Nikolai Chernyshevsky stopover, Tomsk

IMG_5425.jpg2This structure in Tomsk hardly stands out from any others. Although there are often unsolvable problems connected to the preservation of old wooden homes, the people of this great city are doing better than most at holding back the inexorable movement of time and destruction. As such, nobody would bother to stop and think about this slightly run-down, not particularly decorative old building on what used to be the outskirts of Tomsk. Thanks to a great guidebook, however (Tomsk. Illyustrirovannny putevoditel’ daidzhest), I know that the Russian critic, philosopher, economist, novelist and socio-political activist Nikolai Chernyshevsky happened to spend approximately 90 minutes in this abode in 1864. Why just 90 minutes? Because he was being transferred from European Russia to a 19-year exile in Siberia, and Tomsk was one of the most important stops on that route. This building, now bearing the address of 21 Pushkin Street, was the old post station where travelers – prisoners included – would stop (or be stopped) briefly for whatever reasons necessary. I don’t know this for a fact, but I can imagine that this was a check-in place where those entrusted to accompanying an important political prisoner would file a report stating they had completed one leg of their journey and were ready to embark on the next.

IMG_5427.jpg2IMG_5428.jpg2Chernyshevsky now occupies a rather odd place in Russian literary history. He was one of Lenin’s favorite writers and his utopian novel What Is to Be Done? was a major influence on that political thinker and activist. I read the novel (in English) way back when I was still educating myself in Russian literature independently; before I went back to school and then grad school to do it with all the proper instruction and diplomas and all. I must say that after reading Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Chekhov, Turgenev and others, I was not particularly impressed when I found my way to What Is to Be Done? It’s a pretty sad book, actually. I think I can probably list this as the first Russian novel I read and did not like. Until then it had been for me something of a magic carpet ride. Like many novels written by philosopher-political activists, What Is to Be Done? is written with a specific purpose, to make political points and to further a specific point of view (in this case, a liberal, even radical one of freedom). As much as one may want to applaud the author for his viewpoints, the stiff, wooden nature of the novel doesn’t allow the applause to last long. And then there’s the stigma of Lenin having called this one of the most important works of the Russian 19th century… Be that as it may, here is what Francis B. Randall has to say about Chernyshevsky in the biographical entry in Victor Terras’s excellent Handbook of Russian Literature: “More than anyone, [Chernyshevsky] formulated the ideals and aims of the young radicals, summoned ‘the generation of the 1860s’ into existence, and simultaneously expressed their drives and led them further until his lasting exile to Siberia in 1864.” Thus this blue building bears witness to that moment in time when Chernyshevsky’s significant influence changed from an active force to one that worked on a historical level. Below is a shot of the building taken from the courtyard, perhaps where the convoy’s horses and carriages or whatever would have pulled up with Chernyshevsky in tow. Maybe he even went up one of those sets of steps and through one of those doors. We’ll never know now. This building bears no markings of the small historical event that occurred here.

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