• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

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 to permit him to leave home and obtain a teacher’s qualification in St. Petersburg in 1866. He then became an auditor at the university where he came into contact with the movement of revolutionary populism which had grown out of the radical intelligentsia’s dissatisfaction with the provisions of the Emancipation Act of 1861.

A strong sense of responsibility for the material misery of the vast mass of the population, a millenarian belief in the moral regeneration of Russia through an agrarian socialism based on the peasant commune, and a rationalist faith in the inevitability of progress once outworn institutions and beliefs were destroyed—all these factors combined in the radical (mainly student) youth of the capital to produce a fervent and self-sacrificing dedication to action that led in 1865 to the formation of the first Russian terrorist group and an attempt on the life of the tsar in the following year.

The government responded with strong measures against the students, and tension in the capital was at its height when Nechaev made his first contacts with revolutionary circles. In 1869 with a group of students he founded a political circle to help prepare the popular revolution which they believed would break out the following year. Their program had a strong Jacobin flavor: after seizing power in a political coup d’état their “committee” would bring about a social revolution.

His contemporaries represent Nechaev as a primitive nature, intellectually narrow and limited, but with an extraordinarily dominating will and a fanatical dedication to revolution, fueled by a vengeful hatred which seemed his only emotion. Repelled by his total lack of compassion for the people or affection for his comrades, his fellow revolutionaries were nevertheless irresistibly drawn to him by his commitment to action. This and his dominating personality were his only claims to leadership; his conspiratorial techniques and methods of recruitment were inept and his vision of the future society vague—he was seen by some as an anarchist, by others as an authoritarian communist—but his only real interests were the immediate future and the task of destruction.

The Catechism seems to have been composed in 1869, and from then on Nechaev devoted himself to exemplifying its principles in his actions. To establish his personal domination over the revolutionary movement he embarked on a systematic policy of deceit and intimidation aimed at surrounding himself with an atmosphere of mystery and fear. When the committee was broken up by arrests in March 1869 he had already fled abroad, spreading a false rumor to the effect that he too had been arrested and had performed the amazing feat of escaping from the impregnable St. Peter and Paul Fortress. Abroad, he made contact with Bakunin and Nikolai Ogarev, who had been co-editor with Herzen of the great émigré journal The Bell, seducing both elderly revolutionaries by his energy and convincing them of his importance as the representative of a powerful network of revolutionary organizations in Russia.

On returning to Moscow in September 1869 he posed with Bakunin’s connivance as an emissary of a nonexistent “World Revolutionary Alliance” and on the strength of the authority which this bestowed on him founded a revolutionary secret society based, in accordance with the Catechism, on cells of five members each. The core of the society seems to have been no more than forty students, though according to one member there were as many as four hundred involved in some way with it. Nechaev demanded unquestioning obedience from his followers in the name of the committee which he purported to represent. When one member of his cell, the student Ivanov, became suspicious of his credentials, Nechaev, on the pretext that Ivanov intended to betray them, induced the three other members to collaborate with him in the student’s murder. There was no evidence to support his accusation: the aim of the murder was apparently to bind the others to him by complicity in crime.

The discovery of Ivanov’s body by the police led to the destruction of Nechaev’s secret society and a sweeping round-up of all those who had had any association with him. Nechaev escaped to Switzerland where he continued his policy of mystification, publicly denying the “shameless accusations” of murder made against him, and circulating in Russia a report that he had been captured and died on his way to hard labor. Meanwhile he continued to present himself abroad as the agent of an enormous revolutionary force. But the truth about Ivanov’s murder began to circulate in émigré circles and Nechaev became isolated. He broke with Bakunin and in a characteristic farewell gesture stole some letters from him, with the intention of using them to blackmail his former colleague. In 1872 he was arrested by the Swiss police and deported to Russia as a common criminal.

Imprisonment for life in the notorious Peter and Paul Fortress in no way diminished his sense of purpose or his power over others. He converted his guards to the revolutionary cause and through them made contact with the terrorist group The People’s Will, which planned to liberate him after assassinating the tsar in 1881. But the group was destroyed after the killing: Nechaev’s contacts with the guards were uncovered and he was punished by a regime of extreme severity. He died, apparently of scurvy, in 1882.

Remarkable though this career was, had Nechaev not written the Catechism it is unlikely that he would have earned more than a footnote in Russian history as one of those fringe personalities, half-lunatic, half-criminal, who are to be found in all violent movements. It was the extraordinary unity of ideology and action which gives this “bewildering combination of fanatic, swashbuckler and cad” (as E.H. Carr described him) a claim to historical significance. Before him the principle that the end always justifies the means was not unknown in revolutionary practice, but he was the first practitioner to set it up unashamedly as the cornerstone of revolutionary theory. The advent of “Nechaevism,” as this doctrine has come to be called, has been recognized as a milestone in the history of radical ideas. Its antecedents and its moral and political significance have fascinated a succession of writers and historians. Dostoevsky in The Possessed was the first to explore the metaphysical significance of Nechaev’s thesis. In L’homme révolté Camus followed him in seeing the doctrine of “la violence faite aux frères” as the logic of revolution pushed to its extreme; while in Berdyaev’s picturesque expression, Nechaev’s ascetic denial of the world made him the “Isaac the Syrian and Ignatius Loyola of revolutionary socialism.”

With the advent of the cold war, interest in Nechaev in the West became more lively and more narrowly practical: historical hindsight proclaimed him a precious source for the understanding of the psychology and policies of Russia’s post-revolutionary rulers. Studies such as Robert Payne’s The Terrorists: The Forerunners of Stalin (1957) or Michael Prawdin’s The Unmentionable Nechaev: A Key to Bolshevism (1961) tried to trace a direct line of succession in political methods and tactics from Stalin through Lenin back to Nechaev. More recently, with the emergence of movements which make no attempt to conceal their affinity with the principles of Nechaev’s Catechism, the term Nechaevism has acquired a new vogue, and psychohistory a new authority as a key to the understanding of the present. Mr. Pomper’s new study of Nechaev has, as he asserts in his introduction, no pretensions to clinical detachment: his crusading purpose is to show that Nechaevism is an extreme instance of the “politics of revenge”—a phenomenon confined neither to Russia nor to the political left. By examining the psychology both of Nechaev himself and of the “revolutionary subculture” which he manipulated, Mr. Pomper seeks to expose the mechanisms whereby individual pathologies of conscience are transformed into doctrines of salvation which provide a sanction for dictatorship.

Mr. Pomper argues that Nechaev owed his extraordinary influence to the strength of two impulses which his revolutionary contemporaries possessed to a lesser degree—the pursuit of martyrdom and of revenge—which he was able to sanctify ideologically by translating them into political strategies. He seeks to establish the source of these qualities in Nechaev’s childhood experience in Ivanovo. Unfortunately, the material on this is very sparse, consisting mainly of a few letters written by the adolescent Nechaev and some rather unrevealing memoirs by one of his two sisters.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print