Red: Russian Nihilists and Revolutionaries


Alexis de Tocqueville thought that the most critical time for the pre-revolutionary French monarchy had been when it conceded limited reforms. That assertion held good for late-nineteenth-century tsarist Russia too. Tsar Alexander II, who succeeded to the throne in 1855, embarked on liberalisation measures after the Crimean War had brutally exposed Russian backwardness. His principal reforming measures were the abolition of serfdom in 1861, and the modernisation of provincial government, the law courts and the army. Even the universities, which under his forbidding predecessor Nicholas I resembled socially exclusive reformatories, were opened to students from modest backgrounds who enjoyed a heady period of self-government. A gentler hand was initially evident too in the Russian regime in partitioned Poland, while disabilities imposed on religious sectarians and Jews were relaxed. The latter were allowed to live outside the Pale of Settlement, and Jewish converts to Orthodox Christianity could be, and were, appointed to high office.

Discontent developed because Alexander was torn between the liberal spirit of these reforms and the dying exhortation of his father Nicholas: ‘Hold on to everything.’ The tsar would not consider any constitutional concessions, thereby antagonising many Western-orientated liberals who sought some form of parliamentary government. Expanding higher education was all very well, but there was no corresponding increase in the positions open to graduates; many humanities graduates faced a life in penurious limbo that failed to match their ambitions. Similarly, there were no official steps taken to satisfy the desire of many educated young women to do something socially useful, or to attain parity of esteem with their male contemporaries. Most crucially, once the excitement was over, the emancipation of the serfs fell far below their heightened expectations, since they had to compensate their former masters for relinquishing a valuable commodity. Having forfeited their feudal authority through governmental edict, the landowners faced an ugly mood from peasants who felt they had been defrauded. In a village called Bezdna, a holy fool cum village idiot enjoined the peasants to resist soldiers who had come to enforce the rights of the landlords. He claimed to have the ‘real’ edict ‘written in golden letters’. Forty-one villagers were shot dead and seventy injured by the army. Despite evidence that the soldiers’ captain was insane, he was court-martialled and shot. Hopes rose in radical circles that such incidents of peasant unrest would lead to a general explosion of rural violence. Although Alexander had wanted to increase Polish self-government, this seemed only to fuel nationalist demonstrations - which were violently suppressed by Russian soldiers - and the romantic insurrectionism rife in Polish circles. As with the British and Ireland, so Russia’s troubles in Poland - and in the Baltic, Caucasus and Finland - were always regarded as an opportunity by Russia’s own domestic radicals.

Russian policy in Poland oscillated between concessions and repression: these equivocations resulted in the bizarre spectacle of the viceroy and the general commanding Warsaw fighting a so-called American duel, in which, after drawing the short straw, the general duly shot himself in the head and the viceroy resigned. In early 1863 the Russian authorities, sensing that an insurrection was imminent, decided to round up Warsaw’s radical young, sending them as conscripts to the depths of the Russian interior, a measure that duly triggered the insurrection. Polish partisans were easily crushed by Russian regulars. Twenty thousand insurgents were killed, and in the subsequent crackdown four hundred rebels went to the gallows and a further eighteen thousand to Siberia. The real beneficiaries of the Rising were Prussia and the USA. Alexander II looked on benevolently as Bismarck defeated Austria and France in the name of a united Germany, while to spite the British and French who supported both the Confederacy and the Polish rebels Alexander sold to the Union the wastes of Alaska for US$7 million. The final area in which Alexander took fright and pulled back from his earlier concessions was in the febrile universities. Confronted by evidence that the students were running an informal dictatorship over the professors, student assemblies were banned and limits were placed on the numbers receiving subsidised tuition. Two elderly generals were placed in charge of higher education. This led to student demonstrations which were suppressed with erratic brutality, for it was Alexander’s tragedy that, having failed to institute thoroughgoing liberal reforms, he proved incapable of re-establishing his father’s austere police regime too.1

Severally, these events led to the multiplication of revolutionary conspiracies among people whose general emotional and philosophical outlook needs to be briefly elaborated, for this was the milieu from which more select numbers of terrorists emerged. Although the ranks of terrorists included a few notorious psychopaths, the more typical pathology was a misdirected or frustrated altruism, experienced by people - from a variety of family and socioeconomic backgrounds - whose political goals ranged from the impeccably liberal to the most sanguinary Jacobin totalitarianism.2

The common idealistic fantasy was called Populism - that is, the belief that, once the crushing weight of the autocracy and aristocracy had been lifted off by revolution, the structures and habits of socialism allegedly inherent in the traditional peasant commune would be revealed. This was nonsense, albeit inspired by a moralising concern with social equality and justice, on the part of predominantly decent-minded people who wished to overcome the boredom and purposelessness of their own lives by doing good to others.

One can see this impulse at work in the young Vera Figner, the pretty daughter of a well-to-do justice of the peace of noble lineage, who attended one of Russia’s elite boarding schools. There she received a very limited education, chiefly in the art of deportment, essential training for society balls and ensnaring an acceptable husband. In her memoirs, Figner gave a presentiment of the lady she was not destined to be: dressed in a cloud-like gauzy white dress with white slippers and her dark hair in ringlets, about to make her lonely debut in a brilliantly lit ballroom filled with elegantly smart people. Nothing in her childhood explains her subsequent career - which she embarked on aged twenty-four - of lifelong revolutionary. There were no signs of psychological disorder; indeed, although rather frail, she was happy and not given to excessive introspection. As a teenager she was virtually unaware of the squalor in the surrounding villages of which her father was lord and master. It was her very happiness, however, that put her on her chosen path in life. Her ‘superabundance of joy’ awoke diffuse feelings of altruistic gratitude which, given the aimlessness of her privileged life, resulted in a vocation to do good. Late one night she was stung when, overhearing an aunt and cousin indulging in family gossip, they said that she, Vera, ‘is a beautiful doll’.

Liberal-minded relatives in her tight family circle introduced her to the heady ideas common among prosperous liberal Russians at the time. A chance reading of an article about the first, Swiss-trained, female physician led to her choice of a medical career. In an early display of feminine resolve, Figner persuaded her young lawyer husband to abandon his career so that she could study medicine in Zurich. There, she became rapidly alienated from her more conservative husband - notwithstanding his having given up his career for her - and so sceptical about her new-found vocation that she failed to qualify. Under the impact of radical student groups, she ‘came to see in the practice of medicine only a palliative for an evil which could be cured only by social and political means’. Vera had fallen for the myth of deep causes. She wrote to her husband renouncing any further relations with him and his future financial support. She consciously disavowed her own narrow ambitions, and the ‘egotism’ of the family that had encouraged them, in favour of the life of denial and sacrifice practised by revolutionaries in Russia. She returned to the - disillusioning - chaos of the revolutionary underground in Moscow. This seemed squalid, for nothing in Figner’s genteel background had prepared her for bribing policemen or consorting with gnarled criminals. Deeply depressed, she left to continue the work of propaganda in the countryside, after qualifying as a midwife. She would return to the city as a terrorist.3

Figner was an example of the many young upper-class women who engaged in terrorism. Why did they get involved? Apart from the keen sense of altruism many of them felt, terrorism was one of the few areas where women could play an active role, with their views being accorded equal respect to those of men and their lives exposed to the same hazards. Vera Zasulich, who became a revolutionary at the age of seventeen when her elder sister inducted her into radical student circles, regarded this as a way to escape the dismal fate of being a governess in a gentry household, the only future open to poor relations of rich people such as herself: ‘Of course it would have been much easier if I had been a boy; then I could have done what I wanted… And then, the distant specter of revolution appeared, making me the equal of any boy; I too could dream of “action”, of “exploits”, and of “the great struggle”… I too could join those “who perished for the great cause”.’4

Much of the inspiration behind Populism was a form of guilt on the part of the leisured educated and upper classes - for, instead of ruthlessly espousing their own selfish interests as Marxism avers, many members of Russia’s elites were only too eager to repudiate themselves. As Figner discovered in the villages, ‘only there could one have a clean soul and a quiet conscience’. Despite its outward espousal of atheism, Populism was an essentially Christian vision, in which redemptive virtue was ascribed to the lowest of the low, and paradise would dawn after their consciousness had been raised to revolutionary levels. Towards the end of her twenty-two years in prison, Figner told her family of a dream she had had:

I dreamed we four sisters were riding in a sleigh, over a perfectly black road, bare of snow, and that we were driving through a village, now uphill, now downhill. We passed rows of fine peasants’ houses, with sloping stone steps for pedestrians built everywhere, squares with leafless trees, and arbors with golden-yellow roofs. In the centre, on a hillock, rose a white church, a mass of stone, with many graceful, golden cupolas. And when I looked up, suspended from the sky, I saw over the church and the whole hill a crystal canopy which amazed me by its beauty, and for some reason reminded me of the Northern Lights. When we had left the village there spread before us a limitless field, covered with tender green, and above it shone a hot sun in a blue sky. For some reason it reminded me of a picture I saw some time ago: tired pilgrims are walking; and ahead of them in the distance, as though hanging in the clouds a fine outline of a city is visible, with an inscription: ‘hail, ye who seek the city of the Lord!’5

Where did the bit about the glass canopy come from? And were all terrorists as benign as Vera Figner? It is necessary to review briefly some of the ideas which tantalised the Russian intelligentsia, a species of being that requires comment in itself.

They are not to be confused with the great nineteenth-century Russian novelists, for as a count and a Christian living in seclusion on his estates Tolstoy was not some hack Moscow or Petersburg journalist possessed of a single big idea but otherwise lacking in humanity. Dostoevsky wrote his best novel about this self-selecting group, or rather, about the destruction they had wrought on society and themselves. He committed the heresy of submitting the intelligentsia to the sociological and psychological investigation from which they regarded themselves as exempt, cloaked as they were in the fashionable uniformed ideas of the age - a bit of Comte, Darwin, Feuerbach and so on.

Nor did the intelligentsia coincide with those who might have known a lot about a little, such as professors of ancient history, law, medicine or physics, dispassionately pursuing their subject to the bemusement of radicalised students who worshipped newer foreign gods like Marx and Nietzsche. Rather, the intelligentsia were a sub-set of the educated classes, encompassing those who talked about books they had never read, distinguished both by a disavowal of a class or occupation, such as bureaucrat or soldier, and by their conformist subscription to such supposedly progressive ideas as atheism, socialism and revolution. They were kept afloat like some speculative fraud, on a bubble of liberal good taste, for among an older generation corrupted by liberalism it was not done to challenge youth or its progressive causes until the example of the renegade Dostoevsky gave birth to a right-wing intelligentsia late in the day. The intelligentsia also exercised their own informal censorship, more insidious and pernicious than some minor government bureaucrat blundering around with the prose of Dostoevsky. As Chekhov wrote: ‘I do not believe in our intelligentsia, which is hypocritical, false, hysterical, ill-bred, and lazy. I do not believe in it even when it suffers and complains, for its oppressors come from the same womb.’ There was another hazard there, brought forth in a hellish light by Dostoevsky, namely that self-styled victims could become the worst oppressors if given the chance. As Shigalev says in The Possessed: ‘I am perplexed by my own data and my conclusion is a direct contradiction of the idea from which I start. Starting from unlimited freedom, I arrive at absolute despotism. I will add, however, that there can be no solution of the social problem but mine.’ He foresees the death of ‘a hundred million’ to realise a utopia that involves total spying designed to eliminate the private realm. In order to achieve human equality, ‘Cicero will have his tongue cut out, Copernicus will have his eyes put out, Shakespeare will be stoned.’6

Nihilism was the philosophy of choice for the younger generation of Russian radicals benignly caricatured in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons and rendered demonic in Dostoevsky’s The Possessed. Strictly speaking, nihilism is the rejection of all religious and moral principles, often in the belief that life is meaningless. In that form it is usually the philosophy of choice for adolescents who have read a bit of Camus, but the appeal seems to have seeped across cultures and religions too.7

In nineteenth-century Russia, nihilism meant an inordinate credulity towards any number of ‘isms’, notably positivism, materialism, ethical utilitarianism and, inevitably, terrorism. Generational conflicts were involved. A liberal older generation of well-to-do gentry, with their love of art for art’s sake and peregrinations between their Russian estates and German casinos and spas, faced rude competition from earnest plebian intellectuals, many the sons of humble clerics, who thought that the only point of a seascape was to inform those who had never seen the sea, while a novel was merely a didactic means of reforging moral personality in the service of political goals. Any complex social institution could be taken apart and examined for evidence of its utilitarian reasonableness, with the same clinical detachment that a biologist brought to cutting up a frog. In addition to ill-digested ideas, there was a mode of conduct for those who could not be bothered to think. A contrived boorishness was obligatory as well as a conforming nonconformity in long hair, spectacles and slovenly dress. Like the Fenians, who adopted American manners to betoken cultural independence from the British, the nihilists dismissed social graces out of ‘the same impulses which make Americans put their feet on the table and spit tobacco on the floor of a luxury hotel’. The nihilist who deliberately collided with a uniformed general in a park, rather than deferentially moving out of his way, probably took things too far as the general turned out to be the tsar.

The living inspiration for the nihilist ‘new man’ was the literary critic and social theorist Nikolai Chernyshevsky, author of an execrable utopian novel called What is to be Done?8 The book was written in prison, which does not redeem it unless one is sentimental. Its characters were like ideograms, the new moral personalities, for whom the personal was always the political, and who would inhabit the light-filled Crystal Palaces of glass and steel he envisaged as the human race’s future. Others, above all Dostoevsky, who had visited the real Crystal Palace on a short trip to London, thought that such futuristic visions suggested the creative finality of an ant-heap, his implication being that the human ants would not improve either through architectural innovation alone. As has been pointed out, Chernyshevsky’s ‘vision of a terrestrial paradise was a kind of oleograph of the kind of writings he must have read in his seminary days’. Although few of his admirers noticed, his crass scientific reductionism went hand in hand with airy ethical idealism. A great religious philosopher expressed the contradiction through a striking pseudo-syllogism: ‘Man is descended from the ape, and therefore we must sacrifice ourselves for one another.’9

Along with the exiled, and temporarily unfastidious, liberal Alexander Herzen, and the gross and slovenly fugitive anarchist Nikolai Bakunin, Chernyshevsky was one of the architects of a revolutionary conspiracy called Land and Freedom. This revolutionary organisation briefly flourished between 1861 and 1864, in which period it became prototypical for the many conspiracies that followed. It was a predominantly student response to the government’s partial rescinding of its university reforms, although the name suggested nobler outrage at the way in which the liberated serfs had had to put themselves in hock for land grudgingly relinquished by their erstwhile masters. There were unsuccessful attempts too to subvert the armed forces, on the part of officers already corrupted by a liberalism they had acquired in partitioned Poland. Mysterious fires in the poorer parts of St Petersburg conduced to a febrile atmosphere and suspicions of plots. Already under open surveillance by his janitor and cook, Chernyshevsky was arrested in 1862 and held in custody for two years while the government manufactured evidence to frame him. This invidious treatment led to his going on one of the first hunger strikes in penal history. Evidence was forged to prove his authorship of inflammatory tracts, which he had in fact written, and he was given six years’ hard labour, with exile to Siberia upon his release. The experience killed him. A revolutionary martyr had been born; forty years later an admirer called Lenin would pay explicit homage to Chernyshevsky with a new tract called What is to be Done?

Even the most radical members of Land and Freedom, not to speak of Chernyshevsky himself, doubted whether killing the tsar would have any long-term effect, for another Romanov would simply succeed and the masses, whether in town or country, by way of vengeance would probably wipe out the long-haired intelligentsia, with their blue-tinted spectacles. Such thoughts did not deter the dispersed remnants of Land and Freedom, largely consisting of social misfits drawn from demi-educated plebeians and impoverished clerical or gentry families. Contemptuous of the older generation of liberals like Herzen, these men and women were mightily taken with Chernyshevsky’s literary embodiment of revolutionary implacability - the character of Rakhmetov - upon whom they modelled themselves.

The first nihilist terrorist group, the Organisation, was founded with the prime intention of liberating Chernyshevsky himself. Its leading lights were Ivan Khudyakov and Nikolai Ishutin, the latter a fantasist who used political causes to dominate other people, the former an unhappy young man plagued by a sexually voracious wife. An air of fanatical intent was propagated through claims that one recruit had offered to poison his rich father so as to donate his inheritance to the Organisation’s cause. Early in 1866, Ishutin formed a tighter group within the Organisation with the appropriate title Hell. While the members of the wider Organisation would continue with their mixture of agitprop and social work, members of Hell would devote themselves to assassination, blackmail and robbery. At night the youthful members of Hell discussed the minutiae of such subjects as using planted servants to blackmail their employers, or carrying out assassinations after using acids to disfigure one’s face. Phials of strychnine would prevent capture after the event.

These psychopathic fantasies might have remained the stuff of the time between midnight and dawn, but for Ishutin’s depressed first cousin Dmitry Karakozov. On 4 April 1866 tsar Alexander II entered a St Petersburg public park for his afternoon stroll with his setter Milord. He left his carriage and escorts at the gate. The forty-seven-year-old ruler of Russia had a brief talk with some aristocratic relatives, and then made his way back to the gate, hardly noticing the gathering crowd of admirers, some of whom were already bowing as a gesture of respect. As Alexander reached his carriage a shot rang out, the bullet narrowly missing his head. This good fortune was due to an alcoholic hatter’s apprentice, who inadvertently jogged the assassin Karakozov’s arm. Karakozov was quickly apprehended, with phials of acid and strychnine unused about his person. The tsar strode up to him for the following cryptic exchange:

‘Who are you?’

‘A Russian.’

‘What do you want?’

‘Nothing, nothing.’

The hatter’s apprentice was ennobled and given the wherewithal to drink himself to death. A terrified regime handed the investigation of this minuscule conspiracy of juvenile fantasists to count Michael Muraviev, known dramatically as the hangman, but whose wider investigations were clumsily repressive rather than brutal. Some radical journals were closed down and apartments raided. Instead of publishing the investigation’s findings to expose the psychopathic fantasies of the conspirators, or using a local jury which would have executed the lot, the government opted for a special trial by elderly members of the Supreme Criminal Court, with capable lawyers for the defence, in itself testimony to Alexander’s reforms. Karakozov and Ishutin were sentenced to death and hanged, while Khudyakov was sent to Siberia, turning down the offer to accompany him from his loyally importunate spouse. Other members of Hell received lesser sentences.10

In the years that followed, Alexander turned to more conservative advisers, without effectively clamping down on subversive ideas and those who expressed them. He forfeited much of his dignity when, in late middle age, he became besotted with a teenage girl. It was in this atmosphere of indecision that nihilist terrorism was born. In 1865, a peasant boy who had hauled himself up to become a rather louche schoolmaster had arrived in Moscow. His name was Serge Nechaev. He was introduced to radical intelligentsia circles by the Jacobin lawyer Peter Tkachev, whose odder ideas included the view that Russia could be reformed by killing everyone over the age of twenty-five. The two men collaborated in producing revolutionary tracts. Nechaev, meanwhile, was tantalising radical-chic upper-class ladies with claims that, despite being illiterate until sixteen, he had nevertheless mastered the philosophy of Kant. Such liberal ladies were almost impossible to parody, although Dostoevsky managed it, as they recalled Nechaev fondly: ‘He loved to joke and had such a good-natured laugh.’ One can meet such people any night of the week in London, New York or Sydney. Nechaev looked like the US outlaw Jesse James, which was appropriate since he admired the ferocious bandits of Russian history, but the inexplicability of his malicious deeds, and the fine plots he wove, are more suggestive of the evil of Shakespeare’s Iago.11 His practical jokes included sending subversive materials to his enemies, knowing that it would be intercepted by the police. Resentment would be a great recruiting agent. In early 1869, Nechaev decided to embroider his revolutionary mystique by faking his own arrest. He sent a cryptic note to eighteen-year-old Vera Zasulich, towards whom he had clumsily professed his love, which sensationally claimed that he had been taken to the government’s most intimidating penal fortress. In fact, he was en route to Moscow, where sympathisers procured him a passport to go abroad. He left Odessa bound for Switzerland. There he quickly insinuated himself into illustrious exiled circles. The shambolic Bakunin, who, compensating for lifelong impotence with rhetorical violence, was an early fan: ‘They are magnificent these young fanatics. Believers without God, and heroes without phrases.’ Nechaev painted a colourful tale of flight from the Peter and Paul fortress, and of the imminent revolution his Committee was about to unleash. Bakunin mobilised the alcoholic Nikolai Ogarev and Herzen to transfer ten thousand francs to help Nechaev’s cause.

Nechaev also flattered Bakunin’s vanity by encouraging him to co-author a Revolutionary’s Catechism. This advocated a lethal Spartanic asceticism: ‘The revolutionary is a doomed man. He has no personal interests, no business affairs, no emotions, no attachments, no property, and no name. Everything in him is wholly absorbed in the single thought and the single passion for revolution.’ All bonds with the civilised world ‘of laws, moralities, and customs, and with its generally accepted conventions’, were severed. Only two things were worth studying: the sciences of destruction, and the psychology of those whom the revolutionary would abuse and exploit. How the words flowed from Bakunin’s pen: ‘Moved by the sober passion for revolution, he [the revolutionary] should stifle in himself all considerations of kinship, love, friendship, and even honour.’ Tyrannical towards himself, he would be tyrannical over others. Some revolutionaries were more equal than others, for only the first grade would possess gnosis, and could freely exploit grades two and three. They were ‘capital’ to be disposed of at will. In a novel departure, revolutionaries were to collaborate with the ultimate primitive rebels, the lumpen criminal underclass. Turning to a theme that animates many revolutionaries, Bakunin and Nechaev eagerly established who was to be first for the chop. Humanity was divided into those ‘to be liquidated immediately’, while various categories of usefully idiot liberals were to be exploited and discarded, including ‘empty-headed women’ whose salons Nechaev had adorned. A further pamphlet, The People’s Justice, began to fill the ranks of those to be liquidated with real names drawn from what Nechaev charmingly called ‘the scum of contemporary Russian learning and literature … the mass of publicists, hacks, and pseudo-scientists’. Reams of these tracts were malevolently mailed to Russian radicals, knowing that it would result in their arrest. The whole of this programme, whose goal was ‘terrible, total, universal, and merciless destruction’, was notionally designed to benefit ‘the people’. In fact, things had to get worse before they got better because ‘the Society will use all its resources and energy toward increasing and intensifying the evils and miseries of the people until at last their patience is exhausted and they are driven to a general uprising’.

Equipped with a certificate endorsed by Bakunin announcing ‘The carrier of this is one of the World Revolutionary Alliance No. 2771’, Nechaev returned to Moscow in September 1868. There he established an eight-man revolutionary cell, grandiloquently called People’s Justice, consisting of young men like Ivan Ivanov and Peter Uspensky, and an older man called Ivan Pryzhov, an alcoholic down-at-heel writer, who earned a few kopecks explaining the meaning of life to fellow barflies. Even suicide eluded Pryzhov: when he threw himself and his dog into a lake, the dog dragged him out. The original eight each received a number - Ivanov was 2 - which then became the first digit used to identify each man’s recruits from an allocated sector of society. Nechaev went after army officers, Ivanov after students, while Pryzhov’s mission was to the underworld. True to the terms of the Catechism, Nechaev’s recruitment and fund-raising strategies were not subject to moral concerns. One student joined the conspiracy when Nechaev threatened him with a knife. Another man was invited to tea, given subversive tracts, and then arrested when he left by bogus policemen wearing false beards and wigs. This persuaded him to part with six thousand rubles on the spot.

These escapades took a more serious turn when on 16 November Nechaev informed his confederates that it was necessary to kill Ivan Ivanov, whom he suspected of being a police spy. In fact, Ivanov had merely demurred when Nechaev had ordered him to distribute incriminating literature among the innocent students of the Petrovsky Agricultural Academy. On the afternoon of 21 November, Ivanov was lured to the grounds of the Academy with claims that the conspirators had found some useful printing equipment concealed in a grotto a few yards from a frozen pond. At five in the afternoon, the five assassins bushwhacked the unsuspecting Ivanov, pinning him down while Nechaev strangled him. Although Ivanov was dead already, Nechaev shot him in the head. The five weighed the body down with bricks, broke a hole in the ice and dropped it into the pond. But this was ineptly done, and the corpse bobbed up shortly afterwards. As they had forgotten to take a library card which Ivanov had borrowed from one of his future murderers, the police were soon on the trail of the right men. All except Nechaev were quickly rounded up, but the instigator and chief murderer managed to flee abroad. He re-established contact with Bakunin, chillingly offering to kill a publisher who was harassing the anarchist for delivery of his translation of Marx’s Kapital. Nechaev then focused his sinister attentions on Natalia Herzen, the wealthy daughter of the deceased liberal exile. Luckily for her, she had a vigilant stepmother who knew what Nechaev was about. Moreover, his attempts to ‘blackmail and frighten’ ‘Tata’ were beginning to worry Bakunin, who began to compare the protege he called ‘the boy’ with Savonarola and Machiavelli. In early 1872 Nechaev moved from Geneva to Zurich, where he began plotting bank robberies. Although most of the European socialist press swallowed Nechaev’s lies about his reasons for killing Ivanov, the Swiss authorities determined to extradite him to Russia for his criminal enterprises rather than his ‘political’ crime. He found himself confined to the Peter and Paul fortress of his fantasies.

What followed these events was, arguably, as disturbing as the deeds of Nechaev and his friends, which became the starting point for Dostoevsky’s great reckoning with his own revolutionary demons in The Possessed. With breathtaking stupidity, the authorities elected to dissolve the squalid essence of the charge relating to Ivanov’s murder by tacking on loosely related cases when the murderers came to trial. This meant that instead of five accused, there were eighty-seven, many with walk-on parts in the original conspiracy, or ironically, people whom Nechaev had himself framed when he sent them his incriminatory pamphlets. Not for the first or last time, elite alienation from what they regarded as a reactionary government meant that well-to-do liberal folk made the most grotesque apologists for murderers, blissfully unaware that when half a century later the Nechaevs came to power, their property would be looted while they disappeared into exile or Arctic concentration camps. Middle-aged and elderly dupes saw in Nechaev the wayward idealism of youth, rather than a psychopathic conman. The public gallery was filled with students, impressionable young ladies and artillery officers who lapped up the theatre unfolding before them, vicariously thrilled by the frisson of animal violence that Nechaev brought with him. The prosecutor was predictably inept, while the defence lawyers acted like activist demagogues, a recurrent pattern in the history of terrorism. The liberal-minded chief judge indulged the accused, allowing them to read newspapers and wave to their admiring audience. A squalid little gang of murderers were emboldened by whispers of ‘brave boys and girls, they do not lose heart’. In these circumstances, four of the accused received mild sentences of between seven and fifteen years’ hard labour. Twenty-nine others were given prison terms. The rest were acquitted. The chief demon was given twenty years. The authorities even botched this. Instead of sending Nechaev to a remote mine in Siberia, the tsar personally intervened to consign him to solitary confinement in the Peter and Paul fortress, thereby seeming to betray the terms of Nechaev’s extradition as a common felon. The murderer became a myth. Inevitably, a man of Nechaev’s indomitable will was able to suborn long-serving guards who identified more with their charges than with the world beyond. This enabled Nechaev to establish contacts with each new generation of revolutionaries, who, as his crimes faded into rosy memory, more keenly admired his ferocious energy and will. This endured long after Nechaev had expired in jail from dropsy, on the thirteenth anniversary of his murder of Ivanov.

Although the spirit of Nechaev lingered, the main thrust of Russian radicalism in the 1870s took the form of a redemptive Populist crusade, in which members of the liberal and radical intelligentsia descended among the people to serve and guide. There was something distastefully anthropological about this venture, as if the Populists were going among remote tribes, which in a profound sense they were. A rift quickly opened between the people as abstraction and the multifarious people themselves.

The service part of the agenda was entirely acceptable to the peasantry. From 1873 until the end of the decade, countless numbers of young idealists went on a ‘Pilgrimage to the People’. Vera Figner and her sister went to dwell in remote villages, where Vera worked as a peripatetic physician. This was challenging since ‘I had no idea how to approach a common person.’ Given that her knowledge of the common people was entirely derived from books, Figner coped pretty well at overcoming her distaste for the squalor and rampant syphilis, and such novelties as dossing down on a bed of louse-riddled straw. The muzhiks or peasants seem to have regarded the miracle-working ‘she-healer’ with affection and gratitude, even if they confused medicine with magic charms. They eagerly took up her offer of teaching their children how to read in her spare time. Only one thing spoiled this idyll, the malign counter-moves of landlords and priests which prevented the further revolutionary message from getting through.

Much of this crusade was harmless in a utopian well-meaning way: teaching illiterates to read, providing medical services or acting as midwives. Young radicalised Jews threw themselves into working among the Orthodox people, some of them going as far as converting to Christianity, in the hope that here at least they would find acceptance by sloughing off historic deformations that widespread anti-Semitism had forced upon them. Some educated professionals abandoned their own skills to practise carpentry or joinery, a lifestyle choice that struck the peasants as eccentric at best. The political part of the Populist crusade led to mutual animosities and resentments, or at best a dialogue of the deaf. Deeply religious peasants who were in awe of the tsar were profoundly offended by the Populists’ disdain for Orthodoxy, or worse, by their crude attempts to amalgamate Christianity with socialism by clothing the latter in the idioms of the former. In 1873, two folksily attired Populist artillery officers tried to engage a peasant on his sled: ‘We started to tell him that one should not pay taxes, that officials are robbers, and that the Bible preaches the need for a revolution. The peasant urged on his horse, we hastened our step. He put it into a trot, but we kept running, shouting about taxes and revolution … until we could not breathe.’ In peasant eyes, the remote tsar was a force for good. Only deceitful nobles and officials were preventing the realisation of his will.

While many peasants proved immune to Populist attempts to subvert their faith or reverence for authority, others were all too keen to affect the accoutrements of modern society that the primitivist Populists despised. These mutual incomprehensions bred frustration and resentment, especially as carefully crafted tracts and pamphlets were torn up and used as cigarette paper or to wipe an arse. Those who tried to shed their elitism came to loathe the obdurate mass to whom they preached, like some recalcitrant beast that would not move. Had the authorities left the Populists alone, disillusionment with the objects of their enthusiasms would have caused the movement to peter out. With characteristic ineptness, however, some of the more militant Populists were tried for sedition and given harsh sentences. Wider society thought their rights had been infringed when they were subsequently held imprisoned in limbo rather than despatched to the relative liberty of Siberia where remoteness was the only prison wall. This was a largely false perception. In fact, the authorities simply equivocated. They did not want to turn these agitators loose on the villagers of Siberia, and were also reluctant to inflict on young Russian idealists the sort of fate that had befallen Poles and ordinary criminals. Hence convicted Populists languished in tsarist jails, in circumstances that were far from onerous. The food was so good they could not get enough of it, while interrogations were more like avuncular admonitions to mend one’s juvenile errors than sessions with a chair leg or iron bar in the basement of Stalin’s Lubyanka.

Despite these realities of the age, the minds of some Populists turned to terrorist violence, as a way of circumventing the bovine immobility of the peasants and of striking back at an allegedly repressive regime whose jails were actually breeding grounds for terrorism. Vera Figner was disingenuous about this mutation. The balance of forces between the authorities and the landowners was so loaded against the peasants that she thought a campaign of rural terrorism was inevitable. But this relied upon a constant flow of Populist idealists going into the countryside. The failure of their crusade meant that the flow had all but dried up. So she became sympathetic to the idea of one cataclysmic strike - against the person of the tsar. As she admitted, ‘we saw clearly that our work among the people was of no avail’, although the Populist ideal remained morally good. This was an early example of how a refusal to acknowledge the failure of one revolutionary delusion was superseded by the adoption of another of a more radical kind.

In 1876 a northern revolutionary group which borrowed the name Land and Freedom managed to deliver prince Peter Kropotkin from a military hospital; in the south, a more radical branch based in Kiev purchased weapons with a view to assassinating the government’s more stridently reactionary supporters. Although both groups continued to pay lip-service to the idea that slow agitation would raise peasant consciousness to the boiling point of revolution, terrorism - understood as disorganising and annihilating the existing regime - gradually acquired its own momentum as an end in itself. In 1876, Land and Freedom tried to convert a mass being celebrated in the church of Our Lady of Kazan into ‘the first workers’ demonstration in Russian history’ by mingling fifty factory workers with the congregation exiting the cathedral. In fact, many of the workers who did participate had been bribed by Land and Freedom to attend, for most factory workers were more interested in Western-style trades unionism than in being pawns for middle-class revolutionaries. The government’s inept insistence on arresting and trying anyone remotely connected with this sort of agitation led to a series of political trials, in which the accused declined defence lawyers so as to make ringing declarations of revolutionary intent from the witness box.

Meanwhile, the more venturesome Kievan group hit upon the idea of forging tsarist rescripts so as to stimulate defiance on the part of peasants who were unhappy with the land they had received after 1861. One rescript ordered the peasants to form ‘secret bands’ to fall upon the necks of noblemen and officialdom. While this absurd plot was unfurling, the leading members of the Kievan group decided to murder the twenty-year-old Nikolai Gorinovich, who, recently released from jail, they imagined was a police informer. In echoes of Nechaev’s murder of Ivanov, they beat him senseless with an iron ball attached to a chain, and then poured acid over his face to frustrate identification. Unfortunately for them, the blind and scarred Gorinovich survived this murderous attack - photographs of his injuries are almost unbearable to look at - and went to the police. They may have apprehended the culprits, but they did little to publicise the psychopathic nature of the attack, the paranoia that triggered it, and the way in which the group had set up a kangaroo court to convict someone on the basis of entirely circumstantial evidence.

The authorities’ oscillation between indulgent slackness and repression culminated in an incident in St Petersburg’s preliminary-arrest jail, where a few hundred political prisoners freely consorted with one another in a sort of university behind bars. On 13 July 1877, general Fydor Trepov, the governor of the capital, visited the jail and encountered scenes of fraternisation that appalled him. Out in the yard, Arkhip Bogoliubov, a founder member of Land and Freedom, enraged him by arguing the rights of political prisoners as if he were addressing an equal. Trepov knocked the man’s cap off, and ordered that he should be flogged twenty-five times. In addition to being technically illegal, this treatment also violated the unspoken assumption that the government would not treat political criminals drawn from the intelligentsia with the customary brutality meted out to ordinary felons. These were gentlemen whom the prison guards called ‘sir’. They could tell the guards to make tea.

On 24 January 1877, Vera Zasulich called at general Trepov’s offices to obtain a licence to teach. After two years’ imprisonment and four years of exile because of her association with Nechaev, Zasulich had become a gaunt, chain-smoking, professional revolutionary. While Trepov scribbled something down, Zasulich produced a gun from her muff and shot him in the side. She claimed to have been motivated by moral outrage at the treatment of Bogoliubov. Her trial for attempted murder was a great setpiece occasion, with both the foreign minister and Dostoevsky present. The government did its best to remind the judge of his ‘duty’, but it was a credit to Alexander’s reforms that the judge remained scrupulously impartial. It quickly became Trepov’s rather than Zasulich’s trial. Dressed in her customary grey linen smock, and instructed by her lawyer not to bite her nails - a sign of evil thoughts in Russian folklore - Zasulich turned in a tear-jerking performance, with no one questioning why, if her response to the brutality of Trepov had been ‘spontaneous’, she had waited six months before seeking revenge, returning to the capital from a revolutionary commune where she rode about with a gun in her belt. The defence lawyer went into rhetorical overdrive when he compared this political assassin with women ‘who had imbrued their hands in the blood of lovers who jilted them or that of their successful rivals’, crimes of passion for which they had been acquitted. This had the public gallery in tears, while Zasulich herself sobbed demurely. Few paid much attention to the prosecution’s cogent argument that ‘every public figure, whoever he may be, has the right to a legal trial and not trial by Zasulich’. After deliberating for seven minutes, the jury duly acquitted Zasulich to cries of ‘Bravo! Our little Vera!’ from the gallery. Smart society (and the jury) had effectively endorsed political violence. The government promptly undid any credit it was due for the fairness of its courts by seeking to rearrest Zasulich, who fled abroad, where already the London Times was celebrating her as a latterday Charlotte Corday, who, it failed to recall, had actually killed the Jacobin terrorist Marat. She did not return to Russia until 1905.12

Most Russian terrorists sought to limit terrorism to killing suspected informers and the most egregiously harsh officials like Trepov. In the south, however, a more Machiavellian strategy was adopted, of killing the most liberal members of the regime so as to foster repression as a recruiting mechanism, a tactic employed by many later terrorists the world over, especially if their sect was manifestly bereft of a wider following. In February 1878, Verian Osinsky unsuccessfully shot the chief prosecutor in Kiev, whose life was saved by a thick fur coat, and then in May stabbed to death the rather ineffectual chief of the city’s police. A few days later he successfully sprang the assailants of Gorinovich from jail. Since, ironically, the liberal elite objected to his killing of ineffectual policemen, Osinsky concentrated on trying to co-opt them into joint advocacy of constitutional and legal reforms that he anticipated would fail, the covert aim being to radicalise these hapless confederates to the point of supporting his tactic of terror.

A rather different sort of policeman was on Osinsky’s trail. This was Georgy Sudeykin. Born in 1850 into an impoverished and landless gentry family, Sudeykin graduated top of his class from the Infantry Cadet School. He was a tall, well-built man, with piercing eyes and a persuasive manner. A lack of money, and a fascination with crime and its detection, led him to join the Corps of Gendarmes rather than the elite and flashy Guards. Sudeykin adopted the chameleon life of his terrorist prey, never sleeping in one apartment too long and carrying multiple identity papers. Lacking the mentality of the stereotypical tsarist martinet, he used his ostensibly flexible political opinions to insinuate himself into revolutionary circles and to win over those he captured by treating them as potential collaborators in the cause of reform. Being inordinately ambitious himself, he knew how to play on the ambitions of terrorists, who after all were part of career structures themselves.

In January 1879 Osinsky and his older lover, Sophia Leshern von Hertzfeldt, were detained despite their attempts to shoot Sudeykin and the other arresting officers - the revolutionaries earlier having resorted to revolvers against policemen armed only with sabres. Osinsky’s death and Sophia’s exile to Siberia left a legacy of revolutionary romanticism that proved contagious. Meanwhile, the organisers of Land and Freedom issued a revised programme that effectively downgraded traditional Populist belief in the revolutionary potentialities of the people in favour of full-blown terrorism. Other innovations were the creation of discrete cells with no cognisance of one another, and the licensing of freelance acts of terrorism under Land and Freedom’s ideological franchise, a tactic that in our time would serve Al Qaeda rather well. Throughout late 1878-9 the terrorist nucleus within Land and Freedom under Alexander Mikhailov carried out a series of high-profile assassinations. Victims included Mezentsov, chief of the ineffectual Third Department, and prince Dmitry Kropotkin, governor of Kharkov and cousin of the anarchist aristocrat - as well as comrades suspected of being agents or informers. Early that year, a disillusioned Populist named Alexander Soloviev contacted Land and Freedom offering to assassinate the tsar. He explained: ‘The death of the emperor will effect a change in public life. The dissatisfaction that is expressed in quiet mumbling will explode in regions where it is most deeply felt. And then it will spread everywhere. It just needs an impetus for everything to rise up.’ Mikhailov purchased for Soloviev a large-calibre American pistol known as a Bear Hunter. Soloviev had competition, because a young Jew called Goldenberg was also volunteering as suicide-assassin. Since Goldenberg’s ethnicity would have prompted a pogrom had he been successful, Mikhailov stuck with Soloviev.

Given the enormity of the undertaking, the scheme had to be vetted by the full membership of Land and Freedom, rather than that hidden part of it that had few qualms about terrorism. This meeting degenerated into angry exchanges between Mikhailov and the leading Populist theorist Georgy Plekhanov. The outcome was that, although Land and Freedom would not formally endorse the assassination, it would not prevent individual members from aiding and abetting Soloviev. At 8 a.m. on 2 April 1879, Soloviev approached the tsar on his morning walk as he returned to the square in front of his palace. Something about Soloviev - in his long black coat and official’s cockaded hat - caught Alexander’s attention. He turned and saw a gun pointed at his head. When the first shot missed, the tsar took flight and ran zigzagging into the palace as four more shots passed by. His bodyguard felled Soloviev, and managed to stop the would-be assassin from swallowing a nugget impregnated with cyanide. ‘God saved me,’ wrote the tsar in his diary. Although the church bells rang and the Guards shouted ‘Hurrah!’, others joked on hearing the bells, ‘Missed again?’ Meanwhile, Soloviev reclined on a sofa, with a basin of his stomach contents beside him. He told his ineffably polite interrogators, men with epaulettes betokening high rank who hung on this rascal’s every word, that he had seen the ‘ghosts’ of political martyrs. He had been impelled by a sense of social justice to bring ‘closer the radiant future’, although he was rather vague about what this might be save that no one would harm anyone else. Soloviev was tried by a Special Court and executed in Semenovsky Square.

The advocates of ‘terrorism first’ within Land and Freedom met at a seaside resort in June 1879 to conspire not only against the regime, but also against those comrades who favoured the mainstream Populist agenda of patient agitation among the peasantry, as they all gathered for a further plenary meeting in Voronezh. There, sentiments flowed this way and that, as the terrorists argued that their campaign would force the government to grant a constitution, while the older Populists around Plekhanov, who rejected constitutionalism as an obstacle to socialism, argued for radical land redistribution instead. The tensions became unsustainable. Plekhanov stormed out and founded a movement called Black Repartition. Interestingly, Vera Zasulich had tried to slip back into Russia for this meeting but she arrived too late. Prone to bouts of depression and morbid self-reflection, she had become convinced that she had started the spiral of terrorist violence in Russia. She had developed major reservations about the tactic, except when, as in her own case, terrorists acted for purely selfless reasons. Terrorism was divisive and exhausting, and it provided the government with too easy a pretext for massive repression. More importantly it led to pathological behaviour: ‘in order to carry out terrorist acts all one’s energies must be expended, and a particular frame of mind almost always results: either one of great vanity or one in which life has lost all its attractiveness’. The advocates of terrorism dissolved Land and Freedom - whose name both factions agreed to renounce - for a new conspiracy called People’s Will in conscious rejection of rule by the will of a single man.

On being invited to join People’s Will, Vera Figner initially exclaimed, ‘But this is pure Nechaev!’ In fact, the terrorist nucleus of Land and Freedom had already adopted many of Nechaev’s dubious practices, including bank robberies and murdering informers. People’s Will also borrowed his tactic of suggesting to the credulous that it was the tip of a much larger revolutionary organisation - the Russian Social Revolutionary Party - which in reality was non-existent. There was an imposing-sounding Executive Committee all right, but this was coterminous with the entire membership of People’s Will. Further deceptions included claims that members of this Executive were themselves merely ‘third-degree agents’, the insinuation being that there were limitless levels of revolutionary talent above them. In fact, People’s Will never had more than thirty or forty members, who would then recruit ‘agents’ for specific tasks or to establish affiliate cells within sections of society deemed to have revolutionary potential. Efforts were made to co-opt the leading lights of the arts and intelligentsia with a liberal-sounding public platform. After all, which reasonable person could quibble with the Party’s explicit goals? Its programme espoused liberal and democratic-socialist aims: a parliament, universal male suffrage, the classic liberal freedoms of speech and the press, together with peasant and worker control of land and the factories. Much was unsaid about how these aims were related to the tactical goal of a revolutionary coup by an elite Jacobin minority. No wonder Lenin would recommend that his associates study the structure and modus operandi of this precursor organisation to the Bolsheviks.

Like the contemporary Irish Fenians, People’s Will discovered the unique killing properties of dynamite. Having sentenced Alexander II to death, in one of its pseudo-popular conclaves of three individuals who were judge, jury and executioner, People’s Will made seven attempts to kill him before they succeeded on 1 March 1881. Their first efforts focused on Odessa, near which the tsar would pass on his return to the north from his annual vacation in the southerly Crimea. After being rebuffed as an assassin, Vera Figner was allowed to move dynamite there. She rented an apartment with a man posing as her husband, where the explosives expert Kibalchich set about his work with dynamite, guncotton and fulminates. Since the plan was to put a mine under the railway track some distance from Odessa, Figner - temporarily reverting to her old posh self - boldly secured a post as a railway section master for one of her fellow conspirators by interceding on his behalf with baron Ungern-Shternberg, an acquaintance of the governor-general. In the event, the plan was aborted since Goldenberg requested most of their dynamite for a northerly plot that had much greater chance of success, while they learned anyway that the tsar was taking another route home. Goldenberg was arrested at a railway station after an alert policeman became suspicious about his trunk, which he discovered contained fifty pounds of dynamite. Of a weak disposition, Goldenberg became progressively deranged in the loneliness of his cell. His concerned jailers offered him a deal that calmed his distress: he would betray People’s Will in order to end senseless violence and to speed the reforms the jailers admitted were necessary.

Meanwhile, People’s Will had set two further railway attacks in motion just in case the tsar changed his route. At Alexandrovsk, a second group of conspirators, whose cover was a tannery business, had crawled through a gully so as to dig holes under the railway line into which they placed two canisters of explosives, linked with wires which in turn led to a command detonator. However, when the tsar’s train passed overhead, no explosion resulted owing to a failure in the electric circuit. A third team of railway bombers, this time nearer Moscow, had also buried bombs under railway track, reached by tunnelling from a nearby house they had rented. Bad timing on 19 November 1880 meant that they missed the train conveying the tsar, but they did manage to derail eight carriages of a second train, carrying his entourage and baggage.

Although the police had raided an apartment and discovered both dynamite and a plan of the Winter Palace with an ‘X’ marking the dining room, with typical sloth the Palace’s commandant did nothing about it. He was a wounded general who had fought at Sebastopol, operating in a palace where there were too many doddery chiefs while most of the Indians were thieves. Below stairs, a carpenter called Stephen Khalturin who belonged to People’s Will had got himself on the Palace payroll, after performing well while repairing the tsar’s yacht. Khalturin shared a basement room with a police guard, who began to entertain the conceit that this respectable tradesman might make a worthy son-in-law. Khalturin was a strapping, cheery fellow, adept at affecting peasant stupidity by scratching his ear when anyone asked a question. He had the run of the palace, which he quickly realised was not a tight ship. Theft was so normative that even officers practised it, as Tolstoy amusingly described in the story of the officer with stolen food hidden under his helmet. On one occasion Khalturin found himself working in the tsar’s study. Surveying the back of the emperor’s bald head, Khalturin thought of smashing it with his hammer, but decided that this would be too mundane a fate for the purposes of People’s Will.

Instead, Khalturin collected dynamite, smuggled in by the Executive Committee, which he stored under his pillow. Since sleeping on nitroglycerine made his eyes stream and his skin turn the colour of clay, he bought a trunk, ostensibly to house the dowry of a future bride. Instead of petticoats and the like, this filled with dynamite, although Khalturin never got the 360 pounds he thought necessary to penetrate two floors. On the evening of 5 February 1880, Khalturin hosted an engagement party in a restaurant, coolly returning to the palace on some spurious pretext, so as to light the Rumford fuse to his bomb. Then he returned to the restaurant. It was snowing. The explosion tore through the floor above, killing or maiming fifty members of the Finland Regiment, but only shaking the floor of the Yellow Dining Room which the tsar and prince Alexander of Battenberg were about to enter. The room was a vision of dust and fallen plaster that lay upon the dishes and decorative table palms. The gas lights had been blown out, the chandeliers destroyed, and the cold howled in through the shattered windows. The tsar and his guests were unhurt.

In response to this attack so close to home, the tsar appointed a Supreme Commission under prince Michael Loris-Melikov with a remit to fight sedition. The choice bewildered conservatives. A subtle, liberal-minded and wily Armenian, who had fought 180 battles against Caucasian tribesmen and the Turks, Loris-Melikov abolished the hated Third Department, by transferring its secret police functions to the Interior Ministry, a move designed to appeal to liberal opinion. He had the unpopular education minister Tolstoy sacked. He pandered to the power of the press by asking editors for their opinions and advice. It was Loris-Melikov’s apparent reasonableness that made him a high-priority target for People’s Will terrorists. They tried to shoot him in February. The prospect that Loris-Melikov might succeed in introducing sufficiently meaningful reforms to appease the intelligentsia made it all the more urgent to press ahead with the tsar’s assassination. One plan involved sinking 250 pounds of dynamite within sealed rubber bags under the waters beneath the Kammeny Bridge. But when the royal carriage swept over the bridge in mid-August, no bomb went off, for the bomber had overslept. The method finally employed to kill Alexander was first essayed in Odessa where Vera Figner and her associates rented a shop and then tunnelled their way under the street with a view to laying a mine to blow up the tsar when he visited the city. A version of this was replayed in St Petersburg. A couple called Kobozev - this was not their name and they were not married - rented basement premises in Little Garden Street where they opened a cheese shop. He had a sun-burnished face and a jolly spade-shaped beard; she spoke in reassuringly provincial accents. The shop was along the route the tsar took each Sunday from the Winter Palace to the Hippodrome where he inspected his guardsmen. There was enough cheese displayed on the counter to satisfy any customer - Vera Figner tested this by purchasing some Roquefort - but close inspection of the cheese barrels to the rear would have revealed excavated earth rather than Camembert. For, each night, a team of terrorists visited the shop to burrow a tunnel beneath the road. In the event that the mine which was to be laid under the road missed the tsar, there were two back-up teams of assassins. Four men would ambush him with dynamite bombs in kerosene cans at the end of another street, while a lone assassin would lurk with a knife should he survive the second-wave attacks. In fact, this last assassin was arrested before he could be put in position.

Vera Figner was one of those who sat up all night with Kibalchich, the benign master bomber, in an apartment where they nervously assembled the bombs, while a large mine was hastily placed in the tunnel leading from the cheese shop. In the morning the bombers collected their weapons from a safe house. These men were chosen for their representational symbolic effect, an aristocrat, a scion of the middle class, a worker and a peasant. One was virtually a moron; another was very conspicuously tall.

In the event, after lunch with his morganatic wife, whom he rapidly ‘took’ on a table to deflect her pleas that he should stay at home, the tsar did not go to the Hippodrome via Little Garden Street. But at three that afternoon he ordered a return route that brought him very close to where his killers loitered. As his carriage and Cossack escort passed the assassin Rysakov, the latter hurled what appeared to be a chocolate box beneath the carriage. When it exploded it threw one of the Cossacks to the ground, while various passersby were injured. The tsar, who was unharmed, got out of the carriage, saying to an officer who inquired after him: ‘No, thank God, but—’ as he gestured to the injured. As appeared to be his habit, Alexander strode up to the captured bomber and said, ‘You’re a fine one!’ By now ringed by soldiers, the tsar returned to the carriage, hardly noticing a young Pole holding a newspaper-wrapped parcel. It exploded, killing the Pole and mortally wounding the tsar in his legs and lower body. His left leg was so mangled that it was impossible to staunch the bleeding by squeezing an artery. Whispering that he felt cold, the tsar said he wanted to go home to the Winter Palace. He died there about fifty minutes later. Perhaps his final thoughts were on how his day had started, when he and Loris-Melikov had agreed that elected representatives should be appointed to the State Council to advise on reforms.

Six members of the conspiracy to kill the tsar were put on trial in late March. All six were sentenced to death, although when it was discovered that Gesia Helfman was pregnant, she was reprieved. The remaining five were publicly hanged, with placards reading ‘Regicide’ around their necks. Kibalchich, the bomb maker, tried to interest the authorities in a propellant rocket as a way of securing a reprieve, but they were not to be diverted. The fact that Helfman was from an Orthodox Jewish background was one of the reasons for violent anti-Semitic pogroms that erupted in the rural Ukraine. While the new tsar Alexander III endeavoured to suppress the pogroms, the remnants of People’s Will actively welcomed them as evidence of forces that might one day be directed against the state. They issued pamphlets in Ukrainian, which Vera Figner distributed in Odessa, claiming: ‘It is from the Jews that the Ukrainian folk suffer most of all. Who has gobbled up all the lands and forests? Who runs every tavern? Jews!… Whatever you do, wherever you turn, you run into the Jew. It is he who bosses and cheats you, he who drinks the peasant’s blood.’ It is common knowledge that the tsarist secret police would exploit anti-Semitism to canalise popular anger; it should be equally well known that, some time before, the revolutionaries had rather welcomed anti-Semitism too. The authorities had much success in rounding up many of those involved in earlier conspiracies to assassinate

Alexander II, including the pair who ran the phoney cheese shop on Little Garden Street. Soon Vera Figner was the sole surviving member of the Executive Committee, although its associated Military Organisation - consisting of dissident army officers - was in better shape, having been kept aloof from terrorism.

A fatal new development, the Degaev affair, unfolded in a bizarre period during which the People’s Will offered the new tsar Alexander III a truce, provided he permit an elected assembly and release political prisoners. Although this offer was rejected, some members of the government, and a rather ineffective clandestine counter-terror grouping called the Sacred Band, thought that negotiations with People’s Will might at least defer the latter’s assassination attempts until after the new tsar’s coronation. Nothing came of these talks - which took place in Geneva - because the regime had discovered that People’s Will was a shambles. The coronation went ahead in May 1883 without incident.

The reason why the authorities were so accurately apprised of the state of the revolutionary underground can be traced back to Vera Figner’s decision to appoint a capable former artillery officer, Serge Degaev, to run the military wing of People’s Will on behalf of the decimated Executive Committee. Degaev had impeccable revolutionary credentials, having helped dig the tunnel from the cheese shop in Little Garden Street. His mother and siblings were all involved in the wider movement. This proved Figner’s undoing because, when Degaev’s young brother Vladimir was arrested for sedition, he began to receive visits in his cell from major Sudeykin, the most capable of the tsar’s policemen. Appearing to be sympathetic to the cause, Sudeykin offered Vladimir his freedom if he would merely keep him abreast of general trends within the underground. He required no names. Vladimir agreed to these arrangements, confidently boasting to his associates that he was the one really in charge. In December 1882, Serge Degaev himself was arrested in Odessa with the apparatus of the clandestine press of the People’s Will. He recalled his brother Vladimir’s dealings with Sudeykin as he grimly contemplated fifteen years’ hard labour. Upon receiving a letter from Degaev, Sudeykin hastened south to see him. Some sort of murky deal developed in which, in return for ratting on the remnants of People’s Will, Sudeykin would recommend to the tsar that Degaev be allowed to lead a radical party committed to non-violent reform. Sudeykin offered Degaev a chance to meet the tsar in person, although that was impossible since Sudeykin himself was too lowly in rank to have such access himself. What Sudeykin actually wanted was to control the revolutionary movement through Degaev.

A few weeks later, Degaev miraculously escaped from a carriage escorting him to the railway station, kicking one guard out of the door, and throwing snuff into the eyes of his colleague, before vanishing into the snow. He re-established his contacts with People’s Will. Meeting him, Vera Figner forgot that Degaev was no snuff-user and that prisoners were usually manacled in transit. He appeared more concerned with her safety, inquiring whether her apartment had a rear exit. Two days later she left the front door of the apartment and was arrested. The tsar rejoiced, writing in his diary: ‘Thank God they finally got that horrid woman.’ He asked for a photograph of her, just to remind himself how horrid she was. Her death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. The genteel conditions within the Peter and Paul fortress where she was held for two years, dining on partridge and pears and wearing a splendid blue gown, gave way to the isolation and soiled grey garb of the Schlüsselburg where she spent the following twenty years.

Meanwhile, Sudeykin was on a slippery slope, steeper even than that being descended by the traitor Degaev. To cover his agent, with whom he had become close, Sudeykin offered up a rather ineffectual informer for Degaev to identify to People’s Will, who duly murdered him. As the number of those betrayed by Degaev mounted, the traitor worried that he would run out of victims. He suggested to Sudeykin a trip to Switzerland where he could extend his treachery to Russian exiles. In Geneva, Degaev reflected on the squalid nature of his relationship with the major with whom he had shared drinks and dishes of pirogi. He had thought he could control how Sudeykin used the information he supplied; in fact, Sudeykin made indiscriminate arrests. Degaev was the major’s slave, and, he realised, not an especially indispensable one either since Sudeykin had allowed him to repair to Switzerland. In this state of self-disgust, Degaev confessed his role to the leading revolutionary Tikhomirov. Although the latter dearly wanted Sudeykin dead, the swathe the latter had cut through the revolutionaries meant that assassins were in short supply. But then there was the major’s friend himself. Degaev was given the unenviable choice of either killing Sudeykin or being murdered himself. Although a more steely revolutionary had to be posted to stiffen the double-agent’s resolve, after a series of false starts Degaev did indeed murder the major. On the afternoon of 16 December, he lured Sudeykin to his apartment on the pretext of meeting an Italian revolutionary. The major brought his nephew, which complicated things. Degaev knew Sudeykin was always armed and wore a bullet-proof vest. Inviting him into his study, he shot him low in the back (the bullet went through his liver), while an accomplice pummelled the terrified nephew to the floor with a crowbar in the hallway. Mortally wounded, Sudeykin tried to lock himself in the water closet. Degaev’s accomplice forced his way in and used the crowbar to finish the major off with four blows to the back of his head. The scene was like an abattoir, with the major sprawled half in and half out of the closet. Sudeykin received a lavish funeral, with the tsarina sending a wreath of white lilies and a note, ‘To him who has fulfilled his sacred duty’. After fleeing to western Europe, Degaev resurfaced in the 1890s as one Professor Alexander Pell of the University of South Dakota where he taught mathematics.13

People’s Will never recovered from the Degaev affair. Fear of police informers hidden in their ranks was almost as acute as the government’s paranoia that nihilists were behind every untoward event. Disillusionment with the response of the peasants during the 1870s, and relentless repression throughout the 1880s, led many in the Russian revolutionary movement to rethink their goals and the means of attaining them. Terrorism was not the crucial issue, since all were more or less agreed that it was a legitimate tactic, although there were disagreements over how central it should be and against whom it should be directed. Rather, the disputes were about the processes and social groups that would drive revolutionary change.

For an important minority, the idyll of communal peasant socialism seemed outmoded in a rapidly industrialising country. Plekhanov was the leading exponent of social democracy and a Russian Marxism (his sect was called the Emancipation of Labour Group) in which capitalism, rather than the rural commune, would give birth to socialism, as described in the laws of history. The fact that the authorities were relatively indulgent towards working-class Social Democrats - the police tended to sympathise more with striking workers than with grasping factory owners - further inclined many revolutionaries to favour allowing the iron laws of history to do their work rather than jump-starting a revolution with bombs and guns. In their view, and one should note the uncontroversial acceptance of mass murder, terror was something that should succeed, rather than precede, the revolution. As Plekhanov himself wrote: ‘Each Social Democrat must be a terrorist à la Robespierre. We will not shoot at the tsar and his servants now as the Socialist-Revolutionaries do, but after the victory we will erect a guillotine in Kazansky Square for them and many others.’

Some revolutionaries, however, were not prepared to abandon the idea of the ‘big bang’ approach to revolution, believing in the enormous propaganda value of terrorism directed against the state’s principal actors as the essential precondition to seizing power.14 One such group was formed at St Petersburg University, where students chafed against the regime’s introduction of higher fees designed to reduce the number of lower-class radical students, as well as against the reimposition of other petty restrictions in the 1884 university Charter. Students began talking about regicide and about the killing of the tsar’s key conservative supporters.

Peter Shevyrev created the Terrorist Fraction of the People’s Will in early 1886, one of its recruits being a brilliant zoology student hitherto expert in the biology of annular worms. He had two things in his favour. He was a literate scientist, who could give the group’s tracts a spurious air of ‘inevitability’, and he knew chemistry, essential to the manufacture of explosives. His name was Alexander Ulyanov; his younger sibling was Vladimir Ulyanov, better know to posterity as Lenin. Alexander argued that the Terrorist Fraction had been driven to act because of the regime’s frustration of non-violent reform. A campaign of constant terror would also serve to raise the people’s revolutionary spirit. The Fraction incorporated further revolutionaries into the conspiracy, including Józef Piłsudski, the future head of state in independent Poland, and a number of radicalised Jews, an ever growing presence in revolutionary and terrorist circles. By 1900 they constituted 50 per cent of the membership of revolutionary parties, even though there were only 7 million Jews in a population of 136 million.

Alexander Ulyanov was responsible for the group’s bomb factory. One bomb was concealed within a large tome called Digest of the Laws, while others were within cylindrical tubes. On 26 and 28 February and 1 March, the bombers stalked the Nevsky Prospect, hoping to waylay the tsar as he crossed it towards St Isaac’s Cathedral. Acting suspiciously, the bombers were snatched by the police, who probably had information about them already since the ramification of the conspiracy had been too casual. Sloppiness led to the arrest of the other principal conspirators including Ulyanov. Although he was not the main architect of the conspiracy, Ulyanov bravely became its spokesman during the trial. They were all sentenced to hang. Despite the urging of his mother, Ulyanov refused to make a plea for pardon. He and five others were hanged on 8 May 1887; fifty students were exiled to Siberia including Piłsudski.

At the time this may have seemed like the death rattle of terrorist groups that between the 1860s and 1900 had ‘only’ caused about one hundred casualties, even if one of them happened to be the tsar of Russia. However, in the first decade of the twentieth century there was a massive escalation of terrorist atrocities in imperial Russia, with perhaps as many as seventeen thousand people succumbing to terrorist activities between 1901 and 1916, before even these shocking statistics were dwarfed by the onset of Bolshevik state violence, much of it the handiwork of the terrorists turned Chekist secret policemen described in the following pages.

There were various reasons for this recrudescence of terrorism on a huge scale. A major famine in 1891, followed by cholera and typhus epidemics in European Russia a year later, saw renewed attempts by radicals to mobilise the starving peasantry, efforts which were as doomed as trying to ignite sodden sticks. Minds turned to an alternative means of combustion: acts of exemplary violence that would jolt the rural masses out of their somnolence. The disaster of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5, and Bloody Sunday in January 1905 when protests in St Petersburg were brutally suppressed, contributed to the climate of crisis, as did the darker side of Silver Age literary culture with its emphasis on the pathologically morbid. Less luridly, and more culpably, many people with liberal views - including many members of the legal profession - irresponsibly sympathised with the terrorists up to the point of aiding and abetting them, rather than supporting the regime’s efforts to reform itself. This especially applied to the liberal Kadet Party, which adopted the dubious doctrine that there were no enemies to the left, and whose members became the leading apologists for terror within respectable opinion. A ghastly moral relativism infected smart circles as when a leading Kadet politician made the following analogy: ‘Remember that Christ, too, was declared to be a criminal and was subjected to a shameful execution on the cross. The years passed, and this criminal - Christ - has conquered the whole world and become a model of virtue. The attitude towards political criminals is a similar act of violence on the part of the authorities.’ Liberals deliberately eschewed the term terrorist, preferring to view the aggressors as ‘minors’ who were really the victims of repressive authority. While no Kadet newspaper ever condemned a single act of leftist terrorism, pages were devoted to the almost insignificant instances of extreme right-wing violence, which assumed mythic proportions in the left-liberal imagination. This poison affected many liberals and leftists in foreign countries, with the British Labour Party and the German Social Democrats acting as ignorant cheerleaders for terrorist murderers in Russia. Indeed, fear of foreign liberal opinion inhibited a tsarist regime sensitive to the charge of being Asiatic from adopting effective measures to repress terrorism.

The tentative attempts at reform of the new tsar Nicholas II, specifically the Imperial Manifesto of 17 October 1905 guaranteeing basic rights and granting legislative powers to the State Duma, incentivised violent revolutionaries who took such concessions as signs of weakness. Some also thought that acts of terrorism would provoke the regime to lash out, with its lack of discrimination serving to radicalise greater numbers of people. Terrorist attacks on government officials, both high and humble, as well as what were called expropriations (actually robberies) and murders of private individuals, reached epidemic proportions. This did not apply just to Russia itself but to the Baltic provinces, the Caucasus, Finland and Poland, where the Russians (and German landowners in the Baltic) were regarded as alien occupiers by nationalist terrorists for whom any atrocity was legitimate. An improved technology, enabling the miniaturisation of explosives, meant that people feared there were bombs planted everywhere:

People have started getting wary,

They consider fruit quite scary.

A friend of mine as tough as granite

Is frightened of the pomegranate.

Policemen, ready to bark and grumble,

At the sight of an orange now tremble.15

Like the Fenians, the new generation of Russian terrorists preferred to manufacture their own explosives rather than risk capture by importing them ready-made from abroad. It was risky work, in which a trembling alcoholic hand or less than perfect concentration could cost a man his life. In 1904-5 two terrorists inadvertently blew themselves up in hotel rooms; one was identified only by his tiny hands, while bits of another were found in a neighbouring park. As with the Fenians, there was an eagerness to explore new technologies with which to kill - in the Russian case, involving aircraft designed to bomb the tsar at his residences at Tsarskoe Selo and Peterhof.

In these years, terrorism became both indiscriminate and inextricably entwined with banditry and other forms of criminality, such as kidnapping, armed robbery and extortion. These exploits were lauded in the left-liberal press, as if they were the actions of a Robin Hood or William Tell. In fact, these robberies were used to boost the profile of particular political factions - notably the Bolsheviks - or, more usually, simply to enable the terrorists to enjoy the good things of life on the run. There was a perceptible moral slippage, as human life lost any kind of value in the eyes of terrorists who were often from rougher social milieux than their genteel predecessors in the 1870s and early 1880s. These were truly Nechaev’s children, in a literal sense, for many terrorists were minors, some as young as fourteen or fifteen. A deadly game could be camouflaged with idealistic rhetoric. Some 30 per cent of those arrested for political crimes were Jewish, as were 50 per cent of those involved in revolutionary organisations, even though Jews were a mere 5 per cent of the overall population. Pogroms and discrimination when combined with a moralising and secularised messianic streak led many of these young people on to the path of terrorism, regardless of the impact this would have on the rest of the Jewish population, for the sins of the sons and daughters were very quickly visited on the fathers and mothers. The feebleness of the regime’s sanctions also encouraged people to embrace terrorism, for liberal lawyers invariably succeeded in commuting death sentences, while the courts passed remarkably lenient sentences, thereby indirectly demoralising the police who had to investigate such offences. Tsarist prisons and hard-labour camps became a cross between clubs and universities for radicals, where supervision of the inmates was so notoriously slack that conservatives pressed for the adoption of ‘English’ conditions - that is, all bread and water, chains and floggings.

Barely literate, the new wave of terrorists possessed no sophisticated theoretical reasons for their actions, which were more likely to be the product of frustration, anger and resentment, or because the perpetrators were amoral, hysterical or mad. A surprising number acted out of existential boredom with the quotidian frustrations of their lives: ‘I cannot live peacefully. I like danger, so as to feel the thrill.’ The young terrorist who eventually succeeded in killing prime minister Stolypin in 1911 claimed to be in despair at the future prospect of ‘nothing but an endless number of cutlets’. This accidie easily translated into a megalomaniac and sadistic desire to dominate and humiliate others, not least those terrorists suspected of being informers or merely weak, who were routinely tortured by colleagues whose view of an interrogation was to hold a gun to the victim’s temple. Killing people became addictive. A Polish terrorist with the alias ‘Gypsy’ murdered nineteen policemen. He explained why he experienced an uncontrollable urge to go to the funerals of his victims where he could check to see the accuracy of his marksmanship on the person displayed in an open coffin: ‘In the beginning it was difficult for him to kill, but by the third or fourth time the act of taking a life was already making an unusually pleasant impression on him. Seeing the blood of his victim gave him a special feeling, and therefore he felt an increasing urge to experience this sweet sensation again. This is why he has committed so many murders of which he does not repent in the least.’ Still others were acting in accordance with a death-wish, undertaking attacks from which they knew there was no prospect of escaping either being shot or executed if captured. Many lost what small moral compass they originally possessed: ‘Tell me, why can one not lie? Why can one not steal? What does “dishonest” mean? Why is it dishonest to lie? What is morality? What is moral filth? These are but conventions.’ Dmitry Bogrov, the young lawyer’s clerk from an assimilated Jewish background who in 1911 assassinated Stolypin in a Kievan opera house, ‘always laughed at “good” and “bad”. Despising conventional morals, he developed his own, whimsical and not always comprehensible.’ A bad gambling habit meant that he was always short of money, which probably explained why he became a police informer.


Whereas in the 1870s and 1880s the People’s Will had endeavoured to confine its murderous activities to specific highly placed individuals, its successors indiscriminately attacked anyone connected with the state, or indeed private citizens and their families. Humble constables patrolling the streets were either gunned down or had sulphuric acid thrown in their faces. Innocent civilians who got in the way were killed, regardless of age or gender. As government officials took increased security measures, from installing triple locks and peepholes on doors to hiring thuggish bodyguards or wearing undergarments of chain mail, so terrorists sought them out in such public places as church services or while in transit. Anarchist terrorists, who were especially vicious, targeted entire classes of people, hurling bombs into churches, restaurants, synagogues and theatres, or simply shot anyone whose white gloves signified the bourgeoisie’s mark of Cain. The Bolsheviks similarly used the generic libel that any alleged opponent belonged to the Black Hundreds - that is, what the left claimed was Russia’s proto-fascist movement - as when they threw three bombs into a shipyard workers’ tavern, on the grounds that some of the workers supported the monarchist Union of the Russian People. Those who survived these explosions were shot as they sought to flee outside.

In a further shocking development, the new-wave terrorists resorted to suicide bombings, in addition to attacks that were already a subliminal form of killing oneself. In 1904 terrorists connected to anarchist groups walked into gendarme or secret police buildings and blew themselves up. On 12 August 1906, three terrorists dressed as gendarmes tried to enter prime minister Stolypin’s villa on an island near St Petersburg. The minister’s guards held them in an antechamber, where, shouting ‘Long live freedom, long live anarchy!’, they blew themselves up with sixteen-pound bombs. The explosion was so powerful that it tore the façade off the villa, burying the minister’s horse and carriage. There were human body parts and blood everywhere. Twenty-seven people were killed and thirty-three injured, including many elderly people, women and Stolypin’s four-year-old son and fourteen-year-old daughter. The minister himself suffered no greater indignity than having the inkwell fly from his desk, splashing ink all over his face and shirt front. In 1908 nine members of a terrorist group were arrested for plotting a suicide attack on the justice minister. One of their number was kitted out as a human bomb, the idea being that he would hurl himself beneath the minister’s carriage, simultaneously detonating the bomb. When the police tried to arrest this Conradian figure, he warned: ‘Be careful. I am wrapped around with dynamite. If I blow up, the entire street will be destroyed.’ Seven of this group were sentenced to death and hanged.

In addition to acts of murder, the new terrorists of the 1900s carried out acts of extortion, hostage-seizures and armed robbery, the latter leading to gunfights on city streets that resembled scenes from a Western set amid snow. A man of means would receive a note scrawled: ‘The Worker’s Organisation of the Party of Socialist-Revolutionaries in Belostok requires you to contribute immediately… seventy-five rubles… The Organisation warns you that if you fail to give the above-stated sum, it will resort to severe measures against you, transferring your case to the Combat Detachment.’ In the Caucasus where Armenian and Georgian terrorists were notoriously violent (one group was called Horror, another Terror of the City of Tiflis) and hardly distinguishable from criminal gangs, they intimidated people into not paying the state’s taxes while imposing regular levies of their own. This was sometimes done under the self-delusion that the gangs were like latterday Robin Hoods.

Who were the groups responsible for this new wave of terror? The group most identified with the tactic was the Party of Socialist-Revolutionaries (SRs) which had coalesced out of various neo-Populist groups shortly after 1900. It established a special Combat Organisation solely dedicated to acts of terrorism under a former pharmacist Grigory Gershuni, a cunning figure who recruited many of the Organisation’s assassins. He led the Combat Organisation until his capture in 1903, when Boris Savinkov, the son of a Warsaw judge, replaced him. The person who acted as the link between the SR’s Central Committee and the Combat Organisation was Evno Filipovich Azef, the son of a Jewish tailor who had studied electrical engineering at Darmstadt university in Germany. For fifteen years Azef was at the heart of SR terrorist activities - a remarkable run of luck, for since the early 1890s he had been working for the Okhrana, the tsarist secret police, in return for a monthly salary.

The SRs acknowledged the People’s Will as their immediate inspiration, but tried to reconcile acts of terror with Marxist concerns with history’s larger motions in which neither the individual pulling the trigger nor the individual on the receiving end of a bullet was of much import. Marxified terror had several purposes. It could be a defensive response to repressive acts by the state. It would serve to disorganise the regime. Above all, in the SRs’ view, terrorism had propaganda value, ‘inciting a revolutionary mood among the masses’. In practice, things were never so clear cut as this theoretical exposition implies. There was a strong esprit de corps among the terrorists themselves, independent of the ideological niceties that served to differentiate each group. Besides, many of the terrorists had such limited education that they could scarcely articulate the ideological justifications for their actions at all. Many of the lower-level cadres who committed acts of terror were motivated by hatred and revenge, or simply became habituated to violence. Such people tended to be contemptuous of the Party’s deskbound theoreticians, who did not practise the violence their theories licensed. In addition to the centrally controlled Combat Organisation, the SR leadership also encouraged local terrorist groups, whose attacks were less discriminating than those of the central terrorist organisation. When the SRs decided in October 1905 to halt their terrorist attacks in the wake of the tsar’s reforming platform, locally based terrorist groups broke away to form the Union of SR-Maximalists, which, as the name suggests, ploughed ahead with terrorism against all and sundry. As the Maximalists put it: ‘Where it is not enough to remove one person, it is necessary to eliminate them by the dozen; where dozens are not enough, they must be got rid of in hundreds.’

In 1907 one of the leading Maximalist theoreticians, Ivan Pavlov, published a pamphlet entitled The Purification of Mankind. Anyone still harbouring the illusion that the class killings of the left were somehow morally superior to the race-based killings of the far right might wish to reconsider in the light of this tract. Pavlov argued that mankind was divided into ethical as well as ethnic races. Those in any kind of economic or state authority were so heinous that they literally constituted another race, ‘morally inferior to our animal predecessors: the vile characteristics of the gorilla and the orangutan progressed and developed in it to proportions unprecedented in the animal kingdom. There is no beast in comparison with which these types do not appear to be monsters.’ Since this group villainy was heritable, it followed, by this weird logic, that the children of these beasts in human form had to be exterminated. Other Maximalists sought to put a number on the exploiters who had to be killed, with one coming up with a round twelve million. Oddly enough, these pathological zoomorphic fantasies - which would be turned into Soviet reality by the rival Bolsheviks - have received far less scholarly attention than every minor Austrian or German völkisch racist who passed the days and nights wondering how to castrate or kill Jews.

While the Socialist-Revolutionaries did not conceal their campaign of terror, the rival factions of the Social Democratic Labour Party ostentatiously disavowed terrorism as incompatible with Marxism’s emphasis on forming revolutionary consciousness through agitation, while practising it on a massive scale. This distinctive theoretical stance enabled them to identify a separate niche from the SRs; acts of individual terrorism, Lenin averred, were a minor distraction from the serious business of mobilising and organising the revolutionary masses. Both the impact of terrorist campaigns in the early 1900s and the social provenance of many new-wave terrorists meant that the exiled Lenin had to revise his opinions to keep step with events on the ground in Russia. By 1905 he had come to realise the complementary value of terrorism, openly exhorting his followers to form armed units and to attack Cossacks, gendarmes, policemen and informers, with bombs, guns, acid or boiling water. Local Bolshevik terrorist groups extended this campaign from servants of the state to the captains of industry. Moreover, they also used violence to disrupt the elections to the first State Duma, attacking polling stations and destroying the records of the results, since elections might undermine the prospects for revolution in Russia.

Lenin had few scruples about political finance. On one occasion he ordered his subordinates to seduce the unremarkable daughters of a rich industrialist so as to grab their inheritance. He also helped establish a clandestine Bolshevik Centre specifically tasked to carry out armed robberies. The Bolshevik robbers were especially active in the wildly exotic Caucasus, where Lenin’s Georgian associate Josef Stalin had graduated from leading street gangs to political violence on an epic scale. His right-hand man was the Armenian psychopath Semen Ter-Petrosian, or ‘Kamo the Caucasus brigand’ as Lenin affectionately knew him. Stalin’s Outfit was responsible for extortion against businessmen and armed robberies, the most spectacular being a June 1907 bomb and gun raid on carriages taking money to the State Bank in Tiflis which netted at least a quarter of a million rubles.16 Many leading Bolsheviks who benefited from the proceeds of this crime were arrested abroad as they tried to exchange high-value 500-ruble notes for smaller denominations in Western banks.17 Kamo was betrayed in Berlin, but managed to feign insanity sufficiently well to be confined in a mental institution when he was extradited to Russia. He was released after the Revolution; a statue of him replaced that of Pushkin in Tiflis’s Yerevan Square, scene of his most notorious exploit.

Although the Bolsheviks’ rivals, the Mensheviks, included among their leaders men like Iuly Martov and Pavel Aksel’rod who opposed terrorism, things were not so straightforward either in theory or in practice. Again, many Menshevik activists simply ignored the leadership’s strictures against terrorism, which were rarely accompanied in any case by condemnations of terrorist attacks committed by rival groupings. In entire regions, such as the Caucasus, revolutionaries were unaware of any rift between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks in the first place, and hence continued to commit acts of terrorist violence under a common Social Democrat banner. The vast majority of terrorist killings, however, should be ascribed to anarchists, drawn from craftsmen, students and the underworld, all conjoined by belief that theoretical niceties were irrelevant and that reformism merely served to perpetuate an evil system. They practised what they called ‘motiveless terror’, in other words violence that was utterly disconnected from any alleged wrongdoing on the part of the victim. So instead of killing a member of the regime known for persecuting revolutionaries, anarchist terrorists regarded all the regime’s servants as legitimate targets. Moreover, since the anarchists regarded private property as an evil on a par with the evil of the state, all estate and factory owners and their managers became targets too. The ideological enemy was included, whether clerics or reactionary writers and intellectuals. These generous guidelines meant that anarchist groups were responsible for the majority of terrorist attacks in Russia, although the anarchists’ disavowal of central organisation and emphasis on the spontaneous violence of dispersed local groups meant that their responsibility was not reflected in any sort of accounting of atrocities.

The new wave of terrorism decelerated for various reasons. Following the assassination attempt at his villa in August 1906, prime minister Stolypin resorted to emergency decrees which bypassed the Duma, a step he took with regret since he respected the rule of law. In areas where disturbances were endemic, governors were licensed to use field court martials, where military judges passed summary justice on anyone indicted for terrorist attacks, assassinations, possession of explosives or robberies. Death sentences were frequent and, in a new departure, they were invariably carried out - a thousand within the first eight months of these new courts being established. The noose was known at ‘Stolypin’s necktie’. The regular civil and military courts were also encouraged to be less indulgent towards political criminals. Measures were introduced to improve the calibre and training of the police who investigated terrorist offences, while efforts were made to render imprisonment more stringent, by denying political offenders the privileged status that distinguished them from common criminals. In a few cases, government forces exceeded their authority, as when the commandant of Yalta in 1907 shocked civilised Europe by burning down the house from which a terrorist had tried to shoot him before killing himself. These measures were successful for they demonstrated the regime’s resolve, while the costs to the terrorists became real. Parallel agrarian and economic reforms diminished the wider grievances upon which terrorism fed. Then there was the demoralising effect of what came to be known as the Azef affair, after the spy hidden within the SR Combat Organisation. Azef was so dedicated and senior a revolutionary that those comrades who suspected that he was a police spy were ignored. One man, Vladimir Burtsev, the editor of an SR journal, persisted with these accusations, supporting them with evidence that the Party leadership could not dismiss. A Judicial Commission confirmed Burtsev’s allegations in a way that cast a poor light on the entire SR leadership group.

The exposure of further highly placed police agents led many revolutionaries to question the value of terrorism as a tactic, a feeling that spread to other leftist parties which otherwise enjoyed the SRs’ discomfort. Terrorism directed from the centre went into abeyance, although it continued to be practised by locally based groups of diehard radicals. Dmitry Bogrov, the Okhrana agent and terrorist, belonged to such a group in Kiev. In August 1911 he received a visit from a fellow revolutionary who presented him with the unenviable choice of being killed as a traitor or assassinating the head of the Kievan Okhrana for whom Bogrov acted as an agent. Deciding that he had bigger fish to fry, Bogrov managed to persuade the same Okhrana chief that there was a plot abroad to kill Stolypin on a visit to the Ukrainian capital; in return for this information, which he failed to pass on since the only threat that concerned him would have been against the tsar, the police chief presented Bogrov with a ticket for that night’s performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Tale of Tsar Saltan, allegedly to provide Bogrov with an alibi to use with his suspecting terrorist friends. During the opera’s second interval, Stolypin stood chatting in front of the orchestra pit, while Nicholas II and his daughters remained in their nearby box. Stolypin was hit by two shots fired from close range, one of which went through his hand, injuring one of the musicians on its further trajectory, while the second ricocheted off one of his medals and burrowed its way into his liver. The prime minister placed his hat and gloves on the edge of the balcony and unbuttoned his tunic, revealing a spreading red patch on his white shirt. The tsar came to the box, where his dying prime minister blessed his monarch with a final move of his hand. Bogrov was sentenced to death four days later and hanged the following week.

Although the tsarist regime succeeded in temporarily containing the epidemic of terrorism, it had fatally weakened the capacity and willingness of the government’s bureaucratic servants to resist further assaults in future, especially when these occurred in the context of Russia’s catastrophic conduct of the First World War. The repression represented by the field courts martial was a temporary success, but the tactic itself did nothing to foster a liberal camp that might have combined an insistence on legality with an unambiguous condemnation of terrorism. Instead, ‘liberalism’ was represented by the revolutionary Kadets with their soft tolerance of appalling terrorist violence. As for the terrorists, many of them slipped effortlessly into the apparatus of state terror that Lenin and his comrades established, beginning with the Cheka and from 1922 onwards the dread GPU. Kamo the Caucasian bandit re-emerged as a Chekist state terrorist, whose method of ascertaining the political loyalty of his Bolshevik subordinates was to torture them, to sort out the weaklings whom he then summarily executed. But even he was dispensable. In 1922, as the black joke went, the only bicycle in Tiflis, the one he was riding, was hit by the city’s sole truck. The Bolsheviks’ leading terrorist Leonid Krasin became their first ambassador to the Court of St James; Maxim Litvinov, their chief arms procurer, was a Soviet foreign minister under Stalin, the former terrorist who erected a tactic into a system of government.

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