The Children's Crusade
And now at last people had had enough of doubting and questioning. The time had come to act.
It was the spring of 1874. The ice on the rivers was breaking up and wild geese were flying north. The season itself was a spur. For several weeks there was an exodus from the two capitals and other centres of young people wearing the coarse clothes of the peasantry. On being asked by friends where they were going, they answered simply: 'V narod' ('To the people'). Here, for the first time in the history of Russian radicalism, was something that approached a mass movement. Hundreds of men and women, perhaps two or three thousand, which is Kropotkin's estimate, were on the march.
They travelled singly or in small groups, often on foot. Strong legs are mentioned as essential to an agitator's equipment. A man would have a few roubles in his pocket or between the double soles of his footgear and a false passport stuck in the cuff of his boot, together with a tobacco pouch. His bundle might hold a map, some pamphlets, a few tools, which he did not always know how to use. He would perhaps have the address of a place where he could spend the night, receive messages, collect mail. In many cases his adopted role was that of an itinerant craftsman, but occasionally he would attach himself to a work gang, say of carpenters or stevedores, establish himself as a village shopkeeper or hire himself out as a farmhand, often at the risk of betraying his incompetence. Some joined the migratory workers who streamed south at harvest time.
There were not a few women among the propagandists, and they were models of courage and endurance. Such a one was Catherine Breshkovsky, who had deserted husband and child to head a circle known as 'the Kiev commune' and who eventually became 'the little grandmother of the Russian revolution.' Men and women travelled together on a comradely footing, and sometimes a couple settled in a village as man and wife, though the relation might be nominal.
For some the occasion may have been in the nature of a lark. For many the propaganda expedition was also a pilgrimage to the living shrine of the People or a cross between a reconnaissance and a field trip: an attempt to learn at first hand what the masses were like and to get a taste of the life they lived. There were those who felt that they were missionaries of a new gospel and, in fact, not without satisfaction they anticipated martyrdom. One young woman had a fixed idea that a revolutionary was most effective when he suffered for the cause. A participant in the movement reports that he saw some propagandists pore over the pages of the New Testament. A wooden cross stood on a shelf in the headquarters of a tiny circle the members of which were the first to 'go to the people.' They dreamed of a new faith that would at once steel the intellectuals with fresh courage and enlist the religious sentiment of the masses on the side of revolution. Lavrov has it that the intention of the agitators was not to accomplish something of practical value, but to perform a podvig, a deed of self-abnegation and spiritual merit. At the time, he wrote, Populism resembled a religious sect rather than a political party.
If the 'going to the people' was something of a crusade, it was a children's crusade. Those who participated in it had no clearer idea of what they had to cope with than the followers of the shepherd boy Stephen had had. Their enthusiasm was only exceeded by their ignorance and naivete. The movement was spontaneous and unorganized. In the capital an attempt was made to set up a central directing committee and a common treasury, but within a few weeks these dissolved into thin air. No leadership came from the Chaikovsky Circle. It had been seriously weakened by arrests, and at the outset of the crusade Chaikovsky himself abandoned the cause of revolution, joining a newly founded religious sect that preached non-resistance to evil. [Together with the founder of the sect and a number of his followers, Chaikovsky spent some time in a rural commune established in Kansas by a compatriot who had gone to America back in 1868. He found the experience deeply disappointing, and in 1879 settled in London. Having repatriated himself many years later, he headed the short-lived anti-Soviet Government of Northern Russia, and in 1919 left Archangel for Paris, dying in exile.]
Each of the little local groups acted more or less on its own. The means at their disposal were meagre, wealthy supporters being few and far between. A printing press in Moscow turned out pamphlets and blanks for bogus passports, and here and there quarters were provided which could be used by agitators as hideouts and supply bases. Of course, there were always sympathizers who could be counted on for assistance. On one occasion the niece of the Governor of Moscow enabled Nikolay Morozov to change into peasant clothes in the Governor's mansion.
In good time the authorities reported that they had found evidence of propagandist activity in thirty-seven (out of the forty-nine) provinces. The figure was an exaggerated one, but the agitators undoubtedly wandered over an extensive area. From the two capitals they travelled into the central provinces. The Volga and Don regions were their particular goals: the land of the Razin and Pugachov rebellions, it was held, was bound to be fertile ground for revolutionary propaganda. From Kiev and other southern cities the Ukrainian territory was invaded as far as the Crimea. Half a dozen students, having gained the impression from a book on the prison system that gangs of escaped convicts were roaming the Ural Mountains, went there to organize the fugitives into a revolutionary fighting force.
Several men made the sectarian villages their goal. The notion that the religious dissidents were apt to prove especially susceptible to propaganda against the existing order had originated in Herzen's entourage. In 1862-4 The Bell had carried a special supplement intended to win over Old Believers. As a result of his contacts with them, the man chiefly active in this field ended by losing his own faith in revolution.
Siberia and the sections of the country inhabited largely by non-Russians were not visited by the propagandists. What could be expected from people who lacked the collectivist tradition of the Great Russians?
Theoretically, the choice of locale was of no importance, at least to the buntars. So much dynamite had accumulated all over the country, they assumed, that an explosion was bound to occur no matter where the match was applied. They intended to foment local revolts. The Lavrovists, on the other hand, planned to prepare the peasants gradually for eventual action. The former wanted to work on people's emotions, the latter would appeal to their intelligence. All that the propagandists of either persuasion did was to hand out the same pamphlets and talk in the same general terms of the ultimate objectives: land to the peasants, mills and factories to the workers, freedom and equality for all.
They had started out in the full flush of enthusiasm. At first, in addition to the moral satisfaction of having broken with the ugly past, there was the pleasure of ready camaraderie, the delight of tramping the open road in the soft air of spring, of sleeping under the stars, and the thrill of being mistaken for a genuine man or woman of the people. But as the days wore on, roughing it proved too much for the less sturdy souls, and some turned back.
Those who were able to bear the privations discovered other difficulties. Often there was no work to be had. Babes in the wood found themselves in strange predicaments. Those who had rigged themselves out in the shabbiest clothes, hoping thus to gain the peasants' confidence, discovered that villagers were unwilling to give a night's lodging to such ragged strangers, suspecting them to be thieves. Morozov all but betrayed himself when he sat at table with his peasant hosts. They ate out of a common bowl, and he disgraced himself because he did not know that they took turns in dipping their spoons into the dish. Two 'peasants' travelling together were forced to flee the countryside because Easter had come, and one of them being a Protestant and the other a Moslem, they did not know how to behave.
The most disheartening difficulties presented themselves when the actual business of propaganda was attempted. The pamphlets available for distribution were unsatisfactory. Besides, few villagers were literate. A man might accept a booklet gratefully, but only because it made such fine cigarette papers. The peasants may have been born socialists, but they did not behave like them. They definitely plumped for private ownership. Oddly enough, it was the ancients who proved the least unresponsive to socialist, anarchist, egalitarian ideas. The younger men were, as a rule, rugged individualists. One householder, having heard an agitator picture the coming repartition of land, exclaimed: 'Won't that be great when we divide up the land! I'll hire two farmhands and live like a lord!'
The peasants listened to the talk of the new order as to Church sermons or fairytales that did not touch reality. They had apparently given up the belief that the charter of 'the true freedom' was being concealed from them. Yet the hope that there was to be a general redistribution of the land had not died out. Universal military service had been introduced early in the year, and the peasants argued that if all were to serve, all were to have an equal share of the land. It was expected, however, that the initiative would come from the Czar. His prestige was still enormous.
The artel, allegedly a germ of Socialism, on closer acquaintance turned out to be little else than a crew of workmen hired by a contractor and exploited by him to the limit. At the end of a day's work the men were too tired to take any interest in the message of revolt. Equally futile were attempts to proselytize the schismatics. Smug and bigoted, they proved even less receptive than the Orthodox folk. The Volga country disappointed all expectations. The peasants there had profited by the emancipation and so were even less susceptible to subversive influences than the rest.
The propagandists who tried to rouse the people to immediate action fared no better than their more moderate comrades. The peasants who agreed that something must be done would say: 'Let someone else start, we shan't lag behind.' Here and there an agitator gifted with personal magnetism and natural tact succeeded in winning the devotion of a group of simple men, so that they were prepared to follow him through thick and thin. But such instances were rare. One man who was working in a smithy roused the workmen to such a pitch of indignation that they were ready to fight. But there were no arms forthcoming, and if there had been, plans for action were wanting. He could only bid them wait, and they had not waited long before their enthusiasm evaporated. The youths who had set out to recruit escaped convicts into a revolutionary army returned after a month's stay in the Urals without having seen a single convict.
The authorities gave currency to the report that the peasants themselves handed the troublemakers over to the police. This was not generally the case. The crusaders were undone by their own carelessness. They conducted copious correspondence in an easily decipherable code and took few precautions of any kind. Spring was hardly over when the police were on their trail. On the last day of May the gendarmes raided a cobblers' shop at Saratov. The place was a receiving station for boxes marked 'lemonade,' which contained underground literature in sheets. They came from Moscow, where they were printed on a press owned by one, Ippolit Myshkin, who had put his legitimate establishment at the disposal of the local circle. He seems to have made his first acquaintance with revolutionary ideas while acting as a court stenographer in the Nechayev trial. The sheets were stitched together at the Saratov shop and thence shipped to various points for distribution. Among those arrested at the cobblers' shop was a fifteen-year-old boy, who blabbed. From Saratov the trail led naturally to Moscow and other centres. The police made the most of the clues. In July they were considerably helped by an informer. Before autumn was well under way most of the propagandists were in prison.
Looking back on what Kropotkin called 'the mad summer of 1874,' one of the crusaders observed that if they had been let alone, with autumn they would have returned to the lecture halls and laboratories in a chastened mood. Another propagandist eventually came to the conclusion that if he and his comrades had been allowed to live among the people a year or two they would have lost their faith in the peasant revolution. But they were not let alone. Arrests spared them the bitterness of disillusionment and robbed them of the lessons of experience.
A few, notably Kravchinsky and Myshkin, escaped the net by crossing the border. Abroad, they prepared themselves for resumption of work among the people. Others managed to elude the police without expatriating themselves. Catherine Breshkovsky was arrested, but not her companion, Yakov Stefanovich, a former seminarist turned medical student. Rogachev was at liberty, towing barges on the Volga, roaming the countryside as a huckster, acting as a Bible reader in a sectarian village. But those who persevered wanted the old enthusiasm. It was, as one man phrased it, 'like building a battery under fire.'
New converts were not entirely lacking, but they came from the intelligentzia. The effect of the crusade had been less to rouse the peasantry than here and there to win over to the cause a member of the educated public. By the following spring a sadly depleted band had re-formed ranks and was prepared to make a second attempt, in the face of grave discouragement.
By then the Chaikovsky Circle was no more. It was replaced by a semblance of an organization known as the Moscow Circle. Its nucleus was a coterie of young women most of whom had studied medicine at the University of Zurich. They had been known as "the Frietsch girls' because they all lodged with a certain Frau Frietsch. The sorority had included Vera Figner, Sofya Bardina, three Subbotina sisters. A curious "figure at its meetings was grey-haired Mme Subbotina, 'mother of the Gracchae,' who shared the radical convictions of her daughters. After the official warning to women students the members of the group scattered, but continued to keep in touch. In the summer of 1874 some of them were staying in Geneva.
The event of the season was a conference of Caucasian separatists. A handful of students, mostly Georgians, opposed secession from Russia on the ground that a concerted effort of all the peoples of the Empire to overthrow the existing order would be of greater benefit to the suppressed national minorities. They found kindred spirits in 'the Frietsch girls.' These were now interested in curing the ills of society rather than bodily ailments. Just then news of mass arrests were coming from Russia. The Caucasians discovered that their new friends, like themselves, were troubled by the thought that it was their duty to leave their books, return home and step into the breach. Before the year was out both the young men and the young women were entraining for Russia. Vera Figner alone remained behind to complete her studies.
The Moscow Circle came into being early in 1875 as a result of a merger between some of the former 'Frietsch girls' and the Caucasian students. Mme Subbotina was missing: she had been arrested for propaganda among the peasants and held up officially as a horrible example of the encouragement that the young received from their elders.
The group began as an informal band of like minded people. The fear of centralized control, left by Nechayev, was still potent. But these young people were so ambitious -- they aimed at nothing less than a revolutionary society on a national scale -- that they had to overcome their distaste for organizational bonds. In February 1875 a constitution was adopted, together with the high-sounaing name of the All-Russian Social-Revolutionary Organization. At the time it comprised twenty-one persons. They enjoyed complete equality and were obliged to serve in rotation for one month on the executive committee. A member was required to divest himself of all possessions and personal ties and to become a worker or a peasant, if he was not one already. As the purpose of the Organization was to gather within its fold all existing revolutionary elements, it refrained from formulating a credo, steering a middle course between Bakuninism and Lavrovism. A new feature was a plan to form organized bands, intended, on the one hand, to rouse the people, and, on the other, to terrorize the Government and the privileged classes and arrange for the escape of imprisoned comrades. The Circle thus sanctioned the use of force against the old order, but it did so reluctantly. It favoured the employment of persuasion in dealing not only with potential friends, but even with actual enemies, and it insisted that, while the necessities of the struggle forced a revolutionist to cut himself off from the body politic, he remained subject to the dictates of morality. The ghost of Nechayey still had to be laid.
Although the group aimed at carrying propaganda to the peasantry, it began by approaching city workers. Several young women hired themselves out as factory hands. The first to do this was Betty Kaminskaya, daughter of a Jewish merchant, or Maria Krasnova, soldier's wife, according to her forged passport. She was seen off by three comrades in the small hours of an icy January morning. As the frail young thing, huddled in a peasant sarafan, disappeared behind the bleak walls of the old paper mill, her escorts felt as though they had accompanied her to her execution. Indeed, Betty, and those who followed her example, had to endure an ordeal. They lived in dismal barracks attached to factories, slept on vermin-infested mattresses, ate wretched food, and slaved for intolerably long hours. The work itself was extremely trying. The young women suffered their martyrdom cheerfully. It did not last long. As they talked to their fellow workers freely and distributed underground pamphlets, within a few weeks they drew suspicion on themselves and had to leave the factories.
The results of the first two months of activity were gratifying. Cells had been formed in a score of large mills and in some small plants. Preparations for the departure of members to various centres on propaganda assignments were under way when, early in April, a third of the membership were arrested at the headquarters of the circle, and this for lack of elementary precautions. Undismayed, the others set out for their respective destinations. They were now more circumspect, but the police had names and addresses, as well as the key to the code they used. By August the All-Russian Social-Revolutionary Organization was wiped out.
The Moscow group, like the Chaikovsky Circle before it, had given attention to city workers chiefly because it hoped that these barely urbanized peasants would carry the socialist message back to the countryside. The first revolutionary organization made up of wage earners and seeking to represent them as a distinct class was formed in Odessa late in 1874. This South Russian Union of Workers owed its existence to the initiative of E. Zaslavsky, a university graduate and a follower of Lavrov, who after 'going to the people' had lost faith in the revolutionary potentialities of the peasantry. 'The liberation of the workers' was the objective and revolution the means of obtaining it. In addition to spreading socialist ideas among factory hands, the Union conducted several strikes. Arrests put an end to its activities a few months after the Moscow Circle had met a similar fate.
The Union, with its proletarian complexion, was an isolated phenomenon. The village continued to hold the centre of the stage. In the spring of 1875, as has been noted, 'going to the people' was resumed. The results were no less disappointing, and the thin ranks of the propagandists continued to be decimated by arrests. Profound disillusionment with peaceful propaganda and a mood of despondency set in. 'Already we are bankrupt,' wrote Kravchinsky to Lavrov in the autumn. 'Life is barely stirring. Soon it will cease altogether.' He attributed this state of affairs to the Fabian policy of his correspondent. 'If persisted in,' he declared, 'the forces of revolution would entirely be wasted, and the burning embers of the intelligentzia extinguished without having kindled the masses. One mutinous act, even if unsuccessful, would achieve more than a decade of indoctrination.' In a subsequent letter he told Lavrov that an overwhelming majority had realized this and had turned away from him.
Indeed, the moderate sector was shrinking. The extremists were strongest in the South. Romantic idealization of the tradition of Cossack insurgency had not died out there. Kiev and Odessa harboured small, close-knit groups of buntars. They had given up careers open to university graduates and, in fact, looked askance at intellectuals. Some of them were 'illegals': men and women who were wanted by the police and so had gone underground. They had forged identity papers or none, and lived the lives of the hunted. The status involved such prestige that occasionally an activist who had not been compromised would go illegal just for the glory of it. At this time the secret service was rather lax in the South, and the illegals felt fairly safe.
In the summer of 1875 an Odessa group launched a plan to incite the peasants of the village of Korsun, Kiev province, to expropriate the landlords and offer armed resistance to the authorities. The place was chosen because it had been the scene of a spontaneous rising during the Crimean War. The obshchina did not exist in the South and the agitators were not unaware that it was a far cry from dividing the land among individual households to Socialism. But they were willing to let the future take care of itself. Seizure of land, they said to themselves, was a revolutionary act, which might prove the spark to start a larger conflagration. Kiev buntars offered a helping hand, and by Lent, 1876, a foothold was secured at Korsun and several other villages, and underground literature was being peddled at country fairs. As only a few of the conspirators proved equal to the task of recruiting villagers for the impending clash with the troops, the others decided to busy themselves collecting funds for weapons, ammunition and horses. Moreover, a fake imperial manifesto urging the peasants to revolt was to be printed.
The hope was to arm ten thousand men. Before long the number was scaled down to one thousand. Actually, enough cash was obtained to buy thirty cheap revolvers. The manifesto did not materialize. The recruiting of prospective insurgents proceeded at a snail's pace. And then came the coup de grace. A participant, on being arrested, turned informer and was released. Up to this time renegades had been left alone. But now the mood had changed. On the night of 11 June, 1876, three men assaulted the traitor in a street in Odessa and left him for dead. But the job was botched, and the man remained alive. He continued to betray his former comrades, and there was nothing left for them to do but to abandon all the settlements. They gathered in Kharkov and then scattered, a disheartened and demoralized lot. Soon thereafter many were arrested.
In one instance the buntars did come near starting a popular rising. For some years a number of villages in the Chigirin district, not far from Kiev, had been in a state of turmoil owing to a bitter feud between two groups of peasants. At the time of the emancipation some families managed to secure more land than they were entitled to, and with the years the inequality of holdings had increased. The more prosperous villagers wanted to legalize this state of affairs by signing deeds which would grant them ownership of their present holdings in perpetuity. The less favoured peasants, on the other hand, demanded an equable redistribution of the land according to the number of male souls (dushi) in each family, as had been the rule under collective tenure. They came to be known as dusheviks. Furthermore, influenced by rumours, some of them began to doubt the legality of the payments they were required to make for their allotments, and the old story about an imperial manifesto, granting the people the entire land, which the gentry and the officials had concealed, took on a new lease of life among them.
If only the Czar himself could be reached! He was sure to be on their side. Delegates went off to the capital with a petition, but they were stopped en route and sent back under guard. One of them escaped arrest and on returning home reported to his fellow villagers that the Czar had admitted inability to help them and enjoined them to seize the land by force and set up obshchinas to ensure equality. The peasants did not take this step, but, in the firm belief that they were acting in accordance with the Czar's will, they refused to put their mark on the official deeds and some would not make the customary payments. In May, 1875, troops were called in, and many of the recalcitrants were flogged. Yet nothing could break their spirit. Then about a hundred men were jailed, their allotments auctioned off and their families reduced to beggary.
Learning of the situation in the Chigirin district, the agitators in the Kiev province saw an opening. They recognized that if they claimed to act in the Czar's name, they were bound to be listened to. The use of fraud was distasteful to them, but they overcame their scruples. A group was formed for the purpose of turning the dusheviks' passive resistance into an insurrection.
The soul of the enterprise was Yakov Stefanovich, the youth who had accompanied Catherine Breshkovsky on her propaganda tour and who had also played a leading part in the Korsun affair. In the winter of 1875-76 he succeeded in gaining the confidence of some of the dusheviks imprisoned in Kiev. As they received no maintenance, they went out to work during the day, returning to jail to sleep. Striking up an acquaintance with these men, he represented himself as a delegate to the Czar from the dusheviks in a certain village (which he had visited at great risk), and he overwhelmed the simple souls by offering to intercede before the Czar for their village as well. He promised to be back from the capital in May. In June he sent word that his mission had been successful and that he was returning with important papers. Winter had already set in when Stefanovich faced the peasants. He brought with him two gilt-edged printed documents, the contents of which he communicated to them under a most solemn oath of secrecy.
One was an 'Imperial Manifesto.' Herein the Czar declared that by the ukase of 1861 he had given the peasants all the land gratis, but that the gentry had defrauded them of the better part of it. He had finally become convinced, the manifesto went on, that he was powerless to fight the landlords single-handed, since the Heir Apparent was on their side. He therefore ordered his faithful subjects to form secret druzhinas (bands) to prepare for an uprising. Once the people had won, land would become as free a possession as water or sunlight, and liberty and happiness would reign.
The other document was the druzhina Statutes. They required a member to take a solemn oath of allegiance to the druzhina, to arm himself with a pike, and to pay small monthly dues. Treason was punishable by death. A 'band' was to consist of twenty-five men, headed by a starosta (elder). These were to elect an ataman, who was responsible to a soviet (council) of commissars, appointed by the Czar. Stefanovich styled himself 'Commissar Dmytro Naido.' Both the Manifesto and the Statutes bore the Emperor's signature and were provided with a large gold seal, inscribed: 'Seal of the Soviet of Commissars' and showing a pike and an axe crossed. The two documents seem to have been printed in Geneva and reprinted at a secret press in Kiev.
The papers made an immense impression. Doubters were swept off their feet. Druzhinas sprang up like mushrooms. On a single night three hundred men, meeting secretly, took the oath. One of them was so overcome by what was happening that he went mad. By the middle of 1877 the membership had reached about one thousand. In spite of the number of people involved, there was not a single case of defection or betrayal, although the ataman's enthusiasm for the cause did not prevent him from embezzling the funds entrusted to him. Finally, when the organization had been in existence nine months and at a time when preparations for the rising had not yet started, the police discovered the conspiracy owing to the indiscretion of a member while under the influence of horilka (brandy). Stefanovich and his comrades were apprehended in September, 1877. For months the ringleaders were being hunted down. The last arrest was made in May of the following year.
The Bakuninists, with their emphasis on direct action and their feeble interest in theory, wrote and printed little. In 1875 they launched a monthly entitled Rabotnik (Worker), printed in Geneva. It was the first revolutionary journal addressing itself to Russian proletarians and peasants. During the fifteen months of its existence the paper had an extremely limited circulation and scarcely reached its intended public, few members of which, indeed, were literate.
More people read the bi-weekly Vperiod!, which Lavrov launched in addition to the miscellany under the same title. The initial issue, like that of Rabotnik, was dated 1 January, 1875. The journal was, in a sense, a sequel to The Bell, but did not achieve either its popularity or prestige. The editor, some contributors, and the printers all shared a London flat, forming a kind of lay brotherhood. From the Forward! press, as from that of The Worker, came propaganda pamphlets both for intellectuals and the masses. The pieces for the latter were like those that the Chaikovsky Circle had produced. In one of them the devil, intent on plaguing mankind, invents the priest, the noble, and the merchant.
The bi-weekly recorded the revolutionary struggle at home and had much to say about the international socialist and labour movement, even reporting strikes in New York and Chicago. Occasionally it printed verse, such as 'The New Song,' from the pen of Lavrov himself, which eventually became the Russian Marseillaise. It opens with a call to spurn the old world, and the refrain to its five octaves summons the worker to rise against his enemies. The last stanza predicts that after the struggle is over, the sun of justice and brotherhood will rise, blood will have bought the happiness of children, falsehood and evil will have been banished forever, and the nations will be as one 'in the free realm of holy labour.'
Considerable space was given to theoretical discussion. It was directed against Bakuninism with its assumption of Russia's readiness for revolution, its reliance on blind action, its appeal to elemental passions. In the West the future of Socialism was bound up with the evolution of capitalism and the political activity of the industrial proletariat, but in Russia, Lavrov held, Socialism was a movement of ideas deriving much of its authority from ethical imperatives. He did not blink the fact that the eventual overturn, of necessity a social cataclysm, meant war with all its horrors, but he insisted that the conflict must be carried on within the bounds of revolutionary morality, the heart of which was justice and love of humanity. His belief in the efficacy of peaceful indoctrination was unshaken. In the issue of the journal dated 1 June, 1876, this trained mathematician presented a piece of computation whereby he arrived at the conclusion that within six years one hundred propagandists could secure 35,950 converts. Even a third of this number, he argued, would constitute a formidable revolutionary army.
He wanted it to be an army of workers and peasants. The intellectuals must take the initiative, but Lavrov fervently hoped that when the hour of decision struck, leadership would be in the hands of the people. Forward! firmly opposed the idea of a small band of conspirators seizing political power and decreeing the new order into existence. With an insight of which he was rarely capable he pictured the result of the dictatorship of a revolutionary minority. The abolition of private property by such a regime, he wrote, would be only nominal. Actually the capital owned by the propertied classes would pass into the hands of 'a gang of ten thousand acting under the red flag of the social revolution.' On the morrow of the coup a struggle for power would begin, with disastrous effects. An overturn carried out by the masses before they had received a sufficient amount of socialist enlightenment, or by a dictatorial minority, would only lead, he concluded, to an exchange of one set of exploiters for another.
These shafts were aimed at the few Russian disciples of Augusts Blanqui who enlivened the radical scene. Back in 1873 Zurich held, in addition to Lavrovists and Bakuninists, a tiny group of Blanquists, also known as Jacobins, who were committed to a programme of dictatorship by a revolutionary minority. The cell, which Nechayev may have helped to form, found an articulate leader in the person of his former associate, Pyotr Tkachev. Having served his prison term and been deported to a provincial town, he had escaped abroad with the aid of members of the Chaikovsky Circle, who had hoped that he would contribute to Forward! From the first, however, he and Lavrov found themselves at odds, and in the spring of 1874 he issued a pamphlet in which he savagely attacked the editor as, horrible to say, a preacher of peaceful progress, a man who unwittingly played into the hands of the police. Delaying the revolution might prove fatal, he argued. For while in the West the growth of capitalism brought the hour of the triumph of Socialism nearer, in Russia it had the opposite effect. Hence, it was now or never.
In his reply Lavrov denounced his critic as an irresponsible demagogue who did not realize how disastrous a revolution without the participation of the people would be. Friedrich Engels took up the cudgels for Lavrov and drew a vitriolic retort from Tkachev, to the effect that Russia was closer to the social revolution than the West: if she had no proletariat, neither did she have a bourgeoisie, and the people were communist by tradition and revolutionary by instinct. (He was echoing Bakunin.) Engels dismissed these remarks as puerile, but conceded that the Russian revolution was on the way and could only be retarded by a successful war or a premature uprising. There the debate rested.
By the end of 1875 Tkachev had acquired a medium for spreading his ideas: Nabat (Tocsin), a journal sponsored by a group of Russian and Polish Blanquists and printed in Geneva. In the leading article of the opening issue he again attacked Lavrovism, pointing out the dangers of procrastination and calling for immediate action. The revolutionary cohort, he insisted, must be ready to risk defeat, in the conviction that severe discipline, centralized command, swift action, utter intransigeance would assure it victory. 'The preparation of a revolution is not the work of revolutionaries,' he wrote. 'That is the work of exploiters, capitalists, landowners, priests, police, officials, conservatives, liberals, progressives, and the like. Revolutionaries do not prepare, they make a revolution.' They were of necessity a minority, Tkachev went on. For only the few were morally and intellectually advanced enough to cherish the ideal which is the final goal of progress: absolute, 'organic,' as he put it, equality, the foundation of the society of the future. This superiority entitled them to material power. The transformation of moral into material power was indeed 'the essence of every true revolution.' Since power is concentrated in the state, the elite, a close-knit fighting body, must take possession of it, not to destroy it, as Bakunin's followers demanded, but to use it in the interest of the cause.
Tkachev's conception of the revolution was not entirely dictatorial. The new government, he held, must persuade the people to accept its policies, propaganda following, not preceding the overturn. Furthermore, he had it that once the citizenry had been re-educated and the socialist order firmly established, the State would lose its raison d'etre and wither away. He conceded that the conquest of power could not be achieved without popular support. But he saw the Russian masses as a purely destructive force, and the belief that, left to themselves, they could bring about their own liberation was to his thinking a dangerous delusion. History, he maintained, had placed the task of organizing the revolution, initiating it and directing its course upon the shoulders of the moral and intellectual elite. Variations on this authoritarian, anti-democratic theme dominate the pages of Tocsin. The Lavrovists and Bakuninists alike abhorred Tkachev's cfoctrine as a scheme to impose the new order on the people by force, to drag them into the millennium by the scruff of their necks, as it were. What, they asked, would keep the socialist dictators from abusing their authority? The Nabat programme was, in Kravchinsky's words, nothing but vileness and political revolution. The fact that Tkachev remained abroad in safety, while urging others to risk their lives, did not go unnoticed. In any case, the circulation of his paper was extremely limited, and his followers both at home and abroad were a negligible splinter group. His seemed a lost cause. Before many years passed, however, his programme won adherents, and eventually it was to be carried out, with what results the world now witnesses. Writing in 1902, Lenin said that the attempt to seize power, prepared by what Tkachev had preached -- he had in mind the effort of the People's Will -- was 'majestic'
By the beginning of 1875, 770 propagandists (612 men and 158 women) had been ordered to be arrested, 717 had actually been seized and 267 of them remained in custody. The number of converts to revolution made at this cost was estimated at twenty to thirty. Between the middle of 1873 and the end of 1876, 1,611 political suspects eighty-five per cent of them men, were questioned; 557 of them were dismissed for lack of evidence, 450 were placed under police surveillance, 79 were deported to distant parts of the Empire and 525 were held for court trial. The majority of these, the more serious offenders, were under twenty-five years old and one out of four was a minor. More than half belonged to the privileged, though not necessarily well-to-do, classes and fully half were high school and university students. The official investigator reported that students of medicine and the natural sciences were the most hardened criminals, and the 46 women awaiting trial were more fanatical than the men.
The majority of the defendants were not allowed to face their judges until 1877. Two mass trials were staged in the capital before a special session of the Senate.
The first, known as the Trial of the Fifty, and involving former members of the Moscow Circle, was held in March and lasted three weeks. The public was admitted in limited numbers, and sympathizers eager to gain admission went so far as to print counterfeit tickets. The defendants were charged with having formed an illegal association aimed to overthrow the existing order and with dissemination of printed matter inciting to revolt. During the proceedings they behaved with a courage and dignity which won general admiration. The presence in the dock of attractive and obviously high-minded young women was particularly affecting. The prisoners boldly asserted their convictions. In fact, at the conclusion of the trial, when, in accordance with accepted procedure, they addressed the court, they turned the dock into a rostrum.
Sofya Bardina was the first to speak. In a low, soft voice she denied the intention of undermining the foundations of property, family, religion, and the State. She and her comrades, she said, merely defended the worker's right to the full product of his labour. As for religion, she personally 'had always been true to its spirit and essential principles in the pure form in which they were preached by the founder of Christianity.' And neither she nor her co-defendants wanted to destroy the State. They were peaceful propagandists working for universal happiness and equality.
The next defendant to speak was a tall, lean workman in a loose peasant blouse belted with a narrow strap. This was Pjotr Alexeyev, a weaver, who had been won over by Sofya Perovskaya and had joined the Moscow Circle. In vehement tones he pictured the intolerable lot of the wage-earner, concluding that the working people must depend on themselves and expect no help except from the student youth. 'They alone will be our inseparable comrades until the moment when millions of working people raise their muscular arms . . .' Here the presiding Senator made an attempt to stop the speaker, but he went on: 'and the yoke of despotism, protected by soldiers' bayonets, will be pounded to dust.' Both speeches, which had been carefully edited and rehearsed, were excised from the court records, but they were printed secretly and became revolutionary classics.
Prison terms, Siberian exile, hard labour were the lot of the condemned. The severity of the sentences intensified public sympathy for them. Money and other gifts poured in, and, as one of the Subbotina sisters put it, the women held 'a salon' in jail, receiving a number of titled ladies. Poems were written to the prisoners, and a dirge composed three years earlier by the now dying Nekrasov was circulated, with the report that he had composed it on his sick-bed as a lament for the condemned.
The cases were appealed, and the sentences rendered less onerous. Before the prisoners separated to go to their various places of confinement, each received a crucifix, the only personal possession a convict was allowed. It was inscribed on the reverse side with the initials of the Russian Social-Revolutionary Association. All that remained to many of them was an obscure martyrdom. Shortly after leaving prison. Alexeyev was murdered by Yakut robbers, whose crime might have gone undiscovered if they had not made a song about their exploit. Sofya Bardina, after some years in Siberia, escaped abroad, where, in 1883, at the age of thirty, she took her own life. It is said that one of the things that drove her to suicide was her inability to stomach the terrorist phase of the revolutionary movement.
A few weeks after the Trial of the Fifty, members of the South-Russian Workers' Union faced the court. Then came the Great Trial, which lasted from 18 October, 1877, to 23 January, 1878. The case of Revolutionary Propaganda in the Empire, as it was officially called, involved many of those who 'had gone to the people.' The preliminary inquiry had dragged on for some four years. It has been estimated that 3,800 persons, including witnesses, were drawn into this mass trial. Scores died of disease in prison, committed suicide or went mad there. After indictment, a few escaped. Only 198 were finally brought to the capital from the various parts of the country, to be tried by a special tribunal. In the course of the trial, death further reduced the number of defendants to 193. Some of them had but a remote connexion with the revolutionary movement, and indeed, there were those who were initiated into it by being dragged into the case. As one historian put it, the trial was a conference of activists arranged by and at the expense of the government. What was in fact the result of the unco-ordinated efforts of separate groups was presented by the prosecution as the concerted action of a single secret society, and this in spite of the fact that the authorities had a clear picture of the actual situation.
Nominally the proceedings were public, but the courtroom was only large enough to hold the judges, the prisoners, and their counsel. The defendants protested. Thereupon the prisoners were divided into groups, each of which was to be tried separately. Since they were being tried as a body, many objected to this arrangement and decided to sabotage the proceedings. They had to be dragged before the judges by main force and then they refused to answer questions. They delegated one of their number, however, to speak for them. This was Ippolit Myshkin, accused, with three others, of having organized the Society. In the courtroom, the four occupied a raised, railed-off platform which the defendants called Golgotha.
Against a barrage of interruptions from Senator Karl Peters, the presiding judge, Myshkin delivered a vigorous declaration of his and his comrades' convictions, which they had composed jointly. Acknowledging himself a member of the Social-Revolutionary Party, by which he merely meant a company of like-minded men and women, he said that their aim was to establish a free union of autonomous communes. It would come about through a popular rising against an intolerable system.
The climax of the speech came when Myshkin, prevented from relating the tortures to which he had been subjected in prison, cried out that this was no trial, but 'a farce, indeed something worse,' and, in defiance of Senator Peters' orders to remove him, went on to declare that the Senators were prostituting themselves by selling 'everything dear to humanity for promotion and fat salaries.' The courtroom was in an uproar. Women became hysterical; some fainted. The judges, appalled, filed out, Senator Peters forgetting to declare the court adjourned.
Nearly half of the defendants, Sofya Perovskaya among them, were acquitted. The others received sentences varying from five days in prison to ten years of hard labour. Furthermore, the court petitioned the Emperor to free sixty-two of those found guilty, in consideration of the fact that they had served their term during preliminary detention, and to reduce the penalties of the others, except Myshkin. Contrary to custom, the court's petition was not granted, and it was said that the penalties were indeed increased in a dozen cases.
Two days after the verdict had been handed down in its final form, a group of the condemned signed a statement which was, in effect, a last testament. It was subsequently printed abroad and smuggled into Russia. The signatories reaffirmed their allegiance to the 'Popular-Revolutionary Party,' and urged the comrades who remained behind to carry on the fight against a system which was the misfortune and shame of Russia.
The greater number of those acquitted were deported to distant parts of the empire by administrative order. Myshkin was executed in 1885 for attacking a prison warden.
The revolutionaries used the public trials as a forum from which they proclaimed the high motives that prompted their actions. In this way they added considerably to the moral capital accumulated by the cause and ultimately bequeathed to wastrel heirs. The government had hoped to arouse public opinion against the rebels. The opposite effect was produced. As a result, during the life of the old regime political cases received a minimum of official publicity.