“It's the scene for which, I believe, the entire novel was written to bring into the world, the reason Nikolai Chernyshevsky sat down in his cell at the Peter and Paul Fortress prison and began the book” writes Scott Bailey. It’s Part 3, chapter xxix, “An Extraordinary Man.” You always know something is up when Chernyshevky gives a chapter a title. With minor changes, the chapter could be an independent short story.
The story is the biography of Rakhmetov, revolutionary superhero.
The ideal of the disciplined, dedicated revolutionary, coldly Utilitarian and even cruel to himself and others, but warmed by a love for mankind that he sternly represses for rear of weakening his resolution; the iron-willed leader who sacrifices his private life to the revolution, and who, since he looks on himself only as an instrument, feels free to use others in the same way – in short, the Bolshevik mentality, for which it is impossible to find any source in European Socialism, steps right out of the pages of What Is To Be Done? (199)
That is Joseph Frank again, actually from the same page of Through the Russian Prism that I quoted yesterday. Chernyshevsky invented the Bolshevik. Or Chernyshevsky plus Vladimir Lenin. This chapter did a lot of damage. On the same page, still, down in the footnote about Emma Goldman’s sewing cooperative, I learn that the anarchist Alexander Berkman, when he planned to assassinate Henry Clay Frick, used “Rakhmetov” as his pseudonym. Imitation Rakhmetov’s began to pop up all over, including in Dostoevksy’s Devils (1872). Crime and Punishment’s Raskolnikov (1866) is a relative, too, an inversion or parody.
So what is Rakhmetov like? He is amazing. Some quotations:
… he needed to eat beef, a great deal of beef. So he did. He regretted every kopeck spent on any other kind of food…
Therefore, if fruit was served, he would always eat apples, but never apricots. (281)
This is because he only eats the food not eaten by but potentially available to the common people. Thus he will eat meat pies, “[b]ut he wouldn’t eat sardines.”
The things he used to say and do on such occasions are beyond comprehension. (284)
Yes, however rude Rakhmetov’s manners, everyone remained convinced that he acted as he did because it was the most sensible and simplest way to act… In spite of this phenomenal rudeness, he was basically a very tactful person. (286)
As a teenager, Rakhmetov works to become super-strong. He is a wealthy aristocrat, but he works as a Volga river bargeman to improve himself, and is eventually capable of legendary feats of strength (279). Later he stops a runaway carriage by grabbing “the rear axle. He brought the carriage to a halt and then fell down.” Had Chernyshevsky been reading Les Misérables, published the previous year? Rakhmetov is as strong as Jean Valjean. I will try not to mention it again, but Chernyshevsky has an obsession with upper body strength that appears throughout the book, often in strange contexts, people lifting each other over their heads for fun, that sort of thing.
When he hears about revolutionary political ideas, Rakhmetov becomes an instant convert.
He asked, “What books should I read first?”… He acquired what he needed and then read for more than three days and nights in a row, from 11 A.M. on Thursday to 9 P.M. on Sunday, a total of eighty-two hours. (280)
“[E]ight glasses of strong coffee” keep him going for a while, but eventually he “collapsed on the floor and slept for about fifteen hours.” You may wonder why I am not more sympathetic with Rakhmetov – that is my question; that is just how I read!
About a year before he vanished from Petersburg for the second and probably the last time, Rakhmetov said to Kirsanov, “Give me a rather large amount of ointment for curing wounds inflicted by a sharp instrument.” (288)
Rakhmetov is testing his strength by sleeping on a bed of nails, like an Orthodox martyr. He is preparing himself for torture. Or he is a lunatic. “’Now I know I can do it.’”
Because of the censorship, anything about Rakhmetov’s revolutionary activities are hidden, thus that odd bit about vanishing, but obvious enough that the publication of the chapter is almost miraculous.
Forget what happened later, and forget the reality of the character, which is non-existent. Rakhmetov, a blend of philosopher, Orthodox ascetic, folk hero, and Hugo is an extraordinary, rich imaginative creation. That anyone wanted to be him, that seems crazy to me. But of course writers, critics and revolutionaries wanted to do something with him. For a cartoon character, he is strangely complex.