Terror seemed easier than beating one’s head against the wall of peasant indifference

Friday, November 16th, 2018

Russian terrorism’s “heroic period” began in January 1878, Gary Saul Morson explains, when Vera Zasulich shot General Trepov, who had ordered corporal punishment for a member of the intelligentsia — as if the man were some peasant:

These radicals took their class privileges seriously! At her trial in the new law courts, the defense attorney, the Clarence Darrow of his day, in effect put Trepov on trial while portraying Zasulich as a saint. In his account, she was living in a “rural wilderness” — it was actually a revolutionary commune where she rode about carrying a gun — when she heard about Trepov’s outrage and resolved to sacrifice herself for justice. The cream of society vied for tickets to the trial, applauded the defense, and were utterly delighted when the jury preposterously acquitted her.

Soon after, Stepniak stalked General Nikolai Mezentsev, head of Russia’s security police, and, finding him unprotected, stabbed him in the back with a stiletto, turned it in the wound, and made his escape. He became the toast of British society, the friend of William Morris and George Bernard Shaw, among others. Abroad, the radicals would claim that all they wanted were basic civil liberties, but in fact they either rejected Western “freedoms” or favored them only to make revolution easier. They opposed democracy because they knew very well the peasants would never support them. As one historian observes, “Terror seemed easier than beating one’s head against the wall of peasant indifference.” It gave a small group the chance to demoralize the government while creating a mystique of violence to ensure endless recruits. They achieved both these goals.

Leave a Reply