Populism” once was a plain Russian word for a movable, complex Russian family of themes.

“Russian Populism is the name not of a single political party, nor of a coherent body of doctrine” notes Sir Isaiah Berlin, “but of a widespread radical movement in Russia in the middle of the nineteenth century. It was born during the great social and intellectual ferment that followed the death of Tsar Nicholas I and the defeat and humiliation of the Crimean War, grew to fame and influence during the sixties and seventies, and reached its culmination with the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, after which it swiftly declined.”1

The word “populism” had its share of good luck and it fared well as a hint of something certainly difficult to define but quite easy to sympathize with. Russian Populists not only yearned to destroy absolutism, abolish slavery and defeat their country’s economic and cultural backwardness: they also wanted to replace the tsarist state—the embodiment of authoritarianism, injustice and inequality—with a new and liberating something called “revolution”.

“All these thinkers share one vast apocalyptic assumption: that once the reign of evil—autocracy, exploitation, inequality—is consumed in the fire of the revolution, there will arise naturally and spontaneously out of its ashes a natural, harmonious, just order, needing only the gentle guidance of the enlightened revolutionaries to attain to its proper perfection. This great Utopian dream, based on simple faith in regenerated human nature, was a vision which the Populists shared with Godwin and Bakunin, Marx and Lenin. Its heart is the pattern of sin and fall and resurrection, of the road to the earthly paradise the gates of which will only open if men find the one true way and follow it”.2

According to the Italian historian supreme, Franco Venturi, “[Alexander] Herzen ( 1812-1870) created populism; [Nikolai] Chernishevsky was it politician”.

A self-taught man who thought that literature was the best mean to publicize his political ideals, Chernishevsky infused Russian populism with its distinguishing qualities and, even as he kept changing his views on what the Russian revolution should involve and mean, his writings inspired generations of Populist activists during the sixties and the seventies.

While imprisoned in Petrograd’s Peter and Paul Fortress—from 1862 to 1864—he wrote “What is to be done?·”, a novel deemed by many of his contemporaries as a handbook of Russian radicalism. So influential was this book that it led to the creation of a strong and widespread—if ultimately failed—, populist Land and Liberty political society. V.I. Lenin named one of his pamphlets after Chernishevsky’s novel and it was the hero of Chernishevsky’s novel who coined the phrase ‘the worse the better’: the worse the social conditions became for the poor, the more willing they would be to support a revolution.

However committed to the cause of the downtrodden, the lifelong fickleness of Chernishevsky’s cogitations makes it very difficult to ascertain the core of his politics. The naiveness with which he used to address social and political matters as well as his insistence in writing dull novels to convey the maze of his enthusiams, disappointments, fierce denunciations and political programs can make the reading of his work an exacting experience.

V.I. Lenin, however, considered that Chernishevsky was “the one true great writer who managed to remain on a level of unbroken philosophical materialism from the fifities right up to 1888”. Yet for all the “unbroken materialism” that Lenin found in Chernishevsky’s philosophical stance, it is at least intriguing that he could never bring himself to be a Marxist. He was sent a copy of Das Kapital in 1872. “I glanced through it—he wrote shortly afterwards—but didn’t read it; I tore off the pages one by one and made them into little ships, and launched them into the Vilyui river.”

In his novel The Gift, Russian-American author Vladimir Nabokov (1899,1977) has his main character—Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev—be a biographer of Chernishevsky. But Fyodor’s apocryphal book is only a parodic ploy to satirize Chernishevsky’s ideas. With gleeful irreverence, Nabokov tells of Chernichevsky’s ability “to bend the silliest daydream into a logical horseshoe”.

Bryan Boyd, a distinguished expert in Nabokov’s life and works, notes:

Fyodor treats Chernyshevsky as an intellectual buffoon, whose ideas do not deserve the compliment of rational opposition. He quotes enough Chernishevsky to let his crude materialistic approach condemn itself; he suggests a mental and emotional muddle behind Chernishevsky’s aesthetics that invalidates any claim to their serious consideration. But Fyodor pays less attention to argument than to the way Chernishevsky’s life continually undermines his own philosophy, as if fate took revenge on him for his beliefs.

Chernishevsky is a materialist, but is almost blind and deaf to the material world: short-sighted, living in abstractions and books, unable to tell beer from Madeira, Siberian flora from European, a horsefly from a wasp. A lover of mass audiences, he ends in the near-solitude of exile, where the few around around him pay him no heed. A believer in common sense, he is surrounded by madmen, a neurotic wife,a psychotic son. A champion of at least a certain kind of freedom, he wins for himself only imprisonment and leaves behind a legacy of censorship.

Grimmest irony of all, perhaps, he had aspired to invent a perpetual motion machine as the first step to a material solution to the problems of life, and instead in his last years becomes such a machine himself, translating ‘with machine-like steadiness volume after volume of George Weber’s Universal History in order to support his family, thereby turning his brain into a forced labor factory’ that represents ‘the greatest mockery of human thought.’3

“Perpetual motion” refers to a chimerical condition in which an object continues to move indefinitely without being driven by an external source of energy. Thus, perpetual motion machines violate both of the first and second laws of thermodynamics.

You can learn more about George Weber’s Outline of Universal History, in a contemporary review by translator Dr. M. Behr. North American Review, vol. LXXVI, Boston, 1853, p. 124-165.

This pottering with perpetual motion machines lasted almost five years, until 1853, and was accompanied by an intricate rummage of notes and descriptions of his absurd experiments—”a mixture of ignorance and raciocination”, writes Nabokov’s alter ego, that Chernishevsky “burned when he feared he would die (from that fashionable disease, aneurysm) before endowing the world with the blessing of eternal and extremely cheap motion”.4

Chernishevsky’s fortitude in face of authoritarianism is beyond doubt; in the long run his beliefs and unrelenting fight against Tsarist tyranny eventually cost him his life.

Russian Populists were usually at odds among themselves over many different subjects and were most given to engage in heated controversies over the future role of state or whether capitalism was still evitable in Russia. But most of them gave credence to a handful of unshakable beliefs. One of those shared convictions was the possibility of alternative economic formations to capitalism.

The basic approach of Russian Populists towards economics was, generally speaking, moral and even religious. Russian Populists “shrank from the prospect of industrialism in Russia because its brutal cost, and they disliked the West because it had paid this price too heartlessly”.5
They believed in socialism not because it was feasible but because, to their eyes, it was just. But the most pervasive belief among Russian Populists was that the salvation could not lie in Western-styled liberal politics.

The defeat of the European revolutions in 1848-49 confirmed them in their mistrust of Western liberal democratic ideals. “As for political rights, votes, parliaments, republican forms, these were meaningless and useless to ignorant and barbarous, half-naked and starving men; such programmes merely mocked their misery.”6

Lats but not least, there was the obschina question. The obschina, a primitive Russian form of peasant commune, was idealized by many Populist as the promising germ of a larger collective, egalitarian and free form of association: the corner-stone of collective wealth cration and redistribution. The obschina , they would argue, was not an alien Western idea; it was autochthonous. Obschina had been there from times immemorial as a kind of condensed peasants’ wisdom that could help Russia skip capitalism on the way to economic development and social happiness.

Meeting this kind of argumentation against liberal democracy, republican forms and capitalism, as well as the advocacy of indigenous culture and “alternative roads” towards development and social justice can be an unsettling experience in 21 century Latin America. They all ring as too familiar for intellectual comfort.

For example, the pre-Columbian Andean mita has been assimilated to the 19th century Russian obschina by many a scholar on economic development. Populist leaders all over the continent keep urging to find despotic “third ways” leading to “painless” economic development and egalitarian redistribution.

To be sure, Latin American populism is not indebted to Chernishevsky’s musings on “illustrated despotism” and perpetual motion machines. But it certainly shares the same disdain for individual liberties and capitalism held by those late 19th century Russian narodniki militants. Latin American populism has, of course, a history of its own, heroes of its own, intellectual superstitions and popular myths of its own.

Having said so, one question still lingers on. How a word—”populist”—that once meant heroism, disinterestedness and personal nobility in Russia has come to name corruption, lawlessness, contempt for individual liberties and poverty in our continent? I think it is a story worth telling.

In forthcoming articles I will try to delve, intently and to the best of my wits, into that history.

Happy New Year!


Isaiah Berlin, “Introduction” in Franco Venturi, Roots of Revolution. A History of the Populist and Socialist Movements in Nineteenth Century Russia, New York, Grosset / Dunlap, 1966 pp vii-xxxiii. Published later as “Russian Populism” in Isaiah Berlin, Russian Thinkers, London, 1980.

Ibid, pp xiii

Brian Boyd, Vladimir Nabkov. The Russian Years. Pirnceton University Press, New Jersey. 1990, p. 457

Vladimir Nabokov, The Gift, Penguin Books, Londo, 1963, p. 199.

Ibid, p. Xxiv

Isaiah Berlin, Ibid, p. ix


*Ibsen Martinez is a columnist, journalist, and award-winning playwright from Caracas, Venezuela. His writings have appeared in El Nuevo Herald, Miami, Letras Libres, Madrid, and El Pais in Madrid. Since 1995, he has written a weekly column for El Nacional.

For more articles by Ibsen Martinez, see the Archive.