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Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 4.3 (2003) 571-606

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The Spiridonova Case, 1906:
Terror, Myth, and Martyrdom

Sally A. Boniece

Reflecting in the early 1950s on the "legitimization of murder" that had "culminate[d] in ... the Hitlerian apocalypse," Albert Camus upheld the Russian Socialist Revolutionary (SR) terrorists of the early 20th century as "fastidious assassins" whose "voluntary assumption of guilt and death" and "respect for human life in general and contempt for their own lives" he contrasted with the "nihilism" practiced by "the totalitarian theocrats of ... state terrorism." 1 In the 1970s, Michael Walzer picked up on this theme in discussing "a kind of warrior honor ... a political code ... the revolutionary 'code of honor'" by which the SRs and other earlier terrorists had operated prior to "the systematic terrorizing of whole populations" that developed in the course of World War II. 2 Well before World War II, however, the Left SR leader Isaak Zakhar'evich Shteinberg, Commissar of Justice in the short-lived Bolshevik-Left SR government of 1917-18, emphasized the difference between the principled "individual" or oppositional terrorism of the SRs and the unprincipled state terrorism of the subsequent all-Bolshevik regime. 3

Present-day scholars of terrorism are careful to distinguish revolutionary terrorism, or terrorism as a strategy of a revolutionary organization to effect political and social change, from state terror on the one hand as well as ethno-nationalist/separatist and religious terrorism on the other. 4 In Western society, [End Page 571] individuals who practice this politically or religiously motivated violence are labeled "terrorists," a pejorative term particularly since the outbreak of left-wing oppositional violence in Western Europe, the United States, and Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s. The nationalistic violence of ethnic minorities or stateless peoples such as the Basques and the Palestinians against purportedly democratic governments has further blackened terrorism as a form of protest. Some Western analysts today discern an even more threatening trend in terrorism: no longer carried out by identifiable organizations against selected targets for specific political purposes, the "new" terrorism is inspired by religious fundamentalism, armed with weapons of mass destruction and indiscriminate about its victims. 5

Other scholars have differentiated between "limited terrorism" and "terrorism without boundaries," or between terrorism as a means to an end and terrorism as an end in itself. From violence directed against an unjust regime and its representatives, terrorism shifted over the course of the 20th century to encompass ordinary citizens who participate in the existing political, economic, and/or social order that terrorists wish to destroy. The striking capacity of terrorism has [End Page 572] expanded along with the striking capacity of modern global warfare. 6 Moreover, terrorists who cease their acts of violence either because their goals have been achieved or their method proven useless are distinct from "pure" terrorists who can conceive of no political action other than violence. 7

One century ago, terrorism as conceptualized by the Russian SRs was limited in scope and moral in purpose. To the SRs and their supporters, "terrorist" was a heroic label, because "terrorism" meant a righteous violence in the cause of political change, employed against a corrupt autocracy on behalf of an oppressed and helpless people. Occurring in what one scholar has characterized as a "blocked society," 8 with no national forum for political participation let alone toleration of political opposition, the SR party's assassinations of tyrannical government officials met with acclaim rather than fear from the majority of the Russian population. Although SR terrorism did not lead to a radical overturn of the tsarist system as intended, its power to attract popular sympathy was especially noteworthy in the case of Mariia Spiridonova.

The public legend or myth that developed around the Spiridonova case is illustrative of the interactive aspects of political terrorism, which communicates with multiple audiences, sympathetic and antagonistic, through images and symbols as well as through actions. 9 Furthermore, the multiple audiences who reacted to the Spiridonova case—ranging from the peasants to the propertied, from the revolutionary underground...


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