HWO’s Radical Books series shares subversive, seminal, and seismic texts that have shaped understandings of radical history, provoked controversy in their time, or sparked social change.
‘Amongst us, he who has a natural right to the land not only is completely excluded from this right but, while working another’s field, sees his sustenance dependent upon another’s power!’
Labelled by some as the ‘most notorious book in Russian history’, Alexander Radishchev’s Journey from St Petersburg to Moscow described an excursion made between Russia’s two main cities, a journey through the countryside that acted as a convenient cipher for a stinging critique of the ills of Russian society and governance.
Drawing in part on theories of natural law and liberty developed in eighteenth-century Europe, Radishchev’s Journey uncovered widespread social injustice, corruption and exploitation. Not content to level criticism at the behaviour of individual noblemen and civil servants, as some previous Russian writers had done, Radishchev took aim at autocracy itself, in particular the evils of censorship, mis-rule and serfdom, an institution that formed the bedrock of Russian state and society. This was all the more surprising, given that the author was himself a nobleman, from a wealthy family that owned several thousand serfs.
Subversive both in its critique of Russian autocracy and its rejection of traditional noble self-interest, the text earned Radishchev immediate notoriety: in the political shadow of the French Revolution, Catherine the Great ordered the print run to be confiscated, further publication banned and the author sentenced to death (a penalty later commuted to exile in Siberia). Although serfdom would not be outlawed in Russia until 1861, Radishchev’s contribution to dissident thought opened the way for the growth of radical intellectual currents in Russia post-1800.
Dr Jennifer Keating is a Past & Present Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute of Historical Research, working on the social and environmental history of the Russian empire in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.