Saint Vera And The Nihilist Warriors

“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.”

-Sergei Kravchinskii,

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.

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Comments

religion

hahah modern nihilists = pwnd

Anon Still doesn't get it

Rad articleii

very inspiring

this book looks awesome

Can an anarchist nihilist explain to me how anarchism and nihilism can possibly compliment each other? I feel like anarchism does hold some essential truths or central values; for example, that hierarchy is "bad," freedom is "good," etc. Nihilism casts off absolutes, morals, values, correct? Is the addition of individualism into the mix the only way that anarchism and nihilism can be compatible? Because, disregarding any moral impetus toward action and negating the possibility of any absolute right or wrong, one can still rage against hierarchy/the state/capitalism from the perspective that it benefits one to do so? But it doesn't actually bring many benefits because you're likely to end up dead or in prison pretty quickly if you really go for it... Unless you're only counting a certain self-satisfaction with sticking to your guns, but what's the difference between that and relative or personal morality or (like this author suggests) martyrdom?

As a friend once said, "I fight against all that drains the life out of itself. I fight not because I think we will emerge victorious, but because it is the only thing worth living for, the only thing that will relieve this fear of impending murder—through addiction, through cancer and suicide. I will never cease to shamelessly scheme and calculate against these conditions—not because I believe in something better— but because I cannot knowingly submit to death at the hands of pigs."

I feel this, but doesn't it still suggest that "life" is good and "death at the hands of pigs" is bad? Does it change if you use the words desirable/undesirable? Why? Isn't that really just a word game?

"nihilism casts off absolutes, morals, values, correct?"

yeah buts that more the modern academic/wanker endless spiral type of nihilism we see in anarchist circles today. it clearly was something different before. today nihilists just talk a lot so they dont have to actually do anything or be anything like the njhilists of the past. instead they talk aboiut how there is no good/bad, right/wrong/ andc watch tv.

this is not happening in the US.

At that time a nihilist was someone who just didn't believe in society anymore or the divine right of kings or religion and thought the state was oppressive. Also that the life of a revolutionary was just as meaningful as any other life and in fact was what Jesus had in mind. Just like originally an atheist was someone who didn't believe the bible story but might still have their own beliefs whereas a modern atheist would probably reject any unscientific belief.

leftists.

even in seemingly well-regarded posts on @ news, of all places ...
men: referred to by last names
women: first names

russian names are confusing like andrei andreiovich

Is that bad?

it invests a certain authority in (if emotional distance from) the male characters. honestly, i'd prefer first names all around.

I'd prefer if we referred to people by their characteristic smells. But we don't.

its technique to evoke empathy from reader, using first name for favorable charcters, last name for unfavorable etc.

I've read "Angel of Vengeance". It actually doesn't make the nihilists look that good, Zasulich comes across as a naive romantic in the book. The Russian nihilists thought that they were living under a brutal tyranny at the time, and in a way the Russian state was tyrannical, but liberals within the Russian government had actually succeeded in overturning a lot of the retrograde policies of the past. For example, the lashing mentioned in the article which was the impetus for the assassination attempt was against Russia's abolition of corporal punishment in the early 1860's, and shocked people within the Russian state. Of course, even a liberal Russia led by a czar who was a "modernizer" would be opposed by anarchists or communists, but the way the nihilists viewed the Russian state and the Slavic peasantry (their revolutionary subject) was bizarre.

Vera Zasulich later became affiliated with the Mensheviks, bitterly denounced the Bolsheviks & Lenin (which was understandable) and issued pro-Russia propaganda during World War One (pretty much unforgivable, but then again WW1 did seperate the wheat from the chaff in Europe's revolutionary movement).

I'd recommend checking out Angel of Vengeance, though, it's a fairly good book with plenty of interesting bits of info about radical politics in the narodnik era.

yer uh naive romantic

Christian nihilism is a metaphysical interpretation of being and identity, it adopts sacrificial and religious ethics, which may liberate endemic social mores from a stagnant perpetuation of their frivolous and corrupt tendencies, however, similar to its political cousin, they are a negation, and therefore a hemisphere of a binary relationship, which ultimately leads to reform and recuperation.
Anarchism aspires to non-binary hypotheticals, it has no end plan, nor does it require a surrender to any metaphysical ethic or entity. It is a self-contained singular unification of individual and social consciousnesses. Having once assumed the possibility of anarcho-nihilism, in my wisdom I realize now that such a union is problematic and contradictory, nihilism and anarchism are 2 entirely different viewpoints.

For a decent analysis of the Russian nihilists, check out The Rebel by Camus.

When did we start hosting ads on anarchistnews? Did I miss a vote, or is this the new standard shit? It's like infantile vomit. The website is spitting up on my shoulder - what should I expect though? You can't make the babies crawling around anarchistnews act like adults. You have to choose. Do I let the kid roll around in their own shit and piss, or do you cover yourself with it every few hours for the next 3 years or so until the kid grows up to be a little shithead and starts stabbing you with knives while laughing. Devilchild. Fuck you.

are you psychotic? is this the new standard of a news comment?

You guys need to grow up and stop with the infantile commenting. I mean if you can't put a sentence together that edifies your reader then why bother? Before you pull the trigger next time think to yourself does this make sense to anyone but me?

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