Human Folly & the Paradox of Human Intelligence

The Sinister Youth: Nihilism and Nechayev

By the middle of the 19th century there were secret cells of revolutionaries in most European countries. But the extremes, both of the revolutionary spirit and of its ruthless suppression were (as ever) to be found in Russia. By the 1860’s, Tsarist Russia had already entered a phase that that was to characterise its political life well into the foreseeable future. The authorities used heavy-handed police repression of radical activity of any kind, and the revolutionaries had resorted to the tactic of 'action by deed', which usually meant political assassination, The main effect of this repressive policy was the proliferation of political secret societies, and the emergence of the that most radical of beliefs of all, Nihilism.

'Nihilism' was the pejorative name given to the Russian youth movement who themselves adopted the label of narodniki - although both terms initially covered a broad, and as yet undifferentiated range of ideas. The Nihilists were not 'against everything' as their detractors claimed, but it must have seemed like this to their more conservative critics. In their reaction against the corruption and injustice of Russian life they rejected most of its fundamental institutions and conventions including the Family, the Orthodox Church, and most particularly the Tsarist Autocracy. Nihilism was essentially a movement of student dissent and like most youth factions it soon established its own distinguishing conventions of thought and dress. The typical Nihilist dressed untidily, was bearded and had long hair (or short among the women). They wore baggy trousers tucked into dirty boots, a peasant shirt belted around the waist, and a rug thrown over the shoulder. The wearing of dark-tinted spectacles would often complete the outfit. This distinctive uniform had the disadvantage of marking out potential troublemakers to the Tsarist police, who were soon taking a serious interest in their activities. Nevertheless their style, and their habit of forming determined groups of political activists, persisted.

As well as dressing alike there was a certain uniformity of belief among the Nihilists. Together with their complete rejection of every aspect of established authority, they tended to be materialists, atheists, advocates of science - and practically all felt that a revolution was necessary, and the most direct way of achieving their goals. They also felt a sense of urgency about this; their motto was skanzano sdelano (no sooner said than done). One of the more important groups to be formed during this period was known simply as ‘The Organisation’. Members of The Organisation led rigorous, ascetic lives, giving all their money to the cause and more or less dedicating themselves to improving the lot of the poor and dispossessed. But within The Organisation itself there existed a special cell, known as Hell, which was devoted to the cause of political terrorism. Hell's principle aim was to assassinate the Tsar. This mission was taken extremely seriously. In preparation the members of this group within a group cut themselves off from their families remained unmarried. The members of Hell spent a great deal of their time discussing possible ways of putting their plans into effect, but little came of it all until one of the group, a young, highly-strung ex-landowner named Karakozov, produced a revolver and announced his intention to kill the Tsar as soon as possible.

Acting alone Karakazov duly made his attempt on the Tsar as the latter was returning to his carriage from a walk around the Summer Garden in St. Petersburg. He was very nearly successful, firing at close range, but a soldier managed to jog his arm at the last minute and the shot missed. The outcome of this failed attempt was disastrous, for Karakozov, for Hell, and for the wider narodki movement. Instead of inspiring the popular revolution that had been expected the attempted assassination provoked a wave of police reprisals that became known as the White Terror. Karakazov himself was tried and hung in public. All the members of The Organisation were arrested and given long sentences to be served in Siberia. Other radical groups were subjected to constant raids and forbidden to publish their journals. The various modest reforms that had recently been enacted by the Tsarist government were rescinded. In effect the entire movement for radical change was suppressed and remained closed down for a couple of years after Karakazov’s failed attempt. But the ensuing atmosphere of police terrorism forced a new kind of revolutionary secret society into germination, which was characterised by an unprecedented ruthlessness.

In common with many of its predecessors the Narodnaya Rasprava (Popular Vengeance) group (which formed around 1868) was inclined towards fantasy and self-dramatisation, but Rasprava fantasies took the Nihilists destructive tendencies to the extreme. The aim now was the destruction of every aspect of the existing social order, almost for its own sake, with little clear idea of what might replace it. This was an extreme development of the conspiratorial notion that a group, if sufficiently dedicated, could overthrow a state. Rasprava was essentially the creation of a single-minded and charismatic individual named Sergei Nechayev. Nechayev's demands on his followers were as extreme as his pathological character. The revolutionary had to be utterly dedicated and totally immoral - 'Night and day he must have only one thought, merciless destruction. He must be prepared to destroy himself and to destroy with his own hands everything that stands in the path of the revolution'. All that mattered was that the state and all its institutions should be utterly destroyed: vengeance indeed. But such were the times that within months of forming his group Nechayev had persuaded nearly a hundred of his fellow students at the St. Petersburg University to sign oaths of loyalty to his leadership.

Nechayev claimed to be in touch with a secret network that had cells throughout Russia, but before he or his organisation were able to put any of their plans into effect he became known to the police as its leader and was forced to flee abroad, eventually making his way to Geneva. Geneva had many Russian students at this time and was, as a result, a centre of radical thought. Nechayev was soon conscripting members to his group in this fertile ground and, at this remove from Russia, made even more exaggerated claims about the power and extent of his organisation. Nechayev would have justified this deceit (as he was later to justify theft, murder and blackmail) as a means to a revolutionary end.

Among those that he duped in Geneva was Michael Bakunin, who was older and had an internationally reputation as a revolutionary theorist (Bakunin was himself an admirer of Buonarroti and had advocated a conspiratorial apparatus that was so secretive that even its leaders were not to know each other). Nechayev told Bakunin that he had managed to escape from the infamous Peter and Paul prison in St. Petersburg, and that he was the delegate of an extensive network of conspiracy within Russia. Bakunin was himself rather given to revolutionary exaggeration, claiming to be the leader of the 'World Revolutionary Alliance', into which he enrolling Nechayev, as Agent No. 2771. On the basis of this alliance between two phantasmal organisations the two of them set about writing a series of revolutionary pamphlets for distribution back in Russia.

It is unclear, and has long been a matter of contention, just how much Bakunin actually contributed to these pamphlets. The bloodthirsty tone of much of the writing was unmistakeably Nechayev's. One of these, ‘Principles of Revolution’, advocated indiscriminate destruction in the name of the revolution, declaring 'We recognise no other activity but the work of extermination'. The revolution must be pursued ruthlessly, using 'poison, the knife, the rope'. These pamphlets, seven in all, are precursors to Nechayev's later work, the Revolutionary Catechism, in which he spells out his conspiratorial theories. This ranks as one of the most chilling documents in political history, comparable only to the likes of Hitler's Mein Kampf. The Catechism is based on the premise that a small group, fanatically loyal to the revolution, could destroy the state - there is little or no consideration of what might take its place subsequent to this destruction. The revolutionary must 'have only one thought, night and day, merciless destruction'. He is a doomed and dedicated man, completely amoral and devoid of human sympathy etc. etc. His writings constantly reiterate the theme of destruction, turmoil and bloodshed; they offer little hope for a better world. Despite this Nechayev is an important figure in Russian history. In one sense it was as if his rantings confirmed the most lurid of reactionary fantasies - in another his was an accurate prophesy of the terrible social devastation to come ...

In fact amoral behaviour was an intrinsic aspect of Nechayev's character. In Geneva he fell out with Bakunin who seems finally to have realised the sort of person he was dealing with. and left Switzerland (having borrowed or stolen as much money as he could from his comrades in Geneva). Returning to Russia he carried on with his revolutionary programme, informing his followers that the World Revolution was timed for 19th February 1870. Nechayev set up a cell system with no more than five members to each group to whom he passed on orders claimed that they were directives from a Secret Revolutionary Committee. These orders were expected to be obeyed without question. When one of the members began to query the existence of this organisation Nechayev arranged for his murder, implicating several others of the group. The unfortunate student was lured to a cave where he was shot and strangled. It was a messy, bungled affair. The body, which had been dumped in a nearby pond, was soon discovered, and Nechayevs accomplices identified and arrested. They received long prison sentences of hard labour in the Siberian mines. Nechayev himself managed to escape, returning to Switzerland, but a year later he too was arrested and deported back to Russia to face trial.

The disclosures made at Nechayev's trial, in particular the bloodthirsty tone of his Revolutionary Catechism, had a profound effect on the Russian revolutionary movement as a whole. Nechayev was defiant and insolent throughout his trial but, inevitably, he was found guilty. The Tsars personal intervention led him to be incarcerated for life in the dungeons of the St.Peter and Paul fortress, Russia's most notorious prison. His group, The Peoples Vengeance, was completely destroyed - the entire membership were arrested, and the majority were found guilty of revolutionary activities and imprisoned. In radical circles there was now a reaction against the sort of excesses advocated by Nechayev, and a distrust of the whole concept of centralised secret societies as a means of achieving revolutionary ends.

The mood now turned away from violence and towards more gentle forms of persuasion, Groups sprang up that were concerned with education, both of themselves and workers and peasants and out of this new enthusiasm there grew the strange, spontaneous events that became known as the 'pilgrimage to the people'. Beginning in the spring of 1873 hordes of dedicated young men and women made for the countryside intent on immersing themselves in peasant life. They usually dressed in peasant clothes (or their own version of this), and tried to follow a trade such as carpentry or cobbling. They carried simple propaganda texts telling of the poverty and injustice of the peasant’s existence (with which the peasants themselves were only too familiar). Their desire to identify with the oppressed peasants was sincere, but they frequently encountered suspicion - and were frequently betrayed to the local authorities. In the end the 'pilgrimage to the people' was a failure, and by the later 1870’s the urban revolutionaries decisively returned, to secret groups of dedicated revolutionaries, ready and willing to use terrorist tactics, assassination in particular. On the 1st March 1881 the Tsar Alexander II was assassinated, an event that was to prove to be a watershed in the intensifying cycle of repression and extreme radicalism in Russia – and one that affected the destiny of that country up to and beyond its Revolution.