1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Nihilism
NIHILISM, the name commonly given to the Russian form of revolutionary Socialism, which had at first an academical character, and rapidly developed into an anarchist revolutionary movement. It originated in the early years of the reign of Alexander II., and the term was first used by Turgueniev in his celebrated novel, Fathers and Children, published in 1862. Among the students of the universities and the higher technical schools Turgueniev had noticed a new and strikingly original type—young men and women in slovenly attire, who called in question and ridiculed the generally received convictions and respectable conventionalities of social life, and who talked of reorganizing society on strictly scientific principles. They reversed the traditional order of things even in trivial matters of external appearance, the males allowing the hair to grow long and the female adepts cutting it short, and adding sometimes the additional badge of blue spectacles. Their appearance, manners and conversation were apt to shock ordinary people, but to this they were profoundly indifferent, for they had raised themselves above the level of so-called public opinion, despised Philistine respectability, and rather liked to scandalize people still under the influence of what they considered antiquated prejudices. For aesthetic culture, sentimentalism and refinement of every kind they had a profound and undisguised contempt. Professing extreme utilitarianism and delighting in paradox, they were ready to declare that a shoemaker who distinguished himself in his craft was a greater man than a Shakespeare or a Goethe, because humanity had more need of shoes than of poetry. Thanks to Turgueniev, these young persons came to be known in common parlance as “Nihilists,” though they never ceased to protest against the term as a caluminous nickname. According to their own account, they were simply earnest students who desired reasonable reforms, and the peculiarities in their appearance and manner arose simply from an excusable neglect of trivialities in view of graver interests. In reality, whatever name we may apply to them, they were the extreme representatives of a curious moral awakening and an important intellectual movement among the Russian educated classes (see Alexander II., of Russia).
In material and moral progress Russia had remained behind the other European nations, and the educated classes felt, after the humiliation of the Crimean War, that the reactionary regime of the emperor Nicholas must be replaced by a series of drastic reforms. With the impulsiveness of youth and the recklessness of inexperience, the students went in this direction much farther than their elders, and their reforming zeal naturally took an academic, pseudo-scientific form. Having learned the rudiments of positivism, they conceived the idea that Russia had outlived the religious and metaphysical stages of human development, and was ready to enter on the positivist stage. She ought, therefore, to throw aside all religious and metaphysical conceptions, and to regulate her intellectual, social and political life by the pure light of natural science. Among the antiquated institutions which had to be abolished as obstructions to real progress, were religion, family life, private property and centralized administration. Religion was to be replaced by the exact sciences, family life by free love, private property by collectivism, and centralized administration by a federation of independent communes. Such doctrines could not, of course, be preached openly under a paternal, despotic government, but the press censure had become so permeated with the prevailing spirit of enthusiastic liberalism, that they could be artfully disseminated under the disguise of literary criticism and fiction, and the public very soon learned the art of reading between the lines. The work which had perhaps the greatest influence in popularizing the doctrines was a novel called Shto Dyelati? (What is to be done?), written in prison by Tchernishevski, one of the academic leaders of the movement, and published with the sanction of the authorities!
Since the time of Peter the Great, Russia had been subjected to a wonderful series of administrative and social transformations, and it seemed to many people quite natural that another great transformation might be effected with the consent and coöperation of the autocratic power. The doctrines spread, therefore, with marvellous rapidity. In the winter of 1861-1862 a high official wrote to a friend who had been absent from Russia for a few months: “If you returned now you would be astonished at the progress which the opposition—one might say, the revolutionary party—has made. . . . The revolutionary ideas have taken possession of all classes, all ages, all professions, and they are publicly expressed in the streets, in the barracks, and in the government offices. I believe the police itself is carried away by them.” Certainly the government was under the influence of the prevailing enthusiasm for reform, for it liberated all the serfs, endowed them liberally with arable land, and made their democratic communal institutions independent of the landed proprietors; and it was preparing other important reforms in a similar spirit, including the extension of self-government in the rural districts and the towns, and the reorganization of the antiquated judicial system and procedure according to the modern principles adopted in western Europe.
The programme of the government was extensive enough and liberal enough to satisfy, for the moment at least, all reasonable reformers, but the well-intentioned, self-confident young people to whom the term Nihilists was applied were not reasonable. They wanted an immediate, thorough-going transformation of the existing order of things according to the most advanced socialistic principles, and in their youthful, reckless impatience they determined to undertake the work themselves, independently of and in opposition to the government. As they had no means of seizing the central power, they adopted the method of endeavouring to bring about the desired political, social and economic changes by converting the masses to their views. They began, therefore, a propaganda among the working population of the towns and the rural population in the villages. The propagandists were recruited chiefly from the faculty of physical science in the universities, from the Technological Institute, and from the medical schools, and a female contingent was supplied by the midwifery classes of the Medico-Surgical Academy. Those of each locality were personally known to each other, but there was no attempt to establish among them hierarchical distinctions or discipline. Each individual had entire freedom as to the kind and means of propaganda to be employed. Some disguised themselves as artisans or ordinary labourers, and sought to convert their uneducated fellow-workmen in the industrial centres, whilst others settled in the villages as school-teachers, and endeavoured to stir up disaffection among the recently emancipated peasantry by telling them that the tsar intended they should have all the land, and that his benevolent intentions had been frustrated by the selfish landed proprietors and the dishonest officials. Landed proprietors and officials, it was suggested, should be got rid of, and then the peasants would have arable, pastoral and forest land in abundance, and would not require to pay any taxes. To persons of a certain education the agitators sought to prove that the general economic situation was desperate, that it was the duty of every conscientious citizen to help the people in such a dilemma, and that the first step towards the attainment of this devoutly to be wished consummation was the limitation or destruction of the uncontrolled supreme power. On the whole the agitators had very little success, and not a few of them fell into the hands of the police, several of them being denounced to the authorities by the persons in whose interest they professed to be acting; but the great majority were so obstinate and so ready to make any personal sacrifices, that the arrest and punishment of some of their number did not deter others from continuing the work. Between 1861 and 1864 there were no less than twenty political trials, with the result that most of the accused were condemned to imprisonment, or to compulsory residence in small provincial towns under police supervision.
The activity of the police naturally produced an ever-increasing hostility to the government, and in 1866 this feeling took a practical form in an attempt on the part of an obscure individual called Karakozov to assassinate the emperor. The attempt failed, and the judicial inquiry proved that it was the work of merely a few individuals, but it showed the dangerous character of the movement, and it induced the authorities to take more energetic measures. For the next four years there was an apparent lull, during which only one political trial took place, but it was subsequently proved that the Nihilists during this time were by no means inactive. An energetic agitator called Netchaiev organized in 1869 a secret association under the title of the Society for the Liberation of the People, and when he suspected of treachery one of the members he caused him to be assassinated. This crime led to the arrest of some members of the society, but their punishment had very little deterrent effect on the Nihilists in general, for during the next few years there was a recrudescence of the propaganda among the labouring classes. Independent circles were created and provided with secret printing-presses in many of the leading provincial towns—notably in Moscow, Nijni-Novgorod, Penza, Samara, Saratov, Kharkof, Kiev, Odessa, Rostov-on-the-Don and Taganrog; and closer relations were established with the revolutionary Socialists in western Europe, especially with the followers of Bakunin, who considered that a great popular rising should be brought about in Russia as soon as possible. Bakunin's views did not, it is true, obtain unanimous acceptance. Some of the Nihilists maintained that things were not yet ripe for a rising of the masses, that the pacific propaganda must be continued for a considerable time, and that before attempting to overthrow the existing social organization some idea should be formed as to the order of things which should take its place. The majority, however, were too impatient for action to listen to such counsels of prudence, and when they encountered opposition on the part of the government they urged the necessity of retaliating by acts of terrorism. In a brochure issued in 1874 one of the most influential leaders (Tkatchev) explained that the object of the revolutionary party should be, not the preparation of revolution in general, but the realization of it at the earliest possible moment, that it was a mistake to attach great importance to questions of future social organization, and that all the energies of the party should be devoted to “a struggle with the government and the established order of things, a struggle to the last drop of blood and to the last breath.” In accordance with the fashionable doctrine of evolution, the reconstruction of society on the tabula rasa might be left, it was thought, to the spontaneous action of natural forces, or, to use a Baconian phrase, to natura naturans.
To this and similar declarations of irreconcilable hostility the government replied by numerous arrests, and in the winter of 1877-1878 no less than 193 agitators, selected from 2000 arrested on suspicion, were tried publicly in St Petersburg by a tribunal specially constituted for the purpose. Nearly all of them were condemned to imprisonment or exile, and the revolutionary organization in the northern provinces was thereby momentarily paralysed, but a few energetic leaders who had escaped arrest reorganized their scattered forces and began the work anew. They constituted themselves into a secret executive committee, which endeavoured to keep in touch with, and partially direct, the independent groups in the provincial towns. Though they never succeeded in creating an efficient centralized administration. they contrived to give to the movement the appearance of united action by assuming the responsibility for terrorist crimes committed by persons who were in reality not acting under their orders. During the years 1878, 1879 and 1880 these terrorist crimes were of frequent occurrence. General Trepov, prefect of St Petersburg, was shot by Vera Zasulitch under pretence of presenting a petition to him; General Mezentsov, chief of the political police, was assassinated in broad daylight in one of the principal streets of St Petersburg, and an attempt was afterwards made on the life of his successor, General Drenteln; Prince Krapotkin, governor of the province of Kharkof, was assassinated for having introduced stricter prison discipline with regard to political prisoners; a murderous attack was made on the emperor in front of the Winter Palace by an ex-student called Soloviev; repeated attempts were made to blow up the train conveying the Imperial family from the Crimea to St Petersburg; and a dynamite explosion, by which ten people were killed and thirty-four wounded, took place in the Winter Palace, the Imperial family owing their escape to the accident of not sitting down to dinner punctually at the usual hour. Assassination was used also by the agitators against confederates suspected of giving information to the police, and a number of gendarmes were murdered when effecting arrests. After each of these crimes a proclamation was issued by the executive committee explaining the motives and accepting the responsibility.
When repressive measures and the efforts of the police were found insufficient to cope with the evil, Alexander II. determined to try a new system. Count Loris Melikof was entrusted with semi-dictatorial powers, relaxed the severity of the police régime, and endeavoured to obtain the support of all loyal Liberals by holding out the prospect of a series of reforms in a liberal sense. His conciliatory methods failed signally, and were repaid by an attack on his life. A semblance of parliamentary institutions was not what the Anarchists wanted. They simply redoubled their activity, and hatched a plot for the assassination of the emperor. In March 1881 the plot was successful. Alexander II., when driving in St Petersburg, was mortally wounded by the explosion of small bombs, and died almost as soon as he had reached the Winter Palace. On the following day the executive committee issued a bombastic proclamation, in which it declared triumphantly that the tsar had been condemned to death by a secret tribunal on 26th August 1879, and that two years of effort and painful losses had at last been crowned with success.
These facts put an end to the policy of killing Anarchism by kindness, and one of the first acts of the new reign was a manifesto in which Alexander III. announced very plainly that he had no intention of limiting the autocratic power, or making concessions of any kind to the revolutionary party. The subsequent history of the movement presents little that is interesting or original, merely a continual but gradually subsiding effort to provoke local disturbances with a view to bringing about sooner or later a general rising of the masses and the overthrow not only of the government, but also of the existing social and economic regime. A serious manifestation on the part of the terrorists took the shape of a plot to assassinate the emperor by bombs in the streets of St Petersburg in March 1887. It was the work of a very small group, the members of which were being watched by the police, and were all arrested on the day when the crime was to be perpetrated. The movement afterwards showed occasionally signs of revival. In 1901, for example, there were troubles in the universities, and in 1902 there were serious disturbances among the peasantry in some of the central rural districts; and the assassination of M. Sipiaguine, the minister of the interior, was a disquieting incident; but the illusions and enthusiasm which produced Nihilism in the young generation during the early years of the reign of Alexander II. had been largely shattered and dispelled by experience. The revolutionary propaganda temporarily led to a serious situation in the early years of the reign of Tsar Nicholas II., but a new era opened for Russia with the inauguration of parliamentary government.
The following criminal statistics of the movement during six and a half years of its greatest activity (from 1st July 1881 to 1st January 1888) are taken from unpublished official records:—
|Number of affairs examined in the police department||1500|
|Number of persons punished||3046|
These 3046 punishments may be divided into the following categories:—
|Exile in Siberia||681|
|Exile under police supervision in European Russia||1500|
From the beginning of the movement up to 1902 the number of Anarchists condemned to death and executed was forty-eight, and the number of persons assassinated by the Anarchists was thirty-nine. There is no reason to suspect the accuracy of these statistics, for they were not intended for publication. They are taken from a confidential memorandum presented to the emperor. (D. M. W.)