“Women, it must be confessed, are much more richly endowed with the divine flame than men. This is why the almost religious fervor of the Russian revolutionary movement must in great part be attributed to them: and while they take part in it, it will be invincible.”
Despite what is commonly believed in anarchist circles, the ideas of martyrdom and self-sacrifice were central to the efforts of the early Russian nihilists. Many of the young people who became enmeshed in the webs of conspiracy and revolt came from the upper classes and had grown up under the influence of the Bible. Like Bakunin before them, many of the early nihilists were illuminated by the suffering of Jesus and carried the symbol of his sacrifice with them into their era of struggle.
In his later years, Sir Isaac Newton, the priest of gravity, began attempting to assign a specific date for the end of the world. He ultimately decided that the apocalypse would take place no earlier than 2060. But in his book Observations upon the Prophecies of Daniel, and the Apocalypse of St. John, Newton decided 1866 would be the year of the end.
The 1860's were times of emergent student activism in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. The fledgling radicals were avid readers of the latest fiction and two books were central in their intellectual development. The first was Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev. In this book, the author coined and popularized the term nihilism in reference to the new generation and their particular blend of materialism and atheism. Turgenev was another one of the old liberals, forever lamenting past glories and pining for the Europeanization of Russia, a place they considered backward and primitive. Although the book was meant to critique this emerging trend, it ending up invigorating the youth and caused hundreds of them to identify as nihilists.
The second book that forged the ideas of these young rebels was What is to be done?, a book written by Nikolai Chernyshevski. It details the activities of a young man named Rakhmetov, a person completely dedicated to overthrowing the old order and establishing a utopian city of light, filled with glass and steel. He is the perfect warrior monk, intentionally sleeping on bare wood, never having sex, foregoing meat, sugar, and bread. He is dedicated to the revolution and the triumph of the people over tyranny. He is perfect, he is a saint, and he is a martyr. In the novel, Rakhmetov is reading Isaac Newtons analysis of the apocalypse and it is insinuated in the text that 1866 will be the year of the revolution.
In reality, 1866 brought an apocalypse no one could have foreseen. His name was Sergei Nechaev, the son of a newly middle-class family. He appeared as if out of nowhere in the halls of Saint Petersburg University, his mind boiling with plans and conspiracies. He originally came to the university to teach Bible studies and found his ways into radical circles. He had read all of the newest books and had made himself into the living embodiment of Rakhmetov. It was not long before he used the mystique of this literary character to his advantage, attracting young students into a secret organization.
That same year, a group of young radicals in Moscow formed a group simply called Hell. They were led by a man named Ishutin, another radical attempting to embody the pure revolutionary. He believed there were three great mean in the world: Jesus, Paul the Apostle, and Nikolai Chernyshevski. This was his trinity. Animated by it, he and his group planned to assassinate Tzar Alexander II. Their efforts ultimately failed, the assassin was hung, and Ishutin was sent into exile in Siberia and quickly went insane. Before being shipped away, he had informed the authorities that every member of Hell had to have “an infinite love and devotion for his country and its good.”
Not wanting to be outdone, Nechaev began organizing a group along similar lines in Saint Petersburg. After two years of organizing student meetings, he began to grow frustrated. Seeing his peers as inferior revolutionaries, he decided to set them all up in order to harden their spirits. After calling for a mass meeting to sign a document demanding freedom of assembly for students, Nechaev handed the list of everyone who signed over to the authorities. This was a sacrificial act, a trial by fire for the un-initiated. Dozens of radicals were thrown into prison because of his commitment to the revolution. One of these people was Vera Zasulich.
Like many others, she was inspired by the image of Jesus on the cross. As young girl she loved him and the transcendent suffering he underwent for the people. In her teen years she read What is to be done? and would attempt to live out the literary dreamworld with her sisters and their friends in Saint Petersburg. They went to cramped meetings in small flats to organize with students and discuss theory. They established cooperative presses and sewing operations in order to be independent and materially free. Over time, they were won over by Nechaev, the man who could best embody the protagonist of their new favorite book.
Thanks to him, Vera was thrown in jail, kept in solitary confinement for over a year, and was eventually released in 1873. She found her way into a Bakuninist group in Kiev where she organized for the next few years. Despite the bitterness she felt towards manipulators and liars like Nechaev, she never lost touch with her original desires to serve the people and sacrifice herself for their betterment. While Nechaev would only ever murder one of his former comrades and manipulate Bakunin into isolation and depression, Vera ended up outdoing all of the other literary pretenders.
In 1877, Vera and her friend Masha set out to assassinate the governor of Saint Petersburg and a leading prosecutor. Their plans were fueled by news of a nihilist prisoner being lashed with birch rods in prison These two women stepped out into the cold morning with revolvers in their shawls and headed to their destinations. Only Vera would succeed in shooting her target. Although he lived, Vera became the living manifestation of the pure will to avenge the suffering of the people. She freely admitted her actions while in custody and showed no repentance to the authorities. In 1878, a jury found Vera not guilty, in no small part due to the portrayal of her as a Joan of Arc in the local papers. She was the avenging angel, acting for completely self-less and benevolent reasons. Never before had an assassin been freed by the people who were meant to judge her.
Amongst contemporary Marxists, Vera is still remembered as the woman who convinced Marx that Russia did not need to transition to capitalism before a revolution would be possible. Her faith in the people and her commitment to her ideals was enough to convince the old man that he was wrong.
Amongst contemporary anarchists, Vera is largely forgotten. Her full story does not easily integrate with the current conceptions of nihilism, nor do the stories of the other Russian nihilists. There are many post-modern and literary influences on contemporary nihilism, influences that have turned it into a polymorphic blend of ideas that encourage passivity and hopelessness in the face of an overwhelming and total opponent. There has only ever been one nihilist movement in history that was active. Its legacies have more to do with Leninism and the USSR than they do with contemporary notions of nihilism. As I have briefly outlined, Russian nihilism was influenced by the Bible, literature, sacrifice, and martyrdom. Their history is distinct and cannot be easily appropriated.
For more information, see the excellent Angel of Vengeance by Ana Siljak. It is by far the most thorough history of the Russian nihilists ever written.