It is impossible to draw a line between revolutionary and criminal action

Sunday, November 18th, 2018

It is hard even to fathom the extent of the terror in early 20th-Century Russia:

The Party of Socialists-Revolutionaries (or SRs), founded in 1901, immediately created a combat organization to conduct mass terror. Each of its three leaders—the second was Savinkov—achieved mythic status. In 1879, the People’s Will had some 500 members, but by 1907, the SRs had 45,000. So many bombs—referred to as “oranges”—were manufactured that people joked about fear of fruit. In 1902, SRs killed minister of the interior Dmitri Sipiagin and in 1904 his successor Vyacheslav von Plehve, along with the czar’s uncle Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich in 1905, among others.

As Geifman calculates, between 1905 and 1907, some 4,500 government officials of all ranks were murdered, plus at least 2,180 private individuals killed and 2,530 wounded. Between January 1908 and May 1910, authorities recorded 19,957 terrorist acts that claimed the lives of 700 government officials and thousands of private people. Robberies—called “expropriations”—became commonplace. Terrorists robbed not just banks and the imperial treasury but also landowners, businessmen, and eventually just ordinary people with barely a ruble to steal. According to one liberal journalist, robberies occurred daily “in the capitals, in provincial cities, and in district towns, in villages, on highways, on trains, on steamboats.” Newspapers published special sections chronicling violent acts, while murder became more common than traffic accidents.

The SRs were far from the only terrorist organization. Even more crimes were committed by various anarchist groups. The Bolsheviks, while late to the game, caught up. Though some other Marxist parties rejected terrorism as contrary to the dogma that individuals don’t matter, the Bolsheviks engaged in it anyway. Criminals calling themselves revolutionaries joined in, but since revolutionaries themselves recruited criminals and applauded their violence, it is impossible to draw a line between revolutionary and criminal action. Some terrorists would give half their take to a revolutionary party and use the other half to buy a villa or even their own business. In Riga, terrorists effectively replaced the local government by levying taxes, establishing police patrols, and, of course, creating their own secret police to uncover disloyalty.


  1. Candide III says:

    It says a lot about the value of contemporary and modern screeching about the oppressive autocratic Tsarist regime that this situation continued for several decades with no effectual response from the Tsar and his government, until Stolypin, whose own house was bombed and his teenage daughter invalided, temporarily instituted field court-marshals for terrorist murders and condemned a few hundred. If memory serves, only a minority of these were actually executed, but this put a stop to the terror, and for this Stolypin was branded the worst offender against liberty that history has ever known. He was assassinated a few years later.

  2. Candide III says:


  3. Adar says:

    American communist revolutionaries of the late 1960′s their attempted recruitment efforts included convicts of the worst possible sort of offender. Most upper-middle class youth had not even cracked the proverbial eggshell during their lives and never had committed a violent act ever. Convicts were admired for their lack of restraint in using violence as a means to achieve whatever ends.

  4. Magus says:

    I’m curious what the religious/ethnic breakdown of terrorists in imperial Russia was. I have my suspicions but frankly don’t know.

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