A History of Russian Nihilism

An understanding of the Russian nihilism of the 1860s begins with an attempt to understand the concept of nihilism. This is naturally difficult because if there is a word that has even more loaded, and negative, connotations than anarchism it would be nihilism. This is particularly because the primary vehicle of our modern understanding of nihilism is through the fiction of Turgenev and Dostoevsky. Neither of these authors were particularly sympathetic to nihilism and provided nihilist characters primarily as a frame with which to drape their morality tales. The version of nihilism offered by these authors is then, primarily, a snapshot of the popular culture in which nihilism dwelt as much as it is a recollection of the trend. This time in Russian history is part of the story of nihilism and will be part of the story in bridging the gap between the mythological Bazarov, Verkhovensky, or Raskolnikov and figures like Nicholas Chernyshevsky, Dmitry Pisarev, and to some extent Sergey Nechayev.

What then was nihilism? Nihilism was a youth movement, a philosophical tendency, and a revolutionary impulse. Nihilism was the valorization of the natural sciences. Nihilism was a specific fashion style. Nihilism was a new approach to aesthetics, criticism and ethics. Nihilism was the contradiction between a studied materialism and the desire to annihilate the social order. Nihilism was also a particularly Russian response to the conditions of Tsarist reform and repression. Nihilism has become much more than it originally would have been capable of because of the viral nature of its value-system, practice, and conclusions. Nihilism’s effect is traceable through the history of Anarchism, through the formation and modern practice of terrorism, and through philosophical trends from deconstruction to existentialism.

Russia in the mid nineteenth century was a place of increasing tension. The revolution of 1848 that touched most of the European continent did not drastically affect Russia. As a result of the Russian campaign to subdue Napoleon (1812-1815) western ideas were brought to Russia. These ideas most clearly articulated themselves as a desire for a constitution defending values like human rights, a representative government, and democracy. When the Tsar (Alexander I) died in 1825 a regiment of soldiers refused to pay allegiance to the new crown, wanting instead the establishment of a Russian constitution. These westernized Russians were particularly frustrated because the colony of Poland was awarded a constitution by the Tsar. The `Decembrists,’ as they were called, were suppressed and remained a symbol of the possibility of social change throughout the century. Alexander’s successor, his brother Nicholas I, was an autocrat. He ruled Russia (1825-1855) with a combination of secret police (the Third Section), censorship, nationalism, and colonialism. After the failure in the Crimean war against the combined might of the Ottoman Empire, Britain, and France, Russia was in the dire situation of being forced to make major reforms or no longer be considered a player on the European continent. The timing of this military failure by Russia coincided with the death of Nicholas I.

His son, Alexander II, assumed the throne (1855-1881). His reign began with the negotiation of a peace deal with the major powers of Europe and a major domestic reform. Alexander II, in the sixth year of his reign, freed the peasants. This meant that as a class the peasants became “transformed into a class of independent communal proprietors” which meant that they had rights far beyond any other peasantry in Europe. This reform was coupled with changes to the military, judiciary, and local self-governance. This spirit of change was dampened by the comparison of the transformations not to the past, but to a mythological state. This sets the stage for nihilism.

The New People, as they were called, existed before the publishing of the book Fathers and Sons (1862) by Turgenev but found a hero in the character of Bazarov. It is worth noting the role of literature in Russian culture. Prose rose to prominence in the 1840s as the rise in publications of literary journals that printed novels in serial. This form affected Russian culture so dramatically that Alexander’s emancipation of the peasants is attributed, in part, to his reaction to Ivan Turgenev’s collection of Sportsman’s Sketches that depicted the life of the peasant. Literature was a respected form of social commentary that broached issues from the generation gap (in Fathers and Sons) to the psychology of men and women under great duress (Dostoyevsky) and in daily life (Tolstoy). This style of literature became known as realism due to its unflinching portrayal of contemporary life. The realist novel portrayed the experience of what was happening in Russian culture and in the 1860s that was nihilism.
Foundational Nihilism

Russian nihilism can be dissected, perhaps unnaturally, into two periods. The foundational period (1860-1869) where the `counter-cultural’ aspects of nihilism scandalized Russia, where even the smallest of indiscretions resulted in nihilists being sent to Siberia or imprisoned for lengthy periods of time, and where the philosophy of nihilism was formed. The other period would be the revolutionary period of Nihilism (1870-1881) when the pamphlet The Catechism of a Revolutionist inspired the movement-in-waiting into a movement-with-teeth with dozens of actions against the Russian state. The revolutionary period ends, of course, with the assassination of the Tsar Alexander II (March 13th, 1881), by a series of bombs, and the consequential crushing of the nihilist movement.

It is arguable that Mikhail Bakunin’s (1814-1876) “Reaction in Germany” (1842) with its famous dictum “Let us therefore trust the eternal Spirit which destroys and annihilates only because it is the unfathomable and eternal source of all life. The passion for destruction is a creative passion, too!” both anticipated and instigated the ideas of the nihilists. Bakunin was considered, in Russia, a Westernizer because of his influences by the thinkers of the day from the Continent proper. In “Reaction” Bakunin engaged with the Hegelian view by asserting that the negative, and not the positive, is the creative driving force of dialectics. While he is inexorably linked to both the foundational and revolutionary periods of nihilism, Bakunin was a product of the earlier generation whose vision, ultimately, was not the same as the nihilist view. He stated this best as “I am a free man only so far as I recognize the humanity and liberty of all men around me. In respecting their humanity, I respect my own.” This general humanitarian instinct is in contrast to the nihilist proclamations of having a “hate with a great and holy hatred” or calling for the “annihilation of aesthetics” (Pisarev).

Nihilism was never a singular, or even a particularly disciplined, body of thought. This is attributable to the reality a) that the main nihilist philosophers (Chernyshevsky and Pisarev) never held academic positions, b) that publishing was heavily censored under the Tsar or, as is most likely, c) of the nature of nihilism itself. Nihilism never had enough momentum, enough time, or the right conditions to become a mature philosophy. This resulted in it being an approximation to a body of ideas rather than a body of ideas. While strong positions were taken along several theoretical lines, none were developed in the generational method necessary for these ideas to hold historical purchase. While natural science was seen as the most potent intellectual tool, more nihilist commentary was made in the field of aesthetics, this being related to the obscurity principle. The obscurity principle says that in times of repression the most cogent social commentary happens in the vehicle of fiction, where your intention is `obscured’ because you appear to be talking about something entirely different than you are. In the case of the nihilists, art was anathema because it aggregated sentimentalism, emotionalism, irrationalism, spiritualism, and was a waste of resources. This obscured the fact that nihilists were actually talking about the values of the current order embedded in the vehicle of art but this connection couldn’t be made more clearly in a context of censorship.

As a positive philosophy Nihilism took positions within the framework of established philosophy. Nihilist materialism boiled down to the view that “only what is perceptible exists”. Man, then, was “a complex chemical compound, governed strictly by the law of causality.” Ethics, as argued by Chernyshevsky and Pisarev, can be described as the `scientific’ justification for hedonism. The nihilist position on epistemology was realist and contrary to the phenomenalism of the time. Art was valuable in direct relationship to its ‘social usefulness’, however that is defined (which it was not). As these positions reflect, Nihilism was not at its strongest as a positive philosophy and due to the transformation of Nihilism from a position to an action there was never a particularly focused development of these ideas.

As a matter of course, nihilism became a more coherent position only in banned texts, smuggled into Russia from émigrés. The most prolific of these émigré’s was Alexander Herzen (1812-1870) who established the Free Russian Press in London where he published until his death. The Press was well known for its publications of radical literature that ranged from To the Younger Generation (1861), that argued for the replacement of the Tsar by an employee of the state, to the journals The Polar Star and Voices from Russia. His most well known journal was The Bell which was smuggled into Russia where it was quite popular through the foundational nihilist period by those who desired social reform. In hindsight his views were rather conservative, especially in light of what nihilism would become. From The Bell in 1865, “Social progress is possible only under complete republican freedom, under full democratic equality.”

It is as a political position that nihilism attracted attention and was transformed from a discussion between learned men into a social movement. Nihilist politics begin as a branch of the Socialist tree. They were most influenced by the French Socialism of the time, Charles Fourier (1772-1837), Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872), Auguste Comte (1798-1857), John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), and obscure German materialists (Buchner, Moleschott, and Vogt). The nihilist contribution to socialism in general was the concept that the peasant was an agent of social change (Chernyshevsky, A Criticism of Philosophical Prejudices Against the Obshchina (1858)), and not just the bourgeois reformers of the revolutions of 1848, or the proletariat of Marx (a concept that wouldn’t reach Russia until later). Agitation for this position landed Chernyshevsky in prison and exile in Siberia for the next 25 years (although the specific accusations with which he was convicted were a concoction) in 1864. The first group, inspired by nihilist ideas, to form and work towards social change, did so as a secret society and were called Land and Freedom. This groups name was also taken by another, entirely separate group, during the Revolutionary Nihilist period. The first Land and Freedom conspired to support the Polish independence movement and to agitate the peasants who were burdened with debt as a result of the crippling redemption payments required by the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. Polish independence was not of particular interest to the nihilists, and after a plot to incite Kazan peasants to revolt failed, Land and Freedom folded (1863).

Thus begins the first period of nihilist secret societies. The Organization created a boy’s school in a Moscow slum in order to train revolutionaries. In addition they had a secret sub-group called Hell whose purpose was political terrorism, with the assassination of the Tsar as the ultimate goal. This resulted in the failed attempt by Dmitry Karakozov on the 4th of April 1866. Dmitry fired a revolver, but had his arm jostled by an artisan (who died, before the potential assassin, of the excesses of drink as a result of his change of social status) at the last minute. Dmitry was tried and hanged at Smolensk Field in St Petersburg. The leader of The Organization, Nicholas Ishutin, was also tried and was to be executed before being exiled to Siberia for life. Thus ended The Organization and began the White Terror of the rest of the 1860s.

The White Terror began by the Tsar putting Count Michael Muravyov (‘Hanger Muravyov’ due to his treatment of Polish rebels in prior years) in charge of the suppression of the nihilists. The two leading radical journals (The Contemporary and Russian Word) were banned, liberal reforms were minimized by reactionary afterthoughts, and the educational system was reformed to stifle the revolutionary spirit that lived there. This action by the Russian state marks the end of the foundational period of nihilism.

The lifestyle of the nihilist, or New People, is worth reviewing, if for no other reason, because of its similarity to youth movements of the modern era. While advocating for a callous hedonism and radical subjectivity, in practice nihilists actually tended towards a utilitarian and ascetic lifestyle. The fashion is a case in point. “Both sexes favoured blue-tinted spectacles and high boots. Other common features were a heavy walking-stick and a rug flung over the shoulders in cold weather; they called it a plaid, but it was not necessarily a tartan.” (Hingley) This, coupled with huge beards for men and bobs for women, a voracious appetite for cigarettes, an unwashed dirty appearance, and rude and outspoken behavior made the New People a sight to behold. The nihilists attempted to challenge the values of the day in a more meaningful way too. At the time, the question of woman’s emancipation was of great interest to reformers. For the nihilist the issues were regarding work and sexual freedom. Because a woman’s passport (which was used for general travel and not just travel abroad) was legally controlled by men — a father, or husband, had ultimate control of a woman’s life. The nihilists solved this problem by having ‘fictitious’ marriages. This allowed for an emancipation of women de jure if not de facto. This resulted in women having the freedom of mobility to pursue some academic pursuits (which were curtailed during the White Terror) and some enterprise. Finally, the nihilists adopted the credo that adultery was a natural, and even desirable trait, in contrast to the spirit of their time, or their own cultural composition (i.e. they were prudes).

More influential for the New People than philosophy, or political texts, was literature. The expression of the tension between generations by Bazarov in Father’s and Sons as the rejection of the romantic and idealistic postures, guaranteed his position as an icon of the nihilist movement. This was even though Turgenev’s intention was to portray the New People in a less than flattering light. The publication of Chernyshevsky’s What is to be Done? (1863), which was written in prison, became the guiding light to the movement. Within its pages was a vision of the socialist values of the nihilist, an exposition of how to live with radical values intact, and how to practice nihilist non-monogamy. The power of literature on the movement is ironic because, of course, most of our modern understanding of the nihilist movement comes from the novels of Turgenev and Dostoyevsky. While Turgenev was non-judgmental in his depiction of the New People (and respected by the nihilists, Chernyshevsky having held correspondence with him), Dostoyevsky was in violent reaction to them. While Dostoyevsky was involved in radical activity against the Tsar in the 1840’s, during his exile in Siberia he became a Orthodox Christian, upon his return he became quite upset at nihilism in general and Chernyshevsky specifically. The last five novels of Dostoyevsky dealt with nihilism to some degree either centrally or as a major theme.
Revolutionary Nihilism

The entrance on the scene of one person symbolizes the transformation from the foundational period to the revolutionary period. Sergei Nechaev, the son of a serf (which was unusual as most nihilists came from a slightly higher social class, what we would call lower middle class), desired an escalation of the discourse on social transformation. Nechaev argued that just as the European monarchies used the ideas of Machiavelli, and the Catholic Jesuits practiced absolute immorality to achieve their ends, there was no action that could not be also used for the sake of the people’s revolution. “His apparent immorality [more an amorality] derived from the cold realization that both Church and State are ruthlessly immoral in their pursuit of total control. The struggle against such powers must therefore be carried out by any means necessary.” (Cleaver) Nechaev’s social cache was greatly increased by his association with Bakunin in 1869 and extraction of funds from the Bakhmetiev Fund for Russian revolutionary propaganda.

The image of Nechaev is as much a result of his Catechism of a Revolutionist(1869) as any actions he actually took in life. The Catechism is an important document as it establishes the clear break between the formation of nihilism as a political philosophy and what it becomes as a practice of revolutionary action. It documents the Revolutionary as a very transformed figure from the nihilist of the past decade. Whereas the nihilist may have practiced asceticism, they argued for an uninhibited hedonism. Nechaev argued that the Revolutionary, by definition, must live devoted to one aim and not allow for distractions of desire, compassion, or feelings. Friendship was contingent on Revolutionary fervor, relationships with strangers was quantified in terms of what resources they offered revolution, and everyone had a role during the revolutionary moment that boiled down to how soon they would be lined up against the wall or when they would accept that they had to do the shooting. The uncompromising tone and content of the Catechism was influential far beyond the character of Nechaev. Part of the reason for this is because of the way in which it extended nihilist principles into a revolutionary program. The rest of the reason was that it gave the revolutionary project a macho weightiness that the men `of the sixties’ did not.

In terms of what the Catechism offered nihilism, a quote:

“By ‘revolution,’ our Organization does not mean a regulated pattern in the classical, western sense, a movement that always stops and bows with respect before private property rights and before traditions of public order and so-called civilization and morality — one which until now has limited itself to overthrowing one political form to replace it with another that tried to create a so-called revolutionary-state. The only revolution that could be beneficial for the people would be that revolution which destroyed at its roots any elements of the state and which would exterminate all the state traditions, social order, and classes in Russia.” (Thesis 23, Catechism of the Revolutionary)

Nechaev appears to be attempting to bridge the gap between Machiavelli and a nihilistic anarchism in this thesis. Which, beyond anarchist hand-wringing to the contrary, is a sobering take on what horrors may be necessary for the abolition of the standing order.

Which is not to say that there is much to reclaim from the personality of Nechaev in general. The facts are clear. Nechaev imagined a secret revolutionary organization the Russian Revolutionary Committee, with himself as the fugitive member from which he was taking refuge in Geneva, where he met Bakunin. Bakunin, an admirer of Nechaev’s zeal and stories of his organization’s success, provided contacts and resources to send Nechaev back to Russia as his representative (he gave him the number 2771) of the Russian Section of the World Revolutionary Alliance (also an imaginary organization). Upon his return to Russia Nechaev formed the secret, cell based organization, People’s Vengeance. One student member of the organization Ivan Ivanovich Ivanov questioned the very existence of the Secret Revolutionary Committee that Nechaev claimed to be the representative of. This honest appraisal of Nechaev’s modus operanti required action. “On the evening of 21 November 1869 the victim was accordingly lured to the premises of the Moscow School of Agriculture, a hotbed of revolutionary sentiment, where Nechayev did him to death by shooting and strangulation, assisted without great enthusiasm by three dupes… Nechayev’s accomplices were arrested and tried.” (Hingley) Upon his return to Switzerland Nechaev was rejected by Bakunin (for most of the obvious reasons) and was eventually extradited back to Russia where he spent the remainder of his life at the Peter and Paul Fortress. He did, due to his charisma and force of will, continue to influence events, maintaining a relationship to People’s Will and weaving even his jailors into his plots and lies. He was found dead in his cell in 1882 under mysterious circumstances.

Among the revolutionary movement (nihilist or not) in the post-Nechaev period there was a clear division. This split was between the propagandists (who followed Russian émigré Peter Lavrov who published Forward! in Paris) and what was called the Bakuninists who believed in pushing the peasants into immediate social revolution. The focus of both groups was on `organizing’ the peasants. This included a Russian version of `Freedom Summer’ (which actually stretched to two years 1873 and 1874, the second of which was coined ‘mad summer’) where young men and women, in groups of 3 and 4, traveled to the rural villages to live, work and agitate among the peasants. This was inspired, in large part, by the belief that the Russian institution of the village commune was the shortest path to Russian socialism. The commune was a self-governing body that managed some village affairs and made decisions collectively.

The rural effort was a complete failure. The peasants often handed the nihilists over to the police before even getting a sense of what they were around for. The nihilists ‘disguised’ themselves as peasants with the unsurprising result of being entirely obvious from the moment they walked into a village. Furthermore, the concept of rural revolt was a-historical at the least, as the peasants did not have the ability to arm themselves in a meaningful way and did not actually have a tradition of successful uprising. The Russian, Ukranian, and Cossack revolts in the 17th and 18th centuries were quickly suppressed. The only near success, which began before the nihilists arrived on the scene, was in the Chigirin area on the River Dnieper near Kiev. In 1877 three revolutionaries, Stefanovich, Deutsch and Bokhanovsky, drafted a charter purporting to come from the Tsar calling on the peasants to take up arms — which they did, in the form of (antiquated) pikes, other farming equipment and a body of peasants one thousand strong. Hundreds of peasants were arrested and sent to Siberia, and the three nihilists were imprisoned in the Kiev gaol in what became known as the Chigirin affair.

A preliminary note on the role of women in the nihilist organization is in order. While, given their tenuous social gains under Alexander II, women were less easily convincible to join the project of dismantling society, once engaged were, if anything, more committed to action, violence, and seeing the project through, then their male counterparts. This is best exemplified by the direct taking up of arms during the revolutionary period beginning with the action of one woman, Vera Zasulich. Once the taking up of arms and the formation of secret societies was in full swing, women took no small part in the proceedings. An accounting in the People’s Will, the most famous of the nihilist secret societies, states that 1/4 to 1/3 of the organization were women. Nearly half of the Executive Committee were women. While the social mores of the culture that the nihilists came from were not entirely upset, which meant that there was still `women’s work’ — namely housework and typesetting, on the whole women had egalitarian relationships with the men.

There were many secret societies formed in the revolutionary period. Two of them, the Troglodytes and the Revolutionary-Populist Group of the North eventually settled into forming the second iteration of Land and Freedom in 1876 (although the name was not settled until 1878). This group resolved itself as firmly in the Bakuninist camp in reaction to the failures of the rural campaigns of years past. The notable events of the seventies originated in this reaction.

In December of 1876 there was a political demonstration in the Square of Our Lady of Kazan in St. Petersburg. When the police broke up the meeting they arrested, and convicted to 15 years of prison, a latecomer to the protest, a known revolutionary named Bogolyubov. He then, in an unexplainable act of intransigence, refused to take off his cap for the visiting General Trepov who was reviewing the prison he shared with the political prisoners of the trial of `193′. The infuriated General beat him on the spot and demanded he be flogged the next day, which was done with such vigor that Bogolyubov went mad. This resulted in a prison riot.

“Bars of cell windows were torn off and beaten against the doors, and prisoners were reputedly tied up by warders, beaten, kicked and hauled unconscious to the punishment cells. Outside the prison Trepov’s act created widespread indignation by no means confined to professed revolutionaries. A Russian gentleman’s honour was especially sensitive where the striking of blows was involved, and so Bogolyubov’s punishment was taken as a monstrous affront to the whole revolutionary movement, staffed as it very largely was by young people who retained certain social pretensions.” (Hingley)

Vera Zasulich was not personally acquainted with the principle actors but took it upon herself to take action. She sought an audience with the General in a reception room of Russian officials where upon she drew a revolver from her muff and fired, killing him. In an unexpected move the regime allowed for Zasulich to be tried by a jury, assuming that because she confessed to the act, they had the weapon, and there were witnesses, that the result was guaranteed. Instead the jury acquitted her and upon leaving the courthouse, where the police awaited her for additional arrest, a small riot occurred resulting in her being whisked away by her comrades. This act, and the accompanying scandal, launched a several-year wave of action from the nihilists against agents of the state, and attempts, mostly failed, at repression by the state.

In January of 1878 the Odessa police raided the printing press of Ivan Kovalsky who defended himself and his press with revolver and dagger (thereby creating a tradition of nihilists fighting it out till the end with the police) while his comrades burnt incriminating documents and attempted to incite the crowd gathered around for the spectacle. Kovalsky was eventually captured, tried, and put to death as the first Russian political execution of the time.

On the first of February, 1878, a police infiltrator was killed by revolutionaries, and a note informing the public of the execution was posted in Kiev, bearing the seal of the Executive Committee of the Russian Socialist Revolutionary Party (an imaginary organization). On the 23rd of February, Valerian Osinsky a nihilist from the south, shot the public prosecutor of Kiev twice. The victim was unhurt (perhaps due to the thickness of his fur coat). On May 25th, Gregory Popko stabbed to death Captain Geyking of the Kiev gendarmerie on a corner of the main thoroughfare of the city, and then escaped by fatally shooting a doorkeeper who tried to stop him and wounding a policeman. Michael Frolenko, a southern nihilist, became an employee of the ‘impregnable’ Kiev gaol and quickly rose to the rank of chief warder. On May 27th he walked Stefanovich, Deutsch and Bokhanovsky (of the Chigirin affair) out of the prison walls where they spent a week on the Dnieper River rowing to safety.

The northern nihilists began catching up to the exploits of the southerners in August.

At nine o’clock in the morning on one of the main streets of St Petersburg, Sergey Kravchinsky walked towards General Mezentsov, Chief of Gendarmes and Head of the Third Section, who was on the way to his office. Kravchinsky held a dagger lightly wrapped in newspaper; after passing the General, he thrust it in his back and twisted it, then leapt into a carriage drawn by Barbarian, a famous trotter, and escaped. (Hingley)

This was particularly notable because it happened two days after the execution of Kovalsky by the state.

February 9th of 1879 was the date of the shooting of Governor General Dmitry Kropotkin in Kharkov, cousin to Peter Kropotkin, by Gregory Goldenberg. Also in February of that year was the death of another police infiltrator and another gun battle with the police in Kiev. April 2nd was the attempted assassination of the Tsar by Alexander Solovyov who fired, and missed, five times, the Tsar suffering nothing more than a hole in his outer coat. Solovyov was hanged on May 28.

The repression over the next 8 months was severe, with 16 Nihilists being hanged throughout Russia including 14 in the region of Kiev. Remarkably, the only three nihilists (Popko, Kravchinsky and Goldenberg) who actually killed people escaped the scaffold. Popko escaped, Kravchinsky escaped to London (to be run over by a train) and Goldenberg hung himself after confessing his crimes to a fellow `revolutionary’ (actually police agent) who was planted in the cell with him. On the 20th of February 1880 a nihilist named Miodetsky took a shot at one of the two Governor Generals in charge of the repression, Governor General Loris-Melikov. Once again he missed his shot and was executed two days later. Nihilists made up in enthusiasm what they lacked in marksmanship.

The repression of the state raised the question, in stark terms, as to how effective the current strategy of Land and Freedom was. In June 1879, a conference was held to evaluate the methods of violence used by the group. This resulted in the dissolution of Land and Freedom and the creation of Black Repartition, which held that militant propaganda was the appropriate method for moving forward, and the People’s Will, which condemned the Tsar to death. Black Repartition exits the stage as they leave the arena of direct contestation with the state, but they are of note as the location of George Plekhanov, the most notable Marxist of the time and up to the period of 1905..

Before the exposition of the final act of the Russian nihilists play, it is worthwhile to take pause. Beyond just assassination plots and reading literature, the nihilists were engaged in what they believed was a deep challenge to all aspects of Russian life. Along with atheism, non-monogamy, bank robbery (with several tunneling episodes to their credit), and forgery (especially of the `passport’ documentation that served as the Russian’s primary identification papers) the nihilists lived in communal apartments with people their own age, sharing resources, and devoting their lives to ‘the cause’. The state made attempts to infiltrate the nihilists; in return the nihilists also infiltrated the state. Their subterfuge of the Kiev gaol has already been mentioned, but far more significant was the nihilist by the name of Nicholas Kletochnikov, who actually infiltrated the secret police (the Third Section), feeding the nihilists names of informers, locations of planned raids and copies of official seals. The popularity of the secret society gave the nihilists a degree of seriousness that doesn’t exist in the more `counter-cultural’ parallels to their lifestyle today, but the attempts at living both within and against the current order continues to be popular in the same way.
The last act of the Russian nihilists

After the dissolution of Land and Freedom, the People’s Will devoted themselves to the assassination of the Tsar. They did not see this death as linked to a larger social struggle. They did not have the infrastructure, social solution, or desire to assume power, and believed that the institution of the Russian autocracy was firmly in place. Their desire was not a coup, it was vengeance. The nihilists also held on to the belief that if their positive actions towards social change (like their organizing of the peasants) were so easily thwarted by the malevolence-of-neglect by the state than negative action (like assassination) would more likely result in substantive change in the system. Finally there was a fatalist and deeply-held belief that destruction was worthwhile for its own sake, and not because of humanitarian, political, or social reasons.

After assessing the failures of nihilist sharpshooters the decision was made to attack the Tsar with demolitions. In November of 1879 the nihilists attempted to mine the train route that the Tsar would take from Livadia, on the Crimean coast near Yalta, to St. Petersburg at three different points. The first was made near Odessa, organized by Vira Figner, and involved the attempt to insert a nihilist into the position of railway watchman, but when the Tsar took a different route this plan was abandoned. The second happened just outside Aleksandrovsk and involved an intricate plan of nihilist Andrei Zhelyabov (1850-1881) to portray the launching of a tannery business by day and to plant dynamite by night. When the train carrying the Tsar came through the explosives refused to ignite. The final point was organized, by Alexander Mikhaylov, near Moscow. It involved the renting of an apartment a mere 50 yards from the rail line, the digging of a tunnel from the apartment to the line and the setting of the charge at the train line. Naturally this plan sounds better on paper than in practice. The digging involved several more people than the neighbors believed lived in the apartment, which prompted the response to the queries about the household’s food consumption to be levied against a legendary cat and not a group of nihilists digging a tunnel to assassinate the Tsar. As with most tunnel digging, disposing of the dirt from the tunnel involved a system of dragging the dirt out of the tunnel and into a spare bedroom and then scattered through the yard at night. Naturally the land through which the tunnel lay was sandy and easily flooded resulting in an entirely miserable experience. As they approached the tracks the deafening sound of each passing train confirmed each diggers worst suspicion that they were about to be caved in upon. Naturally the train containing the Tsar was not the one derailed by the firing of the explosive; the only casualty was the Tsar’s jam from his Crimean estate.

As no nihilist was captured and the explosion was a close call there was a general consensus that this was the right approach. The next attempt was made at the Tsar’s Winter Palace on the 5th of February 1880. It involved a nihilist taking a job within the palace, smuggling amounts of dynamite into the cellar, and at the appropriate time igniting this explosive, taking out the guard’s quarters in between. Once again the timing of the action was off. The scheduled arrival of the Tsar was delayed which meant that the explosives went off prior to Alexander’s arrival. Eleven people were killed and fifty injured. The next attempt involved the submersion of a hundredweight of explosive under the Kamenny Bridge on the Catherine Canal, which the Tsar had to pass to travel to the train station, which was thwarted by the tardiness of one of the conspirators. Another attempt began as the ambitious mining of a road that the Tsar would pass from the harbor to the train in Odessa. When the Tsars travel plans changed the effort was abandoned.

The rest of 1880 found the nihilists concerned with tracking the traveling arrangements of the Tsar. They found that Sunday was the best day to strike, as the Tsar usually followed a singular route to and from the military reviewing grounds. It was on the corner of the Nevsky Prospekt and Malaya Sadovaya Street where the nihilists would strike. This involved renting an apartment, digging a tunnel and attempting to act like proper citizens. Their failure to convince their neighbors resulted in a raid on their premises by an inspecting party who did not happen to notice the piles of wet earth covered by straw and coke. On the 27th of February, Zhelyabov, the organizer of the operation, was arrested — which almost brought down the operation.

After the Tsar reviewed the troops, on March 1st, he visited his cousin the Grand Duchess Catherine. This meant that he would not likely travel the intersection where the nihilist plot was focused and instead required the use of the small (five pound) homemade hand grenades that were prepared for such a possibility. Four nihilists put themselves into position; two were able to launch their bombs, the second catching both the Tsar and Ignatei Grinevitski, who threw the bomb, both of whom died. Five members of the plot to assassinate the Tsar were ceremoniously hung on April the 3rd, wearing a placard stating `Tsaricide’. Those hung included Andrei Zhelyabov, Nicholas Rysakov, Sophia Perovsky, Nikolai Kibalchich and Timothy Mikhaylov. Their hanging was not by the dropping of the floor, or the breaking of their neck, but by the slow suffocation of those hung. The deaths took such a long time, and were so public, that the result was a loss of face for the regime.

Thus ends the period of Russian nihilism. The heir to the throne of Russia, Alexander III (1884-1894) was an autocrat in the old style, brutally suppressed any remaining nihilists who dared show themselves after the fall of the Tsar. He believed in ruling the empire by `nationalism, Eastern Orthodoxy and autocracy’ with which he was successful until his death. At which time his son Nicholas II took the throne to be toppled by the Russian Revolution of 1917.

That nihilism has continued to be an overlooked branch of the socialist tree is surprising given the innovations of the movement. Beyond just the nihilist approach to social change, which has clearly been influential far beyond the socialist tradition, is the systematic way in which nihilists attempted to extend their ideas beyond just their politics. Given the repressive environment in which their ideas flourished, the breadth and scope of the Russian nihilists continue to bear the fruit of committed individuals bridging the gap between theory and practice.

Nihilists; Russian radicals and revolutionaries in the reign of Alexander II, 1855-81 Hingley, Ronald. New York : Delacorte Press, [1969, c1967]

Russian Philosophy, Vol. II, Edited by James M. Edie and Mary-Barbara Zeldin, University of Tennessee Press [March 1994]

Brittanica 2003

Peter Marshall, in his book A History of Anarchism

Eldridge Cleaver, Soul on Ice

Broido, Vera. (1977). Apostles Into Terrorist: Women and the Revolutionary Movement in the Russia of Alexander II. New York: The Viking Press.

One thought on “A History of Russian Nihilism

  1. anvo

    Hi, there!
    I find your article interesting and I’m trying to render it into Greek.
    In the fourth paragraph you claim, “This spirit of change was dampened by the comparison of the transformations not to the past, but to a mythological state.”
    Could you be more specific on this…? Which social group made this comparisons…? How prevalent this comparison was…? And when you write “state”, do you mean “State”…?

    Thank you!


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