Written by Vladimir Moss



     The 1860s were a depressing time; the moral disease of westernism continued to infect the body of Holy Russia. As the future New-Martyr Anna Zertsalova wrote: "It was a sad time then in the capital. The holy churches, the unconquerable strongholds of Orthodoxy, stood in it as before, as did the unshakeable walls; the holy icons were adorned with shining covers of precious stones, the God-pleasers rested in the churches in their incorrupt relics. But the people were perishing from their vices and errors. The spirit of little faith and debauchery entered everywhere like the most savage plague into unstable heads. Tolstoy and other false teachers crept into inexperienced young hearts with their destructive propaganda, undermining in them the bases of faith and piety. The Lord was forgotten, forgotten were the rules of morality and honour; forgotten were the authorities and order; passions and vices broke out into liberty."[1]


     One who succumbed temporarily to this temptation was Sergius Alexandrovich Nilus. "I was born,” he wrote, “in 1862 (25 August), in a family which on my mother's side counted in its midst not a few advanced people - advanced in the spirit for which the 60s of what is now already the last century was distinguished. My parents were nobles and landowners - major ones. It was perhaps because of their links with the land and the peasants that they escaped any extreme manifestation of the enthusiasms of the 70s. However, they could not escape the general, so to speak platonic-revolutionary spirit of the times, so great then was the allure of the ideas of egalitarianism, freedom of thought, freedom of thought, freedom... yes, perhaps freedom of action, too, which overcame everyone. It seems that at that time there was not one home of the nobility in both the capitals where the state structure of the Russian empire was not reshaped in its own model, according to the measure of its understanding and according to the last book it had read, first from Sovremennik [The Contemporary], and then Otechestvennie Zapiski [Notes on the Fatherland] or Vestnik Evropy [Herald of Europe]. Of course, the hard food of conversations of a political character did not much help to develop in me religious dreams, as they were then called, and I grew up in completeText Box:  alienation from the Church, uniting it in my childish imagination only with my old nanny, whom I loved to distraction. Nevertheless, I did not know any prayers and entered a church only by chance; I learned the law of God from teachers who were indifferent, if not outrightly hostile, to the word of God, as an intractable necessity of the school's programme. That was the degree of my knowledge of God when I, as a youth who was Orthodox in name, went to university, where they already, of course, had no time for such trivialities as Orthodoxy. Left to my devices in the life of faith, I reached such an abominable degree of spiritual desolation as only that person can imagine who has lived in this spiritual stench and who has then, while on the path of his own destruction, been detained by the unseen hand of the benevolent Creator."[2]


     Nilus did not become a revolutionary. But many others subjected to the same influences did, such as L.A. Tikhomirov. Few were those, like Nilus and Tikhomirov, who found their way back to the ancestral faith of Orthodoxy. Thus did the woolly liberalism of the fathers corrupt the sons, preparing the way for the revolution…


     “The revolution,” wrote the philosopher Ivan Ilyin, “is a spiritual, and perhaps also a directly psychological illness. The revolution is the unleashing of atheist, unnatural, destructive and base passions. It is born from the mistakes of the ruling power, and from the vanity and envy of its subjects.   It begins with violation of the law and ends with demoralization and death.”


     The strategy of revolution came in two forms: the anarchist revolution favoured by the Russian nobleman Michael Bakunin, and the socialist revolution favoured by Marx and Engels.


     Marxism’s main aims, as declared in The Communist Manifesto of 1848, were the destruction of private property, the destruction of the family and the destruction of religion as a prelude to the triumph of the proletariat and the coming of communism. However, the revolution of 1848 had been a failure from the socialist point of view. And after that failure a mild conservative reaction set in throughout Europe as some of the wealth generated by a period of rapid growth in the world economy trickled down to the workers and dulled their zeal for revolution. But as their numbers increased in direct proportion to the increase in factory production, so did their power. And it would only take another downturn in the economy to bring them out on the streets…


     In 1864 Marx founded the International Working Men’s Association in London. In his Inaugural Address he showed how the industrial revolution had impoverished the English working class, and declared: “In all countries of Europe it has now become a truth demonstrable to every unprejudiced mind, and only denied by those whose interest is to hedge other people in a fool’s paradise, that no improvement of machinery, no appliance of science to production, no contrivances of communication, no new colonies, no emigration, no opening of markets, no free trade, nor all these things put together, will do away with the miseries of the industrious masses.”


     Marx continued to control this, the First Internationale, until its Congress in Basle in 1869, when the delegates were captivated by Bakunin.[3] Wagner said of him: “In this remarkable man, the purest humanitarianism [!] was combined with a savagery utterly inimical to all culture, and thus my relationship with him fluctuated between instinctive horror and irresistible attraction… The annihilation of all civilisation was the objective on which he had set his heart; to use all political levers as a means to this end was his current preoccupation, and it often served him as a pretext for ironic merriment.”[4]


     Bakunin, wrote Berlin, “was a born agitator with sufficient scepticism in his system not to be taken in himself by his own torrential eloquence. To dominate individuals and sway assemblies was his métier: he belonged to that odd, fortunately not very numerous, class of persons who contrive to hypnotise others into throwing themselves into causes – if need be killing and dying for them – while themselves remaining coldly, clearly and ironically aware of the effect of the spells which they cast. When his bluff was called, as occasionally it was, for example, by Herzen, Bakunin would laugh with the greatest good nature, admit everything freely, and continue to cause havoc, if anything with greater unconcern than before. His path was strewn with victims, casualties, and faithful, idealistic converts; he himself remained a gay, easy-going, mendacious, irresistibly agreeable, calmly and coldly destructive, fascinating, generous, undisciplined, eccentric Russian landowner to the end…”[5]


     The basic difference between Marx and Bakunin was in their attitude to the State. While Marx called for the overthrow of the old regimes, he was not against the State as such, at any rate before the advent of the communist paradise, and believed that the State could be used to free the workers. And the importance of the State in his thinking, combined with a more “scientific” and collectivist approach, became more pronounced with time.


     “It meant,” as M.S. Anderson writes, “a fundamental change of emphasis in his thinking. The fulfilment and true freedom of the individual still remained the objective of revolution and the end of the historical process. As far as the making of revolutions was concerned, however, his ‘alienation’ and his revolutionary consciousness, so important in the early works of the 1840s and still important in those of the 1850s, were now threatened with submersion in a vast and impersonal process of social evolution governed by laws analogous to those of the physical world and quite impossible to divert or restrain.”[6]


     Bakunin, however, believed that the State was simply another form of oppression and had to be destroyed. “I am not a Communist,” he said, “because Communism, by concentrating all property in the State, necessarily leads to the concentration of all the power of society in the State. I want to abolish the State…”[7] Like the French philosopher-anarchist Proudhon, Bakunin believed that all property was theft, and that included State property. Like Proudhon again, he believed that States would be replaced by local workers’ organizations.


     Bakunin’s most famous remark was: “The desire to destroy is also a creative desire.” “The whole of Europe,” he said, with St. Petersburg, Paris and London, will be transformed into an enormous rubbish-heap.” “The miracles of the revolution,” he said, “will come out of the depths of this fiery ocean. Russia is the aim of the revolution, its greatest forces will be unleashed there, and there it will attain its perfection.” “The constellation of the revolution will rise high and beautiful in Moscow out of the sea of blood and will become the guiding star for the good of the whole of liberated humanity…” “Russian democracy with its tongues of fire will swallow up all of Europe in a bloody glow.” As Hosking remarks, “this proved to be a contagious and attractive vision, not only in Russia but especially there.”[8]


     In 1883 Engels criticised Bakunin’s anarchism, writing: “The anarchists have put the thing upside down. They declare that the proletarian revolution must begin by doing away with the political organisation of the state… But to destroy it at such a moment would be to destroy the only organism by means of which the victorious proletariat can assert its newly-conquered power, hold down its capitalist adversaries and carry out that economic revolution of society without which the whole victory must end in a new defeat and in a mass slaughter of the workers similar to those after the Paris Commune.”[9]


     True; and yet “Bakuninist” anarchism corresponded more closely to the spirit of the revolution than all the treatises of Marx, whose only purpose was to give a pseudo-scientific justification to an essentially destructive, satanic force. Thus the victory of Bakunin over Marx at the meeting of the First Internationale in Basle was no accident – the delegates recognised in Bakunin the true incarnation of the spirit of the revolution. As Baron Wrangel said of his speech: “I no longer remember what Bakunin said, and it would in any case scarcely be possible to reproduce it. His speech had neither logical sequence nor richness in ideas, but consisted of thrilling phrases and rousing appeals. It was something elemental and incandescent – a raging storm with lightning flashes and thunderclaps, and a roaring as of lions. The man was a born speaker, made for the revolution. The revolution was his natural being. His speech made a tremendous impression. If he had asked his hearers to cut each other’s throats, they would have cheerfully obeyed him.”[10]


     One of those present at Bakunin’s speech was Dostoyevsky. He said that the whole speech had been given “without the slightest proof, all this was learned by rote twenty years ago and has not changed one bit. Fire and sword! And when all has been destroyed, then, in their opinion, there will be peace…”


     Dostoyevsky had no time for Bakunin’s atheist slogans: “As long as God exists, man is a slave” and: “Man is rational, just, free, therefore there is no God.” Already in Notes from the Underground (1864) Dostoyevsky had demonstrated that man in his fallen state was quite irrational, and would never be happy with rationalist schemes for his happiness. “I would not be at all surprised, for instance, if suddenly and without the slightest possible reason a gentleman of ignoble or rather reactionary and sardonic countenance were to arise amid all that coming reign of universal common sense and, gripping his sides firmly with his hands, were to say to us all. ‘Well, gentlemen, what about giving all this common sense a great kick and letting it shiver in the dust before our feet simply to send all these logarithms to the devil so that we again live according to our silly will?”[11]


     And yet Bakunin’s anarchism was not just thunder and lightning. For him “the withering away of the State” was not, as in Marx and Engels, an essentially utopian idea that was secondary to the central idea of class struggle[12]: for him, it was the heart of the matter. Being a more consistent libertarian than any of the Marxists, he perceived that even the socialist State would be an instrument of oppression. In fact, he warned that the “red bureaucracy” would be “the vilest and most dangerous lie of the century”. And in 1870 he accurately predicted what actually took place in 1917: “Take the most radical of revolutionaries and place him on the throne of all the Russias or give him dictatorial powers… and before the year is out he will be worse than the Tsar himself…”


     Bakunin’s vision of socialism looked more likely than Marx’s to triumph in the years 1869-1871, between the Basle Congress and the Paris Commune. However, Marx defeated Bakunin by claiming that the Paris Commune was the beginning of the new proletarian (as opposed to bourgeois) revolution, which would spread from France to Germany to all Europe. It did spread, but not in the way he predicted: its first success was in peasant Russia, not proletarian Germany – as Bakunin, not Marx, had predicted. For Bakunin was able to foresee, as Berlin wrote, “that [revolutions] were liable to develop not in the most industrialised societies, on a rising curve of economic progress, but in countries in which the majority of the population was near subsistence level and had least to lose by an upheaval – primitive peasants in conditions of desperate poverty in backward rural economies where capitalism was weakest, such as Spain and Russia.”[13]


     Marx and Engels had this in common with Bakunin: they saw clearly that the enemy that had to be destroyed if the revolution was to succeed was Russia. As Engels said: “Not one revolution in Europe and in the whole world can attain final victory while the present Russian state exists…”[14] And as Bakunin said: “The goal of the revolution is Russia! It is there that its greatest power will unfold; there will attain its perfection. In Moscow the constellation of revolution will rise high and beautifully from a sea of blood and fire, to become a guiding star for all liberated humanity.”




     Bakunin was the first “pure” terrorist. But he lived abroad. More typical of the young devils who came to dominate the revolutionary underground inside Russia was Nicholas Ishutin. Ronald Seth writes: “He was the son of a merchant and of a mother who came of a noble family. When he was two both his parents died, and he was brought up until he was eleven by relatives of his father. In 1863 he entered Moscow university, where he quickly gathered round him a group of young men upon whom he was soon exerting a quite extraordinary influence.


     “Ishutin was not an intellectual, and though his scorn of learning might have been a pose, he had not been long at the university when he decided to give up his studies in order to devote all his time to The Cause. Many of his followers imitated their leader in this.


     “The group quickly became strong and active, and determined, as they phrased it, ‘to go to the people’, they sacrificed not only careers but all personal belongings. As a practical step in making contact with the people they set up co-operative and friendly societies for the workmen, artisans and students.”


     However, this romantic Populist phase did not last long. For in fact “all Ishutin’s efforts and multifarious schemes were directed to one sole end – the creation of a revolutionary force. To achieve this he tossed all scruples out of the window, and introduced a new approach to the means by which the end might be attained – naked terrorism.


     “The group believed that a peasant revolution would take place within five years. Their conception of this revolution differed from any previous conception of popular revolt; it was to be radical and ‘economic’ and nothing must be allowed to prevent its happening.


     “The ruthless extremist policy preached by Ishutin did not appeal to all the members of the group, and as a result, between 1865 and 1866, there came into being a smaller group-within-the-group who were prepared to transmute into activity the extreme ideas of their leader. Named by Ishutin The Organization, this smaller group consisted mostly of extremely poor young men, many of whom were the sons of country priests whose modus vivendi differed little from that of the peasants. A few came from peasant families.


     “Even this small and select band, however, did not entirely respond to all the aims of its founder. Extremist propaganda and agitation, yes – but not out and out terrorism, and this last was dear to Ishutin’s heart. So within The Organization there also developed another group, a secret cell, even more select, composed of students who lived together ‘in common’. They gave themselves the name Hell…


     “The existence of Hell was to be kept secret even from the members of The Organisation…”[15]


     It was an appropriate name for an organization, whose layers within layers recalled Weishaupt’s Illuminati.And it was a member of Hell, the young nobleman Dmitry Vladimirovich Karakozov (1840-66), who made the first failed attempt to assassinate the Tsar. “Racked by remorse for his father’s exploitation of the peasantry, he was personally enthusiastic about his mission. ‘I have decided to destroy the evil Tsar,.. and to die for my beloved people.’ On 4 April, 1866, the date predicted for the revolution in What is to be Done?, he rushed towards the tsar as he was leaving the Summer Garden in St. Petersburg, but as he took aim with his pistol his arm was jostled and he missed; the guards arrested him as he tried to take a second shot, and found a phial of strychnine in his jacket. ‘What do you want?’ the tsar asked him. ‘Nothing, nothing,’ he replied. Despite begging forgiveness and converting to Orthodoxy, Karakazov was executed by hanging on 3 September 1866; ten of his accomplices were sentenced to hard labour.”[16]


     These included Ishutin, who spent the last eleven years of his life insane…[17]




     The next terrorist leader was Sergius Gennadiyevich Nechayev (1847-82), a teacher of Holy Scripture who from his student years devoted himself to political activity. (The combination of seminary training and revolutionary activity was not uncommon. Dobroliubov was the son of a priest. Stalin was a seminarian…)


     In 1869 Nechayev went on a false passport to Geneva, where he joined Bakunin and Ogarev, a friend of Herzen’s. Like Bakunin, he was an anarchist: “We are destroyers,” he declared, “others will create”.


     Together with Bakunin Nechayev wrote The Revolutionary’s Catechism, which declared: “1. The revolutionary is a doomed person. He has neither his own interests, nor affairs, nor feelings, nor attractions, nor even name. Everything in him is swallowed up by a single exclusive interest, a single thought, a single passion – the revolution.


     “2. In the depth of his essence he has broken – not in words only, but also in fact – every bond linking him with the civil order and with the whole civilized world, with all the laws, decencies, social conditions and morality of this world. He is its pitiless enemy, and if he were to continue to live in it, then it would only be in order to destroy it more reliably.


     “3. The revolutionary despises all doctrinaire attitudes and has rejected secular science, presenting everything to future generations. He knows only one science – the science of destruction. For this and only for this has he studied mechanics, physics, chemistry and, perhaps, medicine.


     “4. He despises and hates contemporary social morality in all its manifestations. Morality for him is that which aids the triumph of the revolution. Immorality and crime is everything that hinders it…


     “7. The nature of the genuine revolutionary excludes all romanticism, all sensitivity, exaltation or amusement. It excludes even personal hatred and revenge. Revolutionary passion, having become in him an everyday, every-minute phenomenon, must be united with cold calculation…


     “25. In coming closer to the people, we must first of all be united those elements of the people’s life which since the time of the foundation of the Muscovite State power have not ceased to protest, not in words, but in deeds, against everything that is directly or indirectly linked with the State: against the nobles, against the officials, against the popes, against the world of Guilds and against the rich peasant, the devourer of the mir. We shall unite with the savage world of the thieves, this true and only revolutionary in Russia…”


     In Nechayev’s plan for the revolution, various public figures were to be shot, but Alexander II himself was not to be killed, but would be publicly tortured and executed “before the face of the whole of the liberated plebs, on the ruins of the State”.[18]


     After the great work of destruction, according to Nechayev, all power would necessarily be concentrated in the hands of a Central Committee. (In this centralism, he differed from the more democratic Bakunin.) Everybody was to undertake physical work. Dissidents were to be executed…


     In August, 1869, Nechayev returned to Russia as the self-styled representative of the World Revolutionary Movement at Geneva and organized a ‘Society of National Retribution’ in Moscow. On 21 November he and four members of the Moscow ‘group of five’ murdered the fifth member of the group, a young student of the Moscow Agricultural College called Ivanov, for allegedly refusing to carry out the instructions of the Geneva committee. Ivanov was strangled, then shot, and his body was weighted with stones and thrown into the pond.


     The story of Ivanov’s murder is closely matched in the story of Shatov’s murder in Dostoyevky’s The Devils (1872)], a spell-binding description of how a bourgeois society is as if possessed by demons and hurls itself to destruction like the Gadarene swine of the Gospel (which is cited at the beginning of the novel). This was a stunning prophecy of the revolution, and of how well-meaning liberalism could lay society open to the most evil demonism. As Leo Shestov wrote: “If Darwin had seen in his life what Dostoyevsky saw, he would not have talked about a law of self-preservation, but about a law of self-annihilation…”[19]


     “After the murder, Nechayev, like Peter Verkhovensky in the novel, escaped first to Petersburg and then abroad. He went back to Geneva, where he rejoined Bakunin and Ogaryov and assisted them in their abortive attempt to revive Herzen’s London journal The Bell. His ruthlessness in carrying out Bakunin’s own principle that the end justifies the means appalled even Bakunin, who soon broke with him. Nechayev then went to London, where he began publishing his terrorist journal Village Commune, which was sharply condemned by Engels…


     “He later returned to Switzerland, where he was arrested by the Swiss police on an extradition order as a criminal and not a political offender and handed over to the Russian police. On 8 January 1873 he was tried for murder by the Moscow District Court and sentenced to twenty years’ penal servitude. He was not sent to Siberia, however, but incarcerated in the Peter and Paul fortress in Petersburg, where he died one year and ten months after Dostoyevsky, in November 1882.”[20]


     “Atheist anarchism,“ wrote Dostoyevsky, “is near – our children will see it. The Internationale has decreed that the European revolution should begin in Russia, and it will begin, for there is no reliable buttress against it with us, neither in the administration nor in society. The revolt will begin with atheism and the robbing of all wealth. They will begin to pull down religion, destroy the churches and turn them into barracks and stalls. They will drown the world in blood and then they themselves will get frightened…”


     Frightened of what? Frightened that in displaying this demonic activity, they are themselves the unwitting agents and slaves of the demons. This was indeed the case during the Soviet period, when many people – and not only religious believers – experienced the almost palpable presence of the demons at work. A sophisticated rationalization of devilry in psychological terms was commonplace already in Dostoyevsky’s time, as exemplified by Ivan Karamazov’s words to the devil: “’Never for a moment have I taken you fo reality,’ cried Ivan with a sort of fury. ‘You’re a lie, you’re my illness, you’re a phantom. I only don’t know how to destroy you and I’m afraid I shall have to suffer for a time. You are my hallucination.You’re the embodiment of myself, but only of one side of me – of my thoughts and feelings, but only the most vile and stupid. From that point of view you might even interest me, if ony I had time to waste on you…’”[21]


     But the demons were only too real; they were no hallucination. And the nightmare of the revolution which Dostoyevsky foresaw so clearly and frighteningly, would force itself on the daylight consciousness of the whole of Russia only a generation after his death…

October 4/17, 2019.


[1] "Zhizneopisanie Protoiereia Valentina Amphiteatrova" (Life of Protopriest Valentine Amphiteatrov), Pravoslavnaia Zhizn' (Orthodox Life), 53, N 11 (658), November, 2004, pp. 9-10.

[2] Monk Boris (Ephremov), "Sergius Nilus", Pravoslavnaia Rus'(Orthodox Russia), N 1 (1454), January 1/14, 1992, pp. 5-9.

[3] Edmund Wilson, To the Finland Station, London: Phoenix, 2004, pp. 256-258, 259-260, 261.

[4] Wagner, in Stephen Johnson, Wagner. His Life and His Work, London: Naxos, 2007. P. 59.

[5] Berlin, “German Romanticism in Petersburg and Moscow”, in Russian Thinkers, London: Penguin, 2008, pp. 164-165.

[6] M.S. Anderson, The Ascendancy of Europe, 1815-1914, London: Longman, 1985, pp. 350-351.

[7] Bakunin, in Julius Braunthal, History of the International 1864-1914, 1966, p. 139.

[8] Hosking, Russia and Russians, p. 307.

[9] Engels, in Chomsky, Understanding Power, pp. 31-32.

[10] Wrangel, in Wilson, op. cit., p. 269.

[11] Dostoyevsky, Notes from the Underground, in The Best Stories of Dostoyevsky, New York, 1955, p. 136.

[12] Gareth Stedman-Jones writes: “Visions of the disappearance of the state [in Marx] belonged to the 1840s: 1848 dashed these innocent hopes” (“The Routes of Revolution”, BBC History Magazine, vol. 3 (6), June, 2002, p. 36).

[13] Berlin, “Nationalism”, in The Proper Study of Mankind, London: Pimlico, 1998, p. 584.

[14] Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx and the Revolutionary Movement in Russia.

[15] Seth, The Russian Terrorists, London: Barrie and Rockliff, 1966, pp. 28-29.

[16] Evans, op. cit., p. 611.

[17] Seth, op. cit., pp. 30-31.

[18] Ivanov, op. cit., pp. 342-343.

[19] Shestov, Na Vesakh Iova (On the Scales of Job), Paris: YMCA Press, 1975, p. 67.

[20] Dostoyevsky, in David Magarshack’s introduction to The Devils, London: Penguin, 1971, pp. x-xi.

[21] Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov,XI, 9.

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