IV Red Ink

1 Inside the Fortress

At the mouth of the Neva River, directly opposite the Winter Palace, stands the Fortress of Peter and Paul. Constructed in 1703 by Peter the Great as a bastion against the Swedish fleet, it was the first building in St Petersburg, and for several years served as the capital of his vast Empire. Once the rest of the city had been constructed — on the bones of the serfs who died building it — the tiny island fortress ceased to be the seat of tsarist rule, but it continued to symbolize its awesome power. The tombs of the tsars were kept in its cathedral, whose golden spire rose like a needle above the centre of the capital. And inside the thick stone walls and beneath the eight towers of the fortress was concealed the most infamous of all the regime's political prisons. Its list of inmates reads like a roll of honour of the Russian radical and revolutionary movements: Radishchev; the Decembrists; the Petrashevtsy; Kropotkin; Chernyshevsky; Bakunin; Tkachev; Nechaev; Populists and Marxists; workers and students — they all suffered in its damp and gloomy cells. In its two centuries as a jail not a single prisoner ever escaped from the fortress, although many found a different form of deliverance through suicide or insanity.

This 'Russian Bastille' not only held captive dangerous subversives; it captured the popular imagination. Folksongs and ballads portrayed the fortress as a living hell. Legends abounded of how its prisoners were tortured, of how they languished in dark and vermin-ridden dungeons, or were driven mad by its tomb-like silence (enforced as part of the prison regime). Tales were told of prisoners kept in cells so small that they could neither stand nor lie down but had to curl up like a ball; after a while their bodies became twisted and deformed. There were stories of secret executions, of prisoners being forced to dig their own graves on the frozen river at night before being drowned beneath the ice. In the minds of the common people the fortress became a monstrous symbol of the despotism under which they lived, a symbol of their fears and lack of freedom, and the fact that it was located right in the middle of St Petersburg, that people daily passed by its secret horrors, only made it seem more terrible.

In fact, conditions in the prison were not as bad as people believed. Compared with the conditions which the tyrannies of the twentieth century have provided for their victims, the fortress was like a comfortable hotel. Most of the inmates had access to food and tobacco, books and writing paper, and could receive letters from their relatives. The Bolshevik, Nikolai Bauman, was even allowed to read Marx's Capital during his stay in the prison. Several classics of Russian literature were composed in the silence of its cells, including Dostoevsky's story The Little Hero, Gorky's play The Children of the Sun, and Chernyshevsky's novel What Is To Be Done?, which became a seminal text of the revolutionary movement.* The public image of the prison — crammed full to bursting point with tens of thousands of long-term inmates — could not have been further from the truth. There were never more than a hundred prisoners there at any time, and after 1908 never more than thirty. Few stayed more than a month or so before being transferred to provincial jails. In February 1917, when the fortress was finally taken by the crowd, the anti-climactic reality of liberating a mere nineteen prisoners (all of them mutinous soldiers imprisoned only the previous day) was not allowed to intrude on the revolutionaries' mythic expectations. The event was portrayed as Freedom's triumph over Despotism.

This reinvention of the fortress was a vital aspect of the revolutionaries' demonology. If the tsarist regime was to be depicted as cruel and oppressive, secretive and arbitrary in its penal powers, then the fortress was a perfect symbol of those sins. During the latter half of the nineteenth century, as in reality it became more benign, its prison regime was described in the writings of its former inmates with increasingly exaggerated horror. There was a fashion for gothic prison memoirs during the last decades of the old regime, and these tales fed the public's appetite for revolutionary martyrs. As Gorky put it, when once asked why he had refused to add his memoirs to the pile: 'Every Russian who has ever sat in jail, if only for a month, as a "political", or who has spent a year in exile, considers it his holy duty to bestow on Russia his memoirs of how he has suffered.'1

To its critics the Peter and Paul Fortress was a microcosm of the tsarist system. Russia, remarked the Marquis de Custine after visiting the fortress in the 1830s, is 'in itself a prison; a prison whose vast size only makes it the more formidable'. The basic structure of the tsarist police state had been built up under Nicholas I after the Decembrist uprising of 1825, when a small coterie of liberal noblemen had conspired — as Pushkin put it, 'between the claret and champagne' — to impose a constitution on the monarchy after Alexander Is death. Nicholas introduced sweeping laws — including a new code of censorship in 1826 that (uniquely in Europe at the time) obliged all printed matter to gain clearance from the censor before publication — to stamp out all political dissent.

* Chernyshevsky's novel was published while he was still in the Peter and Paul Fortress — only to be subsequently banned!


The Third Section, or secret police, established that year, had — and this was once again unique in Europe — the power to detain and even send into administrative exile in Siberia anyone suspected of 'political crimes'. No other country in the world had two kinds of police — one to protect the interests of the state, the other to protect its people.

Yet it was not until the late nineteenth century, with the arrival of telegraphs and telephones, that the machinery of the police state became really efficient. The Okhrana, which took over the functions of the Third Section in 1881, fought what can only be described as a secret war, using special powers outside the law, to stamp out revolutionaries. It had thousands of agents and informers, many of them posing as revolutionaries, who reported on conditions in the factories, the universities, the army and the institutions of the state itself. House porters filed daily reports to the police. Hundreds of bureaucrats were employed in a 'Black Office' to read people's intercepted mail. 'The whole of St Petersburg is aware that its letters are read by the police,' complained Countess Vorontsova to Nicholas II. There was a huge list of activities — from putting on a concert or opening a shop to consulting the works of Darwin — for which even the most high-born citizen required a licence from the police. Indeed, from the perspective of the individual, it could be said that the single greatest difference between Russia and the West, both under Tsarism and Communism, was that in Western Europe citizens were generally free to do as they pleased so long as their activities had not been specifically prohibited by the state, while the people of Russia were not free to do anything unless the state had given them specific permission to do it. No subject of the Tsar, regardless of his rank or class, could sleep securely in his bed in the knowledge that his house would not be subject to a search, or he himself to arrest.2

This constant battle with the police state engendered a special kind of mentality among its opponents. One can draw a straight line from the penal rigours of the tsarist regime to the terrorism of the revolutionaries and indeed to the police state of the Bolsheviks. As Flaubert put it, 'inside every revolutionary there is a policeman'. Felix Dzerzhinsky (1877—1926), the founding father of the Cheka, was a classic case in point. By 1917 he had spent the best part of his adult life in jails and penal exile, including the last three in the Orel prison, notorious for its sadistic tortures, where, as the leader of a hunger strike, he was singled out for punishment (his body was said to be covered with scars). Once installed in power, he was to copy many of these torture methods during the Red Terror. Yet Dzerzhinsky was only one of many poachers turned gamekeepers. By 1917, the average Bolshevik Party activist had spent nearly four years in tsarist jails or exile; the average Menshevik nearly five. Prison hardened the revolutionaries. It prepared them for 'the struggle', giving them a private reason to hate the old regime and to seek revenge against its representatives. Kanatchikov, who spent several years in tsarist jails, claimed that for Bolshevized workers like himself prison acted as a form of 'natural selection': 'the weak in spirit left the revolution, and often life, but the strong and steadfast were toughened and prepared for future battles'. Many years later, in 1923, Kanatchikov was told that one of the judges who had sentenced him to jail in 1910 had been shot by the Bolsheviks. 'When I heard this', Kanatchikov confessed, 'it gave me great satisfaction'.3

Justifying violence in the name of revolution was not exclusive to the revolutionaries. Among the educated elite there was a general cult of revolutionism. The Russian 'intelligentsia' (a Russian word by derivation) was less a class than a state of mind: it meant by definition a stance of radical and uncompromising opposition to the tsarist regime, and a willingness to take part in the struggle for its overthrow. The history of the revolutionary movement is the history of the intelligentsia. Most of the revolutionary leaders were first and foremost intellectuals. Their heads were full of European literature and history, especially the history of the French Revolutions of 1789 and 1848. 'I think', recalled Lydia Dan, a Menshevik, 'that as people we were much more out of books than out of real life.'4 No other single group of intellectuals has had such a huge impact on the twentieth-century world.

Those who thought of themselves as intelligenty (students, writers, professionals, etc.) had a special set of ethics, and shared codes of dress and language, notions of honour and comradeship, not to mention salons and coffeehouses, clubs and social circles, newspapers and journals, which set them apart as a sort of sub-culture from the rest of the privileged society from which most of them had sprung. Many of them even shared a distinct 'look' — unkempt, long-haired, bearded and bespectacled — which became the hallmark of left-wingers and revolutionaries across the world.* The philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev once compared the Russian intelligentsia to a 'monastic order' or 'religious sect'; and there was much in their mentality akin to Christianity. Take, for example, their rejection of the existing order as sinful and corrupt; or their self-image as the righteous champions of the 'people's cause'; or indeed their almost mystical belief in the existence of absolute truth. The radical intelligentsia had a religious veneration for the revolutionary literary canon. Ariadna Tyrkova-Williams recalls, for example, how in the 1880s her teenage sister 'used to smuggle a volume of revolutionary verses into Church during afternoon prayers and, while the others read from the Bible, she would recite their summons to revolt and terror'.5

* Lydia Dan's father had a nice way of poking fun at these self-conscious radicals. Boys, he said, did not cut their hair on the grounds that they did not have time; but women cut their hair short also to save time. Women went to university on the grounds that this was a mark of progress; but men dropped out of the education system on the grounds that this was also progressive.


This self-conscious tradition stemmed from the Decembrists. Their execution in 1826 produced the first martyrs of 'the movement'. Younger generations took romantic inspiration from the self-sacrifice of these noble Jacobins. From that point on — and here was born the cult of opposition — it became the fashion for the sons of noblemen to shun careers in the Civil Service 'out of principle'. It was seen as a moral betrayal to let oneself be used, as Chicherin put it, 'as a direct tool of a government which was repressing mercilessly every thought and all enlightenment'. Bloody-minded opposition to the tsarist state and all its officials, however petty, was a matter of honour. Consider the story of Anatolii Dubois, a student of the University of St Petersburg in 1902, who refused ('on principle') to shake the hand of a police sergeant who, whilst registering his new address, had engaged him in a friendly conversation and had offered to shake hands as a parting gesture. A police report was made to the rector of the university and Dubois was expelled — only to join the revolutionary movement and get himself arrested in 1903. It was a typical example of the tsarist police state, by a stupid act of repression, forcing a middle-class dissident into the revolutionary underground out of which the terrorist tradition developed (Lenin's own story was very similar). The radical intelligentsia contemptuously rejected any act of compromise with 'the regime': only violent struggle could bring about its end. Liberalism was denounced as a weak half-measure. The law was despised as a tool of the state: it was said to be morally inferior to the peasants' ancient customs and to the interests of social justice — which justified breaking the law. This was the shaky moral foundation of the revolutionary sentiment that gripped the minds of the educated middle classes during the later nineteenth century. Vera Figner, who was herself a terrorist, spoke of a 'cult of the bomb and the gun' in which 'murder and the scaffold took on a magnetic charm'. Within the intelligentsia's circles it was deemed a matter of 'good taste' to sympathize with the terrorists and many wealthy citizens donated large sums of money to them.6

It is impossible to understand this political extremism without first considering the cultural isolation of the Russian intelligentsia. This tiny elite was isolated from official Russia by its politics, and from peasant Russia by its education. Both chasms were unbridgeable. But, perhaps even more importantly, it was cut off from the European cultural world which it sought to emulate. The consequence, as Isaiah Berlin has so elegantly argued, was that ideas imported from the West (as nearly all ideas in Russia were) tended to become frozen into abstract dogmas once the Russian intelligentsia took them up. Whereas in Europe new ideas were forced to compete against other doctrines and attitudes, with the result that people tended towards healthy scepticism about claims to absolute truth, and a climate of pluralism developed, in Russia there was a cultural void. The censor forbade all political expression, so that when ideas were introduced there they easily assumed the status of holy dogma, a panacea for all the world's ills, beyond questioning or indeed the need to test them in real life. One European intellectual fashion would spread through St Petersburg after another — Hegelianism in the 1840s, Darwinism in the 1860s, Marxism in the 1890s — and each was viewed in turn as a final truth.7 There was much that was endearing in this strangely Russian search for absolutes — such as the passion for big ideas that gave the literature of nineteenth-century Russia its unique character and power — and yet the underside of this idealism was a badgering didacticism, a moral dogmatism and intolerance, which in its own way was just as harmful as the censorship it opposed. Convinced that their own ideas were the key to the future of the world, that the fate of humanity rested on the outcome of their own doctrinal struggles, the Russian intelligentsia divided up the world into the forces of 'progress' and 'reaction', friends and enemies of the people's cause, leaving no room for doubters in between. Here were the origins of the totalitarian world-view. Although neither would have liked to admit it, there was much in common between Lenin and Tolstoy.

Guilt was the psychological inspiration of the revolution. Nearly all of these radical intellectuals were acutely conscious of their wealth and privilege. 'We have come to realise', the radical thinker Nikolai Mikhailovsky wrote, 'that our awareness of the universal truth could only have been reached at the cost of the age-old suffering of the people. We are the peoples debtors and this debt weighs down on our conscience.' As the children of noblemen brought up by serf domestics on the estate, many of them felt a special personal sense of guilt, since, as Marc Raeff has pointed out, these 'little masters' had usually been allowed to treat their serf nannies and 'uncles' (whose job it had been to play with them) with cruel contempt.* Later in life these conscience-stricken nobles would seek to repay their debt to 'the people' by serving them in the revolution. If only, they thought, they could bring about the people's liberation, then their own original sin — that of being born into privilege — would be redeemed. Nineteenth-century Russian literature was dominated by the theme of repentance for the sin of privilege. Take, for example, Prince Levin in Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, who works alongside the peasants in his fields and dreams of giving them the profits of his farm so as to bring about a 'bloodless revolution': 'in place of poverty there would be wealth and happiness for all; in place of hostility, concord and a bond of common interest'.8

These peasant nannies and domestic servants would not even be called by their proper names but by a pet name such as Masha or Vanka. They were thus denied the most basic recognition of a personality.


The first step towards this reconciliation was to immerse oneself in the people's daily lives. The romantic interest in folk culture which swept through Europe in the nineteenth century was felt nowhere more keenly than among the Russian intelligentsia. As Blok wrote (with just a touch of irony) in 1908:

the intelligentsia cram their bookcases with anthologies of Russian folksongs, epics, legends, incantations, dirges; they investigate Russian mythology, wedding and funeral rites; they grieve for the people; go to the people; are filled with high hopes; fall into despair; they even give up their lives, face execution or starve to death for the people's cause.

Riddled with the guilt of privilege, the intelligentsia worshipped at the altar of 'the people'. They believed profoundly in their mission of service to the people, just as their noble fathers had believed in their duty of service to the state. And in their world-view the 'good of the people' was the highest interest, to which all other principles, such as law or morals, were subordinate. Here was the root of the revolutionaries' maxim that any means could be justified in the interests of the revolution.

For all too many of these high-born revolutionaries, the main attraction of 'the cause' lay not so much in the satisfaction which they might derive from seeing the people's daily lives improved, as in their own romantic search for a sense of 'wholeness' which might give higher meaning to their lives and end their alienation from the world. This was certainly the case with Mikhail Bakunin, the founding father of Russian Anarchism, as Aileen Kelly has so brilliantly shown in her biography of him. It was, as she puts it, his own need 'to identify with a meaningful collective entity' that led this wealthy nobleman to sublimate his (quite enormous) ego in the abstract notion of the people's cause. The history of the revolutionary movement is to a large extent the prosopography of such noble and bourgeois intellectuals seeking this sense of belonging. They thought they had found it in the clan-like atmosphere of the revolutionary underground.

As for their commitment to 'the people', it was essentially abstract. They loved Man but were not so sure of individual men. M. V Petrashevsky, the Utopian theorist, summed it up when he proclaimed: 'unable to find anything either in women or in men worthy of my adherence, I have turned to devote myself to the service of humanity'. In this idealized abstraction of 'the people' there was not a little of that snobbish contempt which aristocrats are inclined to nurture for the habits of the common man. How else can one explain the authoritarian attitudes of such revolutionaries as Bakunin, Speshnev, Tkachev, Plekhanov and Lenin, if not by their noble origins? It was as if they saw the people as agents of their abstract doctrines rather than as suffering individuals with their own complex needs and ideals. Ironically, the interests of 'the cause' sometimes meant that the people's conditions had to deteriorate even further, to bring about the final cataclysm. 'The worse, the better,' as Chernyshevsky often said (meaning the worse things became, the better it was for the revolution). He had advocated, for example, the emancipation of the serfs without land in 1861 on the grounds that this would have resulted 'in an immediate catastrophe'.9* In this contempt for the living conditions of the common people were the roots of the authoritarianism to which the revolution had such a tragic propensity. Its leaders sought to liberate 'the people' according to their own abstract notions of Truth and Justice. But if the people were unwilling to be led in that direction, or became too chaotic to control, then they would have to be forced to be free.

* * * Literature in modern Russia always was a surrogate for politics. Nowhere else was Shelley's maxim — that 'poets are the unofficial legislators of the world' — so tragically relevant as in Russia. In the absence of credible politicians, the Russian public looked to its writers for moral leadership in the fight against autocracy. 'That is why', Vissarion Belinsky wrote to Gogol in 1847, 'so much attention is given to every liberal literary trend, even in the case of inferior talent, and why the popularity of even great writers rapidly declines when they enlist in the service of autocracy.' Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the intelligentsia had shaped its social codes and conventions according to literary models and the morals drawn from them by literary critics.10 Russian literary criticism, which Belinsky founded, served as a vehicle for political ideas, albeit in an Aesopian language that repaid careful reading between the lines. All the early revolutionary theorists (Herzen, Belinsky, Dobroliubov, Chernyshevsky) wrote mainly about literature. It was through the literary journals of the 1850s, such as Herzen's The Bell and Chernyshevsky's The Contemporary, which mixed literature with social comment, that the basic ideas of the revolutionary movement were first publicized to a mass audience. No other culture attached such status to the high-brow periodical. These 'thick' literary journals were read and discussed by virtually the whole of educated society.f There was nothing like it in the West, where freedom of expression resulted in widespread political apathy.

* It was a doctrine that Lenin was to follow. During the famine of 1891 he opposed the idea of humanitarian relief on the grounds that the famine would force millions of destitute peasants to flee to the cities and join the ranks of the proletariat: this would bring the revolution one step closer.

* The 'thick' literary journals had a similar influence in the Soviet period with publications such as Novyi Mir, which had a readership of tens of millions. They were also vehicles for political ideas in a system where open political debate had been banned.


The Edinburgh Review, which was perhaps the nearest equivalent in the nineteenth century, was read by only a tiny elite.

From Belinsky on, the self-imposed mission of Russian literature was both social and didactic: to highlight the motive forces of society and to lead the people towards a new and democratic life. No other literature gave such prominence to the social novel: it dominated the literary canon from the 1840s and Dostoevsky's Poor Folk to the 1900s and Gorky's Mother. (The latter in turn became the model for the reincarnation of the social novel in its Sovietized version of Socialist Realism.) As a form of moral instruction, the social novel nearly always contained a 'positive hero' who embodied the virtues of the New Man. A commitment to the people's cause, often at the expense of great self-sacrifice, was an essential attribute of such fictional heroes. Characters interested in the aesthetic, or in pursuits unconnected with the cause, were 'superfluous men, alienated from society.

The most heroic of these positive heroes was Rakhmetev in Chernyshev-sky's dreadful novel What Is To Be Done? (1862). This monolithic titan, who was to serve as a model for a whole generation of revolutionaries (including Lenin), renounces all the pleasures of life in order to harden his superhuman will and make himself insensible to the human suffering which the coming revolution is bound to create. He is a puritan and an ascetic: on one occasion he even sleeps on a bed of nails in order to stifle his sexual urges. He trains his body by gymnastics and lilting weights. He eats nothing but raw steak. He trains his mind in a similar way, reading 'only trie essential' (politics and science) for days and nights on end until he has absorbed the wisdom of humankind. Only then does the revolutionary hero set out on his mission to 'work for the benefit of the people'. Nothing diverts him from the cause, not even the amorous attentions of a young and beautiful widow, whom he rejects. The life he leads is rigorous and disciplined: it proceeds like clockwork, with so much time for reading every day, so much time for exercise and so on. Yet (and here is the message of the story) it is only through such selfless dedication that the New Man is able to transcend the alienated existence of the old 'superfluous man'. He finds salvation through politics.11

Allowing the publication of Chernyshevsky's novel was one of the biggest mistakes the tsarist censor ever made: for it converted more people to the cause of the revolution than all the works of Marx and Engels put together (Marx himself learned Russian in order to read it). Plekhanov, the 'founder of Russian Marxism', said that from that novel 'we have all drawn moral strength and faith in a better future'. The revolutionary theorist Tkachev called it the 'gospel' of the movement; Kropotkin the 'banner of Russian youth'. One young revolutionary of the 1860s claimed that there were only three great men in history: Jesus Christ, St Paul and Chernyshevsky. Lenin, whose own ascetic lifestyle bore a disturbing resemblance to Rakhmetev's, read the novel five times in one summer. He later acknowledged that it had been crucial in converting him to the revolutionary movement. It completely reshaped me,' he told Valentinov in 1904. 'This is a book that changes one for a whole lifetime.' Chernyshevsky's importance, in Lenin's view, was that he had 'not only showed that every right-thinking and really honest man must be a revolutionary, but also — and this is his greatest merit — what a revolutionary must be like. Rakhmetev, with his superhuman will and selfless dedication to the cause, was the perfect model of the Bolshevik.12

Chernyshevsky's hero was also an inspiration to the nihilistic students of the 1860s. His asceticism, his belief in science, and his rejection of the old moral order appealed to them. Their 'nihilism' entailed a youthful rebellion against the artistic dabbling of their father's generation (the 'men of the forties'); a militant utilitarianism, materialism and belief in progress through the application of scientific methods to society; and a general questioning of all authority, moral and religious, which was manifested in a revolutionary passion to destroy. Dmitry Pisarev, one of the student idols of the 1860s, urged his followers to hit out right and left at all institutions, on the grounds that whatever collapsed from their blows was not worth preserving. As Bakunin put it, since the old Russia was rotten to the core, it was 'a creative urge' to destroy it. These were the angry young men of their day. Many of them came from relatively humble backgrounds — the sons of priests, such as Chernyshevsky, or of mixed social origins (raznochintsy) — so that their sense of Russia's worthlessness was reinforced by their own feelings of underprivilege. Chernyshevsky, for example, often expressed a deep hatred and feeling of shame for the backwardness of Saratov province where he had grown up. 'It would be better', he once wrote, 'not to be born at all than to be born a Russian.' There was a long tradition of national self-hatred among the Russian intelligentsia, stemming from the fact that they were so cut off from the ordinary people and had always modelled themselves on the West.13

These restless youths found another mirror of their attitudes in Bazarov, the young hero of Turgenev's novel Fathers and Sons (1862). Turgenev (a 'man of the forties') had intended him as a monstrous caricature of the nihilists, whom he regarded as narrowly materialist, morally slippery and artistically philistine, although later he would pretend otherwise. There was a striking resemblance between Bazarov and the student idol Pisarev. Yet such was the gulf of misunderstanding between the fathers and sons of real life that the young radicals took his faults as virtues and acclaimed Bazarov as their ideal man.

The manifesto of these juvenile Jacobins was written by Zaichnevsky, an imprisoned student agitator, in 1862. Young Russia, as it was called in imitation of Young Italy, had little else in common with Mazzini's creed. It advocated the violent seizure of power by a small but well-disciplined group of conspirators, followed by the establishment of a revolutionary dictatorship which would carry out the socialist transformation of society and exterminate all its enemies, including democrats and any socialists who opposed it. The manifesto could have passed for a description of what the Bolsheviks actually did (they later claimed Zaichnevsky as their own). It planned to nationalize the land and industry, to bring all children under the care of the state, and to fix the elections to a newly convened constituent assembly to ensure that the government side won. This would be 'a bloody revolution' but, Zaichnesvky claimed, 'we are not afraid of it, even though we know that a river of blood will flow and that many innocent victims will perish'. In one of the most chilling passages of the Russian revolutionary canon, he weighed up the likely costs:

Soon, very soon, the day will come when we shall unfurl the great banner of the future, the red flag, and with a mighty cry of 'Long Live the Russian Social and Democratic Republic!' we shall move against the Winter Palace to exterminate all its inhabitants. It may be that it will be sufficient to kill only the imperial family, i.e. about 100 people; but it may also happen, and this is more likely, that the whole imperial party will rise as one man behind the Tsar, because for them it will be a matter of life and death. If this should happen, then with faith in ourselves and our strength, in the support of the people, and in the glorious future of Russia — whose fate it is to be the first country to bring about the triumph of socialism — we shall raise the battle-cry: 'To your axes!' and we shall kill the imperial party with no more mercy than they show for us now. We shall kill them in the squares, if the dirty swine ever dare to appear there; kill them in their houses; kill them in the narrow streets of the towns; kill them in the avenues of the capitals; "kill them in the villages. Remember: anyone who is not with us is our enemy, and every method may be used to exterminate our enemies.14

This new spirit of violence and hatred was even more pronounced in the writings of Sergei Nechaev. Lenin placed a high value on them as a theory of revolutionary conspiracy. Born in 1847 into a serf family, Nechaev was the first revolutionary theorist in Russia to emerge from the lower classes rather than the intelligentsia. Put out to factory work from the age of nine, he taught himself to read and write and then qualified, in 1866, as an instructor of religion. His propaganda among the students and workers of St Petersburg during the late 1860s was dominated by the theme of class revenge. 'Nechaev', wrote Vera Zasulich, a Populist who would later become a Menshevik, 'was not a product of our intelligentsia milieu. He was alien to it. It was not opinions, derived from contact with this milieu, which underlay his revolutionary energy, but burning hatred, and not only hatred against the government. . . but against all of society, all educated strata, all these gentlefolk, rich and poor, conservative, liberal and radical.' He was, in short, a Bolshevik before the Bolsheviks.

Nechaev is principally remembered for the Revolutionary Catechism, written either by him or possibly by Bakunin in collaboration with him in 1869. Its twenty-six articles, setting out the principles of the professional revolutionary, might have served as the Bolshevik oath. The morals of that party owed as much to Nechaev as they did to Marx. Ruthless discipline and dedication were the key themes of the Catechism. Its essential message was that only 'Tsarist methods' — i.e. the methods of the police state — were capable of defeating the tsarist regime. Its first article read:

The revolutionary is a dedicated man. He has no personal feelings, no private affairs, no emotions, no attachments, no property, and no name. Everything in him is subordinated towards a single exclusive attachment, a single thought and a single passion — the revolution.

Rejecting all morality, the revolutionary must be ready 'to destroy everyone who stands in his way'. He must harden himself to all suffering: All the soft and tender feelings of the family, friendship and love, even all gratitude and honour, must be stifled, and in their place there must be the cold and single-minded passion for the work of the revolution.' The revolutionary was to relate to members of society in accordance with their designated purpose in the revolution. So, for example, the ruling elites were to be 'executed without delay'; the rich exploited for the benefit of the cause; and the democrats compromised and used to create disorder. Even the lower-ranking party comrades were to be thought of as 'portions of a common fund of revolutionary capital' which each leader was to expend 'as he thinks fit'.

One comrade who proved to be expendable was Ivan Ivanov. Together with three of his fellow-conspirators Nechaev murdered him after he refused to carry out Necheev's dictatorial orders as the leader of a revolutionary student group. The brutality of the killing, which Dostoevsky used in The Possessed as the basis for Shatov's murder scene,* led to a widespread feeling of moral revulsion, even among the socialists. Bakunin (who had formerly been Nechaev's mentor) wrote to a London friend in 1870, eight months after Ivanov's murder, warning him not to help the Russian fugitive:

* Dostoevsky, who had himself belonged to the Petrashevsky revolutionary circle in the 1850s, used this novel to attack the mentality of the revolutionaries, especially the nihilists. Petr Verkhoven-sky, its central character, is clearly based upon Nechaev. At one point in the novel he says that it would be justified to kill a million people in the struggle against despotism because in the course of a hundred years the despots would kill many more.


N. does not stop at anything.. . Deeply impressed by the [police repressions] which destroyed the secret organization in Russia, he came to the conclusion that if he was to form a strong organization he would have to base it on the principles of Machiavelli and the motto of the Jesuits: 'Violence for the body, lies for the soul!' Truth, mutual trust, solidarity — these can only exist among the dozen comrades who make up the inner sanctum of the Society. All the rest are no more than a blind instrument, expendable by these dozen men. It is allowed, indeed a duty, to cheat them, compromise them, and steal from them; it is even allowed to have them killed.15

The police did eventually catch up with Nechaev. In 1872 he was arrested in Switzerland and extradited to Russia, where he was imprisoned in solitary confinement in the Peter and Paul Fortress. Nothing more was heard of him — he was assumed to have died — until eight years later when a group of terrorists suddenly received a letter from him containing a plan for his escape. By the sheer force of his personality Nechaev had won over his own guards and had (literally) set up an underground revolutionary cell in the dungeons of this tsarist bastion. These guards had smuggled out the letter. Later, when they were brought to trial, they chose to go to jail themselves rather than denounce their leader. Yet it was already too late for Nechaev (he died in the fortress the following year). Since his imprisonment the climate had changed and the new creed, Populism, had turned away from his putschist tactics and begun to look instead to mass propaganda and education as a means of igniting a social revolution.

Populism was less a doctrine than a set of sentiments and attitudes. At its root was the intelligentsia's adoration of the simple folk, and a belief in their wisdom and goodness. The cult was expressed as much in literature as it was in politics and social theories. Although the term was only really used from the 1870s onwards, the three basic principles of Populism — the primacy of liberty and democracy, the idealization of the peasantry and the belief that Russia's path to socialism was autochthonous and separate from that of the West — were common to a long tradition of Russian thought beginning in the 1840s with the radical Slavophiles and Herzen and culminating half a century later with the formation of the Social Revolutionary Party.

Disillusioned with bourgeois Europe after the failure of the 1848 Revolutions, Herzen pinned his hopes on peasant Russia — Young Russia, as he called it — to lead the way to socialism. The peasant commune was the bearer of this messianic mission. Herzen saw it as the indestructible repository of Russia's ancient freedoms, an organic symbol of her authentic condition before the imposition of the tsarist state and its 'German' civilization. This was of course a romantic vision: it stemmed from the same craving for a simple fraternal life, unspoilt by modern civilization, and from the same belief in the 'noble savage', which had inspired intellectuals since Rousseau. The commune, argued Herzen, already contained the socialist ideals towards which the rest of Europe — the Old (and 'dying') Europe — was still striving. It was democratic and egalitarian, based on the sharing of the land; it fostered a spirit of community and social harmony among the peasants; and through its ancient customs it expressed a deeper sense of social justice and morality than the Western legal tradition, based on the defence of private property. The commune, in short, offered Russia the chance to move directly towards socialism without first experiencing the painful effects of capitalism.

Herzen's theory of revolution came down to one central proposition: since the source of all freedom was in the people, and the source of all oppression in the tsarist state, Russia could only be liberated through a genuine social revolution. This would have to be a democratic revolution, one that came from below and was based on the will of the people. It would also have to be a total revolution, one that overturned the alien civilization upon which the tsarist system had been based, since the Russian people were too oppressed to be satisfied by the 'half-freedoms' of political reform. This had important implications for the methods of the revolutionaries; and it was here that Herzen left his imprint on the later Populist movement. No minority had the right to enforce its abstract ideals on the people. There was to be no more talk of conspiracy and seizing power — which was bound to end in tyranny and terror. Instead of breaking down the tsarist prison walls it would merely 'give them a new function, as if a plan for a jail could be used for a free existence'.16 The only democratic means of revolution were education and propaganda to help the people understand their own best interests and to prepare them gradually for the tasks of power.

Democratic as this ideal was, it raised a huge dilemma for the Populists (and later for the Marxists). If the revolution was to come from the people themselves then what should the revolutionary leaders do if the people rejected the revolution? What if the peasants proved conservative? Or if the workers were more interested in sharing the benefits of capitalism than in trying to overthrow it? All the revolutionary parties — none of which numbered more than a few hundred at this stage — were divided on this question: where should they draw the line between the rank and file and the leadership, between democracy and dictatorship, within the party? Among the Populists there were, on the one hand, those such as Plekhanov and Pavel Axelrod, who argued that there was no alternative but to wait until propaganda and education had prepared the ground for a mass social movement. The revolution could not otherwise be justified as democratic and was likely to end in a new dictatorship. The Mensheviks in the Social Democratic Party later espoused the same principles. But, on the other hand, Populists like Tkachev argued that to wait indefinitely for a social revolution, and in the meantime to condemn all forms of revolt and terrorism by its elite vanguard, was to run the risk of allowing the tsarist order to stabilize itself through the advance of capitalism. Only by seizing power first and establishing a revolutionary dictatorship was it possible to secure the necessary political conditions for the transition to socialism. This idea also had its followers in the Social Democratic Party: it became the guiding principle of Lenin's theory of revolution.

This was the dilemma the Populists faced after the collapse of the 'To the People' movement. During the 'mad summer' of 1874 thousands of students left their lecture halls to 'go to the people'. There was no real organization, although many of these missionaries belonged to the circles of Lavrov and Chaikovsky, which believed in spreading propaganda among the peasants in preparation for the inevitable revolution. Dressed like peasants or petty traders, these young idealists flooded into the countryside with the aim of 'serving the people' by teaching them how to read and write, by taking jobs as simple labourers, and by helping them to understand the causes of their suffering. Guilt and the desire for self-sacrifice played a large role in this revolutionary passion play. The students were acutely conscious of the need to repay their 'debt to the people'. They embraced the idea of living with the peasants and sharing in their sufferings. They were ready to run the risks of catching cholera, or of being arrested and sent to jail. Some even welcomed the idea of becoming a martyr 'for the people': it would make them into heroes. 'You will be washing pots and plucking chickens,' one of these fictionalized students Mariana is told in Turgenev's novel Virgin Soil. 'And, who knows, maybe you will save your country in that way.' The peasants, however, met these childish crusaders with mistrust and hostility. They found their urban manners and doctrines alien; and while they did not understand their propaganda, they understood enough to know that it was dangerous. 'Socialism', one of the Populists later wrote, 'bounced off the peasants like peas from a wall. They listened to our people as they do to the priest — respectfully but without the slightest effect on their thinking or their actions.' Most of the radicals were soon rounded up by the police, sometimes tipped off by the local peasants.17

This sobering encounter with the common people led the Populists to turn away disillusioned from propaganda and the social revolution. "We cannot change the thinking of even one in six hundred peasants, let alone of one in sixty,' Stepniak wrote to Lavrov in 1876. 'Everyone is beginning to realize the need for organization ... A revolt has to be organized.'18 The result was the emergence of a more centralized party structure than the loose circles of the early 1870s. It took the name of Land and Liberty (Zemlia i Volia), established that year, which turned away from open propaganda to underground conspiracy and political work. On 6 December 1876 it organized the first public demonstration in Russian history.

The wheel was turning full circle: having rejected Jacobinism in favour of a social revolution, the Populists were now returning to the Jacobin methods of conspiracy, terrorism and coups in the name of the people. The writings of Petr Tkachev marked the crucial watershed. They formed a bridge between the Jacobin tradition of Nechaev, the classic Populist tradition of Land and Liberty, and the Marxist tradition of Lenin. The Bolshevik leader owed more to Tkachev than to any other single Russian theorist. Born in 1844 into a minor gentry family, Tkachev had spent several years in the Peter and Paul Fortress after being arrested for his role in the student strikes of 1861. During the late 1860s he had fallen under Nechaev's spell — for which he spent another term in jail, followed by exile in Switzerland. It was there that, albeit crudely, he began to adopt the sociology of Marx, which led him away from Populism. In the mid-1870s he developed a violent critique of the 'To the People' movement. He claimed that propaganda could not bring about a revolution because the laws of social progress (to which Russia, like the rest of Europe, was subordinate) meant that the richer peasants would always support the regime. He argued instead for a seizure of power by the revolutionary vanguard, which would then set up a dictatorship and begin the construction of socialism. Tkachev claimed that the time was ripe for this putsch, which should take place as soon as possible, since as yet there was no real social force prepared to side with the government but there would soon be with the development of capitalism and the bourgeoisie. In a passage which Lenin was to echo in October 1917, Tkachev raised the battlecry: 'This is why we cannot wait. This is why we claim that a revolution is indispensable, and indispensable now, at this very moment. We cannot allow any postponement. It is now or — perhaps very soon — never! To carry through this coup d'etat Tkachev made it clear that there had to be an elitist and conspiratorial party, which, like an army, was highly disciplined and centralized. Here too Lenin was to echo him.19

Returning to the methods of the Jacobins, however, meant that the Populists, like their predecessors, were forced to engage in a hopeless war against the tsarist police state. A vicious cycle started of increasing repression by the police and counter-terror by the Populists. The turning point came in 1878, when Vera Zasulich, one of the leaders of Land and Liberty, shot and wounded General F. F. Trepov, the Governor of St Petersburg, as a reprisal for his order to have a student prisoner flogged who — in a typical gesture of defiance — had refused to take off his hat in the Governor's presence. Zasulich was hailed as a martyr for justice by the democratic intelligentsia, and was acquitted by a liberal court. This was the signal for a wave of terror, whose aim was to undermine the autocracy and to force it to make political concessions. Two provincial governors were killed. Six failed attempts were made on the Tsar, including a bomb on the imperial train and a huge explosion in the Winter Palace. Finally, on I March 1881, as Alexander was driving in his carriage through St Petersburg, he was killed by a bomb.

The widespread revulsion felt even amongst the revolutionaries to this wave of terrorism led to a split in Land and Liberty. One branch, calling itself the People's Will (Narodnaia Volia), espoused the ideals of Tkachev and stayed loyal to the tactics of terrorism leading to the violent seizure of power. Formed in 1879, this faction carried out the murder of the Tsar. Many of its leaders were later arrested — several of them executed — in the repressions that followed the assassination. But the campaign of terror which it had started was carried on by several other smaller groups in the 1880s. One of them included Lenin's elder brother, Alexander Ul'ianov, who was executed after a failed plot to assassinate Alexander III on the sixth anniversary of his father's death. The supposed aim of the campaign was to destabilize the state and provide a spark for a popular rebellion. But it soon degenerated — as all terror does — into violence for violence's sake. It has been estimated that over 17,000 people were killed or wounded by terrorists during the last twenty years of the tsarist regime — more than five times the number of people killed in Northern Ireland during the twenty-five years of 'the troubles'.20 Some of the terror was little more than criminal violence for personal gain. All the revolutionary parties financed themselves at least partly by robberies (which they euphemistically termed 'expropriations'), mainly of banks and trains, and there was little to stop those who did the stealing from pocketing the proceeds. This was bad enough for the moral climate of the revolutionary parties. But it was not nearly as damaging as the cumulative effect of years of killing, which resulted in a cynicism, an indifference and callousness, to the victims of their cause.

The rival branch of Land and Liberty called itself the Black Partition (Chernyi Peredel) — a peasant term for the revolution on the land. It was formed in 1880 by three future leading lights of the Social Democratic Party — Plekhanov, Axelrod and Zasulich — who would all convert to Marxism during the early 1880s. They rejected the use of terror, claiming it was bound to end in failure and renewed repression. They argued that only a social revolution, coming from the people themselves, could be both successful and democratic. The failure after Alexander's assassination to extract political concessions seemed to prove the correctness of their first claim; while the growth of the urban working class gave them new grounds for hope on the second. This was the real beginning of the Marxist movement in Russia.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!