Aleksei Nikolaevich Pleshcheev
(22 November 1825 – 26 September 1893)
University of Oregon
A more complete version of this essay may be read in
Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 277
Russian poet, playwright, journalist, translator and short-story writer Aleksei Nikolaevich Pleshcheev [“pleshEHyef”] was born in Kostroma Province located northeast of Moscow along the Volga River. His father and mother were noble by formal feudal social designation, both from old aristocratic families, but not wealthy, not even well-off. His father was employed in the provincial civilian bureaucracy and thus held a position on the Table of Ranks. His mother possessed title to two estates, one in Yaraslavl Province, upstream from Kostroma, and the other in Nizhnii Novgorod Province, downstream. These lands were populated by about 400 male serfs and their families. The title to one of these estates was unclear and contested (therefore frozen). Together the lands and the civil service job brought little income to the family. Like about half of all Russian gentry landowners, the Pleshcheevs were dirt poor. Until near the end of his life, Aleksei Nikolaevich had to work for a living. Through each epoch of his life he struggled to make ends meet.
From his earliest years a single set of circumstances worked uniformly to shape Pleshcheev both as social being and as writer. His family background offered him no future. He tried to free himself of both his noble and state-servitor inheritance. He assumed an active and hostile relationship to imperial traditions. He conceived a better future for himself and, by extension, all like-minded fellow Russians.
At 15 he was enrolled in a Saint Petersburg military school, but dropped out. Between his 17th and 23rd birthdays, in the years between 1844 and 1849, he moved over to Saint Petersburg University, and, without receiving his degree, shifted to a life-long pursuit of economic, social and artistic independence from received traditions. His first stories and verse appeared in these years when he published in Sovremennik (Contemporary), Biblioteka dlia chteniia (Readers Library), and Otechestvennye zapiski (Fatherland Notes), these the most popular “fat journals”, as leading periodicals were called.
As social being, as well as writer, he reacted to the cultural policies of Emperor Nicholas I. University students were forced in 1844, the year of Pleshcheev’s first publications, to sign a pledge “not to join any sort of organization, however it might be called and of whatever character it might be”. Yet, self-organization seemed the only way to a better life. The “circle” or kruzhok had become a central feature of life among educated Russians who sought to carve out a niche for themselves. Failing feudal social identities and the assignments of state power did not meet their needs. On 8 June 1845 Pleshcheev wrote a touching letter to the Rector of Saint Petersburg University, asking how he might complete his degree and prepare himself for honorable, meaningful and useful work as a member of society. Pleshcheev wished to proceed at his own pace under what his 1846 poem “Vpered!” (Forward) called “the banner of learning”, not under the flag of barracks-tsar Nicholas. The Rector was at a loss for words, even though he had earlier recognized Pleshcheev’s literary talent and guided him toward his first publications.
From the beginning his poems had a way of lodging themselves in the Russian imagination. They were written in memorable, clear, “sincere” or everyday language. He struck no evident pose, often seemed naive or feckless in his resolute optimism, as in his most popular poem “Vpered!”.
Move ahead! without fear or doubt(Vpered! bez strakhi i somnen’ia
To a valiant victory, my friends!
Na podvig doblestnyi, druz’ia!)
His writings never wanted for a readership. From the beginning the central personae of his verse were more often “we” and “us” than “I” and “me”. The industrious and enlightened professional, freely inter-relating with colleagues, that was his literary life, and that was also his personal ideal. That defined his audience.
Pleshcheev drifted away from the university and into various kruzhoks that were later given the collective name “Petrashevtsy”. Pleshcheev’s action was in direct contradiction to the 1844 pledge, perhaps inspired in defiance of the pledge. He now sought a life in literature, a life he always equated with human fellowship. The university in the time of Nicholas did not provide that. Independent, learned people in association with one another seemed to Pleshcheev the quintessence of community and the promise of a better future for his homeland.
Working with fellow members of his kruzhok, he traveled to Moscow to acquaint himself more closely with conditions of life there, and to establish productive literary ties. On 26 March 1849 he dispatched a remarkable report to fellow kruzhok member Sergei Durov back in Saint Petersburg, describing the civic culture of the old capital. This letter was rich with commentary on organized cultural life and served as evidence against him after he was arrested later that year.
As a result of arrest, one day in Pleshcheev’s long life stands out above all others. It was a snowy 22 December 1849, on the outskirts of the imperial capital Saint Petersburg. He was placed before a firing squad. He was only twenty-four. He was about to be executed, along with other Petrashevtsy. A fellow convict, Nikolai Kashkin, extended his hand to say goodbye for the last time, “We’ve proceeded under the banner of learning, so in that spirit we will offer one another our hands” (My shli pod znamenem nauki, tak podadim drug drugu ruki). Kashkin borrowed from the then-famous poem “Vpered!”. The critical concept “nauka” (scholarship, science, learning) defined a precious commodity in traditional, rural Russia.
And let our union grow strong
Under the banner of learning
(I pust’ pod znamenem nauki
Soiuz nash krepnet i rastet)
These journalists, writers and translators were going to their deaths “under the banner of learning”, for writing, reading and listening in groups to the recitation of texts unacceptable to the tsarist state. They were punished for organizing themselves, that is, for abandoning their sovereign in favor of voluntary association. Russian law, as expressed in the 1844 pledge, considered volunteerism a desertion of official duty. In groups of three they were administered last rites. In Pleshcheev’s group of condemned prisoners stood his close associate Durov who had recently resigned from state service in the Naval Ministry in order to seek his fortune as freelance writer. The third was the recently resigned army officer Fyodor Dostoevsky, at the earliest beginnings of his literary career. Their eyes were taped shut. They heard the first words of the infamous command, “ready, aim”....
An officer was instructed to intervene at the last moment to announce that sentences had been commuted to exile in distant trans-Volga outposts. Pleshcheev was sent to the edge of the Bashkir steppes in Orenburg for a decade. Through most of this time he was sentenced to serve in the military, that is, he was forced back under the banner of the tsar.
He managed to keep his hand in literary endeavors in these years of exile. He was never what would ordinarily be called a “political activist”. He was an independent-minded, professional writer, and that just happened to have serious political implications in his world. Nor were all his writings devoted to civic themes. He wrote affective love lyrics as well. In October 1857 he married Elikonida Aleksandrovna Rudneva, and the verses he wrote to her are among his most tender. For example, “Toboi lish’ iasny dni moi...” (You alone bring light to my days...), “Kogda tvoi krotkii, iasnyi vzor...” (When your tender, clear gaze...) combine two longings, one the love for Elikonida, the other the pain of exile. His biographer Liubov’ Pustil’nik draws attention to the close affinity of Pleshcheev’s socially conscious poetry and his love lyrics. The reader confronts in these otherwise different verses the same simplicity and directness of language, the same motifs and tropes. The two sorts of poem work in the same way.
Pleshcheev thus helped give expression to a characteristic idea or attitude, an inclination of mind often met among educated Russians at mid-century. At some vital center of individual experience, freedom and love flourished together, or were blighted together. Personal and public associations were bonded by a kindred affection. Authentic, honest, “sincere” friendship and love in pairs or small groups easily contrasted with the contrived formalism of imperial life, and prefigured a larger harmonious social order. Poems to his wife eloquently expressed the compounded qualities of love and civic virtue.
In the mid-1850s students at Kazan University adopted as their anthem another popular Pleshcheev poem, now put to music. It opened:
By instinct you and I are brothers,
We believe alike in redemption,
And to our grave we’ll not cease
To resist the scourge of our native land.
(Po chuvstvam brat’ia my s toboi,
My v iskuplen’e verim oba,
I budem my pitat’ do groba
Vrazhdu k bicham strany rodnoi.)
These words signaled a rejection of status by birth or by state imposition. They embraced self-designed and instinctive identity, a redemption (rebirth) perhaps of the whole nation via “elective affinities”.
In 1859 Pleshcheev was allowed to live and work in Moscow. Like Dostoevsky, who was also freed in these months, Pleshcheev now planned again to make a life for himself in literature and journalism. He scraped together funds and became partner in a venture to publish the four-volume works of popular writer Ivan Turgenev. He came into possession of a printing press. His writings again began to appear. He supplemented his own creations with welcome translations of George Byron, Victor Hugo, Heinrich Heine, and Taras Shevchenko, as well as other English, French, German and Ukrainian writers. In another partnership he founded the journal Moskovskii vestnik (Moscow Messenger).
He wrote about what he knew. His short stories, such as “Pashintsev” and “Dve kar’ery” (Two Careers) (1859), concentrated on the theme of good-hearted youths, such as himself, at the beginning of full and productive lives, ready to serve their nation. His heroes regularly met obstacles. The conventions and habits of imperial life dashed their hopes.
These themes were highlighted in the most widely read reviews of his work. In the July 1860 issue of Sovremennik the critic Nikolai Dobroliubov accented Pleshcheev’s social significance. He was glad to see that Pleshcheev’s heroes were not “superfluous men” in the romantic tradition of the day. They were not posturing, tragicomic “heroes of our time” like Mikhail Lermontov’s Pechorin (1840). They were not defeated dandies like Turgenev’s Rudin (1855). Pashintsev and other Pleshcheev characters more clearly exposed the source of Russian stagnancy, said Dobroliubov, precisely because they were just ordinary youths prepared to make their way in this life. Dobroliubov expressed the situation with a Pleshcheevan metaphor from daily experience: “On all sides they hear the invitation: come to dinner. And they go. That’s all there is to it”. They set out in this way, but powerful forces from on high denied them their sustenance. Do not blame the poor dispirited heroes, said Dobroliubov, look upward to movers and shapers of Russian life.
Dobroliubov was sensitive to the blend of love and civic virtue in Pleshcheev. He summed up his critique by drawing on “Dve kar’ery”, where Pleshcheev suggested a parallel between ludicrous Platonic love and dreamy, “romantic” behavior in general. Dobroliubov took this lesson from Pleshcheev: What we need in life as well as in love is actual, direct, simple action.
In the March 1861 issue of Sovremennik the poet Mikhail Mikhailov praised Pleshcheev’s inspiring and straight-forward appeals to everyday action. Mikhailov contrasted Pleshcheev’s verse with the verse of Apollon Maikov and Lev Mei whom he called lyrical and dreamy.
In 1860 Pleshcheev became active in two large volunteer organizations of intellectuals and professionals. The first was in Moscow where he lived, Obshchestvo liubitelei rossiiskoi slovesnosti pri Imperatorskom Moskovskom Universitete (Amateur Society of Russian Letters at Imperial Moscow University). The second was up in Saint Petersburg where some of his most important associates lived, Obshchestvo dlia posobiia nuzhdaiushchimsia literatoram i uchenym (Society for the Aid of Needy Writers and Scholars, or Litfond for short). Litfond inspired him in life and in literature, because it was the largest volunteer association of its kind ever in Russia. Many more hands now lifted the banner of learning, and it was a diverse and stable cross-section of educated society.
Pleshcheev was elected to membership at the same time as a high ranking War Ministry state servitor and Governor-General of Orenburg (Pleshcheev’s place of recent exile) and Samara provinces. In some small way, Pleshcheev felt the world was being set right. In a private letter to the Governor of Saratov Province, Egor Baranovskii, on 19 February 1860 he described the event with a touch of humor, hinting that it might represent a miniature French Revolutionary victory in Russia:
A few days ago they elected me and also His Most Esteemed Excellency A. A. Katenin. What sort of equality is this? ...the most negligible of mortals and one of the most powerful men on this earth--members of one and the same society.... Furthermore our names together beautified one and the same column of the newspaper. It was good however that my name begins with a “P” or I might unfortunately have been printed higher than him. Oừ allons nous, oừ allons nous.
Litfond suited Pleshcheev because it loosened the lingering double grip on Russian life exercised by moribund feudal social estates and the Table of Ranks in civilian, military and church bureaucracies. Pleshcheev’s life and work challenged these standard social/service hierarchies, and now Litfond promised reconstruction of spontaneous and natural social relations. It promoted independence for learned professionals. It was an organization created by and for public figures themselves, rather than by officials.
In another letter to Baranovskii on 25 April 1860, Pleshcheev bragged about how bold and democratic Litfond was. It granted pensions to the seventy-year-old son of Aleksandr Radishchev, one of the original martyrs “under the banner of learning”, who was exiled for expressing himself freely in the 1790s, and to Baron Vladimir Shteingel, a famous democrat among the Decembrist conspirators of 1825. Pleshcheev noted that money poured into the Litfond treasury for the most part not from the “rich and famous” but from fellow cultural professionals. “The poor are helping the poor”. Marching under the banner of learning, they now offered one another a hand.
Pleshcheev was one of those poor. When he had a little money he managed it clumsily. He often offered money to others in loosely enforced loans that he could ill afford. Dostoevsky failed to repay one sizable loan offered to help him back from Siberian exile. Belles lettres and journalism were not hobbies, not a gentleman’s diversion. They were an avocation. His professional livelihood provided narrow escape from the impoverishment of his noble estate, but also from the moral bankruptcy of the whole tsarist social system. The well-born were positioned on the backs of unfree labor, and even after serf emancipation (1861) the Russian political economy discouraged private/public social initiative and left young folks little option but to seek government positions and rank in the imperial bureaucracy. The characters in his stories, like his associates among the Petrashevtsy in his earliest years and in Litfond later, sought new prospects and new identities. The themes of his life and work continued to harmonize.
Poems written in 1861 raised issues of cultural debt to the working classes, to those still impoverished, for example, “O, ne zabud’, chto ty dolzhnik” (O, don’t forget that you are a debter), “Nishchie” (The poor). Pleshcheev expressed with relaxed ease what proved a complicated confrontation between an emerging “public” and the established order of things. His message, in clear conflict with dominant imperial social/service hierarchies, was not easily converted to effective action. He was not, however, as ambitious for massive transformation as many of his youthful readers. His was a straightforward self-presentation; he sought only steady progress against perceived deficiencies of Russian life. Indeed, he fought steadily against the one ubiquitous deficiency in the life of the Russian writer, censorship. Since the late 18th century, and yet many years longer, into the early 20th century, Russian publications were subjected to institutionalized but arbitrary bureaucratic control through censorship. For him the struggle against censorship was like all others, a part of the normal, everyday pursuit of a professional livelihood as writer and journalist, working with like-minded associates to overcome the forces that constrained them. As emancipation seemed to get the gentry off the backs of peasants, Pleshcheev and associates worked to get an oppressive and censorious state system off their backs.
He took an active interest in Sunday schools, the voluntary literacy movement. These book-hungry schools represented an economic opportunity to him and others in the business of publishing. In 1861 he invested in Nikolai Serno-Solov’evich’s profitable empire-wide publishing and distribution venture. He sought ways to exercise his talents so as to “do well and do good”, that is, to make a personal living and contribute to the larger process of change initiated by the reform epoch.
Throughout his life he made fast friends with a wide variety of people. His liberty, equality and brotherhood were but natural expressions of an attractive and garrulous personality. He was on close terms with the Governor of Saratov Province, Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko, shady student activist Vsevolod Kostomarov, Moscow entrepreneur Dmitrii Chizhov, and nearly every member of the Moscow and Petersburg theatrical communities.
He assumed the duties of Litfond commissioner in Moscow and sided with the Litfond liberals against a stodgy and increasingly statist (pro-monarchical, anti-liberal) Moscow cultural elite. He served as a counterpoise to publisher Mikhail Katkov, who was becoming a hireling of the state, a journalist/promoter of government projects. He criticized law professor Boris Chicherin, who took a leading role among academics to resist the university independence movement among students and faculty. In a letter written 6 November 1861 he conceded that the university movement had its foolish side, but Chicherin should not have addressed students as he did, offending them with “such flabby fiddle-faddle all dressed up in war-surplus britches, with vague places and twaddle, doctrinal phrases! Is this the living voice of learning – or truth?” The banner of learning carried by Chicherin and his Muscovite associates did not suit Pleshcheev and other Litfond activists.
Yet, the “doctrinaire spirit” was foreign to Pleshcheev. He praised Litfond activist Nikolai Chernyshevsky and the other infamous “radicals” on the staff of the journal Sovremennik (Contemporary). That was natural enough because Chernyshevsky published Pleshcheev’s writing. He devoted the poem “Chestnye liudi, dorogoi ternistoiu...” (Honorable people, a darling with a thorn) to the Sovremennik staff. He praised the grumpy slavophilic publicist Ivan Aksakov and his obstreperous, eccentric journal Den’ (Day), which also carried his work. He liked Aksakov’s “profound outlook on life”. In relationship to lesser Moscow associates, said Pleshcheev, Aksakov and his journal were as remote as the heavenly stars.
Pleshcheev’s generous and unprepossessing outreach got him in trouble. He sent a letter to Mikhailov in early 1861 recommending Moscow University student Vsevolod Kostomarov. He never forgave himself for facilitating this tragic association. Once introduced to leading Petersburg figures, Kostomarov turned on them. At police dictation, he composed an incriminating letter, ostensibly from Chernyshevsky to Pleshcheev, suggesting falsely that the two were writing and printing inflammatory proclamations. Pleshcheev saved himself from a second arrest and possible repeat of the 1849 trauma. In the fall of 1862 a face-to-face confrontation with Kostomarov took place before judges in the Imperial Senate.
This trying confrontation did not save Chernyshevsky, or any other of the scores of leading cultural figures arrested, interrogated, and harassed throughout the second half of 1862. Aksakov’s Den’ was closed on government order in the same wave of reaction that closed Chernyshevsky’s Sovremennik in the summer of 1862. Pleshcheev’s professional life deteriorated in the months of state suppression that followed. His ambitious “joint-stock” publishing enterprise came crashing down when a partner swindled him. His journal failed. He turned to an old acquaintance and reviewer, Mikhail Mikhailov in Petersburg, to ask for employment on the staff of the vast, multi-volume Encyclopedic Dictionary, a project of leading Litfond figures.
No mock firing squad this time, but once again the tsarist state came down hard on its most energetic cultural elite, just as it had in Pleshcheev’s youth, only now on a vaster scale. Without evidence, the Senate found Chernyshevsky and Nikolai Serno-Solov’evich guilty of several serious state crimes. They were sent into exile, never to return. The poet Mikhailov also died in political exile.
Exiled Serno’s book-trade business went into a tailspin, and Pleshcheev lost his investment. Personal loss echoed the public defeats. His wife died in 1864. The Interior Ministry literature-policeman Petr Kapnist jumped on the wounded writer. In his annual report for 1865, he accused Pleshcheev of laying down a fog of German romanticism to camouflage his skulking French socialism. His poetry represented “a protest against current moral, social and political structures in Russia”. It asserted “the equality of the poor and the rich”. It contrasted “starving poverty with lazy and parasitic wealth”.
Pleshcheev was now forty years old. His poems expressed his mood: “Noch’iu” (At night) and “Tak tiazhelo, tak gor’ko mne i bol’no” (How heavy, how bitter it is for me and painful). He had so far failed to achieve economic security in open public journalistic and literary enterprise. His vaster vision seemed a dangerous and infantile dream. Some thought the strain of constant financial distress had undermined his health.
He did not give up. In some ways he branched out. He expanded on his long association with Russian theatre. He joined playwright Aleksandr Ostrovsky to found Artisticheskii kruzhok (Actors circle, 1865), the first independent professional organization of actors, playwrights and other theatrical professionals. He wrote plays that portrayed the pitiful life of provincial gentry, for example, “Shchastlivaia cheta” (The fortunate couple, 1862), “Poputchiki” (Traveling companions, 1864). César Cui wrote an opera based on Pleshcheev’s libretto, which in turn was based on Heine’s William Ratcliff (1869).
Financial considerations forced him to accept an appointment in state service. In 1872 he moved to Petersburg where he was secretary to the editor of Otechestvennye zapiski, one of the first “fat journals” to have published his work a quarter century earlier. He worked with Ostrovsky again in a further effort to win independence from the choking patronage of royal and grandee elites in the theatre. They formed Obshchestvo russkikh dramaticheskikh pisatelei i opernykh kompozitorov (The Society of Russian Dramatic Writers and Opera Composers, 1874) and other professional theatre sodalities. Thirteen of Pleshcheev’s plays were staged in the Maly Theatre (Moscow) and the Alexander Theatre (Petersburg). His son Aleksandr began to have some success as theatre critic. He tried his hand at a new genre, children’s literature, still curious about the possibilities of expanded literacy in his homeland.
In his last years, he achieved for the first time some personal economic comfort and was able to travel abroad. He died in Paris. In his will, he left 1000 rubles to Litfond, an amount equal to the never fully repaid Dostoevsky loan.
He carried “the banner of learning” to the grave, and his legacy lived on. Pleshcheev’s civic impulse has not, however, been everyone’s cup of tea. Soviet era critic Prince Dmitry Mirsky dismissed the verse as “flat and tiresome”, while the poet himself was “amiable and respectable”. Petr Veinberg’s sympathetic entry (1898) in the first vast Russian encyclopedic dictionary, Entsikopedicheskii slovar’, conceded that Pleshcheev’s prose works did not escape the ordinary, “although they do read easily and in addition several are not without interest”. Even Dobroliubov damned him with faint praise: Pleshcheev can be read “without displeasure”.
Still, the poem set to music by Kazan University students in the 1860s, “By instinct you and I are brothers”, was sung well into the twentieth century by a wide variety of Russian intellectuals and professionals, at shabby student parties and in the comfortable privacy of fine homes. It was a favorite of Vladimir Lenin’s father who was a high ranking official in the Education Ministry. Victory of the Soviet Revolution did not extinguish the need for this song. Other Pleshcheev poems inspired music, especially the lyrical works devoted to love and nature. The great Russian composers Peter Tchaikovski, Artur Rubinstein and Modest Musorgsky set several to music. “Moi sadik” (My little garden patch), “Noch’ proletala nad mirom” (Night soared above the world), “Ni slova, o drug moi” (No words, o, my friend) and more than 100 other poems were set to music.
Authentic expression of love appears not to grow stale too soon. Nor does the simple affirmation of brotherhood (as in the famous French Revolutionary trinity: “liberty, equality and fraternity”). Pleshcheev extolled, perhaps even exaggerated, the virtues and pleasures of an educated but down-to-earth “intelligentsia” in united action. Those themes resonated among the cultured elite in Imperial and Soviet Russia, and Pleshcheev expressed them as well as any other Russian writer. He celebrated the spontaneous actions of individuals working together in pursuit of “careers open to talent” rather than social-class status and bureaucratic rank. The verse sung by Kazan students warned it would not be easy. The national scourge must be opposed all life long, unto the grave.