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The Defiant Life of Vera Figner: Surviving the Russian Revolution

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This engaging biography tells the dramatic story of a Russian noblewoman turned revolutionary terrorist. Born in 1852 in the last years of serfdom, Vera Figner came of age as Imperial Russian society was being rocked by the massive upheaval that culminated in the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. At first a champion of populist causes and women's higher education, Figner later became a leader of the terrorist party the People's Will and was an accomplice in the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881. Drawing on extensive archival research and careful reading of Figner's copious memoirs, Lynne Ann Hartnett reveals how Figner survived the Bolshevik revolution and Stalin's Great Purges and died a lionized revolutionary legend as the Nazis bore down on Moscow in 1942.

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1 In the Twilight of a Fading Age

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ON A LATE WINTER MORNING IN 1861, in sleepy villages, provincial towns, and bustling cities throughout the vast Russian Empire, somber-faced Russian Orthodox priests, conscious of the import of the moment, read an official proclamation penned in the imperial capital. After two centuries of legalized serfdom1—for all intents and purposes an institution that was indistinct from slavery—priests informed their congregations that the autocratic regime of Alexander II decreed the Russian serfs emancipated from their noble overlords. Although the details of the abolition of serfdom and the caveats contained within the decree made “freedom” a bitter pill to swallow,2 Russia entered a new age that morning. The new age that dawned, though, differed markedly from what the manifesto’s authors had hoped or expected. Fearful of a new round of intensified uprisings and rebellions against this legislated, unrelenting system of inequality and oppression, those who crafted the Emancipation Manifesto hoped that the abolition of serfdom would settle underlying social, economic, and political tensions in the land of the tsars. Yet in many respects the terms of emancipation ushered in a new period of destabilization and revolutionary activity that would culminate not in periodic localized rebellions but in a revolution that would ultimately destroy the imperial regime itself.

 

2 Age of Consciousness

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SITTING ALONE IN AN ISOLATED POLICE interrogation room a short carriage drive from her cell in the Peter and Paul Fortress, a thirty-one-year-old Vera Figner thought about her life. As she took pen to paper to explain to gendarmes, government officials, herself, and (she hoped) posterity, how she, a woman born to the Imperial Russian nobility, faced a likely death sentence for a series of violent political crimes, Vera sought continuity. In chronicling her revolutionary activities, she asserts that her illegal radical activity during the previous few years “had its own history,” because it was rooted in “logical links with [her] previous life.”1 Rather than viewing her revolutionary career as an abrupt rupture with a privileged past, she saw it as the understandable consequence of her own personal history and that of her country.

Vera Figner’s path to revolutionary notoriety was not predestined; instead it was dictated by coincidence, circumstance, and choice. In both the confession that she wrote over a period of weeks in 1883 and the autobiographical accounts she penned over more than a decade in the twentieth century, Vera attempts to guide those who want to understand her life and radical career. For Vera, every step she took along the way toward the unforgiving prison cell whose cold, damp walls became the boundaries of her solitary universe for two decades was a conscious one; every choice she made was determined by a moral purpose and strength of will. Yet much of what impelled Vera Figner into the revolutionary underground and the annals of Russian history was timing. Being born in the twilight of the age of serfdom, and reaching the age of consciousness in a period filled with political and social reform, upheaval, and uncertainty, Vera found both exciting opportunities and insurmountable hurdles. How she interpreted and managed each of these at different historical moments invariably influenced her subsequent options and choices and ultimately determined her place in history.

 

3 Pioneers Diverted

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LIKE MOST EUROPEAN CITIES OF ITS size in the late nineteenth century, Zurich bustled with activity. With the majestic, snow-kissed Alps that hugged the clear, pale-green waters of Lake Zurich towering in the background, merchants, artisans, financiers, and industrial workers darted off to work each weekday morning along the well-groomed streets of this cosmopolitan city.1 On the weekends, families strolled along the quays bordering the Limmat River to any number of Zurich’s public squares and lush green parks. Here they would often cross paths with the poets and artists who traveled to Zurich to indulge their creativity amid the breathtaking scenery and political freedom that the Swiss canton offered. In the second half of the nineteenth century, Zurich was a center of finance, industry, art, and culture. But it was also a center of learning. With its colleges of theology, arts, jurisprudence, and medicine, the University of Zurich attracted students from across Switzerland and Europe. In the streets that surrounded the university, students babbled to one another in most of the languages of Europe. While this polyglotism surely characterized the corridors and courtyards at any number of the major universities on the Continent, Zurich was unique in that many of the student voices that rose above the clamor of the horse-drawn streetcars trotting by the college belonged to women. As the first university in Europe to admit women on the same basis as men, the University of Zurich exerted a magnetic pull on young women who were anxious to expand their minds and professional opportunities. Between the winter of 1864–1865 and the summer of 1872, “a total of 203 women were enrolled as auditors or students” at the University of Zurich; of these “there were 23 English, 10 Swiss, 10 Germans, 6 Austrians, 6 Americans and 148 Russians,”2 including two provincial noblewomen from the province of Kazan.

 

4 Town and Country

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AS SHE SAT IN A RAILROAD CAR crossing the capitals, farmlands, and villages of the northeastern edges of Europe, Vera tried to stave off an unrelenting chill. Over the previous three years, her body had become acclimated to the more temperate climate in Switzerland; now the lap robes she slung over her legs as the train chugged along through Poland and the Baltic region provided little defense against the cold arctic air, and her discomfort grew with each passing mile. But it was not only the weather that she found disconcerting on this train trip east in late November 1875; she had grown used to much more than just the climate in Western Europe. Since arriving in Zurich in 1872, Vera had grown accustomed to pursuing her own goals, publicly speaking her mind, and experimenting with radical new political ideas. In Switzerland she did so openly and with impunity, and this changed her significantly. Having discovered socialist theory, she embraced its teaching and identified herself as a proponent of its principles as they applied to Russia. Now, as she sat amid anonymous fellow travelers on her way back to Russia, this diminutive, well-dressed, apparently demure young woman seemed to be the antithesis of the unconventional, allegedly promiscuous radicals and nihilists pilloried by the government and the conservative press. But Vera’s looks belied her intentions. She was no longer the idealist who dreamed of living a legal, publicly acknowledged existence tending to the ills of those less fortunate than her. Three years removed from an earlier train trip west, she now returned to her native land, a committed populist, resolved to confront the injustice she witnessed not just by ameliorating its consequences but also by conspiring to eradicate its root causes. Switzerland did not make Vera Figner a doctor; it transformed her into a radical.

 

5 The Tsar’s Death Sentence

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MORE THAN ANY RULER IN RECENT Russian history, Alexander II believed that his relationship with his subjects was predicated on feelings of love. He was, after all, the Tsar Liberator, who accomplished what no other Romanov had dared to risk when in 1861 he freed millions of Russian peasants from the bonds of serfdom. Over the subsequent decade, Alexander II complemented the emancipation by instituting a series of educational, military, governmental, and judicial reforms. Though none of his reforms diminished his autocratic authority, Alexander II was convinced that in granting these and a measure of free discourse, he would engender harmony between educated society and the monarchy,1 thereby ensuring the longevity of the autocracy. The unsuccessful attempt on the life of the tsar made by Dmitrii Karakozov in 1866 only reinforced this scenario of love between the ruler and the ruled as the people demonstrated their affection for the autocrat through the wrath they directed at the would-be regicide. But a little more than a decade later, continued repression, a succession of disappointing reforms, and a series of political trials of Russia’s educated youth eroded the patience of society, and the curtain lowered on Alexander II’s scenario of love. No pretense of mutual affection remained. “Love had turned into its antithesis, bitter rage, indulgent to violent revolutionary acts.”2 Thus, as a generation of radicals abandoned peaceful agitation in the countryside to bear arms against their government, they found society strangely receptive to their propaganda by deed, a reaction that only reinforced their perception of the morality and justice of their violent agenda.

 

6 Revolutionary Iconography

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AS VERA PACED NERVOUSLY IN THE empty silence of her apartment, Tsar Alexander II rode in a horse-drawn carriage through the streets of his capital. Although it was just after 2:00 in the afternoon, the emperor had already had a full day. After attending religious services, he reviewed the troops at the Mikhailovskii Riding School and had a pleasant visit with his cousin, the Grand Duchess Ekaterina Mikhailovna.1 The schedule he followed this March morning was typical for the emperor. He was a man comfortable with routine, and his day mimicked many of his Sunday mornings since his return from the Crimea a few months before. But Alexander II had not been to the riding school for several weeks. As the confrontation between his government and the People’s Will escalated, the tsar canceled his review of the troops, choosing to remain in the palace and not expose himself to unnecessary danger. Yet the February 27 arrest of the terrorist leader Andrei Zheliabov reassured the emperor that his police forces had gained the upper hand; thus, he resumed his favored Sunday morning routine on March 1. Bowing to the continued concerns his new young wife expressed for his personal safety, however, Alexander agreed to vary his typical route to and from the Winter Palace. Instead of following his usual path along Nevskii Prospect and Malaia Sadovaia Street, he took a less open course along the Ekaterinskii Canal, a route that many close to him believed would offer more protection against a potential terrorist attack. Sitting in his supposedly bombproof carriage, a present from Napoleon III, he was only a couple of miles from home when a violent blast shook the carriage.

 

7 Transformation

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ON SEPTEMBER 24, 1884, THE Trial of the Fourteen opened in St. Petersburg amid circumstances much different from those of the well-publicized political trials of the previous decade. For years both the Romanov autocracy and the Russian public viewed the trials of accused revolutionaries and terrorists as “great political causes célèbres.”1 Except for Vera Zasulich’s stunning acquittal, the verdicts doled out by the courts were mostly preordained, and thus no drama was involved in the deliberation of guilt or innocence; yet the proceedings were grand spectacles. Imperial courtrooms served as the stages on which a new type of modern political theater was performed; a curious public and anxious friends angled for admission to witness the drama as both the prosecution and defense presented cases and delivered lines designed to sway hearts and influence minds in a propaganda battle between the tsarist state and the revolutionaries who conspired to overthrow it. Although the imperial government had learned from early trials in the post-reform period and began to more strictly control the space in its courtrooms and the publicity emanating from them as the 1870s gave way to the more violent 1880s, the secrecy that surrounded the Trial of the Fourteen in 1884 was unparalleled. According to the foreign correspondent, for the Times of London, only nine coveted tickets were doled out for this latest trial.2 The regime of Alexander III decided to try the latest defendants with as little external fanfare as possible in order to prevent the accused members of the People’s Will from using the defendant’s box as a platform from which to remind the country of their exploits, sacrifice, and aspirations for a more equitable and just future for Russia. But Vera Figner had other plans.

 

8 Life and Death

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MUCH OF THE JOY EKATERINA FIGNER felt upon learning that Vera’s death sentence had been commuted dissipated when tsarist officials informed her that her daughter had been taken to Shlisselburg Fortress. While the state refused to end Vera’s life on the scaffold, its judicial arm had no compunction about consigning her to a living death behind high fortress walls and a dangerous current at the mouth of the Neva River. Ekaterina spent years longing for news of her eldest child, but for more than a decade her anxious curiosity encountered only silence. It seemed that the prison administration intended to abide by the retributive promise made to the Figner matriarch in 1884 when an official ominously vowed that the next she would hear of Vera would be when she was “in her grave.”1 In spite of her fears, months and years passed and news of Vera’s death never came. Although Ekaterina had no idea what her daughter’s life was like, she found comfort in knowing that at least her firstborn was still alive. But for Vera the line between life and death blurred in Shlisselburg as she discovered a life that was much worse than her anticipated death. While each passing day without news of her daughter’s death brought a measure of solace to Ekaterina, Vera’s endless days in her tomblike cell led her to wistfully recall how close she had come to realizing the martyrdom on the scaffold that she had sought.

 

9 Resurrection in Exile

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IN THE DAYS BEFORE VERA LEFT Shlisselburg, her dear friend Nikolai Morozov composed a poem to commemorate her release. In it he expressed his wish that fate would treat his cherished comrade well and that soon she would put the horrors of prison behind her.1 But Vera had spent too many years in Shlisselburg to believe that Morozov’s good wishes for her would be realized. She knew that inmates did not move easily from fortress to freedom. On the contrary, the steamer ride down the Neva from Lake Ladoga was just the first leg of a long journey that brought former Shlisselburg prisoners to new, untried terms of incarceration. For most this fresh incarceration was physical, as newly released Shlisselburg inmates faced periods of varying length in other prisons of the tsar or in distant exile settlements. But even those lucky few who quickly passed from imprisonment to freedom soon realized that they still remained captive to the fortress that had stolen their youth. Though the former inmates might never see the white walls of the fortress again, they never completely left Shlisselburg, nor did it leave them. As Vera explained almost a decade after her release, “I cannot erase twenty years during which I experienced more than in the rest of my life combined. Shlisselburg always hangs over me. I cannot shake it off, nor do I want to.”2

 

10 An Old Revolutionary in a New Revolution

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IN THE LATE WINTER OF 1917, a series of rapidly growing protests and strikes toppled the three-hundred-year-old Romanov autocracy. No professional revolutionaries took the helm. Neither bombs nor assassinations played a part. Instead, mounting death tolls in a debilitating world war, economic and industrial inadequacy, ensuing food and fuel shortages, drastic socioeconomic disparity, and the long-term corrosive effects of the autocracy itself finally exhausted the patience of the people in the tsar’s capital and forced the abdication of the last Romanov tsar.

As these dramatic events unfolded in the city to which Vera had so recently returned, she experienced a flurry of different emotions. Watching the mounting protests and hearing the news that a new Provisional Government had taken control, she felt “joy, sadness for the past, and a sense of alarm” about what the future held.1 For a woman so familiar with the sacrifices demanded by radical political change, the first revolution of 1917 seemed too swift and the transfer of power too easily accomplished. In a letter to her cousin Natasha, Vera wrote, “The first days [of the revolution] were sad for me. I kept thinking of those who perished in the last thirty-seven years. I hope for a favorable outcome and the consolidation of freedom, but I expect difficulties will arise along the way.”2

 

11 Revolutionary Survivor

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BY THE FALL OF 1921, VERA realized that she had a vested interest in the Soviet Revolution. She believed her revolutionary generation’s struggles had prepared the way for her Communist successors, and thus she felt a certain responsibility for their actions. But her acceptance of the Soviet system was also predicated in eminently practical concerns. Having lived through the dislocation caused by the civil war and witnessed the ultimate survival of Lenin’s regime and party, Vera accepted the inevitability of the Bolshevik victory and tacitly admired the Communists’ resilience. She also appreciated the consideration that the new regime had accorded her personally. While she certainly did not relish the censorship and bureaucratic hurdles that she had to clear in order to publish her writings, and while she rued the persecution of other political parties in which the Soviets engaged, she was grateful for the material privileges the state extended to her and appreciated the cultural and social leeway the regime allowed her. Yet Vera also realized that the privileges she enjoyed were precarious and knew that her continued ability to pursue her literary and cultural projects depended on the sustained cooperation of the Soviet state. Likening social insignificance and political apathy to death, she resolved to navigate the complicated quagmire that defined the Soviet political arena in order to maintain her livelihood and social satisfaction. As she combined this level of accommodation with a continued commitment to issues of social justice, she proved herself adept at navigating the often precarious contours of contemporary revolutionary politics.

 

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