Alexander Radishchev plaque, St. Petersburg

Alexander Radishchev (1749-1802) is of the great base sources of Russian literature, thought and civic mindedness. So much emerges from the wobbly path he walked (and rode) that it’s pretty impossible to start drawing diagrams of whom and what he gave rise to. I mean, you can do it, but expect to settle in for a week’s worth of work. I will just say at this point that, for me, with his labor and his example, Radishchev laid the foundation for Alexei Navalny, Yury Dmitriev, and Pussy Riot, to just grab some of my contemporaries out of the hat. In other words, the work Radishchev did is not done. It will never be done, I hazard to say with no joy in my voice. The Russian individual standing up to bad authority, corruption, and criminality is always – I repeat, always – going to be walking a lonely road. They are always going to be like a bad, broken record, traversing the same tracks, making the same noises, the same rustles, squeaks and ticks as everyone before them. That doesn’t mean that their labor is pointless or worthless – but it does mean it’s a damned hard road to hoe.
Radishchev was a rather astonishingly enlightened man, aided, in part, by his studying for several years in Germany. But, as with virtually all Russian intellectuals, he was a man of paradoxical views. He started out unhappy about Catherine the Great bringing German ways to Russia, but ended up being formed by his German education, which set him on a collision course with, of all people, the German-born Catherine. It’s not for a blog of this sort for me to go into all the nuances of this man, his upbringing and the society he lived in, so I will merely settle for saying that Radishchev’s book, A Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow, along with a few of his philosophical writings (eg., On Man, His Mortality, His Immortality), are more than enough to justify his high place in Russian letters and culture. A figure none less than Alexander Pushkin was so enamored of Journey that he had unfulfilled thoughts of writing a sequel. In fact, so timely has this 230 year-old book been, that many have wanted to write its sequel, and a few even have. None have come close to achieving with Radishchev did.
I’ll admit it, I once had hubristic thoughts of writing a sequel. My wife Oksana and I set out many years ago to travel the road from Moscow to St. Petersburg and back. As we were setting out, I grabbed a little notebook and planned to jot things down. Are you kidding?!? To this day I do not know how we survived that trip. We thought it was hell getting there – instead of the eight or so hours we expected, it was an 11 or 12-hour trek that included sections of road disappearing, local policemen seeking bribes, and a despairing sense that the end of the trip would never come. Little did we know that that was the good part of the trip. The return leg, the same one taken by Radishchev, from St. Petersburg to Moscow, took us over 24 hours, had our car wading through mud, bouncing over cement slabs thrown down hastily to keep cars from sinking into oblivion, nearly dying from starvation because there was no place to eat, and then unexpectedly spending a few hours sleeping in a boxy roadside motel because our eyes had gone so bleary we could not make out the nighttime “road” anymore… By this time I had long abandoned any thoughts of writing a pointless sequel to Journey, all I wanted to do was forget this ordeal forever.
Hats’ off to Radishchev, he unflinchingly described the squalor, the lack of civilization, the poverty and horror that stretched out endlessly between the “two Russian capitals” at the end of the 18th century. Believe me, there wasn’t much difference in the entire experience at the beginning of the 20th century.

Radishchev earned my, and others’, undying admiration with his expose of the squalid nature of Catherine’s Russia. But he also earned the ire of Catherine herself, who, in 1790, had Radishchev arrested and condemned to death for his daring. She later took some form of pity on him and sent him off to Siberia, apparently hoping the impossible trip east would kill him. So bad was this journey that his friend Alexander Vorontsov interceded on Radishchev’s behalf and convinced Catherine to bring him back to Moscow before he reached his final destination. But she agreed to do that not, as you might think, to give him a lightened sentence, but rather to send him back off to Siberia again, albeit under slightly better conditions.
Russian leaders, German-born or not, seem to share in the same desire to torture and humiliate anyone who does not see eye-to-eye with them.
Fortune barely smiled on the writer over the last years of his life. There was a brief reprieve when Catherine died and the new tsar Pavel allowed Radishchev to return from Siberia to Moscow, more or less under house arrest. When Alexander succeeded his father Pavel (by killing him, of course), he thought to enlist Radishchev in authoring a new, liberalized legal codex for Russia, but he, the tsar, was, most likely, never serious about this, and Radishchev’s efforts fell on deaf ears. Disillusioned and hopeless, Radishchev committed suicide in 1802 by way of self-poisoning.
Could that be where Vladimir Putin got the idea of suggesting that Alexei Navalny poisoned himself with the Russian state-produced Novichok substance in 2020?
The stately building you see in these photos is where Radishchev lived in St. Petersburg until his first arrest in 1790. The text on the plaque reads:

The outstanding writer-revolutionary Alexander Nikolaevich Radishchev lived in this building from 1775 to 1790. Here he printed on his own printing press the book Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow.

These days the street bears the name of the French revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat. When Radishchev lived here, however, the official street name was Ul. Preobrazhenskoi polkovoi (Transfiguration Regiment St.). But there is a hitch to this, for the street in common parlance was apparently called Gryaznaya ulitsa – Dirty Street. Russian Wikipedia leaves us in the dark as to why folks named the street thus – “the etymology of this name is unclear, for, surely, it was no dirtier than others.”
Should you be interested, I have written about Radishchev elsewhere on this site – about a building that the writer supposedly lived in for a short while in Tomsk when on his way to Siberian exile in 1791.

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