In the Name of the People

Adam Ulam is a highly respected professor of political science at Harvard University. His numerous books on the government and leaders of the Soviet Union have had wide circulation and brought him a justly deserved reputation for impeccable scholarship, and, rarer still, the reputation of a professor who writes readable books. As a member of the prestigious Harvard Russian Research Center, he also has established himself as a leading Kremlinologist, a foremost intellectual general for the American side in the Cold War. With In the Name of the People Ulam ventures once again into the topic of Russian intellectual history. (He has done so previously with Ideologies and Illusions: Revolutionary Thought from Herzen to Solzhenitsyn [Harvard, 1976].) Furthermore, he once again demonstrates his erudition, wit, style, and scholarship as well as his continuing moral indignation at Russian (and Soviet) political behavior and practice.

In the Name of the People recounts the development of Russian anti-government movements during the reign of Alexander II, from the abortive attempt of the terrorist Dmitri Karakozov on the life of the Tsar in 1866 to the successful assassination of Alexander by members of the People’s Will in 1881. This was the age of the Nihilists and the Populists who broke with the Russian tradition of purely intellectual literary dissent and introduced into imperial politics social activism, including the use of terror. The previous generation of dissenters was epitomized by Alexander Herzen, who became the seminal force for anti-government activity for all of Russia in the future—not only the anarchists and socialists, but the liberals and moderate constitutionalists as well. Herzen spent long years in exile in London (he died in 1870) where he edited his political journal The Bell, and where his home became a mecca abroad for Russian dissidents. Ulam emphasizes his reputation as the leader of Russia’s so-called “second government,” that is, the anti-government. The author compares Herzen as the leader of the second government with Nicholas I, the leader of the first, showing that they did not so much represent polar extremes in Russian political life but, rather, formed mirror images, products of the same society playing different but intertwined roles.

Throughout much of Herzen’s period of activity, the primary issue of Russian politics was serfdom or, more precisely, how should serfdom be abolished, for by mid-century both government supporters and dissidents agreed that this oppressive economic system must cease if Russia was to survive in the modern age. When Alexander brought serfdom to an end in 1861, Herzen wrote in exaggerated, but genuine, respect reflecting the sentiment of his generation “Thou hast conquered, O Galilean.” Ironically, the liberation unleashed a wave of uprisings in the Russian empire among both peasants dissatisfied with the economic settlement of the act and minority nationalities—particularly the Poles—waiting for their national “liberation.” It was in this atmosphere that Karakozov, a Russian of gentry origins, tried to kill the Tsar while in his customary fashion he strolled in a St. Petersburg park among the public without much security. When asked why he did it, or more precisely what he wanted, the would-be assassin responded merely, “Nothing.”

For Ulam, Karakozov represents the new dissidents, the men and women who, while they still regarded Herzen with respect as an intellectual guide, sought their models among the heroes of the writings of the political novelist Nicholas Chernyshevsky, the first spokesman for social action. Unlike Herzen, Chernyshevsky remained in Russia and spent much of his life under detention or in prison—a martyr of the tsarist autocracy. The first and the second government had moved further apart.

It is the ideas and activity of these new men that makes them for Ulam the prophets of revolution. His account of them, however, is not merely a description of their ideas and actions, but also of their personal lives and romantic (in all senses of the word) entanglements. These personal biographies give the book much of its charm. Although at times the accounts become something akin to gossip, Ulam’s stylistic ability allows him to carry off the narration. Their practice of free love, their communes, and their civic marriages (equivalent to Anglo-Saxon common-law relationships, but often bigamous and not always consummated) revealed the young Russian rebels to be anti-Victorian social as well as political revolutionaries; while many of their characteristics give substance to Ulam’s veiled comparison of the Russian radicals to their American counterparts of the 1960’s. In one unforgettable scene Ulam describes the wife of the governor of Moscow entering...

(The entire section is 1973 words.)


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