Russian history has been a godsend for literature

Wednesday, November 14th, 2018

Russian history has been a godsend for literature, Gary Saul Morson explains:

How many firsts we owe to Russians! Lenin invented the political system we call totalitarianism. The Soviet Union was the first state based on terror and the first “one-party state.” (Previously, a party, as its name implies, represented only a part of society.) The first dystopian novel was not Huxley’s Brave New World or Orwell’s 1984, but Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, well known by Huxley and Orwell. Czarist Russia inspired both the modern prison-camp novel, beginning with Dostoyevsky’s House of the Dead, and the “terrorist novel,” starting with Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed. Prison camps, dystopia, terrorism: Whatever else it has been, Russian history has been a godsend for literature. And for political language as well: We get the word “intelligentsia” from Russia, where it was coined about 1860; and before the American “populists” of the 1890s there were the Russian narodniks (populists) of the 1870s. Political extremism and great fiction — these are Russia’s obsessions.

Russia was also the first country where young men and women, asked to name their intended careers, might well say “terrorist.” Beginning in the 1870s, terrorism became an honored, if dangerous, profession. It was often a family business employing brothers and sisters generation after generation. Historians sometimes trace modern terrorism to the Carbonari of early-19th-century Italy, but it was Russia that gave it unprecedented importance. You cannot relate the history of czarist Russia in its last half-century without the history of terrorism. As we now associate terrorism with radical Islam, Europeans then associated it with “Russian nihilism.” By the early 20th century, no profession, except literature, enjoyed more prestige among well-educated Russians.

Russian history, one of novelist Vasily Grossman’s characters observes, stands as an object lesson to the rest of the world, a lesson it has failed to learn. People still romanticize revolutionary violence, as we see in all those posters of an angelic-looking Che Guevara. In czarist Russia, the mentality Tom Wolfe was to dub “radical chic” gripped educated society. The privileged cheered on those who would destroy them.

Terrorism has arisen in many cultures, but Russian terrorism, so far as I know, is unique in one respect: its intimate connection with literature. Not only did great writers like Dostoyevsky and the symbolist Andrei Bely (author of Petersburg) write major novels about terrorism, the terrorists themselves composed riveting memoirs and fiction. Prince Peter Kropotkin, once the world’s most influential anarchist, authored a masterpiece of Russian autobiography, Memoirs of a Revolutionist, and many other terrorists, most notably women, have left classic accounts of terrorist movements. When the assassin Sergei Kravchinsky escaped to Europe and assumed the name Stepniak, he became internationally famous for both his history Underground Russia: Revolutionary Profiles and Sketches from Life and his novel Career of a Nihilist. Still more amazing, Boris Savinkov, the longtime leader of Russia’s most important terrorist organization, responsible for spectacular killings of high officials, also published his Memoirs of a Terrorist as well as three novels about terrorists. Sometimes it is hard to tell whether terrorist experience demanded literary treatment or was chosen to provide compelling literary material.

The scale of 19th- and 20th-century Russian terrorism boggles the mind. According to the movement’s best historian, Anna Geifman, terrorism affected just about everyone. Conventionally, accounts describe a brief prehistory in the 1860s and early 1870s, then a “heroic phase” from 1878 to 1881, and, after a pause, a period when terrorism assumed staggering proportions. In 1866, Dmitri Karakozov, a member of a radical organization called “Hell,” tried to kill the czar and was hanged. Sergei Nechaev, who inspired The Possessed, not only committed murder but, more important, wrote the infamous Catechism of a Revolutionary, which provided a model for revolutionaries to come. The true revolutionary, according to Nechaev, “has no interests, no affairs, no feelings, no habits, no property, not even a name. Everything in him is wholly absorbed by a single, exclusive interest, a single thought, a single passion — the revolution.” He must suppress all feelings of compassion, love, gratitude, “even honor.” For him only one criterion of good and evil exists: “Everything that promotes the revolution is moral; everything that hinders it is immoral.” Without hesitation the revolutionary uses other people, including other revolutionaries, as Nechaev did. By comparison, Machiavelli was a softie.

In the mid-1870s, idealistic men and women became “populists” and “went to the people.” They flocked to the countryside to imbibe the peasants’ natural goodness while instructing them in socialism. (I described this movement recently in these pages.) The peasants were unimpressed and often turned them in to the police, in much the way Turgenev describes in his novel Virgin Soil. Far from abandoning their ideals, the populists decided to realize them without the people, even against the will of the people, through terror and a coup d’état. Ironically enough, they called their organization “The People’s Will.” Eventually, in 1881, they succeeded in killing the czar.

(Hat tip to T. Greer, who puts the piece on his short list for best essay of 2018.)


  1. Szopen says:

    “Intelligentsia” was not coined in the 1860s by Russians. It was already used in 1844 in Polish by philospher Karol Libelt.

  2. Kirk says:

    I have long thought that there was a uniquely Slavic brand of nihilistic insanity, and this essay clarifies and details why I have developed that line of thought. If the “revolutionaries” had gotten on board with Alexander II, they would have attained most of their stated ostensible goals within a generation or two.

    But, as we see with the eventual attainment of power by their intellectual heirs, the Leninists, those weren’t actually the things they wanted. What they desired, above all, was unrestrained power over other human beings. The fate of the Ukrainian Kulak class was in no small part a revenge on them for their intransigent reluctance to support and take part in the histrionics of the intellectual class that went out into the countryside to proselytize for the glories of nihilistic revolution.

    Smartest thing you can do, when presented with these social wreckers? Follow the three precepts: Shoot, shovel, and shut up. Offering them shelter and succor is tantamount to signing your own death warrant. I remember hearing stories about the peasantry of the Ukraine having sheltered varied revolutionaries against the Tsar, only to have those same psychotic assholes show up running the operations resulting in the Holodomor. When the fanatic comes to your door, begging for shelter? Do not make the mistake of thinking they will remember you with kindness in future years.

    There are Yazidi I have met, who sheltered their neighbors from Saddam, only to have those neighbors turn on them when ISIS came calling. They would no doubt speak similar wisdom, having paid the same harsh tuition that the peasants of the Ukraine did earlier.

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