Alexander Radishchev (1749–1802)

Alexander Radishchev (1749–1802)

Alexander Radishchev (1749–1802) was the Russian writer and thinker of the late 18th century, one of the most remarkable and controversial figures of the Russian Enlightenment. The image of Radishchev as a martyr to the ideals of liberty, which was formed from the early 19th century, was transformed into the idea about ​​the "first Russian revolutionary”. Meanwhile, Alexander Radishchev’s works are diverse and, in addition to the famous A Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow and the Liberty ode, include poetry, which is largely innovative, as well as philosophical, legal and other works.

Alexander Radishchev was born in 1749 in Penza Governorate. He spent his childhood on his father’s estate in the village of Nemtsovo, Kaluga Governorate. He received an education in the Corps of Pages (1762-1766) and was among the best graduates, who were sent to Leipzig University (1767–1771) to study law. Radishchev’s The Life of Fyodor Ushakov (1789) provides a description of the years of study at Leipzig University and the “riot” of Russian students that took place there. On returning to Russia in December 1771 Radishchev was appointed as record keeper at the Senate.

The translation of Abbé de Mably’s Observations on the History of Greece, which was published anonymously in 1773, marked Radishchev's debut in print. Later, Radishchev also translated the three-volume work of Jean-Baptiste-Barthélemy de Lesseps - Travels in Kamchatka and the South of Siberia.

In May 1773 Radishchev resigned from the Senate and became a chief auditor (legal adviser) at the headquarters of the Finnish division. In March 1775 he resigned his post. At the end of 1777 Radishchev was appointed to the Collegium of Commerce. In 1780 he became an assistant to customs adviser (St. Petersburg Governorate) and in 1790 he took up a post of the head of Customs.

In 1782 Radishchev started working on A Word on Lomonosov. Circa 1783 Radishchev finished the ode Liberty, which was an indictment of tyranny and contained reaction to political events in Europe (the English Civil War of the 17th century) and North America (the War of Independence). Catherine II viewed the ode as "clearly rebellious”. However Liberty is notable not just in terms of its socio-political content, but also as a work of poetry.

In the mid-1780s Radishchev embarked on his major undertaking – A Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow, which comprised some previously written works (A Word on Lomonosov and fragments of the Liberty ode). The chapters of A Journey named after postal stations on the way from St. Petersburg to Moscow, are different in terms of size and subjects. The book is multifaceted: various aspects of the political and public life of Russia are sharply criticized in it. It features the description of life of different classes. The peasant theme is in the spotlight of the whole book: rightless serfs, their sale, conscript obligation, miserable life. The traveller-narrator plays an important unifying role. The book includes publicistic elements, has some features of oratorical prose, didactic literature and satire.

The anonymous book was printed at Radishchev's home printing house at the end of May 1790 with a circulation of about 650 copies. On May 30–31 A Journey went on sale at the shop of bookseller G. K. Zotov in Gostiny Dvor. Catherine II also read the book. The empress thought that the book “was full of various impudent expressions, which could lead to immoral behaviour, disobedience to authorities and many public disorders” and ordered to conduct an investigation to identify the author, whom she called “a rebel worse than Pugachev”, chancellor A. A. Bezborodko recalled.

On June 30 Radishchev was arrested and imprisoned in the Peter and Paul Fortress. On July 13 the empress ordered to put Radishchev on trial and signed a rescript, which banned his book. On July 24, the Criminal Court Chamber issued a death sentence to the writer, which was later commuted to 10 years’ exile in Siberia.

En route Radishchev wrote Sketches of a Journey to Siberia, which contained geographical, historical, ethnographic records, as well as observations on the life of local people. On arriving at Ilimsk in 1792, Radishchev started working on the treatise On Man, His Mortality and Immortality – the most important of the works written in Siberia, which touched upon a wide range of literary and philosophical problems. The writer spent six years in Siberian exile.

After Catherine’s death in 1796 Paul I allowed Radishchev to settle on his estate in Nemtsovo, although he remained under the police control. The writer enjoyed complete freedom only in March 1801 during the reign of Alexander I. Alexander Radishchev was appointed to the Law Drafting Commission, where he took part in drafting legislative reforms. In September 1802 Radishchev passed away. Suicide, accident or illness - there is still no unanimity on causes of his death.

Radishchev's works were banned in Russia until 1905, but this did not prevent the distribution of copies of A Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow manuscript. In 1858 A. I. Herzen published A Journey in London. Research on the writer's legacy was in fact undertaken only in the 20th century. The three-volume Complete Works by Radishchev edited by G. Gukovsky were published between 1930 and 1950. Many of his texts, including philosophical and legal works, were printed for the first time.

The collection, which is built up ahead of the 270th anniversary of the birth of Alexander Radishchev, contains his writings, studies focused on the writer’s life and work, and materials intended to perpetuate his memory.