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60 3 Extraordinary Men and Gloomy Monsters The conflagration that consumed not Oblomovshchina but the market quarter of St. Petersburg in the late spring of 1862 seemed confirmation that Dobroliubov’s “real day” had finally come, or so Alexander II’s government was convinced. The radical journals The Contemporary and The Russian Word were forced to suspend publication while Nikolai Chernyshevsky and his younger colleague Dmitry Pisarev were arrested (on July 7 and July 2) and incarcerated in the Peter and Paul Fortress. While Chernyshevsky was charged and convicted based on fabricated evidence, Pisarev had actually done—or rather written—something deeply incriminating, a pamphlet in response to Schedo-Ferroti’s “stupid little pamphlet.” Schedo-Ferroti was the pen name of the government agent and apologist Baron F. I. Firks, who had calumnied the exiled Herzen, and Pisarev concluded his evisceration of Schedo-Ferroti with an ill-timed call for the revolutionary overthrow of the Romanovs that contained echoes of both “The Scholasticism of the Nineteenth Century” and “Young Russia”: “What is dead and rotten must of itself fall into the grave. All we have to do is give a last push and cover with dirt their stinking corpses.”1 By contrast, the shy, awkward, and self-effacing Chernyshevsky took care to stay within bounds of the permissible, but the fires provided the Extraordinary Men and Gloomy Monsters 61 government with the perfect pretext to finally net this most wanted of literary men, on the basis of a case that had been prepared well in advance .2 However, his prison sojourn provided the tediously workaholic Chernyshevsky with respite from his journalistic responsibilities during which he could pursue his more ambitious projects, and after five months in prison, “public enemy number one” requested and received permission to write a novel, which was serialized in the reinstated Contemporary in the spring of 1863.3 If it seems highly improbable that a state criminal should be allowed to legally publish a novel from prison, what is even more improbable is the effect that this somewhat clunky, hastily written and unrevised, but undeniably original novel had. “No novel of Turgenev and no writings of Tolstoy or any other writer ever had such a wide and deep influence upon Russian society as this novel had,” avowed the renowned anarchist Prince Peter Kropotkin.4 On the surface, there was nothing political about What Is to Be Done?, yet every moment of the novel challenged or subverted accepted socio-political, moral, and aesthetic norms. What Is to Be Done? envisions the transformation of life in all its minutiae from the bottom up, from the cellar to the rooftops. This thorough renovation would seem to preclude the necessity for violent revolution since happiness can be achieved simply by rationally remaking oneself to achieve optimal well-being. Nonetheless, a revolutionary conspirator did slip in and slip by the censorship, “the extraordinary man,” Rakhmetov. Rakhmetov is not one of the novel’s central protagonists: he is mentioned fleetingly in the chapters prior to the one devoted to him before disappearing from the novel entirely. For Chernyshevsky’s intended readership , the matter was crystal clear: Rakhmetov was an “extraordinary man,” as the title of the chapter devoted to him signals, and though it could be stated only obliquely—a revolutionary. “People like him are in their sphere and in their place only where and when they can be historic figures. . . . It is difficult enough to explain how they work and what comes of their efforts, because they started work only recently, no more than fifty or seventy years ago.”5 Simple subtraction allows the reader to date the appearance of people like Rakhmetov as coterminous with revolutionary events in France, in the 1770s–1790s. Thus with Pisarev’s laudatory review of What Is to Be Done?, entitled “The New Type,” Rakhmetov received the official, if necessarily oblique, nihilist stamp of approval as the prototypical revolutionary. It stands to reason that any literary history of terrorism would take its cue from the countless histories of the revolutionary movement that 62 Part One: Enigmas of A-synchrony have seen Rakhmetov in precisely this light, as the literary prototype of the real revolutionary, and reflexively begin here, with Chernyshevsky, What Is to Be Done?, and Rakhmetov. In fact, Rakhmetov occupies an extremely important position in the evolutionary chain. The challenge comes in reading all of Rakhmetov’s parts, instead of fixating on a single aspect, as Chernyshevsky clearly anticipated that his ironically named “sapient...


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