Leo Deutsch on Vera Figner and theV narod (go-to-the-people) Movement

[excerpted from Readings in Modern European History, James Harvey Robinson and Charles Beard, eds., vol. 2 (Boston:Ginn and Company, 1908), pp. 360-361]

I had come to know Vera Figner personally in St. Petersburg during the year 18 7 7, at a time when she had already adopted the idea of going " among the people." Twenty-two years of age, slender and of striking beauty, she was even then a noteworthy figure among the other prominent women socialists. Like so many other girls, she had thrown heart and soul into the cause of the Russian peasants, and was ready and willing to sacrifice everything to serve the people. In the summer of 1879 1 again came repeatedly in contact with her. As I have previously said, this was a time of hot discussion as to our future programme. Some held the opinion that the whole strength of our party should be concentrated on the terrorist struggle to overthrow the existing machinery of State by attempting the lives of the Tsar and the lesser representatives of despotism. Others contended that revolutionary propaganda ought still to be tried and carried further than hitherto ; that revolutionists should work among the people, colonize the villages, and instruct the peasants in the manner adopted by the organization called " Land and Freedom." Vera Figner was one of the most strenuous supporters of the former view.

I remember well, how once, when our whole circle had met together at Lesnoye, a summer resort near St. Petersburg, we were arguing hotly with her as to how propaganda among the peasantry might be made to yield the most fruitful results. She had just returned from a small village on the Volga, where she had been living as a peasant for purposes of propaganda. The impressions she had received there had stirred her deeply, and she described in graphic language the fathomless misery and poverty, the hopeless ignorance of the provincial working classes. The conclusion she drew from it all was that under existing conditions there was no way of helping these people.

" Show me any such way ; show me how, under present circumstances, I can serve the peasants, and I am ready to go back to the villages at once," she said. And her whole manner left no doubt of her absolute sincerity and readiness to keep her word. But her experience had been that of many others who had idealized " the people," and also their own power of stirring them; and we were none of us prepared with any definite counsel that could deter her from the new path she had determined to tread -simply because she could see no other leading to the desired end.

When I went to Odessa in the late autumn of the same year I found Vera Figner there. In conjunction with Kibaltchitch , Frolenko, Kolotkevitch, and Zlatopolsky she was busy with preparations for an attempt on the life of Alexander II, who was about to return to St. Petersburg from Livadia. The dynamite was stored in her house,- she had now put aside all doubt, and devoted herself with her whole soul to terrorist activity.

She belonged to the Russian aristocracy ; her grandfather had won a name for himself in the guerrilla warfare against Napoleon's invasion. Inflexible determination and tireless perseverance were her most prominent qualities; she was never contented with a single task, even the most enthralling, but would carry on work in all sorts of different directions simultaneously. While engaged in making ready for this attempt on the Tsar's life she was at the same time organizing revolutionary societies among the youth of the country, doing propaganda work in the higher ranks of society, and helping us in Odessa with a secret newspaper that we were starting for South Russia.

But Vera Figner was still only in the developing stage of her strength and capacities. She was already highly esteemed by all who came near her, winning their sympathy and confidence yet even her greatest friends could hardly suspect the depth of character possessed by this radiantly beautiful girl. It was fully shown in 1882, when nearly all her comrades were in prison, and the few who had escaped capture had fled into foreign countries ; she resolutely declined to entertain the idea of flight, though the danger of arrest menaced her at every turn. In 1883 she fell a victim to the treachery of Degaiev, and was sentenced to death ; but " by favor " this was altered to lifelong penal servitude, and she was immured in the living grave of the Schlüsselburg fortress, where she still is (1902).