So let's meet one of these nihilists in person, starting with arguably the most important one: Rakhmetov. As you will soon discover (particularly once you see his photograph), his influence on Russian history cannot be understated. We will look at him as both hero and caricature, and after that we'll meet his better-known antithesis (and one of the greatest characters in fiction): Dostoyevsky's Raskolnikov. Then we will tie all of these elements together in a nice revolutionary bow.
This is going to be so exciting! But let's back to the task at hand. To meet Rakhmetov, we must return to Chernyshevsky's novel "What is to be Done?" We must return also to the world and paradox of Swindlers and Fools. Why? Because Rakhmetov has been historically interpreted as Chernyshevsky's answer to this very severe and most fundamental problem - perhaps the most daunting problem of modern civilization.
Notice first that both Chernyshevsky's description of the problem and his solution are embedded in the language of characters. You can play the role of either a Swindler or a Fool. You can develop into a Vera Pavlovna (the novel's female protagonist). You can model yourself after a Rakhmetov. Everything is framed in terms of the individual. This is because his entire approach is - in accordance with the time in which it was written - one of personal character: personal moral and ethical virtue is what interests him; the structure of society is only significant in how it shapes the self.
In other words, if society is soil, he is interested in the plant, and from the plant the crop. The soil is only relevant in how it nurtures the plant - it must be rich with nutrients, it must drain well, etc., but in essence his approach is an inverted contrast to the manner in which these issues are discussed in social science today. But I digress, more on that later.
Now come on, let's meet Rakhmetov already!
It should come as no surprise that Rakhmetov is a nihilist (Remember "Nothing exists except that which can be observed by the senses"? Hence he is a student of the Natural Sciences) very much like Bazarov in Fathers and Sons.
And like the other central characters in Chernyshevsky's novel, he is neither a Swindler nor a Fool. He rejects the Swindler, but he won't subject himself to be the Fool, either. He declares this dichotomy as false and breaks it over his knee, his only weapon his mind.
But he is something a bit more too.
Rakhmetov is a moral ascetic hero, an ideal. While most in Chernyshevsky's novel are people willing to dedicate their lives to the greater good, Rakhmetov has gone further: he has truly sacrificed his. He lives in the most austere way, selflessly, his actions governed exclusively by the needs of the cause, guided by "principles and not passions, according to convictions and not personal desires.” He eats raw meat, sleeps on a bed of nails, reads voraciously, that sort of thing.
There are only a few of them, but through them everyone’s life will flourish. Without them life would wither and go sour. There are only a few of them, but they make it possible for all people to breath; without them people would suffocate. There’s a great mass of honest and good people, but there are very few people like them. But these few people are within that mass, as thine is in tea, as bouquet is in fine wine. They are its strength and its aroma. They are the flower of the best people, the movers of the movers, the salt of the salt of the earth.
He is, in essence, a professional revolutionary.
So why is this all important?
Well, in order to explain that I must tell you the story of the Brothers Ulyanov.
THE BROTHERS ULYANOV
Now, a long time ago, there were two very bright brothers, the Brothers Ulyanov. The elder one, Alexander (pictured left), went off to University and was arrested for his role in a plot to assassinate the Tsar Alexander III with a bomb planted in a textbook.
The event essentially destroyed the family, already struggling with the premature passing of their father the year previous. Alexander was hung, his sister Anna was exiled for her role in the plot, and thus one can only imagine the effect this all had on the surviving younger brother, Vladimir, and his mother.
Indeed, Vladimir Ulyanov realized he knew nothing of his elder brother's political beliefs. One night he went into his brother's room, sat down on his empty bed, and took "What is to be Done?" from the bookshelf.
He read it six times that summer.
He modeled his remaining life after this moral ascetic character Rakhmetov. In 1901 he outlined his revolutionary blueprint in a paper entitled, not coincidentally, "What is to be Done?"
Thus the character Rakhmetov came to life in Validimir Ulyanov, much better known for his revolutionary moniker than his real name. Here is his photo, or rather his mugshot from his first arrest as a youth. I'm sure you'll recognize him. Now, regardless of your opinion of him, whatever it may be (and please, don't make any presumptions about mine; I might surprise you) as I mentioned before his effect on history cannot be understated.
"He plowed me up more than anyone else... After my brother's execution, knowing that Chernyshevsky's novel was one of his favorite books, I really undertook to read it, and I sat over it not for several days but for several weeks. Only then did I understand its depth... It's a thing that supplies energy for a whole lifetime." - Lenin