HIS 241
The Revolutionary Movement remarks by Professor Evans


A Panorama of Russian radical revolutionaries from the 1870s, including Mikhail Bakunin (1814-1876), Vera Zasulich (1849-1919), Sof'ia Perovskaia (1853-1881), Sergei Nechaev (1847-1882), Petr Tkachev (1844-1885) and Andrei Zheliabov (1851-1881).

Russian Revolutionaries
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The fathers turned into the sons, and the sons spawned the grandchildren, and then there were the great-grandchildren; they were the real revolutionaries.

Let's start by reading Ivan Turgenev's short "poem," Threshold. (1878).  Yes, by that date, there were Russians willing to sacrifice everything to bring about revolutionary change in Russia. It is indeed ironic that by the late 1870s Alexander II, the tsar-liberator, the enactor of the Great Reforms, had became the object of assassination, the "hunt for the tsar."  I remember Professor Walter Sablinsky's talking about how group of young terrorists would say, "I'm going out hunting," meaning they were going out for a stroll to see if they could blow up the tsar. (How poetic!)

In the middle of the Great Reforms, the Poles rose in revolt.  Now, the Russians and Poles have never exactly gotten along, for example there was the Polish invasion during the TIme of Troubles, the eighteenth-century Partitions of Poland carried out by Catherine the Great, there was the 1830 Polish revolt against the Russians (not to mention Polish contingents in Napoleon's army that invaded Russia in 1812).  The uprising broke out in January as a protest against conscription into the Russian army and quickly spready.  For about 18 months the Poles carried out a determined guerrilla operation against Russian troops, and though they appealed to public sentiment throughout Europe, no real aid was forthcoming.  A typically-nasty Russian suppression followed with all traces of the former Polish autonomy removed, but Polish peasants fared well at the expense of Polish landlords; much better than Russian peasants had in the terms of the 1861 emancipation.  That was not appreciated by the Russians.

The Russian government continued to suppress public opinion and arrest people while carrying out the reforms.  Nikolai Chernyshevskii (1828-1889), one of Russia's most important literary critics, was initially hopeful that Alexander II would reform Russian society but became disillusioned.  He wrote to Herzen that "liberal landowners, liberal writers, liberal professors lull you with hopes in the progressive aims of our government". He added that "everyone sincerely loving Russia has come to the conclusion that only by force could human rights be seized by the people from the tsar's grip." (www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/RUSchernyshevsky.htm; en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nikolai_Chernyshevsky). In July, 1862, Chernyshevsky was arrested and imprisoned for criticizing the established order in Russia.

Others dissatisfied with the pace and scope of the government's reforms organized into a loose group known as "Земля и воля" (Zemlia i volia, "Land and Freedom"). After fits and starts, the organization grew in size.  By the start of the 1870s, there were a lot of young Russian students trying to figure out what to do with their lives and what to do for their people.  Many decided to heed the call of Herzen and "Go to the People" in 1873; visit with the peasants and improve their lives.  So these Russian populists (narodniki), as they came to be known, went by the hundreds out into the Russian countryside in the summer of 1874 (exact numbers are difficult to determine, but let's say 1,500).  The narodniki tried to dress like peasants and talk like peasants in an effort to bring enlightenment to the Russian peasant; and to also tell the peasants about the raw deal that they were getting from the Russian government and landowners in the emancipation settlement.  According to the narodniki, the peasants were the real revolutionary force in Russia; that is what Herzen, Bakunin and members of the intelligentsia had been saying.

On arriving into some villages, dressed appropriately and singing and dancing what they had learned, many Russian peasants, completely removed from the enlightenment of Western Russia, mistook them for witches. Many were hounded by vigilante groups, often being maimed by farm utensils or going through the process of frenzied trials whereupon they were burned at the stake.  (Also at www.reference.com/browse/wiki/Narodnik)

The peasants just did not trust these strangers, and hundreds of populists were turned over to the police, or to the secret police (the Okhrana). "As one Russian commentator later put it, 'Socialism bounced off people like peas from a wall'." (www.bbc.co.uk/radio3/classical/listen/tchaikovsky_symphony4.shtml)

In 1877 and 1878 the tsarist government conducted mass public trials of the captured populists with the intent of arousing educated opinion; that backfired, only sympathy was evoked.  The trials of the 193 and of the 50 marked the end of the "Going to the People" stage of early Russian populism.  What a disaster for Russian critics of the regime; they weren't revolutionaries yet, and their people did not trust them.

In 1878 Vera Zasulich (1849-1919) attempted to murder Fedor Trepov (1812-1889), the military governor of St. Petersburg. She failed but became famous because, guess what, as a result of the tsar's judicial reforms she was allowed to have a jury trial; and the jury found her not guilty.  When she was released from prison, she immediately fled abroad before she could be re-arrested and retried. (She later returned to Russia after the political amnesty issued by tsar Nicholas II during the 1905 Revolution.)  Her assassination attempt along with the example of Dmitrii Karakozov's (1840-1866) crazy attempt to shoot the tsar in 1866, demonstrated a new alternative for other Russian radicals seeking to bring about a revolution.

In 1879, what was left of Zemlia i volia split into two factions.  Georgii Plekhanov (1856-1918) and Vera Zasulich formed the Black Repartition (Чёрный передел or Chernyi peredel) a group that rejected terrorism and supported a propaganda campaign among workers and peasants. The other faction favored the use of terrorist tactics.  The thirty or so members who banded together in the tightly-knit group the Народная воля (Narodnaia Volia, "Peoples' Will") figured that with no real revolutionary potential in the Russian peasantry and given the government's brutal repression of the populists, they were going to have to overthrow the monarchy by using terrorism.  Narodnaia volia then issued a death sentence on Alexander II.  There were repeated attempts to assassinate the tsar before the group's success in 1881.

As if that was not radical enough.  Russia in the 1870s was also blessed with guys like Petr Tkachev and Sergei Nechaev, (http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/RUSnechayev.htm), two figures often mentioned as precursors of the Bolsheviks because of their advocacy of tight, conspiratorial party tactics and completely unethical methods.

Tkachev was a radical, Russian journalist who in the mid-1870s published a journal/newspaper called "Nabat" (alarm bell, or tocsin) in Geneva. He believed in a tightly-organized revolutionary party whose primary duty was to overthrow the government and seize power. Do not worry about the masses; carry out the revolution in their name using a disciplined, revolutionary elite.  Nechaev also believed in the use of a revolutionary elite devoid of any ethical considerations-- Nechaev murdered one of his collaborators who dared to question Nechaev's methods--to bring about the revolution.

Let's finish this unit by reading some of Nechaev's Catechism of a Revolutionary. (There is a slightly revised version available from Alan Kimball).

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Some recommended books
  • Paul Avrich, The Russian Anarchists (1967)
  • Avrahm Yarmolinsky, Road to Revolution: A Century of Russian Radicalism (1962)
  • Abbott Gleason, Young Russia: The Genesis of Russian Radicalism in the 1860s (1980)
  • Paul Avrich, Bakunin and Nechaev (1974)
  • Philip Pomper, Serge Nechaev (1979)
  • Eugene Lampert, Sons against Fathers: Studies in Russian Radicalism and Revolution (1965)
  • Mikhail Bakunin, The Confession of Mikhail Bakunin: with the Marginal Comments of Tsar Nicholas I, edited by Lawrence Orton (1977).  There are various collections of his writings, such as Bakunin on Anarchism (2002); What Is Anarchism?: An Introduction (1993); or Marxism, Freedom, and the State (1990).
  • Albert Weeks, The First Bolshevik: A Political Biography of Peter Tkachev (1968)
  • Jay Bergman, Vera Zasulich (1983)
  • E. H. Carr, Michael Bakunin (1937)
  • Derek Offord, The Russian Revolutionary Movement in the 1880s (1987)
  • Deborah Hardy, Land and Freedom: The Origins of Russian Terrorism, 1876-79 (1987)
  • Vera Figner, Memoirs of a Revolutionist (1927)
  • David Footman, Red Prelude: A Life of A. I., Zheliabov (1968)
Some recommended websites



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For information contact cevans@nvcc.edu