Human Folly & the Paradox of Human Intelligence

The Revolutionary & The Police Chief

As indicated in the Preface, ideals are particularly and peculiarly prone to deflection. This is partly because of the gap between what people (even dedicated revolutionaries) think they believe, and the multiplicity of desires and fears that really motivate their actions. It is also the case that idealists in general tend to be single- and simplistic-minded, and fail to appreciate the inevitable complexities that will arise as a consequence of their activities. Power struggles that are fought in terms of political beliefs inevitably become involved in quite unrelated matters, and of course there are always unscrupulous individuals who are ready to exploit a fraught situation for their own selfish ends.


As we have seen, to engage in revolutionary activity in the Russia of the 1880ies was an extremely dangerous business. The mere suspicion of such involvement could lead to years of imprisonment and exile. To follow the revolutionary path it was almost necessary to act as a condemned man, to discount one's future and set oneself aside from family and friends, and all other ties of a normal existence. There was a real, ever present, danger of arrest. Because of its frequency everyone in the revolutionary movement was well aware of the risks, and each in their own way must have rehearsed the consequences of being captured. Nevertheless, when Sergei Degayev, a leading member of 'The Peoples Will', was arrested at the group’s printing press, and hauled into the headquarters of the Third Division we may fairly assume that he was shaken and apprehensive. This place, after all, had a dreadful reputation for brutality. The prospects of interrogation, of a prolonged wait for a trial, of the inevitable guilty verdict, and of the years of imprisonment or Siberian exile were dismal indeed. But for Degayev the shock of arrest and his feelings of apprehension for what might lie in store for himself and his fellow conspirators were overtaken by another, quite unexpected, development. Soon after being charged he was brought before a certain Lieutenant-Colonel Sudeikin who, he was to learn, was nothing less than the head of the secret police in St. Petersburg. Degayev was about to discover that not only was he a highly ambitious officer, but one who had an agenda all of his own.

The political situation in Russia at this time was extremely tense. The appalling social inequalities and the constant blocking by the authorities of even the most moderate reforms, coupled with the increasing use of savage methods of repression, had led to an increasing polarisation between the forces calling for reform and those identified with the Tsarist autocracy. The mood was simply one of intractable opposition. There was little thought of compromise on either side, and year by year the conflict became increasingly bitter.

Political activists, particularly the younger ones, had long felt that revolution offered the only possible solution. Degayev was a leading figure in Naradnaya Volya (The Peoples Will), the most prominent and determined of the revolutionary groups. Having abandoned any hope of achieving their goals through moderate means the narodniks had adopted the use of terror tactics, in particular the assassination of symbolic, highly placed political figures (as such they were the first modern terrorist movement). At the time of his arrest Degayev was himself deeply involved in a plot to assassinate the Tsar, Alexander III.

Russia was caught up in a grim cycle of revolt and repression. The father of the present Tsar had been assassinated just two years before, and there had been unsuccessful attempts on his own life. The principle effect of each successive outrage was to further harden the resolve of the autocratic regime to remain in power. The Third Division of the Chancellory had itself been established as a counter-revolutionary agency following an unsuccessful attack on the Autocrat. This purely political police force, which was the model for all future Russian secret police, was given virtually unlimited jurisdiction, and the power to operate quite independently of all other arms of government. They were given the right to detain without trial, and to exile those who were so much as suspected of political crimes.

Once established, the Third Division pursued its remit with vigour. They cracked down on any political activities that they regarded as a threat to state security, however remote. Mail was opened, bookshops and libraries were raided, and gatherings of student or workers were broken up. Their objectives were not simply to uncover revolutionary activity, but to nip it in the bud, to deter its appearance in the first place. As a result the Russian secret police came to be engaged in a virtual war of attrition with the revolutionaries. They had great resources to draw on (the Tsar made sure that they were well funded), and in their own terms they were highly successful - but they never entirely destroyed the revolutionary spirit. The conditions of social injustice in Russia were so glaringly obvious, and so extreme, that there were always fresh, young idealists prepared to replace those who had been removed. The main result of the oppressive police regime, the 'White Terror' as it became known, was a steady ratcheting-up of the stakes, with each side tending to adopt ever more extreme attitudes.

Having been left alone in a damp cell for several hours (the customary softening-up process), Degayev was dragged before Sudeikin. He knew in advance that he would be facing an intelligent, highly experienced and guileful operator. He was also aware that, as head of the Division, he would be dealing with an officer who was answerable directly to the Tsar. The secret police Chief invited Degayev to take a seat, and then dismissed the guards who had brought him up from the cells. To his surprise Sudeikin appeared not at all interested in questioning him. Instead he gave Degayev rundown of the Third Division's knowledge of narodnik activities. He listed the names all of its members who were known to him, and of their past and future plans; the information was extraordinarily detailed. It soon became apparent to Degayev that the department had successfully penetrated practically every unit of 'The Peoples Will'. Sudeikin apologised for not revealing his sources, but it was perfectly obvious that he had managed to place spies throughout the organisation. He was also well informed as to Degayev's standing within the movement, which was that of a respected theorist and activist. He knew of the group's financial difficulties, of their past operational failures and the names of individuals who were involved in future terrorist activities. Sudeikin did not know everything about the movement, but he knew far more than Degayev could have believed possible. The disclosures were both alarming and thoroughly demoralising.

But Sudeikin had more to say. He went on, surprisingly, to declare his sympathy with many of the aims of the revolutionaries (the ending of social privilege, land for the landless peasants, freedom of the press, religious equality etc.), but he entirely disagreed with their methods - not from any moral qualms, but because they were naive and entirely counterproductive. He observed that agencies such as his own, with unlimited resources, would always have an enormous advantage over hard-up revolutionaries. On the other hand he deplored the present autocratic rule which, he felt, was bound to lead Russia to catastrophe. The problem, as he saw it, lay in the absurd resistance of the Tsar (and his reactionary advisors) to any modernising influences. The feeble reforms of the 1860'ies, most of which had in any case been revoked, were entirely inadequate. Bolder, more imaginative steps were essential for the very survival of Russia, but these called for a man of vision and energy. It became clear to Degayev that Sueikin saw himself in this role. In fact he was soon declaring that he had a master plan to modernise the Russian state and was, moreover, in a unique position to enact it.

The police-Chief began to explain the way in which he intended to proceed. The first stage of his plan was to make himself utterly indispensable to the Tsar. He would do this by convincing the ruler that only he, Sudeikin, stood between him and almost certain assassination. As part of his master plan he had formed a secret unit of agent-provacateurs who would act on his orders alone. His intention was to have this special unit stage a fake assassination attempt on himself, after which he would resign his commission. He then fully expected to be recalled, in which event he would allow himself to be reappointed on the condition that he was made Minister of Security. In this role he could advance to a position so powerful that he would be second only to the Tsar himself.

He then went on to say that it had occurred to him that there was in existence a group of people who were dedicated to just such a modernising and liberalising cause as his own, namely, 'The Peoples Will'. He proposed to the astonished Degayev that they work together in this great enterprise. If they combined forces they might succeed in toppling the whole rotten, autocratic structure. The system, he asserted, was far more vulnerable than anyone suspected - if pushed in the right way it could collapse like a house of cards. Sudeikin then politely thanked Degayev for his attention, begged him to carefully consider his proposal, and then called the guards to take him back down to the cells. We can well imagine that Degayev's mind was reeling after this interview. At the very least it had become clear that the revolutionaries did not have a monopoly on conspiracies.

It is difficult to assess Sudeikin's motives in this proposal - whether he genuinely believed in his fantasy, or whether the proposal was simply a ploy to gain further information about the activities of the Naradnaya Volya. The notion that he may have contemplated a putsch is not so easily dismissed. His position was close to that of a captain of a Praetorian Guard, and there is a long history of such individuals seizing power from those who have appointed them. It is also possible that Sudeikin was simply a cynical opportunist who was fully aware of the volatility of the political situation, and was prepared to make the most of any opening that came his way. And it is conceivable that, in common with many of the revolutionaries themselves, he had in some sense been overtaken by his fantasies. It is possible that he had been in the shadowy, double-dealing world of plots and counterplots for so long that he no longer knew his own real intentions.

In the event, and with the alternative prospect of a long prison sentence no doubt affecting his judgement, Degayev elected to go along with the Police-Chief's proposition. He did not fully trust Sudeikin, but felt that he could use this connexion to his, and the movements, best advantage. He was soon released (a faked escape was arranged), and re-entered revolutionary life, albeit with a somewhat modified agenda.

There is always an element of symbiosis between law-enforcement agencies and lawbreakers. The former are bound to rely on contacts with the latter, both for specific information and general intelligence - but there is always the danger of corruption and intrigue in such relationships. There are similar bonds between secret police and revolutionaries. The tense political situation in Russia at this time, in which the Tsarist secret police were given a mandate to stamp out any form of political dissent, was bound to lead to machinations and double-dealing of all kinds. There were many double agents who were playing both sides to their own advantage, taking money from the police, whilst at the same time advancing their own positions within the revolutionary movement. There were others, before Degayev, who were pressured into acting as 'intermediaries' between revolutionary groups and the police, and who, in their naiveté, were led to betray their comrades. There were also cases of counter penetration, in which sympathisers to the revolutionary cause, who supplied the movement with useful information on police actions, infiltrated the police themselves. And there was the opportunistic Police Chief, Lieutenant-Colonel Sudeikin.

Degayev continued his revolutionary activities, but maintained regular contacts with Sudeikin. The latter continued to assure him that he was more interested in enlisting the narodniks to his cause than in arresting them. At one stage he supplied false passports to a group of comrades who were forced to flee the country. Despite this there were further arrests. The arrests of a number of the movement's leading figures now left Degayev, as one of its longest-standing members, in a position to direct its activities. But there were those within the group who were becoming suspicious about his apparent immunity from arrest.

It is far from clear what took place between Degayev and Sudeikin at this time. The relationship must have been an edgy one, but although they were from opposite sides of an unbridgeable divide there was a certain similarity of temperament between the two men. It does seem extraordinary that such a determined and intelligent revolutionary of the kind that Degayev undoubtedly was should have gone along with Sudeikin's implausible scheme. But the revolutionaries were rather prone to self-delusion, or at least self-persuasion. They all believed that the removal of the symbol of autocracy, the Tsar, would automatically lead to major social reforms; this unlikely outcome was practically unquestioned in revolutionary circles. The narodniks assumed that any action that damaged an oppressive system was bound to weaken it. They did not appreciate that their direct action was more likely to provoke direct reaction - nor did they realise just how far the authorities were prepared to go to defend their privileges.

It seems to have been the case that both Degayev and Sudeikin were convinced of the notion of the 'seizure of power' as a necessary prelude to social transformation. Both would have discounted the possibility that a less dramatic, more gradualist, approach to social reform might have been more effective. It was probably this common conviction, above all, that allowed them to liase for as long as they did. But for some reason the relationship faltered. At some stage Degayev appears to have succumbed to doubts, and to have felt that the police chief was indeed playing him for a fool. He became conscience stricken at what he now saw as his betrayal of the movement. In their more recent exchanges Sudeikin had again spoken of his intention to stage a fake assassination attempt on himself. Degayev had decided to use this opportunity to murder Sudeikin. The Police-chief however, continued to be vague as to when this enactment should take place. Eventually Degayev called Sudeikin for a meeting in his own flat. When the policeman arrived he was first shot and seriously wounded, since this failed to kill him he was then battered to death with an iron bar.

This brutal murder left Degayev in an extremely precarious position. Not only was he now on the run from the secret police for having killed their boss, but he also had to explain to his closest comrades precisely what the head of the St. Petersburg Third Division was doing at his flat. His state of mind at this time can scarcely be imagined. In the end he felt he had little option but to confess the entire story of his involvement to his fellow-revolutionaries. Because he had in fact succeeded in killing this hated figure the leading Narodniki were inclined to spare Degayev's life, on the understanding that he abstain from further revolutionary activities of any kind, in any country. They helped him escape from Russia. He went first to Paris and then, by a devious route, to the U.S., where he remained as an obscure exile for the rest of his life. He later studied at John Hopkins University where he became a Doctor of Philosophy.

 

In the meantime the leading members of the narodniki, although they were utterly appalled by the revelations of Degayev's double-dealing and of the extent to which the police had penetrated their movement, decided to keep the matter to themselves. It was all too demoralising. Inevitably, the news leaked out, and the revelations caused considerable friction within the movement. The main outcome of the ensuing recriminations was the creation of a breakaway group, calling itself The Younger Peoples Will; this move was accompanied by a further hardening of attitudes. The new organisation opted to extend the use of revolutionary terrorism. Terrorist acts were not now merely to be directed against the regime's more prominent figures, but were to be considered a legitimate revolutionary tactic for use against more accessible targets, such as 'economic exploiters'. As a result the whole level of political violence in Russia was greatly increased (and ethical constraints diminished). Naturally, the forces of reaction rose to the occasion - and the cycle of repression and retribution entered a new and more desperate phase.

 

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It was inevitable that the Third Division of the Chancellory would become an autonomous, self-perpetuating agency. The enormous powers with which it was endowed ensured this. In common with all bureaucratic institutions it had a natural tendency to expand. Soon after Sudeikins time, when the revolutionary threat to the Tsarist state had become even more apparent, the office metamorphosed into the Okhrana (the institution that later became the model for the Soviet secret police. the K.G.B.). It greatly increased its personnel in the process, and expanded its operations, which now extended to every part of the Russian Empire. After the Revolution of 1917 the Okhrana itself was dissolved, but many of its agents are suspected to have been absorbed into the new revolutionary police, the ‘All Russian Extraordinary Commission for Struggle against Counter-Revolution and Sabotage’, the Cheka. The Cheka soon adopted the ruthless methods of its predecessor. Felix Dzerzhinsky, the first head of the Cheka had spent the best part of his adult life in Okhrana jails. He, and those other Bolsheviks concerned to 'protect the Revolution', had plenty of experience to draw on in their dealings with counter-revolutionary opposition. The Cheka rapidly expanded their activities to every province of the new Soviet Union, becoming a 'state within a state'. And they were very soon abusing their powers to a far greater extent than the Tsarist secret police ever managed.

One of the more interesting outcomes of the Bolshevik coming to power was the information revealed with the seizure of the extensive Okhrana files (an event that was paralleled by the more recent opening of K.G.B. files after the collapse of the Soviet system). Bolshevik leaders were absolutely astonished by the extent to which the Okhrana had infiltrated their organisation. It turned out that several of Lenin's most trusted lieutenants had been their agents for some years.