Ambivalent reflections--obshchestvo in the time of terrorism.
The Russian and Western historiography on Russian revolutionary terrorism has taken a largely unified approach to its subject. Terrorism is a political problem, a challenge posed by the revolutionaries to autocracy and by nonstate actors to state sovereignty; for this reason, the relationship between the state and the revolutionaries has taken center stage in the literature. Iuliia Safronova's new study Russskoe obshchestvo v zerkale revoliutsionnogo terrora, 1879-1881 gody takes a refreshingly different approach: revolutionary terrorism was a "serious ordeal" (ser 'eznoe ispytanie) that impelled Russian society to come to know (poznavat') itself (351). (1) As her title suggests, Safronova turns the looking glass so that the object reflected in the mirror is not--or not primarily--revolutionary terrorism, but Russian society (obshchestvo) in the turbulent years of 1879-81. This is unquestionably a clever conceit, and Safronova is well aware that the object of inquiry is twofold: Russian society and revolutionary terrorism, each in fact reflecting the other.
In her introduction, Safronova wrangles with these two central and almost equally problematic terms, drawing deftly on Russian and Western scholarship. Obshchestvo has a particular valuation in Russian that it does not in English, perhaps because its very existence, as Safronova observes, has been cast so often in doubt. Can "society" as it developed and exists in the West be said to exist in Russia, or does the term obshchestvo denote something qualitatively different or even simply a mirage? From her musings on Russian obshchestvo and the related term obshchestvennost' Safronova concludes "that it is possible to come to one conclusion: one can not say anything definite, neither from the social nor the political point of view, except for the fact that society all the same existed and manifested itself through some kind of action" (19). Considering the thoroughness of her literature review, this is something of an evasion, and it would have been helpful for Safronova to simply state what the reader ultimately infers from her exposition. Obshchestvo refers to those actively engaged citizens with varying degrees of education who identified themselves as part of a larger entity called obshchestvo. This includes anyone who articulated their opinion about public affairs, from government ministers to journalists to tradespeople to writers such as Fedor Dostoevskii, but largely excludes those without access to education and a self-conception of citizen, such as women and peasants.
In spite or because of society's elusiveness, Safronova reaffirms that "the hero of this book is obshchestvo" (9, 19), borrowing from her sources the trope of obshchestvo as a unitary subject and personified agent. The adoption of this trope and the conceit of "society as the hero" introduce some conceptual static into Safronovas project. As in Russian, so in English, the word geroi (hero) has two meanings: that of "protagonist" as a morally neutral term for the central figure of a narrative, and "hero" in the classical sense of an individual who performs deeds worthy of admiration and emulation. In the context of Russian revolutionary terrorism, the word geroi automatically invokes the heroic narrative, or mythology, in which the terrorist is the hero or heromartyr (podvizhnik). From its inception, terrorism generated this heroic narrative, not only among its supporters in the revolutionary underground but among international observers and subsequently even among historians of the revolutionary movement. (2) Uninitiated readers may simply assume that Safronova means "protagonist," but other readers (like this one) will wonder if Safronova is intentionally invoking this narrative with the object of advancing her candidate and with it a different model of heroism, in the venerable Russian tradition of backing an unlikely hero against a more conventional contender (e.g. the Underground Man vs. the "man of action") or if she is simply writing in the ironic mode. This in turn raises questions about the specific nature of obshchestvo's action and its moral valuation, as well as obshchestvo's relationship to the state and to revolutionary terrorism more broadly, about which more will be said later. Safronova herself makes no overarching pronouncement on these matters so that her geroi--whether hero or simply protagonist--floats free of any real narrative structure. What she produces instead is a complex and nuanced study, one that might be termed an "antiheroic antinarrative."
Safronova's book is a thematically rather than chronologically organized study that covers the years 1879-81 with an exclusive focus on the attempts that constituted the "emperor hunt" (okhota na tsaria). There is no narrative description of these attempts or the individuals involved that might serve to spotlight revolutionary terrorism, rather than the avowed subject of her study, obshchestvo. Her goal is "to describe the process of the formation of society's relationship to the problem of revolutionary terrorism and the factors determining it" (36), and to this end she systematically and repeatedly covers the same chronological ground but bringing different analytical categories to bear. This does result in a certain degree of repetition, instead of a linear forward thrust. For her definition of terrorism Safronova (who shows thorough acquaintance with Western terrorism studies in addition to her knowledge of the Russian/Soviet historiography) inclines most strongly toward Schmid and de Graaf's well-established model of terrorism as a communicative act that addresses different messages to different audiences while producing both affect and effect. (3) This model is beautifully suited to Safronova's methodology, in which her sources are framed as means of communication between society and the state about terrorism. Part 1 of her study delineates the "informational field" and the struggle that naturally ensued to mold the publics interpretation of terrorist acts. What sources of information about revolutionary terrorism did society have, and how did the sources deploy various strategies to shape society's apprehension of terrorism?
Here Safronova's impressive breadth and exhaustive research become apparent: she covers official sources (such as Pravitel'stvennyi vestnik) and the question of state censorship of the media; ecclesiastical sources (church publications, speeches of priests and bishops on the occasions of terrorist attempts); trial transcripts; the "forbidden fruit" of illegal literature; the polarized periodical press; and what in Russia has always been so indispensable yet elusive a source of "knowledge"--rumors as reported in the press and in the files of the Third Section. Naturally, the state possessed a clear advantage in controlling the flow of information and propagating its interpretation, yet revolutionary self-representations percolated up from the underground. In addition to these self-representations, various images of Russian obshchestvo also appeared on the pages of illegal publications, most geared toward winning society's sympathy, but others reflecting the revolutionaries' bitterness and disappointment when their terrorist deeds failed to elicit the hoped-for response.
Safronova does not do close readings of her sources or in-depth, deconstructive discourse analysis, and for some readers her highly selective compilation of viewpoints may seem a superficial skimming of the surface. What she does offer, however, is a breathtakingly broad survey, capped by her own insightful analysis of what emerged as key interpretations propagated within the informational field. In chapter 2 of part 1, for example, Safronova highlights the intellectual gymnastics necessitated by the church's providential premises. While the church considered regicide the ultimate sin (comparable to parricide) and immediately anathematized the members of the People's Will, it also presented the attacks as something like divine remonstrance, not of the tsar but of the wayward Russian people. At the same time, the failed attempts on Alexander II were heralded as "miraculous" interventions, even though as God's "anointed one," the tsar could not be killed--at least not in principle. The successful regicide on 1 March 1881 gave the lie to this church doctrine, yet quick-witted churchmen used the tsar's mortal sufferings to cast him as a martyr (muchenik) whose passion was akin to Christ's own. The timing of the assassination during Lent allowed the faithful to inscribe it into sacred history, down to the very hour--three o'clock--of Christ's/the tsar's death (76, 82).
In part 2, titled "Russian Society in 1879-81: Discussing the Problem of Terrorism," Safronova maintains her dual focus while highlighting the communicative process. The first chapter in this section is dedicated to the channels of communication about terrorism between society and the authorities: these included highly formalized, almost ritual means such as addresses to the tsar on behalf of corporate entities, including the obligatory and therefore generally cynically regarded professions of fealty (vernopoddannicbeskie adresa) and signed and unsigned letters about the battle with terrorism addressed to relevant officials, such as M. T. Loris- Melikov or K. P. Pobedonostsev. Ordinary citizens from merchants to army captains ventured suggestions and more elaborately conceived "projects" for battling terrorism, ranging from proposals for a volunteer police force to dystopian systems of total control that exceeded anything the Soviets actually implemented (315). Housed in the archives of their high-ranking addressees, these letters are a hitherto untapped and invaluable source that beautifully serves Safronova's argument by demonstrating how individuals did act and conceive of themselves as members of society, often presenting themselves as its representatives or spokespeople.
The task of the other chapters in this section is once again twofold. First, it consists in reconstructing society's image of and attitude toward the two primary figures in the contest: the terrorists, on the one hand, and their "target," Tsar Alexander II, on the other. In this regard, Safronova significantly sharpens and complicates the picture of terrorism in 1879-81, which is often presented as the "golden" or "heroic" age when the stalwarts of the People's Will targeted those responsible for the government's malfeasance. Instead, Safronova emphasizes that there was no codified practice and that the individual members of the People's Will variously conceived of terrorism's purpose and raison d'etre. Moreover, contrary to the common perception that the terrorism of the People's Will was directed solely at the emperor and therefore did not threaten society, Safronova demonstrates that society felt threatened when the terrorists embraced dynamite as their weapon of choice, and with it civilian casualties. Especially in the run-up to the 25th anniversary of Alexander IPs reign on 19 February 1880, society was gripped by panic due to rumors that the revolutionary party planned a massive attack, complete with massacres, explosions, arson, and so on. Safronova also maintains that because of Alexander II's exalted status as divinely anointed tsar, the terrorist attacks that targeted him were regarded completely differently from those on lesser mortals, be they governor-generals (Vera Zasulich's attack on Governor-General Fedor Trepov) or the heads of the secret police. When we are effectively dealing with three distinct forms or practices of terrorism, one of which involves no actual violence but only public perception, we must ask whether they are indeed united by a common definition and symbolic underpinning, something Safronova does not do.
As an additional complication, loyal obshchestvo seemed not to differentiate between terrorism and good old-fashioned kramola, a word that has no exact English equivalent but is usually translated as "sedition." While in English "sedition" is a legal term that refers to speech or conduct intended to incite revolt against lawful government, Safronova points out that in Russian it was a pejorative rhetorical term that encompassed any perceived assault on the divinely sanctioned order. Safronova indicates that her sources used the terms "kramola" and "terrorism" interchangeably, and she does as well (with "kramola" in quotes). The question then arises: when and in what semantic contexts did "terrorism" emerge as conceptually distinct from "kramola"? And what are the implications for our chronologies and genealogies of terrorism? This is one of the few weaknesses of Safronova's study. Although there are practical reasons for her strict focus on the "emperor hunt," society's engagement with terrorism began, as Safronova at one point acknowledges, with Dmitrii Karakozov's attempt in 1866. To what extent have the terms and conditions of the discussion changed or evolved, and to what extent have they remained the same?
Terrorism, of course, is the mirror intended to reflect the actual subject of the study: an image of society as it was during the crisis years 1879-81. What emerges is complex, nuanced, and deeply prosaic. For Russian society, Safronova argues, terrorism was not a theoretical problem, but "one deeply connected to daily life" (306). Society was certainly divided, but along multiple lines, and not as rigidly polarized as the historiography suggests. As would be expected, the terrorists were not very popular, and due in part to government censorship, they were shrouded in mystery. For the average citizen, the revolutionists' goals and rationale were obscure and concepts such as socialism and communism were poorly understood, if at all. It proves difficult to generalize about public opinion when, as Safronova shows, there was tremendous diversity and unexpected ambivalence in opinions that were openly expressed, much less those that were not. A conservative member of society, even a high official, might despise the radicals and fear for the future of Russia but secretly delight at the tsar's demise. A liberal might sympathize with the image of the terrorist as a hapless dropout (nedouchka) or "wayward youth" (zabludshii iunosha) but morally condemn attacks on the tsar. And this patchwork of ambivalence and contradiction was dynamic and profoundly susceptible to events, so that timing was a key factor in influencing society's discussion and perception of terrorism. Since open debate of the political causes of terrorism was not an option, society had to rest content with discussing the social causes and to confront the fact that it was breeding and raising "terrorists" to be Russia's future. Depending on political persuasion, members of society identified different causes and solutions, for revolutionary terrorism was incontrovertible proof that Russian social institutions--schools, the family, the church--were failing in vital ways. The end result was that society perceived something wrong with itself: it was "sick," "diseased," "rotten," for only such a society would stand idly by while its leader was mercilessly struck down.
Safronova's point is that society did not stand idly by but was ceaselessly engaging, discussing, proposing, and reflecting on terrorism as well as on its own image. Russkoe obshchestvo v zerkale revoliutsionnogo terrora is a prodigious work of research and analysis, an indispensible updating of the scholarship, and a godsend to scholars who work on the topic or instructors who teach a course or unit on Russian revolutionary terrorism. That said, the geroi reflected in the mirror of revolutionary terrorism remains a dubious one: deeply divided, self-absorbed, and limited to words rather than deeds--so in all respects completely at home in a long line of literary protagonists that the radical critics of the 1860s inveighed against. Safronova's wistfulness on that score is plain in the book's epilogue, which looks to the democratically elected but sadly short-lived advisory council to the mayor of St. Petersburg as a cooperative venture between the authorities and obshchestvo to ensure "public security" (obshchestvennaia bezopasnost'). The council's activity was curtailed in the wake of the regicide, when the writing concerning liberal reform and social initiative was on the wall. In her desire to cast obshchestvo as a "hero" or at the very least, an active, autonomous agent, Safronova does not fully unpack for the reader the relationship between terrorism and society; she only acknowledges that both the state and the terrorists appealed to society for support and legitimacy. The weakness of civil society in Russia arguably contributed to the emergence of Russian revolutionary terrorism, which further weakened society by prompting the state to clamp down on independent initiative: this is an intrinsic component of the cycle of state terror and revolutionary terrorism that Martin Miller has traced. (4) Although Safronova makes reference to government censorship, the degree to which her geroi was hamstrung by government repression and effectively "done in" by terrorism itself is the broader context, the missing narrative. Clearly, revolutionary terrorism did not do Russian obshchestvo any favors, except to hold up a mirror.
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(1) The classic political histories of the revolutionary movement and populist terrorism are Franco Venturi, Roots of Revolution: A History of the Populist and Socialist Movement in Nineteenth-Century Russia, trans. Francis Haskell (New York: Knopf, 1960); Adam B. Ulam, In the Name of the People: Prophets and Conspirators in Pre-Revolutionary Russia (New York: Viking Press, 1977); Richard Wortman, The Crisis of Russian Populism (London: Cambridge University Press, 1967); Deborah Hardy, Land and Freedom: The Origins of Russian Terrorism, 1876-1879 (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1987); and Norman Naimark, Terrorists and Social Democrats: The Russian Revolutionary Movement under Alexander III (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983). More recent works such as Anna Geifman, Thou Shalt Kill: Revolutionary Terrorism in Russia, 1894-1917 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993); and Manfred Hildermeier, The Russian Socialist Revolutionary Party before the First World War (New York: St. Martins, 2000) also focus largely on the relationship between the state and the revolutionary parties during the "second wave" of socialist revolutionary terrorism. Claudia Verhoeven, Odd Man Karakozov: Imperial Russia, Modernity, and the Birth of Terrorism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009), while acknowledging the contest for sovereignty at the core of terrorism, takes a new tack by writing a reception history of Karakozov's act in different fields: the law, consumer culture, medicine, and literature. That is not to say that obshchestvo has not been part of the equation, particularly in more recent Russophone scholarship. M. I. Leonov, Terrorizm i russkoe obshchestvo (nachalo XX veka) (Memorial: Moscow, 1996), focuses on the relationship between society's alienation from the state and the eruption of terrorism, but at the beginning of the 20th century, while A. I. Suvorov's Politicheskii terrorizm v Rossii v XJX-nachale XX veka i rossiiskoe obshchestvo (Moscow: Iuridicheskii institut Ministerstva vnutrennikh del Rossiiskoi Federatsii, 1999) is a much briefer study.
(2) In the last 20 years, historians have turned a critical eye on the heroic narrative and the image of the terrorist as hero-martyr. Such works include A. S. Baranov, "Obraz terrorista v russkoi kul'ture kontsa XIX-nachala XX veka," Obshchestvennye nauki i sovremennost', no. 2 (1998): 181-91; Marina Mogil'ner, Mifologiia "podpol'nogo cheloveka": Radikal'nyi mikrokosm v Rossii nachabi XX veka kak predmet semioticheskogo analiza (Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 1999); Sally Boniece, "The Spiridonova Case, 1906: Terror, Myth, and Martyrdom," Kritika 4, 3 (2003): 571-606; and Lynn Ellen Patyk, "Remembering 'The Terrorism': Sergei Stepniak Kravchinsky's Underground Russia," Slavic Review 68, 4 (2009): 758-81. Even Claudia Verhoeven's The Odd Man Karakozov takes the heroic narrative as its point of departure in order to demonstrate why Karakozov was the "odd man" and did not fit. Nevertheless, for this very reason Verhoeven contrarily declares "the hero of this book, the unlikely Dmitry Karakozov" (1). Russian terrorism and writers of Russian terrorism are not alone in this: the heroic narrative is a possibility, if not a necessity, for every type of nonstate terrorism, from the Irish Republican Army and Basque Fatherland and Liberty (Euskadi ta Askatasuna, ETA) to al-Qaeda. This suggests that terrorism presents itself as one of modernity's modes of heroism.
(3) Safronova cites Austin T. Turk, "Sociology of Terrorism," Annual Review of Sociology 30 (2004): 274-76, but Alex E Schmid and Janny de Graaf, Violence as Communication: Insurgent Terrorism and the Western News Media (New York: Sage, 1982), established the paradigm of political terrorism as a communicative act.
(4) Martin Miller, The Foundations of Modern Terrorism: State, Society, and the Dynamics of Political Violence (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013).
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|Title Annotation:||Russian Society in the Mirror of Revolutionary Terrorism, 1879-1881|
|Author:||Patyk, Lynn Ellen|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2015|
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