- To the Editors
We are troubled by Victoria Frede’s rather flippant treatment of the lives, tribulations, and historic legacy of Nikolai Charushin, his long-time partner Anna Kuvshinskaia, and their populist revolutionary cohorts—a story which, in our telling, took us from 1851 and the time of the Great Reforms to the perestroika era.1 We propose that the bonds and beliefs these young revolutionaries formed in the 1870s remained steadfast until the end of their lives: a commitment to ethical rationalism, redistributive justice, and participatory democracy (all expressed in the populist vocabulary of that time). After release from exile, many in this cohort came to reject violence and advocate evolutionary change. Yet their goals remained transformative, and they continued to see themselves as revolutionaries until the end of their lives, working together in the Society of Former Political Prisoners and Exiles in the 1920s to defend their legacy against Bolshevik erasures from the historical record. Never in their abundant correspondence did we encounter any sign of regret about the choices they had made that had resulted in such hardship for them and their families.
Instead, Frede offers an alternative narrative purportedly explaining the paradox of revolutionaries returning to the world of humdrum activities and taking up work in the various professions after release from incarceration. In her view, Charushin and his ilk had merely flirted with revolutionary populism in their adolescence, only to see the error of their ways, return to civil society, and discard their “erstwhile” convictions—living out the rest of their lives with no particular concern about what their beliefs might be.
No close reading of the documents, however, supports such a narrative. One may ask whether they were truly revolutionaries—and we bring up that question at points in the book. It is another matter to overlook what they themselves believed. For example: key to our research in central and provincial archives—which she overlooks—was the attempt to explain why populist memoirs trailed off after their return to European Russia in the 1890s. We [End Page 433] recorded in detail Charushin’s work in Viatka as a zemstvo statistician, as well as a famine relief and fire insurance agent, his founding of a prominent provincial newspaper, engagement with local social networks, and role in the Peasant Union. Using personal correspondence, police records, papers of the provincial gubernatorial administration and newspapers, as well as a veritable mountain of seldom-touched zemstvo documentation, we painstakingly reconstructed how this cohort engaged fruitfully in legal activities, all the while clinging to their ties, memories, and commitments. The silence in their memoirs about this long period signified to us that for Charushin’s generation what was worthy of recording was their earlier lives underground and in exile, their devotion to the cause of revolution, and the sacrifices they (like the Decembrists, whom they memorialized) had made.
They were not alone in their views of the significance of this early period. In Viatka, Charushin was venerated for his revolutionary credentials. In 1917 and after, he consistently called himself an “old revolutionary,” a status that was not often challenged at the time. He was jailed four times by the Bolsheviks between 1918 and 1921; when the revolutionary tribunal released him in 1919, it referred to his “irreproachable revolutionary credentials.” It was only later, with the onset of Stalinism, that members of the 70s generation found themselves called “senile,” had their credentials as revolutionaries challenged, and even ended up labeled as “enemies of the people.”
In our view, Frede’s dismissive rendering of Charushin’s life story does an injustice to the truly tragic lives that he and most of his friends endured for their convictions. It distorts and belittles the lived experience and beliefs of a significant portion of the intelligentsia who shared such convictions, but whose presence in the history books has been overshadowed recently by an exclusive focus on terrorism as the purported core of populism.
Finally, Frede noted that the English version is an “abridged translation” (629 n. 5) of the Russian language text that she selected to review. In fact, it is a substantially altered work for a different audience, with...