“Only be honest with yourself!” Sexual Morality and the Liberation of the Individual in Russian and Ukrainian Literature (1907–17)

During the years immediately following the revolt of 1905 many representatives of Russia’s intelligentsia regarded their time as a period of cultural decline and moral deprivation. While opinions differed on the real cause of the crisis, people on both sides of the political divide struggled to come to grips with the situation by constructing a grand narrative of the radical intelligentsia from the 1860s onwards. This narrative could be realized in one of two ways. Either the perceived immorality of the present generation was regarded as the inevitable outcome of a ruthlessly materialistic world view—epitomized by Turgenev’s hero Bazarov (S. Frank 1909)—or, as a betrayal of the legacy of the raznočinnaja intelligencija (Vorovskij 1909). Either way, for many observers history seemed to have come full circle after 1905. They noted with alarm that a new generation of “New People” had emerged that rejected the value system of their fathers and proposed a radical new sexual ethics.

Fiction featuring these New “New People” has long been regarded as a vulgarization of nineteenth-century realism (Zorkaja 1982) and Nietzschean philosophy (Clowes 1986). Its popularity among readers of the time suggests, however, that it was nonetheless perceived as “serious” literature. It may well be argued that authors like Mixail Arcybašev, Anatolij Kamenskij and Vladimir Vinničenko (to name only the most notorious) created such a sensation precisely because they purported to chronicle the life of the intelligentsia—thus continuing the tradition of the “tendentious” novel. In effect, their literary portraits of the post-revolutionary intelligentsia supplied critics and readers alike with a semiotic framework—a tool that enabled them to “explain” and “understand” life in a society traumatized by revolution.

The purpose of this paper is to describe the behavioral paradigm associated with the turn-of-the-century New People, specifically by paying close attention to the demand for absolute “sincerity with oneself” as expressed by Kamenskij and the Ukrainian-Russian writer Vladimir Vinničenko. I will argue that although sincerity (iskrennost′) was also a crucial concept in the sixties—when it meant the ability to acknowledge man’s inherent egotism—it now took on a far more personal dimension because it became intertwined with the debate on sexuality. To illustrate this point I will discuss Kamenskij’s scorned essay, “On the Free Man” (1910), and Vinničenko’s novel Honesty with Oneself (1911), which features a charismatic hero defending men “overtly and honestly” visiting prostitutes.