Chapter XXXV - Socialist Propaganda, Revolutionary Agitation, And Terrorism
Count Tolstoy's educational reform had one effect which was not anticipated: it brought the revolutionists into closer contact with Western Socialism. Many students, finding their position in Russia uncomfortable, determined to go abroad and continue their studies in foreign universities, where they would be free from the inconveniences of police supervision and Press-censure. Those of the female sex had an additional motive to emigrate, because they could not complete their studies in Russia, but they had more difficulty in carrying out their intention, because parents naturally disliked the idea of their daughters going abroad to lead a Bohemian life, and they very often obstinately refused to give their consent. In such cases the persistent daughter found herself in a dilemma. Though she might run away from her family and possibly earn her own living, she could not cross the frontier without a passport, and without the parental sanction a passport could not be obtained. Of course she might marry and get the consent of her husband, but most of the young ladies objected to the trammels of matrimony. Occasionally the problem was solved by means of a fictitious marriage, and when a young man could not be found to co-operate voluntarily in the arrangement, the Terrorist methods, which the revolutionists adopted a few years later for other purposes, might be employed. I have heard of at least one case in which an ardent female devotee of medical science threatened to shoot a student who was going abroad if he did not submit to the matrimonial ceremony and allow her to accompany him to the frontier as his official wife!
Strange as this story may seem, it contains nothing inherently improbable. At that time the energetic young ladies of the Nihilist school were not to be diverted from their purpose by trifling obstacles. We shall meet some of them hereafter, displaying great courage and tenacity in revolutionary activity. One of them, for example, attempted to murder the Prefect of St. Petersburg; and another, a young person of considerable refinement and great personal charm, gave the signal for the assassination of Alexander II. and expiated her crime on the scaffold without the least sign of repentance.
Most of the studious emigres of both sexes went to Zurich, where female students were admitted to the medical classes. Here they made the acquaintance of noted Socialists from various countries who had settled in Switzerland, and being in search of panaceas for social regeneration, they naturally fell under their influence, at the same time they read with avidity the works of Proudhon, Lassalle, Buchner, Marx, Flerovski, Pfeiffer, and other writers of "advanced opinions."
Among the apostles of socialism living at that time in Switzerland they found a sympathetic fellow-countryman in the famous Anarchist, Bakunin, who had succeeded in escaping from Siberia. His ideal was the immediate overthrow of all existing Governments, the destruction of all administrative organisation, the abolition of all bourgeois institutions, and the establishment of an entirely new order of things on the basis of a free federation of productive Communes, in which all the land should be distributed among those capable of tilling it and the instruments of production confided to co-operative associations. Efforts to obtain mere political reforms, even of the most radical type, were regarded by him with contempt as miserable palliatives, which could be of no real, permanent benefit to the masses, and might be positively injurious by prolonging the present era of bourgeois domination.
For the dissemination of these principles a special organ called The Cause of the People (Narodnoye Dyelo) was founded in Geneva in 1868 and was smuggled across the Russian frontier in considerable quantities. It aimed at drawing away the young generation from Academic Nihilism to more practical revolutionary activity, but it evidently remained to some extent under the old influences, for it indulged occasionally in very abstract philosophical disquisitions. In its first number, for example, it published a programme in which the editors thought it necessary to declare that they were materialists and atheists, because the belief in God and a future life, as well as every other kind of idealism, demoralises the people, inspiring it with mutually contradictory aspirations, and thereby depriving it of the energy necessary for the conquest of its natural rights in this world, and the complete organisation of a free and happy life. At the end of two years this organ for moralising the people collapsed from want of funds, but other periodicals and pamphlets were printed, and the clandestine relations between the exiles in Switzerland and their friends in St. Petersburg were maintained without difficulty, notwithstanding the efforts of the police to cut the connection. In this way Young Russia became more and more saturated with the extreme Socialist theories current in Western Europe.
Thanks partly to this foreign influence and partly to their own practical experience, the would-be reformers who remained at home came to understand that academic talking and discussing could bring about no serious results. Students alone, however numerous and however devoted to the cause, could not hope to overthrow or coerce the Government. It was childish to suppose that the walls of the autocratic Jericho would fall by the blasts of academic trumpets. Attempts at revolution could not be successful without the active support of the people, and consequently the revolutionary agitation must be extended to the masses. So far there was complete agreement among the revolutionists, but with regard to the modus operandi emphatic differences of opinion appeared. Those who were carried away by the stirring accents of Bakunin imagined that if the masses could only be made to feel themselves the victims of administrative and economic oppression, they would rise and free themselves by a united effort. According to this view all that was required was that popular discontent should be excited and that precautions should be taken to ensure that the explosions of discontent should take place simultaneously all over the country. The rest might safely be left, it was thought, to the operation of natural forces and the inspiration of the moment. Against this dangerous illusion warning voices were raised. Lavroff, for example, while agreeing with Bakunin that mere political reforms were of little or no value, and that any genuine improvement in the condition of the working classes could proceed only from economic and social reorganisation, maintained stoutly that the revolution, to be permanent and beneficial, must be accomplished, not by demagogues directing the ignorant masses, but by the people as a whole, after it had been enlightened and instructed as to its true interests. The preparatory work would necessarily require a whole generation of educated propagandists, living among the labouring population rural and urban.
For some time there was a conflict between these two currents of opinion, but the views of Lavroff, which were simply a practical development of academic Nihilism, gained far more adherents than the violent anarchical proposals of Bakunin, and finally the grandiose scheme of realising gradually the Socialist ideal by indoctrinating the masses was adopted with enthusiasm. In St. Petersburg, Moscow and other large towns the student association for mutual instruction, to which I have referred in the foregoing chapter, became centres of popular propaganda, and the academic Nihilists were transformed into active missionaries. Scores of male and female students, impatient to convert the masses to the gospel of freedom and terrestrial felicity, sought to get into touch with the common people by settling in the villages as school- teachers, medical practitioners, midwives, etc., or by working as common factory hands in the industrial centres. In order to obtain employment in the factories and conceal their real purpose, they procured false passports, in which they were described as belonging to the lower classes; and even those who settled in the villages lived generally under assumed names. Thus was formed a class of professional revolutionists, sometimes called the Illegals, who were liable to be arrested at any moment by the police. As compensation for the privations and hardships which they had to endure, they had the consolation of believing that they were advancing the good cause. The means they usually employed were formal conversations and pamphlets expressly written for the purpose. The more enthusiastic and persevering of these missionaries would continue their efforts for months and years, remaining in communication with the headquarters in the capital or some provincial town in order to report progress, obtain a fresh supply of pamphlets, and get their forged passports renewed. This extraordinary movement was called "going in among the people," and it spread among the young generation like an epidemic. In 1873 it was suddenly reinforced by a detachment of fresh recruits. Over a hundred Russian students were recalled by the Government from Switzerland, in order to save them from the baneful influence of Bakunin, Lavroff, and other noted Socialists, and a large proportion of them joined the ranks of the propagandists.*
* Instances of going in among the people had happened as early as 1864, but they did not become frequent till after 1870.
With regard to the aims and methods of the propagandists, a good deal of information was obtained in the course of a judicial inquiry instituted in 1875. A peasant, who was at the same time a factory worker, informed the police that certain persons were distributing revolutionary pamphlets among the factory-hands, and as a proof of what he said he produced some pamphlets which he had himself received. This led to an investigation, which showed that a number of young men and women, evidently belonging to the educated classes, were disseminating revolutionary ideas by means of pamphlets and conversation. Arrests followed, and it was soon discovered that these agitators belonged to a large secret association, which had its centre in Moscow and local branches in Ivanovo, Tula, and Kief. In Ivanovo, for instance--a manufacturing town about a hundred miles to the northeast of Moscow--the police found a small apartment inhabited by three young men and four young women, all of whom, though belonging by birth to the educated classes, had the appearance of ordinary factory workers, prepared their own food, did with their own hands all the domestic work, and sought to avoid everything which could distinguish them from the labouring population. In the apartment were found 240 copies of revolutionary pamphlets, a considerable sum of money, a large amount of correspondence in cypher, and several forged passports.
How many persons the society contained, it is impossible to say, because a large portion of them eluded the vigilance of the police; but many were arrested, and ultimately forty-seven were condemned. Of these, eleven were noble, seven were sons of parish priests, and the remainder belong to the lower classes--that is to say, the small officials, burghers, and peasants. The average age of the prisoners was twenty-four, the oldest being thirty-six and the youngest under seventeen! Only five or six were over twenty-five, and none of these were ringleaders. The female element was represented by no less than fifteen young persons, whose ages were on an average under twenty-two. Two of these, to judge by their photographs, were of refined, prepossessing appearance, and seemingly little fitted for taking part in wholesale massacres such as the society talked of organising.
The character and aims of the society were clearly depicted in the documentary and oral evidence produced at the trial. According to the fundamental principles, there should exist among the members absolute equality, complete mutual responsibility and full frankness and confidence with regard to the affairs of the association. Among the conditions of admission we find that the candidate should devote himself entirely to revolutionary activity; that he should be ready to sever all ties, whether of friendship or of love, for the good cause; that he should possess great powers of self-sacrifice and the capacity for keeping secrets; and that he should consent to become, when necessary, a common labourer in a factory. The desire to maintain absolute equality is well illustrated by the article of the statutes regarding the administration: the office-bearers are not to be chosen by election, but all members are to be office-bearers in turn, and the term of office must not exceed one month!
The avowed aim of the society was to destroy the existing social order, and to replace it by one in which there should be no private property and no distinctions of class or wealth; or, as it is expressed in one document, "to found on the ruins of the present social organisation the Empire of the working classes." The means to be employed were indicated in a general way, but each member was to adapt himself to circumstances and was to devote all his energy to forwarding the cause of the revolution. For the guidance of the inexperienced, the following means were recommended: simple conversations, dissemination of pamphlets, the exciting of discontent, the formation of organised groups, the creation of funds and libraries. These, taken together, constitute, in the terminology of revolutionary science, "propaganda," and in addition to it there should be "agitation." The technical distinction between these two processes is that propaganda has a purely preparatory character, and aims merely at enlightening the masses regarding the true nature of the revolutionary cause, whereas agitation aims at exciting an individual or a group to acts which are considered, in the existing regime, as illegal. In time of peace "pure agitation" was to be carried on by means of organised bands which should frighten the Government and the privileged classes, draw away the attention of the authorities from less overt kinds of revolutionary action, raise the spirit of the people and thereby render it more accessible to revolutionary ideas, obtain pecuniary means for further activity, and liberate political prisoners. In time of insurrection the members should give to all movements every assistance in their power, and impress on them a Socialistic character. The central administration and the local branches should establish relations with publishers, and take steps to secure a regular supply of prohibited books from abroad. Such are a few characteristic extracts from a document which might fairly be called a treatise on revolutionology.
As a specimen of the revolutionary pamphlets circulated by the propagandists and agitators I may give here a brief account of one which is well known to the political police. It is entitled Khitraya Mekhanika (Cunning Machinery), and gives a graphic picture of the ideas and methods employed. The mise en scene is extremely simple. Two peasants, Stepan and Andrei, are represented as meeting in a gin-shop and drinking together. Stepan is described as good and kindly when he has to do with men of his own class, but very sharp-tongued when speaking with a foreman or manager. Always ready with an answer, he can on occasions silence even an official! He has travelled all over the Empire, has associated with all sorts and conditions of men, sees everything most clearly, and is, in short, a very remarkable man. One of his excellent qualities is that, being "enlightened" himself, he is always ready to enlighten others, and he now finds an opportunity of displaying his powers. When Andrei, who is still unenlightened, proposes that they should drink another glass of vodka, he replies that the Tsar, together with the nobles and traders, bars the way to the throat. As his companion does not understand this metaphorical language, he explains that if there were no Tsars, nobles, or traders, he could get five glasses of vodka for the sum that he now pays for one glass. This naturally suggests wider topics, and Stepan gives something like a lecture. The common people, he explains, pay by far the greater part of the taxation, and at the same time do all the work; they plough the fields, build the houses and churches, work in the mills and factories, and in return they are systematically robbed and beaten. And what is done with all the money that is taken from them? First of all, the Tsar gets nine millions of roubles--enough to feed half a province--and with that sum he amuses himself, has hunting-parties, and feasts, eats, drinks, makes merry, and lives in stone houses. He gave liberty, it is true, to the peasants; but we know what the Emancipation really was. The best land was taken away and the taxes were increased, lest the muzhik should get fat and lazy. The Tsar is himself the richest landed proprietor and manufacturer in the country. He not only robs us as much as he pleases, but he has sold into slavery (by forming a national debt) our children and grandchildren. He takes our sons as soldiers, shuts them up in barracks so that they should not see their brother-peasants, and hardens their hearts so that they become wild beasts, ready to rend their parents. The nobles and traders likewise rob the poor peasants. In short, all the upper classes have invented a bit of cunning machinery by which the muzhik is made to pay for their pleasures and luxuries. The people will one day rise and break this machinery to pieces. When that day comes they must break every part of it, for if one bit escapes destruction all the other parts of it will immediately grow up again. All the force is on the side of the peasants, if they only knew how to use it. Knowledge will come in time. They will then destroy this machine, and perceive that the only real remedy for all social evils is brotherhood. People should live like brothers, having no mine and thine, but all things in common. When we have created brotherhood, there will be no riches and no thieves, but right and righteousness without end. In conclusion, Stepan addresses a word to "the torturers": "When the people rise, the Tsar will send troops against us, and the nobles and capitalists will stake their last rouble on the result. If they do not succeed, they must not expect any quarter from us. They may conquer us once or twice, but we shall at last get our own, for there is no power that can withstand the whole people. Then we shall cleanse the country of our persecutors, and establish a brotherhood in which there will be no mine and thine, but all will work for the common weal. We shall construct no cunning machinery, but shall pluck up evil by the roots, and establish eternal justice!"
The above-mentioned distinction between Propaganda and Agitation, which plays a considerable part in revolutionary literature, had at that time more theoretical than practical importance. The great majority of those who took an active part in the movement confined their efforts to indoctrinating the masses with Socialistic and subversive ideas, and sometimes their methods were rather childish. As an illustration I may cite an amusing incident related by one of the boldest and most tenacious of the revolutionists, who subsequently acquired a certain sense of humour. He and a friend were walking one day on a country road, when they were overtaken by a peasant in his cart. Ever anxious to sow the good seed, they at once entered into conversation with the rustic, telling him that he ought not to pay his taxes, because the tchinovniks robbed the people, and trying to convince him by quotations from Scripture that he ought to resist the authorities. The prudent muzhik whipped up his horse and tried to get out of hearing, but the two zealots ran after him and continued the sermon till they were completely out of breath. Other propagandists were more practical, and preached a species of agrarian socialism which the rural population could understand. At the time of the Emancipation the peasants were convinced as I have mentioned in a previous chapter, that the Tsar meant to give them all the land, and to compensate the landed proprietors by salaries. Even when the law was read and explained to them, they clung obstinately to their old convictions, and confidently expected that the REAL Emancipation would be proclaimed shortly. Taking advantage of this state of things, the propagandists to whom I refer confirmed the peasants in their error, and sought in this way to sow discontent against the proprietors and the Government. Their watchword was "Land and Liberty," and they formed for a good many years a distinct group, under that title (Zemlya i Volya, or more briefly Zemlevoltsi).
In the St. Petersburg group, which aspired to direct and control this movement, there were one or two men who held different views as to the real object of propaganda and agitation. One of these, Prince Krapotkin, has told the world what his object was at that time. He hoped that the Government would be frightened and that the Autocratic Power, as in France on the eve of the Revolution, would seek support in the landed proprietors, and call together a National Assembly. Thus a constitution would be granted, and though the first Assembly might be conservative in spirit, autocracy would be compelled in the long run to yield to parliamentary pressure.
No such elaborate projects were entertained, I believe, by the majority of the propagandists. Their reasoning was much simpler: "The Government, having become reactionary, tries to prevent us from enlightening the people; we will do it in spite of the Government!" The dangers to which they exposed themselves only confirmed them in their resolution. Though they honestly believed themselves to be Realists and Materialists, they were at heart romantic Idealists, panting to do something heroic. They had been taught by the apostles whom they venerated, from Belinski downwards, that the man who simply talks about the good of the people, and does nothing to promote it, is among the most contemptible of human beings. No such reproach must be addressed to them. If the Government opposed and threatened, that was no excuse for inactivity. They must be up and doing. "Forward! forward! Let us plunge into the people, identify ourselves with them, and work for their benefit! Suffering is in store for us, but we must endure it with fortitude!" The type which Tchernishevski had depicted in his famous novel, under the name of Rakhmetof--the youth who led an ascetic life and subjected himself to privation and suffering as a preparation for future revolutionary activity--now appeared in the flesh. If we may credit Bakunin, these Rakhmetofs had not even the consolation of believing in the possibility of a revolution, but as they could not and would not remain passive spectators of the misfortunes of the people, they resolved to go in among the masses in order to share with them fraternally their sufferings, and at the same time to teach and prepare, not theoretically, but practically by their living example.* This is, I believe, an exaggeration. The propagandists were, for the most part of incredibly sanguine temperament.
* Bakunin: "Gosudarstvennost' i Anarkhiya" ("State Organisation and Anarchy"), Zurich, 1873.
The success of the propaganda and agitation was not at all in proportion to the numbers and enthusiasm of those who took part in it. Most of these displayed more zeal than mother-wit and discretion. Their Socialism was too abstract and scientific to be understood by rustics, and when they succeeded in making themselves intelligible they awakened in their hearers more suspicion than sympathy. The muzhik is a very matter-of-fact practical person, totally incapable of understanding what Americans call "hifalutin" tendencies in speech and conduct, and as he listened to the preaching of the new Gospel doubts and questionings spontaneously rose in his mind: "What do those young people, who betray their gentlefolk origin by their delicate white hands, their foreign phrases, their ignorance of the common things of everyday peasant life, really want? Why are they bearing hardships and taking so much trouble? They tell us it is for our good, but we are not such fools and simpletons as they take us for. They are not doing it all for nothing. What do they expect from us in return? Whatever it is, they are evidently evil-doers, and perhaps moshenniki (swindlers). Devil take them!" and thereupon the cautious muzhik turns his back upon his disinterested self-sacrificing teachers, or goes quietly and denounces them to the police! It is not only in Spain that we encounter Don Quixotes and Sancho Panzas!
Occasionally a worse fate befell the missionaries. If they allowed themselves, as they sometimes did, to "blaspheme" against religion or the Tsar, they ran the risk of being maltreated on the spot. I have heard of one case in which the punishment for blasphemy was applied by sturdy peasant matrons. Even when they escaped such mishaps they had not much reason to congratulate themselves on their success. After three years of arduous labour the hundreds of apostles could not boast of more than a score or two of converts among the genuine working classes, and even these few did not all remain faithful unto death. Some of them, however, it must be admitted, laboured and suffered to the end with the courage and endurance of true martyrs.
It was not merely the indifference or hostility of the masses that the propagandists had to complain of. The police soon got on their track, and did not confine themselves to persuasion and logical arguments. Towards the end of 1873 they arrested some members of the central directory group in St. Petersburg, and in the following May they discovered in the province of Saratof an affiliated organisation with which nearly 800 persons were connected, about one-fifth of them belonging to the female sex. A few came of well- to-do families--sons and daughters of minor officials or small landed proprietors--but the great majority were poor students of humbler origin, a large contingent being supplied by the sons of the poor parish clergy. In other provinces the authorities made similar discoveries. Before the end of the year a large proportion of the propagandists were in prison, and the centralised organisation, so far as such a thing existed, was destroyed. Gradually it dawned on the minds even of the Don Quixotes that pacific propaganda was no longer possible, and that attempts to continue it could lead only to useless sacrifices.
For a time there was universal discouragement in the revolutionary ranks; and among those who had escaped arrest there were mutual recriminations and endless discussions about the causes of failure and the changes to be made in modes of action. The practical results of these recriminations and discussions was that the partisans of a slow, pacific propaganda retired to the background, and the more impatient revolutionary agitators took possession of the movement. These maintained stoutly that as pacific propaganda had become impossible, stronger methods must be adopted. The masses must be organised so as to offer successful resistance to the Government. Conspiracies must therefore be formed, local disorders provoked, and blood made to flow. The part of the country which seemed best adapted for experiments of this kind was the southern and southeastern region, inhabited by the descendants of the turbulent Cossack population which had raised formidable insurrections under Stenka Razin and Pugatcheff in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Here, then, the more impatient agitators began their work. A Kief group called the Buntari (rioters), composed of about twenty-five individuals, settled in various localities as small shopkeepers or horse dealers, or went about as workmen or peddlers. One member of the group has given us in his reminiscences an amusing account of the experiment. Everywhere the agitators found the peasants suspicious and inhospitable, and consequently they had to suffer a great deal of discomfort. Some of them at once gave up the task as hopeless. The others settled in a village and began operations. Having made a topographic survey of the locality, they worked out an ingenious plan of campaign; but they had no recruits for the future army of insurrection, and if they had been able to get recruits, they had no arms for them, and no money wherewith to purchase arms or anything else. In these circumstances they gravely appointed a committee to collect funds, knowing very well that no money would be forthcoming. It was as if a shipwrecked crew in an open boat, having reached the brink of starvation, appointed a committee to obtain a supply of fresh water and provisions! In the hope of obtaining assistance from headquarters, a delegate was sent to St. Petersburg and Moscow to explain that for the arming of the population about a quarter of a million of roubles was required. The delegate brought back thirty second-hand revolvers! The revolutionist who confesses all this* recognises that the whole scheme was childishly unpractical: "We chose the path of popular insurrection because we had faith in the revolutionary spirit of the masses, in its power and its invincibility. That was the weak side of our position; and the most curious part of it was that we drew proofs in support of our theory from history--from the abortive insurrections of Pazin and Pugatcheff, which took place in an age when the Government had only a small regular army and no railways or telegraphs! We did not even think of attempting a propaganda among the military!" In the district of Tchigirin the agitators had a little momentary success, but the result was the same. There a student called Stefanovitch pretended that the Tsar was struggling with the officials to benefit the peasantry, and he showed the simple rustics a forged imperial manifesto in which they were ordered to form a society for the purpose of raising an insurrection against the officials, the nobles, and the priests. At one moment (April, 1877), the society had about 600 members, but a few months later it was discovered by the police, and the leaders and peasants were arrested.
* Debogorio-Mokrievitch. "Vospominaniya" ("Reminiscences"). Paris, 1894-99.
When it had thus become evident that propaganda and agitation were alike useless, and when numerous arrests were being made daily, it became necessary for the revolutionists to reconsider their position, and some of the more moderate proposed to rally to the Liberals, as a temporary measure. Hitherto there had been very little sympathy and a good deal of openly avowed hostility between Liberals and revolutionists. The latter, convinced that they could overthrow the Autocratic Power by their own unaided efforts, had looked askance at Liberalism because they believed that parliamentary discussions and party struggles would impede rather than facilitate the advent of the Socialist Millennium, and strengthen the domination of the bourgeoisie without really improving the condition of the masses. Now, however, when the need of allies was felt, it seemed that constitutional government might be used as a stepping-stone for reaching the Socialist ideal, because it must grant a certain liberty of the Press and of association, and it would necessarily abolish the existing autocratic system of arresting, imprisoning and exiling, on mere suspicion, without any regular form of legal procedure. As usual, an appeal was made to history, and arguments were easily found in favour of this course of action. The past of other nations had shown that in the march of progress there are no sudden leaps and bounds, and it was therefore absurd to imagine, as the revolutionists had hitherto done, that Russian Autocracy could be swallowed by Socialism at a gulp. There must always be periods of transition, and it seemed that such a transition period might now be initiated. Liberalism might be allowed to destroy, or at least weaken, Autocracy, and then it might be destroyed in its turn by Socialism of the most advanced type.
Having adopted this theory of gradual historic development, some of the more practical revolutionists approached the more advanced Liberals and urged them to more energetic action; but before anything could be arranged the more impatient revolutionists-- notably the group called the Narodovoltsi (National-will-ists)-- intervened, denounced what they considered an unholy alliance, and proposed a policy of terrorism by which the Government would be frightened into a more conciliatory attitude. Their idea was that the officials who displayed most zeal against the revolutionary movement should be assassinated, and that every act of severity on the part of the Administration should be answered by an act of "revolutionary justice."
As it was evident that the choice between these two courses of action must determine in great measure the future character and ultimate fate of the movement, there was much discussion between the two groups; but the question did not long remain in suspense. Soon the extreme party gained the upper hand, and the Terrorist policy was adopted. I shall let the revolutionists themselves explain this momentous decision. In a long proclamation published some years later it is explained thus:
"The revolutionary movement in Russia began with the so-called 'going in among the people.' The first Russian revolutionists thought that the freedom of the people could be obtained only by the people itself, and they imagined that the only thing necessary was that the people should absorb Socialistic ideas. To this it was supposed that the peasantry were naturally inclined, because they already possess, in the rural Commune, institutions which contain the seeds of Socialism, and which might serve as a basis for the reconstruction of society according to Socialist principles. The propagandists hoped, therefore, that in the teachings of West European Socialism the people would recognise its own instinctive creations in riper and more clearly defined forms and that it would joyfully accept the new teaching.
"But the people did not understand its friends, and showed itself hostile to them. It turned out that institutions born in slavery could not serve as a foundation for the new construction, and that the man who was yesterday a serf, though capable of taking part in disturbances, is not fitted for conscious revolutionary work. With pain in their heart the revolutionists had to confess that they were deceived in their hopes of the people. Around them were no social revolutionary forces on which they could lean for support, and yet they could not reconcile themselves with the existing state of violence and slavery. Thereupon awakened a last hope--the hope of a drowning man who clutches at a straw: a little group of heroic and self-sacrificing individuals might accomplish with their own strength the difficult task of freeing Russia from the yoke of autocracy. They had to do it themselves, because there was no other means. But would they be able to accomplish it? For them that question did not exist. The struggle of that little group against autocracy was like the heroic means on which a doctor decides when there is no longer any hope of the patient's recovery. Terrorism was the only means that remained, and it had the advantage of giving a natural vent to pent-up feelings, and of seeming a reaction against the cruel persecutions of the Government. The party called the Narodnaya Volya (National Will) was accordingly formed, and during several years the world witnessed a spectacle that had never been seen before in history. The Narodnaya Volya, insignificant in numbers but strong in spirit, engaged in single combat with the powerful Russian Government. Neither executions, nor imprisonment with hard labour, nor ordinary imprisonment and exile, destroyed the energy of the revolutionists. Under their shots fell, one after the other, the most zealous and typical representatives of arbitrary action and violence. . . ."
It was at this time, in 1877, when propaganda and agitation among the masses were being abandoned for the system of terrorism, but before any assassinations had taken place, that I accidentally came into personal relations with some prominent adherents of the revolutionary movement. One day a young man of sympathetic appearance, whom I did not know and who brought no credentials, called on me in St. Petersburg and suggested to me that I might make public through the English Press what he described as a revolting act of tyranny and cruelty committed by General Trepof, the Prefect of the city. That official, he said, in visiting recently one of the prisons, had noticed that a young political prisoner called Bogolubof did not salute him as he passed, and he had ordered him to be flogged in consequence. To this I replied that I had no reason to disbelieve the story, but that I had equally no reason to accept it as accurate, as it rested solely on the evidence of a person with whom I was totally unacquainted. My informant took the objection in good part, and offered me the names and addresses of a number of persons who could supply me with any proofs that I might desire.
At his next visit I told him I had seen several of the persons he had named, and that I could not help perceiving that they were closely connected with the revolutionary movement. I then went on to suggest that as the sympathisers with that movement constantly complained that they were systematically misrepresented, calumniated and caricatured, the leaders ought to give the world an accurate account of their real doctrines, and in this respect I should be glad to assist them. Already I knew something of the subject, because I had many friends and acquaintances among the sympathisers, and had often had with them interminable discussions. With their ideas, so far as I knew them, I felt bound to confess that I had no manner of sympathy, but I flattered myself, and he himself had admitted, that I was capable of describing accurately and criticising impartially doctrines with which I did not agree. My new acquaintance, whom I may call Dimitry Ivan'itch, was pleased with the proposal, and after he had consulted with some of his friends, we came to an agreement by which I should receive all the materials necessary for writing an accurate account of the doctrinal side of the movement. With regard to any conspiracies that might be in progress, I warned him that he must be strictly reticent, because if I came accidentally to know of any terrorist designs, I should consider it my duty to warn the authorities. For this reason I declined to attend any secret conclaves, and it was agreed that I should be instructed without being initiated.
The first step in my instruction was not very satisfactory or encouraging. One day Dimitri Ivan'itch brought me a large manuscript, which contained, he said, the real doctrines of the revolutionists and the explanation of their methods. I was surprised to find that it was written in English, and I perceived at a glance that it was not at all what I wanted. As soon as I had read the first sentence I turned to my friend and said:
"I am very sorry to find, Dimitri Ivan'itch, that you have not kept your part of the bargain. We agreed, you may remember, that we were to act towards each other in absolutely good faith, and here I find a flagrant bit of bad faith in the very first sentence of the manuscript which you have brought me. The document opens with the statement that a large number of students have been arrested and imprisoned for distributing books among the people. That statement may be true according to the letter, but it is evidently intended to mislead. These youths have been arrested, as you must know, not for distributing ordinary books, as the memorandum suggests, but for distributing books of a certain kind. I have read some of them, and I cannot feel at all surprised that the Government should object to their being put into the hands of the ignorant masses. Take, for example, the one entitled Khitraya Mekhanika, and others of the same type. The practical teaching they contain is that the peasants should be ready to rise and cut the throats of the landed proprietors and officials. Now, a wholesale massacre of the kind may or may not be desirable in the interests of Society, and justifiable according to some new code of higher morality. That is a question into which I do not enter. All I maintain is that the writer of this memorandum, in speaking of 'books,' meant to mislead me."
Dimitri Ivan'itch looked puzzled and ashamed. "Forgive me," he said; "I am to blame--not for having attempted to deceive you, but for not having taken precautions. I have not read the manuscript, and I could not if I wished, for it is written in English, and I know no language but my mother tongue. My friends ought not to have done this. Give me back the paper, and I shall take care that nothing of the sort occurs in future."
This promise was faithfully kept, and I had no further reason to complain. Dimitri Ivan'itch gave me a considerable amount of information, and lent me a valuable collection of revolutionary pamphlets. Unfortunately the course of tuition was suddenly interrupted by unforeseen circumstances, which I may mention as characteristic of life in St. Petersburg at the time. My servant, an excellent young Russian, more honest than intelligent, came to me one morning with a mysterious air, and warned me to be on my guard, because there were "bad people" going about. On being pressed a little, he explained to me what he meant. Two strangers had come to him and, after offering him a few roubles, had asked him a number of questions about my habits--at what hour I went out and came home, what persons called on me, and much more of the same sort. "They even tried, sir, to get into your sitting-room; but of course I did not allow them. I believe they want to rob you!"
It was not difficult to guess who these "bad people" were who took such a keen interest in my doings, and who wanted to examine my apartment in my absence. Any doubts I had on the subject were soon removed. On the morrow and following days I noticed that whenever I went out, and wherever I might walk or drive, I was closely followed by two unsympathetic-looking individuals--so closely that when I turned round sharp they ran into me. The first and second times this little accident occurred they received a strong volley of unceremonious vernacular; but when we became better acquainted we simply smiled at each other knowingly, as the old Roman Augurs are supposed to have done when they met in public unobserved. There was no longer any attempt at concealment or mystification. I knew I was being shadowed, and the shadowers could not help perceiving that I knew it. Yet, strange to say, they were never changed!
The reader probably assumes that the secret police had somehow got wind of my relations with the revolutionists. Such an assumption presupposes on the part of the police an amount of intelligence and perspicacity which they do not usually possess. On this occasion they were on an entirely wrong scent, and the very day when I first noticed my shadowers, a high official, who seemed to regard the whole thing as a good joke, told me confidentially what the wrong scent was. At the instigation of an ex-ambassador, from whom I had the misfortune to differ in matters of foreign policy, the Moscow Gazette had denounced me publicly by name as a person who was in the habit of visiting daily the Ministry of Foreign Affairs-- doubtless with the nefarious purpose of obtaining by illegal means secret political information--and the police had concluded that I was a fit and proper person to be closely watched. In reality, my relations with the Russian Foreign Office, though inconvenient to the ex-ambassador, were perfectly regular and above-board-- sanctioned, in fact, by Prince Gortchakoff--but the indelicate attentions of the secret police were none the less extremely unwelcome, because some intelligent police-agent might get onto the real scent, and cause me serious inconvenience. I determined, therefore, to break off all relations with Dimitri Ivan'itch and his friends, and postpone my studies to a more convenient season; but that decision did not entirely extricate me from my difficulties. The collection of revolutionary pamphlets was still in my possession, and I had promised to return it. For some little time I did not see how I could keep my promise without compromising myself or others, but at last--after having had my shadowers carefully shadowed in order to learn accurately their habits, and having taken certain elaborate precautions, with which I need not trouble the reader, as he is not likely ever to require them--I paid a visit secretly to Dimitri Ivan'itch in his small room, almost destitute of furniture, handed him the big parcel of pamphlets, warned him not to visit me again, and bade him farewell. Thereupon we went our separate ways and I saw him no more. Whether he subsequently played a leading part in the movement I never could ascertain, because I did not know his real name; but if the conception which I formed of his character was at all accurate, he probably ended his career in Siberia, for he was not a man to look back after having put his hand to the plough. That is a peculiar trait of the Russian revolutionists of the period in question. Their passion for realising an impossible ideal was incurable. Many of them were again and again arrested; and as soon as they escaped or were liberated they almost invariably went back to their revolutionary activity and worked energetically until they again fell into the clutches of the police.
From this digression into the sphere of personal reminiscences I return now and take up again the thread of the narrative.
We have seen how the propaganda and the agitation had failed, partly because the masses showed themselves indifferent or hostile, and partly because the Government adopted vigorous repressive measures. We have seen, too, how the leaders found themselves in face of a formidable dilemma; either they must abandon their schemes or they must attack their persecutors. The more energetic among them, as I have already stated, chose the latter alternative, and they proceeded at once to carry out their policy. In the course of a single year (February, 1878, to February, 1879) a whole series of terrorist crimes was committed; in Kief an attempt was made on the life of the Public Prosecutor, and an officer of gendarmerie was stabbed; in St. Petersburg the Chief of the Political Police of the Empire (General Mezentsef) was assassinated in broad daylight in one of the central streets, and a similar attempt was made on his successor (General Drenteln); at Kharkof the Governor (Prince Krapotkin) was shot dead when entering his residence. During the same period two members of the revolutionary organisation, accused of treachery, were "executed" by order of local Committees. In most cases the perpetrators of the crimes contrived to escape. One of them became well known in Western Europe as an author under the pseudonym of Stepniak.
Terrorism had not the desired effect. On the contrary, it stimulated the zeal and activity of the authorities, and in the course of the winter of 1878-79 hundreds of arrests--some say as many as 2,000--were made in St. Petersburg alone. Driven to desperation, the revolutionists still at large decided that it was useless to assassinate mere officials; the fons et origo mali must be reached; a blow must be struck at the Tsar himself! The first attempt was made by a young man called Solovyoff, who fired several shots at Alexander II. as he was walking near the Winter Palace, but none of them took effect.
This policy of aggressive terrorism did not meet with universal approval among the revolutionists, and it was determined to discuss the matter at a Congress of delegates from various local circles. The meetings were held in June, 1879, two months after Solovyoff's unsuccessful attempt, at two provincial towns, Lipetsk and Voronezh. It was there agreed in principle to confirm the decision of the Terrorist Narodovoltsi. As the Liberals were not in a position to create liberal institutions or to give guarantees for political rights, which are the essential conditions of any Socialist agitation, there remained for the revolutionary party no other course than to destroy the despotic autocracy. Thereupon a programme of action was prepared, and an Executive Committee elected. From that moment, though there were still many who preferred milder methods, the Terrorists had the upper hand, and they at once proceeded to centralise the organisation and to introduce stricter discipline, with greater precautions to ensure secrecy.
The Executive Committee imagined that by assassinating the Tsar autocracy might be destroyed, and several carefully planned attempts were made. The first plan was to wreck the train when the Imperial family were returning to St. Petersburg from the Crimea. Mines were accordingly laid at three separate points, but they all failed. At the last of the three points (near Moscow) a train was blown up, but it was not the one in which the Imperial family was travelling.
Not at all discouraged by this failure, nor by the discovery of its secret printing-press by the police, the Executive Committee next tried to attain its object by an explosion of dynamite in the Winter Palace when the Imperial family were assembled at dinner. The execution was entrusted to a certain Halturin, one of the few revolutionists of peasant origin. As an exceptionally clever carpenter and polisher, he easily found regular employment in the palace, and he contrived to make a rough plan of the building. This plan, on which the dining-hall was marked with an ominous red cross, fell into the hands of the police, and they made what they considered a careful investigation; but they failed to unravel the plot and did not discover the dynamite concealed in the carpenters' sleeping quarters. Halturin showed wonderful coolness while the search was going on, and continued to sleep every night on the explosive, though it caused him excruciating headaches. When he was assured by the chemist of the Executive Committee that the quantity collected was sufficient, he exploded the mine at the usual dinner hour, and contrived to escape uninjured.* In the guardroom immediately above the spot where the dynamite was exploded ten soldiers were killed and 53 wounded, and in the dining-hall the floor was wrecked, but the Imperial family escaped in consequence of not sitting down to dinner at the usual hour.
* After living some time in Roumania he returned to Russia under the name of Stepanof, and in 1882 he was tried and executed for complicity in the assassination of General Strebnekof.
For this barbarous act the Executive Committee publicly accepted full responsibility. In a proclamation placarded in the streets of St. Petersburg it declared that, while regretting the death of the soldiers, it was resolved to carry on the struggle with the Autocratic Power until the social reforms should be entrusted to a Constituent Assembly, composed of members freely elected and furnished with instructions from their constituents.
Finding police-repression so ineffectual, Alexander II. determined to try the effect of conciliation, and for this purpose he placed Loris Melikof at the head of the Government, with semi-dictatorial powers (February, 1880). The experiment did not succeed. By the Terrorists it was regarded as "a hypocritical Liberalism outwardly and a veiled brutality within," while in the official world it was condemned as an act of culpable weakness on the part of the autocracy. One consequence of it was that the Executive Committee was encouraged to continue its efforts, and, as the police became much less active, it was enabled to improve the revolutionary organisation. In a circular sent to the affiliated provincial associations it explained that the only source of legislation must be the national will,* and as the Government would never accept such a principle, its hand must be forced by a great popular insurrection, for which all available forces should be organised. The peasantry, as experience had shown, could not yet be relied on, but efforts should be made to enrol the workmen of the towns. Great importance was attached to propaganda in the army; but as few conversions had been made among the rank and file, attention was to be directed chiefly to the officers, who would be able to carry their subordinates with them at the critical moment.
* Hence the designation Narodovoltsi (which, as we have seen, means literally National-will-ists) adopted by this section.
While thus recommending the scheme of destroying autocracy by means of a popular insurrection in the distant future, the Committee had not abandoned more expeditious methods, and it was at that moment hatching a plot for the assassination of the Tsar. During the winter months his Majesty was in the habit of holding on Sundays a small parade in the riding-school near the Michael Square in St. Petersburg. On Sunday, March 3d, 1881, the streets by which he usually returned to the Palace had been undermined at two places, and on an alternative route several conspirators were posted with hand-grenades concealed under their great coats. The Emperor chose the alternative route. Here, at a signal given by Sophia Perovski, the first grenade was thrown by a student called Ryssakoff, but it merely wounded some members of the escort. The Emperor stopped and got out of his sledge, and as he was making inquiries about the wounded soldiers a second grenade was thrown by a youth called Grinevitski, with fatal effect. Alexander II. was conveyed hurriedly to the Winter Palace, and died almost immediately.
By this act the members of the Executive Committee proved their energy and their talent as conspirators, but they at the same time showed their shortsightedness and their political incapacity; for they had made no preparations for immediately seizing the power which they so ardently coveted--with the intention of using it, of course, entirely for the public good. If the facts were not so well authenticated, we might dismiss the whole story as incredible. A group of young people, certainly not more than thirty or forty in number, without any organised material force behind them, without any influential accomplices in the army or the official world, without any prospect of support from the masses, and with no plan for immediate action after the assassination, deliberately provoked the crisis for which they were so hopelessly unprepared. It has been suggested that they expected the Liberals to seize the Supreme Power, but this explanation is evidently an afterthought, because they knew that the Liberals were as unprepared as themselves and they regarded them at that time as dangerous rivals. Besides this, the explanation is quite irreconcilable with the proclamation issued by the Executive Committee immediately afterwards. The most charitable way of explaining the conduct of the conspirators is to suppose that they were actuated more by blind hatred of the autocracy and its agents than by political calculations of a practical kind--that they acted simply like a wounded bull in the arena, which shuts its eyes and recklessly charges its tormentors.
The murder of the Emperor had not at all the effect which the Narodovoltsi anticipated. On the contrary, it destroyed their hopes of success. Many people of liberal convictions who sympathised vaguely with the revolutionary movement without taking part in it, and who did not condemn very severely the attacks on police officials, were horrified when they found that the would-be reformers did not spare even the sacred person of the Tsar. At the same time, the police officials, who had become lax and inefficient under the conciliatory regime of Loris Melikof, recovered their old zeal, and displayed such inordinate activity that the revolutionary organisation was paralysed and in great measure destroyed. Six of the regicides were condemned to death, and five of them publicly executed, amongst the latter Sophia Perovski, one of the most active and personally sympathetic personages among the revolutionists. Scores of those who had taken an active part in the movement were in prison or in exile. For a short time the propaganda was continued among military and naval officers, and various attempts at reorganisation, especially in the southern provinces, were made, but they all failed. A certain Degaief, who had taken part in the formation of military circles, turned informer, and aided the police. By his treachery not only a considerable number of officers, but also Vera Filipof, a young lady of remarkable ability and courage, who was the leading spirit in the attempts at reorganisation, were arrested. There were still a number of leaders living abroad, and from time to time they sent emissaries to revive the propaganda, but these efforts were all fruitless. One of the active members of the revolutionary party, Leo Deutsch, who has since published his Memoirs, relates how the tide of revolution ebbed rapidly at this time. "Both in Russia and abroad," he says, "I had seen how the earlier enthusiasm had given way to scepticism; men had lost faith, though many of them would not allow that it was so. It was clear to me that a reaction had set in for many years." Of the attempts to resuscitate the movement he says: "The untried and unskilfully managed societies were run to death before they could undertake anything definite, and the unity and interdependence which characterised the original band of members had disappeared." With regard to the want of unity, another prominent revolutionist (Maslof) wrote to a friend (Dragomanof) at Geneva in 1882 in terms of bitter complaint. He accused the Executive Committee of trying to play the part of chief of the whole revolutionary party, and declared that its centralising tendencies were more despotic than those of the Government. Distributing orders among its adherents without initiating them into its plans, it insisted on unquestioning obedience. The Socialist youth, ardent adherents of Federalism, were indignant at this treatment, and began to understand that the Committee used them simply as chair a canon. The writer described in vivid colours the mutual hostility which reigned among various fractions of the party, and which manifested itself in accusations and even in denunciations; and he predicted that the Narodnaya Volya, which had organised the various acts of terrorism culminating in the assassination of the Emperor, would never develop into a powerful revolutionary party. It had sunk into the slough of untruth, and it could only continue to deceive the Government and the public.
In the mutual recriminations several interesting admissions were made. It was recognised that neither the educated classes nor the common people were capable of bringing about a revolution: the former were not numerous enough, and the latter were devoted to the Tsar and did not sympathise with the revolutionary movement, though they might perhaps be induced to rise at a moment of crisis. It was considered doubtful whether such a rising was desirable, because the masses, being insufficiently prepared, might turn against the educated minority. In no case could a popular insurrection attain the object which the Socialists had in view, because the power would either remain in the hands of the Tsar-- thanks to the devotion of the common people--or it would fall into the hands of the Liberals, who would oppress the masses worse than the autocratic Government had done. Further, it was recognised that acts of terrorism were worse than useless, because they were misunderstood by the ignorant, and tended to inflame the masses against the leaders. It seemed necessary, therefore, to return to a pacific propaganda. Tikhomirof, who was nominally directing the movement from abroad, became utterly discouraged, and wrote in 1884 to one of his emissaries in Russia (Lopatin): "You now see Russia, and can convince yourself that it does not possess the material for a vast work of reorganisation. . . . I advise you seriously not to make superhuman efforts and not to make a scandal in attempting the impossible. . . . If you do not want to satisfy yourself with trifles, come away and await better times."
In examining the material relating to this period one sees clearly that the revolutionary movement had got into a vicious circle. As pacific propaganda had become impossible, in consequence of the opposition of the authorities and the vigilance of the police, the Government could be overturned only by a general insurrection; but the general insurrection could not be prepared without pacific propaganda. As for terrorism, it had become discredited. Tikhomirof himself came to the conclusion that the terrorist idea was altogether a mistake, not only morally, but also from the point of view of political expediency. A party, he explained, has either the force to overthrow the Government, or it has not; in the former case it has no need of political assassination, and in the latter the assassinations have no effect, because Governments are not so stupid as to let themselves be frightened by those who cannot overthrow them. Plainly there was nothing to be done but to wait for better times, as he had suggested, and the better times did not seem to be within measurable distance. He himself, after publishing a brochure entitled "Why I Ceased to Be a Revolutionist," made his peace with the Government, and others followed his example.* In one prison nine made formal recantations, among them Emilianof, who held a reserve bomb ready when Alexander II. was assassinated. Occasional acts of terrorism showed that there was still fire under the smouldering embers, but they were few and far between. The last serious incident of the kind during this period was the regicide conspiracy of Sheviryoff in March, 1887. The conspirators, carrying the bombs, were arrested in the principal street of St. Petersburg, and five of them were hanged. The railway accident of Borki, which happened in the following year, and in which the Imperial family had a very narrow escape, ought perhaps to be added to the list, because there is reason to believe that it was the work of revolutionists.
* Tikhomirof subsequently worked against the Social Democrats in Moscow in the interests of the Government.
By this time all the cooler heads among the revolutionists, especially those who were living abroad in personal safety, had come to understand that the Socialist ideal could not be attained by popular insurrection, terrorism, or conspiracies, and consequently that further activity on the old lines was absurd. Those of them who did not abandon the enterprise in despair reverted to the idea that Autocratic Power, impregnable against frontal attacks, might be destroyed by prolonged siege operations. This change of tactics is reflected in the revolutionary literature. In 1889, for example, the editor of the Svobodnaya Rossia declared that the aim of the movement now was political freedom--not only as a stepping-stone to social reorganisation, but as a good in itself. This is, he explains, the only possible revolution at present in Russia. "For the moment there can be no other immediate practical aim. Ulterior aims are not abandoned, but they are not at present within reach. . . The revolutionists of the seventies and the eighties did not succeed in creating among the peasantry or the town workmen anything which had even the appearance of a force capable of struggling with the Government; and the revolutionists of the future will have no greater success until they have obtained such political rights as personal inviolability. Our immediate aim, therefore, is a National Assembly controlled by local self-government, and this can be brought about only by a union of all the revolutionary forces."
There were still indications, it is true, that the old spirit of terrorism was not yet quite extinct: Captain Zolotykhin, for example, an officer of the Moscow secret police, was assassinated by a female revolutionist in 1890. But such incidents were merely the last fitful sputterings of a lamp that was going out for want of oil. In 1892 Stepniak declared it evident to all that the professional revolutionists could not alone overthrow autocracy, however great their energy and heroism; and he arrived at the same conclusion as the writer just quoted. Of course, immediate success was not to be expected. "It is only from the evolutionist's point of view that the struggle with autocracy has a meaning. From any other standpoint it must seem a sanguinary farce--a mere exercise in the art of self-sacrifice!" Such are the conclusions arrived at in 1892 by a man who had been in 1878 one of the leading terrorists, and who had with his own hand assassinated General Mezentsef, Chief of the Political Police.
Thus the revolutionary movement, after passing through four stages, which I may call the academic, the propagandist, the insurrectionary, and the terrorist, had failed to accomplish its object. One of those who had taken an active part in it, and who, after spending two years in Siberia as a political exile, escaped and settled in Western Europe, could write thus: "Our revolutionary movement is dead, and we who are still alive stand by the grave of our beautiful departed and discuss what is wanting to her. One of us thinks that her nose should be improved; another suggests a change in her chin or her hair. We do not notice the essential that what our beautiful departed wants is life; that it is not a matter of hair or eyebrows, but of a living soul, which formerly concealed all defects, and made her beautiful, and which now has flown away. However we may invent changes and improvements, all these things are utterly insignificant in comparison with what is really wanting, and what we cannot give; for who can breathe a living soul into a corpse?"
In truth, the movement which I have endeavoured to describe was at an end; but another movement, having the same ultimate object, was coming into existence, and it constitutes one of the essential factors of the present situation. Some of the exiles in Switzerland and Paris had become acquainted with the social- democratic and labour movements in Western Europe, and they believed that the strategy and tactics employed in these movements might be adopted in Russia. How far they have succeeded in carrying out this policy I shall relate presently; but before entering on this subject, I must explain how the application of such a policy had been rendered possible by changes in the economic conditions. Russia had begun to create rapidly a great manufacturing industry and an industrial proletariat. This will form the subject of the next chapter.