Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Petrashevsky Circle

In 1844, Mikhail Petrashevsky formed what came to be known as "the Petrashevsky Circle", a small, close-knit secret society of freethinkers and scholars (including Dostoevsky) who held regular get-togethers to read and discuss philosophies and literature banned under the rule of Nicholas I. They were especially concerned with utopian socialism, materialist philosophy, and the histories of past revolutionary movements. They were devotees of the French utopian François Marie Charles Fourier, founder of the La Reunion commune and coiner of the term "feminism".

In 1849, Mikhail Petrashevsky was arrested and sentenced to death. In an interesting bit of psychological torture, he and other members of the Circle were brought to the Semenovsky plats of St. Petersburg (the customary place for official public executions), blindfolded and tied to stakes. Then, at the very last moment, it was revealed that it was only a charade to frighten them - they would not be killed after all, but sent off to various locations of punishment like Eastern Siberia.

If Nicholas I thought this "execution ritual" psychological trick would help instill submission and gratitude amongst the members of the secret society for sparing their lives, it didn't work out that way. Petrashevsky continued to fight the government and speak out until the day he died in 1866.

Nicholas I tends to get a bad rap, historically, because of his clamping down on free speech, revolts and demonstrations. But it's interesting to note that Nicholas found himself in the all-too-familiar position of being a leader of a people who were ignorant, selfish, and ethically in the wrong. Nicholas strongly wanted to abolish slavery and serfdom in Russia, but his advisors warned him that to do so would turn the people against him and cause a violent uprising. It's one thing to promote "power to the people", but sometimes the people are dumber than a box of rocks and sometimes they're downright evil.

According to Wikipedia: "He did make some efforts to improve the lot of the state peasants (serfs owned by the government) with the help of the minister Pavel Kiselev. During most of his reign he tried to increase his control over the landowners and other influential groups in Russia."

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