The First War on Terror

Wednesday, December 29th, 2010

Brian Doherty reviews Alex Butterworth’s book on the first War on TerrorThe World That Never Was: A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists, and Secret Agents — about the violent anarchist movement that lasted roughly from 1880 to 1910:

Butterworth’s walk through the  oft-told tale of 19th-century anarchism includes plenty of familiar material. Peter Kropotkin and Mikhail Bakunin, the Communards and the narodniki, the First and Second Internationals — all get plenty of attention. (So do many tangential stories, some interesting and some not, about the historical milieu in which they lived.) The freshest and most relevant parts of the book are Butterworth’s tales of cops and spies at war with anarchist radicals. The most valuable player in this battle against the international anarchist terror conspiracy — which didn’t actually exist, in the sense of one organization centrally planning attacks across national lines — was the Russians’ man in Paris, Peter Rachkovsky.

Rachkovsky started as a possibly sincere, possibly duplicitous mover in St. Petersburg’s radical underground in the late 1870s, after having been dismissed (for leniency toward political exiles) from a job as a prosecutor for the czar’s government. He ended up running the show for the Okhrana, the Russian secret police, in Paris, where so many radicals considered dangerous to the czarist regime had immigrated.

From 1885 until 1902, Rachkovsky was responsible for keeping anarchists under surveillance and on the run — and also, in many cases, financed and supplied with ideas. Butterworth notes that “prominent among his early initiatives were provocations designed to lure credulous émigrés into the most heinous crimes of which they may never have otherwise conceived.” Rachkovsky’s aim was to entrap his targets into committing acts that would help ensure that his job seemed of vital importance to the czar. This guaranteed him a solid berth in Paris that was lucrative both in salary and prestige — and, Butterworth’s research leads him to strongly suspect, in opportunities for corrupt under-the-radar dealings with a French government doing heavy business with Russia.

Rachkovsky wasn’t the first cop to use agents provocateurs among the French radicals. Louis Andrieux, the French prefect of police during the early 1880s, had been frustrated that all his spying on the anarchists failed to uncover a crime worthy of his time and attention, so he decided that “it was necessary that the act was accomplished for repression to be possible.”

Rachkovsky’s bosses in Russia and his hosts in Paris both feared the radicals, allowing the Russian agent to tighten the ties between the two nations. He succeeded so well that Butterworth argues he was partly to blame for the Russo-French alliance that helped make World War I such a bloody mess.

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