Amy Knight, “Female Terrorists in the Russian Socialist Revolutionary Party”
[SOURCE = 1979:RRe#38:139-59]
[SAC editor has inserted hypertext links to SAC]
Table of Contents =
Three paragraphs in re. influence of feminism on women terrorists
Table = Social profile of SRs women terrorists
SRs Battle Organization
Influence of Lavrov
The Soviet Revolution
[...] It was a woman, Vera Zasulich, who heralded the onset of terrorism in Russia in 1878 by an attack on the St. Petersburg Chief of Police, and, in the following year, when the first Russian terrorist party, “People's Will,” was formed, it included ten women in its original executive committee of 29. Through-out the 1880s the women in “People's Will” participated directly in its terrorist undertakings, sharing the dangers and responsibilities equally with their male comrades. When, after a decade or so of relative calm, terrorism was revived in the early 1900's by the Socialist Revolutionary Party, it found many adherents among Russia's radical female element. During the period from 1905 to 1908 alone, eleven individual terrorist acts were committed by SR women.
[...] Indeed, at the very time they were engaged in terrorism, Russian women attracted sympathy and support, not only from liberal elements of their own society, but also from the West-European and American public. Nineteenth-century terrorists like Sofia Perovskaia and Vera Figner have become legends, surrounded by an aura of romance that defies criticism; and it is assumed that the next generation of terrorist women - about which so little has been written in English - simply continued their traditions. But the new breed of female terrorists that arose in Russia after 1900, most of whom were Socialist Revolutionaries, differed in certain fundamental respects from their predecessors. These differences were largely connected with the changed political circumstances under which they were operating. The possibilities of forcing the government to make concessions to political freedom through non-revolutionary means had increased considerably especially after the 1905 Revolution. There also existed a large radical organization, the RSDRP, that sought to bring down the regime, not by terror, but by mass agitation and propaganda. Hence, unlike the situation in 1881, there were alternative ways of changing the system to those of bloodshed and violence. Even the PSR leaders recognized this when they ordered a temporary halt to terror in 1905. As the following discussion will show, the women who took part in the SR terrorist campaign often did not consider these alternatives because, like their modern-day counterparts, they were not always motivated by rational political concerns. Their memoirs, which are rich in vivid detail, reveal the complex interplay of emotional, psychological and social factors underlying their terrorist activities and bring to light certain female attributes that lend themselves well to terrorism [!!]. It becomes clear that these women infused into the SR campaign of violence a crucial inspirational spirit, without which it would have never been carried so far.
[Three paragraphs in re. influence of feminism on women terrorists =]
Though by the nineties most radical women were vehement opponents of feminism, their memoirs and biographies attest to the fact that they were strongly influenced by feminist ideas. For, inevitably, a desire for personal independence, for a purposeful, productive career that broke the traditional female stereotype of wife and mother preceded involvement in broader social causes. Women were radicalized by most of the same processes that radicalized men -- the rebellious student milieu, contacts with the masses while conducting legal or semi-legal cultural activity, or medical work -- but underlying all this was a deep sense of their unequal position as women and an urgent need to prove their usefulness to society.
The feminist movement had achieved some success by 1900, but women continued to face considerable obstacles in their endeavors to lead productive lives outside the home. They were excluded from the universities and, though women's higher education programs existed, the standards were not equal to those of the universities and there were never enough places to meet the demand. Once a woman had obtained a secondary, specialized or higher education the opportunities for applying her intellectual talents or skills were limited, with teaching and medicine the main areas of employment open to her. There were also problems at the personal level. Despite the spread of feminist ideas, the old attitudes prevailed, and most Russian parents continued to raise their daughters to fulfill traditional female roles. Hence for many young women the decision to leave home and the subsequent involvement in radical circles often meant a complete break from their families and past lives, a rejection of all the values that had been instilled in them since childhood. Several radical female memoirists have recorded bitter struggles that were conducted with their parents in the process of their emancipation.
The trauma was even greater with Jewish women -- who were joining the radical movement in increasing proportions -- because they were generally far more sheltered and restricted within the family than were their Russian counterparts. To be sure, most Jewish parents were probably appalled by the revolutionary activities of their sons. But, as Henry Tobias points out in his history of the Bund, the participation of their daughters was an even greater shock: “In these families the break with the older generation was excruciating. It is easy to imagine the shock of parents on learning that their daughters had attended secret meetings late at night or on the Sabbath. Home life was likely to prove bitter indeed for a young woman who joined the movement. Arguments, if not beatings, were sure to follow, once her affiliation was discovered. The gradual movement toward the emancipation of women shook the very foundation of Jewish life.”
The emphasis on moral purity and unity of word and deed was maintained by women of the Socialist Revolutionary Party. [...] The penchant for self-sacrifice among radical women may have been connected with the fact that they tended to have higher social origins and educational levels than their male comrades and thus may have felt a greater sense of that “debt to the people” which had inspired the followers of [Petr] Lavrov. Though by 1900 the Russian revolutionary movement was attracting to its ranks increasing numbers from the lower classes, this process was much more marked among the men. Women of the proletariat and peasantry were little affected by the ideas of the feminists; they were considerably more restricted in terms of mobility than were men; and they had a much lower rate of literacy. These factors made them much more difficult to attract than the men of their respective classes. The discrepancy in background between men and women was clearly evident among the SR terrorists. In the party's “Statistics of Terrorist Acts,” which cover the period from 1902 to 1911, 20 of the 27 women named as being involved in terrorist undertakings are listed as intelligentki. This contrasts sharply with the fact that, of the 131 male terrorists whose occupations are given, 95 were workers or peasants.
The table, based on biographies of 44 SR terrorist women, gives a more comprehensive picture of their background. It shows that approximately half of the women came from more privileged classes (gentry, merchant, clergy raznochintsy) while the other half were from the meshcha[n]stvo or peasantry. Their occupational and educational levels indicate that several of those with lower class origins had gained secondary or higher education and could be classified as intelligentki. A. Bitsenko for example, who killed General Sakharov in 1905, was born into a peasant family but was educated to be a teacher. The highest proportion of intelligentki suggests that these were highly motivated, self-assertive young women, who may have turned to terror out of a sense of isolation and frustration nurtured in a society that offered them so little opportunity to employ their intellectual talents usefully. In the areas where they were able to find employment - as teachers, midwives and nurses - they often came face to face areas with the poverty and injustice of tsarist society and were led to bitter disillusionment.
SR Female Terrorists
Gentry and Merchant
Average age in 1906: 22 years
SOURCE: Politicheskaia katorga i ssylka: Biograficheskii spravochnik chlenov obshchestva politkatorzhan i ssyl'no-poselentsev (Moscow, 1934) for 34 biographies; information on the twelve other women was taken from various sources.
The example of Zinaida Konopliannikova is a good illustration of this. Born in 1879, the daughter of a soldier, she was an exceptional student. After finishing secondary school, she attended a three year teachers' training course and, filled with idealistic hopes for spreading her knowledge to the masses, she went out to teach in a village. But the restrictions imposed on her teaching caused her constant frustration:
In front of the school lived a gendarme; behind the school lived a police official; on the hill nearby lived a priest; next to him was a clergyman; and all of them were constantly reporting me to my superiors . . . I taught in the village for two-and-a-half years until the schoolboard finally dismissed me. I gave up my profession without regret. As a result of my experiences I came to the following conclusions: I cannot share with the people even the meager knowledge that I myself possess. I cannot open the eyes of the people to the conditions in which they exist or point out to them the real cause of their misery. . . . The prime necessity for struggling with the autocratic, despotic government was revealed to me. I became a revolutionary.
Within a few short years Konopliannikova trod the path from an idealistic village teacher to a convinced terrorist. In 1906, after joining the Socialist Revolutionary Party, she shot and killed General Min, the head of the renowned Semenovskii Regiment. In August of that same year she was executed, at the age of 27.
The fact that almost 30 per cent of the women in the table were Jewish is particularly striking when one considers that very few Jewish men joined the PSR. In general, the internationalist doctrine of Marxism with its working-class orientation had more appeal to Jews than did the nationalist, narodnik philosophy of the SRs. The acceptance of Marxism did not require them to break all ties with their Jewish past as did the acceptance of populism. Perhaps one reason why Jewish women may have embraced the SRs - and terrorism - more easily than men is that, in becoming revolutionaries, they severed links with their families and past traditions at a deeper level than men did. By joining the movement, a Jewish girl was not only opposing her parents' political beliefs, but was also flouting one of the very foundations of Jewish society - her role as a woman in the family.
In the early years of the PSR's development and throughout the 1905 Revolution, the terrorist was regarded by the party and its leaders to be of prime importance. During this time, as Oliver Radkey has emphasized, the fortunes of the party were inextricably bound to terrorism. The main terrorist organization of the PSR was the so-called Terrorist Brigade [Battle Organization] (Boevaia organizatsiia), an autonomous group that was responsible only to the Central Committee. Because of the many applicants and the fact that requirements for membership were very stringent, it was difficult to gain admittance and members were carefully screened. One former member, the SR leader V. Zenzinov, writes: “Membership was considered a great honor because a member was entrusted with the good name and reputation of the party and he had to deserve it, to merit this great faith . . . I personally know of many persons who expressed the wish to join the Terrorist Brigade and were turned down.” Zenzinov estimates that the Brigade included about 78 persons altogether during the time of its existence (1902-1910). From other sources one finds the names of at least 25 women who were members.
By virtue of its exclusiveness and isolation the Terrorist Brigade developed a life and a purpose of its own which was often divorced from that of the party as a whole. “The Terrorist Brigade . . .” writes Boris Savinkov [ID], one of its leaders, “was in reality performing a task beyond mere party aims and serving, not this or that particular party program, but the cause of the Russian Revolution as a whole.” The members were bound together by a sense of sacred mission, a feeling that they were the true bearers of Russia's revolutionary cross. In many ways they resembled a religious sect. They conceived of themselves as people of higher moral purity, and their attitude towards terror, Zenzinov tells us, was “almost reverent.” According to one member, “our band, our knightly order, was animated by a spirit in which the word 'brother' expressed but inadequately the reality of our relations.” In this exclusive group the women, with their unswerving, religious devotion to terror, played a crucial role. The Brigade's two main leaders were men, Boris Savinkov and Evno Azev (later exposed as a police spy), who established a centralized and disciplined organization, but a spirit of equality between the sexes, similar to that of “People's Will,” prevailed. The women were highly esteemed by their male comrades, whose memoirs are filled with lofty praise for their beauty, strength and courage.
One of the most prominent members of the Brigade was Mariia Benevskaia, who appears to have embodied the ideal qualities of a female terrorist. Born in 1883, Benevskaia was the daughter of a high-ranking military officer. She received an excellent education and had studied medicine abroad before joining the revolutionary movement. According to both Savinkov and Zenzinov, Benevskaia was very beautiful and charming with a great love of life. “Everyone loved her,” writes Zenzinov, “and many were in love with her. . . . It seems that even I was somewhat in love with her.” Benevskaia was a devout Christian, and her views on terror were colored by her deep religious faith. Zenzinov described her: “For a long time I could not understand how Marusia could turn to terror. There could not be a feeling of hatred for anyone in her soul; she lived only by her love for the people. In addition, she was very religious. In the end I understood that she became a terrorist not to kill, but to sacrifice herself. In 1906 Benevskaia went to Moscow to help make bombs for the assassination of Governor-General Dubasov. While she was unloading a bomb it exploded, blowing off her left hand and part of her right hand. With complete presence of mind she sent her comrades away, cleaned up all traces of the bomb and went alone to the hospital, where she claimed she had had an accident in the kitchen. Later, however, her connection with the plot was discovered and she was sentenced to ten years of hard-labor. According to other Prisoners, Benevskaia arrived at the katorga with her bible and cross, never losing her Christian faith.
Another member of the Brigade was Dora Brilliant, whose story gives some interesting insights into the psychology of the SR female terrorist. Brilliant was born in 1880, the daughter of a prosperous Jewish merchant in Kherson. Because her family had strongly opposed the idea of educating her, it was only with the greatest effort that she managed to attend gimnaziia and later study midwifery. After being, exiled to Poltava for Participation in a student demonstration, Brilliant met Gershuni, the founder of the Terrorist Brigade, who apparently had a great influence on her. She joined the PSR in 1902, working in tekhnika (operating the underground press, transporting literature and other tasks), but her ardent wish was to become a member of the Terrorist Brigade. In 1904 she was finally admitted on Savinkov's recommendation. According to all who knew her, Brilliant's fanatical devotion to the revolution was combined with a deep sadness and inner suffering. She rarely smiled, setting to her tasks with a grim determination. The SD V. Levitskii (Tsederbaum), who knew her in Poltava, noted: “What was interesting about her were her deeply-set, dark eyes, which expressed some sort of inconsolable melancholy and grief. Someone aptly said that the age-old sorrow of the Jewish people was expressed in them.”
Brilliant's first terrorist undertaking was her participation in the plot to kill Pleve [Plehve,Viacheslav]. To prepare for the assassination she and Savinkov, acting as man and wife, rented a flat with Praskovia Ivanovskaia, a veteran of “People's Will,” and Egor Sazonov, who played the part of the servants. Brilliant pleaded incessantly with Savinkov to allow her to throw one of the bombs at Pleve, but he refused, insisting that as long as there were men available women should not actually commit terrorist acts. (Savinkov appears to have been the only man who felt this way; he later gave up his stance because his male comrades did not agree with him.) When the time came for the attack on Pleve, Savinkov made the two women leave town. Brilliant was upset and angry that she was forced to retreat at the most crucial moment. According to Ivanovskaia, she could not bear inactivity, which caused her to withdraw into herself even more.
Despite her continued requests to be permitted to commit a terrorist act, Brilliant never could reconcile herself to killing. When Savinkov told her of the murder of Grand Duke Sergei by Kaliaev [ID], who used bombs prepared by her, she burst into tears and said: “We have killed . . . I killed him . . . I.” Savinkov explained this apparent contradiction: “The key to this enigma, in my opinion was, first, that she could not separate herself from her comrades, or play a lighter, less dangerous role, leaving to them the more perilous part of the undertaking, and secondly, that she considered it her duty to cross the threshold to that region where actual participation in the enterprise began; terror, for her, as for Kaliaev, was something which acquires the color of justification only with the sacrifice of the terrorist himself. This disharmony between consciousness and feeling was a deeply feminine treat of her character.” Apparently Brilliant was unable to resolve these inner contradictions. After her arrest in 1905 and subsequent imprisonment in Peter-Paul Fortress, she broke mentally and died two years later, at the age of 27. Rahel Lurie, another member of the Terrorist Brigade, was similar to Brilliant in that she too longed to throw a bomb herself. According to Savinkov, “she believed in terror and considered it a duty and an honor to participate in it, but, like Dora, she felt greatly troubled by the necessity of spilling blood.” Unable to overcome her mental conflicts, Lurie left the Brigade and went abroad, where she committed suicide in 1908, at the age of 24.
This apparent strain of instability was not uncommon among the female terrorists. Indeed, it is not surprising that they suffered inner conflicts over their participation in such an undertaking as terror. Suicides occurred fairly often, especially during periods of inactivity - in prison, exile or abroad. Sofia Khrenkova, a former village teacher and the mother of three children, was arrested in 1905 for being a member of the Brigade. She burned herself to death in prison three years later. Esfir Lapina (“Bela”), who led a special group of SR terrorists in St. Petersburg in 1906-07, committed suicide abroad in 1909, apparently because she had been wrongly suspected of having, connections with Azev. In a sense, suicidal tendencies were part of the terrorist mentality, for a terrorist act was often a suicidal mission. Zenzinov recalls that “in those difficult days when I had to decide my fate I involuntarily experienced everything that someone who is committing suicide experiences before the final decision.” Yet what strikes one about many of the women is the apparent disregard they had for their own lives. In some cases it appears that they actually wanted to die. After shooting General Min in 1906, Konopliannikova was given the right to appeal her death sentence but declined. According to one observer, “she went to her death as one would go to a holiday festivity.”
In 1906 Mariia Spiridonova shot and killed General Luzhenovskii on behalf of the SR organization in Tambov. Making no attempt to escape, she begged instead to be shot. After being sentenced to death she wrote in a letter: “My death represents for me something valuable to society, and I am so looking forward to it that a revocation of the sentence, replaced by hard-labor for life, would seem terrible to me and I would not want Spiridonova epitomized more than any other the Russian female terrorist.” Born in 1886 into a noble family in Tambov, she had entered a nursing course in 1905, but gave up her studies for full-time revolutionary work she rejected Social Democracy because it offered no philosophy of life, no feeling personal moral responsibility. In the SR party socialism was more than just a doctrine; it was a “moral goal, a life-work.” Her act received a great deal of publicity, both in Russia and abroad, mainly because she was reportedly beaten and raped by soldiers and treated badly in prison. Her letters describing her treatment and explaining the reasons for assassinating Luzhenovskii were published and aroused great sympathy on the part of the public. Her death sentence was commuted and she spent the next ten years in prison.
Clearly, the desire of these women for death resulted from the need to expiate their deeds by sacrificing their own lives. Though they rationally accepted the idea that the revolutionary cause justified such killing, they could not live with their feelings of guilt. This inability to reconcile terror with personal morality was the same inner conflict that Savinkov [GO above] spoke of when discussing Brilliant and Lurie. Ironically, Savinkov, himself reflected this conflict, for he too was unable to separate his personal feeling from his revolutionary activities. The translator of his memoirs wrote: “Patriot and idealist, he had the fatal weakness of not being able to submerge his own ego in his political evaluations.” Chernov recalls how Savinkov could not accept the PSR's decision to cease terror in 1906, when opportunities for legal [activities in connection with the State Duma] made terrorism unnecessary and even harmful as a tactic: “All his plans were oriented towards self-sacrifice, destruction, a glorious death and, after that, him freedom for Russia. The basic problem for him had been to be able to die. And now suddenly, like an avalanche, a new problem had fallen down - to be able to live.”
As shown by Savinkov's example, such a conflict between emotion and intellect was not confined to women in calling it a feminine trait. Women seemed to view their roles as revolutionaries in an intensely person way, constantly striving for a sort of moral wholeness that would embody both private and public life. Hence they were often unable to separate personal motives from political and social goals and to see their actions in a broad political perspective that excluded their own self-perception. Considered in this way, their passionate desire to sacrifice themselves appears a result not from a disregard for their lives, but rather from a heightened sense of their own importance as individuals within the movement, a kind of extreme individualism. They saw themselves as part of an elite revolutionary group that would provide inspiration to society by their own examples just as those who killed the tsar in 1881 had done. V. Popova, a Terrorist Brigade member, writes: “Wholehearted self-sacrifice, calm acceptance of the inevitability of one's death - this was the marked distinctive trait of all this group. The ideal of the revolutionary struggle was represented to them, if not to all, then to the most individualistic ones, by the `People's Will' terrorist.”
In most cases, once they had crossed the “threshold” and embarked on terror, there was no turning back. Terror became the focal point, their raison d'être. The ultimate political and social goals were over-shadowed by the immediacy of the terrorist campaign and their participation in it. Mariia Shkol'nik, a young Jewish terrorist who participated in the plot to kill Trepov, recalled in her memoirs: “The isolation and concentration on one idea affected me in a particular way. The world did not exist for me; the photograph of Trepov was for me the symbol of all Russia's unhappiness, and his death - the only means against this.”
At times such fanatical devotion to terror became completely irrational and all perspective was lost. This was the case with Tania Leont'eva, a well-connected member of the nobility, who was a lady-in-waiting to the Tsarina. As a secret member of the Terrorist Brigade in 1904, she was extremely valuable. “Tall, with bright eyes and light-blond hair, she looked every inch the high-society girl that she was,” noted Savinkov. She remained in a “legal” position, obtaining information on the activities of high officials and passing it on to the Brigade. At one point it was decided that she would kill the tsar, who was expected to be at a ball she was invited to, but the ball was cancelled. In 1905 Leont'eva was arrested, and later released to the custody of her parents because she showed strong signs of mental illness. When they took her abroad to recover she wrote back to her comrades: “I am in deep torment . . . Being so far away from my country at a time when the most intense work is beginning, I cannot remain calm. It is beyond my strength and understanding.” In August 1906 Leont'eva shot and killed complete stranger in a Swiss hotel, thinking in her confused state that it was the former Russian Minister of Interior, Durnovo.
Fruma Frumkina, a former Bundist, another female SR whose obsession with terror became irrational. After her offer to commit a terrorist act had been rejected by the party, Frumkina decided to take her own initiative. In May, 1903, while serving a brief term in Kiev prison, Frumkina asked to speak with Novitskii, the Kiev a Chief of Police. After being admitted to his office she walked over and stabbed him with a small knife, wounding him only slightly. She was sentenced to a long period of hard labor for this, but her desire to carry out a terrorist act successfully had become an idée fixe. A letter written by her to Burtsev, the editor of Byloe, reveals that to a large extent her terrorist motives stemmed from a deep feeling of inadequacy and a desire to confirm her own importance as an individual: “I must confess that I have done very little. If you add to that the fact that for me nothing except revolutionary work exists, then the whole tragedy of my life becomes clear. The yearning for work and the fruitless life I have led - what could be more terrible? . . . I have always been strongly enticed by the idea of carrying out a terrorist act. I have thought, and still think, only of that, have longed and still long only for that. I cannot control myself.” In 1907, while in a Moscow prison, Frumkina made another unsuccessful attempt to kill a prison official and was executed shortly thereafter.
Few female terrorists could accept with equanimity the PSR's decision to discontinue terror after the October Manifesto had been issued, because they saw this decision as an outright denial of all that they stood for. Though the members of the Terrorist Brigade obeyed the Central Committee, there were several SR women outside the Brigade who continued the terror. In late October, 1905, L. Ezerskaia, a St. Petersburg dentist, shot and wounded the Governor of Mogilev. She was sentenced to thirteen years of hard labor and died of consumption in exile several years later. In November 1905, on behalf of a flying combat detachment of the party, A. Bitsenko shot and killed General Sakharov. She was apprehended and received a sentence of hard labor for life. At a congress of SRs of the Northwest Region in late 1905 Ekaterina Izmailovich, the daughter of a prominent general in Minsk, gave a fiery speech accusing the Central Committee of opportunism for refusing to sanction terror. Both she and her sister, Aleksandra were members of the PSR's Flying Combat Detachment of the Northwest Region, the center of which was in Minsk. In early January 1906, Aleksandra attempted to kill the Minsk Police Chief but failed and was arrested. Later that month Ekaterina, having escaped from Minsk prison, severely wounded the commander of the Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol. She was immediately shot to death by police.
After the SR congress in early 1900 [?? 1907] the Central Committee decided to resume terror, and the Terrorist Brigade was set into action again, along with the flying combat detachments, which existed in almost every regional committee. Responsible only to the local SR organizations, the flying detachments appear to have enjoyed considerable freedom, and their terrorist acts were more spontaneous, without the extensive preparations made by the Central Terrorist Brigade. Several of the assassinations by female SRs were carried out on behalf of these detachments. In October 1907, E. Ragozinnikova, a member of the Northern Region's Flying Detachment, walked into the main prison administration in St. Petersburg and shot the director, Malsimovskii. She had dynamite with her to blow up the entire building, but could not bring herself to do it with innocent victims present. Ragozinnikova was hanged shortly afterwards, at the age of 21. Endowed with considerable musical talent, she had been studying on a scholarship at the St. Petersburg Conservatory of Music before she became a revolutionary. What were her motives for giving up a promising musical career for terrorism? In a letter to her parents before she died she wrote: “Only the highest duty could have made me follow this path. No, not ever, duty, but love, a great, great love for the people. On account of this love I sacrificed all I had.”
In 1908 Mariia Fedorova, a village teacher, made an unsuccessful attempt to kill the Governor of Voronezh for the PSR and was subsequently executed. The last successful SR assassination was carried out by Lidiia Rudneva, a member of the Volga Flying Combat Detachment. In April 1911, she shot and killed the Vologda prison inspector, Efimov. Apparently, she escaped arrest after the killing, for she died of illness in Paris the following year.
Given their fanatical devotion to terror and their tendency towards extremism, it is not surprising that SR women figured prominently in the leftist opposition that formed within the party and later broke away from it altogether. The opposition was started in the Moscow organization in 1905 by a group led by V. Mazurin, demanding more democracy within the PSR's structure and more autonomy for local organizations. In mid-1905, Mazurin and L. Emel'ianova, another oppositionist, appeared in Geneva with complaints to the Central Committee about the passivity of the Moscow party organization. According to Chernov, they had Blanquist plans of a purely terrorist organization for taking over the entire city of Moscow. In the spring of 1906 the oppositionists successfully expropriated the funds of the Moscow Mutual Credit Society by means of an armed robbery, a tactic strictly forbidden by the Central Committee. After this they separated from the local SR committee forming their own “Moscow Organization of the PSR.”
At the same time the oppositionists were forming in Moscow, M. Sokolov, a so-called “agrarian terrorist,” was gaining support among SRs in the Northwest Region for his maximalist group, which urged the immediate socialization of all public and private property. In October 1906, the Union of SR Maximalists was officially created, and most of the Moscow oppositionists joined. Their primary activity was terror, carried out by a Terrorist Brigade under Sokolov's leadership. The Brigade, which had a large sum of money and weapons, included several women, most of whom were well-educated and came from gentry families. Among them were L. Emel'ianova, the former Moscow oppositionist, K. Myshetskaia, a princess, N. Terenteva, the daughter of a wealthy merchant, and Sokolov's mistress, N. Klimova, the daughter of a member of the State Council and reputedly a captivating beauty. The women had taken a leading role in the bombing of Stolypin's dacha in August 1906 [ID], which resulted in the death of 32 persons. Such an act of undiscriminating killing caused a tremendous outcry in Russia, and the PSR completely dissociated itself from the deed. All of the women escaped.
In October 1906 the same group, armed with bombs and revolvers, stole almost 400,000 roubles from the Moscow State Bank. Several persons were killed in the robbery. Princess Myshetskaia, described by observers is a “veiled lady,” drove the escape car. Emel'ianova and Myshetskaia then went to Helsingfors to organize a maximalist conference, which took place in late October and early November 1906. (At this time there were about 50 active maximalists altogether.) According to their subsequent indictment: “Both of them apparently played a very important role in revolutionary circles since all the revolutionaries came to see them as soon as they arrived.” By mid-1907 most of the maximalist terrorists had been arrested and their money squandered, so their organization was disbanded. With the exception of a few groups abroad, the movement had completely collapsed by 1908.
The development of maximalism [ID] can be attributed partly to the fact that the PSR was unable to provide strong leadership or to enforce discipline on its members. Yet, in a larger sense, it [terrorism] may be seen as the logical outcome of the whole phenomenon of terrorism in the SR party. This becomes clear when one looks at SR terrorist activities from the point of view of political efficacy. For those who consider terror to be a rational and justifiable political strategy in certain circumstances, there appear to be two crucial criteria. First, there should be no visible alternatives for bringing about changes within the existing system. In some situations governments are so repressive that terror is seen as the only possible means of achieving political and social goals. Second, the violence must be viewed only as a short-term strategy to attain specific long-term goals. As the political theorist Hannah Arendt has said, once terror becomes an end in itself it loses its rationality.
Considering these criteria, it could be said that the PSR's program of terrorism was initially a rational strategy. Before 1905 the tsarist regime had given little indication that it was prepared to concede anything to those who urged that the people be given more say in the government, and it was difficult for many to believe that change could occur without violence. The leaders of the PSR considered terrorism to be an essential ingredient of their program, for they thought it would create a revolutionary mood among the public and at the same time frighten the autocracy into submission. Yet the fact that party leaders tried to put a stop to the violence when the tsar made concessions in 1905 showed that they were able to view it as a short-term strategy which lost its rationale when other possibilities for achieving their goals appeared. Moreover, though they again sanctioned terror in 1906, they set definite limits on the type of violence to be used and condemned agrarian and factory terror, as well as such acts as the maximalist attack on Stolypin's dacha.
Among the SRs, there were those who could not accept the party's order to discontinue terrorist activities in 1905. Having lost Sight of long-term SR goals, they continued their acts of violence, which became increasingly indiscriminate. Why did this occur? Political theorists have argued that terrorism has a built-in corruptive, effect. Once a person engages in terror, where the behavior is outside normal social limits, a “threshold” - a kind of Psychological barrier - is crossed. The terrorist becomes isolated from the rest of society and loses perspective. The violence becomes unrestrained, gaining a momentum of its own that is propelled by a “sense of holy mission.” The descriptions of SR female terrorists illustrate this process clearly. Several became fanatics, seeing terror and their own heroic self-sacrifice as an end in itself. The ultimate test of their commitment and devotion to the revolution was viewed as their willingness to die.
It might be argued that radical Russian women were not only well-suited to terrorism but also especially vulnerable to the excesses of terror that have been described. The element of individual rebellion and the concentration on the self were especially marked among women. They often seemed unable to consider the revolution in anything but personal terms. Their intense emotional faith in the cause and their will to heroic martyrdom prevented them from analyzing their terrorist activities in terms of rational political objectives. This argument is perhaps best summed up in a description of Natasha Klimova by a fellow maximalist, Klara Klebanova: “For her the struggle was important in itself, quite apart from the ends it was to achieve. In revolution she saw the highest beauty, a source of vibrant experience, almost a form of art.”
In the years after 1905 several SR female terrorists were sent to Mal'tsev prison in Siberia, where the sharp contrast between their lives as active terrorists and their sudden confinement to years of inactivity had a profound and traumatic effect on them. They formed a small, closely-knit group, which included M. Spiridonova, A. Izmailovich, A. Bitsenko, L. Ezerskaia, M. Benevslaia, M. Shkol'nik and I. Kakhovskaia, a maximalist who was the great-granddaughter of a Decembrist. Living a communal existence, the women shared all duties, food, books and parcels from home and observed the strictest conventions of socialism. Having joined the revolutionary movement young and inexperienced, with little theoretical training, they now immersed themselves in study. According to Kakhovskaia: “the necessity of taking a new look at our intellectual armory became clear; we had to rethink everything from the beginning, conscientiously, stone by stone erecting a firm foundation for our ideology . . . one had to hurry and learn more in order to live and struggle better and more effectively when again in freedom. . . .” A strong populist strain of individualism is evident in their emphasis on self-improvement, studying in order to become “critically-thinking persons.” [Lavrov influence]
Interestingly, though the party affiliations of the total group of female prisoners were diverse, they did not discuss political questions, such as the agrarian problem. Somehow such “polemical” discussions were repugnant to them, united as they were by a firm desire to overthrow the regime. Instead they delved deeper, examining fundamental philosophical problems. A fiendish spirit of exhaustive self-analysis prevailed among the terrorist group. Every step, every simple and natural act was subjected to intense examination. Kakhovskaia writes: “Every acknowledged heroic feat was again analyzed from the point of view of its purity. Was there not an element of vanity, something personal, a subtle, unrecognizable motive? No great name, no authority, escaped analysis. There were many traumas, disillusionments, careless condemnations.”
Anastasiia Bitsenko, who was eventually to become a Bolshevik, was the only one who did not take part in these discussions. She was mistrustful of Spiridonova and strongly disapproved of the intense analysis within the “circle of doubters,” which she considered to be a betrayal of the revolution. Bitsenko viewed this as a result of the fact that the PSR allowed so much freedom of opinion, so that every SR had his own philosophical views. It was thus natural that in prison the seeds of doubt would be sown and all values reappraised: “Having begun to dismantle the elementary principles, common to all socialists . . . they placed in doubt the basic aims of the struggle and came to the very threshold of all life's mysteries. . . with every `why' a new `why' arose.” What Bitsenko failed to realize was that for most of these women the revolutionary cause meant more than just adherence to intellectual principles and a belief in socialism. It was a philosophy of life, a religion. Hence to question any aspect of the struggle was to question the very meaning of their existence.
Despite the many years spent in prison, these so-called “Mal'tsev extremists” did not lose their faith in the revolution or their will to struggle. Most survived their terms of prison and exile, returning to the revolutionary movement in 1917. Spiridonova, Izmailovich, Kakhovskaia and Bitsenko all joined the Left SRs. True to their idealism and high moral principles, Spiridonova and her comrades were outraged over the fact that the Provision Government had reinstated the death penalty for military offences. After Kornilov's attempted coup Spiridonova openly attacked Chernov and the Provisional Government and began an agitation campaign on behalf of the Left SRs. A powerful and effective orator, Spiridonova became the inspirational leader of the Left SRs; she was elected to the Petrograd Soviet and as a delegate to the Constituent Assembly. Even Radkey, who claims that Spiridonova had the mental attitude of a high-school student, acknowledges her importance in the events of 1917: “While some may accuse Spiridonova of impractical idealism and others of feminine hysteria, the fact remains that her agitation produced an effect and that from this time dates the slide of the `pretorian guard,' as the SR military support in the Soviets was called, in the direction of left-wing Social Revolutionism and then beyond into Bolshevism.”
As was so typical of other SR women terrorists, Spiridonova could not grasp the political realities. She was caught up by the extreme revolutionary spirit and utopian promises of the Bolsheviks and could not see the real significance of their seizing power. Thus she strongly urged a coalition with them. Her speech at the First Congress of the Left SR Party in November 1917 reveals how far removed her lofty goals were from the actual situation: “It is the duty of the Left SRs in this time of embittered struggle to cleanse the moral atmosphere, to reintroduce into our daily lives the spirit of idealism accumulated for us by those heroes in the storehouse of the past. Our ultimate aim is the furtherance of the human personality.”
Ironically, the other main female figure in the PSR, Breshkovskaia, also played an important role in the party's demise. An ardent champion of the war and a strong supporter of a coalition with the Kadets, she became, after years of occupying an extreme leftist stance, a vocal spokesman for the party's right wing, fiercely denouncing Chernov and his efforts to create a government. Despite the fact that they were at opposite poles politically in 1917 and that there was a forty-year difference in their ages, Breshkovskaia and Spiridonova were very much alike in temperament and spirit. Both were inspired primarily by emotional faith and a strong belief in the power of the individual to effect social change. Both demanded unity of word and deed, strict adherence to moral principles, and had the capacity to arouse and win over people by their words and examples. Above all, their idealism prevented both from being able to understand the nature of political power; they helped to bring in a government that was antithetical to all they believed in. Radkey - and Trotsky well before him - has said that for the PSR “temperament and not theory governed the line-up in 1917.” If this was true of the party is a whole in 1917, it was almost the rule among the terrorist women throughout the PSRs existence. [Spiridonova in the Soviet Revolution]