Five Sisters: Women Against the Tsar-The Memoirs of Five Young Anarchist Women of the 1870s

“I left by the back door.” Praskovia Ivanovskaia-a quote chosen for its simplicity and also for its symbolism

I have a soft spot for memoirs. While we may lose the intricacies of professional writing, a memoir more than makes up for it by its eye-witness accounts. This idea echoes throughout Five Sisters: Women Against the Tsar–The Memoirs of Five Young Anarchist Women of the 1870s. The five women are Vera Figner, Vera Zasulich, Olga Liubatovich, Praskovia Ivanovskaia, and Elizaveta Kovalskaia. All five women left their homes and their families and became revolutionaries. These memoirs chart the lives of the women, why they became revolutionaries and how some of them turned to violence. The foreword, by Alix Kates Shulman explains that the women and their memoirs are largely forgotten and were “rescued from the Siberia of dusty library shelves where for years they have languished untranslated in obscure collections.” Translated by Barbara Alpern Engel and Clifford N. Rosenthal, these memoirs are “selections” (with the exception of the Liubatovich memoir), and the materials are “composites…assembled from autobiographical fragments written and published at various times.”  

The introduction sets forth the background to the atmosphere of the times, explaining Russian Populism (the ideology of agrarian revolution), the schools of thought created by Lavrov and Bakunin: both thinkers who had very different approaches to the idea of how exactly how to involve the peasantry in social change, the development of the Pan-Russian Social Revolutionary Movement, and the Land and Liberty Movement. The introduction also explains the importance of The Trial of the Fifty (1877) and the Trial of the Hundred and Ninety Three (1877), trials in which the defendants’ crime was “preaching socialism to the peasants.” In the latter trial:

“They had suffered as much as four years of pretrial imprisonment under the harshest conditions; dozens were lost to illness, death (sometimes by suicide), or madness. At the trial, many of the accused expressed their contempt for the tribunal by refusing to present any defense, and when one man did attempt to describe the conditions in prison and make a political statement, he was repeatedly silenced by the judges and finally dragged from the courtroom.”

Most of the defendants were acquitted or the length of their pre-trial imprisonment was taken into consideration for sentencing and they were released, tougher, bitter and “with the determination not to make the naive errors that made them easy targets for government repression.” Before this point, the revolutionaries could perhaps be more accurately described as reformers who had fairly transparent motives and goals. This transparency is largely due to the negative influence of Sergei Nechaev in the 1860s, and by the time the 1870s rolled around:

“In radical circles, the aversion to his [Nechaev’s] dictatorial, dishonest methods was so strong that for years to come, any attempt to create a centralized, hierarchical organization met with great suspicion.”

Nechaev is a curious and poisonous figure in Russian revolutionary history, and for those who’d like to read more, seek out a copy of Bakunin and Nechaev by Paul Avrich. (Nechaev’s story and behaviour poses questions of revolutionary morality–he murdered a fellow revolutionary and this crime formed the basis of Dostoevsky’s The Demons).

But these are preliminary issues that set the stage for the explosive 1870s, and it is during this period that revolutionaries shifted from the idea of social reform through peasant involvement to the assassination of the Tsar.

 The book’s introduction details the spilt within Land and Liberty–an extremely important event “in the history of the revolutionary populist movement” with two factions emerging: The People’s Will (advocates of regicide) and Black Repartition (committed to agrarian revolution and economic terror). The women whose memoirs make up the substance of Five Sisters found themselves on different sides of the fence when it came to the issue of violence and the assassination of the Tsar.

The stories of these women are remarkable, and if you’ve got any interest in either the subject matter or the times, then grab a copy of this book. As each of the 5 memoirs unfolds, the women make their choices and take definite irrevocable steps in their revolutionary lives, and while there are some underlying commonalities to each of the stories, they are all, at the same time, quite different.

Vera Figner describes how she was a student in Zürich, very much interested in the ideas of social revolution. At the time, women were not allowed to attend university in Russia and single women could not travel without permission, so Vera Figner married and travelled to Zürich in order to achieve her goal of becoming a doctor. In 1873, the Russian government “forbade women students to remain in Zürich any longer. If they proved obstinate, the government threatened to bar them from licensing examinations in Russia.” So in essence, if women tried to circumvent the Russian government’s refusal to allow them a Zürich education, then their attempts would be annihilated when and if they returned to Russian soil. While this only applied to Zürich, there was another problem. In order to apply pressure through the women students’ families, the government claimed that the Russian female students were engaging in “free love” and using “their medical knowledge to destroy the fruits of this love.”  This reminded me of Ronald Reagan’s speech in the 60s regarding the behaviour of Berkeley students, and in this speech, Reagan read a letter about the scandalous goings-on taking place at a party. Different century, different continent, same tactic.

But I digress….

Vera Figner did later abandon her medical studies to take up the revolutionary cause, and as part of Land and Liberty’s  plan to infiltrate and educate the peasantry, Figner became a paramedic, but quickly discovered that it was impossible to work freely amongst the peasants. At this point, Figner joined The People’s Will:

“My past experience had convinced me that the only way to change the existing order was by force. If any group had shown me a path other than violence, perhaps I would have followed it; at the very least, I would have tried it out. 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–neither in the zemstovs, nor in the courts, nor in any of the other organized groups of our society; 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.”

Vera Figner went on to help make the bombs that killed Tsar Alexander II in March 1881. Part of her memoir describes carrying dynamite, revolutionaries setting up at various safe houses, and frustration at failed assassination attempts.

The second memoir is from Vera Zasulich, an intriguing and significant figure. The day after the conclusion of the Trial of the One Hundred and Ninety Three, “the populist movement entered its terrorist stage” when on January 24, 1878, Vera Zasulich shot General Trepov in retaliation for his severe beating of a political prisoner who had refused to remove his hat. Rather miraculously, and this is a sign of the sympathies of the time, Vera Zasulich was later acquitted. But her action announced a wave of violence: assassinations, assassination attempts, and bombings. Interestingly enough, Vera Zusulich did not embrace propaganda of the deed wholeheartedly, and as the book describes, she spent the rest of her days feeling somehow responsible for the violent turn of events. One of the most interesting sections in her memoir recalls her meeting with the enigmatic Nechaev, and Vera Zusulich, very cannily smelled a rat about Nechaev’s approach.

The third memoir in the book is that of Praskovia Ivanovskaia, a revolutionary who along with Vera Figner, chose to follow the path of The People’s Will. Praskovia Ivanovskaia first worked in a rope factory and later on a farm as a sheepshearer in the Ukraine. The details of these experiences show the underlying problems members of the intelligensia/gentry encountered when they attempted to mingle with the peasantry, and also why this contact essentially failed as a revolutionary strategy.  After failing with the peasantry,  Praskovia Ivanovskaia returned to St. Petersburg. As a member of The People’s Will, she was later accused, tried and convicted for involvement in the assassination of the Tsar. Condemned to death, her sentence was commuted to “life at hard labour,” and some of her memoir describes the hellish conditions endured in prison.

The fourth memoir is from Olga Liubatovich (nicknamed ‘the shark’ for her appetite). Olga Liubatovich too had her early attempts to blend in with the workers–this time in a factory in Moscow where she was denounced and arrested. It took almost two years for the case to come to trial and then Liubatovich received a nine-year sentence. The sentence of hard labour was commuted to exile in Siberia, and she was shipped off. Amazingly, she faked her own suicide and managed to get back to St. Petersburg. This is Liubatovich on the failure to roust the peasantry:

“Yes, we had hoped to find a people conscious of the ‘rights of man’–that was to be the higher moral sanction of our politics. Instead, we found an amorphous mass, a slave-people who occasionally produced some powerful individuals, but on the whole were immersed in a deep, lethargic sleep. And so, to avenge that distortion of human nature, we revolutionaries had drawn our swords against the state. First idealism, then pained outrage–that is the entire psychology of the classical or heroic period of our revolutionary history.”

Olga Liubatovich goes on to discuss the split in Land and Liberty into Black Repartition and The People’s Will which she describes as “less the result of differences in principle than of differences in temperament.”

The fifth and final memoir, Elizaveta Kovalskaia is unique. She was born a serf (serf mother, landowner father), and as a child persuaded her father to make her and her mother into free citizens. Kovalskaia eventually inherited the estate and no doubt because of her early experiences maintained a sensitivity to the roles of the serfs and the peasantry. Politically conscious as a young girl, she makes this statement in her memoir:

Toward this time, a new judicial institution was introduced to Kharkov: the public trial. After we finished our schoolwork, our group would race to the court sessions, where we sometimes stayed until midnight. We saw social issues unfold before us, in scenes from real life. Among other things, we saw peasants who had been cheated of their land by the emancipation process being tried for rebellion; and we saw  women, who unable to bear their legally sanctioned slavery, had murdered their husbands.”

Elizaveta Kovalskaia worked primarily organising factory workers, and although she briefly joined Black Repartition, her involvement lasted just a few months. Thereafter she “shunned” revolutionary groups, and in one section of her memoirs, she very thoughtfully lays out her reasoning:

“You would have to try to make your actions conform to the organization’s statute–which in many cases had been developed in the libraries of people who were out of touch with real life. Then too, in revolutionary practice there were frequent conflicts between your own inner morality and the theoretical morality of the group, and you sometimes had to steer a course between them.”

This extract does go on to list the advantages of being part of an organization, but clearly Kovalskaia leaned towards following her own beliefs and working independently of a group construct.

Sometimes the stories of these women cross over and connect as they traverse the often lonely disconnected lives devoted to social and political change, sacrificing any notion of family life, home and even the self to the ultimate cause. The memoirs of these remarkable women should be read by anyone interested in trying to understand the atmosphere of the times and to place and make sense of, for example, Vera Zasulich’s acquittal for shooting General Trepov in those otherwise oppressive years. Zasulich’s acquittal–which reflects the sympathies of the times–reminds me, oddly enough, about the history of the animal liberation movement–a movement that enjoyed widespread public support in the 80s but rapidly degenerated into a dirty word after the Unilever Trial.

Since the translators of Five Sisters let the memoirs speak for themselves, I’m going to follow suit with a quote from Vera Figner. The quote is made early in her revolutionary career while she was still in Zürich and alight with the possibilities of change fermenting beneath the surface of Russian society. This is a naive question that she seems to ask rhetorically, but for which the answer appeared, suddenly in the violence and upheaval of 1917:

“But how would it be possible to do away with private property, or to abolish the rights of inheritance, when everyone wanted to keep what he had? Everyone would defend his property, and those who feasted at life’s table would never voluntarily agree to relinquish their privileges.” 


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