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The Defiant Life of Vera Figner

Surviving the Russian Revolution

Lynne Ann Hartnett

Publication Year: 2014

This engaging biography tells the dramatic story of a Russian noblewoman turned revolutionary terrorist. Born in 1852 in the last years of serfdom, Vera Figner came of age as Imperial Russian society was being rocked by the massive upheaval that culminated in the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. At first a champion of populist causes and women's higher education, Figner later became a leader of the terrorist party the People's Will and was an accomplice in the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881. Drawing on extensive archival research and careful reading of Figner's copious memoirs, Lynne Ann Hartnett reveals how Figner survived the Bolshevik revolution and Stalin's Great Purges and died a lionized revolutionary legend as the Nazis bore down on Moscow in 1942.

Published by: Indiana University Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

For the last several years, my husband and children have grown accustomed to a familiar refrain in our house: the sound of my voice uttering the words “as soon as my book is done.” So now, as this book goes to press, it appears that I will be painting the rooms, organizing the closets, and filling the photo albums that have awaited my attention for far too long. I have postponed all of these tasks, some more gleefully than others, and spent my days and many...

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pp. xiii-xx

Vera Figner was supposed to die in 1884. A tsarist court declared it; Vera herself expected and even welcomed it. Although she would have been only the second woman in more than a century to die on the scaffold by decree of the Russian state, her notoriety and prominence within the terrorist group the People’s Will was such that few people expected leniency for the condemned criminal. If the sentence decreed by an imperial military tribunal in October ...

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1 In the Twilight of a Fading Age

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pp. 1-21

On a late winter morning in 1861, in sleepy villages, provincial towns, and bustling cities throughout the vast Russian Empire, somber-faced Russian Orthodox priests, conscious of the import of the moment, read an official proclamation penned in the imperial capital. After two centuries of legalized serfdom1—for all intents and purposes an institution that was indistinct...

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2 Age of Consciousness

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pp. 22-36

Sitting alone in an isolated police interrogation room a short carriage drive from her cell in the Peter and Paul Fortress, a thirty-one-year-old Vera Figner thought about her life. As she took pen to paper to explain to gendarmes, government officials, herself, and (she hoped) posterity, how she, a woman born to the Imperial Russian nobility, faced a likely death sentence for a series of violent political crimes, Vera sought continuity. In chronicling...

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3 Pioneers Diverted

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pp. 37-61

Like most European cities of its size in the late nineteenth century, Zurich bustled with activity. With the majestic, snow-kissed Alps that hugged the clear, pale-green waters of Lake Zurich towering in the background, merchants, artisans, financiers, and industrial workers darted off to work each weekday morning along the well-groomed streets of this cosmopolitan...

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4 Town and Country

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pp. 62-90

As she sat in a railroad car crossing the capitals, farmlands, and villages of the northeastern edges of Europe, Vera tried to stave off an unrelenting chill. Over the previous three years, her body had become acclimated to the more temperate climate in Switzerland; now the lap robes she slung over her legs as the train chugged along through Poland and the Baltic region provided...

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5 The Tsar’s Death Sentence

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pp. 91-113

More than any ruler in recent Russian history, Alexander II believed that his relationship with his subjects was predicated on feelings of love. He was, after all, the Tsar Liberator, who accomplished what no other Romanov had dared to risk when in 1861 he freed millions of Russian peasants from the bonds of serfdom. Over the subsequent decade, Alexander II complemented the emancipation by instituting a series of educational, military, governmental,...

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6 Revolutionary Iconography

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pp. 114-135

As Vera paced nervously in the empty silence of her apartment, Tsar Alexander II rode in a horse-drawn carriage through the streets of his capital. Although it was just after 2:00 in the afternoon, the emperor had already had a full day. After attending religious services, he reviewed the troops at the Mikhailovskii Riding School and had a pleasant visit with his cousin, the Grand Duchess Ekaterina...

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7 Transformation

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pp. 136-150

On September 24, 1884, the Trial of the Fourteen opened in St. Peters - burg amid circumstances much different from those of the well-publicized political trials of the previous decade. For years both the Romanov autocracy and the Russian public viewed the trials of accused revolutionaries and terrorists as “great political...

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8 Life and Death

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pp. 151-178

Much of the joy Ekaterina Figner felt upon learning that Vera’s death sentence had been commuted dissipated when tsarist officials informed her that her daughter had been taken to Shlisselburg Fortress. While the state refused to end Vera’s life on the scaffold, its judicial arm had no compunction about consigning her to a living death behind high fortress walls and a dangerous...

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9 Resurrection in Exile

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pp. 179-204

In the days before Vera left Shlisselburg, her dear friend Nikolai Morozov composed a poem to commemorate her release. In it he expressed his wish that fate would treat his cherished comrade well and that soon she would put the horrors of prison behind her.1 But Vera had spent too many years in Shlisselburg to believe that Morozov’s good wishes for her would be realized....

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10 An Old Revolutionary in a New Revolution

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pp. 205-235

In the late winter of 1917, a series of rapidly growing protests and strikes toppled the three-hundred-year-old Romanov autocracy. No professional revolutionaries took the helm. Neither bombs nor assassinations played a part. Instead, mounting death tolls in a debilitating world war, economic and industrial inadequacy, ensuing food and fuel shortages, drastic socioeconomic...

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11 Revolutionary Survivor

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pp. 236-262

By the fall of 1921, Vera realized that she had a vested interest in the Soviet Revolution. She believed her revolutionary generation’s struggles had prepared the way for her Communist successors, and thus she felt a certain responsibility for their actions. But her acceptance of the Soviet system was also predicated in eminently practical concerns. Having lived through the dislocation caused by the civil war and witnessed the ultimate survival of Lenin’s...


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pp. 263-304


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pp. 305-314


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pp. 315-324

About the Author

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p. 325-325

E-ISBN-13: 9780253013941
E-ISBN-10: 0253013941
Print-ISBN-13: 9780253012845

Page Count: 352
Illustrations: 6 b&w illus.
Publication Year: 2014

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Figner, Vera, 1852-1942.
  • Women revolutionaries -- Russia -- Biography.
  • Women socialists -- Russia -- Biography.
  • Women socialists -- Soviet Union -- Biography.
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