Stalin added very little to this sort of thinking

Tuesday, November 20th, 2018

What motivated Russian nihilist terrorists?

Solzhenitsyn got it right: what is most remarkable in the memoirs of terrorists is how rarely they express concern for the unfortunate. “Sympathy for the suffering of the people did not move me to join those who perished,” Vera Zasulich explains. “I had never heard of the horrors of serfdom [when growing up] at Biakolovo — and I don’t think there were any.”

Then what did motivate terrorists? Zasulich describes how as a girl she wished to become a Christian martyr, but when she lost her faith, terrorism offered a substitute martyrdom. Some men and women were, like Veronika, attracted to the excitement of living the prescribed terrorist biography. The fact that life was likely to be short endowed each moment with a vertiginous intensity that became addictive, and many reported that they could not live for long without committing another murder.

Zasulich also saw terrorism as an escape from a lifelong feeling that she “didn’t belong. No one ever held me, kissed me, or sat me on his knee; no one called me pet names. The servants abused me.” Like many others, she loved the camaraderie of the closely knit terrorist circle, in which mortal danger created bonds of intimacy experienced nowhere else. Many found the idea of suicide enchanting. We often think of suicide bombing as a modern invention, but it, too, was pioneered by the Russians.

It never occurs to these memoirists that their motives are entirely selfish. They amount to saying that one practices terrorism for one’s own satisfaction. Other people, whose suffering is a mere excuse, become what Alexander Herzen called “liberation fodder.” Interestingly enough, some heroes of Savinkov’s novels do know that such murder is above all self-affirmation. As aesthetes affirm art for art’s sake, they accept terror for terror’s sake. “Earlier I had an excuse,” one hero reflects, “I was killing for the sake of an ideal, for a cause…. But now I have killed for my own sake. I wanted to kill, and I killed…. Why is it right to kill for the sake of an ideal… and not for one’s own sake?”

Like Kropotkin’s autobiography, Figner’s became a classic, but the two differ in one important respect. Figner is utterly unable even to imagine any point of view but her own. “My mind was not encumbered with notions and doubts,” she explains. She describes her early life as the sudden discovery of one unquestionable truth after another. “Every truth, once recognized, became thereby compulsory for my will. This was the logic of my character.” Although she disdains attachment to any specific socialist program, she is certain that socialism will at once cure all ills. She gives up medicine for revolution when she concludes that medicine can only palliate ailments but socialism will eliminate them.

After the revolution, Bolsheviks insisted that anyone who differed from party dogma in the slightest respect deserved liquidation: There could be no nuance or middle ground. Figner, too, presumes that no decent person could think otherwise. “If all means of convincing him [someone who disagrees] have been tried and alike found fruitless,” she explains matter-of-factly, “there remains for the revolutionist only physical violence: the dagger, the revolver, and dynamite.”

To be a terrorist, Figner explains, one must practice constant deception. One lives under a false identity and regularly abuses trust. One spreads rumors among the peasants and plants spies in the enemy’s camp. So it is mind-boggling to read of her shock upon discovering that she herself has been deceived. It turned out that her comrade Degaev was working for the police. His betrayal led to her capture, but what did that matter “in the face of what Degaev had done, who had shaken the foundation of life itself, that faith in people without which a revolutionist cannot act? He had lied, dissimulated, and deceived…. To experience such a betrayal was a blow beyond all words. It took away the moral beauty of mankind, the beauty of the revolution and of life itself.” The same act is not the same act.

On one page Figner denounces the unjust persecution of radicals’ harmless work in the countryside while on the next she describes their work as revolutionary propaganda. With no irony she says that soon after Perovskaya killed the czar she “was treacherously seized on the street.” She finds imprisonment of terrorists immoral even though she also claims that upon release they immediately resume killing. How dare the government defend itself! She mentions only casually the death of many innocent bystanders, as if no one could seriously object. More horrifying than her actions is her mentality. Someone who reasons this way could justify anything. Stalin added very little to this sort of thinking.


  1. Alrenous says:

    It never occurs to these memoirists that their motives are entirely selfish.

    Selfish communists, who think communism will work because humans aren’t really selfish, is condemned by writer who expect/demands human communists not be so selfish.

  2. With the thoughts you'd be thinkin says:

    Seeing how revolutionary misbehaviour in Tsarist Russia has perked your interest, have you ever considered reading Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore? Basically it’s about Stalin before he became Stalin, so it follows him through many endeavours such as his role as a Georgian national poet, role as a gang leader and terrorist, escapee from Siberian exile, and much more. You’d be shocked with what he got away with. Link related is a bank robbery that he planned which killed 40 people:

  3. Harry Jones says:

    Anything that a right to exist must thereby be ceded the right to defend itself against an existential threat. That’s what the right to exist in practice.

    But a revolutionary does not recognize the government’s right to exist. It’s not even a secret.

    Any government that doesn’t seek to exterminate those who would destroy it is stupid. I would argue that a regime that stupid has by its stupidity forfeited the right to exist. The world can do without stupid governments.

    Call it Regime Darwinism.

  4. Lu An Li says:

    These American Sixties radicals really also got a rush out of being counter-culture and some of them such the Weather Underground being able to fool and evade the FBI. At some point more of an exciting lark rather than serious revolutionary fervor.

  5. Lucklucky says:

    Revolution is a tool for Social Competition and at same time giving meaning to their lives.

    Extreme Narcissism.

    I also think there is a tendency that societies with fast growth lead to war. Leads to optimism and the dream to change the world. Purification.

    Revolutionaries have a lot of free time…

  6. Faze says:

    At some point more of an exciting lark rather than serious revolutionary fervor.

    In ALL cases an exciting lark, Lu An Li. I witnessed no “serious revolutionary fervor” among the 60s radicals I knew. It was a big game of cowboys and Indians to us.

  7. Bob Sykes says:

    What is more important is that Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Castro, Che et al. get a pass. There are no films or novels depicting or describing the horrors committed by communists. It’s all Hitler, Hitler, Hitler all the time.

    Stalin actually killed Jews, too, but we don’t know how many.

  8. Sam J. says:

    Bob Sykes says,”…Stalin actually killed Jews, too, but we don’t know how many.”

    Not too many because as soon as he started in on the Jews they poisoned him.

    Alternately Unz had an idea that I had never even imagined. He said it is possible that the 6 million Jews that died in WWII were mostly killed by Stalin. A very original idea.

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