Vanguard Video! Leah’s Video for The Intelligentsia II: Radical Revolutionaries (Week 10, Day 2)

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?  

12 Replies to “Vanguard Video! Leah’s Video for The Intelligentsia II: Radical Revolutionaries (Week 10, Day 2)”

  1. To discuss question one, today we most often define populism as an ideology that emphasizes and supports the general population as opposed to one that benefits the wealthier members of society. The Russian Intelligentsia seemed to believe similarly that populism supported the majority of people (people who are not the upper echelon of society), and that there should be laws and policy in place to support people. However, the new Intelligentsia believed that the government was not going to ever do this, and instead of supporting a instead in instead, sided with a whole new system all together. Their idea of populism seems to be more so an idea of a utopian like society, in which government involves every citizen having an active role in it. I think to create an overarching definition of populism, it will need to still carry the goal of support for the general population of a nation. Moreover, I believe it would also include something about having actions and policies in place to give people support and protect that support- whether that is a reform in government policy or a complete overthrow of the existing government is up to the group I guess.

  2. In response to Question 4:
    The names of the two-sides from Land and Freedom represent how each side wanted to change Russia. The Black Repartition derived its name from the idea of “a general redistribution of land” (Saunders 316). Peasants wanted the redistribution of land because the amount of land that they had gotten after freed from serfdom was not enough. Chronic issues of hunger and high taxes made the peasants condition rough. The faction that was Black Repartition focused on meeting with peasants and workers and educating them to align with their beliefs. They were the pacifists of Land and Freedom.
    Will of the People were radicals that wanted to use violence to achieve their goals. Their “immediate task” was to “bring about a political upheaval that would transfer power to the people” (Saunders 336). Those in Will of the People chose to organize their revolutionary actions for the sake of the “people” without gaining the support of the people. They believed that their end goal of having a government based on the people’s wishes did not need the support of the people. They thought that they knew what the people wanted and that is the overthrowing of government.

  3. 8.
    Unpacking Figner’s thinking is a bit difficult, but I’ll give it a go. From what I understand, Figner is explaining her thoughts on how the people of Russia, nobles and peasants, reacted, how the Will of the People had gained an advantage from the situation and the use of violence. Although the Will of the People’s action did not cause “did not accomplish the political and economic reconstruction of Russia,” Figner still believed that something would come from them taking action. (115) However, she was cautious and was not going to get ahead of herself with hope.
    I think her unpacking thoughts are noble and not naive at all. The realist in me know that Russia will have its day of reckoning and realization, thus, making me think Figner is right to think the way she is. She is more of a optimist to me though, with her thinking of being hopeful in a situation that nothing advantageous happened for the Will of the People on the First of March. One good thing that happened was that Figner was moved, and found other dependable and determined workers.
    I don’t think there was anything the government could do at that time to lull the revolutionary movement. The revolutionaries were all ready fired up and taking action. They had their reasons to fight the system (mistreatment in prisons, exile, executions…) and had already murdered the Tsar.

  4. In response to Question 3:

    After the intelligentsia failed to ignite a mass revolution in 1874 through the peasantry known as the “Going to the People” movement, revolutionary thinkers were split on the next step to take to insight a revolution. As Saunders analyzes, the main result of the “Going to the People” campaign “demonstrate[d] the populists’ naivety,” because “Peasant communities rejected the idea of attacking the authorities” (Saunders 328). In response, two diverging philosophies arose from this failure. Lavrov and the people who followed him believed that the best course of action would be to continue going to the people in order to educate them on their oppression and wait for a revolution in the far future, “In view of ‘the unpreparedness of the majority and its low level of literacy’, revolutionaries could not expect ‘the reconstruction of Russian society’ to take place in the near future” (Saunders 329). Lavrov’s philosophy was to educate and wait for the right time to insight a mass upheaval. But fellow populist, Tkachev, felt a revolution could not wait. His philosophy called for a small group of conspirators to revolt on behalf of the people, “If radicals hoped to transform the Russian Empire, they had to abandon their belief in the revolutionary potential of the peasantry, accept the importance of organization, and conquer the state machine. The revolution was to be made in the name of the people, but was not to be the product of a popular revolt” (Saunders 330). These philosophies both are “lessons” learned of the “Going to the People” failure, however, they represent different lessons. Lavrov’s lesson learned was that a mass revolution was not manifested in the right time. With time and further education and literacy to the people, a mass revolution would insight itself. Tkachev’s lesson learned was that the populists could not rely on the people to have a revolution. The people were intellectually absent from the need of change and the only way to spark a revolution was through a small group of professional revolutionaries.

    Personally, I find Tkachev’s philosophy more convincing because Lavrov’s plan holds the same naiveté that the “Going to the People” movement had. If Lavrov plans to wait for a revolution for the right time, they may be waiting for a long time. When is the right time to spark a revolution? Even if they are able to educate the peasantry, that does not mean that they will be convinced of a revolution. They may continue to be politically unaware of the issues raised by the intelligentsia. As such, Tkachev’s philosophy removes the reliance on the peasantry but still raises issues that some peasants, who are politically aware, may follow or agree with. It is also clear why Lenin was a fan of Tkachev. Tkachev’s philosophy is similar to Lenin’s revolutionary philosophy from “What is To Be Done?” Similar to Tkachev, Lenin believed that a socialist revolution should be carried out by a group of professional revolutionaries known as the Vanguard. The Vanguard knows the grievances of the proletariat, but are politically more apt to deal with a revolution. Lenin believed that workers were single-issued revolutionaries; they would demand for economic change and settle for that single issue. But if a successful proletariat revolution were to succeed, an educated, professional Vanguard needed to raise the revolution in the workers’ name in order to change not only the economy, but politics, society, and culture.

  5. In response to question 6
    I am somewhat convinced by her perspective of revolutionary violence. Depending on the countries situation, violence may be the only solution to overthrow the government. A quote that really stood out to me was “Society saw no escape from the existing condition, one group sympathies with the violence practiced by the party, while others regarded it the only as a necessary evil… the repetition of such events made them a normal element of society’s life” (Pg. 116). Essentially, a violent revolution was inevitable in Russian society, especially when the government themselves practiced violent measures to keep the people in check. It is interesting how it is also stated how people view the violence, which essentially meant that either you understood the justification of the use of violence or you believed it was just a evil thing to do. Not only that, it also acknowledges how the consistent use of violence started to become a normalized, daily occurrence in Russia. Although I believe not all the times violence is necessary, Finger brings up a good point when discussing the “positive” yet not really backed positively on violent revolution. She stated “brighten and concord by brotherhood which existed among the revolutionist themselves…”. It is true that revolution truly unites a group of people under a common goal and how to achieve it, yet it can increase the number of violent people, thus ensuring a bigger chaos. The revolutionaries were a ticking time bomb that was ready for a change and willing to do what they can to do so. Finger consistently drew a parallel between the government and the revolutionaries, especially on how they utilized violent measures.

  6. In response to question three, Figner describes the use of terrorism by the Will of the People as a necessary evil. She begins by describing all of the evil and mistreatment of the Russian people by the autocracy and aristocracy. Through doing this she seems to set the stage as to why what happened, happened. She describes the mistreatment of the people in the prisons and in the Siberian labor camps. It is through this where Figner introduces the widespread feeling of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth due to the lack of basic human decency. She even admits to what the Will of the People are doing is wrong and a crime but then goes on to say that if what they are doing, what they were forced to do is wrong than those that the government trained are truly demons. In saying this she is almost saying, “Yeah, we are bad. But they are worse.” and is using that as the justification for all the terroristic acts that they commit. The Will of the People glorified terroristic acts because a revolutionary at the time could only see change in their lifetime through a terroristic act. In this lens, it does make sense that they acted the way they did. The government create a sense of a gloves off, anything goes atmosphere with the treatment of the peasants and through doing that should have expected an appropriate response from those that were affected.

  7. In response to question 6
    In regards to the justification of revolutionary violence, it was inevitable in Russia due to the long years of constant violent abuse from the government. Finger states “Society saw no escape from the existing condition, one group sympathies with the violence practiced by the party, while others regarded it as a necessary evil”. I think this quote definitely convinces readers that in the Russian case, revolutionary violence was both necessary and inevitable. Whether you utilize violence to keep power or to gain power, it was the option many Russians were willing to use to bring change. Finger also stated that the violence utilized both by the government and revolutionary party was parallel, because both sides utilized ruthless violence in one way or another. On the “positive” side, Finger states that there was concord and brotherhood within the revolutionist, and in their defense the bond and their violent action was in defense of the oppressed and insulted. I think for the revolutionist, this is justified, it was only matter of time before extreme measures were taken by the people. In my opinion, Finger justifies revolutionary violence and if I read this when it was published, I would have been convinced.

  8. For many of the Intelligentsia, including Vera Figner, violence and terrorism became something that was necessary to bring their goals to fruition. Figner justifies the violent actions of her fellow intelligentsia by framing it as somehow superior to the violence committed by the Russian government “… the party committed its deeds of violence under the banner of the people’s welfare, in defence of the oppressed and insulted.” To Figner, the horrific acts that the revolutionaries carried out were in defence of the lower classes. This might have been a more convincing argument if the Intelligentsia of Figner’s time had been more effective in their endeavors. For all of their efforts, the changes they yearned for did not come from their efforts, but instead situations in the 20th century. Therefore the violence enacted by the revolutionaries cannot be justified by her explanation because it never ended up benefiting the “people’s welfare” in a serious way.

  9. If the prevailing disobedience system leads to no advancement or even recognition of the insurgents’ pleads, then a new system must be constructed if appeals are to become realities. This was the premise of the foundation of Will of the People in the eyes of Figner. “They were deprived of every means of acquainting the government with their requirements and necessities” (72). The only avenues available to opposition groups were the press and literature, and both faced suffocating censorship. The Will of the People’s choice to allow the printing press to stay in the hands of the Black Repartition demonstrated how little faith the new faction had in the supposed freedom of speech given to the people by Alexander II. The choice to leave behind the printing press also demonstrated The Will of People’s new violent philosophy. The Lipetsk Congress’s requirements of the members of the Executive Committee molded all future and current insurgents into ants without individual identities. A movement initially succeeds whenever its ideas are accepted as truths by its followers. The Will of People attempted to accomplish the necessary blood bond between its ideas and its disciples by removing all previous forms of identity from its pledges. As a new pledge, one must “have” had “no personal property, nothing of one’s own” (76). Furthermore, much like a worker ant to her queen, the pledge had “to devote all one’s mental and physical strength to revolutionary work” (76) and had to forfeit all of their “individual’s desires” to the extent that their desire for self-survival must become inferior to their desire of the revolution’s survival. Without a doubt, I see these requirements as justified and necessities for any revolutionary movement, especially The Will of People. Disfunction within the unification of a Russian revolution will always lead to annihilating destruction. The Decembrists were split in two and gutted within hours of action due to lack of ideological resilience in the movement’s supposed leaders. The Will of People attempted to cement the impossibility of separate fractions within their ranks.

  10. Responce to Question 1:
    Today populism sort of seems more like re-branding and marketing and every major party group or company does marketing at every level. What separates populism from marketing would be that populism feels as though its usually a movement started by those who would benefit the most. As for the definition put forward by the intelligentsia, I think that Blake does a good job of explaining it as their utopian dream for what Russia could/should be. I love the image of everyone having their own job and together reaching harmony that Blake alludes to.
    Moving on to question 3,
    I think it is kind of hard to find a difference between these two philosophies. To me, it seems as though “Tkachevism” is less dependent upon the action of others, but both have similar ideas for revolution; it should come from the people. But, Tkachevism says that people who know what they are doing should lead the revolution. Here is where Lenin I think finds love of Tkachev’s work. I think that Lenin is more about having a small group of special people pulling the strings while it is meant to look like the orders and actions are coming from the masses.

  11. In regards to question 1.

    When it comes to describing populism in todays generation, is considered to be dealt as an ideology with politics that is to be in favor of the elite less so the non elite. However the Russian intelligentsia seen the word populism beneficial to not only the elite, but majority of the people as well. I do not think however that was the case even thought the intelligentsia described it like that. Blake pretty much covered the fact that they thought of it more as a utopian dream. Although I thing that dream could be out of the reach, trying to get everyone involve and believe that is the idea of populism is a good start.

  12. Question 3.
    The thoughts of Lavrov and Tkachev are different views on the experiences of revolutionary thought; however, there is a similarity. Lavrov argues that reconstruction of Russia should be carried out for the people, by the people (329). While Tkachev believed that the masses could not be in charge of themselves and there had to be a small group in charge of the revolution. They both, however, would agree that the peasantry was not radical enough or even educated enough to start a revolution. I found both philosophers to be distant to the peasantry’s experiences or knowledge. They denied that the peasants had it in them to be revolutionary. Although I agree with Lavrov, I find Tkachev more convincing because Lavrov seems to have doubts about his ability to have successes because it would take a very long time. The way Saunders writes makes me think that Lavrov’s ideas were subpar. Tkachev was able to get a majority of the population on his side, and we saw his ideas in the soviet union. His path was a quicker way to success, which is why I think it was more convincing.
    Question 7
    The excitement Finger writes about is evident that years of oppression and expression is over. Her taking part in this organization and its eventual success of assassination makes her writing one-sided. However, it makes it interesting and makes you feel like you are a part of it. People were cheering and crying with joy from the knowledge of the death of the Tsar. This just shows the weight lifted off so many Russian citizens. This also shows why people would want to take place in underground politics. If the government is not doing the people well, people demand change. If change is met with resistance, then people move to different ways to get freedom. In a modern-day comparison, people are now participating in socialism in the united states again. It is exciting for people to want change, and see the change come true. In hopes of a better future, people act on what they can do. Even if that means going underground to do it.

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