Spectral Enemies

Lewis Siegelbaum

  • The Odd Man Karakozov: Imperial Russia, Modernity and the Birth of Terrorism by Claudia Verhoeven
    Cornell, 231 pp, £24.95, May 2009, ISBN 978 0 8014 4652 8

A short time after the Russian prime minister P.A. Stolypin was assassinated in September 1911, Alexander Guchkov made a speech in the State Duma about the impact of revolutionary terrorism in which he recalled an assassination attempt from 45 years earlier:

The generation to which I belong was born on the eve of Karakozov’s shots; in the 1870s and 1880s, a bloody and menacing wave of terror washed over Russia, carrying away the monarch whom we still at that time eulogised as tsar-liberator. What a funeral feast terror celebrated over our poor country in those days of misfortune and shame! … Terror applied the brakes and still prevents the forward progress of reform. Terror put a weapon into the hands of reactionaries. Terror by its bloody haze shrouded the dawn of Russian freedom. Terror touched those who sought to strengthen popular representation.

Guchkov’s lament is not without resonance today. Just as Bush used the 9/11 attacks as a pretext for a global ‘war on terror’ and violations of civil liberties, so Putin has responded to terrorist acts (terakty, a post-Soviet neologism) by stifling ‘the forward progress of reform’, or even reversing it. Guchkov himself could not resist the temptation to try to change the course of history by violent means. A few years after his speech, he plotted to remove Nicholas II in a coup d’état before, as he put it, the ‘street’ took over. The victims of revolutionary terrorism included Alexander II, Grand Prince Sergei Alexandrovich, Bogolepov the minister of education, Sipiagin the minister of the interior, Sipiagin’s successor Pleve, dozens of governors, procurators and police officials, and finally Stolypin. And that doesn’t include those put to death for committing these acts, the numerous victims of state terror, or bystanders.

Dmitri Karakozov, the standard accounts tell us, was a deranged former student who on 4 April 1866 fired a shot at Alexander II at the gates of St Petersburg’s summer garden. On the basis of its interrogations, a special investigative commission concluded that Karakozov was a member of a Moscow-based revolutionary society, known simply as the Organisation, which sought to turn peasants against landowners, the nobility and state officials in the name of socialism. He may also have belonged to an even more secretive group called Hell, which wanted to kill the tsar in order to provoke a general uprising that would lead, it was hoped, to the establishment of a socialist government. Karakozov was tried and executed in September 1866. His cousin Nikolai Ishutin, supposedly the mastermind behind Hell, also received a death sentence, which the tsar commuted at the last moment; dozens of prisoners associated with Ishutin and Karakozov were sent into exile, sentenced to hard labour, or imprisoned for periods ranging from six months to 12 years.

When I was a student in the 1960s and 1970s, historians seemed obsessed with the revolutionary movement almost to the exclusion of anything else concerning tsarist Russia. Books with titles such as Russia’s Road to Revolution, The Roots of Revolution and Sons against Fathers: Studies in Russian Radicalism and Revolution traced the movement’s lineage from the Decembrists of the post-Napoleonic era to Alexander Herzen (the ‘father of Russian socialism’), Mikhail Bakunin and other members of the radical intelligentsia of the mid-19th century; on to the more plebeian Nikolai Chernyshevsky and other radical raznochintsy (people of various ranks) of the 1860s; to the arch-conspirator Sergei Nechaev, the Russian Jacobin Petr Tkachev, the populists and terrorists of the 1870s and 1880s; and finally to the socialist revolutionaries and social democrats all the way to the Bolsheviks. If he took part at all, Karakozov was a small link in this chain. As Claudia Verhoeven explains, ‘because Karakozov was strange, sick and suicidal, because he failed, and because his timing was off – according to the traditional historiography, the first modern tsaricide was 15 years “too early” to be a “real” terrorist – he has largely been considered the odd man out of the revolutionary movement.’

The movement itself was divided about him. Some considered his act ‘unnecessary’ or ‘counter-productive’, and that it led in a ‘false direction’. Herzen dismissed him as a ‘pitiful fanatic’. But a spokesman for the younger generation in exile, Nikolai Serno-Solovievich, denounced Herzen for condemning him, and Ekaterina Breshko-Breshkovskaya, sentenced to Siberian exile for her participation in the ‘Going to the People’ movement of the mid-1870s, later wrote that Karakozov was ‘ours, our body, our blood, our brother, our friend, our comrade’. Thereafter, the memory of his violent act faded. Whether impelled by fanaticism or foolishness, it truly seemed to lead nowhere. Only occasionally would someone invoke the memory of Karakozov and then, as in Guchkov’s Duma speech, in very negative terms.

Although she wants to rescue Karakozov from obscurity, Verhoeven insists that his attempted assassination of the tsar shouldn’t be thought of as the prologue to anything. On the contrary, the history of the act ‘can only be written by recognising and retaining the distance that separates it from what came before and after’. She also wants to demonstrate the oddity of the failed tsaricide by looking at his actions in terms of contemporary political understandings and practices. Both Mikhail Muraviev, the ‘anti-Catholic Polonophobe’ who headed the investigatory commission, and Mikhail Katkov, the most prominent conservative journalist of the period, who was also ‘venomously’ anti-Catholic, speculated that Karakozov was involved in a Polish separatist conspiracy. Others attributed the crime to his exposure to the ‘Jesuit dogma’ of ‘the end justifies the means,’ which the Jesuits were believed to share with the tsar’s other main bugbears, the Nihilists (Communists at the height of the Cold War were accused of this too). Some assumed that nobles still smarting from the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, the first and most significant reform of Alexander II’s reign, had instigated it. So elusive were Karakozov’s connections to the Organisation and Hell, and so nebulous was the evidence that the latter group even existed, that the regime revised its code of laws to ban ‘all secret societies, with whatever aim they might be established’ and ‘under whatever name they might be existing’.

Verhoeven distinguishes state terror intended to accelerate change already underway (as in the French and Russian Revolutions) from terrorism intended to initiate historical change (usually conducted by non-state insurgent groups). The distinction isn’t always so neat, but it enables her to situate Karakozov at terrorism’s ‘birth’, and to assert an ‘intimate bond between terrorism and modernity’. Here, modernity is seen as a precondition of terrorist violence, not because it ‘causes’ it, but rather because it offers ‘the historically conscious and politically sovereign subject’ peculiar to modernity previously unimagined opportunities to help construct ‘the coming community’ through violence. The relationship seems tenuous, but by embedding Karakozov and his action in 19th-century discourses – of politics, journalism, the law, photography, disease and medical science, fashion, theological disputation, social realist art and literature – Verhoeven makes her case.

Consider the outer garment – a peasant armiak – Karakozov was wearing when he was arrested. Verhoeven, who devotes an entire chapter to the armiak, shows that this seemingly insignificant detail is key to the ‘new type of irregular political struggle’ and the ‘new type of enemy’ that Karakozov represented. Revolutionary terrorists would soon be disguising themselves to blend in with the crowd, carry out their missions and disappear; thanks to men like Karakozov, by 1880 a political cartoonist could draw a well-to-do couple out for a stroll clad in armour. But before 4 April 1866 nobody had used urban space or forms of clothing in this manner – at least not in Russia. The political enemies of tsarism were expected to be either ‘foreign’ (i.e. Polish) or Nihilists, and both could be identified by their distinctive ‘costumes’. By being entirely undistinctive, by camouflaging himself as a lower-class town dweller (meshchanin), Karakozov ‘stood out as a curiosity’ even to his Moscow friends.

Was Karakozov sick? The court that tried him clearly didn’t think so, but historians have thought otherwise and dismissed him and his ideas as unworthy of serious attention. Verhoeven, however, argues that Karakozov’s illness was the ‘material base’ of his decision to engage in what he called ‘factual propaganda’ – what anarchists would later call ‘propaganda of the deed’. Karakozov believed his illness was fatal and presumably felt he had nothing to lose. Verhoeven presses her case a bit too hard, arguing that repeated acts of terror intended to rid Russia of the tsar and tsarism were derived from the scientific principles of experimental repetition and regularity. But the idea that the propaganda of the deed originated in the fevers, fatigue, trichinosis, suicidal impulses, hypochondria and other psycho-physiological disorders that afflicted Karakozov is a brilliant one.

Some of Karakozov’s ideas about the way a revolutionary should act may have come from What Is to Be Done?, Chernyshevsky’s didactic socialist fantasy, published in 1863. Verhoeven argues that whatever his real inspiration, Karakozov’s attempt on the tsar’s life was ‘mapped onto what was retroactively posited as its source’, namely Chernyshevsky’s novel and the ‘extraordinary man’ at its centre, Rakhmetov. The ruthlessness of later revolutionaries would also be traced back to him. Yet ‘the Rakhmetov we know,’ Verhoeven shows, ‘only came into being after 4 April’ – after Karakozov’s attack. Chernyshevsky intended his character to be a parody of the self-sacrificing saint, an object of amusement and ridicule rather than emulation. Verhoeven also suggests that Karakozov influenced Crime and Punishment, which Dostoevsky was writing for serialised publication at the time. Thanks to Karakozov, she believes, Raskolnikov’s motivations were given a political dimension: it was only after Karakozov’s trial that Dostoevsky had Raskolnikov’s friend Razumikhin conclude ‘He’s a political conspirator! For sure!’ and that he connected his illness and strange behaviour to nihilism – and nihilism to political violence.

According to his lawyer’s statement in the trial records, Karakozov, when asked by the tsar what he wanted, said ‘nothing’. Verhoeven interprets this as a declaration of the obsolescence of tsarist power and as further evidence of his radicalism. Here again she may be overreaching. She is almost certainly right that other responses attributed to him – ‘Because you promised the people land, but did not give them any’ and ‘What kind of freedom did you make?’ – are apocryphal. It’s more likely that Karakozov simply refused to engage in conversation with his would-be victim. Sometimes, ‘nothing’ simply does mean nothing.

The torture of Karakozov and other suspected conspirators foreshadows 20th and 21st-century responses to terrorism. ‘White Terror’ is the term often used to characterise the tsarist state’s repressive turn. Yet terrorism flourished anyway, eventually claiming the life of the tsar in 1881. The lesson Stalin should have taught us – and if he didn’t, then the more recent history delivered by Dick Cheney will do – is the paradoxical one that the more security-conscious a state becomes, the more insecure are those it is supposedly trying to protect. Or, in Verhoeven’s version, ‘by populating the whole of the world with spectral enemies’, the new norm ‘creates the conditions of possibility for terrorism’. More broadly, The Odd Man Karakozov is concerned with the stories we tell each other to explain (away?) the rending of the political fabric. It is about what comes to be considered legitimate evidence and what does not, and about how concepts are formed to give meaning to narratives of the past.