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The Russian Anarchists
By Paul Avrich
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1967 Princeton University Press
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THE STORMY PETREL
The time has come, an enormous thing is moving down on us all, a mighty, wholesome storm is gathering; it is approaching, is already near, and soon will cleanse from our society its indolence, indifference, prejudice against work and foul ennui.
BARON TUZENBAKH, CHEKHOV'S
The Three Sisters
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Russian Empire was entering a time of troubles, a cataclysmic period of war and revolution destined to leave the old order in ruins. Opponents of the autocracy had long been forecasting the approach of a destructive tempest. Decades before Nicholas II ascended the throne, Mikhail Bakunin had sensed that the atmosphere in Russia was growing heavy with storms of devastating power, and Alexander Herzen more than once had thought he could hear the moan and grumble of an impending debacle. The reforms of Alexander II cleared the air momentarily, but after the emperor's assassination in 1881 the dark clouds of reaction enshrouded the country once more. By the turn of the century, few could escape the conviction that the old regime was on the eve of a great upheaval. The air seemed full of portents and forebodings. In a poem that was on many lips, Maksim Gorky predicted that a stormy petrel would appear "like black lightning" in the heavens, the harbinger of an immense storm soon to burst upon the Russian land. The stormy petrel became a symbol for Russians of all backgrounds — for some the symbol of approaching calamity, for others of imminent salvation.
But Nicholas II firmly refused to heed the danger signals. He remained unshakeable in his determination to preserve the autocracy as his father had done before him. Under the spell of his reactionary advisor Konstantin Pobedonostsev, the Procurator of the Holy Synod, the Tsar stifled every constitutional impulse of the enlightened members of society. Dismissing as "senseless dreams" their desperate petitions for a larger political role, he placed his trust in an unwieldy bureaucracy, a large but ill-equipped army, and a stultifying network of secret police.
The greatest threat to the ancien régime came from the peasantry. A catastrophic famine in 1891 had reawakened Russian society to the misery that pervaded the countryside. Overpopulation and stagnation in the villages persisted even after the Emancipation. As the peasants multiplied (from fifty to eighty millions in a single generation), the average size of their already inadequate family holdings steadily shrank, so that most villagers could no longer support themselves without earning additional income as hired hands in agriculture or in manufacture. The peasants hungered for more land and struggled under the crushing burden of taxes and redemption payments. They remained paralyzed by the restrictions of communal tenure long years after the Tsar had proclaimed them free men. In most places, the widely scattered strips of farmland were still redistributed every few years, and antiquated methods of cultivation had not yet given way to modern agricultural techniques. The muzhiks continued to live out their primitive lives in one-room wooden huts with earthen floors, sharing them perhaps with their pigs and goats, and subsisting on bread, cabbage soup, and vodka.
The black-earth provinces of central Russia, once the bulwark of serfdom, had changed but little since the great Emancipation of February 1861. In this overcrowded region, where "beggarly allotments" of land abounded, the impoverished peasants managed to avoid starvation only by carrying on their long-established cottage manufacture of nails, sacking, cutlery, and other small items. By the close of the century, however, handicrafts production had entered a steep decline, hard pressed by the competition of efficient factories in the burgeoning industrial towns to the north and west. The villagers, thrust into the darkness of despair, took to casting sullen and baleful looks at their former masters, whose land they now coveted more than ever before. In 1901, a landowner of Voronezh province fancied he could see a bloody mist crawling over his estate, and noted that breathing and Jiving had lately become more difficult, "as before a storm." In the autumn of that year, the central and southern agricultural regions yielded disastrously meager harvests, and the following spring the peasants of Poltava and Kharkov provinces resorted once again to the ugly weapons of Stenka Razin and Emelian Pugachev — axe, pitchfork, and torch — seizing grain wherever any could be found, and plundering the manor houses of their districts until government troops arrived to restore order.
The wretched condition of the peasantry was matched by that of the growing class of industrial workers. Serfs only yesterday, the workers found themselves uprooted from their native villages and crowded into the squalid factory dormitories of the big towns. Victimized by callous foremen and factory directors, their paltry wages habitually reduced for petty infractions of workshop rules and without any legal means of communicating their grievances, the workmen could adjust to their new mode of life only with the greatest difficulty.
Laborers in the factories, moreover, were afflicted with a crisis of identity. Powerful magnets pulled them in two directions, one leading back to their traditional villages, the other towards a strange new world beyond their comprehension. At the beginning of the new century, a large majority of factory workers — especially those in the textile mills of north-central Russia — were still legally classified as peasants. As such, they retained at least nominal possession of some allotment land and were liable to certain regulations of the commune, such as the issuance of work permits for factory employment. These worker-peasants often left their wives and children in the village, returning for the harvest season, or in times of sickness or old age. Their peasant mentality was evidenced in their sporadic outbursts against the harassments of the factory, more akin to the jacqueries of an earlier age than to the organized strikes of a more mature proletariat.
Yet, at the same time, the workers were loosening their ties with the countryside. The heavy concentration of labor in Russian enterprises helped give the factory hands a sense of collectivity that more and more replaced the old loyalties of the village. The odd form of social schizophrenia that plagued the emerging working class was beginning to heal. The workingmen were breaking with past traditions and beliefs and taking on a single new identity as a social group distinct from the peasantry from which they sprang.
The turn of the century brought the embryonic Russian working class an economic jolt as severe as the crop failures that shook the peasants in the central rural districts. In 1899, after a prolonged period of industrial growth, the Empire of the Tsars entered a depression from which it took nearly a decade to recover. The depression first struck a glancing blow at the textile industry of the northern and western provinces, then moved rapidly southward, enveloping factories, mines, oil fields, and ports, and bringing serious labor disturbances in its train. During the summer of 1903, the oil workers of Baku and Batum engaged in bloody skirmishes with the police, and walkouts in Odessa broadened into a general strike which swiftly spread to all the centers of heavy industry in the Ukraine, striking with particular force in Kiev, Kharkov, Nikolaev, and Ekaterinoslav.
A noteworthy characteristic of the turbulence in Russia was the tendency of disaffected social elements to combine with one another to form highly inflammable mixtures. Factory workers, for example, acting as conduits for the radical ideas they absorbed in the cities, disrupted the isolation of their native villages. In a similar vein, a significant feature of the industrial strikes in the south was the frequent appearance of university students alongside the workmen in mass meetings, street demonstrations, and clashes with the authorities.
The years of economic decline coincided with a period of student unrest on an unprecedented scale in Russia's history. Many of the students felt as estranged from the existing social order as the pauperized peasants and their semi-proletarianized cousins in the factories. Quite commonly, university students led impecunious lives in dreary lodgings, embittered by the injustice of the tsarist regime and disheartened by the inevitable prospect of a minor post in the bureaucratic machinery. Even those who came from the wealthier nobility found it difficult to tolerate the highhanded policies of the government or the obscurantism of the Tsar's advisors, who obstinately refused to make any concessions to constitutional principles. The students deeply resented the university statute of 1884, which had dissolved their clubs and societies, banished liberal professors to obscure locations in the provinces, and destroyed all semblance of university autonomy and academic freedom.
In February 1899, students at St. Petersburg University, indignant because the authorities had cautioned them against rowdy behavior during their annual college celebrations, created a small disturbance, whereupon mounted policemen dispersed them with whips. In reprisal, the furious students organized strikes and obstructed the attendance of lectures. Sympathetic demonstrations swept the other universities of European Russia, disrupting normal academic life for several months. The situation was tantamount to a general strike in higher education, to which the government responded by expelling hundreds of insubordinate students and drafting many of them into the army. One of the expelled young men, Karpovich by name, vented his outrage by assassinating the Minister of Education, N. P. Bogolepov, whom he blamed for the government's harsh measures against the students. Recalling to everyone's mind the murder of Tsar Alexander II, carried out twenty years earlier by the group of young Populists known as the People's Will, Bogolepov's death touched off a rash of terrorist acts directed at high state officials. In March 1901, a month after Bogolepov was killed, a terrorist shot at Pobedonostsev, but missed his quarry. The following year, a disgruntled student mortally wounded the Minister of the Interior, D. S. Sipiagin, and a workman made an unsuccessful attempt on the life of the Governor of Kharkov. In May 1903, another worker with truer aim shot and killed the Governor of Ufa, who had ordered his troops to fire on a group of unanned strikers.
In the midst of this violence, Russia hovered between two worlds, one dying and the other powerless to be born. The embitterment of the peasants, workers, and students could not be assuaged peacefully, for there were no legitimate outlets for their mounting frustrations, nor was the Tsar willing to introduce any reforms from above. There was a growing tendency among the insulted and injured to seek extreme solutions to their accumulating difficulties, especially after the depression dealt its body blow to the economy.
The signs of imminent upheaval were most noticeable in the provinces located along the periphery of the Empire, where social disquiet was intensified by national and religious persecution during four centuries of continuous expansion, Russia had extended its dominion over Finns, Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Poles, Georgians, Armenians, Azerbaijanis, and many other nationalities. Indeed, at the close of the century non-Russians constituted a majority of the total population of the Empire. Living mostly in the border areas, they could plainly hear the reverberations of nationalism in central Europe. Yet, paradoxically, national consciousness among the minority peoples received an even stronger stimulus from the Russian government itself. Inspired by Pobedonostsev, whose political philosophy pervaded the era of the last Romanovs, Alexander III and his son Nicholas embarked upon a program of Russification, an attempt to force the restless inhabitants of the frontier provinces to suppress their own national traditions and recognize the supremacy of Russian culture. Intended somehow to curb national and social discontent, Russification only aggravated such problems in a multinational empire. The ethnic question played an important part in the strikes among the Transcaucasian oil workers in 1902 and 1903; and in 1904, after Nicholas II extended Russification to loyal Finland, which had been enjoying constitutional privileges since 1809, the son of a Finnish senator murdered the Russian Governor-General, N. I. Bobrikov.
No national or religious minority suffered more from the harsh policies of the government than the Jews. At the opening of the twentieth century, five million Jews resided in the Empire, mainly in the Pale of Settlement, which extended along the western borderlands from the Baltic to the Black Sea. They had fared comparatively well during the moderate reign of Alexander II. In his program of reforms, the Tsar had permitted prosperous Jewish merchants, skilled craftsmen, former soldiers, and holders of university diplomas to live and work outside the Pale. But Alexander's violent death in March 1881 abruptly ended this period of calm and relative prosperity for the Jews. Easter time marked the outbreak of an ugly rash of pogroms, which spread through more than one hundred districts in the southwestern provinces. Although the least show of force was sufficient to stop a pogrom at once, the local authorities as a rule looked the other way before the rapine and plunder, and in some cases even encouraged the pogromists. On top of these depredations by the local populace the government issued a series of obnoxious decrees affecting every vital aspect of Jewish life. "Temporary regulations" prohibited the Jews from settling in rural communities even within the Pale, and although these rules applied only to new settlers, many old residents were expelled from the villages of their birth and forced to live in the larger towns. Movement from village to village was restricted and searches were conducted for Jews residing illegally outside the borders of the Pale, which was reduced somewhat in size. The Ministry of Education introduced quotas limiting the number of Jewish students in secondary schools and universities to 10 per cent of the student body inside the Pale and 5 per cent outside, except in St. Petersburg and Moscow, where the figure was fixed at 3 per cent. Jewish doctors could no longer find public employment, and their service in the army medical corps was curtailed. Admission to the bar for "non-Christians" was made subject to the approval of the Minister of Justice, who rarely granted entry to Jewish candidates. Jews could no longer participate in the zemstva (rural assemblies) or in the city councils. Furthermore, in 1891, the authorities evicted twenty thousand Jewish merchants and artisans from Moscow, where Alexander II had allowed them to settle in 1865, and three years later the introduction of a state monopoly on alcohol deprived many Jewish innkeepers of a livelihood.
These pernicious regulations remained in force with little modification throughout the reign of Nicholas II. The plight of the Jews grew desperate. Crowded into ghettos, subjected to religious persecution, largely barred from higher education and professional careers, their traditional occupations increasingly circumscribed, the Jews faced the total collapse of their economic and social structure. After the depression struck in 1899, the vast majority were compelled to live on the margin of pauperism. Lacking modem equipment and cheap credit, the small entrepreneurs characteristic of the Pale were threatened with ruin by rising competition from large-scale industry. Artisans, abandoning forever their cherished dream of becoming independent manufacturers, joined the ranks of the factory wage earners or, if less fortunate, the swelling army of luftmenshn — men without any employment, who lived precariously "off the air."
Excerpted from The Russian Anarchists by Paul Avrich. Copyright © 1967 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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