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The Turn to Terror

"Land and Liberty"

Following the fiasco of the going-to-the people movement, the revolutionaries began to focus their efforts on the creation of  strong secret organizations capable of taking direct political action and terrorizing the mighty Imperial Government. The better known of these underground groups was 'Land and Liberty',  founded in 1876. It was a centralized, fighting formation built on the principles of conspiracy, strict discipline and rigorous selection of new members.

The ‘Land and Liberty’ adhered to the populist goals of transferring all land to the peasants and empowering the communes  to administer public affairs. These objectives were to be achieved by the mixed tactics of a more sustained seditious agitation among the peasantry with efforts to disorganize the Government by acts of terrorism including ‘the elimination of the most harmful or eminent members of the Government’.

Given the peasants’ general apathy, government repression, and the absence of democratic institutions, the revolutionaries increasingly focused their direct political action on the tactics of individual terror against the Tsar and his most prominent ministers. In 1879 the ‘Land and Liberty’ split apart over the issue of terrorism into two separate organizations: ‘Black Repartition’ and ‘People’s Will’. The ‘Black Repartition’ wanted to continue to prepare the country for revolution by the old means of propaganda and agitation. By contrast, the ‘People’s Will’  had set itself the task of staging a political coup, of using terrorism to achieve the country’s political transformation.

Secret Meeting. By I. Repin

In the view of the members of the ‘People’s Will’, the past failures of Narodniks were inevitable given the despotic character of the tsarist system. Without the freedoms of speech, press and assembly, in the atmosphere of arbitrary repression it was impossible, they argued, to conduct sustained socialist propaganda. Their conclusion was that the revolutionaries’ immediate task should be the overthrow of the autocratic regime. Only after that would it be possible to hold elections to a Constituent Assembly which, as they hoped, would endorse their specific demands, including popular representation, regional self-government, administrative and economic independence of the communes, the transfer of the ownership of land to the peasants and of factories to the workers, civil liberties, universal suffrage.

The members of the ‘People’s Will’ further rationalized their recourse to political terror by arguing that they were entitled to use it as a means of self-defense against the repressive government. In their view, acts of terrorism were the only effective way to defend society against the unrestrained arbitrariness of the state,  protect their populist ideals and safeguard Russia’s collectivist future. They hoped to bring down the hated regime by assassinating its key political leaders. In the late 1870s the ‘People’s Will’ staged a number of terrorist acts directed against high government officials, but gradually they decided to focus all their energy on the main task: the assassination of the Tsar himself.

D. Karakozov. By I. Repin

There had been attempts on the life of Alexander II even before the ‘People’s Will’ unleashed its deadly terrorist campaign (the Tsar suffered six assassination attempts in total). However, the motivation behind the earlier attempts on the Sovereign’s life had been somewhat different. The earlier attempts were connected with certain real events, there was some concrete pretext for the acts of the terrorists. In 1866 Dmitri Karakozov shot at the Tsar as revenge for the ‘deception’ of the  peasants by the 1861 reform; the following year Berezovsky made his attempt to avenge for the crushing of the Polish revolt of 1863; Alexander Soloviev made his in 1879 in revenge for the repression against the peaceful propagandists of the going-to-the-people movement.

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