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"The End Justifies the Means"


Nihilism as a wholesale negation of all existing religious, moral, spiritual, aesthetic and other values meant that the intelligentsia refused to recognize any absolute values or standards of judgment. These were replaced by the single moral criterion of  ‘the interests of the people’. The great cause of the liberation of the people and the establishment of a kingdom of justice on earth sanctified everything done in its name. This was the reasoning behind what is usually described as the intelligentsia’s utilitarian morality: whatever advanced the achievement of social justice was good, whatever impeded it in any way was bad.  

Karakozov Shoots at the Tsar. By D. Kardovsky

The  approach, which treated as moral any action believed to be advancing the cause of social justice, found its complete expression in the idea of the end justifying the means. The revolutionary groups and radical intelligentsia as a whole were quick to embrace it unquestioningly and even enthusiastically. Steeling themselves for the uncompromising struggle against tyranny, they often saw violent, terrorist acts as the only option open to them to achieve their objectives. Readiness to sacrifice oneself, to give up one’s life served only to amplify the inclination towards extreme measures: anything was permitted to those who were prepared to die for the cause and constantly risked their lives for it. 

This led some members of intelligentsia to a romantic idealization of revolutionary struggle and of heroic ‘revolutionary’ acts. ‘Revolutionism’ became an obsession with many of the new radicals, particularly among the younger rebels, many of whom were students.  For them the term ‘revolutionary’  carried only the noblest of connotations. They turned terrorism into a cult and saw it as a preserve of exceptional men and women - intrepid ‘revolutionary fighters’. Blinded by their admiration of heroic acts, the young radicals completely overlooked the destructive side of revolution. To them, it was a most potent creative force  that, by destroying the old order right down to its foundations, made the task of the historic transformation so much simpler. All that was required was strong nerves and muscles, courage and determination. All this the young radicals had in abundance.

The above characteristics of the Russian intelligentsia allow it to be distinguished from other sections of the educated classes in Russia as a community of people united by their adherence to certain socio-political and moral principles, such as a revolt from obedience to the State, anti-religiousness, Nihilism, materialism, socialism, etc. Some of these traits are already discernible in Herzen’s generation of the radicals. They are easily recognizable in the intellectual makeup of the younger generation of the 1860s. And they would fully develop and become hallmarks of the subsequent generations of the Russian intelligentsia right into the early twentieth century, determining to a great extent the nature and direction of the Russian revolutionary movement and of the Russian Revolution.        

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