Alexander Radishchev

From New World Encyclopedia

Alexander Radishchev
Radishchev color.jpg
Born August 31 1749(1749-08-31)
Moscow, Russian Empire
Died September 24 1802 (aged 53)
Saint Petersburg, Russian Empire
Occupation Writer

Alexander Nikolayevich Radishchev (Russian: Алекса́ндр Никола́евич Ради́щев; August 31 [O.S. August 20] 1749 – September 24 [O.S. September 12] 1802) was a Russian author and social critic who was arrested and exiled under Catherine the Great. He was among the first young intellectuals sent by Catherine to study in the West. Upon his return, Radishchev believed that he would help to implement the liberal reforms that Catherine had supported, but he found himself instead working as a civil servant. Frustrated with the lack of change, he took up his pen. His 1790 novel Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow helped to inspire later writers who would develop the tradition of radicalism in Russian literature.

Radishchev's importance was not his literary skill. Influenced by The Enlightenment ideas he encountered in the West, he brought Enlightenment ideas back to Russia. Peter the Great built St. Petersburg as his "window to the West." In his own way, Radishchev's work would also have a great impact on Westernization in Russia. That impact was not immediately felt. His depiction of socioeconomic conditions in Russia resulted in his arrest by Catherine, who had him sentenced to death. She later commuted the sentence to exile in Siberia. He would not return until 1797 after Catherine died. Still, over time more liberal ideas began to filter into Russian thought and society. A generation later, the Decembrists, a group of young officers, attempted a revolt against the installation of the reactionary Nicholas I as Tsar. Radishchev's significance was that he opened the door that Russian liberals and radicals would later enter. However, Radishchev did not share their materialist perspective. In exile he began one of the first among Russian philosophical treatises, On Man, His Mortality and Immortality. Published posthumously in 1809, it rejected the materialist denial of the soul.

Early Life

Radishchev was born on an estate just outside Moscow, into a minor noble family of Tatar descent, tracing its roots back to defeated princes who entered into the service of Ivan the Terrible after the conquest of Kazan in 1552.[1] In exchange for conversion to Christianity and getting baptized the Tsar offered them the opportunity to work for him and to be allotted some twenty-two thousand acres. For continuing to serve the Tsar their descendants had the opportunity add to their holdings. [2] His father, Nicholas Afanasevich Radishchev, a prominent landowner in Moscow, had a reputation for treating his more than 3000 serfs humanely. Until he was 8 years old he lived with a nurse and tutor on his father's estate in Verkhni Oblyazovo (then part of the Saratov Governorate, today in Penza Oblast), one hundred miles west of the Volga river. He then went to live with a relative in Moscow, where he was allowed to spend time at the newly established Moscow University. In 1765 his family connections provided him with an opportunity to serve as a page in Catherine's court, which he nonetheless regarded with suspicion for its "contempt for the Orthodox faith, and a desire to deliver the homeland into foreign (German) hands."[3]

Because of his exceptional academic promise, Radishchev was chosen as of one of a dozen young students to be sent abroad to acquire Western learning. Between 1766 and 1771 he studied law at the University of Leipzig. There he became well-acquainted with the [Enlightenment] philosophes.[4] His foreign education influenced his approach to Russian society, and upon his return he endeavored to incorporate Enlightenment philosophies such as natural law and the social contract into Russian conditions. Even as he served as a Titular Councillor, drafting legal protocols, in Catherine's civil service, he lauded revolutionaries like George Washington, praised the early stages of the French Revolution.

Philosophical Views

As a true student of the Enlightenment, Radischev held views that favored the freedom of the individual, Humanism, and patriotism. These values are best summed up by “equality of all classes before the law, abolition of the Table of Ranks, trial by jury, religious toleration, freedom of the press, emancipation of manorial serfs, habeas corpus, and freedom of trade.”[5] Upon his return from Leipzig in 1771, Radischev saw with fresh eyes the stark contrast between life under liberal Western states like England and Switzerland and that under Russia's autocracy. Echoing the sentiments of Catherine herself, he advocated education for all classes, a system he had the fortune to witness in a school in Irkutsk.[6] A more educated populace would provide the foundation for an eventual republican or parliamentary system. Of all of Russia's social ills, Radischev especially despised the inequality and prolongation of serfdom, rooted in a traditional social system that enforced a strict hierarchy and permitted abuses and exploitation. Ironically, under Catherine's enlightened reign, serfdom was intensified and spread to newly conquered territories.[7] While in Siberia, Radischev's economic thought developed, not only in terms of decreasing dependence on serfdom but denouncing international trade. Though influenced by Adam Smith, Radischev maintained protectionist views, condemning unnecessary international trade and proposing stronger domestic production. In the debate over Sino-Russian trade relations, he believed Russia's own resources were enough to support it.[8]

Criticizing the history of arbitrary rule in Russia, Radischev called autocracy the system of governance "most contrary to human nature."[9] Under this system, government was better positioned to breach its social contract with the governed, creating an unjust and oppressed society. He extends this system to master-serf relations as well, noting that seeking unlimited power is a natural human vice. Radischev does not sweepingly criticize all autocrats, but only tyrants, praising, in fact, Lycurgus, the philosopher king of Sparta who promoted equality and civil rights.[10] Radischev, however, did not believe in, or desire, bloody revolution and instead hoped for a reforming autocrat who would abolish serfdom and "maintain equality in society, protect the widow and the orphan and save the innocent from harm."[11] As a member of the ruling class, he didn’t seek to overturn autocracy but to persuade his countrymen and superiors to give up some of their vested power. There is a quality of Radishchev's thought of a Russian trying to work out some of the contradictory ideas of the Enlightenment in a Russian context. He did not, however, accept the Rousseauian view that human nature was essentially good and that human nature could be simply reformed by a more just society. He acknowledged that “where there was more enlightenment, where there was more social life, there was more corruption, so inseparable are good and evil on the earth.”[12]

Radishchev's religious and philosophical views were quite radical for his time and place. Denying the belief that sensory experience is primary, Radishchev, in On Man, His Mortality, His Immortality, speaks in favor of man's higher virtues as the main elements in complex human thought. He believed that man's hereditary faculties have as much influence on his development as the external environment. He also points out, however, that there are common, innate traits that bind all people, particularly the belief in a higher power. The belief in immortality remains particularly potent for him, both as a factor of faith and as a solace amidst the difficulties of life.


In 1789 Radishchev published Life of Fyodor Vasilievich Ushakov. Ushakov was a classmate of Radishchev's in Leipzig who led a student revolt against their supervisor. Ushakov died of an incurable illness in 1770. The work was apparently written shortly after his death, but only published in 1789. During the period between writing and publication of Life, Radishchev became enamored of the Russian Freemason, Nicholas Ivanovich Novikov, whose satirical journal, The Drone, offered the first public critiques of the government, especially his critique of serfdom.[13] Novikov's sharp satire and indignation inspired Radishchev's most famous work – Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow – in which he emulates Novikov's harsh and passionate style. He, too, was especially critical of serfdom and of the limits to personal freedom imposed by the autocracy. Coming as it did at the outset of the French Revolution, it would not have had the same impact in Western Europe. But this work was revolutionary in Russian history, coming a generation before the Decembrists would take up some of the same themes.

In 1783, Radishchev wrote his poem "Ode to Liberty" (or "On Liberty") after the American colonies' successful revolution against Great Britain. He references that victory in the poem. Like a lot of eighteen century work, it is characterized by indignation at prevailing social conditions. It "abounds in exactly the same sort of vehement indignation, couched in exactly the same sort of cold and lifeless abstraction."[14]

Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow

Radishchev takes an imaginary journey between Russia's two principal cities; each stop along the way reveals particular problems for the traveler through the medium of story telling. In Petersburg, the narrator's story begins at an inn where the proprietor is too lazy to harness his underfed horses for a carriage. Eventually getting on the road, he encounters a man trying to sell genealogical papers to nobles seeking to increase their rank, and a poor peasant laboring on a Sunday. He goes on to satirize Catherine's favorite, Viceroy Grigory Potemkin, with an anecdote about his appetite for oysters and the absurd lengths his servant would go to get them.[15]

Likely the most famous scene is the narrator's dream of being a “tsar, shah, khan, king, bey, nabob, sultan, or holder of some such dignity, sitting in regal power on a throne.” At his most minor expression, the courtiers sigh, frown, light up with joy. Seeing this obsequiousness, the narrator-tsar orders the invasion of a distant country, which he is assured will submit to his mere reputation. Suddenly, the female figure of Truth appears, offering him clearsightedness and defending the rights of dissenters. After being reprimanded, the king is overcome by visions of his own brutality, the sins of his court, and the general disrepair of the empire. In a final moment of self-reproach and guilt, inspired by the gaudy and wasteful palace he's built, the narrator is woken from his dream in agitation.[16]

Modeled after Laurence Sterne's Sentimental Journey, but lacking Sterne's charm, it stood out not for its artistic achievement but because of its political significance.[17] A Picaresque novel, some scenes reveal stark descriptions of village life and the terrible poverty he encounters along the way, like his bleak description of a peasant hut. Other experiences seem designed to allow our hero to express his moral outrage at the treatment of peasants by their landowners, like the landowner who delights in sexual encounters with peasant girls. Radishchev intersperses his description with Enlightenment era discourses on freedom of thought and the education theories of Jean Jacques Rousseau, among others. While these ideas were commonplace in Europe, the work was sensational in the Russian context. The trip through Novgorod reminds the reader of the Novgorod Republic, in which the Prince was dismissed and a republic established in the mid-twelfth century. [18]The journey itself goes from St. Petersburg, Peter's window to the West, to Moscow, the site of Russia's medieval capital. The symbolism was not lost on the Empress. The book represented nothing less than 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.

Considered by many to be the seminal radical text of the 18th century, A Journey continued to influence Russian political thought even after its condemnation. As the progenitor of public liberal discourse in Russia, Radischev is considered an ancestor of all major subversive literature written in the 19th and 20th centuries.[19]


The Empress responded quickly. Catherine was German by birth and was well-acquainted with the French philosophes. She considered herself something of an Enlightened ruler, but, whatever her own views, she also knew that her empire was far away from conforming to those ideas. She knew very well that Radishchev's calls for reform represented a Jacobin-style radicalism that was a threat to her rule. She ordered copies of the text confiscated and destroyed. Out of the 650 copies originally printed, only 17 had survived by the time the work was reprinted in England fifty years later.[20] Radishchev was arrested the same year as publication and condemned to death. He humbly begged forgiveness of Catherine, publicly disowning his book, and his sentence was commuted to exile to Ilimsk in Siberia. En route the writer was treated like a common convict, shackled at the ankles and forced to endure the Russian cold from which he eventually fell ill. His friend, Count Alexander Vorontsov, who held sway with Catherine, interceded and managed to secure Radishchev more appropriate accommodations, allowing him to return to Moscow to recover and restart his journey with dignity and comfort.[21] Beginning in October, 1790, Radishchev's two-year trip took him through Siberia, stopping in the towns of Ekaterinberg, Tobolsk, and Irkutsk before reaching the small town of Ilimsk in 1792. Along the way, he began writing a biography of Yermak, the Cossack conqueror of Siberia, and pursuing an interest in geology and nature. Settling in Ilimsk for five years with his second wife, Elizabeth Vasilievna Rubanovsky, and his two children, Radishchev, as the only educated man in the area, became the local doctor and saved several lives. He also wrote a long treatise, On Man, His Mortality, His Immortality, revered as one of the few great philosophical works of Russia.[22] In it he addresses man's belief in the afterlife, the corporality of the soul, the ultimate redemption of sinners and the faults of materialism.


After Catherine's death (1796) her successor Tsar Paul recalled Radishchev from Siberia and confined him to his own estate; the writer again attempted to push for reforms in Russia's government. When Alexander I became Emperor (1801), Radishchev was briefly employed to help revise Russian law, a realization of his lifelong dream. Unfortunately, his tenure in this administrative role proved short and unsuccessful. In 1802 a despondent Radishchev - possibly rebuked in a friendly manner, for expressing radical ideas, by Count Zavadovsky who in his reproof spoke of another exile to Siberia[23] - committed suicide by drinking poison.


During the author's last years, his Moscow apartment became the center of several literary circles who extolled similar views and most outspokenly mourned his death. The Russian autocracy, however, managed to prevent A Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow from being published until 1905, during which time it circulated through radical groups and was translated into several languages. Alexander Pushkin, sympathetic to Radischev's views and passion, undertook to write a sequel to his inflammatory book, which was unfortunately never finished and early on faced pressure from the censors. Following the 1905 and 1917 revolutions, however, Radischev was accepted into the radical canon and became widely read throughout Russia and Europe. Despite the discrepancies between the author's ideal and the Soviet reality, authorities managed to paint him as "a materialist, an active fighter against autocratic tyranny, and a veritable forefather of Bolshevism."[24]

His Enlightenment ideas would find an expression in the protest of young officers to the assumption of the throne by Nicholas I after the death of Alexander I. Known as the Decembrist Revolt, it would be mercilessly put down by Nicholas and the leaders exiled to Siberia. The Enlightenment ideas of Radishchev would continue to fester in Tsarist Russia until the revolutions of the early 20th century would eventually topple the autocracy.

Radishchev was the grandfather of painter Alexey Bogolyubov. A village in the Irkutsk Oblast of Russia was named after him.

English Translations

  • Radishchev, Alexandr Nicolaevich, Thaler, Roderick Page (ed.), Weiner, Leo (tr.) A Journey from Saint Petersburg to Moscow Boston, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958, ISBN 978-0674485501


  1. Patrick L. Alston, Alexander N. Radischev: A Spokesman of the Russian Enlightenment (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1956, ISBN 9780226718446), 30.
  2. Allen Mcconnell, A Russian Philosophe: Alexander Radishchev, 1749-1802 (Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer Netherlands, 2012, ISBN 978-9401533751), 6.
  3. D.M. Lang, The First Russian Radical: Alexander Radischev (Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1977, ISBN 978-0837196374), 26.
  4. Victor Terras, A History of Russian Literature (New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press, 1991, ISBN 978-0300059342), 153-155.
  5. Allen McConnell, "The Empress and Her Protégé: Catherine II and Radischev," The Journal of Modern History 36(1) (March, 1964): 14-27.
  6. Lang, 211.
  7. McConnell (1964), 18.
  8. Lang, 209.
  9. Alexander Radischev, A Journey From St. Petersburg to Moscow, 282.
  10. Allen McConnell, "Radishchev's Political Thought," American Slavic and East European Review 17(4) (Dec. 1958): 439-453.
  11. McConnell (2012), 442.
  12. McConnell (2012), 451.
  13. Lang, 63.
  14. William Edward Brown, A History of Russian Literature of the Romantic Period, vol. II (Ann Arbor, MI: Ardis Publishing, 1986, ISBN 0882339389), 63.
  15. Lang, 133.
  16. Lang, 139.
  17. Terras, 153.
  18. Terras, 154-155.
  19. Avrahm Yarmolinsky, Road to Revolution: A Century of Russian Radicalism (New York: Macmillan, 1986, ISBN 0691054789), 13.
  20. Yarmolinsky, 5.
  21. Lang, 204.
  22. Lang, 217.
  23. Thomas Riha, Readings in Russian Civilization, Rev Ed. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2009, ISBN 9780226718446).
  24. Lang, 276.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Alston, Patrick L. Alexander N. Radischev: A Spokesman of the Russian Enlightenment. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1956. ISBN 9780226718446
  • Brown, William Edward. A History of Russian Literature of the Romantic Period, vol. II. Ann Arbor, MI: Ardis Publishing, 1986. ISBN 0882339389
  • Lang, D.M. The First Russian Radical: Alexander Radischev. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1977. ISBN 978-0837196374
  • McConnell, Allen. A Russian Philosophe: Alexander Radishchev, 1749-1802. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer Netherlands, 2012. ISBN 978-9401533751
  • McConnell, Allen. "The Empress and Her Protégé: Catherine II and Radischev," The Journal of Modern History 36(1) (March, 1964): 14-27.
  • McConnell, Allen, "Radishchev's Political Thought," American Slavic and East European Review 17(4) (Dec. 1958): 439-453.
  • Riha, Thomas. Readings in Russian Civilization, Rev Ed.. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2009. ISBN 9780226718446
  • Terras, Victor. A History of Russian Literature. New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press, 1991. ISBN 978-0300059342
  • Yarmolinsky, Avrahm. Road to Revolution: A Century of Russian Radicalism. New York: Macmillan, 1986. ISBN 0691054789


New World Encyclopedia writers and editors rewrote and completed the Wikipedia article in accordance with New World Encyclopedia standards. This article abides by terms of the Creative Commons CC-by-sa 3.0 License (CC-by-sa), which may be used and disseminated with proper attribution. Credit is due under the terms of this license that can reference both the New World Encyclopedia contributors and the selfless volunteer contributors of the Wikimedia Foundation. To cite this article click here for a list of acceptable citing formats.The history of earlier contributions by wikipedians is accessible to researchers here:

The history of this article since it was imported to New World Encyclopedia:

Note: Some restrictions may apply to use of individual images which are separately licensed.


New World Encyclopedia writers and editors rewrote and completed the Wikipedia article in accordance with New World Encyclopedia standards. This article abides by terms of the Creative Commons CC-by-sa 3.0 License (CC-by-sa), which may be used and disseminated with proper attribution. Credit is due under the terms of this license that can reference both the New World Encyclopedia contributors and the selfless volunteer contributors of the Wikimedia Foundation. To cite this article click here for a list of acceptable citing formats.The history of earlier contributions by wikipedians is accessible to researchers here:

The history of this article since it was imported to New World Encyclopedia:

Note: Some restrictions may apply to use of individual images which are separately licensed.