Tag Archives: nihilist

The Pale Horse by Boris Savinkov

“You simply have to spit at the whole world.”

It’s impossible to write about a novel by Boris Savinkov without talking about who he was. In Western culture, Savinkov’s name seems to have almost faded from view, but in the early twentieth century, he was known as the “General of Terror” and considered one of the most dangerous revolutionaries of the time. Born into a privileged family in 1879 Warsaw, Savinkov,  the son of a judge became a law student. He joined the Socialist-Revolutionary Party and within a short period of time, he led a combat unit responsible for the most spectacular assassinations of the time, including the assassination of Grand Duke Sergius.  His controller, although I doubt the word was used at the time, was Evno Azef, the head of the organization’s Central Committee. As it turns out, Azef was actually in the pay of the Okhrana, and so his dual role–organizing assassinations and revolutionary activity while also reporting back to the Imperial secret police makes him one of the most infamous agent-provocateurs in history.

Savinkov led a remarkable and curious life. Apart from his life as a terrorist, during WWI, prior to the Russian Revolution, he enlisted in the French Army as a private. Following the February Revolution, he made a number of alliances while fighting against the Bolsheviks (whom he hated with a passion), and he acted as Assistant War Minister under Kerensky in the Provisional government.  After the October Revolution, he continued to fight as a counter-revolutionary, and the Bolsheviks offered a large reward for his capture. Savinkov left Russia but was lured back in 1924 through letters from a friend. In reality the letters were most likely dictated by the GPU (secret police). Savinkov was arrested immediately upon his arrival in Minsk. After a brief trial he was sentenced to ten years and sent to prison. Savinkov never served his sentence. He ‘fell’ out of a window–an alleged suicide.

The translator of Savinkov’s memoirs, Joseph Shaplen (who believes the suicide story, btw), calls Savinkov a “strong individualist” and that he “believed himself the sole judge of his actions.” This attitude didn’t go down well with Savinkov’s comrades, his so-called ‘superiors’ and it eventually led to his expulsion from the Socialist-Revolutionary Party.

Savinkov was a shapeshifter of extraordinary talent, and under the pen name Ropshin, he also wrote a number of short stories, poems, a few novels, and his memoirs. The Pale Horse was called “The most Russian novel of the period” by Russian writer Dmitry Mereshkovsky while the Socialist Revolutionary Party considered Savinkov’s novels to be spoofs. It’s hard to pin down a man like Savinkov–he was determined to bring revolution to Russia through the destruction of the Romanovs, and yet he wasn’t too picky about who he aligned himself with to fight the Bolsheviks.

The Pale Horse, Savinkov’s first novel is written in the form of a journal–an account of a planned assassination.  It’s a thinly veiled account of Savinkov’s terrorist activities in 1905 pre-revolutionary Russia, although for the purposes of the novel, the target is a governor and the names are changed.  The tale is told by George, the leader of the combat unit, “a small group of five,”  –Fedor, Heinrich, and Vania, an idealistic and religious young poet, with the explosives manufactured by “chemistry expert,” Erna (a thinly disguised Dora Brilliant). The novel charts the persistent attempts to kill the governor and the lengths the group is prepared to go to to achieve their ends. We follow them through the planning, the tawdry gaiety of the Tivoli gardens, the disguises, the spies, the failed plots, the relocations and the clash of personalities over the question of just who is going to throw the first bomb. Even Azef appears as Andrei Petrovich–a man who thinks that the orders from the Central Committee mean something to George.

Since the events in the novel so closely follow events in Savinkov’s life, it’s almost impossible to untangle just where the fiction begins. George is a fascinatingly odd character who at times seems to eviscerate his belief system to reveal that it rests on exactly… nothing. He exploits Erna’s feelings for him, and engages in an affair that’s more about making a point than love or lust. His mild distaste for Erna is seen through frequent references to various body parts (her large hands, her red nose, for example), and yet at the same time there’s a hint of a vague, distant pity for this woman simply because she’s weak and doesn’t ‘get it’. George’s deepest feelings and his greatest arguments are reserved for the idealistic Vania. Vania, based on the real-life Kaliayev, struggles with the thou-shalt-not-kill part of Christianity even as he makes the moral choice to be a revolutionary. Rather surprisingly religious arguments, through Vania’s inner turmoil, take up a fair portion of the text, but George always has an answer. Here’s one of George’s nihilist statements:

 I somehow could not believe in death. It seemed unnecessary and therefore impossible. I did not even feel joy or pride at the thought that I was dying for my cause. I felt strangely indifferent. I did not care to live, but did not care to die either. I did not question myself as to my past life, nor as to what there might be beyond the dark boundary. I remember I was much more concerned as to whether the rope would cut my neck, whether there would be pain in suffocation. And often in the evening, after the roll-call, when the drum ceased beating in the courtyard, I used to look intently at the yellow light of the lamp, standing on the prison table, among the bread-crumbs. I asked myself; Do I fear or not? And my answer was: I do not. I was not afraid – I was only indifferent.

And here he is debating his relationships with fellow revolutionary Erna, married lover, Elena, and humans in general:

People say that where there is no law there is no crime. If that is true, where is the wrong in my kissing Elena? And why am I to blame in not caring any longer for Erna? I ask myself this and I can find no answer.

If I acknowledged a law I probably would not kill; I would not have made love to Erna, and would not be seeking the love of Elena. But what is my law?

They also say: love your fellow-man. But suppose there is no love in my heart? They say: respect him. But suppose there is no respect for others in me? I am on the border of life and death. Words about sin mean nothing to me. I may say about myself: ‘I looked up and I saw the pale horse and the rider whose name is death.’ Wherever that horse stamps its feet there the grass withers; and where the grass withers there is no life and consequently no law. For Death recognises no law.

A fascinating read. While there’s a story here, the book is a treatise on revolutionary ethics and the primary question: Do the ends justify the means? Camus’ play The Just Assassins is another look at this question. Savinkov strikes me as more aligned philosphically to the revolutionary of the 1880s People’s Will, and I shortly confirmed this by reading an excerpt from his memoirs:

The Social-Democratic program had long ceased to satisfy me. It seemed to me that it failed to meet the demands of Russian life, particularly on the agrarian question. Moreover, on the question of terroristic struggle, I inclined to the traditions of the Narodnaya Volia (People’s Will).

A word on my version. I bought a print on demand copy (the book is no longer in print). While I’m grateful to be able to read this at all, the typos were annoying. Apparently the publisher uses OCR software to reproduce the book, and since the technology is automatic, old texts will yield typos and missing texts.

Finally, The Pale Horse is available as an excellent film version called The Rider Named Death.


Filed under Fiction, Savinkov Boris

Nihilist Girl by Sofya Kovalevskaya

“My fervent wish is to be of use to the cause.”

The novel Nihilist Girl by Sofya Kovalevskaya explores the breakdown of 19th century Russia societal structure through the life of Vera Barantsova. The Barantsova family is notorious for possessing “ardor and unbridled desires”–traits that would have led to ruination were it not for the intervention of “imperial grace” in the form of “new splendid estates” granted to replace those lost or gambled away. Count and Countess Barantsova retire to their country estate following a scandalous duel, and they plan to raise their three daughters in luxury with the idea that each girl will receive a portion of the estate as a dowry. Unfortunately, the Barantsovas have no idea about money management, and in the country “they continued with their free and merry ways”–wasting money while they lived like kings in an attempt to ‘elevate’ their provincial status by indulging in “refined and varied frills imported from the capital.”

The emancipation of the serfs in 1861 destroys the future of the Barantsova daughters, and the family can no longer maintain a system built on free labor. The Count who once abdicated from his financial responsibilities is now forced to face the painful truth, and this time no new estates or fortunes are sent his way. The serf system has yet to be replaced with something else, and in the meantime, the fortunes of the Barantsovas are in freefall.

Vera, the youngest of the three daughters is the one most profoundly affected by the changes taking place in Russia. While the Count and Countess hope that a stray dragoon will come along and propose, Vera is caught up in the idea of martyrdom to some great cause. Set adrift with no moral code to cling to, she dreams of China and obscure missionary work. But martyrdom proves to be much more accessible when a long-absent neighbour, Vasiltsev arrives. Vasiltsev, a subversive, has lost his position at Saint Petersburg University due to his radical notions of returning the land to the peasants. Viewed as a class traitor, Vasiltsev is under house arrest pending the Tsar’s further pleasure.

The youthful Vera is profoundly influenced by the aging Nihilist Vasiltsev, and she no longer looks to correct social injustice in China after becoming aware of the revolutionary turmoil in her own country. She longs to sacrifice herself to ‘the cause’ and just how she achieves this and whether or not it’s the right thing to do is the heart of this quiet, moving novel.

Nihilist Girl is a seemingly simple novel that tackles complex, abstract ideas. Vera is a symptom of her troubled age, and the scenes describing the shifting loyalties and behaviour of the serfs towards their former ‘masters’ are incredible. The MLA edition contains an introduction about the author Sofya Kovalevskaya, the first European woman to receive a doctorate in mathematics. Written in 1890-91, Nihilist Girl is Kovalevskaya’s only completed novel.


Filed under Kovalevskaya, Sofya

Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev

 “I’ve already told you that I believe in nothing.”

Ivan Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Sons examines the emerging generation gap that reflects the growing changes in 19th century Russian society. When the novel begins middle-aged widower Nikolai Petrovich Kirasnov is waiting for the return of his son Arkady. Arkady, who has just graduated from university, returns with his close friend the nihilist, medical student Bazarov. Bazarov is the son of a retired army doctor, and he comes from a humble, yet vital background. While Bazarov embodies the ideals of nihilism, Arkady’s belief system seems to be a pale reflection of his friend’s. Arkady’s foppish effete uncle, Pavel, a former army officer, is deeply disturbed by Bazarov, and sees Bazarov and his belief system as a personal affront.

The novel begins in 1859–right before the emancipation of the serfs in 1861–and a significant shift is taking place in Russian society. The relatively enlightened Kirasnov has freed his serfs, and he’s attempting to adjust to employing people who can produce. The management of his estate, however, is problematic. Kirasnov has an illegitimate child with a peasant girl he refuses to marry because of the differences in their social status, and the girl, Fenichka and her child live in one of the back rooms of the house. Fenichka’s role is a peculiar one–she’s obviously Kirasnov’s mistress, but she’s also a servant within the household.

Kirasnov and his brother Pavel are “men of the old school”–whereas Bazarov and to a lesser degree Arkady represent the new wave of thought–Nihilism. Bazarov “does not look up to any authorities … does not accept a single principle on faith, no matter how highly that principle may be esteemed.” Both Bazarov and Arkady find their nihilist beliefs under assault when they fall in love. Bazarov, who believes that the “study of personalities is a waste of time” and that “all people are alike” finds himself inexplicably falling in love with the elegant, cold, elusive widow Anna Odintsova. While Anna is immensely attracted to Bazarov, she cannot allow herself to engage in any passionate affair. He threatens her passionless, ordered world, and she threatens his nihilist beliefs. But falling in love is just the first of Bazarov’s problems. He also discovers that prolonged exposure to the Kirasnov family is a contaminating influence, and he tells Arkady, “that’s what comes of living with feudal lords. You’ll become a feudal lord yourself, before you know it, and take part in knightly tournaments.”

Bazarov is a marvelous, strange and unforgettable character, and Fathers and Sons–one of the seminal novels from the period–is a must for Russophiles. As a companion piece, I recommend Nihilist Girl by Sofya Kovalevskaya.

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Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

“I don’t want to wear a uniform any more.”

Catch 22 is a savagely funny, bitter, and terrifying novel. How can such diametrically opposed terms be applied to the same book? The answer is simple: Catch 22 is brilliant. The novel appears on many ‘top novels’ lists, and justifiably so. This anti-war satire is set in WWII and the story gravitates around Yossarian, a bombardier stationed in Europe and subjected to an ever-extended number of bombing missions. The more missions he flies, the more missions he is ordered to fly. Yossarian realizes that he will never go home, and thanks to the “spinning reasonableness” of Catch 22, he can’t escape.

Surrounded by an insane military complex, with two rival generals and competing, glory-seeking colonels who “never hesitated to volunteer” the bombardiers for endless missions, Yossarian concludes, “the enemy is anyone who’s going to get you killed.” Behind the battles and the air strikes, there’s the shadowy war profiteering system known as the Syndicate engineered by the ultra-capitalist Milo. The Syndicate places the bombing missions in as much danger as the German anti-aircraft weapons. Frozen eclairs are smuggled in by the French underground, but parachutes and morphine are missing at crucial moments. In a war bureaucracy designed to “elevate mediocre people to positions of authority” the good, the decent, the young and the powerless die, and the officers who command them award medals to the dead, and send meaningless letters of condolence home to the survivors.

In spite of the subject matter–which is just about as depressing as it gets–most of the humour in the novel comes from the decent characters’ attempts to deal with the circular logic and insane, meaningless orders hurtled down from the upper ranks. There are some marvelous characters here–Colonel Cathcart, Colonel Korn, Orr, the arch rivals General Peckem and General Dreedle and the generous Nurse Duckett. Yossarian is one of the greatest antiheros of all time, and he’s one of those rare fictional characters who remain long after the book’s conclusion. I grew particularly fond of Yossarian’s friend, the Chaplain who struggles to keep his faith while realising “immoral logic seemed to be confounding him at every turn.” He tries to stick up for the men, but he is soon involved in accusations that he is the mysterious letter censor, Washington Irving.

If you haven’t read Catch 22, I urge you to do so. It’s one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century–not a particularly easy read for many reasons–but brilliant nonetheless. The author never loses control of the prevailing sense of insanity, and while I laughed at some of the craziness here, the book carries a powerful, timeless message.


Filed under Heller, Joseph