The state of unrest that occasionally manifests itself in other countries is a perennial condition in the great Russian Empire, and is not likely to come to an end there until absolutism abdicates in favor of constitutional government. Indeed, even then tranquillity may be slow in coming; for the movements for reform have been, almost from necessity, in the nature of a conspiracy, and the teaching of history is that when a conspiracy has become successful the conspirators quarrel among themselves. It is not to be supposed that if the Emperor should resign his throne or grant a constitution to-day, there would be anything much better than anarchy in that unhappy country to-morrow. This might not be so if free speech and a free press had gradually educated the people to a reasonable understanding of what is both desirable and possible. This they may yet have to learn through years of parliamentary wrangling and civil war. Nor can the citizens of the foremost enlightened countries on the globe - England, France, Italy - even our own free land - sneer with any grace at the poor Russians; for we have all arrived at a stable condition of civil liberty only through exactly such tribulation.
The common idea of nihilism confounds it with anarchism; and this chapter, by the famous and mysterious Russian author, Stepniak, is especially timely, in view of the new and apparently more powerful movement to overthrow or modify the government of that empire. That there should be such a popular view of nihilism is not wonderful, considering that the assassination of the Emperor Alexander II, March 13, 1881, was attributed to the nihilists. It is a mournful fact that of the three great emancipators of the nineteenth century - Alexander, Lincoln, and Dom Pedro - two were assassinated and the other was dethroned.
The peculiar character of the Russian revolutionary movement that is known under the name of "nihilism" has been determined by the special nature of the latter-day despotism of the Romanoffs, which is unendurably oppressive for the masses and galling in the extreme for the individual. Neither the one nor the other of these incentives of rebellion, taken separately, could bring men to such a pitch of indignation as leads to the acts associated with the name of nihilism. And the reader will surely admit that during the reign of Alexander III both the stimulants were provided in very strong doses. What have been the fortunes of nihilism since it appeared in the fire and thunder of explosion thirteen years ago?
But what is nihilism? A score of books have been written upon this subject - hundreds of magazine articles, without including the newspaper accounts. But up to the present the majority of the English have a very vague idea of the party that has been so much talked about. It is a rather humiliating confession for those who have been engaged for years in the production of this literature. But there is no use in denying facts. The majority of generally well-informed men have very strange ideas about the so-called nihilists. Struck by their methods and the misleading name given them, many persons still consider them to be "anarchists," deniers of everything, striving after destruction for destruction's sake. But, on the other hand, there are some persons who have come to the conclusion that the nihilists are not socialists, but simply radicals, striving for political freedom and constitutional forms of government. The late Charles Bradlaugh expressed such views in several of his magazine articles upon the Continental revolutionary movements, which he had studied very carefully.
Finally, there is a third class, and it is not small, who try to bring their sympathy with the nihilists into accordance with their abhorrence of violent methods by declaring that only a small and extreme fraction of nihilists are bomb-throwers and dynamiters, and that the "genuine article" consists of decent people, who are in favor of obtaining political freedom for their country by peaceful, even "constitutional," methods, overlooking the small detail that the possibility of constitutional methods implies the existence of a constitution, which is what Russia so sorely lacks.
Besides the bad name which we, Russian revolutionists, must needs use, under protest, if we wish people to understand what we are speaking about - besides this name, the vagueness and contradictoriness in the general understanding of our movement are due to two causes: its complicated character on the one hand, and on the other the rapid changes that it has undergone in a very short time.
Thus Charles Bradlaugh suggests, "It is probable that in the great towns a sort of anarchist socialism is popular with the more educated speakers and writers." This is a mistake. Anarchism does not exist in the Russia of to-day; or, rather, it is so feebly represented as to give not the slightest sign of its existence. Within the past seventeen years not a single paper or pamphlet has been published in the Russian language, in Russia or abroad, in the interests of anarchism; not a single profession of that faith has been made at any of the numerous trials, nor has there been a single public manifestation of any kind. Russian socialism of the last decade is entirely social-democratic. But only fifteen or seventeen years ago the whole of the socialist Russia was anarchical; although this anarchism, as the reader will presently see, had nothing whatever to do with the dynamite anarchists of modern times.
This is not the only transformation that has taken place in our movement. It was propagandist in 1873-1877, terrorist in 1878-1879; in 1880-1882 it was chiefly military, and not unlike the Spanish patriotic movement; and it has become to a large extent civil and popular again within the past eight years. It is now on the eve of a new transformation, and there is no saying whether it will become military, civil, or terroristic, or all combined.
The primitive and genuine nihilists, those who actually bore that name in Russia, and to some extent deserved it, were a philosophical and ethical school, long ago extinct in Russia, which has been immortalized by Turgenieff in his Fathers and Children.
The intellectual movement, of which Bazarof is a living impersonation, sprang up in our country in the epoch following the Crimean defeat, which marks a general breaking-down of the despotic regime of Nicholas.
Serfdom, recognized as the source of Russia's poverty, weakness, and low standard of public morality, was abolished in 1861, and the country turned over a new leaf. The enfranchisement of the millions of peasantry was a measure that revolutionized the entire moral, economic, and social life of our country. Not peasants alone were slaves in Russia in the old times. The absolute, uncontrolled power of the serf-owners, who formed the bulk of the cultured and governing class, produced certain habits of despotism which extended to all spheres of national life. The children were slaves to their parents, the wives to their husbands, the petty officials to their superiors, the employed to the employer. A good education was no protection against the vitiating influences of this immoral institution. It was at this time that the French, who had to deal with the most cultured part of Russian society, said that one need only scratch a Russian to find a Tartar. Tartars our fathers were, the varnish of civilization notwithstanding, and their families knew this fact better than anyone else.
The abolition of serfdom, the worst form of dependency of men upon men, was the signal for a general rising of all the oppressed part of the community. Throughout Russia there was an outburst of rebellion against all sorts of dependency, all authority imposed upon men's freedom in the domain of personal conduct as well as in the domain of thought. The individual, tired of oppression, rose in all his pride and power, breaking the chains of ancient tradition, and recognizing no other guidance but his individual mind.
Such were the true nihilists, the destroyers, who did not trouble themselves about what was to be built after them. They did not exactly deny everything, for they believed firmly, fanatically, in science and in the power of the individual mind. But they thought nothing else worth the slightest respect, and they attacked and sneered at family, religion, art, and social institutions, with all the more vehemence the higher they were held in the opinion of their countrymen.
Something similar took place in Germany in the so-called Sturm und Drang period, and for similar reasons. But the Germans of the first quarter of this century had not so much to destroy, and they had not the same lust for destruction; there was much in their past that they had reason to love and respect. Besides, in those days, European science and philosophy had not at their command such weapons of destruction as were at the service of the Russian nihilists in the second half of this century.
Thus, nihilism proper, the nihilism embodied in Bazarof, was a genuine Russian apparition. It was an impassioned protest against the former annihilation of the individual. With all its exaggerations and mistakes it was a grand movement, for its basis was sound, and its effect beneficial in a country like ours.
Nihilism of Bazarof's type was dead and buried about ten years before the starting of the present revolutionary movement. No one denies art and poetry nowadays, no one wears ugly clothes on principle, no one protests against the idea of men's duties toward the community. No one preaches against the obligations imposed upon the people by family life. But there is no country where the relations between parents and children and men and women are based to such an extent upon the principle of equality, and there is no society so broad-minded and tolerant as the Russian. Much of this is due to the gallant struggle of the early nihilists, who were the first to engraft upon Russia the proud Western conception of individuality which struck root and will spread with every generation.
It is impossible not to see a close relationship between the early nihilism and the present militant one, in which the old spirit of personal independence is revived, joined this time with social feeling, urging the individual to sacrifice himself for the many who feel and suffer like himself. But in its state of absolute purity, unalloyed with any social feeling, stern and fierce as expounded by Bazarof, nihilism could not stand long. The Russians are the least individualistic of all people in Europe, the feeling of organic union with their countrymen being with them the strongest feeling. The striving for individual happiness, however refined, could not suit their sympathetic gregarious nature, craving for works of devotion to others. Even in the palmy days of the nihilism of Bazarof's school, there was in the movement an undercurrent making for another direction. It may be called social nihilism, as opposed to the individualistic, and was represented in 1860 by Nikolai Tchernyshevsky, the publicist, journalist, economist, and novelist, whose name is familiar to all those who have studied the Russian question.
Tchernyshevsky was a socialist, and the father of the Russian revolutionary movement. He preached the absolute devotion of the individual to the cause of the regeneration of his country. Only he gave the idea of self-sacrifice an individualistic interpretation. "All men's actions," he said, "are stimulated by egotism, and have no other scope than individual happiness. But one person, whose intellectual and moral standard is low, finds his pleasure and happiness in making money or in drinking or in over-eating, whilst another is happy in doing good to his fellow men, in dying, if necessary, for their sake." And Tchernyshevsky went on scoffing at and ridiculing self-sacrifice as a logical absurdity, while preaching it passionately in practice. The theory of moralized egotism and egotistical self-abnegation was developed by Tchernyshevsky and his followers with admirable skill and dialectical subtlety, and served as a transition to the doctrine of absolute devotion to the good of the community, which the next generation transformed into a sort of religion.
As time went on, the influence of Tchernyshevsky gained ground upon that of the genuine nihilism, represented by Pisareff, a young, highly gifted journalist, and the writers grouped around him. The generation of 1870 was educated entirely by Tchernyshevsky, but it took from him only the kernel of his ethics, dropping as useless his theory of all-pervading individualism.
A new conception made its way at this epoch into social science, in opposition to the former individualistic theory of social contract for securing mutual individual happiness; that of the integrality of the body politic, in which individuals are but transitory parts. Its source is to be traced to Auguste Comte, the father of positivism, whose philosophical theories (not religion) found a ready acceptance in Russia. But its chief propagator in Russia was undoubtedly Herbert Spencer, whose works have all been translated into Russian, and have exercised a great influence upon the mind of our generation.
The idea of duty toward the community threw into the background that of the duty of the individual toward himself.
A little volume which appeared at this epoch embodied this new tendency very forcibly and consistently. It was from the pen of Peter Lavroff - later a refugee in Paris, but then professor of mathematics in one of the St. Petersburg military academies - and bore the modest title of Historical Letters. Its leading idea is that of the enormous indebtedness of the cultured minority to the masses, who during centuries have toiled and suffered, undergoing indescribable privations in order that a small minority might be able to cultivate their minds and transmit to their children the accumulated inheritance of knowledge and moral and intellectual refinement.
To work for the good of the people ceases to be a pleasure in which a man can indulge or not, as he chooses. It becomes a stringent duty that he is bound to fulfil, for which he cannot claim much credit to himself. It is the simple repayment of the debt he has contracted in accepting the inheritance so heavily paid for by the mass of the people.
Another writer, Schapov, whose name is little known abroad, must be mentioned here, because his influence in shaping the views of our generation can be compared only to that of Tchernyshevsky. Schapov is the historian of the Russian peasantry. He was professor of history in the Kazan University up to 1862, when he was arrested and exiled to Siberia for a speech made at a great street demonstration organized to protest against the slaughter of peasants in the Bezdna district.
This great demonstration brought Schapov's name for the first time into public notice. His works appeared afterward, forming a brilliant sequel to such a beginning.
Schapov's philosophy can be best described as the modern incarnation of Slavophilism, purged of monarchical superstition and orthodox bigotry. He is national without being a partisan either of czardom or of the orthodox church. All his erudite works are devoted to the study of the history of the Russian people. His object is to bring to light the constructive principles of political and social life, adhered to by the masses of the peasantry as opposed to those that the Muscovite, and afterward the St. Petersburg monarchy, forced upon them. These principles are self-government and local autonomy in political and ecclesiastical matters, as opposed to the administrative and ecclesiastic centralization of the state. In the economical domain, it was communistic ownership of land, meadows, forests, fisheries, and all natural riches, as opposed to the ideas regarding private property inculcated by the State. In the chaotic popular movements of the past he has discovered system and harmony, showing the masses of the Russian peasantry to be excellent plastic material for the building up of a state very different from the one that temporary historical necessity has actually constituted. But this historical necessity has become a thing of the past, while the peasantry have remained unchanged. The conclusion from this can easily be drawn.
Schapov's voluminous and rather heavy works (written in an atrocious style) have been studied with avidity by all the advanced youth of our generation. Except Tchernyshevsky, no writer has had such a deep and lasting influence upon our intellectual movement. He gave a solid, scientific basis to the whole extensive and varied literature upon the modern peasants, numbering among its writers the most intellectual men of our literary generation. They all belong to Schapov's school, confirming with regard to modern peasantry what Schapov discovered with regard to their ancestors.
Educated Russia has always been democratic, we may say peasantist, in her feelings, and not without cause. The peasant class is not merely the most numerous, but the soundest, bravest, and most thoroughly original of our classes. To prove that this is not a dream of democratic enthusiasts, we have only to refer to our famous novelists, who in their quality of great artists are above suspicion of exaggeration or misrepresentation. Their collective work is a revelation of Russia, as a whole, in which the peasants have a conspicuous place of their own. Turgenieff's sketches, collected in the Sportsman's Sketches, Dostoyevsky's Buried Alive, and Tolstoi's numerous scenes and stories from peasant life show us a series of living types that command respect, sometimes admiration, and testify to the great gifts and the vast amount of moral energy in the masses of our people.
The writers of the past generation have prepared the ground for younger writers, creating that powerful, peculiarly Russian democratic feeling, which is the mainspring of our revolutionary movement. The idea of duty toward the people, and of the historical debt of the educated minority toward the masses, was readily accepted by our sensitive, impressionable youth as a new basis for their ethics. Still, it was an abstraction, a dry reasoned-out conception, which could not stir men's hearts. But, thanks to the writers mentioned above, the idea of the people assumed a concrete palpable form, appealing alike to reason, enthusiasm, and pity. With our emotional, sympathetic people, it became a momentous, impulsive power, urging them to give up gladly wealth, personal preferment, even life, provided they could give some relief to the people they thought so great and knew to be so unfortunate.
And now the socialists of the West came to tell the young enthusiasts that there is a way to solve the social question and remove forever the causes of popular suffering. These theories appeared as the last word of social philosophy, sanctioned by the authority of the greatest names in economical science, and by the adhesion of many hundred thousand workmen of the international socialism, standing at the head of the world's democracy. The Russians jumped at them as at a new revelation. The new apostles found their gospel, for which they would live and die.
From 1870 the Russian Revolution ceases to be something apart, and becomes a branch of international socialism, which at that epoch descended from the clouds and became for the first time the embodiment of the workingmen's aspirations. Still, the peculiar conditions of our country gave to the Russian socialist movement a somewhat different shape and history.
At that time, as nowadays, international socialism was divided into two unequal sections, the socialist-democrats and the anarchists. The former advocated the abolition of private property in the instruments of labor and their collective ownership by the workmen. But they wished to preserve the existing political organizations, which should be made an instrument for the economical rebuilding of the state. Thus, for the socialist-democrats the practical object was to take possession of the political power. Peaceful electoral agitation was their chief weapon, physical revolution being admitted only incidentally, if at all.
The anarchists, headed by our countryman, Michael Bakunin, were in favor of a total remoulding both of economical and of political organization, advocating the total abolition of the state, and the substitution for it of a series of small, absolutely independent and freely constituted communes. Parliamentary institutions were for them of no possible use, and they relied for the realization of their ideals entirely upon the spontaneous action of the masses risen in rebellion.
Of these two doctrines, the last had by far the greater fascination for the Russian socialists of 1870. It promised more, for to abolish at one stroke men's economical and political bondage was like killing two birds with one stone. Then it made of no account the political backwardness of Russia, which appeared rather more favored than other countries. The antiquated autocracy was easier to overthrow than a constitutional monarchy based upon the popular vote. According to Bakunin, the village mir had only to be freed from the oppressive tutorship of the State to become an ideal form of anarchical government by all with the consent of all.
The Russians are very subject to spiritual contagion, and often accept or drop a theory in a body. In 1870 the whole of advanced Russia was anarchist. The autocracy was opposed simply because it was a government, no substantial difference being admitted to exist between Russian autocracy and, let us say, the English parliamentary regime. Accordingly, nothing was expected, and nothing was asked, from the educated classes and the liberal opposition, which was in favor of a constitutional government for Russia. The socialists of this epoch based all their hopes upon the peasants. Thousands of young people of both sexes went upon a crusade among the peasants; the more exalted with the object of calling them to open rebellion, the more moderate with the intention of preparing the ground for future revolution by peaceful socialist propaganda. This was one of the most touching and characteristic episodes of the younger movement, when the motto "All for the people and nothing for ourselves" was the order of the day.
Most of the young enthusiasts - for they were all young - belonged to the upper classes. The peasants, for whose awakening they purposed to give their all, had been the serfs of their fathers. The feeling of suspicion toward their former masters was so strong as to render utterly hopeless any attempt on the part of the "gentlemen" to obtain any influence among the common people. The propagandists, therefore, renounced all their privileges, and became themselves common manual laborers, workmen and workwomen in the fields, at the factories, at the wharves and railways, in all places where common workpeople assembled. They endured cheerfully all hardships and privations, and considered themselves repaid for all their trouble if they succeeded in winning here and there adherents to their cause.
This socialist crusade was a complete failure. The peasants only opened their eyes with wonder at the summons to rebellion, on the part of strangers, who came nobody knew whence, and wished nobody knew what. They lent, it is true, a very willing ear to the propaganda of socialism. But there was no way of getting adherents without attracting the attention of the police, in a country where everything is watched. In the course of 1873 and 1874 fifteen hundred propagandists and agitators, or their friends and supposed accomplices, were arrested in the thirty-seven provinces of the empire, and thrown into prison. Half of them were released after a few months' detention; the rest were kept in preliminary confinement from two to four years, during which seventy-three either died or lost their reason. In 1877 one hundred ninety-three were tried and condemned to various punishments, from simple exile to ten years of hard labor in the mines of Siberia.
This was a death-blow to anarchism. Whatever may be one's views upon the best form of society in the future, it was evident that at that time the political question was not so irrelevant to the cause of the workers themselves as the early socialists tried to believe. Thousands of lives were wrecked for saying in private things that are proclaimed from the house-tops in all free countries. The propagandists who were ready to devote their lives to the work of enlightening the people, were not allowed to devote to them more than a few days, sometimes a few hours. Political freedom was evidently something worth having, were it only for the sake of enabling the people's friends to be of some use to them.
But theories, once adopted, do not disappear so easily. The passions spoke first; and men began to act in the right direction before they had reasoned out their action. The wanton cruelty with which political prisoners were treated, the horrors of preliminary detention, the barbarous punishment inflicted for trifling offences - all this proved unendurable even to the mild, patient Russians. The spirit of revenge was kindled, giving birth to the first attacks upon the Government, known by the name of terrorism. They began with an act of individual retaliation which, in the circumstances, had all the dignity of a solemn act of public justice. A girl, Vera Zassulitch, shot General Trepoff, who had ordered the flogging of a political prisoner. On March 31, 1878, she was acquitted by the jury, though she never denied her act. In 1878 terrorism was accepted as a system of warfare by the most influential and energetic section of Russian revolutionists grouped around the paper Zemlia i Volia ("Land and Liberty"). But at first this practical struggle with political despotism was carried on under the banner of political non-interference. "The question of constitution does not interest us," said the terrorists of this epoch in their pamphlet and in their paper, Zemlia i Volia; "the essential part of our activity is propaganda among the people. In striking the worst of the officials we intend merely to protect our companions from the worst treatment by the Government and its agents. The terrorists must be looked upon as a small detachment protecting the bulk of an army at some dangerous passage."
This attempt to find a way out of the contradiction between theory and practice could not last long, because it was illogical on the face of it. Since it was recognized that the socialist propaganda, to be effective, needed protection against wilful interruption, the natural course to follow was to obtain such changes in the political constitution as would give it the real and permanent protection of the laws. As to terrorism, whatever its ultimate effect upon the Government, its immediate consequences could not be other than the aggravation of severities and the increase of the obstacles to peaceful socialist propaganda. In fact, the attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable was soon abandoned, and a months later, in 1879, a split came in the revolutionary party. A small fraction stuck to the old banner, and declared against both political action and terrorism, and for the continuation of simple propaganda, notwithstanding the overwhelming odds against it. It grouped itself around a paper called Tcherny Perediel. This party had only a small following and did nothing of importance. The paper also had a short life, being detected in January, 1880, a fortnight after the publication of its only number. In the same year it was resuscitated abroad, in the form of a magazine bearing the title of The Social-Democrat, with the most orthodox socialist-democratic programme.
Now we will follow the fortunes of the majority, which made a step forward, having written plainly upon their banner the political emancipation of their country as the immediate object of the revolutionary party. They founded the paper Narodnaia Volia, and constituted the party of the same name, which may be considered the embodiment of nihilism as understood abroad. It was that body, with the famous executive committee at its head, which was at the bottom of all the nihilists' attempts and conspiracies.
In proclaiming political revolution its immediate aim, the Narodnaia Volia party did not renounce socialism. But it certainly had to renounce the last traces of anarchism it may have retained. When once the necessity of fighting for political freedom was recognized, it was natural to consider how best to take advantage of representative institutions in the future. This means to utilize them as an instrument of reforms, as well as a protection of the propaganda preliminary to those reforms. Thus the Russian anarchists, by the very logic of their doctrine, were converted into social-democrats. The programme of the Narodnaia Volia, issued in 1880, the year after the split, shows the rapidity and thoroughness of this change. It is above all a programme of political reform, its requisites being:
A permanent representative assembly, having the supreme control and direction in all general state affairs;
Provincial self-government secured by the election of all public functionaries;
Independence of the village commune (mir) as an economical and administrative unit;
Complete liberty of conscience, speech, printing, meeting, association, and electoral agitation;
This was their political programme. The economical programme is summed up in two paragraphs:
Nationalization of land;
A series of measures tending to transfer the possession of factories to workmen.
These paragraphs make the programme socialistic, but it is strictly socialist-democratic. The element of physical force plays a part only in the political revolution. The remoulding of the country's economical organization is understood to be carried on exclusively by legislation.
This programme differs from that of the socialist-democrats of other countries in the greater stress laid upon agrarian reform. Its authors do not think Russia sufficiently developed industrially to advocate the immediate introduction of collective ownership by the workmen of factories and industrial concerns - and we think they are right in this. They undoubtedly are right, on the other hand, in considering the Russian peasantry fully competent to carry out any land nationalization scheme. Thus it may be said that so far as economics is concerned, nihilism is social democracy proposing to begin its work from the other end. This party is called in Russia National Socialists, in distinction from the socialist-democrats, who have recently appeared in Russia.
The true distinction of the Russian nihilists as a body lies, however, not in their methods of carrying out social reforms, but in the fact that for the time being they had to put off the idea of social reforms and devote their energies to a political struggle. The Russian nihilists may be described as a branch of international social-democracy, which took the lead in the struggle for political freedom in Russia.
The peasants, owing to their ignorance and the vastness of the areas over which they are scattered, cannot be effectively appealed to in the present phase of our revolutionary struggle. The Russian revolution is a town revolution, and has to find its support in the townspeople, who understand and desire political freedom. These are the educated Russians of all classes, including the workmen of large towns as well as representatives of the privileged classes. The nihilist efforts to achieve that great national end have been of a double nature - partly destructive, partly constructive. The first need not be dwelt upon long, for it had an echo all over the world. It consisted in a series of attempts against the Czar, which profoundly stirred the whole of educated Russia, brought forward the political question to the exclusion of everything else, and divided Russia into two hostile camps, between whom victory seemed vacillating.
The constructive work of the nihilists is represented by their efforts to take advantage of a time of public excitement to organize a body of conspirators strong enough to attempt an open military revolution. This part of the nihilists' activity is less known and little appreciated, because they did not succeed in carrying it to a practical result; yet it is certainly very remarkable what difficulties were overcome. The years 1881 and 1882 mark the nearest approach of the Russian revolution to an actual insurrection similar to that of the Decembrists in 1825. From 1880 revolutionary ideas made rapid progress in the army, especially in the St. Petersburg garrison and the Kronstadt navy. An important secret organization was founded, headed by patriotic officers, including Lieutenant Sukhanov and Baron Stromberg in Kronstadt, and Captains Pokhitonov and Rogatchev in St. Petersburg. Scores of officers of all arms and different grades joined the conspiracy, which very soon extended its ramifications all over the empire. It included men of the highest reputation and brilliant military antecedents, such as Colonel Michael Ashenbrenner, Captain Pokhitonov, and Baron Stromberg, some of them commanders of independent corps. The soldiers were at the same time approached by socialist workmen with their propaganda. In one important body of troops, which I will not particularize, but one which was in possession of guns, it occurred that the two rival revolutionary organizations, the Narodnaia Volia, and the Tcherny Perediel, happened to have worked simultaneously without knowing it - the first among the officers, the latter among the privates. Both were so successful that after a time the two streams met. One morning one of the officers, coming unexpectedly to the barracks, noticed that the soldiers were reading a newspaper, which, on his appearance, they hastily concealed under the table. He was curious to know what it was, and ordered the paper to be handed over to him. It was a fresh number of the Tcherny Perediel. He said nothing and took the copy with him to show his companions his discovery. The soldiers considered themselves irretrievably lost; but great was their delight when a few days later they learned from their friends on the Tcherny Perediel, with whom those connected with the Narodnaia Volia communicated, that they had nothing to fear, because their officers were their brethren in the cause. The result was a deputation on the part of the privates, which respectfully informed their commanders that they were quite willing at any moment to appear before the palace with their guns and make it a heap of ruins in a quarter of an hour.
In several other independent bodies of troops the revolution was so strongly represented as to render almost certain the adhesion of the whole body at the decisive moment. The military organization had its own central committee, independent in all its interior affairs; but all the military conspirators were pledged by solemn oath to rise in arms at the bidding of the executive committee, and come to the place assigned to them with as many of their men as they should be able to bring with them.
One word would have sufficed to effect a military rising. But this word was not uttered, and no action took place.
The spread of revolutionary feeling was so rapid in the army that the central committee hoped to be able to strike a great blow and make the insurrection successful. The rising was deferred from week to week and from month to month, until the Government learned what was brooding, and arrested the leaders of the military conspiracy in St. Petersburg, and then laid hands on many of their affiliated circles in the province, thus rendering any action impossible.
No one was to blame for these fatal procrastinations. It is a tremendous responsibility to decide upon a premature insurrection, likely to serve as a good example, but doomed beforehand to failure and bloody suppression, when a short delay gives fair promise of success. Conspiracies are like games of chance, in which the keenest foresight is of no avail against the caprice of Fortune.
The years 1882 and 1883 show a series of attempts to reunite the threads of conspiracies. But disasters, once begun, followed in rapid succession. About two hundred fifty to three hundred officers of all arms were arrested in various parts of the empire, one-third of them belonging to the garrisons of St. Petersburg and Kronstadt. Most of these were young officers of the first three grades. But there were two colonels, two majors, and a score of captains and lieutenant-captains. The military organization was broken, and the committee was not able to muster sufficient forces even for a serious demonstration.
The year 1884 and the following years are those in which militant nihilism passed through the most critical period of its existence. Conspiracies go on uninterruptedly, but they are so weak that they rarely ripen into actual attempts. On only one occasion, namely, in March, 1887, the conspirators were able to appear in the streets with their bombs. The revolution had practically entered a new phase.