Let Some Genius Write A Poem: The Radical Tendency In Reform-Era Russian Literature

Helen R. Stuhr-Rommereim, University of Pennsylvania


This dissertation examines the literary works of the first cohort of non-noble writers (raznochintsy, or “people of various ranks”) who joined the Russian radical literary sphere in the 1860s. Although raznochinets Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s utopian novel What Is to Be Done? (1863) famously inspired Vladimir Lenin, I argue that historical comprehension of Chernyshevsky and his contemporary raznochintsy has been obscured, rather than illuminated, by its legacies in twentieth-century politics. I turn attention to the broader group of raznochintsy writers, including Nikolai Pomialovsky, Nikolai Uspensky, Nikolai Blagoveshchensky, Fedor Reshetnikov, and Aleksandr Levitov, who were followers of Chernyshevsky, but whose literary project differed from his. I show how these writers developed modes of rendering themselves and others visible in literature, rather than narratives of utopia. This political intervention was, I argue, as significant as the manifestos and manifesto novels that have been the primary focus of histories of nineteenth-century Russian radicalism. In chapters focused on key genres and subjects for Russian authors in this period—autobiographically-based fiction, the representation of peasants, the marriage plot, and the urban sphere in the novel—I show how the raznochintsy writers represent “the people” of Russia as a mass of individuals, rather than as part of an abstract image of national essence, and how their work was in tension with that of their canonized contemporaries, including Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Turgenev.

Chapter 1 investigates the relationship between the raznochintsy writers’ social backgrounds and their self-fashioning as authors in short, autobiographically-based works. Chapter 2 shows how Nikolai Uspensky’s short stories about peasants from the early 1860s critique the easy, but surreptitious mediation of the hunter-landowner that appears in Turgenev’s Huntsman’s Sketches. Chapter 3 focuses on the few works by raznochintsy prose writers that articulate a positive emancipatory vision: Pomialovsky’s Molotov (1861) and Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done? Chapter 4 shows howReshetnikov’s Where Is It Better? (1868), the first Russian novel about Petersburg workers, instead questions the kinds of emancipation that can be articulated through existing literary and social forms. I conclude by considering the relationship between the work of the raznochintsy and Russian literary modernism.