The word “nihilism” was invented by Ivan Turgenev in his novel Fathers and Sons(1862). It denotes a radical or extreme radical attitude that denies all traditional values, and, not infrequently, moral values as well. Turgenev invented it to describe the radical elements in the Russian intelligentsia who were profoundly disillusioned by the lack of reform and believed that the only way to achieve anything was to destroy more or less completely all prevailing systems.
The main theorist and ideologist was Pisarev (1840–68), who was depicted by Turgenev as Bazarov in Fathers and Sons. Nihilistic ideas spread and nihilism threatened for a time to develop into quite a powerful revolutionary force. Several other novelists took nihilism as a theme in their fiction and through it criticized the nihilists.
The main nihilist works were: Aleksey Pisemski’s Troubled Seas (1863), Nicolai Leskov’s No Way Out (1864), Ivan Goncharov’s The Precipice (1869), and Fyodor Dostoievski’s The Possessed (The Devils, 1871-2). Some of the worst aspects of nihilism were exemplified by Dostoievski in the immoral and unscrupulous character Peter Verkhovensky. Few writers were sympathetic to nihilism, but in What is to be Done? (1863) Chernyshevski showed some sympathy for the nihilists and portrayed them as self-sacrificing heroes and radical leaders to be emulated.
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