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Nikolai Chernyshevsky: Why Critics Call the Rebel Writer "The Only Optimist of the 19th Century"
Nikolai Chernyshevsky: Why Critics Call the Rebel Writer "The Only Optimist of the 19th Century"
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Nikolai Chernyshevsky is the only optimist of the 19th century

On July 24, the anniversary of the writer Nikolai Chernyshevsky was celebrated - he was born exactly 190 years ago. The attitude towards his work in different epochs changed very sharply. He was sometimes put on a par with the rest of the Russian classics, then he was declared much less talented than Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Anton Chekhov and the rest of the "company". And now Chernyshevsky has been completely forgotten by everyone - in schools and universities in literature classes, as a rule, they only briefly mention him, although not so long ago the novel "What is to be done?" was a mandatory item in all training programs. Did he deserve this attitude?

An example for youth

From a literary point of view, "What is to be done?" is really a weaker thing than the works of other classics. Nikolai Chernyshevsky was primarily a publicist, not a writer, he was used to writing articles, not fiction books, and this could not but affect his style and language. So in his novel there are no special delights, metaphors and other literary devices, and his characters are too similar to each other and have almost no individual character traits.

Many of the thoughts that the author wanted to put into the novel, he explains to the reader in direct text, although in fiction this is considered too primitive - ideas must be woven into the narrative in such a way that the reader reaches them himself, with his own mind. In general, the novel What Is to Be Done? much less than other books included in the school curriculum. And nevertheless, when this novel was published, many of its readers, first of all, young ones, embraced the author's ideas with great enthusiasm and even began to build their lives according to the same principles as its main characters. They wanted to take an example from several "cardboard" characters of Chernyshevsky, and not from "complex natures" and "superfluous people", about which they read about in Turgenev, Goncharov or Nekrasov.

Chernyshevsky's wife Olga Sokratovna

The spirit of contradiction lived in him

What is the secret of such an attractiveness of characters who are far from being the most successful in artistic terms? You can try to find the answer to this question in the biography of their creator and in his character. Nikolai Chernyshevsky was clearly a rebel by nature, one of those who like to argue and protest for the sake of the process itself, for whom the subject of the dispute is not so important. He was born into a priest's family - and in protest became a materialist. He worked as a teacher in the Second Cadet Corps - and left with a scandal, not getting along with one of the leaders. He began to write articles for the St. Petersburg Vedomosti newspaper and the Otechestvennye Zapiski magazine - and soon he began to have conflicts with other writers published there.

It is worth saying that Chernyshevsky's character was, to put it mildly, difficult. And he lived in the middle of the 19th century, during the reign of Alexander II - a time of widespread distribution of various revolutionary circles. Those who liked to rebel on any occasion were, one might say, doomed to end up in one of such underground organizations, and then in the Peter and Paul Fortress - which, in the end, happened to Nikolai Gavrilovich.He found himself in one of the cells, and it was there that other traits of his character were fully manifested.

Chernyshevsky's sons Alexander and Mikhail

A workaholic's paradise

Nikolai Chernyshevsky never liked to sit around: as a child, he constantly read something new, then constantly wrote, often two or three articles at the same time. Now, in prison, he had as much free time as he wanted in order to write everything that he had planned for a long time. Many in his place would have worried about what had happened, would have complained about their evil fate - and Chernyshevsky sat down to write. He wanted to put on paper all his views on what the future and the relationship between people should be, but he understood that if he wrote the next articles, they would never be allowed into print by the censorship. And so the prisoner decided to “hide” all his “seditious” thoughts in the plot of a fiction novel, which would begin as a dramatic love story.

Alekseevsky ravelin of the Peter and Paul Fortress, where the writer was imprisoned

This is how the novel What Is to Be Done? Chernyshevsky spent 678 days in Petropavlovka and during this time wrote about 200 author's sheets of text: a draft of the novel, its final version and several dozen articles and essays on a variety of topics. The amount of work he has done is amazing - but even more surprising is the content of his novel. It would seem that a book written in a prison cell should be gloomy and end tragically, its heroes should suffer from all sorts of hardships, more than their author suffered.

But in Chernyshevsky's novel there is nothing of the kind. His characters do their job, help each other in difficult times, create families in which the spouses treat each other with respect - and all this ends, as they would say in our time, with a complete happy ending. That the author of this book had a hard time, one can only guess from some details of the narrative. According to the references repeated several times, how his main character bask in the morning in a soft bed and drinks delicious tea with cream for breakfast - the prisoner of the Peter and Paul Fortress clearly lacked these pleasant trifles …

The first edition of the novel "What is to be done?"

This is how another, the most striking feature of Chernyshevsky's personality manifested itself - his boundless optimism. Even in the most difficult situation, he continued to think and write about good things. And this optimism of the writer, transmitted to his hero, had an order of magnitude stronger effect on the readers than the talent of other classics who wrote about eternally suffering “superfluous people”.

Monument to Chernyshevsky in his hometown of Saratov

Especially for fans of Russian literature, a story about for which Leo Tolstoy was excommunicated.

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