (including, as Evans suggested, Speshnev). An equal number on the Table were graduates of the exclusive First Saint-Petersburg Gymnasium. Five graduated from various military schools (for example Balasoglo graduated from a marine cadet corps). Two studied in engineering institutes. The powerful School of Jurisprudence [Uchilishche pravovedeniia] graduated one, as did the Central Pedagogical Institute and Khar'kov University. Unquestionably the greatest uniformity in the educational experience of those on the Table was study at Saint Petersburg University where eleven enrolled.

{_{ The role of education is developed most fully by Leikina-Svirskaia, "Formirovanie":83-104, especially 84-94, where she describes the various institutions of higher and specialized learning in relationship to the growing extent and sophistication of state needs but also to the needs of expanding free or liberal professions in civil society.}_}

A quick look at the question of wealth or personal budgets sharpens the picture of the Petrashevtsy as a "social" cohort. Nine of the twenty-four stand out. Five of these were poor, two were wealthy, and two eventually came into comfortable inheritances (see Table above). About the others one might say they lived off meager incomes which ill fit their soslovie. The Debu brothers and Mordvinov are examples of a standard Russian type of the 19th century, service nobility, either heritable or personal, whose families had lost ties with the land and who depended upon civil service income. Ippolit Debu received an annual income of 1200 assignat rubles. Pal'm was of that type too and clearly suffered severe economic hardship, so that for him the distinction of aristocracy was little more than a bitter taunt.

{_{Calculations published in Moskovskie vedomosti 25 (20 January 1859): 191-2, suggest that a bare subsistence budget for a provincial teacher at that time was 405 silver rubles per year. The silver ruble in the 1860s was worth approximately 3.5 times the value of the assignat ruble in Debu's time, so Debu's salary equaled about 343 silver rubles.}_}

Without knowing precisely the differences in cost of living, etc., it is still possible to see that Debu's economic situation was bleak. His income was close to the subsistence level. Sergei Durov was better off. His roughly equal annual income was supplemented by an annual inheritance income of 1500 assignat rubles.

Debu, Durov, and other Petrashevtsy derived significant additional income from their literary efforts. They might be paid as much as 40 silver rubles for a long article in one of the fat journals. Literature was a fulfilling and also economically promising career to these figures. The honorarium for one article could equal roughly one month's civil service income. Censorship was more than an abstract moral issue with such folk. It was a matter of daily bread.

{_{ See K. I. Chukovskii, "Literatura i den'gi," SoS v shesti tomakh 5 (MVA: 1967):337-375.}_}

Other situations combined poverty with pretension or high expectation. Mombelli, in order to buy proper clothes, had to go without meals. He concealed his fast from his own servant. The life to which he and his soslovie had grown accustomed was rotting away. For months on end, as we have seen, Balasoglo, his wife and five children lived on macaroni. Durov combined state service with a professional writing career. He badly needed the money, but said that the "fate of the poor chinovnik is more deserving of pity than the fate of a serf". That is an exaggeration but reveals a portentous recognition of brotherhood with the common folk. The sense of common interest that bound many of these struggling professionals to the narod seems less far fetched when we come to understand the actual daily life circumstances of the Petrashevtsy.

{_{ Information on the financial status of the Petrashevtsy may be found in the several "otvety na voprosnykh punktakh" throughout DeP. Seddon discusses this point:24-7. The exaggerated comparison of chinovnik with serf is repeated in a letter of complaint from civil servants to Alexander Herzen's émigré journal Kolokol in 1862. See the translation in Gregory L. Freeze, ed., From Supplication to Revolution: A Documentary Social History of Imperial Russia (Oxford ENG: 1988):119-22.}_}


The meanings of the two terms raznochintsy and Petrashevtsy become clearer together, as does their meaning in Russian political history. After careful weeding out of doubtful networks, it becomes clear that in late 1848-early 1849 three actual distinct kruzhoks functioned among the figures on the Table. At the center of events only three groups had something like a solid core of membership, overlapping agenda, and regular meetings: the Petrashevskii, Kashkin, and Durov kruzhoks.

These groups have an important prehistory. Before the end of 1845 Aleksandr Balasoglo planned a literary society, the goal of which was to make it easier for writers to get their work before the public. The fundamental inspiration here was not Fourier, or any ideology, but the straitened economic circumstances of a new breed of writers and the hard realities of state censorship and control of intellectual and cultural life.

The organizational concept was similar to that of joint stock companies or the more nearly native organization, the artel' (Russian craftsman's traditional cooperative workshop). Members would be "capitalists," i. e., the writers and scholars (uchenye, savants) would pool their resources, collect funds into a general treasury, establish a bookstore, sell publications of members at prices set by the authors, and build a library with ten contributed copies of each publication. Most ambitiously, the society sought to establish a printing press which would be run on a communal basis by members.

{_{ "Proekt uchrezhdeniia knizhnogo sklada s bibliotekoi i tipografiei," Delo petrashevtsev 2:16-48 [hereafter: DeP].}_}

In 1846, as his first project faded, Balasoglo set about to found a journal, Listok isskustv [Arts Flyer]. His idea was to publish an inexpensive but high-quality serial dealing with all aspects of art, painting, sculpture, architecture, music, literature, theatre, etc., so as to make culture more easily accessible to the public. At the same time, Balasoglo hoped to create a certain financial and editorial independence for writers. Pal'm, Durov and others close to the Petrashevtsy supported the project, but it ran afoul of the censors and came to nothing.

{_{ Seddon:178-9.}_}

The focus of these organizations, and of their creator, was closely fixed on the daily needs of the emerging raznochintsy intellectuals. The same can be said of the ideology which grew along with these endeavors.

Nikolai Mombelli, for his part, took steps to create organizational support for writers and savants. In 1846 a kruzhok began to meet in his quarters at the barracks of the Light Guards of the Moscow regiment. The kruzhok met twenty three times and was attended by as many as forty five visitors.

{_{ Seddon:34.}_}

Others created communal libraries, supper clubs, and coop housing arrangements. Bervi mentions an organization which the student Filippov attempted, under the influence of Petrashevskii, the Society for the Eradication of Vulgar Manners among Students.

{_{ Bervi:137.}_}

As humorous as that last society sounds, its hopeless effort still might be said to have combined with other efforts at self-rule, self-organization, self-teaching, or self-reliance to help define the special qualities and talents of the nascent civil society.

Balasoglo's projects got only a step or two beyond the drawing board. The state intervened to bring and end to Mombelli's kruzhok. But almost for the first time in the Russian experience these projects pulled together the professional raznochintsy writer/savants and their audience. Definitions of raznochintsy, "intelligentsia" and Petrashevtsy come to life in the actions of these groups rather than in their reading lists. This powerful fact should encourage us yet further in the thought that the Petrashevtsy must be situated in their everyday life more than in the realm of "Western ideas" or the scheme of a later unfolding of world socialist ideology in revolutionary Russia.

At the center of the action among those whom we call Petrashevtsy was the question of the relationship of creative intellectuals with the state in one direction and with the population at large in the other. The Petrashevtsy, whatever else they may have been, were an important and early episode in the emergence of culture, in all of its professional and business ramifications, from the realm of aristocratic amateurism. Censorship of writers, presses, bookstores and libraries, therefore, was for them not merely a question of morality or philosophy. It was not merely an internecine feud among gentry cousins working in the big city during the ball season. It was first and foremost a question of livelihood.

Other organizational initiatives of the Petrashevtsy were, in the context of Nicholas I's time, more directly threatening. Petrashevskii is said to have tried to set up a phalanstery in a forest on his estate, combining Fourier with Russian rural tradition. Similarly, Nikolai Kashkin sought to organize a "model farm" on his father's estate in Kaluga.

In the exciting months after the February uprisings in European capitals, in October 1848, Konstantin Timkovskii made a bold proposal to a Friday-night assembly of Petrashevtsy. He suggested uniting all the kruzhoks, creating a particular inner circle [krug] to settle disputes and in general to coordinate actions. Timkovskii apparently thought the state might be persuaded to finance this ambitious project, which in many regards was reminiscent of the old Decembrist organization, Soiuz blagodenstviia [Union of Welfare]. Most in attendance objected to such a bold initiative, and Timkovskii was forced to leave the Petrashevskii kruzhok.

{_{ Semevskii, "Idei":11. On the Soiuz blagodenstviia, see M. V. Nechkina, Dvizhenie dekabristov 1 (MVA: 1955):185-270. A translation of documents relating to that society will be found in Marc Raeff, ed., The Decembrist Movement (Englewood Cliffs NJ: Russian Civilization Series, edited by Michael Cherniavsky and Ivo J. Lederer, 1966):69-99; and an English narrative account in Anatole Mazour, The First Russian Revolution, 1825: The Decembrist Movement; Its Origins, Development, and Significance (Stanford: 1961 [Reissue of Berkeley CA: 1937]):72-85.}_}

In that same month Mombelli and Fedor L'vov organized a "Brotherhood of Mutual Aid". Its purpose was to provide an institutional setting within which these aspiring professionals might organize themselves. Mombelli said it was a mutual aid association in which progressive young men, who had no relatives, no protectors to help them, could unite and promote mutual elevation in society. The clear reference here was to the absence among less privileged intellectuals of the support structures familiar to an older aristocratic elite. Perhaps, said Mombelli, the association might serve as a launching pad for more wide ranging reforms and changes in society at large. The group thought that it might "play an important role in the future, if a political revolution occurred in Russia".

{_{ Seddon:215.}_}

Thus the Petrashevtsy struck a political chord that would be heard many times later, particularly in the troubled year after serf emancipation, 1861-62.

As the revolutionary year 1848 wound down and the new year dawned, thoughts clearly turned toward more decisive acts, or at least to ways of dealing with expected decisive and troubled times ahead. Under cover of the larger Durov/Pal'm kruzhok a smaller subgroup led by Speshnev decided to establish a secret printing press. The members of Speshnev's kruzhok are indicated on the Table above. Among the controversial texts which some of them intended to recommend for publication were compositions which were almost like manifestos, encouraging revolutionary attitudes toward the state and serfowners, and condoning, perhaps encouraging, rebellious action against them.

The Speshnev kruzhok has a place in the history of Russian secret organizations, a special history that stretches back through the Decembrist era, at least into the time of Catherine the Great. But the police intervened in April, 1849, without fully knowing into what, and without discovering the parts of the printing press that the small group was planning soon to put into operation. Such solid evidence, the cynic might say, would in any event have been of only marginal additional importance in a judicial system that imposed the death penalty for reading and listening. But this sort of solid evidence fully understood should be of great importance to the historian. It is still not clear whether the Speshnev endeavor should rightly be called anything as formal as a secret society or underground organization. I am drawn to Evans' judgment on this matter. Looking at the Investigating Commission which took considerable testimony on the case, he observes that even they concluded that Speshnev, who was the most obvious suspect in the hunt for secret societies, "was nothing more than a whimsical, posturing playboy acting out a cloak-and-dagger role among his former Lyceum classmates".

{_{ Evans, Petrashevtsy:92.}_}


Distinct groupings and precise individual acts have always played a secondary role in the judgments about the Petrashevtsy. Our histories of Russian social movements span the quotidian and ecstatic extremes in the lives of these people, from the macaroni to le nouveau monde amoureux, and in the end emphasize the ecstatic and forget the macaroni. They have concerned themselves more with the esprit de corps than with actual corps.

{_{ The central chapters of the Seddon study (chs. 3-7, pp. 46-194) are devoted largely to the Petrashevtsy esprit.}_}

This despite the fact that actual corps shaped the esprit. Tangible voluntary associations were the source of an intangible group ethos, collective self-consciousness, or shared perspective on life that is often confused with the associations themselves. Uniformities in outlook can be confused with organizational coherence or unity. Therefore the tendency to presume that Russian ideas are borrowed from the "West" makes not only the intellectual life of Russians derivative, it makes their social existence also derivative. Nearly everywhere in the literature, the exploration of the Petrashevtsy mind must begin with a résumé of the leading trends in contemporary French socialism, as if French ideas were the foundation of the Petrashevtsy philosophy, their critique of modern European ("bourgeois") civilization, as well as their particular Russian solutions, and methods of organizing and spreading their ideas under particular Russian conditions.

Yet it can be argued that neither ideas nor mentalities brought the Petrashevtsy together, nor were ideas as much their diagnostic trait as were the several distinct organized efforts in which they variously participated. Isn't it more plausible to expect ideas and shared mentalities to grow out of shared real-life experience? Weren't these figures drawn to a certain body of philosophical speculation and social criticism because they recognized something in them of their own dilemma and their own hope? When they looked outward at the bound serf, they saw injustice and suffering. When they looked inward, they saw much the same thing. Both sets of injustice and suffering seemed to derive from the same general source, and they also discovered remedies in the countryside and in their daily lives.

It may be true that the Prussian aristocrat Haxthausen's Studien über die inneren Zustände, das Volksleben und insbesondere die ländlichen Einrichtungen Russlands drew Russian attention to their own peasant obshchina and mir (village communal assembly), and that the ideas of Fourier had a powerful influence on the way the Petrashevtsy saw the world and its future. But the chronology of events suggests that these and other "ideological" sources came into their world simultaneously with collective and cooperative endeavors which they themselves initiated with the goal of easing their own straitened lot.

We do best to consider how Fourier's ideas could be adapted to a social setting like that in which the Petrashevtsy found themselves. We must try more systematically to recreate some of the thrill that they must have felt when they discovered parallels between Fourier's phalanstery and their own cooperative dinners, or between Saint-Simon's savant and their own emerging identity.

The Petrashevtsy case can be said to have arisen from a setting of morally and politically unacceptable serfdom in the Russian countryside. The case can furthermore be said to have arisen from the feverish and utopian imagination of young men who read too much French philosophy and social theory. But in fact it arose largely out of the Petrashevtsy's own perceived servility. They despised their narrowed career prospects and the suffocating limits which the state placed on social, intellectual and spiritual life--their lives. Serfdom provided the most obvious generalization on their own perceived predicament. Fourier provided an additional inspired larger setting within which to shape their minds on the pressing and immediate issues they confronted each morning.


The Petrashevtsy case is as much an episode in the history of a service-shackled civil society as it is an episode in the histories of struggle against serfdom or of the spread of French socialist ideas. The Petrashevtsy, however, have yet to be treated in their own right, with serfs and theorists arrayed properly around the sides of the main action. The dark mass of the Russian peasantry and the bright lightning flash of French utopian doctrine do have a place in this story. When the Petrashevtsy expanded their vision of their own misery and their own organized efforts against misery into grandiose schemes of human destiny, the police moved in.

Soviet historiographical tradition--and most historians have been content to follow this lead--preferred that the Petrashevtsy be remembered as social revolutionists, not as political opposition. This trims from the Petrashevtsy themselves their directly political grievances, as in the example of Akhsharumov discussed above.

These people and this case--the Petrashevtsy, as a group or for that matter as individuals--were creatures of the Russian state. And like sinners in the hand of an angry God, Dostoevskii and several of the "most guilty" among them were subjected to a playful but sadistic mock execution by firing squad, halted by preordained and wholly arbitrary plan just before triggers were pulled. The state then marched them off to Siberia, some, like Petrashevskii, never to return.

The Petrashevtsy, under judicial threat of extinction, had not for their own part so much called for the "destruction" of "the existing order" as they had felt in their bones that the existing order was collapsing around them, and they perceived active ways to ride out the winds of change, perhaps to emerge victorious, transformed from petty hirelings in a ponderous and unjust bureaucratic tyranny into participants in, perhaps leaders of, a brighter and better life for their whole nation, possibly the whole world. The solutions of their problems sometimes appeared to be solutions of all mankind's problems. Fourier contributed to these moments of giddy vision. Tsar Nicholas and his commission countered with sobering reminders of cold reality.

Petrashevskii himself might be said to have been a philosophizer who dreamt of becoming a legislator. A year before his arrest he entered most actively into the limited political opportunities of his soslovie, exerting himself to use and to expand upon public life in his particular environment. He ran for election to the post of secretary of the Saint-Petersburg Provincial Assembly of Nobles, and for election to the Saint-Petersburg City Duma. He surprised everyone by campaigning openly. He sent out notes to gentry voters [zapiski k dvorianam], appealing for their support. He failed miserably, but more importantly, he convinced many by his bold electioneering that he was either a fool or a raving radical, or both.

{_{ Evans, Petrashevtsy:42.}_}

Many responded in that way to the boisterous and quite open gatherings at his house on Friday evenings, concluding somehow that these were the antics of a madman. We might conclude that these were the antics of a state servitor who decided that he might serve his nation and himself better in an openly political system. He and his associates were chinovniki who dreamt of becoming savants. On his way into exile in 1862, Mikhail Mikhailov, a pamphleteer, feminist and social activist of the younger generation, met Petrashevskii, still languishing in political banishment. Both Mikhailov and Petrashevskii were doomed to live out their few remaining months in Siberian exile. Mikhailov "uttered one of the most inaccurate and pathos-laden sentences in Russian revolutionary history: 'See you soon in parliament' ".

{_{ Richard Stites describes the scene in Modern Encyclopedia of Russian and Soviet History 22:60.}_}

The Petrashevtsy struggled in their daily lives for collective self-realization and against the state and its agents. They came increasingly to see their daily struggle in a larger social, political, even historical context. The state struck back. The state won.