Avrahm Yarmolinsky, Road to Revolution: A Century of Russian Radicalism, 1956.

Official reaction and public lethargy ruled the 'eighties. The drab decade contented itself, on the one hand, with what a contemporary satirist called 'pigsty ideals' and, on the other, with the brighten-the-corner-where-you-are philosophy. Nevertheless, the fires of rebellion continued to smoulder, if precariously. Here and there small, ephemeral revolutionary circles managed to carry on. Recruited for the most part from the student youth as well as from among army and navy officers and cadets, they were isolated from each other and in a state of flux.

Following in the footsteps of the Terrorist Section of the People's Will, certain groups advocated the tactics of political assassination, now a policy of despair, and did not limit themselves to talk about it. In 1888 at Zürich several emigres were conducting experiments with the preparation of bombs. These were to be smuggled into Russia and used by a nucleus of a projected nation-wide revolutionary organization. It owed its existence chiefly to the initiative and energy of a young woman by the name of Sophia Ginzburg. One February day in 1889, while staying in the capital, she happened to leave her purse in a store. The shopkeeper found in it the draft of a proclamation announcing the execution of the Czar, which he handed over to the police. Before long she was arrested together with several comrades, and since one of them turned informer, the entire group was wiped out. Sophia Ginzburg committing suicide in prison.

The making of bombs in Zürich ended disastrously, an explosion killing one man and wounding another. Thereupon the terrorists transferred their activities to Paris and established contact with another circle of conspirators at home. As one of the expatriate plotters was a secret service agent, arrests, in 1890, put an end to the activities of both groups.

In the ideological confusion that prevailed in those years two main trends were discernible. One was continuous with militant Populism as represented chiefly by the People's Will. Without accepting its entire platform, not a few activists and would-be activists chose the label narodovoltzy, adherents of Narodnaya volya. The Party was now no more than 'the shadow of a great name.' Yet for at least a decade after it had ceased to exist it continued to be a feeble rallying cry in an age of dispersion and discouragement. The other trend meant a break with tradition, espousal of a doctrine rather new to the intelligentzia: Marxism.

The writings of Marx and Engels and the social-democratic movement dominated by their ideas had not been unknown in Russia. Marx's Critique of Political Economy had a larger sale there than anywhere else. As has been said, in 1869 a translation of The Communist Manifesto, made, oddly enough, by its authors' arch-enemy, Bakunin, came from a Geneva press. Three years later a rendering of Das Kapital was openly published in Petersburg, the censor feeling that few would read the tome and fewer would understand it. The book did find a considerable public -- nine hundred copies were sold during the first fifty days -- but failed to impress itself on radical thinking. Marx was chiefly prized as a detractor of capitalism. His emphasis on the economic factor appealed to those whose orientation was apolitical. For the rest his doctrine was held inapplicable to Russia. With the collapse of the People's Will this attitude underwent a change.

In the autumn of 1883 a few expatriates living in Switzerland formed an Association which called itself Liberation of Labour. Its objectives were to spread 'scientific Socialism' among the intelligentzia and to create the nucleus of a Russian labour party modelled on that of Germany. Ironically enough, these converts to Marxism were the former leaders of Black Repartition, that champion of populist orthodoxy. In the words of one of them, Black Repartition died in childbirth, having brought forth Russian social-democracy.

The members of the group could be counted on the fingers of one hand. But it included a man, already mentioned in these pages, who combined a subtle and richly equipped intellect with a literary gift and who, moreover, was possessed of the temperament of a revolutionary and the zeal of a missionary: Georgy Plekhanov. In two pamphlets, which came out in Geneva in 1883 and 1884 respectively, he subjected the populist ideology, the programme of the People's Will and the 'Jacobin' trend within it, to a withering critique. The industrial proletariat, not the peasantry, was the hope of Socialism in Russia, as elsewhere, he argued; the immediate future in Russia belonged to capitalism, a progressive and 'historically inevitable' phase; the coming upheaval was bound to be a purely political change-over -- to act on the assumption that the end of the monarchy would coincide with the socialist revolution was 'to retard the achievement of both goals'; the obshchina was moribund and, in any case, it could not set the country on the way to Communism. [On this point there was disagreement within the group. Vera Zasulich, for one, held that capitalism would be wiped off the face of the earth before the disintegration of the obshchina, and that the latter would then be of inestimable value to Russia.]

The propositions elaborated in Plekhanov's spirited essays, which offered the earliest formulation of Russian Marxism, were presented succinctly in the group's platform. This was printed in 1884, a revision of it appearing in 1888. The earlier text calls for a democratic constitutional regime as the first objective of the labour party. The possibility of a spontaneous revolutionary movement among the peasants is not excluded, and it is stated that the association by no means ignores their interests. On the contrary, the second version of the platform declares that the muzhik neither understands nor sympathizes with the revolutionaries and is indeed the chief support of the monarchy. By way of a sop to populist sentiment, however, the hope is held out that the overthrow of the old regime would arrest the dissolution of the peasant commune.

A few copies of these publications, as well as some social-democratic literature in the original German, found their way into Russia. There was then but little good soil for the seed. The industrial depression that started in 1881 had arrested the growth of the infant labour movement, and the prevalent apathy was not favourable to the spread of the new gospel. Among radicals, both at home and abroad, the term 'social-democrat' was in bad odour. Furthermore, though Populism as a political movement had been reduced to impotence, some of its tenets continued vigorously to be championed. In articles and books that had wide circulation a number of publicists and economists defended with new conviction the old thesis that in a backward country, like Russia, capitalism was a predatory, wholly destructive force, but no more a threat than a promise, since it could not possibly grow and was in fact stillborn. In the teeth of increasing evidence to the contrary, these theorists affirmed their belief that the collectivist and equalitarian tradition of the Russian folk had sufficient vitality to defy and eventually to defeat 'the rule of capital.' The country's future, they maintained, lay with a socialist economy, developing out of the native obshchina and artel.

At this time the populist ideology received encouragement from a most unlikely quarter. The year 1886 saw the posthumous publication of a letter written by Karl Marx nearly a decade earlier as a rejoinder to an article in a Petersburg magazine. Therein he admitted to sharing Chernyshevsky's view that by preserving the obshchina Russia might enjoy the fruits of capitalism without suffering its torments. And he took occasion to protest against interpreting his sketch of the origin of capitalism in Western Europe as a pattern which all nations must inevitably follow in the course of their history. He had expressed himself similarly in a communication to Vera Zasulich, dated 8 March, 1881, but the letter had remained unknown outside the circle of her intimates. The obshchina, he had written, was the mainstay of Russia's 'social renascence,' but to function as such it must be guaranteed 'conditions of free development.' He was more explicit in his and Engels' foreword to the second Russian translation of the Communist Manifesto, printed at Geneva in 1882. [That year there appeared two more Russian editions of the Manifesto, one hectographed secretly in Petersburg, the other lithographed in Moscow.] 'Should the Russian revolution be the signal for the workers' revolution in the West,' they wrote, 'so that the two complement each other,' then the obshchina might prove 'the starting point of communist development.'

It should be noted that at the time Marx held the days of Western capitalism to be numbered. He, as well as Engels, also greatly overestimated the chances of revolution in Russia. In handing down his sanguine opinion on the role of the rural commune, he may have been guided by the desire not to injure the morale of the Russian activists, who, he knew, had pinned their faith to the muzhik's collectivist habits. Be that as it may, Marx appeared to lend his great authority to the basic proposition of Populism, namely, that Russia might bypass capitalism on its way to the socialist order. It was Marx against the Russian Marxists.

In one respect did the theorists mentioned above deviate from militant populism: they implied that its objectives could be achieved within the framework of the existing order. The sole requirement was for the Government to stop fostering large-scale industries and to protect the interests of peasants and artisans. Also it was necessary to raise the cultural level of the masses. The cry: 'delenda est Carthago' was muted, and that not only because the writings of these authors had to stand the censor's scrutiny. Temporarily, Populism assumed the character of a moderate, reformist doctrine. In every way it was opposed to the principles of the Liberation of Labour group.

The circles that adhered to its tenets in the 'eighties were small, few, and short-lived. Their membership, like that of the other groups, came for the most part from the student body. They were chiefly busy indoctrinating the few factory hands they could reach, with a view to preparing leaders of the future labour movement. Some of those who called themselves social-democrats were content to leave the fight against the monarchy to the bourgeoisie, holding that their own task was to make the proletariat ready to use the freedom won by their class adversary. Between the Marxist and non-Marxist coteries relations were still rather amicable. In fact, a merger of the two was held possible. There were circles with programmes that were an amalgam of Populism and Marxism. Not a few heads held a jumble of ideas derived from the Communist Manifesto, on the one hand, and from the writings of Herzen and Lavrov, on the other.

The Liberation of Labour group itself failed to grow in size. By the end of the decade it still counted fewer than a dozen members. Boating on the Lake of Geneva with several comrades, Plekhanov would joke: 'Be careful, if we drown, Russian Socialism will perish.'


In the winter of 1891-92 famine gripped the eastern and south-eastern provinces, an area of half a million square miles with a population of thirty million. A severe epidemic of cholera followed. The measures taken by the authorities and private organizations were pitifully inadequate. Here and there young men and women abandoned their studies and made their way to the villages to help the starving and the sick. It was another 'going to the people,' though on a small scale. At least some of these volunteer relief workers vaguely contemplated the possibility that the stricken peasantry would revolt, and they hoped to have a hand in the risings. They were disappointed. Violence did flare up, but it took the form of 'cholera riots,' crowds smashing hospitals and dispensaries set up to combat the epidemic, and attacking doctors as poisoners. A group of Narodovoltzy printed A Letter to the Starving Peasants, but it is doubtful if the message reached any of the addressees, and in any case, all it urged them to do was to get in touch with their well-wishers in the cities.

If the disaster failed to arouse the masses to active protest, it had wide and deep repercussions nevertheless and in fact came close to being an historic turning-point. It helped to exorcise the spirit of apathy and political indifferentism that had possessed the previous decade. It focused the public mind on broad national problems, the condition and prospects of the peasantry, above all. In revealing the precarious state of agriculture the famine greatly weakened the belief, which had penetrated liberal and certain populist circles during the preceding years, in the possibility of progress under the existing regime. Nicholas II dealt another blow to that belief when, in a speech made in January, 1895, shortly after his ascension to the throne, he dismissed all hopes for a constitution as 'senseless dreams.' The need for the forcible replacement of the autocracy by a democratic order took on new urgency. A major item in the legacy that the People's Will left to both populists and Marxists was the conviction that the monarchy must be destroyed.

How was this vital task to be accomplished? A united front of all the elements of the opposition, including the liberals, was one answer. Such a policy, involving as a tactical manoeuvre abandonment of the socialist objective, was advocated by a number of former populists both at home and abroad. Mark Natanson, who had returned from Siberian exile, attempted, with another one-time member of Land and Liberty, to set up a 'revolutionary' party on this basis. In April, 1894, he was arrested, before it had done little more than bring out a manifesto, and therewith Narodnoe Pravo (The People's Right), as the incipient organization called itself, was liquidated.

A programme of political democracy pure and simple could muster but scant support. The radicals who gravitated toward Populism envisaged the overthrow of the monarchy as the outcome of a popular revolution spearheaded by a terrorist conspiracy and resulting in the triumph of a socialist order not evolving from an imported industrialism but springing from indigenous roots. The Marxists had a different answer to the question of the country's political emancipation. The intelligentzia, they argued, were powerless; the behaviour of the peasants during the famine had demonstrated once more that the revolution could not count on them; salvation was bound to come from the growing industrial proletariat: in fighting for its class interests it would crush the autocracy.

In the last years of the century a new vibrancy could be sensed in the political air. Plainly the country had emerged from the doldrums. Discontent with conditions was beginning to lose its passive character. The students demonstrated in the streets, demanding a liberal academic regime; a wave of great strikes swept the more industrialized western and central provinces; in the countryside there were outbreaks of violence against landlords and local authorities. By the middle of the 'nineties a score of populist groups were in existence. Scattered all over the country, including Siberia, they were strongest in the southern centres. The revolutionary cadres were swelled by the reappearance of some of the politicals, like Catherine Breshkovsky, who had served their terms in prison or exile. The volume of underground literature was on the increase. Much of it was supplied by the Free Russian Press, organized in London in 1892, and by the Group of Old Narodovoltzy which functioned in Paris.

By this time the narodniks had managed to set their intellectual house in order. To begin with, they had high regard for the revolutionary past and in fact believed themselves to be the heirs of the People's Will, in duty bound to carry on its work. Like the social-democrats, they held 'the working-class' to be the sole force capable of destroying the existing order, but in 'the working class' they included the peasantry. While paying lip service to 'scientific Socialism,' they were wary of such Marxist dogmas as economic determinism and the capitalist filiation of Socialism. In the drama of history they assigned a leading part to intellectually superior individuals, and they continued to adhere to tactics requiring personal heroism and total dedication: terror. The latter was largely a mere desideratum. Two provincial governors were unsuccessfully assaulted, and in 1895 a circle started preparations for an attempt on the life of Nicholas II, but the enterprise was nipped in the bud. A major terrorist act was not carried out until 1903, when the Minister of Education was assassinated.

To the label, narodovoltzy or narodniki, some of the populist groups preferred that of 'Socialists-revolutionaries.' The term had been used occasionally since the days of Lavrov's Forward! It was now intended to underline the militant character of resurgent Populism, in contradistinction to social-democracy. Writing in 1896, 'An Old Narodovoletz' scorned the latter as a philosophy for 'tired revolutionaries,' a quietist doctrine leaning on automatic historical forces instead of man's moral duty to fight for justice. In the heat of polemics the Marxists were accused of wishing to promote the growth of capitalism and the proletarization of the peasantry, indeed of urging the intelligentzia to serve the interests of the propertied classes. There were also, however, attempts to fraternize with the social-democrats. As late as 1900 a pamphlet issued by a group of Socialists-revolutionaries argued that their own party, in aiming at immediate political action, was a party of the present, while the social-democrats, in stressing economic demands and in organizing the masses for a struggle with capitalism, formed the party of the future. But if the ways of the two parties differed, their goal was the same. 'We shall help them with our left hand,' the pamphlet ran, 'since our right hand is occupied by the sword.'

Meanwhile Marxism was gaining ground. Secret social-democratic groups were proliferating in the larger urban centres, but they were unconnected and their bond with the labour movement was tenuous. Some of them were at first committed to the populist creed. Such was the case of a circle of narodovoltzy, which for several years was active in both capitals. From its clandestine press came, among other items, a reprint of the programme of the late Party, but minus the second term in the opening formula: 'According to our basic convictions, we are socialists and narodniks.' Nevertheless, the populist outlook dominated the first two issues of the Bulletin of the People's Will that the group put out in 1892 and 1893 respectively. A Marxist note was sounded in the third issue, printed in 1895, but it also contained a paean to terror in line with the practice of Narodnaya volya. (At the time the members had under consideration a plan of exterminating the Czar and his kin by poisoning the water supply of the Winter Palace.) The fourth and last issue, run off at the end of the year, was consistently Marxist.

The effort to bring the Marxist groups together into one organization resulted in the founding of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party. The event took place in 1898. The previous year a conference of delegates from half a dozen groups formed the Party of Socialists-Revolutionaries. Arrests played havoc with some of its constituent elements, but could not halt the integration of the populist circles, a process initiated at the grass roots level. In the first years of the century the organization, like its social-democratic counterpart, was a going concern. The revolutionary movement was no longer a matter of a few small groups of intellectuals and semi-intellectuals plotting underground. It was acquiring a mass base. Yet, far from marching shoulder to shoulder, for the next score of years the Party of Socialists-Revolutionaries and the Social-Democratic Party lived in the atmosphere of a bitter feud, the latter organization soon splitting into two irreconcilable factions, the Menshevik and the Bolshevik. In the end the upheaval for which both parties had worked toppled the monarchy, and before long brought about the proscription alike of the Socialists-Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks by the regime that the Bolsheviks had set up. The final stretch of the road to the revolution that has proved one of the most fateful events in history is beyond the scope of the present book.