1. A Change of Heart
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Part Three “The Little Devil Sitting in Your Heart” 151 1 A Change of Heart In 1880, Dostoevsky was at the pinnacle of his career, and, as the honor of writing the jubilee address from the Slavic Benevolent Society attests, in good graces with the monarchy. Nonetheless, it was not for him to say whether he was in solidarity with the nihilists. In the seven years since Demons’ completion in 1873 the political ground had undergone seismic shifts. Sympathy for the young radicals caught up in the Nechaev­ shchina was accompanied by equal antipathy for Nechaev’s methods and inclined a new generation of radicals to embrace peaceful and patient propaganda, first among St. Petersburg workers and then among the peasants in the countryside. At the vanguard of this movement “To the People” (khozhdenie v narod) was a group of young people who had gathered around Nikolai Chaikovsky in St. Petersburg, and who fused the communal ideals of Chernyshevsky with the populist views of the historian Peter Lavrov to inspire their own activist outreach and socialist vision of Russia’s future. Unsurprisingly, the government responded to these activities with the full weight of its repressive authority, arresting and imprisoning without charges hundreds of young people in the summers of 1873–74. As a result, educated society (whose children languished in pretrial detention) became increasingly estranged, while oppositional groups had no other choice than to go “underground” and become illegal. The 152 Part Three: “The Little Devil Sitting in Your Heart” first formally organized revolutionary party, Land and Freedom (Zemlia i Volia), came into existence in St. Petersburg in 1876, and the radicals took advantage of the modern urban environment to create an indispensable base of operations: the revolutionary Underground.1 Meanwhile , the southerners in Kiev were more restive and formed a group called the Southern Rebels (Iuzhnye buntari), which orchestrated daring prison breaks, grisly acts of revolutionary vengeance, and a (failed) peasant uprising in the Chigirin district that was right out of the Nechaev/Peter Verkhovensky playbook. In the summer of 1879, in a series of meetings in Lipetsk, Voronezh, and St. Petersburg some of the northern and southern movements’ most seasoned members founded a rigidly hierarchical, centralized organization, the People’s Will, which embraced terrorism and committed itself to the destruction of the emperor .2 In the very first number of the party’s organ, Narodnaia volia, a programmatic article by Lev Tikhomirov announced that the tactics of peaceful propaganda in the village were based on illusions and were no longer realistic: “A party aspiring to some kind of future should establish itself above all on a strictly realistic relationship to life.” This realistic relationship to life precluded anything but active political struggle with the government—in other words, terrorism.3 The bombing of the Winter Palace was the People’s Will’s third attempt at tsaricide.4 Though it had failed to achieve its goal, by striking at the tsar in the very sanctum of absolutism the People’s Will demonstrated its power to “shake the foundations,” and the vision of Peter Verkhovensky and Dostoevsky was realized. “We are experiencing a time of terror like that of the French Revolution,” wrote Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolaevich in his diary on February 7, 1880. “The only difference is that we do not see, do not know, do not have the slightest idea of their numbers. . . . Universal panic.”5 And General A. A. Kireev, Adjutant to Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolaevich, seconded his distress, writing on February 15, “The nihilists have started a general panic among all classes. Many have left the city. The most fantastic rumors about bombings circulate.”6 That the foundations had been shaking already for quite some time is attested to by one of Alexander II’s most independent-minded ministers, P. A. Valuev, who confided to his diary a month before the explosion, “Everything is going to pieces, everything is going to the dogs. One feels the earth shaking, the building is threatening to collapse, but people do not seem to be aware of this. Perhaps” he speculated, “in order to move to a different order of ideas and events, it is necessary A Change of Heart 153 that the earth should tremble even more beneath our feet.”7 Naturally, he was unaware that the terrorist plot currently in the works would do precisely this, but the expression of such a desire by one of the tsar’s most trusted ministers illustrates how bitterly alienated educated society...


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Subject Headings

  • Russian literature -- Political aspects.
  • Terrorism -- Russia -- History -- 19th century.
  • Terrorism in literature.
  • Alexander II, Emperor of Russia, 1818-1881 -- Assassination.
  • Dostoyevsky, Fyodor, 1821-1881 -- Political and social views.
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