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

Chapter 8

Force and Fraud

The meetings in Tkachev's lodging had been attended by a friend of the host, Sergey Nechayev, a non-matriculated student. The youth kept in the background and spoke little, but always to the point. His tone was ironic and cutting. He advocated action: open protest, street demonstrations, resistance to force. And he had no patience with democratic procedure.

As has been seen, in January 1869 the police stepped into the picture. They obtained a relatively large number of names of the bolder youths. It happened in this wise. After the Christmas vacation an attempt had been made, at Nechayev's suggestion, to collect the signatures of students who were ready to back a written demand on the authorities, a daring step indeed. The enterprise came to nothing, but the paper with ninety-seven signatures, which had been in Nechayev's hands, found its way into the files of the secret service. It has been conjectured that it was Nechayev himself who turned the list over to the authorities in order to compromise the signers, thus swelling the ranks of potential soldiers of the revolution.

He seems to have been summoned by the police for questioning or even detained for a short while. Be that as it may, he decided to withdraw from the scene. He made his exit in a characteristic manner.

At the end of January he vanished from the capital. Shortly afterwards a girl of his acquaintance, Vera Zasulich, received a communication from a stranger to the effect that just after a police coach carrying a prisoner had passed him by, he had found on the pavement a note, which he enclosed. The note, in Nechayev's hand, informed his friends that he had been arrested and was being taken to prison. The inquiries made by his sister were futile: the police knew of no such person under arrest. Then the rumour spread that he had escaped from the Fortress of Peter and Paul -- an unprecedented feat. During the weeks that followed it was whispered that he had been seen in Odessa, Kiev, Moscow, that he had been arrested again and broken jail a second time.

These arrests and escapes he had fabricated out of whole cloth in a deliberate effort to build himself up as a hero and a martyr in the eyes of his comrades. He impressed them all the more easily because of his background. He belonged neither to the gentry nor the middle class, but wore the halo of a child of the people. A native of the town of Ivanovo, the Russian Manchester, he was the son of a seamstress and a sign painter. In his teens Sergey worked as an office boy and also helped with sign painting. At the same time he was acquiring an education by dint of dogged tenacity and determination. Before he was twenty he became a grade teacher in a Petersburg parish school, where he taught religion, among other subjects. In the autumn of 1868 at the age of twenty-one he entered the university, a young man with the look of a peasant lad somewhat polished by city life. A voracious reader, he pored over many volumes, including the writings of the native radicals and -- 'the works of the latest American historians.' He is said to have known, at second hand, Buonarotti's description of Babeuf's 'conspiracy for equality,' the first attempt to set up a communist dictatorship. The book made a profound impression on the students who gathered in Nechayev's room.

Early in March Nechayev went abroad. This move, at least, was no invention. His destination, when he crossed the frontier, was Geneva. The most famous of the Russian expatriates, who had found a haven in that city, was no longer there. Herzen had left Switzerland soon after The Bell ceased publication. That fighting review did not long survive Sovremennik and Russkoe Slovo. With the issue of 1 July, 1867, which marked the paper's tenth anniversary, it was suspended. It failed to reappear. An effort to continue it as a French language publication was also unsuccessful, and so was the attempt to revive, after a lapse of six years, The Polar Star.

But when Nechayev arrived in Geneva, another emigre who was beginning to enjoy great prestige at home was living there: Bakunin. Before long the two met. The veteran rebel was fascinated by this 'young savage,' as he called Nechayev. Here was a man, he believed, through whom he could make his ideas felt at home. He saw in this 'tiger cub' a true representative of the new Russian youth, which he described about this time as the most revolutionary in the world, charming young fanatics, believers without a God and heroes without phrases, who knew neither doubts nor fears. Once more Bakunin found himself up to his neck in Russian events.

In a speech at the second congress of the League of Peace and Freedom, which had taken place the previous autumn at Berne and given him his first opportunity to proclaim his anarchist views in public, Bakunin declared that the people had lost their faith in the Czar, and that there was an army of forty or fifty thousand revolutionaries in Russia ready to turn against the State. He rather fancied the idea of assuming the generalship of this army. Shortly after this meeting with Nechayev he wrote: 'Two years will pass, one year, perhaps several months . . . and we shall have a revolution [in Russia] that will undoubtedly surpass all the revolutions seen hitherto.' It will be a social revolution 'such as the imagination of the West, which has been moderated by civilization, scarcely dares to picture.' Nechayev must have considerably strengthened Bakunin's belief in the imminence of this event. The young man spoke of himself as a representative of a powerful revolutionary body at home, with connexions in the army and ramifications everywhere, though he could produce nothing more tangible to support his claims than the Programme of Revolutionary Action mentioned above.

Bakunin repaid him in the same coin. He was at this time at the head of two organizations: the International Brotherhood, noted earlier, and the less exclusive but equally secret International Alliance, which had infiltrated the International Workingmen's Association for the purpose of combating 'the authoritarian communists' led by Marx. Yet he did not initiate his new friend into either of these bodies, which had a precarious yet real enough existence. Instead, he enrolled him in a society which was wholly the figment of his imagination. Under date of 12 May, 1869, he issued to Nechayev the following credentials: 'The bearer is one of the trusted representatives of the Russian Section of the World Revolutionary Alliance. (No. 2771. (Signed) Michael Bakunin.' In the seal the parent organization is named, more modestly, Alliance Revolutionnaire Europeenne.

Whether or not Nechayev believed in the reality of this organization, he used the document to further his own ends. Bakunin took one more step to add to the young man's prestige. Ogarev had written a poem in memory of a dead friend of his childhood, in which that student is pictured as a fighter for the people, a martyr who perished in a 'snow-bound Siberian prison.' Bakunin persuaded the poet to dedicate the piece to 'his young friend Nechayev.' With this dedication the poem was printed and circulated in Russia (a stanza from it is reproduced in Dostoevsky's novel, The Possessed).

Each sought to use the other as his tool, and to achieve his ends neither scrupled to resort to fraud. A mere boy, a nobody, Nechayev nevertheless dominated his curious partnership with the celebrated firebrand. The slight young man exercised a strange ascendancy over the shaggy giant. There is a reliable story that Bakunin gave Nechayev a written pledge to the effect that he would obey him in all things as the representative of the Russian Revolutionary Committee (an alias of the Russian Section of the World Revolutionary Alliance), and that in token of his complete submission he signed himself: Matryona (a woman's name).

While Herzen would have nothing to do with the two plotters, they found an ally in Ogarev. No attempt was made, however, to recruit the other expatriates. Nechayev's eyes were on Russia, and his efforts were directed toward producing literature for home consumption. Even before he formed an alliance with Bakunin he had issued an appeal to Petersburg students. Signed 'Your Nechayev,' it was in the nature of a personal message, opening with a reference to the author's lucky escape from 'the frozen walls' of the Fortress of Peter and Paul. He urged the comrades he had left behind to intensify their fight, to offer armed resistance, if need be, remembering that they had allies in the toilers and that there was no struggle without sacrifice. They must invite to their meetings representatives of all the discontented elements, except, of course, the liberals. They must think in terms not of the problem of youth but of the larger problem of Russia, for all questions come down to one: the necessity for renewing Russian life through a revolution.

About ten other leaflets were run off a Geneva press. One of them, which called for the annihilation of the entire social order, ended with a paean to the highwayman, 'the sole real revolutionary in Russia.' An appeal to the peasants, in verse, invited them to get ready stout nooses for the thin necks of the gentry, and urged them to burn the cities and plough up their sites. 'We must devote ourselves wholly to destruction, constant, ceaseless, relentless, until there is nothing left of existing institutions.' Thus runs a passage in the pamphlet entitled The Principles of Revolution. This sanctions every weapon in the revolutionary struggle: 'poison, the knife, the noose, and the like.' The emigres are bidden in accents of authority to return to Russia and join the ranks of the activists. An exception is made for those who had established themselves as workers for the European revolution. The reference is obviously to Bakunin.

Furthermore, a little review, Narodnaya rasprava (The People's Vengeance) was started in the name of the Russian Revolutionary Committee. The first issue anathematized science and civilization as instruments for exploiting the masses, and declared: 'We prize thought only in so far as it can serve the great cause of radical and ubiquitous destruction.' It listed the several groups of public enemies who never would be missed. Venal journalists should be silenced in one way or another, perhaps by cutting out their tongues. The Czar himself was to be spared 'for a painful and solemn execution before the eyes of the liberated masses.' Nevertheless, Karakozov's act was applauded as 'the beginning of our sacred cause,' a prologue to the great drama.


Much of the propaganda literature produced in Geneva found its way into Russia through the mails. Between the end of March and the beginning of August, 1869, 560 packages of leaflets addressed to 387 persons were seized at the Petersburg post office alone. Nechayev's purpose seems to have been to compromise the addressees rather than to convert them. It is not clear how these activities were financed. Not before July did the promoters of the Russian Revolutionary Committee come in for a windfall in the form of four hundred pounds. This sum represented half of the Bakhmetev fund. Herzen had turned the money over to Bakunin and Ogarev, yielding to the latter's importunities.

He did this with great reluctance and against his better judgment. Nechayev's personality was repugnant to him, and the leaflets brought out in the name of the Russian Revolutionary Committee horrified him. He could derive some comfort from the fact that not all the emigres were haunted by adolescent dreams of conspiracies and bloody upheavals. A group of them had taken over The People's Cause, the journal launched under Bakunin's aegis, and used its pages to excoriate the Russian Revolutionary Committee and all its works. An implicit critique of the Committee's programme is to be found in a series of essays Herzen wrote during the year 1869 in the form of open letters addressed to 'An Old Comrade,' that is, to Bakunin.

In these pages Herzen unequivocally repudiated the revolutionary way of achieving a socialist economy. He did not shrink from calling himself a gradualist, and indeed maintained that the old order held things that were fine and beautiful. Not only human beings should be pitied, he wrote, but also objects, products of men's toil, which were bound to perish in the cataclysm. What was this outcry against books and learning, this clamour for universal destruction, but demagogy of the most ferocious and dangerous kind? It could only unleash the low passions. The strength of fighters for freedom had always lain in their being pure of heart. As for the State, eventually it must pass away, but to abolish it before the people were ripe for a stateless existence was to invite disaster. Lassalle had been right in asking: why destroy a mill which could grind our flour? Not until the foundations of bourgeois society had been undermined from within, Herzen argued, would violence avail against it. Certainly, force could not break the nexus between private property and liberty which existed in the mind of the European. There must be no more civilizing by the knout and liberating by the guillotine. The workers' league, the future 'free parliament of the fourth estate' -- an allusion to the International -- this was the first step toward the coming economic order. The need of the age, he insisted, was not soldiers and sappers, but apostles. The eyes of the enemies must not be put out, but opened, so that they might see and be saved. While his addressee was rushing on, moved by the mistaken belief that the passion for destruction was a creative passion and deferring to the future alone, he, Herzen, was seeking to gauge the people's normal speed so as to keep in step with them.

These letters, which were not published during Herzen's lifetime, were in a sense his last will and testament. He must have known that his message of pity and patience, his appeal to reason and tolerance were likely to fall on deaf ears. The future belonged to the expedient of force. A man of a truly seminal mind, he combined an empirical habit of thought with a passionate, mercurial temperament, and consistency was not his hobgoblin. At heart he was a romantic, drawn to what is spontaneous, generous, grand. Ambivalence marked some of his attitudes and opinions. He did indulge in the rhetoric of revolutionary violence, but certainly in his later years his sympathies were not with Babeuf, the surgeon, but with Robert Owen, the accoucheur.

On one occasion he observed that Russia, unlike the West, would have Socialism before it had liberty. This must be accounted a temporary aberration. A libertarian by instinct, he appreciated that freedom is antecedent to and prerequisite for the blessings promised by the new order. 'A Socialism that would want to do without political liberty and equality before the law,' he wrote toward the end of his life, 'would quickly degenerate into authoritarian Communism.' His Socialism was a strategy for assuring the welfare of the individual here and now, and his concern was perhaps more with man's moral than with his physical well-being. 'The subjection of the person to society, nation, mankind, idea,' he wrote, 'is a continuation of human sacrifice.' While he abominated a government over which the governed have no control, he also perceived the dangers of popular sovereignty. It was part of his credo that the Slavs had an instinctive aversion from the centralized State. He wanted to restrict its authority and he looked forward to its disappearance. Since he rejected State control of national economy as 'industrial despotism,' the question of how to preserve personal freedom under collectivism did not present itself to him in all its acuteness. Yet on occasion he did speak of it as the excruciating problem of the age. Further, he had an inkling that the socialist order was not immune to the curse of the vulgarity that he so loathed in the bourgeois world, and to the danger of tyranny, including the doctrinaire variety, which he hated heart and soul. It was fitting that his concluding word should have been an affirmation of that humaneness which, he had said early in his career, was his banner.

The final 'Letter to an Old Comrade' was penned in the autumn of the year. That winter his eldest daughter, Natalie, the only one of his children with whom he felt a spiritual kinship, was struck down by a mental illness, which he mistakenly believed incurable. In January 1870 he died, a lonely and broken man. Ogarev, inactive and indeed extremely decrepit, survived him by seven years.

Soviet scholarship has been at pains to stress Herzen's aspersions of political democracy, his detestation of the bourgeosie, his adherence to philosophical materialism, yet on the whole its attitude toward him has been lukewarm. Lenin had it that there wasn't 'a grain of Socialism' in Herzen's 'Russian Socialism,' but allowed that the man 'has played a great role in the preparation of the Russian revolution.' It was a very different revolution from the one captained by Lenin that Herzen had hoped he was helping to prepare.


To return to Nechayev, early in September, 1869, he was back in Russia. He was out to destroy the Empire and found a new social order on its ruins almost single-handed, with no ammunition save a few leaflets in his luggage. To those who had heard of him at all he had now become a semi-legendary figure. And he carried credentials from Bakunin himself. He also brought from Geneva a super-secret opuscule printed in cipher, apparently a product of Bakunin's pen. It was in the nature of a preamble to the statutes of a most exacting underground society. The document is called, inappropriately, since it is not in the form of questions and answers, The Catechism of the Revolutionary. Its twenty-six paragraphs, divided into four sections, echo some of the ideas that were current in the Ishutin group. The first paragraph opens thus: 'The revolutionary is a doomed man. He has no interests, no affairs, no feelings, no attachments of his own, no property, not even a name. Everything in him is wholly absorbed by one sole, exclusive interest, one thought, one passion: revolution. He must train himself to stand torture and to be ready to die every day. The laws, the conventions, the moral code of civilized society, have no meaning for him. He lives in it the sooner and the more surely to destroy this vile order. To him, whatever promotes the triumph of the revolution is moral, whatever hinders it is immoral, criminal.' The sentiments of gratitude, friendship, love, honour itself must be sacrificed to 'the cold passion for the revolutionary cause.' It is a passion that must go hand in hand with callous calculation. When the question arises as to whether the life of a comrade should be saved, considerations of economy alone must prevail.

The Catechism divides 'all this foul society,' i.e., the upper and middle classes, into several categories. One, consisting of influential and intelligent notables, is sentenced to immediate systematic extermination. The lives of the members of another category are to be temporarily spared, so that their bestial conduct may drive the people to rebellion. A third -- highly-stationed, wealthy, stupid creatures -- are to be exploited by blackmail and other means. The ranks of the liberals are to be infiltrated with a view to compromising them and using them ruthlessly. Radical phraseurs should be constantly urged on and placed in situations which will ruin most of them and turn a few into revolutionaries. Women are singled out for special attention. Those who have wholeheartedly accepted 'our programme' are 'our most precious treasure.'

The organization, the Catechism declares, has no other objective than the liberation and happiness of the people, that is, the common labourers. And since this cannot be achieved save through a crushing popular revolt, it pledges itself to spread by every means the miseries and evils that are bound to put an end to the people's patience and bring about a general uprising. This upheaval, unlike the revolutions in the West, will completely wipe out the political and social order. What will take its place? The answer is left to the future. 'Our business is passionate, complete, ubiquitous, ruthless destruction.' To this end an alliance with the highwaymen, the sole true revolutionaries in Russia, is essential. 'It is our task,' the Catechism concludes, 'to consolidate the brigands, who for centuries have been the only active opponents of the social order, into an invincible, all-destructive force.'

Nechayev was the first Russian professional revolutionary, a man who gave to the cause not a spare evening but the whole of his life. His task was cut out for him: to bring into being the Russian Revolutionary Committee, which had two aliases but existed only on paper. It was to be a hierarchical network of cells, all doing the will of an omnipotent centre shrouded in the strictest secrecy. The individual member was not permitted to know more than was necessary for him or her to execute the particular task assigned. As in the Programme of Revolutionary Action mentioned in the preceding chapter, the uprising was scheduled for the ninth anniversary of the Emancipation. The seal of the society, with an axe as its symbol, read: 'The Committee of the People's Vengeance, 19 February, 1870.'

Identifying the cause with his own person -- la revolution c'est moi -- Nechayev used others as his working capital. He could twist everyone round his finger. His ascetic habits -- he lived on bread and milk, and slept on bare boards, at least while staying at the homes of his followers -- could not but make an impression. Those he did not fascinate he ruled by fear. His energy was unlimited, his vigilance unremitting, and he acted with lightning-like rapidity. Theorizing was not to his taste, and he was suspicious of it. He demanded complete and unquestioning obedience from his comrades. He arrogated to himself the right to destroy those who did not see eye to eye with him. He would not spare even those for whom he would lay down his life. 'To love the masses,' he told a comrade, 'is to expose them to grape-shot.'

Nechayev could make but little headway in Petersburg. In Moscow he was more successful. Here he chose the Agricultural Academy as his main field of activity. The discipline there was lax, and the students enjoyed extraordinary liberties. He persuaded the members of a clandestine study circle that existed in the college to join the revolutionary organization he said he represented. A founders' cell was set up, and the members, in their turn, formed subsidiary units. In all, perhaps as many as eighty men and women were enrolled.

A skilful and resourceful proselytizer, he appealed to the idealism of some and to the cowardice of others. He had an impressive way of telling prospective members that the time had come to stop idle talk and put their shoulders to a man-sized task. Everyone must begin in the ranks, he insisted, must learn to take orders. He set the members spying on each other, and before long they felt that they were under the eye of a severe, if invisible, authority. He would suddenly appear at meetings with sealed orders from the Central Committee. To no one would he reveal the composition of this committee, of which he was in fact the sole member. Indeed, he said very little about the objectives and the tactics of the society, and showed the Catechism to the fewest. He insinuated, however, that the converts were allying themselves with a powerful international organization.

Nechayev deceived his fellow conspirators at home and he intended to go on deceiving his partners abroad. He assumed various parts and had his fellow conspirators also change their roles. He paraded one youth before the uninitiated now as a member of the mysterious Central Committee, now as a rank-and-file activist with a message from forty thousand Tula gunsmiths, whom no power on earth could keep from rising. He told the Muscovites that there was a strong organization in Petersburg, and to the few Petersburg members he spoke of the mighty Moscow body. At least one member of a cell adopted this method of deception on his own part and gained a considerable reputation with his comrades by submitting fraudulent reports of his activities. In order to fill the cash-box, money was collected ostensibly for the relief of expelled students. At the height of its career the society is said to have had no more than three hundred roubles on hand. In October a large cheque was obtained from a sympathizer by blackmail, but it was never cashed.

The General Rules of the Organization, a document which, unlike the Catechism, was passed around in manuscript rather freely, called for establishing relations with 'the so-called criminal section of the society.' One of the first converts was an unemployed middle-aged government clerk who drank heavily. This Pryzhov was also a gifted and passionate student of Russian history and folkways, with several studies, including a monograph on pot-houses, to his credit. He was assigned the task of propagandizing the porters, drivers, bakers, and letter-carriers. As he was a familiar figure in the slums and low haunts of Moscow and its suburbs, it was through him that Nechayev tried to get a foothold in the underworld. Pryzhov put a fellow conspirator in touch with some prostitutes and thugs, but the man hastily withdrew when he was warned by a woman to whom he had given a meal that his prospective proselytes were planning to rob him. Some preparations seem to have been made to carry propaganda into the provinces.

The members of the cell were known by number. No. 2 of the founders' cell was a certain Ivanov, a student in the Agricultural Academy. A strong-minded youth, who wielded a considerable influence in his circle, he allowed himself to contradict Nechayev, disobey his orders and question his authority. He had an infuriating way of teasing the man, and he went to the length of expressing doubts as to the existence of the august Central Committee. He seems to have guessed the truth about its composition. It appears that he even spoke of seceding from the organization and forming another based on more democratic principles.

Ivanov's revolt, Nechayev felt, was a grave threat to his own authority and so to the cause. Perhaps he believed that the youth was capable of betraying them all to the police. He was about to leave for Petersburg, but postponed his departure and set about persuading Ivanov's comrades that it was necessary to kill him. Possibly he wished to test them and to seal with blood the bond that united them.

His task not was a difficult one. He was dealing with people who, once they accepted a principle, adhered to its consequences no matter how painful these were, or how much at variance with their instincts. It had previously been decided that the organization had the moral right to take the life of any of its members. Moreover, these men were in an exalted state of mind, ready to immolate themselves and so, of course, their comrades. On 21 November, 1869, Nechayev, aided by three members of Ivanov's cell, brutally murdered the youth in a grotto situated in a park on the Academy's grounds and threw the body into a hole in the ice of a nearby pond.

For years the cry to kill the people's enemies had repeatedly been raised by the handful of would-be liberators. The only victim turned out to be one of their own small number who had aroused the leader's hostility.

Some hours after the assassination Nechayev was showing several people the revolver from which he had fired a bullet into Ivanov's brain when the body was already lifeless. It went off, almost killing Pryzhov, one of those who had to be dragooned into participating in the murder. Nechayev blithely remarked that if Pryzhov had been killed, they could have pinned the murder on him. The incident is related in the man's reminiscences with the implication that the shot may not have been accidental. The suspicion was shared by another participant in the murder. Shortly thereafter Nechayev left for Petersburg, apparently to plan for the assassination of the Czar. He believed that forty or fifty resolute men could break into the Winter Palace and exterminate the Emperor and all his kin.

The discovery of Ivanov's body a few days after the murder, and a search accidentally made about the same time in the flat of one of the murderers, led to the arrest of hundreds of people. The organization was crushed. Needless to say, the spring of 1870 was uneventful. The precautionary measures taken by the authorities were unnecessary. There was not a sign of the heralded revolt.


The chief culprit was not among the prisoners. As soon as the arrests started, Nechayev escaped abroad. Preceded by contradictory rumours, he turned up at Geneva in January, 1870. There had been no correspondence between him and Bakunin during his stay in Russia, but Ogarev wrote to him at least once. In this letter 'from grandfather to grandson' the expatriate asserted that the eastern section of the country was ripe for rebellion and that the best strategy would be to have two columns march on Moscow: one, from the Urals, containing a Bashkir contingent, the other, with Kirghiz insurgents, from the Don. Siberia and the Caucasus, he was certain, would always prove faithful allies. And he warned his 'grandson' to be sure to tear up rails in order to interfere with the movement of loyalist troops, and meanwhile to organize the rear, setting up communes and introducing exchange tokens so as to break up the power of money. The years had not subtracted from Ogarev's revolutionary zeal or added to his meagre stock of common sense.

When Bakunin heard of the young man's arrival, he jumped with joy so violently that, as he wrote to Ogarev, 'he nearly broke the ceiling with his aged head.' He was then living at Locarno, and Nechayev went to see him there. The visitor behaved with the self-assurance of the leader of a powerful organization and treated his old master rather cavalierly. Yet the relations between the two remained close. Bakunin did not leave a stone unturned to assure his friend's safety: the Russian authorities having demanded Nechayev's extradition, the Swiss police were after him. Now that Herzen was dead, Ogarev was the sole trustee for the Bakhmetev fund, and Bakunin had no difficulty in persuading him to hand over part, if not all, of the money to Nechayev, who received it in the name of the non-existent Central Committee. To a limited extent he was also helped by Natalie Herzen, who had recovered from her mental breakdown. Nechayev may have become interested in her because of the small fortune she had inherited. He contemplated augmenting his funds further by organizing a band of robbers to despoil tourists. It is said that he planned to enrol in this band the son of the English prostitute who was Ogarev's mistress.

In these early months of his second stay in Switzerland he was as active an ever. He issued appeals to burghers, merchants, women, the rural clergy, all in the name of the Committee and of another equally mythical body. In a proclamation addressed to 'Russian students' he told them that many of his comrades had fallen prey to 'bloody reaction,' though fate had again spared him. 'Apparently I am destined to outlive this vile Government,' he wrote, and he summoned them to action. There had been talk in the Ishutin circle of getting out a provocative leaflet purporting to come from an aristocratic source and suggesting the restoration of serfdom. Nechayev now issued a manifesto addressed 'To the Highborn Russian Nobility,' which listed the grievances of the gentry and urged it to overthrow the degenerate imperial power in knightly combat.

Nechayev also put out the second, and last, number of The People's Vengeance, dating it: Winter, 1870. It announced that in October of the previous year Nechayev had been strangled without a trial at the personal order of Mezentzev, head of the Third Division. He had been caught, the statement added, as a result of information lodged with the authorities by a Petersburg liberal. It is difficult to see what purpose was to be achieved by this clumsy stratagem, which directly contradicted Nechayev's appeal to the students. Least of all could it deceive the police.

The opening article, which brought the news of Nechayev's death, contained a veiled reference to the murder of Ivanov and a vague attempt to justify it by observing: 'the austere logic of the true workers for the cause cannot stop at any measure that leads to success.' The second article began by asserting that it was no longer possible for people to travel along the middle of the road. Well-meaning liberals must choose between joining our ranks or becoming police spies. The glorious time of popular self-liberation was approaching, and all honest people should share the sweet labour of preparing for the Great Day. But the workers for the cause were subject to harsh discipline. Anyone violating the rules or in any way deviating from them due to doubt of their wisdom and justice was to be expelled, and 'expulsion means elimination from the list of the living.' The last sentence was plainly another apology for Ivanov's assassination.

In contravention of the principle enunciated in the Catechism, the third, and last, contribution to the journal describes 'the main foundations of the future social order.' Karl Marx called it 'an excellent example of barracks Communism.' All the means of subsistence are in the hands of 'our Committee,' and under it are bureaus having charge of production, consumption, education. Physical labour is obligatory for all, including mothers, even if they choose to care for their children themselves, instead of entrusting them to communal nurseries. Everyone must join a workers' association, or lose the right of admission to a communal restaurant and communal dormitory. 'He, or she, has only one choice: work or die.' No contracts between persons or groups are recognized; the relations between the sexes are entirely free. Under these circumstances all ambition and pretence will vanish; everyone will seek to produce as much as possible for society and will himself consume as little as possible. For further details of a theoretical nature on the subject under discussion the reader is referred to the Communist Manifesto. The previous year the first Russian translation of it, made by Bakunin, was issued in Geneva from the printing establishment which had succeeded Herzen's Free Russian Press.

Nechayev's most ambitious literary enterprise, an attempt, with Ogarev's blessing, to revive the defunct Bell, is typical of his protean disguises. The six weekly issues which he succeeded in bringing out in April and May, 1870, preached a united front against the monarchy and affected a moderate tone completely at variance with the extremism of the other writings he had sponsored. He could even impersonate a liberal when he chose.

One looks in vain for Bakunin's influence in the revived Bell. Some of its pages breathe an authoritarian spirit which is incompatible with anarchism. His only contribution to the issues was a letter to the editor criticizing the policy of the paper. Obviously a rift had occurred between the two men. The disagreement was not entirely on ideological grounds. It appears that Nechayev either ignored or refused to meet the financial demands made on him by Bakunin. They were all the more legitimate since, in order to devote his time wholly to the cause, he had, at Nechayev's instance, given up his sole source of income, a translation of Marx's Capital, ordered by a Russian publisher. He had taken a sizable advance, but this little difficulty was disposed of by Nechayev, who wrote a threatening letter to the publisher demanding that he relinquish all claims on the translator. Bakunin may also have been influenced by an expose of Nechayev as a charlatan made by a former associate who had escaped from Russia. Finally, he may have been exasperated by Nechayev's unscrupulousness.

The relations between the two came to a violent end in July, just before Nechayev left for London. If Bakunin's words are to be credited, it was indeed he who forced Nechayev to leave Switzerland. But the young man must have had reasons of his own for getting out of Geneva: what with the attention of the police and the arrival from Russia of people who knew too much about him, the place was becoming uncomfortable. Before bidding it farewell, he stole a number of compromising papers belonging to Bakunin, Ogarev, Natalie Herzen, and others. They would come in handy if he wished to blackmail these erstwhile comrades. Confronted by his victims, Nechayev declared imperturbably: 'Yes, that is our system. We regard as enemies and are obliged to deceive and compromise all those who are not wholly with us.' He did not restore the papers.

Bakunin now turned violently against Nechayev. He dispatched warning letters to friends and associates to whom he had highly recommended the tiger cub. He characterized him as a dangerous fanatic, guided by the precept: 'For the body only violence; for the mind, lies,' and apt to ruin all who came in touch with him. Except for a few men at the top, all comrades were to him meat for conspiracies, whom it was permissible, nay compulsory, to compromise, deceive, rob, even murder. 'If you introduce him to a friend,' Bakunin wrote, 'he will immediately proceed to sow dissension, scandal, and intrigue between you and your friend and make you quarrel. If your friend has a wife or a daughter, he will try to seduce her, and get her with child, in order to snatch her from the power of conventional morality and plunge her despite herself into revolutionary protest against society.' Eventually the disclosures at the trial of the Nechayev group so outraged Bakunin that he advised one of the man's former comrades to make known his identifying marks, including the scars on his fingers where they had been bitten by Ivanov during the struggle preceding the murder.

Arrived in London, Nechayev started another review, Obshchina. The first, and only, issue carried a letter from him to Bakunin and Ogarev demanding that they deliver to him the remainder of the Bakhmetev fund which had remained in Ogarev's hands. The journal preached popular revolution, and incidentally dismissed Herzen's radicalism as a frail hothouse plant.

Before long Nechayev recrossed the Channel. He was in Paris during the siege, but not during the Commune, having returned to Switzerland in March, 1871. He tried to join a group of Russian followers of Bakunin in Zurich. He proposed to start a journal with the interest on the Bakhmetev fund, which, he claimed, the Herzen family still owed him. Should the money not be forthcoming, he would bring into play the compromising papers he had in his possession. The Zurich group could not stomach such methods. Besides, Bakunin resolutely opposed any collaboration with the man. Nechayev then allied himself with a tiny circle of Russian 'Jacobins' there. He eked out an existence by working as a sign painter.

Most of the emigres shunned him. At home his former comrades were bitter against him. One of them offered to act as a decoy to secure his arrest abroad; another undertook to assassinate him, promising to return to prison after the deed was accomplished. He was betrayed, however, by an outsider, a sign painter like himself, who was at once the secretary of a Polish revolutionary organization and an agent of the Russian police, Nechayev was arrested in August, 1872, and subsequently turned over to the Russian authorities.

He was tried as a common criminal. In protest he stubbornly refused to answer questions or testify. In certain radical circles it was rumoured that he was an agent provocateur. Indeed, a former comrade of his wrote a pamphlet to prove it. This remained unpublished, however, perhaps because the twenty years of hard labour to which Nechayev was sentenced invalidated the author's thesis.

When the trial was over, Nechayev sent a communication to the head of the secret service which, surprisingly enough, breathes a humane and liberal spirit. 'I am a child of the people,' he wrote. 'My first and foremost goal is the happiness, the welfare of the masses.' He did not hail the impending political overturn. 'Such cataclysms,' he observed, 'while they hit the upper classes, are a heavy burden on the common people.' Therefore he urged the authorities to put an end to administrative arbitrariness and brutality, for they sowed the seeds of future revolutionary terror and sharpened the blade that would descend on the government's neck. Alone the introduction of a representative regime could avert a catastrophe. 'I am going to Siberia,' he concluded, 'with the firm conviction that soon millions of voices will repeat the cry: "Long live the Zemsky Sobor!"'

Nechayev did not go to Siberia. According to regulations, he had to hear the verdict announced while he was tied to a pillory in a public square for ten minutes. On his way to the square he kept calling out: 'Down with the Czar! He drinks our blood!' When he stepped onto the scaffold, he cried out that on that very spot there would soon be erected the guillotine which would cut off the heads of those who had brought him there. Tied to the pillory, he shouted: 'Down with the Czar! Long live freedom! Long live the free Russian people!' As a result, the Emperor changed the court sentence to solitary incarceration for life in the Fortress of Peter and Paul.


Nechayev entered the fortress prison on 28 January, 1873. He was confined to the Alexis Ravelin, which had housed Decembrists and Petrashevists. At this time the entire population of the dreaded prison included one more inmate, who was demented. [This was Mikhail Beideman, who, on receiving his officer's commission, deserted, and for a while worked at Herzen's press in London. Arrested on his return to Russia in 1861, he told the police that his intention was to assassinate the Czar and arouse the peasants by means of a fake imperial manifesto. He was kept in the Ravelin for twenty years without a trial and died in an insane asylum.] The two were guarded by some sixty officers and men. So strict was the isolation in which Nechayev was kept that his identity was unknown even to his jailers, and in official correspondence he was referred to as 'a certain prisoner' or by the number of his cell. Nevertheless, his fare was tolerable, and he was supplied with Russian and French books of his choice, some of them specially purchased for him, and he was allowed to occupy himself with literary labours. He gave his keepers no trouble, except on one occasion when General Potapov, head of the Third Division, visited him and threatened to have him flogged as a common criminal. He slapped the General's face, apparently with impunity. [The General was known for his abhorrence of the printed word. The story goes that whenever he travelled in Germany he made a point of stopping in Mainz to stick out his tongue at the statue of Gutenberg.] In 1875 the authorities requested Nechayev to set forth his views, perhaps in the hope of discovering that he had undergone a change of heart. He composed a statement in which he elaborated the thesis that absolutism had seen its day and that only a liberal constitutional regime was likely to mitigate the violence of the impending revolution. He continued to believe in revolution as others believe in God.

On the third anniversary of his incarceration he petitioned the Emperor to have his case reviewed, since he was, he insisted, the victim of a miscarriage of justice. As a result, he lost the privilege of having writing materials, and all his manuscripts were taken away from him. He grew violent and was put in chains, remaining handcuffed for two years. He was able to keep his mental balance, perhaps because he continued to get the books he wanted.

His writings were destroyed and all that is known about them is what may be gathered from an official review of them. They included prison impressions, political essays, and sketches for two novels, one dealing with the Paris Commune, the other with Russian student circles. According to the reviewer, the fictional attempts revealed complete absence of moral sentiment and 'a kind of self-indulgence in the contemplation of the strength of the author's hatred of the wealthy.' Men belonging to the upper classes, even if they worked for the revolution, were depicted as villains, and upper class women as 'monsters of depravity.' The era of peaceful development would not begin, these writings suggested, until all those above the masses were destroyed.

Nechayev had been in prison half a dozen years when an important change occurred in his situation. Taking advantage of the incredibly lax discipline that prevailed in what passed for the Empire's most carefully guarded place of confinement, he succeeded in making friends with some of his keepers. He knew how to overawe these simple-minded peasants in uniform. He told them that he was suffering because he had stood up for the common people, he hinted that he was a very important personage and that the Heir was on his side. He harangued, cajoled, threatened, and managed to secure the men's sincere devotion. They called him admiringly their 'eagle' and, in defiance of strict regulations, engaged in talk with him. They kept him abreast of what was going on in the fortress, ran errands for him, and even supplied him with newspapers and writing materials. Astonishing as it is, underground literature circulated freely within the walls of the Ravelin. With the aid of the guards, this man, supposedly buried alive, was able to communicate with his fellow prisoners, of whom there were now two, and with the outside world.

One icy evening in January, 1881, a member of the People's Will, a revolutionary organization which for once was not an invention of Nechayev's, came to the secret quarters maintained by the society. Removing his snow-covered cap and coat, he dumbfounded the comrades present by placing on the table several slips of paper and saying: 'From Nechayev, out of the Ravelin.' In this coded letter the prisoner laid before the People's Will a scheme for setting him free and simultaneously seizing the fortress, as well as the Czar and all his kin. This was to be accomplished while they were attending services in the fortress cathedral. The organization was just then concentrating every ounce of its strength on a plan of its own for putting a violent end to the life of Alexander II, and refused to be diverted from it.

After the Emperor's death, some weeks later, Nechayev continued to communicate with the People's Will. He urged it to print a fake imperial ukase decreeing the restoration of serfdom and the extension of the term of military service, also to disseminate a circular marked 'Secret' and purporting to come from the Holy Synod. This was to apprize the clergy that the new Czar had lost his mind and to enjoin it to offer prayers for his recovery. A bogus manifesto was to follow, proclaiming that since the old Czar had been killed and the new one was insane, the country was now ruled by the Zemsky Sobor, which forthwith ordered the peasantry to seize all the land, slaughter the landlords and make short shrift of the police.

The People's Will did not heed this advice. Nor was it strong enough to offer Nechayev help in his plans for escape. He continued, however, to make preparations for it. And then in the autumn of 1881 the collusion between him and the guards was discovered, almost certainly owing to the treachery of a fellow prisoner. Over sixty men were arrested and tried, while Nechayev himself was subjected to a murderous regimen, which before long broke him in body and spirit. He died of scurvy on 21 November, 1882, the thirteenth anniversary of the murder of Ivanov.

It is scarcely astonishing to find that with the advent of Soviet power an attempt was made to rehabilitate Nechayev. One author described him as the originator of a new morality, a grandiose figure who left his imprint on the revolutionary movement. A book by another Bolshevik writer offered an apologia for Nechayev and indeed exalted him as a genius who anticipated the objectives and the methods of militant Communism. There were those, however, who opposed such unqualified glorification of the man. While commending Nechayev's revolutionary ardour and devotion to the interests of the masses, they condemned his tactics. This has become the approved Soviet attitude toward him.