In her autobiographical account contained in Barbara Alpern Engel’s Five Sisters: Women Against the War, Vera Figner discussed her change from being a mere reform-minded activist to becoming a major player as a Russian radical. While she was a mild liberal, her thoughts had been influenced by general European ideas, but her desire to become a revolutionary was created by conditions specific to Russia.
Figner’s original liberal beliefs had been nourished by theorists from across Europe. During her days in Zurich she read the works of Friedrich Engels. She began to question her privileged upbringing: “Could a small group of people at the top be responsible for the horrors of the London slums, the shameful oppression of the factory workers, the sufferings of the laborers in industry and in workshops everywhere?. . . And I, Vera Figner, was one of these people on top” (14). This theory that there was an enslavement of laborers perpetrated by the rich few was of Communist origins, which had roots in Germany with Engels and Karl Marx. What was worst about Communist ideals for Vera is that she was a member of the same elite class she complained about, and any revolution against the upper class would be waged, in fact, against her own kin and herself. It is also important to note that Figner specifically uses the London slums as an example, when she could have possibly cited the poor neighborhoods of Moscow. In this one quote she clearly establishes herself as someone not just concerned about the affairs of Russia, but about all of Europe. She does not restrict her research to books by authors of her nationality.
French ideas of the day also seem to have strongly influenced Figner. She mentions having read both Proudhon and Louis Blanc, whom she believed preached the message of ridding Europe of its social institutions (16). French socialist Charles Fourier’s ideas also appealed to Figner. He dreamed of founding communities called “Phalansteries,” where people would work “each according to his abilities” and receive compensation “each according to his needs” (17). This model of social fairness seemed to Vera to be the best and simplest method of organizing economy.
In addition, Vera recalls having read a statistical book listing murder and suicide rates for all nations, after which she concludes that “social conditions are such that, despite individual inclinations, temperaments, or desires, they inevitably produce crime” (15). Vera believed that European society of her time perpetuated crime, and must therefore be changed in order for crime to disappear. These beliefs planted the seeds necessary to create in Figner a violent protester. Without having read the works of French and German writers, she would not have been as educated on matters of social hierarchy.
Yet ultimately, her decision to become an activist instead of remaining an idle member of the intelligentsia was caused by uniquely Russian circumstances. The Moscow Organization’s failure led her to believe that writing and propagandizing was not enough to spur change. Her friends in Russia had been jailed while she was in Zurich, merely for spreading subversive literature. The authorities confiscated the Organization’s writings, and tens of peaceful protesters were imprisoned. Figner’s efforts with the Moscow Organization had been in vain, and she decided that peacefulness was ineffective:
If any group in our society had shown me a path other than violence, perhaps I would have followed it. . . But, as you know, we don’t have a free press in our country, and so ideas cannot be spread by the written word. I saw no signs of protest. . . nor was literature producing changes in our social life. And so I concluded that violence was the only solution. I could not follow the peaceful path. (43)
Her remark that her society did not allow a free press makes it clear that she was referring directly to Russia itself and not Europe as a whole, since most of the European governments by that time allowed their citizens freedom of the press. If she had lived in England, she probably would not have ever taken extreme measures, since, as she wrote, she would have followed a nonviolent path if one had been presented to her. Yet, as it was in Russia, the media would not allow for subversive literature, and so no kind of literature had sparked protest. According to Figner, no one in Russia protested with inspiration from sources literary or otherwise—no one was protesting at all.
Thus, she felt the need to take the cause into her own hands. For her, the only two options were to either commit terrorist acts against the government or to author socialist literature, and literature did not produce any results. As a result, she “could not follow the peaceful path,” but instead began to plan the assassination of high-ranking officials throughout her country. Had Russia’s press allowed for her and her comrades’ writings instead of confiscating them, the course of history might have differed. It is likely that Figner would not have been the symbol for political activism via murder that she is today; she would simply not have felt the urge to ignite change with assassinations if she were from France or England instead of Russia.
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