- Terrorism, Modernity, and the Question of Origins
The current prominence of terrorism—both as a political phenomenon in itself and as a target of state-sponsored "wars"—has helped spur a rediscovery of its history.1 One contextual explanation may be a kind of historical amnesia characteristic of many public (and scholarly) discussions in which today's encounter with the "terrorist threat" is represented as somehow new and unprecedented, especially in its all-encompassing, global parameters.2 Many [End Page 213] historians agree, however, that the decades spanning the late 1860s to the 1920s marked the birth of modern terrorism, an "era of assassinations" when violence proliferated across Europe and North America claiming the lives of heads of state, business leaders, and ordinary people.3 Though most historians are understandably loath to provide a strict definition of the term "terrorism," preferring rather to treat it within specific historical contexts, they emphasize a range of factors distinguishing it as modern: the transnational movement of people and ideas; the adaptation of the tactic into modern ideologies (anarchism, socialism, nationalisms of the Left and the Right) and social geographies (the city); the emergence of new policing methods and institutions (including both state-sponsored violence and international cooperation in "wars" against extremism); and new roles for mass culture, mass media, and modern technologies.4
The history of terrorism in Russia is almost as old as the phenomenon itself, for revolutionaries began producing significant memoirs and histories as early as the 1880s.5 The bibliography of historical scholarship is likewise long, and important contributions were published in the Soviet Union and Russia as well as Western countries in every decade since the 1970s.6 The works under review here augur a new wave of scholarship on the topic; they [End Page 214] belong to the genre of microhistory and thereby seek to illuminate larger issues in specific case studies.7 In The Odd Man Karakozov, Claudia Verhoeven provides a close interpretive reading of the failed 1866 attempt on Alexander II, which, she argues, is the inaugural act of modern terrorism more generally. Though the name of the heroine is missing from the subtitle , Ana Siljak's Angel of Vengeance tells the story of Vera Zasulich's attempted assassination of the governor-general of St. Petersburg, Fedor Trepov, in 1878, and her subsequent jury trial and acquittal. Finally, Isaac Land's edited collection of articles, Enemies of Humanity, is organized around Land's programmatic introduction: the origins of modern terrorism in the West, he asserts, are to be found more in state-sponsored "wars on terrorism" than in terrorist acts themselves. Case studies focus primarily on Europe and North America, including two chapters on Russia (one by Verhoeven).
Of the three books, Verhoeven's is the most ambitious in both its style and its argument. It is a highly focused investigation of Dmitrii Karakozov's attempted assassination of Alexander II in 1866, an event that marked a break in the reform era, ushering in increased state repression and the development of a revolutionary underground. Long relegated to the margins of history, according to Verhoeven, Karakozov's act has been dismissed as precipitate, the man himself as suicidal, irrational, and deranged. Her goal is consequently to restore this case to its rightful place at the very birth of modern terrorism. The key to its originality is Karakozov's desire to kill Alexander II, not as a particular individual but as the generic head of a political system, and thereby to seek to destroy the system itself. Verhoeven contends that this marks a break with the tradition of tyrannicide and becomes something new: terror as...