Hello, Revolutionaries! This is our video for Week 10, Day 2. Our topic is Radical Revolutionaries, and our teaching assistant is Maggie.
I’m going to try to keep this video on the short side, since our Week 10, Day 1 video was rather long. I just have one announcement for you: I’ve shared a document with you by email, the Final Paper Office Hours Sign Up sheet. Please click through to the document itself and sign up for a spot to meet with me via Teams on April 13. In these meetings, we’ll be discussing your Research Question and List of Sources for your final papers, so make sure you get those things drafted and submitted on Sakai by Sunday, April 12.
Last week, we traced the beginnings of the Russian intelligentsia in the first half of the 19th century. Today, we’re looking at how the liberal intelligentsia of the 1830s-1850s evolved into the radical intelligentsia of the 1860s-1880s. Historians often think of these groups in terms of generations. The first wave is referred to as the “fathers” and the second wave as the “sons.” This echoes the title of Ivan Turgenev’s famous novel Fathers and Sons, which deals with exactly this generational disconnect among Russian thinkers. We might alter that to “fathers” and “children,” because as we know from today’s primary source, women became an important part of the movement in the second half of the century.
As I hope you gathered from your reading, to impose a sharp division between these two waves is a bit too harsh. There was definitely an evolutionary process at work here. But we can also identify a sort of “Ok, Boomer” moment. The liberal intellectuals who came up in the first wave focused primarily on ideas, which they debated in their discussion circles and journals, than on actions. They tended to think in terms of the “essence” of Russian nation rather than concrete political ideologies. And insofar as they did try to take a hand in Russia’s development, they usually did so by going to work for the government, trying to create change from within. Indeed, it was members of this generation who helped to draft Alexander II’s Great Reforms.
The younger generation, as you read, was more expressly political, taking up ideologies like populism, anarchism, and socialism. It was their ideas about peasant socialism, worker socialism, and revolutionary violence that fueled the development of Russia’s first underground political parties in the 1890s and 1900s, including the Bolsheviks. As you read, think back to Lenin’s “What Is To Be Done?” and Trotsky’s “Terror and Militarization,” which we read in Week 4. Consider which of Vera Figner’s beliefs Lenin and Trotsky share, and which ones they reject.
Another major difference between the intelligentsia of the 1860s-1880s and their predecessors was that while they were more strongly committed to action, they were also much more skeptical of the government. They didn’t want to work for the state; they wanted to overthrow it. This had a lot to do with their experience of the Great Reforms. On one hand, they saw the extent to which the Emancipation, the great hope of the previous generation, fell short of bringing justice to the peasants. On the other hand, the creation of zemstvos in the countryside and local self-governing bodies in the towns gave them a sphere for local activism, even as educational reforms brought more women and non-gentry members into their ranks, and censorship reform gave them greater access to radical intellectual trends emanating from Western Europe, particularly socialism.
I think that just about sets the stage for our discussion today. I’ll give you some biographical information on Vera Figner, as well. Figner was born in 1852 into a family of provincial nobles and was educated at a school for noble girls on the model of Catherine II’s Smolnyi Institute, which is to say, she mostly learned literature and painting and how to be a proper lady. Her family was progressive, though, and they introduced her to the values of the first wave of the intelligentsia. Figner wanted to study medicine, but women were not allowed to do that in Russia, so she moved to Zurich. There, she met a group of radical Russian students and became interested in socialism. In 1875, she returned to Russia to join Land and Freedom (which is the same as Land and Liberty). At first, she worked as a medical assistant in a village, where she tried to radicalize the peasants. But when Land and Liberty split, she joined the more radical faction, the People’s Will. That’s where our reading for today begins.
Leah’s Discussion Questions
1. While the political ideas of the radical intelligentsia were diverse, they are broadly categorized as populism. This is interesting to discuss in our current political climate. Today, how do we tend to define populism? How did the Russian radical intelligentsia define it? Can we construct an overarching definition that encompasses both of these tendencies?
2. As Saunders recounts, the radical intelligentsia undertook their actions in the name of “the people”—meaning workers and peasants—but “the people” didn’t always follow their lead or welcome their allyship. How did experiences like the Kazan Square workers’ demonstration and the “Going to the People” movement of the mid-1870s influence the intelligentsia to turn away from grassroots activism among the masses?
3. The intelligentsia’s reaction to these experiences took two different forms. Some chose to follow Sergei Lavrov and others chose to follow Peter Tkachev. Take a close look at these two philosophies, as Saunders describes them on pp. 329-330. How can we read them as two different “lessons” learned? Which philosophy do you find more convincing and why? Lenin was a big fan of Tkachev; which ideas of Tkachev’s are familiar from “What Is To Be Done?”?
4. Let’s turn to Vera Figner’s memoir. I’ve asked you to start with her description of Land and Freedom’s split into the Black Repartition and the Will of the People. How do the names of these two factions reflect their ideologies? How can we make sense of the name “Will of the People,” given that this organization represented a step back from direct work with the masses? How does it help us understand their self-conception?
5. On pp. 73-75, Figner explains the ideology of the Will of the People. What are their main ideas? What is required of the members of the Executive Committee? Are these expectations reasonable for people who want to lead an underground revolutionary organization? Based on this description, how does this organization compare to the Decembrists? How does it compare to the Party Lenin describes in “What Is To Be Done?”
6. One issue that sticks out here is terrorism. According to Figner, how does the Will of the People feel about terrorism? How does this view fit with their decision to assassinate Alexander II? Figner returns to the theme of revolutionary violence on pp. 116-117. How does she justify it? Does she convince you of her perspective?
7. Figner’s narration of the assassination is really exciting. How does her account—both the events themselves and the way she describes them—give us insight into why people participate in underground political activities? Can you think of any parallels today?
8. In the immediate aftermath of the assassination, the Will of the People are really hopeful for change. It doesn’t happen that way. Alexander III demonstrates immediately what a reactionary he is. But Figner still doesn’t give up hope. Make a close reading of her reasoning in the section “The Significance of the First of March,” which starts on p.110. Can you unpack her thinking here? Do you find it noble or naïve? Is there anything the government could do at this point that would quell the revolutionary movement?
9. Figner devotes a section of her memoir to describing her friend and fellow-revolutionary Sofia Perovskaya, starting on p. 103. Like Figner, Perovskaya was a child of the nobility. Saunders tells us it’s hard to explain why nobles became radicals. What insight does Figner give us on this question?
10. What role does gender play in Figner’s description of Perovskaya? What does this tell you about her intellectual framework? What does it reveal about the limits of the radical movement? What questions did and didn’t they ask themselves?
Saunders also points out that women were still a minority in the revolutionary movement. But the ones who did participate, like Figner and Perovskaya, often took quite prominent roles. Why do you think those who joined became leaders?