Raskolnikov into Pnin

Tony Wood

  • The Degaev Affair: Terror and Treason in Tsarist Russia by Richard Pipes
    Yale, 153 pp, £16.95, April 2003, ISBN 0 300 09848 0

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.

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