From Glasnost to Nihilistic Terror in the 1800s

In the early 1790s, while the king of France was having his head cut off, Empress Catherine had applied her own novel interpretation of human emancipation to keep revolution at bay: she had granted rights exclusively to the nobility. Since Russia had started with a system where no one possessed rights except the czar, or czarina, this had been deemed great progress and the beginning of enlightened civil society in Russia. Russian nobles now basked in their new freedom from whipping and poll taxes and arbitrary arrest; no noble could be deprived of life, property, or title without trial by a jury of his peers. But with their new inalienable rights, the nobles began to treat the serfs more and more like slaves. Under Catherine, Russian nobles bought, sold, and traded serfs—using them to settle gambling debts or equip brothels—both privately and at open markets, which visiting Europeans and Russian abolitionists took to comparing to the slave markets in the Americas (though Russian nobles like Pushkin violently objected to the comparison).

By the 1830s, a Russian noble’s status was measured in the number of “souls” he possessed. But as Russian nobles came to feel more and more like the elite in the rest of Europe in terms of their own status, they developed a sense of embarrassment and guilt over the outmoded system under which they held human beings in bondage to their land. Abolitionist proposals almost always included plans to sell the emancipated serfs small parcels of land, or to let them sharecrop, after they were freed. But the serfs did not acknowledge that the nobles had the right to sell them anything. A kind of organic socialism already existed among many serfs under which land was held by a rural commune, the mir, that distributed the right to work it according to a household’s size and needs. (Some reformers, like Prince Kropotkin, the famous anarchist, formed their ideas of socialism by idealizing the communal relations of the serfs their family owned.) The serfs believed that when the czar gave them their freedom, the Little Father must naturally also recognize their right to the land as well—for what was freedom without land? It was a potentially devastating clash of interpretations.

Coming to the throne in the 1850s, Czar Alexander II had resolved to modernize his country from the ground up, and he not only set about freeing the serfs but also reformed a host of other institutions: the press laws (eliminating most censorship), the universities (ending most government control over professorships and academic speech), the military (dropping the twenty-five-year draft that had made Russia’s armies a kind of martial serfdom), and the judiciary (replacing secret government courts with public trial by jury). The Liberator Czar also vastly improved conditions for Russia’s Jews. In her Memoirs of a Grandmother, Pauline Wengeroff, who was born in the Pale in 1833, describes the hope she and her family felt after Alexander II “liberated sixty million peasants from bondage and the Jews from their chains.” She described how the czar opened the gates of Russia’s cities, welcoming a generation of Jewish youth “to quench their thirst for European education in the universities. In this brilliant period of intellectual flowering, the Jews took part in the ferment in the whole country, the rise of the fine arts, the development of the sciences.”

It is important to resurrect the forgotten optimism of those days—when the original term glasnost, “openness,” was coined—in order to understand the true horror of what followed.

During Alexander’s reign, the disaffected children of the elite exploited the new freedom at the universities to join countercultural organizations that grew consistently more violent. Always the author to write the headlines, Turgenev, in his novel Fathers and Sons, gave the sixties generation its most popular new word—”nihilist.” The turning point was the “mad summer” of 1874, when Russian students ditched school en masse, in a movement they called To the People. The students dressed like peasants, or at least their romantic impression of peasants—overalls, red shirts, and unkempt long hair for the men; loose white blouses, black skirts, and short hair for the women—and walked or hitched rides out of the cities into the countryside, carrying sacks of tools they barely knew how to use. Like the hippies a hundred years later, they planned to work the land, shoeing horses or planting crops. The students were shocked when “the People” regarded their strange appearance suspiciously, often turning them in to the local police. Stung by the peasants’ rejection, the student radicals returned to the cities determined to shock the system by other means. (“The ideal of the French Revolution, draped in the barbaric vestment of Russian nihilism, inspired the upper classes of St. Petersburg’s youth,” as Lev [Nussimbaum, aka Kurban Said] would later write.) They formed the People’s Will, a self-proclaimed terrorist organization.

SOURCE: The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life, by Tom Reiss (Random House, 2005), pp. 23-25

Naturellement. Who better to understand and express the People’s Will than the “disaffected children of the elite”—especially after being rejected by the very people they presume to speak for?

Leave a comment

Filed under Russia

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.