Vera Figner, the child of prosperous parents, was born in Kazan, Russia, on 25th June, 1852. The oldest of six children, she was sent away to a private school in 1863. Her uncle had liberal views and encouraged her to be concerned about the poor.
Vera wanted to go to university but this was not allowed in Russia at this time. In 1872, along with her sister, Lydia Figner, she decided to study medicine in Zurich. She told a friend: “In my opinion in order to be more useful one should know more, but where can you learn what you want to do? I think only the university is worth so much that a woman could sacrifice everything for it... But in Russia this way is closed to women. Therefore... I have decided to go to Zurich. We shall return to our country and organize life in a fine way... I shall organize a hospital and open a school or a handcraft institute... I shall stop at nothing because this whole plan is not the mere product of an idle fantasy but my whole flesh and blood, and my motivation will be the three needs or targets of my existence: economic independence, the formation of my intelligence, and usefulness to others.”
While in Zurich she met a group of women who held radical political views. This included Sophia Bardina and Olga Liubatovich. The anarchist Peter Kropotkin met Figner and her friends during this period: “They lived as most students do, especially the women, that is on very little. Tea and bread, some milk and a thin slice of meat, amidst spirited discussions of the latest news from the socialist world and the last book read - that was their regular fate. Those who had more money than was needed for such a way of life donated it to the common cause ... As to dress, the most parsimonious economy reigned in that direction. Our girls in Zurich seemed defiantly to throw this question at the population there: can there be a simplicity of dress which does not become a girl if she is young, intelligent and full of energy?” Another observer, Franziska Tiburtius, provided a less complimentary picture of this group of radicals: The short-cut hair, the enormous blue spectacles, the short quite unadorned dress which resembled umbrella lining, the round glossy matelot, the cigarette, the dark and supercilious countenance all came to be considered as characteristic of the woman student."
The activities of these young women began to concern the Russian authorities. The Russian Government Herald published an article on 21st May, 1872, claiming: “Several Russian girls set off abroad to attend lectures at Zurich University. At first there were only a very few of them, but now there are more than a hundred women there... Largely because of this increase in Russian women students, the ring-leaders of the Russian emigration have chosen this town as a centre for revolutionary propaganda, and have done all in their power to enlist into their ranks these young women students. Under their influence, women have abandoned their studies for fruitless political agitation. Young Russians of both sexes have formed political parties of extreme shades... In the Russian Library they hold lectures of an exclusively revolutionary nature... It has become common practice for the girls to attend workers’ meetings... Young and inexperienced minds are being led astray by political agitators, and set on the wrong course. And to cap it all, meetings and party struggles throw the girls into such confusion that they accept this fruitless and fraudulent propaganda as real life. Once drawn into politics the girls fall under the influence of the leaders of the emigration, and become compliant weapons in their hands. Some of them go from Zurich to Russia and back two or three times a year, carrying letters, instructions and proclamations and taking an active part in criminal propaganda. Others are led astray by communist theories about free love, and under pretext of fictitious marriages carry to the most extreme limits their rejection of the fundamental laws of morality and feminine virtue. The immoral conduct of Russian women has aroused the indignation of the local citizens against them, and landladies are even refusing to accept them as lodgers. Some of the girls have sunk so low as to practise that branch of obstetrics which is judged a criminal offence, and deserves the utter contempt of all honourable people.”
Mikhail Bakunin meet this group of women when he visited Zurich. He urged them, to return to Russia and to carry out propaganda work. Vera Figner refused as she wanted to complete her degree but Sophia Bardina, Lydia Figner, Anna Toporkova, Berta Kaminskaya, Alexandra Khorzhevskaya, Evgenia Subbotina and Nadezhda Subbotina agreed and arrived in their homeland and found work in factories. In January 1875 the women began distributing the newspaper, Rabotnik (The Worker), that was being produced by Bakunin in Berne. It was the first Russian-language paper to focus serious attention on the urban proletariat. However, it had little impact on the largely illiterate workers. However, the Russian secret police was informed and in August 1875, Bardina, Lydia Figner and Anna Toporkova, were arrested. Soon afterwards, Olga Liubatovich and Gesia Gelfman were taken into custody.
The trial took place on 14th March, 1877. Sophia Bardina stated in court: “All of these accusations against us would be terrible if they were true. But they are based on misunderstanding. I do not reject property if it is acquired by one’s own labour. Every person has a right to his own labour and its products. So why do our masters give us only one-third of our labour-value? As for the family, I also do not understand. Is it the social system that is destroying it, by forcing a woman to abandon her family and work for wretched wages in a factory, where she and her children are inevitably corrupted; a system that drives a woman into prostitution through sheer poverty, and which actually sanctions this prostitution as something legitimate and necessary in any well-ordered society? Or is it we who are undermining it, we, who are attempting to eliminate this poverty, which is the chief cause of all our social ills, including the destruction of the family? As to religion, I have always been true to the principles established by the founder of Christianity, and have never propagandized against these principles. I am equally innocent of attempting to undermine the State. I do not believe any one individual is capable of destroying the State by force. If it is to be destroyed, it will be because it bears within it the embryo of its own destruction, holding as it does the people in political, economic and intellectual bondage.” Bardina and Olga Liubatovich were sentenced to nine years hard labour in Siberia, whereas Gesia Gelfman and Lydia Figner got five years’s hard labour in factories.
Vera Figner now returned to Russia and joined the Land and Liberty group. Most of the group shared Bakunin’s anarchist views and demanded that Russia’s land should be handed over to the peasants and the State should be destroyed. The historian, Adam Bruno Ulam, has argued: “This Party, which commemorated in its name the revolutionary grouping of the early sixties, was soon split up by quarrels about its attitude toward terror. The professed aim, the continued agitation among the peasants, grew more and more fruitless.”
In October, 1879, the Land and Liberty split into two factions. The majority of members, who favoured a policy of terrorism, established the People’s Will (Narodnaya Volya). Others, such as George Plekhanov formed Black Repartition, a group that rejected terrorism and supported a socialist propaganda campaign among workers and peasants. Elizabeth Kovalskaia was one of those who rejected the ideas of the People’s Will: “Firmly convinced that only the people themselves could carry out a socialist revolution and that terror directed at the centre of the state (such as the People’s Will advocated) would bring - at best - only a wishy-washy constitution which would in turn strengthen the Russian bourgeoisie, I joined Black Repartition, which had retained the old Land and Liberty program.”
Vera Figner, Anna Korba, Andrei Zhelyabov, Timofei Mikhailov, Lev Tikhomirov, Mikhail Frolenko, Grigory Isaev, Sophia Perovskaya, Nikolai Sablin, Ignatei Grinevitski, Nikolai Kibalchich, Nikolai Rysakov, Gesia Gelfman, Anna Yakimova, Sergei Kravchinskii, Tatiana Lebedeva and Alexander Kviatkovsky all joined the People’s Will. Figner later recalled: “We divided up the printing plant and the funds - which were in fact mostly in the form of mere promises and hopes... And as our primary aim was to substitute the will of the people for the will of one individual, we chose the name Narodnaya Volya for the new Party.”
Michael Burleigh, the author of Blood & Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism (2008), has argued that the main influence on this small group was Sergi Nechayev: “The terrorist nucleus of Land and Freedom had already adopted many of Nechayev’s dubious practices, including bank robberies and murdering informers. People’s Will also borrowed his tactic of suggesting to the credulous that it was the tip of a much larger revolutionary organisation - the Russian Social Revolutionary Party - which in reality was non-existent. There was an imposing-sounding Executive Committee all right, but this was coterminous with the entire membership of People’s Will... In fact, People’s Will never had more than thirty or forty members, who would then recruit agents for spectific tasks or to establish affiliate cells within sections of society deemed to have revolutionary potential.”
Soon afterwards the People’s Will decided to assassinate Alexander II. According to the historian, Joel Carmichael: “Although this populist organization retained the same humane vocabulary - revolving around socialism, faith in the people, the overthrow of the autocracy, and democratic representation - its sole objective was, in fact, the murder of the tsar. The preparation for this demanded boundless zeal, painstaking diligence, and great personal daring. In fact, the idealism of these young assassins was perhaps the most impressive thing about the whole populist movement. Though a few populist leaders were of peasant origin, most were drawn from the intelligentsia of the upper and middle classes. The motives of the latter were quite impersonal ; one of the things that baffled the police in stamping out the movement - in which they never succeeded - was just this combination of zeal and selflessness. The actual membership of the populist societies was relatively small. But their ideas attracted wide support, even in the topmost circles of the bureaucracy and, for that matter, in the security police as well. The upper-class origins of many of the revolutionaries meant a source of funds; many idealists donated their entire fortunes to the movement.”
A directive committee was formed consisting of Vera Figner, Andrei Zhelyabov, Timofei Mikhailov, Lev Tikhomirov, Mikhail Frolenko, Sophia Perovskaya and Anna Yakimova. Zhelyabov was considered the leader of the group. However, Figner considered him to be overbearing and lacking in depth: “He had not suffered enough. For him all was hope and light.” Zhelyabov had a magnetic personality and had a reputation for exerting a strong influence over women.
Zhelyabov and Perovskaya attempted to use nitroglycerine to destroy the Tsar train. However, the terrorist miscalculated and it destroyed another train instead. An attempt the blow up the Kamenny Bridge in St. Petersburg as the Tsar was passing over it was also unsuccessful. Figner blamed Zhelyabov for these failures but others in the group felt he had been unlucky rather than incompetent.
In November 1879 Stefan Khalturin managed to find work as a carpenter in the Winter Palace. According to Adam Bruno Ulam, the author of Prophets and Conspirators in Pre-Revolutionary Russia (1998): “There was, incomprehensible as it seems, no security check of workman employed at the palace. Stephan Khalturin, a joiner, long sought by the police as one of the organizers of the Northern Union of Russian workers, found no difficulty in applying for and getting a job there under a false name. Conditions at the palace, judging from his reports to revolutionary friends, epitomized those of Russia itself: the outward splendor of the emperor’s residence concealed utter chaos in its management: people wandered in and out, and imperial servants resplendent in livery were paid as little as fifteen rubles a month and were compelled to resort to pilfering. The working crew were allowed to sleep in a cellar apartment directly under the dining suite.”
Khalturin approached George Plekhanov about the possibility of using this opportunity to kill Tsar Alexander II. He rejected the idea but did put him in touch with the People’s Will who were committed to a policy of assassination. It was agreed that Khalturin should try and kill the Tsar and each day he brought packets of dynamite, supplied by Anna Yakimova and Nikolai Kibalchich, into his room and concealed it in his bedding. Cathy Porter, the author of Fathers and Daughters: Russian Women in Revolution (1976), has argued: “His workmates regarded him as a clown and a simpleton and warned him against socialists, easily identifiable apparently for their wild eyes and provocative gestures. He worked patiently, familiarizing himself with the Tsar’s every movement, and by mid-January Yakimova and Kibalchich had provided him with a hundred pounds of dynamite, which he hid under his bed.”
On 17th February, 1880, Stefan Khalturin constructed a mine in the basement of the building under the dinning-room. The mine went off at half-past six at the time that the People’s Will had calculated Alexander II would be having his dinner. However, his main guest, Prince Alexander of Battenburg, had arrived late and dinner was delayed and the dinning-room was empty. Alexander was unharmed but sixty-seven people were killed or badly wounded by the explosion.
The People’s Will became increasingly angry at the failure of the Russian government to announce details of the new constitution. They therefore began to make plans for another assassination attempt. Those involved in the plot included Vera Figner, Sophia Perovskaya, Andrei Zhelyabov, Anna Yakimova, Grigory Isaev, Gesia Gelfman, Nikolai Sablin, Ignatei Grinevitski, Nikolai Kibalchich, Nikolai Rysakov, Mikhail Frolenko, Timofei Mikhailov, Tatiana Lebedeva and Alexander Kviatkovsky.
Kibalchich, Isaev and Yakimova were commissioned to prepare the bombs that were needed to kill the Tsar. Isaev made some technical error and a bomb went off badly damaging his right hand. Yakimova took him to hospital, where she watched over his bed to prevent him from incriminating himself in his delirium. As soon as he regained consciousness he insisted on leaving, although he was now missing three fingers of his right hand. He was unable to continue working and Yakimova now had sole responsibility for preparing the bombs.
It was discovered that every Sunday the Tsar took a drive along Malaya Sadovaya Street. It was decided that this was a suitable place to attack. Yakimova was given the task of renting a flat in the street. Gesia Gelfman had a flat on Telezhnaya Street and this became the headquarters of the assassins whereas the home of Vera Figner was used as an explosives workshop.
Nikolai Kibalchich wanted to make a nitroglycerine bomb but Andrei Zhelyabov regarded it as “unreliable”. Sophia Perovskaya favoured mining. Eventually it was decided that the Tsar’s carriage should be mined, with hand grenades at the ready as a second strategy. If all else failed, one of the members of the assassination team should step forward and stab the Tsar with a dagger. It was Kibalchich’s job to provide the hand grenades.
The Okhrana discovered that their was a plot to kill Alexander II. One of their leaders, Andrei Zhelyabov, was arrested on 28th February, 1881, but refused to provide any information on the conspiracy. He confidently told the police that nothing they could do would save the life of the Tsar. Alexander Kviatkovsky, another member of the assassination team, was arrested soon afterwards.
The conspirators decided to make their attack on 1st March, 1881. Sophia Perovskaya was worried that the Tsar would now change his route for his Sunday drive. She therefore gave the orders for bombers to he placed along the Ekaterinsky Canal. Grigory Isaev had laid a mine on Malaya Sadovaya Street and Anna Yakimova was to watch from the window of her flat and when she saw the carriage approaching give the signal to Mikhail Frolenko.
Tsar Alexander II decided to travel along the Ekaterinsky Canal. An armed Cossack sat with the coach-driver and another six Cossacks followed on horseback. Behind them came a group of police officers in sledges. Perovskaya, who was stationed at the intersection between the two routes, gave the signal to Nikolai Rysakov and Timofei Mikhailov to throw their bombs at the Tsar’s carriage. The bombs missed the carriage and instead landed amongst the Cossacks. The Tsar was unhurt but insisted on getting out of the carriage to check the condition of the injured men. While he was standing with the wounded Cossacks another terrorist, Ignatei Grinevitski, threw his bomb. Alexander was killed instantly and the explosion was so great that Grinevitski also died from the bomb blast.
The terrorists quickly escaped from the scene and that evening assembled at the flat being rented by Vera Figner. She later recalled: “Everything was peaceful as I walked through the streets. But half an hour after I reached the apartment of some friends, a man appeared with the news that two crashes like cannon shots had rung out, that people were saying the sovereign had been killed, and that the oath was already being administered to the heir. I rushed outside. The streets were in turmoil: people were talking about the sovereign, about wounds, death, blood.... I rushed back to my companions. I was so overwrought that I could barely summon the strength to stammer out that the Tsar had been killed. I was sobbing; the nightmare that had weighed over Russia for so many years had been lifted. This moment was the recompense for all the brutalities and atrocities inflicted on hundreds and thousands of our people.... The dawn of the New Russia was at hand! At that solemn moment all we could think of was the happy future of our country.”
The evening after the assassination the Executive Committee of the People’s Will sent an open letter announcing it was willing to negotiate with the authorities: “The inevitable alternatives are revolution or a voluntary transfer of power to the people. We turn to you as a citizen and a man of honour, and we demand: (i) amnesty for all political prisoners, (ii) the summoning of a representative assembly of the whole nation”. Karl Marx was one of many radicals who sent a message of support after the publication of the letter.
Nikolai Rysakov, one of the bombers was arrested at the scene of the crime. Sophia Perovskaya told her comrades: “I know Rysakov and he will say nothing.” However, Rysakov was tortured by the Okhrana and was forced to give information on the other conspirators. The following day the police raided the flat being used by the terrorists. Gesia Gelfman was arrested but Nikolai Sablin committed suicide before he could be taken alive. Soon afterwards, Timofei Mikhailov, walked into the trap and was arrested.
Thousands of Cossacks were sent into St. Petersburg and roadblocks were set up, and all routes out of the city were barred. An arrest warrant was issued for Sophia Perovskaya. Her bodyguard, Tyrkov, claimed that she seemed to have “lost her mind” and refused to try and escape from the city. According to Tyrkov, her main concern was to develop a plan to rescue Andrei Zhelyabov from prison. She became depressed when on the 3rd March, the newspapers reported that Zhelyabov had claimed full responsibility for the assassination and therefore signing his own death warrant.
Perovskaya was arrested while walking along the Nevsky Prospect on 10th March. Later that month Nikolai Kibalchich, Grigory Isaev and Mikhail Frolenko were also arrested. However, other members of the conspiracy, including Vera Figner and Anna Yakimova, managed to escape from the city. Perovskaya was interrogated by Vyacheslav Plehve, the Director of the Police Department. She admitted her involvement in the assassination but refused to name any of her fellow conspirators.
The trial of Zhelyabov, Perovskaya, Kibalchich, Rysakov, Gelfman and Mikhailov, opened on 25th March, 1881. Prosecutor Muraviev read his immensely long speech that included the passage: “Cast out by men, accursed of their country, may they answer for their crimes before Almighty God! But peace and calm will be restored. Russia, humbling herself before the Will of that Providence which has led her through so sore a burning faith in her glorious future.”
Prosecutor Muraviev concentrated his attack on Sophia Perovskaya: “We can imagine a political conspiracy; we can imagine that this conspiracy uses the most cruel, amazing means; we can imagine that a woman should be part of this conspiracy. But that a woman should lead a conspiracy, that she should take on herself all the details of the murder, that she should with cynical coldness place the bomb-throwers, draw a plan and show them where to stand; that a woman should have become the life and soul of this conspiracy, should stand a few steps away from the place of the crime and admire the work of her own hands - any normal feelings of morality can have no understanding of such a role for women.” Perovskaya replied: “I do not deny the charges, but I and my friends are accused of brutality, immorality and contempt for public opinion. I wish to say that anyone who knows our lives and the circumstances in which we have had to work would not accuse us of either immorality or brutality.”
Karl Marx followed the trial with great interest. He wrote to his daughter, Jenny Longuet: “Have you been following the trial of the assassins in St. Petersburg? They are sterling people through and through.... simple, businesslike, heroic. Shouting and doing are irreconcilable opposites... they try to teach Europe that their modus operandi is a specifically Russian and historically inevitable method about which there is no more reason to moralize - for or against - then there is about the earthquake in Chios.”
Sophia Perovskaya, Andrei Zhelyabov, Nikolai Kibalchich, Nikolai Rysakov, Gesia Gelfman and Timofei Mikhailov were all sentenced to death. Gelfman announced she was four months pregnant and it was decided to postpone her execution. Perovskaya, as a member of the high nobility, she could appeal against her sentence, however, she refused to do this. It was claimed that Rysakov had gone insane during interrogation. Kibalchich also showed signs that he was mentally unbalanced and talked constantly about a flying machine he had invented.
On 3rd April 1881, Zhelyabov, Perovskaya, Kibalchich, Rysakov and Mikhailov were given tea and handed their black execution clothes. A placard was hung round their necks with the word “Tsaricide” on it. Cathy Porter, the author of Fathers and Daughters: Russian Women in Revolution (1976), has pointed out: “Then the party set off. It was headed by the police carriage, followed by Zhelyabov and Rysakov. Sophia sat with Kibalchich and Mikhailov in the third tumbril. A pale wintry sun shone as the party moved slowly through the streets, already crowded with onlookers, most of them waving and shouting encouragement. High government officials and those wealthy enough to afford the tickets were sitting near to the scaffold that had been erected on Semenovsky Square. The irreplaceable Frolov, Russia’s one and only executioner, fiddled drunkenly with the nooses, and Sophia and Zhelyabov were able to say a few last words to one another. The square was surrounded by twelve thousand troops and muffled drum beats sounded. Sophia and Zhelyabov kissed for the last time, then Mikhailov and Kibalchich kissed Sophia. Kibalchich was led to the gallows and hanged. Then it was Mikhailov’s turn. Frolov was by now barely able to see straight and the rope broke three times under Mikhailov’s weight.” It was now Perovskaya’s turn. “It’s too tight” she told him as he struggled to tie the noose. She died straight away but Zhelyabov, whose noose had not been tight enough, died in agony.
Gesia Gelfman remained in prison. According to her friend, Olga Liubatovich: “Gesia languished under the threat of execution for five months; finally her sentence was commuted, just before she was to deliver. At the hands of the authorities, the terrible act of childbirth became a case of torture unprecedented in human history. For the delivery, they transferred her to the House of Detention. The torments suffered by poor Gesia Gelfman exceeded those dreamed up by the executioners of the Middle Ages; but Gesia didn’t go mad - her constitution was too strong. The child was born live, and she was even able to nurse it.” Soon after she gave birth her daughter was taken from her. Gelfman died five days later on 12th October, 1882.
Anna Yakimova, who was also pregnant, probably by Grigory Isaev, managed to escape to Kiev. She was soon arrested and she was tried alongside Isaev, Mikhail Frolenko, Tatiana Lebedeva and sixteen other party members. Although they were all found guilty, because of the international protests by Victor Hugo and other well-known figures, they were not sentenced to death. Instead they were sent to Trubetskov Dungeon. As Cathy Porter has pointed out: “Those sentenced in the Trial of the 20 were sent to the Trubetskov Dungeon, one of the most horrible of Russian prisons. Few survived the ordeal; torture and rape were everyday occurrences in the dungeons, through whose soundproofed walls little information reached the outside world.... After a year in Trubetskoy, during which most of the prisoners had died or committed suicide.”
Vera Figner was the one remaining leader of the People’s Will who initially escaped capture. She claimed that the “harvest was plentiful, the reapers were few”. She tried to recruit “reapers” but with little success. Geoffrey Hosking, the author of A History of the Soviet Union (1985), wrote that ultimately the efforts of the People Will ended in failure: "In 1881 it actually succeeded in assassinating the Emperor Alexander II. But setting up a different regime, or even putting effective pressure on Alexander’s successor - that proved beyond their capacities. Their victory was a pyrrhic one: all it produced was more determined repression.
Vera Figner was arrested on 10th February 1883. Tsar Alexander III commented, “Thank God that terrible woman has been caught.” The year she spent in pretrial imprisonment in the Peter and Paul Fortress was spent learning English and writing her memoirs. She was interrogated by Vyacheslav Plehve, Director of the Police Department and Dmitry Tolstoy, the Minister of the Interior. Tolstoy told her: “What a pity there is so little time or I would have been able to convince you of the uselessness of terror.” She replied “I am sorry sorry too. I expect I would have been able to turn you into a narodovolnik.”
Figner’s trial began on 28th September, 1884. She was found guilty and sentenced to death. However, it was commuted at the last moment to life imprisonment in the Schlusselberg Fortress. According to one source the “solitary confinement and semi-starvation in airless unheated cells was the nearest conceivable approximation of death.” Figner wrote that: “The strain under which I had been living during my years of freedom, which had before been subdued and repressed, now left me; there was no task for my will, and the human being woke within me.”
Figner was released in 1904 and joined the Socialist Revolutionaries but left after discovering that Evno Azef had been working as a double agent. Figner welcomed the Russian Revolution in 1917 and for a short time worked for the People’s Commissariat for Social Security under Alexandra Kollontai. She also joined the Writers’ Union when it was formed in 1924.
In 1927 she published an autobiography, Memoirs of a Revolutionary. By this time she was highly critical of Joseph Stalin and Victor Serge later revealed that Figner was closely watched by the Communist Secret Police and for many years was in danger of being arrested.
Vera Figner died in Moscow, aged 89, on 15th June, 1942.
Vera Figner in 1927
By John Simkin (email@example.com) © September 1997 (updated January 2020).
▲ Main Article ▲
(1) In her memoirs Vera Figner explained why she became a revolutionary.
There is poverty in the world; there is ignorance and disease. People who are educated and - like me - born to well-to-do families ought to share my natural desire to assist the poor. Under the influence of my mother and my uncle, as well as the journal articles I read, I made up a social program for myself; some day I was going to help peasants in Russia buy horses, or build new huts after their old ones had burnt down; as a doctor I hoped to cure people suffering from tuberculosis and typhoid, to perform operations and give advice on medicine and hygiene; and as a zemstvo activist I planned to set up schools, spread literacy, and provide grain elevators to help peasants save money.
(2) In her memoirs Vera Figner explained how her political views developed while she was living in Geneva.
Our circle in Zurich had arrived at the conviction that it was necessary to assume a position identical to that of people in order to earn their trust and conduct propaganda among them successfully. You had to “take to plain living” - to engage in physical labour, to drink, eat, and dress as the people did, renouncing all the habits and needs of the cultural classes. This was the only way to become close to the people and to get a response to propaganda; furthermore, only manual labour was pure and holy, only by surrendering yourself to it completely could you avoid being an exploiter.
(3) In October, 1879, Vera Figner joined the People’s Will.
I was invited to become an agent of the Executive Committee of the People’s Will. I agreed. My past experience had convinced me that the only way to change the existing order was by force. If any group in our society had shown me a path other than violence, perhaps I would have followed it; at the very least, I would have tried it out. But, as you know, we don’t have a free press in our country, and no ideas cannot be spread by the written word. And so I concluded that violence was the only solution. I could not follow the peaceful path.
(4) Members of the People’s Will were constantly being arrested by the Okhrana. Although leader of the group, Vera Figner managed to avoid capture for many years.
Occasionally, they stumbled on the trial of people who actually had been involved in the Moscow Organization’s work; in other instances, however, they contrived to tie in people who were not implicated at all. That’s how the “Trial of the Fifty” came about. It included eleven of the women who had studied in Zurich; a twelfth, Keminskaia, was not brought to trial, ostensibly because she became mentally disturbed during her preliminary detention. There was a rumour that the quiet melancholia from which she suffered would not have saved her from trial if her father hadn’t given the police 5,000 rubles. After her comrades were sentenced. Kaminskaia’s thwarted desire to share their fate led her to poison herself by swallowing matches.
(5) Vera Figner was involved in the planning of the assassination of Alexander II.
Everything was peaceful as I walked through the streets. But half an hour after I reached the apartment of some friends, a man appeared with the news that two crashes like cannon shots had rung out, that people were saying the sovereign had been killed, and that the oath was already being administered to the heir. I rushed outside. The streets were in turmoil: people were talking about the sovereign, about wounds, death, blood.
On March 3, Kibalchich came to our apartment with the news that Gesia Gelfman’s apartment had been discovered, that she’d been arrested and Sabin had shot himself. Within two weeks, we lost Perovskaia, who was arrested on the street. Kibalchich and Frolenko were the next to go. Because of these heavy losses, the Committee proposed that most of us leave St. Petersburg myself included.
(6) Victor Serge worked with Vera Figner in 1929 when he had the task of translating her memoirs into French. Serge revealed in his autobiography, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, that in her final years Figner came close to being arrested by the Soviet Secret Police.
I was translating her memoirs, and she overwhelmed me with corrections framed in her fastidious tones. She was, at 77 years of age, a tiny old woman, wrapped in a shawl against the cold, her features still regular and preserving the impression of a classical beauty, a perfect intellectual clarity and a flawless nobility of soul. Doubtless she looked upon herself proudly as the living symbol of the revolutionary generations of the past, generations of purity and sacrifice.
As a member of the Central Committee of the Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will Party) from 1879 to 1883, Vera Figner was responsible, together with her comrades, for the decision to take to terrorism as a last resort; she took part in organizing ten or so attempts against Tsar Alexander II, arranged the last and successful attack on 1st March 1881, and kept the Party’s activity going for nearly two years after the arrest and hanging of the other leaders.
After this this she spent twenty years in the prison-fortress of Schlusselburg, and six years in Siberia. From all these struggles she emerged frail, hard and upright, as exacting towards herself as she was to others. In 1931, her great age and quite exceptional moral standing saved her from imprisonment, although she did not conceal her outbursts of rebellion. She died at liberty, though under surveillance, in 1942.
(7) Cathy Porter, Fathers and Daughters: Russian Women in Revolution (1976)
Leaflets were passed round and soon prisoners were reading avidly in their cells about chemistry, crystallography and astronomy. Spiders and rats were welcomed into cells as specimens to be examined, and fungi, moss and mould revealed their biological secrets to this expanding group of students. Over many years the prisoners were gradually allowed to meet and discuss their studies more frequently, and a forge and a carpenter’s workshop were introduced into the prison. By 1902 Vera had thoroughly integrated herself into prison life; she was deeply moved by the fate of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, aimlessly wandering through life expecting salvation in Moscow, where their lives would inevitably be as fruitless as in the provinces. A year later, when she heard that as a result of her mother’s petitioning her sentence had been commuted to twenty years, she felt only pain at having to leave her old friends and comrades.
Her prison experiences made it inevitable that Vera Figner would commit herself instinctively to the 1917 revolution, although painfully aware of the lag between her now-outmoded revolutionary consciousness and that of the Bolshevik Party. In the eighteen months between the People’s Will Party’s decision to kill the Tsar and the actual assassination, a period of failed attempts, innumerable arrests and growing police terror, women had become increasingly confident in their roles. And these eighteen months saw a very positive change in the men’s attitude to their indomitable women comrades. Without the kind of internal democracy that existed within the People’s Will Party, its members (at most five hundred of them) would not have been able to reject so thoroughly the contemporary sexual power relationships and the dominant values of the society around them.