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


This book, intended for the common reader as well as for the student, chronicles the Russian revolutionary tradition. The account covers a little more than a hundred years, from the first serious questionings of the established order to the emergence, toward the close of the past century, of two major rival parties committed to a violent break with the past. It was first in the eighteen-thirties that a few Russian heads were turned by socialist theory, and the present work naturally records its fortunes under three czars. The development of Populism, the native variety of Socialism, is a dominant theme. The mutinies and popular rebellions of earlier times, among them the jacqueries headed by the Cossack firebrands, Stepan Razin and Yemelyan Pugachev, in the reigns of Czar Alexis and Catherine the Great respectively, do not belong to the story.

Of necessity the socio-political setting, changing with the passage of time, has been sketched in. Only thus could the sequence of events, including those of the intellectual order, be intelligible. Cut off by the autocracy from political experience, with no opportunity to subject theory to the harsh test of practice, the radical movement was to a large extent a matter of doctrine and dogma, the product of minds given to pursuing ideas a outrance. Hence the close attention to ideological trends and to the men who were responsible for them or gave them currency. Throughout emphasis falls, however, on clandestine activities, whether executed or merely planned, whether they took the form of peaceful propaganda or political assassination.

The men and, from the sixties on, the women, behind these efforts and exploits include a variety of human types. They illustrate what Pascal called 'the glory and the baseness in man,' and, of course, a mixture of the two, as also of insight and dunderheadedness. Along with zealots and triflers, there are a few crackpots and many innocents. And there is the sinister premonitory shadow of a being less than human that lies across these pages. In the later chapters the centre of the stage is held by idealists, in some cases willing to use any means for the sake of the end, people who have learned to forego pity and are ready to immolate others as well as themselves in the service of what they believe to be just. The tale is a tragic one, though not without moments of comedy.

I would have liked to bring the story down to the epochal turning point of the year 1917. But this would have required another volume. Attention centres here upon early stirrings, initial attempts, and pioneer endeavors. The narrative follows the headwaters of the revolutionary current and comes to a stop just before the rivulets join to form a sizable, if divided, stream. Yet this survey of 'unhappy, far-off things, and battles long ago' is not without relevance to what happened when the old order was finally overthrown, and should help to bring into sharper focus the Soviet phenomenon, if only because of the way it contrasts with all that the nineteenth-century radicalism dreamed of, stood for. The revolution has followed a course unforeseen either by the populists or their Marxist adversaries. Nevertheless there originated within the period examined some of the ways of acting and thinking that persisted into the current century and have influenced Soviet ideology and practice. Such, for example, is the concept of what may be called the telescoped revolution, involving seizure of political power and its dictatorial use to the end of enforcing socialism. Several Soviet historians have emphasized the debt Bolshevism owes to the cohort of populist propagandists and terrorists which went by the name of The People's Will. Indeed, it is doubtful if the doctrine of Leninism can be fully understood without taking account of the indigenous social-revolutionary tradition as it developed in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Over the years, and especially since 1917, the literature on that subject has grown enormously. It is mostly in the nature of monographs and papers on particular episodes and personalities, also of documentary source material, such as police reports, prisoners' depositions, trial records, texts of underground publications issued by the various secret groups and societies. The present study seeks to be a work of synthesis based on much of that literature. Practically all the necessary research was carried out in the New York Public Library, which has an unusually ample Russian collection. Grateful acknowledgment is hereby made for the friendly services of my former associates in the Slavonic Division of the library. I also wish to thank Boris Ivanovich Nicolaevsky for allowing me to draw, now and then, on his intimate knowledge of the Russian revolutionary movement. The dedication is an inadequate token of my indebtedness to my wife, who gave me every kind of help in the writing of this book.

A word should be said about chronology. Unless marked NS. (New Style), the dates are according to the calendar which was used in Russia before 1 February, 1918 (Old Style); being of the nineteenth century, they are twelve days earlier than they would be if reckoned by the calendar now in general use. N.S. is omitted where it is clear from the context that the date is reckoned by the latter calendar.

A. Y.

September, 1956