The Degaev Affair: Terror and Treason in Tsarist Russia 
by Richard Pipes.
Yale, 153 pp., £16.95, April 2003, 0 300 09848 0
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The first ‘wanted’ poster to be issued in Russia appeared in late February 1884, and featured six likenesses of the suspect: three frontal shots, showing a man in his late twenties, with a moustache, with a beard and clean-shaven; and, beneath them, a trio of three-quarter views of the same man, repeating the permutations of facial hair, but with a fur hat added to each image. The surly face depicted with these minor variations belonged to Sergei Degaev, a member of the revolutionary terrorist group Narodnaia Volia, the organisation responsible for the assassination of Alexander II three years earlier. He was wanted for the murder of Lieutenant Colonel Grigory Sudeikin, the head of the St Petersburg secret police and a key figure in the tsarist authorities’ clampdown in the wake of Alexander’s death. The 10,000 rouble reward available to anyone who could provide Degaev’s address was more than a hundred times what a factory worker could earn in a year.

But Degaev was never apprehended: he had been spirited out of the country by fellow revolutionaries in December 1883, immediately after the crime. Unlike countless radicals before and after him, however, he did not resume political activity in exile, and for a simple reason: he had been working for the previous year or year and a half as an agent provocateur, supplying the police with the names of his comrades in exchange for a healthy salary and uncontested dominance of what was left of Narodnaia Volia – most of its leaders had fled abroad or been arrested after 1881. Once the revolutionaries discovered Degaev’s treachery, murdering Sudeikin became the condition on which his life would be spared. The bargain was honoured; but the man who fled Russia at the end of 1883 soon vanished, hidden under an entirely new identity: he was now Alexander Pell, American citizen and, by 1897, professor of mathematics at the new University of South Dakota.

Richard Pipes’s The Degaev Affair is the first book-length treatment of the extraordinary lives of Sergei Degaev: his double role as revolutionary and agent provocateur up to 1883, and his subsequent life in America, a life so utterly distinct from what preceded it that, for Pipes, it could almost belong to some transatlantic doppelganger. His brisk, accessible version of a murky and little-known career is based on archival sources and the testimony of Degaev’s contemporaries, but it is also strangely selective, and offers little insight into Degaev’s dilemmas or the movement of which he was a corrupted part.

Sergei Degaev was born in Moscow in 1857, one of five children. His father, an army doctor, apparently died in the late 1860s; his mother was the daughter of the historian Nikolai Polevoi. Acquaintances of the family describe them as ‘overwhelmed by romanticism’, enthralled by the extraordinary, but also rather vain. One of Degaev’s sisters had (misplaced) hopes of a musical career, another was convinced that Petr Lavrov, a prominent radical, was madly in love with her. Sergei is described as ‘gentle, good-natured and lively’, but also ‘colourless’ and with ‘an inordinately high opinion of himself’. An old revolutionary noted that Degaev was undoubtedly ‘capable, but not without cunning’, and felt that his commitment to the cause was purely ‘cerebral’: a ‘sympathiser, rather than a comrade’. Degaev himself admitted that he would find it difficult to shed blood on the party’s behalf, a lack of commitment for which he was chastised early on.

Like many among Russia’s educated classes, the family was sympathetic to the revolutionary movement, although Degaev’s first contacts with radicalism didn’t come till 1878, when even Dostoevsky, a sturdy reactionary, was praising the keen moral sense of Vera Zasulich, on trial for shooting and wounding the governor-general of St Petersburg in retaliation for his having ordered the beating of a prisoner. Degaev’s revolutionary connections were spotted in 1879, when he was expelled from St Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky Artillery Academy as ‘unreliable’, though no proof was adduced. Enrolling at the Institute of Transport Engineers in 1880, he set up self-education groups among the students, and in the same year joined Narodnaia Volia.

The organisation – its name means ‘People’s Will’, though it is occasionally rendered as ‘People’s Freedom’ – was formed in the summer of 1879; its first aim was the assassination of the Tsar. In the 1870s there was a split in the revolutionary populist movement. The gradualists, who believed that the best model for an equitable future was the traditional village commune, carried out propaganda work among the peasantry. As time went by, many of them turned their attention to urban workers; some became key figures in early Russian Marxism. And then there were the radicals – among them, Narodnaia Volia. The radicals held to the Bakuninite notion that beneath the placid surface of the Russian masses lay the elemental fury of revolt, and demanded direct attacks on the regime. Support for the radicals grew when it became clear to many populists that the traditional peasant commune they placed their faith in was under threat: the commercialisation of Russian agriculture, and its involvement in global markets, was changing patterns of income and land ownership and destabilising village life. Political assassinations were the only way to stop capitalist development in its tracks, to make history stand still.

Escalating repression, too, played its part in shaping revolutionary strategy, since many assassinations were carried out in retaliation for arrests, beatings and executions of Narodnaia Volia members. Pipes, however, seems unwilling to concede any legitimacy to the cause in whose name Narodnaia Volia adopted its terrorist tactics; all terrorism, he tells us, is the product of destructive impulses that periodically take hold of young people. He is closer to the mark when he observes that the revolutionary populists’ focus on the Tsar contains an element of mirror-image monarchism: one man encapsulating all the evils of a system.

When, after several failed attempts, the group finally got its man on 1 March 1881, the outcome was not the general jubilation on which it had been counting, but a surge of revulsion that occasioned a shift in educated opinion. All the regime’s opponents were now liable to be tarred with the same nihilist brush: the newspaper editor Mikhail Katkov railed against the reforms of the 1860s, labelling liberalism ‘nihilism in its legal form’; Konstantin Pobedonostsev, the éminence grise of late tsarism, objected to country taverns and railways as vectors of a nihilist plague; and the Minister of the Interior, Count Dmitry Tolstoy, declared nihilism ‘the moral cancer of our time’: ‘You can no more stamp it out or abolish it than the Hebrew leprosy.’

Degaev was among the scores of young people rounded up in the aftermath of the assassination. But he was released for lack of evidence – a fortunate escape, since he had been part of a Narodnaia Volia group which had tunnelled under St Petersburg’s Malaia Sadovaia street with the intention of planting a bomb. He returned to his studies and graduated in June, leaving Petersburg to take up an engineering job in Arkhangelsk. Here he met Liubov Ivanova, to whom he must have proposed almost immediately. They got married in St Petersburg in November 1881.

That autumn, Degaev’s younger brother Vladimir – by all accounts a bright-eyed, idealistic narodovolets – was arrested for distributing seditious literature. He was interrogated by Sudeikin, who had taken charge of the St Petersburg gendarmes after four successful years rooting out revolutionaries in Kiev. Born in 1850 into a family of impoverished gentry, Sudeikin seems to have been a remarkable figure. This is how a former narodovolets describes him:

tall, athletically built, broad-shouldered, with the neck of a large ox . . . His speech flowed like a rapid stream, jumping from one subject to another without any connection. From the lips of the gendarme fell the names of great men, men of genius . . . Marx, Maudsley, Darwin and, finally, Lombroso. He cited the latter to affirm the truth that everyone is possessed by madness.

Pipes notes his fascination with detective fiction, and cites the opinion of other tsarist functionaries that, for Sudeikin, ‘the war with the nihilists resembled a hunt.’ He seems to have had little ideological attachment to the autocracy he served, though this could easily be an illusion generated by his ingenious methods. He was the first Russian policeman to make systematic use of informants, but his interrogation technique was even more innovatory. Where others delivered stern paternal lectures, Sudeikin tried to convince captive revolutionaries that he was on their side – hence the dropping of Marx’s name – and that elements within the regime were keen to adopt a progressive agenda; their common cause, he would say, was set back by terrorist activity. He told his more principled prisoners that he wanted them to take this message back to the movement, with a plea to end operations; others he persuaded to provide him with the names of their comrades, whom he arrested after a delay sufficient to remove immediate suspicion from his informant.

Sudeikin treated Vladimir Degaev as one of his principled prisoners and, having hinted at the possibility of longer-term co-operation, released him. Narodnaia Volia, for their part, were desperate to obtain information on Sudeikin’s network of informers, and suggested Vladimir renew contact with him to begin work as a double agent. The ploy failed, however: Sudeikin was very guarded, and Vladimir wasn’t productive enough as an informer for his liking – though he did make several arrests simply by having Vladimir followed and noting whom he met. As Sudeikin’s dragnets accounted for more and more of the party’s cadres, its leadership decided that he had to be got rid of. Sergei Degaev was told to make contact with him in March 1882: ostensibly about the possibility of work on blueprints for a new police building; actually to find out what he could about Sudeikin’s movements. The two met several times over the next month, but contact was broken off in April, when Degaev left for the Caucasus to work on the Tbilisi-Baku railway.

Pipes regards Degaev’s meetings with Sudeikin in the spring of 1882 as unproductive, for both Narodnaia Volia and the authorities. But he overlooks a number of questions. If the pretext for meeting was legitimate, why did they meet in secret? Why would Sudeikin be dealing with the minutiae of a new office block? If the meeting was unproductive, why the correlation between Degaev’s subsequent movements and arrests of narodovoltsy – 120 were rounded up in St Petersburg on 5 June, while Degaev was out of town? Between May and September he spent much of his time in Tbilisi, where he met radical officers of the Mingrelian regiment – who were arrested soon after his departure in September.

Pipes argues that Degaev became a double agent only after his arrest on 18 December 1882 in Odessa. He’d been sent there to set up a printing press on the orders of Vera Figner, the sole member of Narodnaia Volia’s executive committee left in Russia after the June arrests. The apartment Degaev was staying in had come under surveillance ten days previously, and he and his associates had been identified with ease, since he often met and talked to them in the street – a further irregularity Pipes merely notes in passing. Degaev divulged nothing to the Odessa gendarmes except his real name, and wrote to Sudeikin from his cell asking to see him. The letter, unfortunately, has not been found. Pipes pictures Degaev pondering the futility of continued revolutionary activity now that Narodnaia Volia was so weak; perhaps he felt that co-operation with progressive forces within the regime was the only way forward after all?

There are two things wrong with this hypothesis. First, the main source for it is Degaev himself, justifying his behaviour in letters to his brother 25 years later. Pipes hints at the second when he says that ‘it seems clear from the rapidity with which he acted that the idea of collaborating with the authorities must have been germinating in his mind for some time.’ What if it had flowered several months earlier? In Politseiskie i provokatory (1992), the Russian historian Feliks Lure makes a persuasive case for the collaboration having started in the spring of 1882 – hence Degaev’s convenient absence during the June arrests, and the coincidence between his movements and further arrests in the Caucasus. Lure also suggests that Degaev wrote to Sudeikin from Odessa not to offer his services, but to ask his paymaster for assistance, having given the local authorities his real name in a first attempt to alert Sudeikin to his difficulties.

Degaev gave the authorities information that led to the detention of around two hundred narodovoltsy in the spring of 1883, including Vera Figner. According to her memoirs, published in 1921, she was shown a list of names during her interrogation – a list signed by Degaev and dated 20 November 1882. It included not only Narodnaia Volia’s most prominent members, but also scores of peripheral players. This is much more than the ‘limited collaboration’ Pipes feels Degaev opted for in his cell in Odessa, and even if one allows for some chronological slippage in Figner’s memory – could the list have been dated 20 December? – it suggests a working relationship with Sudeikin of much longer standing than the few days Pipes’s interpretation requires.

True, the difference is one of only a few months, but it affects both calculations of the number of his comrades Degaev betrayed and the nature of the betrayal: did he merely accelerate the demise of an organisation already decimated by arrests, or did he play an important part in its destruction? The question has wider political implications, too: as Pipes remarks, knowledge of the increasing weakness of Narodnaia Volia deterred the authorities from making concessions to any reformist tendencies. Now, with Figner behind bars and the rest of the movement’s leadership in prison or exile, Degaev – after a staged escape from captivity – became the de facto leader of Narodnaia Volia. In other words, by the middle of 1883, the main revolutionary movement in Russia was effectively under the control of the police. Sudeikin advised Degaev on the selection of a new executive committee and for a time monitored the output of the party’s presses.

Why did the police want to gain control of Narodnaia Volia rather than simply destroy it? Pipes describes a tangled scheme according to which Sudeikin, long snubbed by his superiors because of his impoverished origins, planned to clear a path to greater power and influence by arranging for a few well-targeted assassination attempts, foiled just in time to save a grateful minister or two. Degaev, meanwhile – the other half of Pipes’s ‘partnership of thwarted ambitions’ – was getting the requisite boost to his vanity from leading an organisation which had, in 1881, refused his request to join its executive committee, declaring him insufficiently revolutionary. But the only direct source for all this is Degaev himself.

In May 1883, Sudeikin sent Degaev to Switzerland to make contact with Lev Tikhomirov, the joint leader in exile of Narodnaia Volia. Sudeikin allegedly – an entertaining detail – exhorted his agent to kidnap Tikhomirov and German Lopatin, a leading revolutionary and translator of Marx. Instead, Degaev broke down in front of Tikhomirov and confessed his double role. Was it a sudden fit of conscience? Had suspicions been voiced about him in the party? Or had he realised that his pact with Sudeikin was a one-sided affair, with little gain for the progressive cause to balance the hundreds of arrests? Fear of discovery seems the most likely explanation, given that he continued to feed names to the police even after Tikhomirov had instructed him to return to Russia and kill Sudeikin.

Degaev proved in no hurry to carry out the assignment, and Tikhomirov summoned him to Paris in September to reprimand him. In late October, Lopatin was sent to Petersburg to help him with his delayed preparations. Lopatin knew nothing of Degaev’s connection to Sudeikin, and while the two were swapping revolutionary anecdotes, he began to probe the oddities in the story of Degaev’s escape from Odessa – whereupon Degaev broke down and confessed once again. ‘It was an eerie and terrifying moment,’ Lopatin wrote in his memoirs. The need for Sudeikin’s removal was now more urgent than ever, and two heavies were summoned from Kiev to help. Sudeikin was eventually lured to Degaev’s apartment on 16 December 1883. Degaev shot him in the back and bolted, leaving his accomplices to finish the job with crowbars. He escaped to Paris, where he was tried by “a revolutionary tribunal, expelled from the party and forbidden to return to Russia. He seems to have drifted around London for the next year or two in confusion, claiming the credit for having killed Sudeikin but also under a considerable burden of guilt, both for his work as an informer and for the murder.

Degaev left for North America around 1886; by the end of the decade he had settled in St Louis and was working for a chemical firm. In 1891 he was naturalised under the name Alexander Pell – perhaps after the Russian chemist Aleksandr Pel, or the English mathematician John Pell – and in 1895 began a doctorate in mathematics at Johns Hopkins, which he obtained two years later. He was recommended for a job at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, where he soon became a fixture of college life, popular among his students – he earned lasting admiration by pitching into a fistfight at a train station in defence of the college colours. He also contributed a handful of papers to mathematical journals, before resigning in 1908 and moving with his second wife – Liubov, renamed Emma, had died in 1904 – to Chicago, then in 1913 to Mount Holyoke, where he stayed until 1918. He told his American acquaintances that he had been a radical in his youth, but no one knew his former identity until 1915, when the old revolutionary Lev Deich, talking to Russian émigrés in New England, found out about a maths professor with an impenetrable accent and a blank past. Deich dropped hints in an article of 1917, but made no direct accusations. Pell died, undiscovered, in Bryn Mawr in 1921. Degaev’s second life was made public in the USSR in 1933; it is still unclear when Pell’s first life became generally known in the US.

‘The question that lies at the heart of this book,’ Pipes says, ‘asks which was the true Degaev-Pell: the kindly professor . . . or the revolutionary turncoat.’ How could such different lives belong to one man: how could a murderous agent provocateur end up a jolly mathematician? How could a pseudo-Raskolnikov turn into a proto-Pnin? How could a revolutionary vote Republican? A large part of his bafflement stems from the fact that Degaev’s two lives were divided between two countries that, for most of Pipes’s long career, were locked into the Manichaean exclusivity of the Cold War. Degaev’s escape from Old World to New is, however, a staple of American immigrant mythology, and his transition from rebellious youth to placid age comes as standard in countless biographies. The epilogue of The Degaev Affair is full of metamorphoses of personality or principles more striking than Degaev’s: none more so than that of Tikhomirov, who broke with Narodnaia Volia in the 1880s, underwent a religious conversion followed by a political one, and became a loyal servant of autocracy; by 1909, even Nicholas II regarded him as excessively reactionary. Degaev arguably remained much more himself, despite his change of name and place.

The main interest of Degaev’s story lies not in the discrepancy between his two lives, but in the duplicity that meant he had to abandon one for the other. Having chosen to join a clandestine organisation, why did he then choose to betray it? Doubtless many informers are driven by simple cupidity; others may have been attracted to the thrill of deceit. Neither of these possibilities seems to have applied in Degaev’s case. But can he really have been so naive as to take Sudeikin at face value: to have believed that there were elements within the tsarist regime willing to extend a hand to those they had spent years hunting down? Or was it mere self-preservation that led him first to collaborate with the authorities, and then – when it became clear his comrades posed more of a threat to his life – to confess to Tikhomirov?

Perhaps Sudeikin’s fabrications provided a comfortable screen behind which Degaev could hide his unwillingness to languish in prison for the cause. This may be less a matter of deliberate self-delusion than of a desperate recalibration of reasoning. ‘A train of thought is never false,’ the narrator of Under Western Eyes observes. ‘The falsehood lies deep in the necessities of existence, in secret fears and half-formed ambitions, in the secret confidence combined with a secret mistrust of ourselves.’ It wasn’t that Sudeikin provided a plausible alternative to revolution: what he did was help his prisoners switch trains.

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