Ukranian Nihilist Sergei Stepniak’s compelling study of the Russian peasant. Published over 120 years ago in the time of Nicholas II (but mostly written in the time of Alexander III) it describes the social plight of the peasant in 19th century Russia and the collective forms of social organisation they adopted that could have provided the basis for the development of Russia as a free and egalitarian society. Perhaps more importantly from a contemporary perspective, it helps explains the influence of revived orthodox and non-orthodox religion that persists at the cultural and political heart of modern-day Russia. A timeless and powerful insight into the Russian psyche, national culture and rural history. Focusing on village life, agricultural labourers, the landed gentry, the churches and sects, Stepniak examines the social structures of the village and artisanal communes, and illustrates the intimate connection between patriarchal theocracy, the parochial clergy, popular religious faith and the Russian peasantry. Invaluable for anyone interested in — or wishing to understand — the roots of Vladimir Putin’s ultra-conservative nationalism and his territorial ambitions.
Sergei Mikhailovich Kravchinskii, also known as ‘Stepniak’, was born in the Ukraine in 1851, the son of a military surgeon. He received a military education at the St. Petersburg Artillery School, and was subsequently appointed officer of the artillery battery at Kiev in 1870. After about a year, however, he returned to St. Petersburg and joined the Foresty Institute, where he renewed his contacts with the Artillery School, and organised a number of self-education groups among the students, delivering lectures on history and political economy. This resulted in the formation of a small group called the “Artillery Society”, the members of which took an active part in the revolutionary movement. It was here that he was first introduced to Bakunin’s writings, which made a considerable impression on him, and where he helped to distribute the periodical Narodnaya Delo. In 1872 he joined the propagandist Tchaikovsky Circle1, and began his career as an agitator for Russian freedom.
During his early life he was inﬂuenced by the radical egalitarianism of some small Russian protestant groups and wrote one or two admiring critiques of contemporary religious organisations, which he believed could be potential sources of revolution. He used his knowledge of religion and familiarity with the Bible as aids to agitation, adapting biblical quotations when speaking to peasants, to prove that they should start the revolution.
It was at this time that Stepniak first worked with Peter Kropotkin, who described Stepniak as possessing a complete “absence of fear”, unconcerned about his own security, although always extremely careful not to compromise others. He soon became well known for his propaganda among the workers in the St. Petersburg area, particularly amongst the textile workers of the Vyborg district and was, Kropotkin noted, “very much wanted by the police”.
In 1873, Stepniak “Filled his knapsack with revolutionary leaflets and set out to go to the people” – he left St Petersburg for the Tver and Tula provinces, but his agitational activities soon resulted in his arrest. He escaped and remained a fugitive from Russian justice for the rest of his life.
Meanwhile the police had broken up the Tchaykovsky Circle in St. Petersburg, arresting Kropotkin. Stepniak moved to Odessa where, with other Tchaykovskyists, he hoped to organise armed peasant uprisings. Disillusioned by lack of success, he left Russia in 1874 travelling briefly to London, and from there to Paris, where heard news of a Serbian rising against the Turks in Herzegovina,. With M.P. Sazhin he attempted to recruit ﬁghters for the ideal of a Slavic Federation, and go to their assistance. He went ﬁrst to North Italy to make contact with Felix Volkhovsky (former head of the Odessa Tchaykovsky circle), raising a number of small groups of fighters, composed mainly of Slavic émigrés and former members of Garibaldi’s legions, which were involved in a number of armed clashes in Herzegovina, before they were forced to adopt guerilla tactics in the Dalmatian mountains. Stepniak soon became disillusioned religious fanaticism that characterised the rising, and by September he was in Lugano, where he met Bakunin.
Stepniak was in St Petersburg again by summer 1876 helping to plan Kropotkin’s prison escape during the same year. By 1877 however, he was in Italy, taking an active part in the ill-fated Benevento uprising. The idea of the uprising was to establish a focal point for a wider revolution in the Matese mountains, a traditional brigand stronghold near Naples. If successful, the insurrectionaries would try to hold out for long enough for their rising to inspire similar insurrections in the area.
Stepniak and the Italian anarchist Malatesta, rented a house in which to store weapons for the planned rising, but within days the house was under observation by police, who opened fire on some would-be insurrectionists as they arrived at the house. Two gendarmes were wounded in the shoot-out, one dying later. Some of the rebels, including Stepniak, were arrested, and others fled to the mountains under cover of darkness, where they were joined afterwards by a few more rebels who were unarmed.
The rebels were reduced to a small band of twenty-seven, including Malatesta and the anarchist Carlo Cafiero — less than a quarter of the number originally committed to taking part. At first the rebels were successful in rousing the peasants of two villages. Municipal buildings were seized in the name of the social revolution, primitive weapons distributed, to the peasants, tax registers burnt and the macinato tax meters smashed. A Government force of 12, 000 troops crushed the incipient revolt before it could spread and the revolutionaries were arrested. Forty-three of them, including Stepniak were put on trial, but Stepniak’s luck held, however, as soon after the trial King Victor Emmanuel died and Stepniak was one of the prisoners who benefited from a political amnesty. He left Italy for Switzerland, where he joined the conspiratorial groups of exiles before returning secretly to St Petersburg in May 1878.2
In Russia he threw himself into revolutionary activity, setting up a clandestine print-shop for the printing of a new journal, Zemlia i Volia (Land and Liberty) and editing the first issue. On August 4th, 1878, he assassinated the chief of the Imperial Third Section (secret police), General Mezentsev, stabbing him in broad daylight in a St. Petersburg square. Although Mezentsev’s assassination had been planned well in advance, it took place only two days after the revolutionary Kovalsky had been shot in Odessa, and it gave the act an appearance of being an act of revenge, which increased its impact.
Stepniak, in a pamphlet Smert’za smert (1878, A Death for a Death), justified the assassination as revenge for all those ill-treated in prison, the sentences against revolutionary propagandists, the execution of fellow-revolutionaries by the state and as an act of retaliation for the famous “Trial of the hundred and ninety-three”. After two more years of clandestine activity he left Russia, travelling to Geneva, where his wife Fanny gave birth to their only child, a daughter, who died a few days after birth. Stepniak, then went on to Italy and finally (at the invitation of his revolutionary companion, Nikolai Tchaykovsky) to London in 1884 to raise support for the revolutionary movement within Russia.
In Britain he set out to justify the dramatic and often violent acts of Russia’s nihilists, explaining the real nature of the repression there and the problems that the revolutionaries faced every day. His arguments remained those of Smert’za smert’ — acts of terror against the authorities were defensive measures, the only actions left open to people within Tsarist Russia. People were being tortured and killed for engaging in purely political and propaganda activities — and often simply on the suspicion that they had done so. Official violence could only be countered by revolutionary acts.
Underground Russia (1883), was his ﬁrst English language publication, although the articles were originally written during his stay in Italy. The book provided vivid biographical profiles of many well-known revolutionaries (including Kropotkin, Vera Zasulich and Soﬁa Perovskaya) and its colourful descriptions of the operation of clandestine printing presses and prison escapes captured the imagination of the Victorian public and shaped opinions towards Russia and the revolutionary movement for several years. William Morris wrote to one of his daughters that it was “a most interesting book, though terrible reading too: it sounds perfectly genuine: I should think such a book ought to open people’s eyes a bit here & do good.”3
Underground Russia made exactly the same points as Smert’za smert, but it did so in a more sophisticated way, detailing the demands of the executive committee of Narodnaya Volya, (The People’s Will) and the massive support given to the revolutionaries by the majority of the people.
Stepniak’s audience grew as he began writing for magazines. In 1884 he wrote for Today (a paper published by socialists, E. Belford Bax and J.L. Joynes) about political prisoners in Russia and the brutal behaviour of the authorities towards the prisoners. He also contributed articles on student life in Russian universities and on the Russian press to The Times, and in 1885 contributed his ﬁrst article to Commonweal, the paper of the Socialist League, on ‘The actual position of Russia’. The inﬂuence of his articles was felt as far away as Russia itself. According to a Times reporter who described “an extremely sore feeling” among government officials, at what they regarded as press bias in allowing the publication of “prejudiced” writings by Stepniak and other exiled nihilists.
Underground Russia was translated into several languages, including German, French and Danish, and its success, and the impact of his magazine articles in Britain and North America convinced him that he could “conquer the world for the Russian revolution”, and “throw upon the scales the huge weight of public opinion of civilised nations” He decided to abandon clandestine activity and instead devote himself to becoming a propagandist for the revolution.
The Times’ articles and those he wrote for other papers formed the core of material for Russia under the Tsars (1885), which resembled Underground Russia, but expanded on the original themes of that book, by describing the forms of village and peasant democracy that existed prior to the autocratic rule of Moscow. Nearly 200 pages of this volume were devoted to detailed instances of police searches, censorship, imprisonment and exile — an impressive body of evidence that profoundly influenced contemporary Victorian society, which was what Stepniak had hoped.
That book was followed by The Russian Storm Cloud (1886), again compiled from contributions Stepniak had made to leading newspapers. Sub-titled “or Russia in her relation to neighbouring countries” the book set out to prove that the Tsar’s territorial ambitions were intended to divert attention away from internal unrest.
In 1888 his fourth book was published, The Russian Peasantry, and within less than twenty years it had been reprinted in four editions. Stepniak’s message was clear:
“In the heart of Russia, the population is being starved out. Half a million a year virtually dying of hunger, starved to death.”
He carefully presents statistics revealing the abnormally high death-rate due “in the opinion of the Congress of Russian Surgeons, to ‘deficiency of food’.” Debt and usury were eating the hearts out of the villages, and an agrarian proletariat “landless and homeless” was growing through the whole of the Russian Empire. He described mass floggings of hundreds of peasants unable to pay their taxes, and criminal rates of interest charged on collective loans taken out by villages. He attacked the ‘Emancipation’ of the serfs:
“Emancipation has utterly failed to realise the ardent expectations of its advocates and promoters. . . It has failed to improve the material condition of the former serfs, who on the whole are worse off than they were before the emancipation. The bulk of our peasantry is in a condition not far removed from actual starvation — a fact which can neither be denied or concealed even by the official press.”
As well as the social plight of peasant in Russia, The Russian Peasantry discusses the revolutionary potential of non-orthodox religious sects such as the Doukhobors and the Stundists. The book was well-received, with lengthy reviews appearing in The Guardian, The Morning Post and The New York Times, which wrote:
“Stepniak so crowds a book with his strong and pregnant facts, his sincerity, his ability, his startling conclusions are so apparent on every page, that one column could be extended to two and the two might extend to four. All thinking and disinterested people for whom Russia has an interest read this volume. It is a mournful and hopeless enough record, but it is not always agreeable things that benefit men the most; it is not always the contemplation of prosperity that elevates and clarifies the soul and heart. Stepniak is worth reading not only for Russia’s sake, but for our own.”
Despite his friendship with prominent Marxists such as Engels, G. V. Plekhanov Bernstein, Stepniak remained uninfluenced by Marxist socialism, preferring to rely upon his own knowledge of conditions in Russia, and seeing the peasantry as the backbone of any revolution. Like Kropotkin, and to some extent, Marx, Stepniak saw the self-governing Russian Mir as providing the basis for achieving socialism without going through capitalism:
“Our peasants could, however, do something more than preserve their individuality They could give a more lasting proof and testimony as to their collective dispositions and aspirations. A Russian village has never been a mere aggregation of individuals, but a very intimate association, having much work and life in common. These associations are called mirs among the Great and White Russians, hromadas among the Ruthenians.
Up to the present time the law has allowed them a considerable amount of self-government. They are free to manage all their economical concerns in common: the land, if they hold it as common property—which is the case everywhere save in the Ruthenian provinces—the forests, the ﬁsheries, the renting of public-houses standing on their territory, etc. They distribute among themselves as they choose, the taxes falling to the share of the commune according to the Government schedules. They elect the rural executive administration — Starost and Starshinas — who are (nominally at least) under their permanent control.
Another very important privilege that they possess is that they, the village communes composing the Volost, in general meeting assembled, elect the ten judges of the Volost. All these must be peasants, members of some village commune. The jurisdiction of the peasants’ tribunal is very extensive; all the civil, and a good many criminal offences (save the capital ones), in which one of the parties, at least, is a peasant of the district, are amenable to it. The peasants sitting as judges are not bound to abide in their verdicts by the official code of law. They administer justice according to the customary laws and traditions of the local peasantry.
The records of these tribunals, published by an ofﬁcial commission, at once afford us an insight into the peasants’ original notions as to juridical questions. We pass over the verdicts illustrating the popular idea as to land tenure, which has been expounded above. We will rather try to elicit the other side of the question: the peasants’ views on movable property, the right of bequest, of inheritance, and their civil code in general, which presents some curious and unexpected peculiarities.
The fact that strikes us most in it is, that among the peasants where the patriarchal principle is as yet so strong and the ties of blood are held so sacred, kinship gives no right to property. The only rightful claim to it is given by work. Whenever the two interests clash, it is to the right of labour that the popular conscience gives the preference. The father cannot disinherit one son or diminish his share for the beneﬁt of his favourite. Notwithstanding the religious respect in which the last will of a dying man is held, both the mir and the tribunal will annul it at the complaint of the wronged man, if the latter is known to be a good and diligent worker. The fathers themselves know this well. Whenever they attempt to prejudice one of their children in their wills they always adduce as motive that he has been a sluggard or a spendthrift and has already dissipated his share. The favourite, on the other hand, is mentioned as “having worked hard for the family ” (pp 126-129)
He goes on to examine the collective nature of labour in the Mir:
There exist no people on the face of the earth, or, to keep within the boundaries of the better known, on the face of Europe, who, as a body, are so well trained for collective labour as our moujiks are. Whenever a group or a crowd of them have some common economical interest to look after, or some common work to perform, they invariably form themselves into an artel, or kind of trades union, which is a free, purely economical mir, purged of the compulsory, despotic elements of political authority. It is a free union of people, who combine for the mutual advantages of co-operation in labour, or consumption, or of both. Its membership is voluntary, not imposed, and each member is free to withdraw at the close of the season, or upon the conclusion of the particular work for which the artel was formed, and to enter into a new artel. Quarrels between members, as well as offences against the artel, if not settled in an amicable manner have to be brought before the common tribunals. The artel has no legal authority over its members. Expulsion from the artel is the only punishment, or rather the only protection, these associations possess against those who break their rules. Yet the artels do very well, and in permanent work often prove to be lifelong partnerships. The fishermen of the north; the carpenters who go to work in the towns; the bricklayers and builders; the diggers and the freight-carriers, — all the hundreds of thousands of peasants who move from the villages in search of work, either start by forming artels, or join some artel when they reach their destination. Every artel accepts work, makes engagements, etc., as a body, distributing or dividing the work they have to do amongst themselves. The principle followed is, that every man’s pay shall be strictly proportioned to the amount of his individual labour, or, that this ideal shall be approached as nearly as the nature of the particular industry will admit of.
There is endless variety in the economical characters and the size of these artels, some being regular owners of industrial establishments or trading companies (a machine manufactory in Ural), whilst others are only temporary and limited associations of vast numbers of men, blown together by the four winds of heaven, such as those of bargemen or railway servants, etc., though in substance they all reproduce the leading features of the village mir.
The principle of co-operation is applied as frequently and as naturally to agricultural as to non-agricultural work. Of late years co-operation in agriculture has become even more, varied and more extensive than ever before, partly because of the impoverishment of the people, and especially because of the wholesale breaking down, throughout Russia, of the big patriarchal families. So long as they existed they formed compulsory co-operative associations, and were held together by family despotism. Now they are supplanted by free associations or self-electing artels. (pp 635-638)
For the ﬁrst few years of his residence in England, Stepniak spoke mainly to small discussion groups, and it wasn’t until 1886 that he felt confident enough to speak at his ﬁrst large meeting which was organised by the Hammersmith branch of the Socialist League and chaired by William Morris. Stepniak spoke without notes, answering questions for quite a long time. Although a resolution of sympathy with the Russian people was passed at the meeting, Stepniak wasn’t anxious to repeat the performance and declined other Socialist League invitations until his grasp of the English language improved.
Nevertheless, he continued to speak at many small meetings throughout the country, often spending as much as ten to twelve hours a day, writing, researching and organising. His activities won him a wide circle of supporters, not only among anarchists, socialists and Fabians, but also among such people as orthodox Tory, W. Earl Hodgson.4 Stepniak was a stout man, with soft brown eyes, and a mass of black hair crowning his square head, and his soft-spoken, reticent manner was in complete contrast to the media image of the typical nihilist, so that he often completely disarmed opponents when they met him in the ﬂesh.
His fifth book, The Career of a Nihilist: a novel, (1889) was intended to describe the self-sacriﬁce and devotion shown by the Russian revolutionaries in a fictionalised framework. Following its publication Stepniak concentrated his activities into forming an organisation that would channel aid from British intellectuals to the revolutionary movement in Russia. Several Members of Parliament supported this organisation, the ‘Society of Friends of Russian Freedom,.’ Edward Pease (Secretary of the Fabian Society) became its secretary and Stepniak edited its paper Free Russia for two years. Simultaneously he worked with other exiles to establish a ‘Russian Free Press Fund’ which printed Russian language material for opposition movements in exile and in Russia. He insisted on a “moderate stance” for the Fund’s propaganda, considering it “ignoble” to incite others to commit violent acts or to call for insurrection when he was “safe” in a foreign country.
By 1891, however, his views were changing, as can be seen from his essay ‘What is wanted’ in which he wrote:
“We utterly disbelieve in the possibility of ‘reconstructing economic relationships by means of a burst of revolutionary inspiration. That is a huge work which needs great mental efforts on the part of many people, much preparation, much practical experience and correction, and therefore, much time.”5
In spite of this declaration he continued to channel his efforts into supporting the revolutionary movement both inside Russia and in exile.
Although a close friend of Kropotkin’s and valuing elements of anarchist thought, he remained a nihilist, believing anarchism impractical. He was determined to secure the widest possible support for his work, and made friends easily with Marxists like Engels and Bernstein, and with Fabians such as Pease and Shaw.
With the help of a sympathetic American journalist, George Kennan, with whom he had co-operated before, he organised a tour of the USA during the winter and spring of 1890-1891. Together they created an American branch of the ‘Society of Friends of Russian Freedom’, although it failed to function properly after Stepniak’s return to Britain. They also organised a petition of support for the Russian revolutionary movement, but Stepniak was forced to moderate its tone before American intellectuals would sign, writing out support for the violent section of the movement
Back in Britain he continued his propaganda work, writing a play, The New Convert, which wasn’t performed until after his death. He undertook the translation of several works of Russian literature and wrote several novels. His final book, King Stork and King Log: a Study of Persecution in Modern Russia (1896) published after his death, described yet further instances of persecution and the continuing activities of the revolutionaries.
In late 1893 an article was published in the New Review6 exposing the activities of the foreign anarchists in London – who were described by the two pseudononymous authors as the “offscourings of the Continent” and “…the miscreants who are now aspiring to terrorise the world: the very dregs of the population, the riff-raff of rascaldom, professional thieves, bullies who batten up on the shameful earnings of the weaker sex, cut-throats when opportunity offers, despicable desperadoes already under the ban and always subjected to close surveillance…”
In particular the second part of the article focuses on the Nihilists, naming “some of the most known leaders of the nihilist party” in England, including Peter Kropotkin, Nicholas Tchaykowsky, Felix Volkhovsky and “the murderer of General Mezentzeff, who publishes his revolutionary lucubrations under an assumed name”. The author then attacks the open way in which the Russian “Nihilist colony” operates, and the support it receives from “many well-known politicians and Members of Parliament”
The article caused a stir in the liberal and radical circles in which many of Nihilists circulated and relied on for support, and Stepniak subsequently wrote a reply, in which he challenged the Russian authorities to take legal action against him. It has been subsequently revealed that one of the authors of the pamphlet was in fact Pyotr Rachkovsky, head of the Okhrana, the Russian secret police.7
On December 23, 1895, Stepniak was in Chiswick, on his way to attend a meeting at which yet further propaganda plans and organisational details were to be discussed, when his old dare-devilry got the better of him. Approaching some railway lines, he noticed an approaching locomotive: impatiently he decided to leap across the path of the passing train rather than wait until it was safe to cross. Older than he realised, he was caught by the heel and killed.
Throughout his life Stepniak was an untiring fighter for the things in which he believed, becoming the leading propagandist of the Russian revolutionary movement in exile. The last word belongs to his contemporaries:
“All who knew him intimately could not help admiring the pure, idealistic soul of this tender-hearted man who, with astonishing zeal, untiringly devoted himself to work for freedom”. Vassily Zhook in The Torch of Anarchy.
“As a revolutionist Stepniak was our hero — as an author our glory.” W. Tcherkesoff, in Liberty.
1 Named after its leader, Nikolai Tchaykovsky
2 The best English-language account of this episode can be found in Nunzio Pernicone: Italian Anarchism 1864-1892, (Princeton, 1993) pp 118-28
3 Quoted in Tea and Anarchy! The Bloomsbury Diary of Olive Garnett, edited by Barry C Johnson, London, 1989)
4 Hodgson was the author of several books on fishing, and once wrote an article entitled “A Tory Plea for the Rights of Man”.
5 Later republished in republished in Nihilism as it is. (London, 1894)
6 “Anarchists: Their Methods and Organisation”, New Review, January 1894, no 56 pp 1-16
7 Senese, 1987, page 97
The best account of Stepniak’s life in English is by Donald S M Senese, Stepniak-Kravchinskii: the London Years (Newtonville, Mass. 1987)
Also of interst are: Tea and anarchy!: The Bloomsbury Diary of Olive Garnett, 1890-1893, (London, 1989) and Olive and Stepniak: The Bloomsbury Diary of Olive Garnett, 1893-1895 (London, 1993) both edited by Barry C Johnson.