Alexander Radishchev, Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow

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Alexander Radishchev, Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow, 1790

Alexander Radishchev (1749-1802) came from a moderately wealthy noble family with landholdings in Saratov Province.   He was educated in the Corps of Pages in St. Petersburg and went on to study law and philosophy at the University of Leipzig in Germany.   On his return to Russia in 1771, Radishchev pursued a intermittent career in state service rising eventually to the post of Chief of the St. Petersburg Customs House.   In 1790, Radishchev published Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow,  a passionate tirade against the evils of serfdom and the corruption of Russian life.   Radishchev's journey marks the first open condemnation of serfdom in Russian public life, and his overwrought emotional portrayals, drawing heavily on the style and motifs of pre-romantic sentimentalism, quickly drew the attention of Russian readers and the wrath of Catherine the Great.  Alarmed by the radicalism of the French Revolution, Catherine saw in Radishchev's audacity a threat to the state and pronounced him "a rebel worse than Pugachev."  Radishchev was arrested, tried and condemned to death, a sentence which Catherine commuted to 10 years exile in Siberia.   Under Paul I, Radishchev was released from exile and his full rights as a nobleman were restored in 1801.  He committed suicide in 1802.


Twice every week all of the Russian Empire is informed that N. N. or B. B. is unable or unwilling to pay what he has borrowed, taken or what is demanded from him. The borrowed money has been gambled away, traveled away, spent away, eaten away, drunk away, given away or has perished in fire and water. Or N. N. or B. B. has in some other way gone into debt or incurred an obligation. Any case will do for the announcement which reads: At ten o clock this morning, on order of the county court or city magistrate, the real estate of retired captain T... consisting of house no. X, in such and such a district and six male and female souls, will be sold at auction. The sale will take place at said house. Interested parties may view the property in advance.

Everyone is interested in a bargain. The day and hour of the sale has arrived. Buyers are assembling from all around. In the hall where the sale is to take place, the condemned are standing motionless. An old man of 75 years, leaning on a elmwood cane, is anxious to find out into whose hands his fate will pass, who will close his eyes. He served with the Master’s father in the Crimean campaign under Field Marshal Munnich. At the battle of Frankfurt he carried his wounded master off the field of battle on his shoulders. Returning home, he became the tutor for his young master. In [the master's] childhood, he had saved the boy from drowning, jumping into the river into which he had fallen while crossing on a ferry, and putting his life at risk, pulled him out.  In [the master's] youth he had bailed him out of prison where he had been confined for his debts incurred while serving as a junior officer. An old women, 80 years of age, the old man’s wife, was the wet nurse for the mother of the young master: she was the young man’s nanny and had been the housekeeper up until the very moment when she was brought out for this auction. In all the years of her service she never wasted anything of the master’s, never thought of her own profit in any way, never lied, and if she ever gave occasion for annoyance it was only on account of her simple hearted scruples. A woman 40 years of age, a widow, was the wet nurse for the young master. And even now she still feels a certain tenderness toward him. Her blood flows in his veins. She is his second mother: he owes his life to her even more than to his natural mother. The latter had conceived him in a light-hearted moment, and had taken no part in his infancy. His nurses brought him up. They part with him as if with a son. A young woman, 18 year of age, her daughter and the granddaughter of the old couple. Wild beast, monster, reprobate! Look at her, look at her crimson cheeks, at the tears pouring from her enchanting eyes. Was it not you who, failing to entrap her innocence through flattery and enticement or to shake her steadfastness with threat, finally resorted to deceit. Having married her to your companion in treachery, your took his place and partook of the pleasure, which she had disdained to share with you. She found out about your deceit. Her bridegroom touched no more her bed, and you, deprived of the object of your desire, turned to force. Four scoundrels, executors of your will, holding her arms and legs--- No! Let us go no further. On her brow is sorrow, in her eyes despair. She is holding the infant, the sorrowful fruit of your deceit or violence, and the living image of his lascivious father. Having given birth to him, she began to forget his father’s savagery, and her heart began to feel tenderness toward the baby. She is afraid that he will fall into the hands of another like his father. The infant... your son, barbarian, your blood. Or do you think that there is not obligation when there is no church ceremony? Do you think that the blessing given at your order to the hired preacher of the word of God has confirmed their union? Do you think that forced marriage in God’s church can be called matrimony? The Almighty despises force, and delights in the wishes of the heart; they alone are uncorrupted. O, how many acts of fornication and seduction are committed in the name of the father of joys and the comforter of sorrows in the presence of his witnesses, unworthy of their office! A youth of twenty five, her wedded husband, companion and confidant of his master, who has now repented of his services. In his pocket is a knife. He grasps it tightly; it is not hard to guess his thoughts. Fruitless zeal! You will go to another. The hand of your master, hanging constantly above the head of the slave will bend your neck to any service. Hunger, chill, torment and heat – all of this will stand against you. Your mind is alien to noble thoughts. You do not know how to die. You will bend and will become a slave in spirit as well as law. And if you take it in to your mind to resist, you will die an agonizing death in chains. There is no justice over you both. If your tormentor does not wish to punish you himself he will become your accuser. He will turn you over to the city justice. Justice! Where the accused has almost no power to defend himself! Let us pass over the other unfortunates brought out for sale.

Barely had the dreaded hammer let out its hollow thud when the four unfortunates learned their fate – tears, sobs and moans pierced the ears of the entire assembly. Even the hardest were moved. Petrified hearts! Almost fruitless sympathy? O Quakers! If we had your hearts we would have made a collection, bought these unfortunates and given them their freedom. Having lived many years in each other’s embrace, these unfortunates because of this abominable auction will feel the anguish of parting. But if the law or, better to say, barbarian custom, for this is not written in the law, allows such contempt for humanity, who has the right to sell this infant? He is illegitimate: the law liberates him. Stop, I will denounce this; I will save him. But if only the others could be saved along with him. O fortune! Why have you doled out to me such a miserly share. It is only now that I begin to feel the passion for wealth. My heart is so troubled that I jump up from amid the assembly and giving the last pennies from my wallet to the unfortunates, I run out. On the stairway, I met a friend, a foreigner.

"What has happened to you? You are weeping!."

"Go back" I said to him, "do not be a witness to this shameful spectacle. O, once you cursed the barbaric custom of selling of black slaves in far off colonies of your fatherland; go back," I repeated, "do not be a witness to our darkness lest you must reveal our shame to your countrymen in talking to them of our customs." "I can not believe it," my friend said to me. "It is impossible that in a place where all are allow to think and believe as they wish, such a shameful custom exists." "Do not be astonished." I said to him, "the establishment of freedom of belief offends only priests and monks, and even they are more interested in acquiring sheep for themselves rather than for Christ’s flock, but freedom for rural inhabitants would offend, as they say, the right of property. And all those who might be fighters for freedom are all great landowners, and freedom is not to be expected from their council but from the heavy weight of enslavement itself.

Source:  A. N. Radishchev, Puteshestvie iz Peterburga v Moskvu, Volnost'. (St. Petersburg: Nauka, 1992) pp. 92-94.

Translated by Nathaniel Knight

For an English translation of the full text see Aleksandr Nikolaevich Radishchev, A Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard UP, 1958).