A romantic hero replaced the sentimental hero of the beginning of the century. Rather than the passive hero, whose soul became the vessel for the world's misfortune, they admired the active man, who displayed beauty in action and triumph. The romantic hero was capable not only of great feats; he also knew everything, and understood the world; he was brilliantly educated. The pravovedy, in the first decades of the school, worked hard to teach themselves, to make up for the shortcomings of the school's education ... The pupils read Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol, and Belinksii, as well as many foreign writers. Several classes formed libraries, supported by the pupils' dues. They discussed their readings in endless, life-and-death "Russian-style" discussions. In the 1850s, all the classes, even the youngest, formed literary journals. "Literature captivated us all," one graduate wrote ... The pravovedy entered the service in their late teens or early twenties with a unique sense of their personal worth and superiority. They believed that they were engaged in a heroic mission on behalf of the law.
- Richard Wortman, The Development of a Russian Legal Consciousness
When Maximilian Voloshin wrote, brilliantly, that "The materialist grasped with probing fingers/Not substance, but the shadow of his dream," he was getting at a much more specific kind of meaning than we would normally assume. Something about the nineteenth-century Russian mindset turned even the most apparently boring subjects into the materials of personal transfiguration and poetic zhiznetvorchestvo. It was, for instance, far from incongruous for Herzen to cast Proudhon and Hegel as forges of character in the well-known quote currently at the top of this page.
"Legal consciousness," in Wortman's reading, is a case in point. The pravovedy represented a kind of intelligentsia movement in the direction of impersonal legality and an independent judiciary, one which included even a young Pobedonostsev as one of its primary exponents. Legality, in its nineteenth-century Western European context, was a thoroughly and deliberately boring idea. It was the rallying-cry of sober bourgeois jurists in black suits, early and often satirized as tedious, pedantic fuddy-duddies, but never as sentimental or romantic bohemians. It might even be said that the ideology of the night-watchman state needed to be boring so as not to seem partial and personalistic.
So how did it suddenly become romantic to be a jurist in nineteenth-century Russia? The simplest explanation would of course be the arbitrariness and lack of legal spirit among the corrupt officialdom that overwhelmingly staffed the Empire's judicial institutions. Legal consciousness thus became bohemian simply by virtue of the fact that legality represented a critical or even a countercultural stance. After all, unlike much of the rest of Europe, Russia had managed to develop a hegemonic Kafkaesque bureaucracy without the liberal legal ideology that traditionally accompanied it. A new wave of jurists could thus adopt legality without any of its customary cultural baggage.
Such an explanation, however, doesn't seem to go far enough. It wasn't just lawyers who made life-projects out of dry material. Positivism--as Turgenev showed so well--could also have the same bohemian quality. So could, for instance, industrial rationalization. (This is how I would read Chernyshevsky: not simply as a populist-socialist type, but also as a committed rationalizer.) The impulse that underlay the counterculture of these convictions in nineteenth-century Russia seems to have been a common one--and it was caused, I think, by the impossibility of effective structural change. And indeed, by the time liberalism had arrived in Russia in earnest around the turn of the twentieth century, to be a bohemian jurist was no longer conceivable; hence the rather one-sided portrayal of Pobedonostsev's alter ego Apollon Apollonovich in Belyi's Petersburg.
Everyone knows that the utopian aspirations of today often become the basic assumptions of tomorrow (as any contemporary reading of the Communist Manifesto will make clear). But might not there be also a sense in which unrealizable ideas come to define their adherents themselves? To put it another way: would today's anarchists exist in an anarchist society? If the Bolsheviks had actually made good on their first promises, would there be room for a Lenin in 1975?