Nihilism in Russia


Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
International Program
Cha, Sowan
Term Paper, AP European History Class, March 2007

Table of Contents

I. Introduction
II. Historical Background of 19th Century Russia
III. Foundational Nihilism
IV. Revolutionary Nihilism
V. The Last Act of the Russian Nihilists
VI. Nihilism and Russian Literature
VII. Conclusion
VIII. Bibliography

I. Introduction

            Derived from the Latin word 'nihil', which means 'nothing', Nihilism is a belief which argues that the world is without objective meaning, purpose, comprehensible truth, or essential value. Although Nihilism is often thought of as a vague philosophical concept, it was a big political movement, particularly a Russian response to the conditions of Tsarist reform and repression during the 1860s. Rather than a simple introspection or personal emotions, this political Nihilism movement in Russia dealt with authority and social structures, and questioned the validity of all existing moral values and institution, with the state goal of overthrowing the despotic authority of the Czar. Such characteristics of Nihilists (in Russian, Nigilist) are represented in the novel Fathers And Sons by the Russian author Ivan Turgenev, the main character of which, Bazarov, is a Nihilist. The book says, "A Nihilist is a person who does not bow down to any authority and who does not accept any principle on faith" because "conditions in the social organization are so bad as to make destruction desirable for its own sake, independent of any constructive program or possibility."

This paper will cover the historical background, main events, and the impacts of such political Russian Nihilism movement during the late nineteenth century.

II. Historical Background of 19th Century Russia

            Russia in the early and mid nineteenth century was a place of increasing tension and dramatic political, economical, and social changes. Industrialization created big wealth disparities and entirely new classes of people as the old aristocratic power system transformed into a plutocratic one. Cities grew rapidly and traditional agrarian lifestyles were decimated. Moreover, after the Russian campaign to subdue Napoleon, western ideas, which clearly articulated a desire for a constitution defending human rights, a representative government, and democracy, were brought to Russia. So, when the Czar Alexander I died in 1825, a regiment of soldiers refused to pay allegiance to the new crown, wanting instead the establishment of a Russian constitution. And although the 'Decembrists' as they were called, were finally suppressed, there remained a possibility of big social change throughout the century.

All these changes set the stage for Nihilism. Russian monarchs realized that their system of serfdom and social structure were not sustainable and would end in a bloody rebellion. The problem was implementing reforms that were both effective and politically realistic. But, by the middle of the 19th century, the forces of state repression coupled with the longevity of the problems had already created such an intolerable situation that fixing the system through reform was almost impossible. The only reasonable answer to this kind of situation was Nihilism. Moreover, the failure in the Crimean war put Russia in the dire situation of being forced to make reforms and this made the Nihilism movement more urgent. Finally, even a brutal and violent police-state became unable to prevent the Nihilists and other dedicated revolutionaries, and Nihilism movement started to spread in Russia.

III. Foundational Nihilism

            Russian Nihilism can be dissected into two periods. One is the 'foundational period' (1860-1869) in which Nihilism movement started and the counter-cultural aspects of Nihilism began to scandalize Russia. The other period is the ¡®revolutionary period¡¯ (1870-1881) in which The Catechism of a Revolutionist inspired the movement-in-waiting into a movement-with-teeth with dozens of actions against the Russian state. The revolutionary period ends with the assassination of the Czar Alexander II (March 13th, 1881).

During the foundational period of Russian Nihilism, the first Land and Freedom was organized. It conspired to support the Polish independence movement and to agitate the peasants who were burdened with debt as a result of the crippling redemption payments required by the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. After a plot to incite Kazan peasants to revolt failed, Land and Freedom folded in 1863, and thus began the first period of Nihilist secret societies. The Organization founded a school in a Moscow slum in order to train revolutionaries. In addition, they had a secret sub-group called Hell whose purpose was political terrorism, with the assassination of the Czar as the ultimate goal. This resulted in the failed attempt by Dmitry Karakozov on the 4th of April 1866, and Dmitry and the leader of The Organization, Nicholas Ishutin were executed. Thus ended The Organization and began the White Terror of the rest of the 1860s. The White Terror began by the Czar putting Count Michael Muravyov in charge of the suppression of the Nihilists. The two leading radical journals, The Contemporary and Russian Word, were banned, liberal reforms were minimized, and the educational system was reformed to stifle the revolutionary spirit. This action by the Russian state marked the end of the foundational period of nihilism.

The lifestyle of the Nihilist, or New People, is worth reviewing. Nihilists pursued utilitarian and ascetic lifestyle. The fashion was also a case in point: the clothing style sought functionality and usefulness over frivolous fashion. And in his book The Women's Liberation Movement in Russia, Richard Stites says about the 'revolt in the dress' of the nigilistka, the Russian word for a female Nihilist: "Discarding the muslin, ribbons, feathers, parasols, and flowers of the Russian lady, the archetypical girl of the Nihilist persuasion in the 1860's wore a plain dark woolen dress, which fell straight and loose from the waist with white cuffs and collar as the only embellishments. The hair was cut short and worn straight, and the wearer frequently assumed dark glasses." Another notable feature of Nihilists was their interests in woman's emancipation. Because a woman's passport (which was used for general travel and not just travel abroad) was legally controlled by men at that time, a father or a husband had ultimate control of a woman's life. The nihilists solved this problem by having fictitious marriages and allowed for an emancipation of women de jure, although not de facto. This resulted in women having the freedom of mobility to pursue some academic pursuits and some enterprise.

IV. Revolutionary Nihilism

            The entrance of Sergei Nechaev symbolizes the transformation from the foundational period to the revolutionary period of the Russian Nihilist movement. Nechaev argued that just as the European monarchies and the Catholic Jesuits were ruthlessly immoral in their pursuit of total control, there was no action that could not be used for the sake of the peoples revolution. The image of Nechaev is as much a result of Catechism of a Revolutionist (1869) as any actions he actually took in life. The Catechism is an important document as it established the clear break between the formation of nihilism as a political philosophy and what it became as a practice of revolutionary action. And Thesis 23 of Catechism of a Revolutionist says, By "revolution," our Organization does not mean a regulated pattern in the classical, western sense, a movement that always stops and bows with respect before private property rights and before traditions of public order and so-called civilization and morality - one which until now has limited itself to overthrowing one political form to replace it with another that tried to create a so-called revolutionary-state. The only revolution that could be beneficial for the people would be that revolution which destroyed at its roots any elements of the state and which would exterminate all the state traditions, social order, and classes in Russia." He had other big influences on Russian Nihilism : he formed the secret, cell-based organization, People's Vengeance, and maintained a relationship to People's Will. But he was rejected by Bakunin and finally died in his cell in 1882.

There was a clear division among the revolutionary movement in the post-Nechaev period: this split was between the propagandists who followed Peter Lavrov and the Bakuninists. The focus of both groups was on organizing the peasants, and this was inspired, in large part, by the belief that the Russian institution of the village commune, a self-governing body that managed village affairs and made decisions collectively, was the shortest path to Russian socialism. That effort, however, failed in the end because the peasants often handed the Nihilists over to the police and, moreover, the concept of rural revolt was not confirmed to the peasants as they did not have ability to arm themselves in a meaningful way and did not actually have a tradition of successful uprising. In 1877, there was a failed rural revolt called 'the Chigrin affair' by three revolutionaries, Stefanovich, Deutsch and Bokhanovsky, the result of which was arrest of hundreds of peasants and the three Nihilists.

Also, women played some roles in the Nihilist organizations during that time. While, given tenuous social gains under Alexander II, women were less easily convincible to join the project of dismantling society, once engaged, they were more committed to action and violence than their male counterparts. This is best exemplified by the direct taking up of arms during the revolutionary period beginning with the action of one woman, Vera Zasulich. Women took no small part in the secret societies. And an accounting in the People's Will, the most famous Nihilist secret societies, stated that 1/4 to 1/3 of the organization were women. And moreover, nearly half of the Executive Committee was made up by women. While the social mores of the culture at that time were not entirely upset and there was still 'women's work', many women had egalitarian relationships with the men.

There were many secret societies formed in the revolutionary period. And two of them, the Troglodytes and the Revolutionary-Populist Group of the North eventually settled into forming the second Land and Freedom in 1876. This group resolved itself as firmly in the Bakuninist camp in reaction to the failures of the rural campaigns of years past. The notable events of the seventies originated in this reaction. In December of 1876, there was a political demonstration in the Square of Our Lady of Kazan in St. Petersburg. The meeting was broken up by the police, and many people, including a revolutionary named Bogolyubov, were arrested. This guy, in an inexplainable act of intransigence, refused to take off his cap for the General Trepov who was visiting the prison which Bogolyubov shared with the political prisoners. The infuriated General beat him, demanded him to be flogged the next day, which was done with such vigor that Bogolyubov went mad, and this finally resulted in a prison riot.

Meanwhile, Vera Zasulich took an action by herself. She sought an audience with the General in a reception room of Russian officials, where upon she drew a revolver and fired, killing him. In an unexpected move, the regime allowed for Zasulich to be tried by a jury, assuming that the result was guaranteed because she confessed to the act and there were witnesses. Instead, the jury acquitted her and allowed her to leave the courthouse, where the police awaited her for additional arrest, and a small riot occurred resulting in her being whisked away by her comrades. This act, and the accompanying scandal, launched a several-year wave of action from the Nihilists against agents of the state, and attempts, mostly failed, at repression by the state.

On the 23rd of February, Valerian Osinsky, a Nihilist from the south, shot the public prosecutor of Kiev twice. On May 25th, Gregory Popko stabbed to death Captain Geyking of the Kiev gendarmerie. Michael Frolenko, a southern Nihilist, became an employee of the Kiev jail, quickly rose to the rank of chief warder, and freed Stefanovich, Deutsch and Bokhanovsky of the Chigirin affair on May 27th. And the northern Nihilists soon began catching up to the exploits of the southerners from August.

February 9th of 1879 was the date of the shooting of Governor General Dmitry Kropotkin in Kharkov by Gregory Goldenberg. Also in February of that year was the death of another police infiltrator and another gun battle with the police in Kiev. And on April 2nd, there was a failed attempt to assassinate the Czar by Alexander Solovyov, who finally was hanged on May 28. The repression over the next 8 months was severe, with 16 Nihilists being hanged throughout Russia. But Nihilists did not stop their action; on the 20th of February 1880, a Nihilist named Miodetsky took a shot at one of the two Governor Generals in charge of the repression, Governor General Loris-Melikov. Once again he missed his shot and was executed two days later.

The repression of the state raised the question as to how effective the current strategy of Land and Freedom was. In June 1879, a conference was held to evaluate the methods of violence used by the group and this resulted in the dissolution of Land and Freedom and the creation of Black Repartition, which held that militant propaganda was the appropriate method for moving forward, and the People's Will, which condemned the Czar to death.

V. The Last Act of the Russian Nihilists

            After the dissolution of Land and Freedom, the People's Will devoted themselves to the assassination of the Czar. They did not have the infrastructure, social solution, or desire to assume power; to them, destruction was worthwhile for its own sake, and not because of humanitarian, political, or social reasons. After assessing the failures of nihilist sharpshooters, the decision was made to attack the Czar with demolitions. In November of 1879, the Nihilists attempted to mine the train route which the Czar would take from Livadia to St. Petersburg at three different points. The first was made near Odessa, organized by Vira Figner, and involved an attempt to insert a Nihilist into the position of railway watchman, but when the Czar took a different route this plan was abandoned. The second involved an intricate plan of Andrei Zhelyabov (1850-1881) to portray the launching of a tannery business by day and to plant dynamite by night. When the train carrying the Czar came through, however, the explosives refused to ignite. The final point was organized by Alexander Mikhaylov near Moscow. It involved the renting of an apartment 50 yards from the rail line, the digging of a tunnel from the apartment to the line and the setting of the charge at the train line. But, the land through which the tunnel lay was sandy and easily flooded resulting in an entirely miserable experience, and finally, the train containing the Czar was not derailed by the firing of the explosive.

As no Nihilist was captured and the explosion was a close call, there was a general consensus that this was the right approach. The next attempt was made at the Czar's Winter Palace on the 5th of February 1880. It involved a Nihilist taking a job within the palace, smuggling amounts of dynamite into the cellar, and igniting this explosive at the appropriate time. Once again the timing of the action was off : the scheduled arrival of the Czar was delayed and the explosives went off prior to Alexander's arrival. The next attempt involved the submersion of explosives under the Kamenny Bridge on the Catherine Canal, but it was thwarted by the tardiness of one of the conspirators. Another attempt began as the ambitious mining of a road that the Czar would pass from the harbor to the train in Odessa, but as the travel plans changed, the effort was abandoned.

The rest of 1880s found the Nihilists concerned with tracking the traveling arrangements of the Czar; they found that Sunday was the best day to strike, as the Czar usually followed a singular route to and from the military reviewing grounds. It was on the corner of the Nevsky Prospekt and Malaya Sadovaya Street where the Nihilists would strike. This involved renting an apartment, digging a tunnel and attempting to act like proper citizens. But, their failure to convince their neighbors thwarted the plan and Zhelyabov, the organizer of the operation, was arrested on the 27th of February.

Finally, after several attempts, Alexander II was assassinated in March 1881, on the very day he had approved a proposal to call a representative assembly to consider new reforms. And five members of the plot to assassinate the Czar, including Andrei Zhelyabov, Nicholas Rysakov, Sophia Perovsky, Nikolai Kibalchich and Timothy Mikhaylov, were ceremoniously hung on April the 3rd, wearing a placard stating 'Tsaricide'. Thus the period of Russian Nihilism ended. The heir to the throne of Russia, Alexander III (1884-1894) was an autocrat in the old style, brutally suppressed any remaining Nihilists who dared show themselves after the fall of the Czar. He believed in ruling the empire by 'nationalism, Eastern Orthodoxy and autocracy' and he was successful until his death.

VI. Nihilism and Russian Literature

            It is worth noting the role of literature in Russian culture because literature was a respected form of social commentary. This style of literature became known as realism due to its unflinching portrayal of contemporary life, and such literary works show us what was happening in Russian culture during the 1860s, the Nihilism movement. Such realist novels which reflect the Nihilism movement include Notes from the Underground, Crime and Punishment, and The Devils by Dostoevsky; Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev; War and Peace by Tolstoy; What is to be done ? by Chernyshevsky; Roots of Revolution by Venturi; The Russian Revolutionary Intelligentsia by Pomper. Especially, the expression of the tension between generations by Bazarov in Fathers and Sons as the rejection of the romantic and idealistic postures guaranteed his position as an icon of the Nihilist movement and the Nihilism movement even owed its name to this novel. And the publication of Chernyshevsky's What is to be Done ? became the guiding light to the movement: within its pages were a vision of the socialist values of the Nihilist, an exposition of how to live with radical values intact, and how to practice Nihilist non-monogamy. So, the Russian novel was elevated to new religious and philosophical heights by its absorption of the Nihilists' sense of cultural crisis and thirst for new, absolute values. In addition, as many Russian literary works during that time were influenced by the social condition of Russia, literature also affected Russian society and culture a lot as well. For example, Alexander's emancipation of peasants was attributed, in part, to his reaction to Ivan Turgenev's collection of Sportsman's Sketches which depicted the life of peasants.

Usually, Nihilism became a more coherent position in banned texts, smuggled into Russia by emigres. One of the most prolific of these emigres was Alexander Herzen (1812-1870) who established the Free Russian Press in London. The Press was well known for its publications of radical literature that ranged from To the Younger Generation (1861), which argued for the replacement of the Czar by an employee of the state, to the journals The Polar Star and Voices from Russia. His most well known journal was The Bell which was smuggled into Russia where it was quite popular through the foundational Nihilist period by those who desired social reform.

VII. Conclusion

            In Reaction in Germany, Mikhail Bakunin (1814-1876) anticipated and instigated the ideas of the Nihilists by saying "Let us therefore trust the eternal Spirit which destroys and annihilates only because it is the unfathomable and eternal source of all life. The passion for destruction is a creative passion." As this indicates, Russian Nihilism movement was a big political movement which rejected all religious and political authority, social traditions, and traditional morality with the goal of overthrowing the despotic authority of the Czar, believing that destruction was desirable for the social reformation.
Also, beyond just the Nihilist approach to social change, which has clearly been influential far beyond the socialist tradition, was the systematic way in which Nihilists attempted to extend their ideas beyond just their politics. Given the repressive environment in which their ideas flourished, the scope of the Russian Nihilists continued to bear the fruit of committed individuals bridging the gap between theory and practice. In a word, Nihilism in Russia was not only a movement which had big political influences in Russian society, but also a movement which did have a meaning beyond the politics.

VIII. Bibliography

1.      Hingley, Ronald, Nihilists; Russian Radicals and Revolutionaries in the Reign of Alexander II, 1855-81. New York : Delacorte Press, 1969
2.      Park, Eun-bong, 100 Scenes of World History. Seoul : Shilchun, 2003 (in Korean)
3.      Riasanovsky, and Nicholas V., A History of Russia. 7th ed. New York: Oxford UP 2004
4.      Stites, Richard, The Women's Liberation Movement in Russia - Feminism, Nihilism, and Bolshevism 1860-1930. New Jersey : Princeton UP 1991.
5.      Turgenev, Ivan Sergeevich, Fathers and Sons. New York: Penguin Classics, 1992
6.      Alan Pratt. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy - Nihilism. 2007.
7.      Freydis. Nihilism's Home Page. 1998.
8.      Wikipedia History of Russia : Nihilism. 2007