Mr. Possessed

Sergei Nechaev

by Philip Pomper
Rutgers University Press, 273 pp., $19.50

On a night in November 1869 a student called Ivan Ivanov, a member of a small cell of revolutionaries, was murdered by his fellow conspirators in a lonely park on the outskirts of Moscow. The leader of the group, Sergei Nechaev, subsequently escaped abroad, but police investigations into the crime uncovered a wide network of people associated with him. At their trial the prosecution produced a document written by Nechaev which caused a sensation. Known as “The Catechism of a Revolutionary,” it has secured for its author a place in history.

The Catechism consists of prescriptions on the organization of a revolutionary secret society and the conduct of its members. It begins by outlining the structure of the society—small cells, hierarchically organized; but the document owes its notoriety to the second section which deals with the attitude of the revolutionary toward himself, his comrades, contemporary society, and the oppressed masses. According to Nechaev the ideal revolutionary is a man with no personal interests, feelings, or attachments, no property, and no name. He has made a total break with the laws, traditions, conventions, and values of the society in which he lives; all his activity is directed to its total destruction. This goal, his sole passion, dictates utter ruthlessness in his relations with others: “For him everything that contributes to the triumph of the revolution is moral, everything that hinders it is immoral and criminal.”

Blackmail, murder, all manner of treachery and deceit were justified in its name, not merely against the enemy, but—and here is the novelty of Nechaev’s doctrine—against the rank and file of the revolutionary organization itself. The central committee at its head was to regard all those beneath it as expendable, to be manipulated, deluded, or destroyed without compunction according to the demands of the cause. The allegiance of the lukewarm should be secured by the use of blackmail, the enthusiasm of the faithful sustained by skillful deception about the size and power of the organization. The masses for whom it was fighting were to be treated no less ruthlessly: by provoking the government into ever more savage repression the revolutionaries must seek to intensify the people’s suffering to the point where it would be a willing instrument in their work of destruction.

Point by point, Nechaev demolished the mystique which presented the revolutionary organization as a brotherhood of knights, sanctified by their dedication to a noble ideal. His alternative model was taken from life: the first embodiment of Nechaev’s ideal type was Nechaev himself.

He was born in 1847 in the textile town of Ivanovo, 350 kilometers northeast of Moscow. His mother died when he was eight; his father worked as a painter and decorator and a part-time waiter and caterer. Literate himself, he saw to it that his son received a basic education, but it was the energy of the adolescent Sergei, in particular his tenacity in forging contacts with the Ivanovo intelligentsia, which secured him the necessary education …

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