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

Chapter 16

The Agony of The People's Will

Late in 1881 a conference of activists was held in Moscow. The results of its deliberations were meagre. Undismayed by the failure of previous efforts in that direction, the Party resolved to set up a special organization, the Christian Brotherhood, to be made up of Old Believers and sectarians converted to the cause of revolution. In the name of this non-existent body, an encyclical was issued, in which the Czar's laws and regulations were declared 'contrary to God's commandments and the spirit of Christian teaching.' This was the last attempt dictated by the old notion that religious dissenters were particularly susceptible to revolutionary propaganda. Nothing further was heard of the Brotherhood.

The conference also decided to assassinate General Strelnikov, the exceptionally brutal prosecuting officer in the military courts of the South. All the preliminary preparations were made by Vera Figner, who had in fact proposed the measure, and on 18 March, 1882, in Odessa, an agent of the Executive Committee, fatally wounded the General. Khalturin, who two years previously had blown up the Winter Palace, was waiting in a carriage nearby to drive the assassin to safety. Both men were seized on the spot and hanged four days later under assumed names -- they had refused to disclose their identities.

Few other acts of violence were carried out or attempted during the lifetime of the People's Will. The work of the Party was practically confined to socialist propaganda among factory hands, conducted by a few local groups independently and without central direction.

When the Party's fortunes were at this low ebb there occurred a significant and rather paradoxical shift in its ideology. The issue of its organ dated 5 February, 1882, contained a striking statement. If the masses spontaneously effect a social revolution, at the time when the conspirators seize political power, the leading article read, then the task of the Provisional Government will be merely 'to sanction the economic equality wrested by the people from their age-old oppressors and exploiters.' But the people may fail to act. In that case the Provisional Government will not only establish a free political order but will make an economic revolution by abolishing the right of private property in land and other means of production. Only then will the Constituent Assembly be made up of 'true representatives of the people.'

The same stand was taken, and more boldly, in a letter that the Executive Committee addressed about the same time to 'emigre comrades,' urging them to return home and join the People's Will. 'We ascribe enormous importance to political power,' the communication read. 'The revolution will occur only when this power is in good hands, and that is why we strive to seize it. . . . Should we obtain it as a result of an overturn, we would not let go of it until we had assured the people a firm footing.' The Committee hastened to add that it did not intend to perpetuate this 'tutelage of the people,' but it was vague about the conditions under which the Party would be ready to turn the reins over to the Constituent Assembly. The long missive ended on a Machiavellian note: for fear of repelling the moderates the addressees were requested not to expatiate in public on the seizure of power, 'at least not in our name.' [In her reminiscences, published in 1926, Anna Pribyleva, a then surviving member of the Executive Committee, argued that the letter was spurious.]

Two years later in an article entitled 'What Are We to Expect from the Revolution?' Tikhomirov stated that while the Party wished to secure political power, it had no intention to use it in order to force the benefits of Socialism or Communism on the people. This denial notwithstanding, it would appear that in its decline the People's Will was headed by persons no longer committed, as most of them had been in the past, to the plan of either compelling the Czar to liberalize his regime or replacing it with a Provisional Government which would forthwith hand over its power to a democratically elected Constituent Assembly. Instead, the leadership had developed a leaning toward the 'Jacobin' programme first broached in the Young Russia manifesto back in 1862 and later advocated by the Tkachev faction: that of seizing power by conspiracy and bringing Socialism into existence by decree -- a programme which adumbrated the Bolshevik revolution. Maria Oshanina asserted that the members of the Executive Committee toward the end of its existence 'had all become Jacobins, more or less.'

The letter to 'the emigre comrades' was addressed chiefly to the handful of former leaders of Black Repartition who stayed abroad. As a matter of fact, the Tkachevist trend in the Executive Committee was no news to them. The previous autumn a communication from Stefanovich, who had returned to Russia, had apprized them of it.

The expatriates did not relish the message. They were moving toward a position resembling that of Western social democracy, which assumed a long interval between the political and the social revolution. Kravchinsky took a particularly dark view of the 'Jacobin' tendency. Its advocates, he said, were 'already getting drunk on the ambrosia of power. . . . They want power not for the cause, but for power's sake.' He was also extremely critical of the Committee's inclination to claim 'papal infallibility.' That disposition, he wrote to Axelrod, could do the Party the greatest harm, for its future largely depended on 'the right to free thought and free criticism. 'This right,' he observed with truly prophetic insight, 'is the only bulwark against that terrible development of centralism which, given Russian extremism, could assume monstrous proportions and kill everything that is alive.'

Nevertheless, the emigres' reply, though somewhat evasive, was that they would go home and lend a hand. But because of the wave of arrests that swept both capitals in the spring, they were advised to wait. A little later, the arrival in Geneva of a loquacious member of the Executive Committee opened their eyes to the lamentable state of the Party of which they had been unaware, and they chose to stay on abroad. They contented themselves with printing pamphlets for home consumption and collecting money for the Red Cross of the People's Will, a new organization dedicated to alleviating the lot of political prisoners. Vera Zasulich returned to Russia in 1905, dying fourteen years later, a bitter enemy of the Soviet regime. Plekhanov did not repatriate himself until the revolution of 1917, after an absence of thirty-seven years.

The talk about 'seizing power' verged on the ludicrous in view of the condition of the Party. The arrests just mentioned brought the activities of the Executive Committee to a virtual standstill. The printing-press had been given up. The police raided the flat where passports were forged and seized the forgers and their equipment. Maria Oshanina crossed the border, joining the ranks of the emigres, and so did Tikhomirov and his wife, in spite of Vera Figner's protests.

In the northern capital work continued a little longer. The leading figure in Petersburg was Mikhail Grachevsky, who had come to the fore after the event of 1 March. Owing to his efforts, the manufacture of dynamite was resumed in May. The following month, however, he and most of his comrades were in prison. Aside from those who had expatriated themselves the sole member of the Executive Committee now left at liberty was Vera Figner.

The arrests were due to the efficient detective work of Major Sudeikin, head of the secret service in the capital, of whom more will be heard later. With the death of Strelnikov, the revolutionaries saw in him the arch-enemy, as subtle as he was ruthless. They particularly resented his persistency in corrupting his captives. He would introduce himself to them as an old-time narodnik and a student of Marx, critical of the tactics of the People's Will but not of its aims. He made it a rule to urge every political he encountered to join the secret service, and he was not unsuccessful, especially with young people.

Vera Figner fully realized the seriousness of the situation. But she would not give up. After all, some local cells were still active. She took into her confidence a leading member of the Kiev group and another activist, a retired army captain, who had been a trusted agent of the Executive Committee. With the aid of these two men she set about restoring the core of the People's Will. A slight break in the clouds occurred when one of the Subbotina sisters, then an exile in Siberia, turned over to the Party the remnant of the family fortune, eleven thousand roubles, according to one statement. It was now possible to resume printing. In November a press was set up in Odessa.

In casting about for people capable of replacing the arrested members of the Executive Committee the trio turned their minds to the Party's Military branch. In April, 1881, it had lost two of its most active members -- one of them, Lieutenant Sukhanov, was subsequently executed by a firing squad. Nevertheless it continued to hold its own and indeed to grow. The fact that its numerical strength was not impressive did not daunt the leadership. This was given to formulating fantastic plans in the belief that a handful of resolute men in a commanding position could work miracles. For example, there was talk of seizing Kronstadt and the naval vessels stationed there and bombarding the capital.

The military organization had been set up to give support to a spontaneous popular uprising or, if that failed to materialize, to head an insurrection engineered by the Party. Since both eventualities had now moved off into the dim future, its existence seemed no longer justified. Vera Figner was not ready to suggest that it disband, but she felt no compunction about attempting to divert the best men in the military branch to more important tasks. Accordingly, half a dozen of them were requested to retire from the service, sever their connexion with the military organization, and join the Executive Committee. Only two men fell in with this plan. The situation at the centre did not improve. Behind a serene fagade Vera Figner was in a panic.

The authorities were still unaware of the helplessness to which their adversary had been reduced. The Executive Committee continued to loom as the general staff of a formidable force that was lurking in the shadows of the underground. Its very quiescence was ominous. Fearing that some act of violence might be perpetrated at the coronation, they conceived the notion of making terms with the revolutionaries for the cessation of terrorism at least until the ceremony was over. To that end the police approached more than one political prisoner, urging them to state the conditions of an armistice. These efforts came to naught. Yakov Stefanovich, who was arrested in February, 1882, would not speak for the People's Will. Another prisoner responded by writing a long memorandum in which he tried to convert Alexander III to Socialism, arguing that an autocracy could be a workers' as well as a feudal or bourgeois State.

Later in the year the negotiations were taken over by the Holy League. Two separate attempts to arrange a truce seem to have been made. An emissary of the organization actually came to terms with Lavrov, who was still regarded by the uninitiated as the head of the revolutionary movement. An elaborate agreement was drafted in Paris, as well as the text of a proclamation to be issued by the Executive Committee. There was an element of pure comedy in the proceedings: while Lavrov acted for a practically non-existent Party with which he was not affiliated, the man he dealt with, concealing the identity of his backers, spoke in the name of a wholly mythical Zemstvo Association. The pourparlers were suddenly broken off on the ground that the Association had lost its influence in high places.

While negotiating with Lavrov, the League was duplicating its efforts with the aid of an outsider, a journalist by the name of Nikolay Nikoladze. He was told by Count Vorontzov-Dashkov, Minister of the Court and one of the pillars of the League, that it might be able to persuade the Government to make certain liberal concessions in return for a temporary cessation of terror. Nikoladze then gained the ear of several left-wing authors, including Mikhailovsky. The latter travelled a thousand miles to Kharkov to lay the matter before Vera Figner. She was rather sceptical, suspecting a police trap. In any event, she could make no decision without the consent of the members of the Committee who were abroad. Accordingly, she sent a trusted agent to Geneva to consult Tikhomirov and the others.

The emissary arrived there about the same time as Nikoladze. The latter made contact with Tikhomirov and laid his cards on the table. Saying that he spoke for a group of politically influential personages, he asked on what terms the terrorists would agree to a truce. Tikhomirov was elated. An armistice would supply the Executive Committee with a plausible excuse for the inaction which impotence had forced upon it. In exchange for fictitious self-restraint, the Party would receive real concessions. This was a godsend.

As the price of the armistice Tikhomirov demanded that the coronation manifesto should include the following provisions: amnesty for political prisoners; civil liberties, specifically freedom of socialist propaganda; a larger measure of zemstvo and municipal self-government. Furthermore, he requested that Nikoladze's backers, by way of an earnest of their intentions, deposit the sum of one million roubles with some individual enjoying the confidence of the Party, this money to be forfeited if they failed to keep their side of the bargain. Also an important political prisoner was to be freed before the coronation.

The negotiations were proceeding smoothly when, in the last days of 1882, Nikoladze abruptly broke them off and returned to Russia at the request of the League. This is Tikhomirov's story. Nikoladze has it that an agreement had actually been concluded, but that on returning to Petersburg he was told by Vorontzov-Dashkov to drop the whole matter.

In undertaking his mission Nikoladze, who was a man of liberal views, had stipulated as his sole reward, irrespective of the outcome of his efforts, that Chernyshevsky should be included in the amnesty that was expected at the coronation. The amnesty granted in connexion with that event, which went off without a hitch on 15 May, 1883, failed to cover Cherynshevky's case, but some months later the exile was allowed to return to European Russia after his sons had addressed a petition to the Czar.


The Holy League had broken off negotiations with Lavrov and Tikhomirov because by the end of 1882 the authorities had lost interest in treating with the People's Will. The regular police had succeeded unaided not only in learning what the true state of the Party was, but also in taking over the little that remained of it. This is how it happened.

As has been noted, when Vera Figner found herself the sole active member of the Executive Committee she turned for help to two men. One of them was Sergey Degayev. Coming of a cultivated middle-class family, he, like his younger brother, Vladimir, fell under the influence of radical ideas, eventually joining the People's Will. Vladimir was in his teens when, early in 1881, he was arrested. He was questioned by Sudeikin himself and invited to enter the secret service. This he did, intending to step into the boots of Kletochnikov, who had just been seized. Of course, the shrewd detective saw through the would-be counter-spy. Far from being of help to the Party, the rather dull-witted boy may have been instrumental in causing the many arrests that occurred in February, 1882. In the spring Sudeikin dispensed with his service, and the following year Vladimir expatriated himself, eventually settling in the United States and repudiating the radicalism of his youth.

Sergey, born in 1854, graduated from a military college, but retired from the army at an early age and attended an engineering school when, at the end of the 'seventies, he first became involved with revolutionaries. He conducted propaganda among his fellow students and as a leader of the military organization of the People's Will stood close to the Executive Committee. He was implicated in the event of 1 March, having had a hand in the mining operations conducted from the cheese store. After the assassination of the Czar he remained active. When in the spring of 1882, it was decided to kill Sudeikin, he took part in shadowing the detective with whom he had become acquainted through his brother.

It must have given him great satisfaction to be chosen by Vera Figner as her associate. To be a member of the Executive Committee had long been his ambition. He believed himself destined to do great things. In his new role he took charge of a secret press in Odessa. Within a few weeks, on 18 December, he was in prison. He was seriously compromised and threatened with a term of hard labour. Sudeikin questioned him without witnesses and was gratified with the results.

A statement printed later in Narodnaya volya offered this explanation of Degayev's conduct: 'He took it into his head to buy the Government's gratitude at the price of betraying his former friends and its bitterest enemies, and then, having secured the complete confidence of the autocracy, to deal it a decisive blow when the occasion presented itself.' In his memoirs Tikhomirov presented Degayev's motive in a somewhat different light. According to him, Degayev fell in with Sudeikin's curious idea that an alliance between the secret service and the People's Will would accomplish what the Party had failed to bring about: a liberal regime. Degayev's sister, who was in his confidence, substantially corroborated this version. 'Sudeikin told the prisoner,' she wrote, 'that only with his [Sudeikin's] help could the People's Will seize power. He spoke less like a police officer than like a fellow populist, admitting that the existing order was in need of a thorough overhauling, but arguing that the Party's tactics were wrong and hence it was getting nowhere.' Degayev realized that his pact with Sudeikin involved the loss of certain comrades, but he told himself that no revolutionary enterprise had ever succeeded without sacrifices.

To achieve their end, Sudeikin and his prisoner agreed that the latter must rejoin his comrades. Accordingly a fake escape was conveniently arranged for him while he was being transferred from one prison to another. This occurred on 14 January, 1883, and a week or two later he turned up in the capital as a representative of the Executive Committee. He was not the first activist to turn State's evidence. Treason dogged the People's Will, as it had its predecessors. But for the first time the police had an informant who belonged to the inner core of the Party.

Sudeikin had apparently assured Degayev that his primary interest was not in making arrests, but in directing the activities of the People's Will in accordance with the plans the two had laid. But before long he changed his tune. Arguing that it was necessary, first of all, to protect the Government from the terrorists, he seized Vera Figner and her associates. [Vera Figner was condemned to death, but her sentence was commuted to a life term of hard labour. Actually she spent twenty years in prison and died in 1942 at the age of ninety.] He then attacked the Party's military organization. So numerous were the arrests among its leading members that it was utterly cruched.

Except for some groups on its loose periphery, the People's Will was now completely at the mercy of the police. Indeed, it functioned under the aegis, as it were, of the head of the secret service in the capital, Lieutenant-Colonel Sudeikin. The forged passports used by 'illegals' were supplied by his office. It has even been said that he had edited the two issues of the Party's Bulletin printed in 1883.

The relations between him and his 'ally' were unusual, to say the least. Though he had every reason to be suspicious, he trusted Degayev fully and confided to him his secret ambitions. He belonged to the race of men with a giant appetite for power and no scruples about getting it. He dreamed of making himself indispensable to the Czar and the highest dignitaries of the realm by convincing them that he alone stood between them and death at the hands of the revolutionaries. To that end he planned to organize, with Degayev's help, a terrorist group, and then under some pretext, such as disability caused by a fake attack on his life, resign from the service. Then one or two key notables, such as the Minister of the Interior, would be assassinated. Panic-stricken, the Emperor would recall him, and under the circumstances it would be easy for him to get the Minister's post. He would become the most powerful man in the land, the all-Russian dictator, before whom even the Czar would quake. Through Degayev he would also rule the underground. The two of them would constitute the real Government of the Empire.

At first Degayev may have been impressed with this grandiose scheme, in which a place was duly reserved for him. But as the weeks slipped by and the arrests caused by his disclosures multiplied, while Sudeikin did nothing to keep his side of the pact, the future duumvir perceived that his own role remained that of a mere informer. Moreover, his position was becoming more difficult. To shield him, the police spread the rumour that a young woman who had been arrested with him and subsequently set free was turning State's evidence. Nevertheless he was not altogether above suspicion. A Colonel of the gendarmerie gave away the secret of Degayev's escape to an army man, who, while in his cups, repeated what he had been told within the hearing of someone who passed the word on to the local group of the People's Will. There were those who dismissed the story, but others were ready to believe it.

Degayev was beginning to labour under a severe mental strain. Perhaps to get respite from contacts with his comrades perhaps to find out how he stood with the leadership, he persuaded Sudeikin to send him abroad. His trip appears to have taken place in May. He went to Geneva with the object of luring Tikhomirov from there to Germany, where the expatriate was to be kidnapped and taken to Russia. The two men had several unhappy talks. On one occasion Tikhomirov observed that the condition of the Party was hopeless and that some sort of compromise with the Government was perhaps the best way out. Degayev, deciding that he was talking to a man who might be won over to his side, spoke freely and before he knew it, he found himself revealing his compact with Sudeikin. Tikhomirov listened impassively. Degayev talked on, looking for some sign of indignation at his treachery, some token of admiration for his noble intentions. But the host in no way betrayed his emotions. Finally Degayev exclaimed that his fate was in Tikhomirov's hands. It was for the Executive Committee -- he was still in awe of that body, which was now little more than a name -- 'either to mete out to him the punishment he deserves,' as the above-mentioned statement in Narodnaya volya has it, 'or to allow him to make amends for his crime, at least to some extent, by doing the Party a signal service.'

Tikhomirov was in a quandary. His visitor had said that he had given Sudeikin information about certain individuals, which had not as yet been acted upon. To denounce the informer and have him assassinated would mean to expose these people to arrest. He agreed not to disclose Degayev's secret if the latter would save those who had not been seized by arranging for their escape abroad. Furthermore, Degayev was to execute Sudeikin with his own hands.

The only person Tikhomirov took into his confidence was Maria Oshanina, the sole other member of the Executive Committee. Perhaps he was not sure that there would be approval of the conditions he had imposed on Degayev, dictated as they were by expediency rather than by moral scrupulousness.

He made no attempt to warn the remnant of the membership: he kept his side of the bargain. Degayev, on the other hand, was slow in keeping his. Accordingly, in August he was summoned abroad, presumably to be reminded of his promise. Nothing more fully attests the confidence which Sudeikin had in him than the fact that he was allowed to leave the country for the second time.

On his return to Russia he continued to play bis double role undisturbed. He dominated the conference of activists which took place in October and he was elected to a directorate that included three more members, all, of course, known to Sudeikin and completely at his mercy (one of them eventually also turned informer). Unaware of the obligation Degayev had taken upon himself, the conference decreed Sudeikin's liquidation.

About this time one more person learned Degayev's secret. This was Hermann Lopatin, a free-lance revolutionary of whom more will be heard presently. Questioned about the details of his escape from his guards, as the two sat over glasses of tea in Palkin's Restaurant, Degayev became confused and blurted out the truth, including the fact that he had obligated himself to kill Sudeikin. Thereafter Lopatin kept close watch over the informer.

Sudeikin had toyed with the idea of having a fake attempt made on his life. At first Degayev had planned to take advantage of this and turn the feigned attack into a genuine one, but had given up the scheme as too chancy. Finally, on 16 December, 1883, he received Sudeikin in his flat on a suitable pretext and there with the aid of two accomplices (one of them eventually became a police agent) who knew nothing of their comrade's real role, killed him and severely wounded the henchman who accompanied him. Degayev was the first to fire, and the other two finished the job with sawed-off crowbars. One of the men had been groomed by Sudeikin, in furtherance of his ambitious plan, for the role of assassin of the Minister of the Interior.

It had been expected that, in destroying Sudeikin, Degayev would meet his own end. But luck was with him. He succeeded in escaping abroad. In Paris his case was examined by a tribunal consisting of Tikhomirov and two other comrades. He was forbidden on pain of death ever to rejoin the ranks of Russian revolutionaries or to return to Russia. As the Government was offering a large reward for his capture, there was no great inducement for him to go back.

Without delay he and his wife embarked for America, landing in Canada and later making their way to the United States. For a while they stayed in St. Louis, where he resumed his studies, and in 1897 received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins. For ten years he taught at the University of South Dakota. Professor Alexander Pell, as he now called himself, Dean of College of Engineering, was a popular man on the campus, not only because of his interest in college athletics. 'He was one of the most humane men I have ever known,' one of his students said of him. The issue of the college magazine for 25 March, 1901, contained this notice: 'Dr. and Mrs. Pell entertained the class of which he is class father. From the head of the table beamed the jolly countenance of Jolly Little Pell [he was rather short] cracking jokes faster than the freshmen could crack nuts.' A childless couple, the Pells surrounded themselves with young people whom they housed and helped through college. From South Dakota the professor was called to the Armour Institute of Technology.

On the death of his wife, he married one of his students, an American girl, and when his failing health obliged him to retire from the Armour Institute he went to live first at South Hadley and later at Bryn Mawr, where his wife was teaching. He is said to have hailed Russia's defeat by Japan and to have viewed the Bolshevik Revolution with aversion. His Russian past was apparently a sealed book to his American associates. To protect himself against embarrassing disclosures, he had his brother Vladimir send a dispatch to a Russian newspaper in 1909 or 1910, to the effect that Sergey Degayev died in New Zealand. His actual death occurred in 1921. An obituary of him by a former colleague concluded thus: 'His generosity and loyalty will live long in the hearts of those who were privileged to know him.'


A statement by the Executive Committee denouncing Degayev was drafted shortly after Sudeikin's assassination, but was not published till nearly a year after. Almost immediately, however, the news of Degayev's treachery leaked out. A storm of indignation swept the thin ranks of the People's Will. Why, they asked, had he not been brought to book after his confession? Why had they not been warned? In the absence of an authoritative account of the affair, there were those who concluded that Degayev had done his infamous work with the approval of the Executive Committee.

For some time dissatisfaction with the organization and programme of the Party had been on the increase, particularly among the proselytes. The Degayev incident, in damaging the prestige of the Executive Committee, strengthened the opposition. Early in 1884 the revisionist ferment resulted in the formation of a dissident faction, which adopted the name of the Younger People's Will. It looked upon itself not as a unior adjunct to the Party, but as its heir and successor.

The Young focused their attention on the urban proletariat. They favoured terrorism, but they wanted it directed against economic exploiters near at hand, rather than against political oppressors far away. Their immediate objective was to force the Czar to convoke a Constituent Assembly and they were opposed to the idea of dictatorship by the Party. Above all, they advocated rebuilding the People's Will along more democratic lines. They argued that the Executive Committee, self-perpetuating, authoritarian, was a brake on the growth of the movement and should be replaced by a directorate, representative of and responsible to the membership. While the Old Guard stood for a strong central authority, an organization directed from above, the Young clamoured for local autonomy, an organization growing from below. This was the very rock on which, in a later generation, the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party was to split into the Bolshevik and Menshevik factions.

The Old Guard was not ready to give up the fort without a struggle. Tikhomirov made a half-hearted attempt to reassert the authority of the shadowy Executive Committee. Before he had expatriated himself, he had intended to bid farewell to revolution. Degayev's confession had made him change his mind. Since the Party at home was completely under the thumb of the police, he had decided that it was incumbent on him to try and create abroad a nucleus of the tried and true, around which a resurrected Narodnaya volya might eventually grow. Accordingly, he joined Lavrov in Paris, and together they launched a new journal. At first it was planned as a forum for the various shades of revolutionary thought. But when the new review made its bow, in September, 1883, it bore the title, Vestnik Narodnoi Voli (Messenger of the People's Will), and the sub-title: Organ abroad of Russian Socialism as it expresses itself in the People's Will. Of the two editors, Lavrov was not a member, but, as it were, an ally of the Party, while Tikhomirov was already in the grip of that crisis which eventually led to his withdrawal from the revolutionary camp. The Vestnik was a heavy-handed, academic affair, and its bulky issues, appearing at long intervals, made little impression on the public to which it addressed itself.

In February, 1884, delegates of the several groups that were still active met in Paris. The opposition was not represented and the authority of Tikhomirov and Maria Oshanina was not challenged. They appointed a three-man Commission, which was instructed to proceed to Russia and try to revive the Party without changing a jot or tittle in its programme or organization.

The trio included Hermann Lopatin, who has already been mentioned. A man of about forty, he had been on the fringe of the movement since his student days, but, unable to submit to party discipline, he avoided formal affiliation with any group. During his stay in London he became friendly with Marx and Engels. A knight errant of the revolution, he had been repeatedly arrested, and on several occasions managed to break jail. He had helped Lavrov escape abroad and had unsuccessfully attempted to free Chernyshevsky from his Siberian bondage. The People's Will acquired in him an adherent of unusual resourcefulness and irrepressible spirit, with a dash of amateurishness and frivolity in his make-up.

He reached Petersburg in March and was soon joined by his two associates. They found the opposition in a truculent mood and firmly entrenched both in the capital and in the provinces. The Young People's Will denied the authority of the expatriates and treated their emissaries as imposters. Lopatin took a conciliatory attitude toward the dissidents. He humoured them, he argued with them, he tried to show them that a breach was both harmful and unnecessary. The pourparlers were conducted in an atmosphere of mutual irritation and downright hostility. Things were at such a pass that the arrest of a member of one faction was met by the other with a sigh of relief.

Nevertheless, by June an uneasy peace had been patched up. The schismatics gave up the idea of bringing out a journal of their own, destroyed most of the copies of their programme that had been run off on their own press, and returned to the fold, not without some mental reservations. The Petersburg Workers' Group, a mainstay of the opposition, chose to remain outside the Party. What seems to have put an end to the conflict was a succession of arrests. They were particularly numerous among the Young; the two agents planted by the police in that group earned their keep.

The feud over, the activists were now able to concentrate on rehabilitating the Party. The task was difficult. It was necessary to get rid of informers, to ascertain who had been betrayed to the police by Degayev, to deal with the deviations that had arisen during the absence of central control, to raise funds. In order to replenish the cashbox, attempts were made to rob the mails and during one of them a postman was killed. These exploits were not approved by the Commission of Three. Lopatin argued that the post was a public institution, the neutrality of which the Party should scrupulously respect.

He lacked neither energy nor initiative. He spent the summer touring provincial centres in an effort to renew contact with the old groups and establish new ones. His labours were not very fruitful. There was no want of proselytes, but much energy was wasted in petty quarrels. Nevertheless two printing presses were set up, and copy was assembled for an issue of Narodnaya volya, which had been in a state of suspended animation since February, 1882. The long-awaited number of the journal, dated September, 1884, appeared in the autumn. It contained the belated and rather lame statement on Degayev, which has already been mentioned -- in fact, two somewhat contradictory statements. It also presented a declaration by the Young People's Will, describing its position and explaining that it had merged with the Party because the two factions were separated by a divergence of theoretical views, which 'for the time being' was not likely to lead to such a disagreement on practical matters as would result in a split. In an effort to placate the Young and reaffirm his populist faith, Lopatin wrote that whether the masses were summoned to have their say 'from the height of the throne shaken by the blows of revolutionaries,' or by the Party, after it had seized political power 'for a moment,' the ultimate result would be the same: 'We firmly believe that on our soil the coming transformation cannot degenerate into a purely political constitution, but will surely bring with it all the agrarian and other economic and social reforms which are compatible with the present intellectual development of mankind.' He was thus restating the thesis Tikhomirov had advanced in the article mentioned earlier in the chapter, namely, that in Russia the overthrow of the monarchy was bound to usher in the socialist organization of the country's economy.

The feeling was that the Party should give more telling evidence of its existence than an issue of its journal and the execution of a spy, which occurred early in 1884. Lopatin was a believer in terrorism. What wouldn't he give, he said, for a couple of 'butchers' like the pair that had helped Degayev dispatch Sudeikin. He would have liked to direct a blow at the occupant of the throne, but compromised on a lesser target: Count Dmitry Tolstoy, the arch-reactionary Minister of the Interior. [The previous year the Count had told Prince Bernhard von Bülow that should the autocracy, which admittedly had its shortcomings, be overthrown, the result was sure to be not a parliamentary regime but 'naked Communism,' the doctrine that Karl Marx had preached.] Chance had saved the man from the poisoned dagger of one member of the Young People's Will and from the pistol of another. Now it was decided to use bombs on him. Several missiles, of a rather faulty construction, made at Lugansk, [Now Voroshilovgrad.] in the South, with dynamite stolen from a Government plant, were brought to the capital by Lopatin himself. In the midst of these preparations, on 6 October, he was arrested.

Lopatin had many qualities useful to a conspirator. Elementary caution was not one of them. When he was seized, he was carrying two bombs. Besides, he had in his pockets a dozen scraps of paper scribbled with passwords and keys to the codes used by the organization, as well as the names and addresses forming a miniature Who's Who of the movement. He had been certain that in an emergency he would manage to swallow these papers, but he was prevented from doing so by the detectives who apprehended him. As a result, there were arrests in thirty-two cities. They were all the more numerous since, as usual, more than one prisoner lost heart and turned informer. Not only activists, but also fellow travellers were hit. The fruits of the organizational work of the previous months were destroyed. Aside from a group of expatriates, all that remained of the People's Will was a handful of individual adherents here and there and, in the larger centres, some scattered cells isolated from each other.


And still the ghost of the People's Will refused to be laid. One more attempt was made to resuscitate the Party. The moving spirit behind this effort was a youth with a fiery temperament who was a born organiser. In 1882, at the age of eighteen, Boris Orzhikh entered the university in his native Odessa and immediately plunged into extra-curricular activities. They assumed such a character that in the summer of 1884 he became an 'illegal.' Then came Lopatin's arrest and debacle.

As Orzhikh watched the collapse of the Party, he had moments of despair, but he did not succumb to it. The destruction was not as complete as had appeared at first. In the southern provinces the secret service was incredibly amateurish, and in such centres as Kiev, Kharkov, Odessa, entire cells remained intact. Here and there a bundle of underground literature had been saved, or the implements for forging passports. Moreover, among the ruins new life was stirring: there were converts, awkward, inexperienced, yet full of ardour for the cause. With the help of a few fellow students and factory hands, he set to work.

His immediate aim was to revive the local groups in the South. He visited several cities and was somewhat encouraged by what he found. His ambitions soared when he discovered a dozen bombs available for use. They had been made with dynamite stolen from the same plant that had supplied the explosive for the missiles found on Lopatin. Having learned that Count Tolstoy, Minister of the Interior, was going to the Crimea for a rest, Orzhikh decided to attack him at a southern railway station. This was in the spring of 1885. With several bombs in his luggage he went to Kharkov, more than once during his trip barely escaping catastrophe. But when he reached Kharkov he heard that the Count was being taken South in a state of acute mental derangement. Orzhikh decided to let well enough alone.

Frustrated but undismayed, he busied himself with other matters, such as the resumption of secret printing. A small press was set up in Kharkov, but the police, tipped off by an informer, promptly seized it. The printer resisted arrest, killing an officer, and was hanged. Two other presses were set up in out-of-the-way towns and Orzhikh began to get together copy for a new issue of the organ of the non-existent Party. He had the help of two young students, Lev Sternberg and Natan Bogoraz. Both, eventually exiled to farthest Siberia, were to become noted ethnographers. Like the Young People's Will before them, Orzhikh and his comrades did not feel that they were accountable to the expatriates and did not apprize Tikhomirov of the plan. The text of the projected number of Narodnaya volya was approved at a meeting of half a dozen representatives of the more active cells. The 'conference,' as the gathering was grandiloquently styled, elected a committee which was to co-ordinate the activities of local groups throughout the South. A definite step was thus taken toward restoring the Party.

The printing of the issue was not completed until December. The leading article repeated the old slogan: delenda est Carthago: the autocracy must be crushed and replaced by a democratic regime. The prevalent black reaction was dismissed as the last desperate effort of a doomed despotism. True, the downfall of the monarchy would not mean a political and social revolution in one -- 'life had smashed that hope.' But neither would it be a mere scene-shifting, the dawn of a bourgeois era, a new way of exploiting the people 'under cover of an illusory freedom.' Great changes would follow, above all the long-awaited redistribution of land. And let 'our Olympians dwelling in the beautiful faraways -- a thrust at expatriates who had embraced Marxism -- be reassured: the fears of these doctrinaires that the agrarian reform would delay the advent of Socialism were without foundation. In the West every summons to social revolution had fallen on deaf ears, because the farmers there had been bred to the belief in private property. Not so in Russia, where the peasants 'to a man' held that the land belongs to him who works it.

The issue of the journal -- it was to be the last -- made a great stir. It was incontrovertible proof that the Party had not been wiped out. The group was now able to enlarge the scope of its activities. His luggage weighed down with copies of Narodnaya volya, Orzhikh visited the central and northern provinces, travelling as far as Dorpat (now Tartu). His ambition was to revive the local circles there and set up regional boards, like the one that existed in the South. To a limited extent he was successful. He was instrumental in establishing the nucleus of an organization in Moscow, though not in Petersburg, where only one group, a workmen's circle, was functioning.

The year 1886 opened calamitously. A Southern activist, arrested, turned State's evidence. One of the secret presses was discovered, and the other had to be abandoned. Arrests multiplied. In February Orzhikh himself was seized. Another informer turned up in Moscow, with disastrous results for the group there. Shortly before his arrest, which occurred in December, Bogoraz succeeded in printing the last issue of the Party Bulletin.

Late that year the Geneva organ of the People's Will also folded up. Tikhomirov, its co-editor, had long since lost his faith in revolution, but continued to advocate it by inertia, as it were, and without betraying his change of heart. Consequently, when two years later he publicly performed a complete volte-face by writing a pamphlet, Why I Have Ceased to Be a Revolutionary, his defection came like a bolt from the blue. In September, 1888, he addressed an abject petition to the Emperor, protesting his sincere repentance and begging permission to repatriate himself, so that he could atone for his past by conduct befitting a faithful communicant and loyal subject. His wish granted, he returned to Russia. Eventually the pillar of the legendary Executive Committee, the spokesman of the band of terrorists who had assassinated Alexander II, became an influential reactionary journalist. The last Czar presented him with a golden inkpot in recognition of his service to the Throne.


While the police were mopping up the last vestiges of the organization set up by Orzhikh and his comrades, a new group of militants was forming in the northern capital. They called themselves the Terrorist Section of the People's Will, though they were fully aware that the Party was no more. Nor did they seek to establish contact with any of the remnants of the society to which they nominally belonged, such as the local workmen's circle that had once been part of the Young People's Will. They proposed to act entirely on their own.

At the University of Petersburg there was a secret committee of representatives of a dozen fraternities (zemlyachestva), each made up of men hailing from the same province. In defiance of a police order this committee held a demonstration on the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the emancipation of the serfs. Late in the year an attempt was made to mark similarly another anniversary: that of Dobrolubov's death. But when the marchers, wishing to lay a wreath on the grave, reached the cemetery, they found that the police had locked the gate. The procession was surrounded by Cossacks and the names of some of the students were taken down. Feeling ran high on the campus. A leaflet was brought out, which ended by declaring that 'we' would oppose force rooted in spiritual solidarity to brute force used by the Government.

Pygtr Shevyryov, who was chiefly responsible for the leaflet, seems to have initiated the Terrorist Section. The core of it was a handful of students, mere tyros, ignorant of conspiratorial methods, unused to the atmosphere of the underground. Shevyryov himself was a consumptive youth, fanatical and rather unscrupulous, who was not above mystifying and deceiving his comrades in a manner reminiscent of Nechayev. He entertained an ambitious plan to set up a vast revolutionary organization embracing both intellectuals and manual workers.

A leading part was played by Alexander Ulyanov, a reserved, serious young man who majored in zoology. Like several of his comrades, he was a dedicated soul who calmly accepted the prospect of self-immolation in the service of the cause. The most articulate member of the group, it was he who drew up its credo. This deviates from narodnik orthodoxy in holding the working class to be the mainstay of the Party and the chief object of its activities, yet affirms the populist dogma that Russia may achieve Socialism without going through the capitalist phase. Fighting for free institutions, hand in hand with the liberals, is proclaimed the immediate task of the Party, and as long as it lacks mass support, political assassination is declared virtually the sole weapon in its arsenal.

Of course, terror meant regicide. This was an obsession with Shevyryov. Another member transferred from the University of Kazan to that of Petersburg for the express purpose of killing the Emperor. All agreed that the deed had the strongest moral justification. By January, 1887, a plot against the life of Alexander III was well under way. He was to be attacked by bombs, as his father had been. To render them lethal, hollowed-out leaden pellets filled with strychnine were crammed into the space between the inner metal container holding dynamite and the outer cardboard case. Expenses were defrayed with money from the pockets of the conspirators. Ulyanov, who had a hand in the manufacturing of the dynamite, pawned the gold medal he had been awarded by the university for a paper on the organs of fresh-water Annelida. Late in February three missiles were ready.

The plan was to toss a bomb under the Emperor's carriage while he was being driven along Nevsky Prospect. As rumour had it that he was about to depart from the capital, haste was essential. Ulyanov learned by heart a proclamation announcing the monarch's assassination by the (non-existent) Party and made arrangements to have it run off on the group's small press, if the attempt succeeded. Three men, who for days had been studying the Czar's movements, were to give the signal for the attack. Three others made up the bombing squad. They paced the avenue with the bombs held in readiness on 26 February, but the Czar did not emerge from the palace that day. Nor were the plotters luckier on 28 February. When on the afternoon of 1 March -- a memorable date -- bombers and signallers appeared on the avenue for the third time, all of them were arrested. It happened that the previous month a member of the bombing squad had broadly hinted at the impending attack in a letter to a friend. The police had intercepted the missive and identified the author. As a result, detectives grew suspicious when, on 28 February, they noticed that he loitered on the avenue all afternoon, apparently carrying a heavy object under his overcoat and keeping in touch with several other young men. When the same strollers had reappeared the following day, the plain-clothes men seized all of them. 'The second March the first,' as the affair is sometimes designated, had come to nothing.

The prisoners at once pleaded guilty of attempted regicide, and two of them became very communicative, so that other arrests followed. Before they occurred it had been hoped that a second terrorist band, headed by a workman, would repeat the attempt. A small quantity of dynamite was available for the purpose. But as arrests multiplied, all such plans were abandoned. By the end of the month the Terrorist Section had ceased to exist.

Behind closed doors twelve men and three women faced a tribunal consisting of a special panel of senators. Most of the defendants concealed nothing from their judges. Shevyryov was one of the few who tried to minimize their guilt. Ulyanov took upon himself the blame for organizing the group. In his final statement he defended terror as the only weapon at the disposal of a small minority which, in defying a powerful police state, had nothing to lean upon but spiritual strength and the consciousness that it was fighting for justice. 'Among the Russian people,' he concluded, echoing Karakozov's words, 'there will always be found a dozen men and women who are so devoted to their ideas and feel so keenly their country's plight that they will not consider it a sacrifice to lay down their lives for the cause.'

The accused were condemned to death, but capital punishment was commuted to penal servitude or imprisonment for all except five men. The death sentence would probably have been commuted for these too, had they agreed to petition the Emperor for mercy. In refusing his mother's entreaty that he do so, Ulyanov told her that a duelist, having fired his shot, could not very well beg bis adversary not to use his weapon.

Three defendants were given only ten years of hard labour in Siberia in consideration of the fact that they were minors, that they sincerely repented their misdeeds and that 'from the first they had helped the authorities to uncover the crime,' as the final verdict put it. (One of the men eventually committed suicide out of remorse, it is said, for having betrayed his comrades.) For the same reasons Bronislaw Pilsudski, who had supplied the poison for the bombs, received fifteen-year term of hard labour, while his brother, Josef, who was only slightly involved in the affair, was exiled to Siberia for five years by administrative order. He lived to be the head of resurrected Poland and, as commander-in-chief of the Polish troops, he saved his country from Soviet conquest in 1920.

On 8 May the five who had been condemned to death were hanged. One of them managed to shout from the scaffold, 'Long'live the People's Will!' Among the executed was Alexander Ulyanov. His family lived in Simbirsk (now Ulyanovsk), where his father, until his death the previous year, had held the post of superintendent of elementary schools in the province. Alexander's younger brother, Vladimir, learned the news of the execution from a newspaper. It is reported that the seventeen-year-old boy whom the world was eventually to know under the assumed name of Lenin, flung the sheet aside and exclaimed: 'I swear I will revenge myself on them!'