To the Russian Marxists, the populism that dominated Russian radical thought for nearly half a century before them was all heart and no head, a movement of high-minded but ineffectual idealists, which formed a sentimental prologue to the real business of revolution. But many Western historians attribute much greater significance to it, arguing that the roots of Soviet despotism are traceable ultimately to revolutionary populism, from which the Bolsheviks took the method, inimical to orthodox Marxism, of enforcing a socialist ideology through the violent action of a professional revolutionary elite.

This interpretation is followed in the most recent work on Russian revolutionary populism, In the Name of the People, by Adam Ulam. Mr. Ulam concentrates on the phenomenon of terrorism as the key to the populist psychology. His argument is as follows: the populist ideal of socialism based on the peasant commune had no roots among the people themselves; it was the construction of alienated intellectuals, whose thirst for faith found satisfaction in worship of the virtues of the primitive masses. Unable to arouse mass support for their religion, they channeled their desire for the speedy realization of utopia into a fanatical cult of violence, manifested at its most extreme in the notorious Nechaev’s murderous cell of revolutionaries whose dictum it was that the most criminal of means were sanctified by the revolutionary end.

In the mid-1870s it became clear, according to Mr. Ulam, that the intelligentsia’s god had failed it when a mass pilgrimage to preach to the peasants in the villages revealed them to be apathetic and even hostile to their worshipers. Those who remained in the movement were able to salvage their illusions by returning to their obsession with political terror, forming a party whose goal was the assassination of the tsar. They continued to deceive themselves that they were the spokesmen of the people, but in reality they were merely satisfying, through “childish and criminal” means, their own hankering for heroics. Terror, deprived of its alleged justification, the people, became an end in itself, a form of existentialism. This “tragic situation” contained some of the seeds of twentieth-century totalitarianism: dispensing with the idealism of the populists, the Bolsheviks took over their party mystique and techniques, and developed them to their logical conclusion by establishing the dictatorship of an elite over the masses.

This is strong didactic history: we are led in smooth logical steps from the initial delusion to the inevitable tragic denouement. But the neatness of the author’s thesis is achieved through a method of selection and emphasis that seriously distorts his historical data. On the basis of a paradigm that reduces conflicts of ideas to a misleading simplicity, he develops a psychological approach to his subjects of the kind that, as one modern historian put it, surrounds a hard core of interpretation with a thin layer of facts. The attraction of this type of psychohistory is that it offers a clear and dramatic explanation of the origins of some of the great evils of our time; but it does so at the cost of overlaying truth so thickly with myth that it defeats its own didactic purpose. To examine how this is done may be one step toward retrieving some of the lessons that it has succeeded in obscuring.

Mr. Ulam’s book represents a common approach to Russian political thought which seeks to explain the revolution as the result of an unequal battle between two opposing mentalities—the totalitarian, or extremist, mentality, inspired by deterministically conceived visions of one single ideal society, and the liberal one, which, holding individual liberty as the supreme value, sees it best served by a pragmatic modification of existing institutions. The domination of the former, in its populist and Marxist forms, is seen as having checked Russia’s development toward democracy in the basis of the reforms of 1861. Mr. Ulam is able even to pinpoint the moment at which the totalitarian tendency triumphed over the liberal—April 4, 1866, when, as he repeatedly tells us, the momentum of liberalization was arrested by the attempt of the “deranged student” Karakozov to kill the tsar.

This simple paradigm is misleading when applied to the conditions of an autocracy, where the distinction between the two attitudes becomes blurred: moderation can be collaboration with despotism, and defenders of liberal values may resort to extreme methods. To use this scheme one must presuppose a close analogy between post-reform Russia and a constitutional democracy. But in Russia constitutional liberties were, in the words of the last tsar, “senseless dreams,” and even the concessions forced by the 1905 revolution did not properly amount to the rule of law. The distinction between liberal sheep and extremist goats obscures much more than it reveals about the spectrum of political ideas in the special conditions of absolutism. In that context the ideological significance of populism was not that it presented a totalitarian antithesis to liberalism, but that, in conditions where liberals were constantly forced into contradiction with their own values, it attempted an original synthesis of the principle of individual liberty with a program for a radical transformation of society.


Extensive autobiographical sources exist on the predicament of those who preached liberal moderation in post-reform Russia. Among the most important are the diaries of Alexander Nikitenko, one of the most prominent of the liberals of his time. Spanning a period of fifty years and covering the reigns of Nicholas I and Alexander II, they have recently been translated in an abridged version into English. They help to clarify the background to the populist movement that concerns Mr. Ulam.

Nikitenko was born a serf in 1804 and through his brilliant intellectual gifts secured the patronage necessary to gain him his freedom. After being educated at the University of St. Petersburg he embarked on a career in government service, reaching high office in the censorship department and the ministry of education and playing an active part on many government committees and commissions, at the same time pursuing a distinguished career in literature. He was at various times professor of literature at the University of St. Petersburg, a member of the Academy of Sciences, editor of newspapers and journals, and author of articles on literary history and criticism. At the center of political and cultural life, he was an extraordinarily acute observer of the oscillations, over half a century, in the political climate of Russia.

Nikitenko was a liberal conservative: he abhorred what he called the “fantastic utopias” of the left, and even under the despotism of Nicholas I was opposed to revolutionary solutions. At the beginning of the reign of Alexander II he enthusiastically welcomed the Emancipation Act and the promised administrative and judicial reforms (relaxation of the censorship, reform of the legal system, and the granting of more autonomy to local government) as the beginning of the rule of law in Russia. But while bitterly condemning the revolutionaries for their demands that reform should go much further, he began to suspect that the government’s vacillations between reform and reaction were due less to a reaction against the left than to a contradiction in its own attitude toward reform. Observing the operation of the new censorship laws, he concludes that they were “created only for show”—preliminary censorship of literature had been abolished only to deliver it more securely into the hands of the Minister of Internal Affairs, who had the absolute authority to suppress all published material which he regarded as subversive and to order the arrest of editors and authors. This Nikitenko describes as “tyranny in its purest form,” aimed at accomplishing what censorship under Nicholas I had failed to do—to turn literature into a loyal instrument of government.

Similarly, his observation of the working of the administrative reforms in the early 1860s leads him increasingly to doubt the sincerity of the measures to limit autocracy by law: he notes that the autonomy granted to the courts was consistently undermined by the intervention of ministers and the secret police in matters of censorship and political offenses, while the new local government institutions, when they attempted to use the freedoms granted to them on paper, were suppressed “like secret nihilist societies.”

By the end of the decade it was clear to Nikitenko that there was a contradiction at the heart of the reforms. If carried out with good faith, they must necessarily limit the tsar’s absolute power. But the government saw them as minor modifications which would modernize the country without undermining absolutism.

[The authors of the reforms] believed that the most orderly existence, in harmony with their wishes, would logically follow; that our ways would immediately change for the better, that industry and agriculture would flourish, that wealth would flow through the entire country like a river. The press, they felt, would be given over to praising those who held the reins of government, and so on and so forth. All these golden dreams did not come true.

Instead, the reforms awakened the desire of educated society to participate in political life, and Nikitenko predicted that if the government did not have the wisdom to dismantle autocracy from the top, others would begin from the bottom. In 1865 he asserts that such is the scorn for law and order generated by the government’s arbitrariness and brutality that “one feels the inevitability of revolution in the air…we stand on the brink of anarchy.”

This prediction was made the year before Karakozov’s attempt on the life of the tsar. In the ensuing reaction the government retreated from all its reforms, until by 1870 Nikitenko notes that all Russian society is under the rule of fear; but the history of reform in the early 1860s, which he records with scrupulous impartiality, leaves little doubt that the effect of Karakozov’s attempt was not, as Mr. Ulam asserts, to make the government abandon its liberalizing zeal. It was rather to accelerate a process immanent in its attempt to “find the philosopher’s stone,” as Nikitenko puts it—to synthesize progress with autocracy.


In attempting to maintain a liberal position in a society without the rule of law, Nikitenko is forced into continual contradiction with himself. He urges the intelligentsia to restrict their demands to the elimination of abuses in the existing system and calls on the government to enlist the help of “the cream of society” against the “absurd demands” of the left. But at the same time he is forced to recognize that to an autocrat the most moderate demands are subversive: he notes that the government labeled as “revolutionary” even the results of its own reforms, appearing to believe, in its undiscriminating hostility to all independent thought, that “Russia was inhabited only by nihilists”; while in fact its policies were turning reasonable men into nihilists. Nikitenko may have had himself in mind as one of these: in 1872 he declares that “for society to wait for the administration graciously to yield to its most precious desires is knowingly to make a fool of itself”; it must fight for them, regardless of the government’s prohibitions. Thus implicitly he concedes that in Russia liberal values cannot be defended by liberal methods. Indeed, there may be only one way out of the impasse: “perhaps we shall have to be cleansed by fire and revolution.”

Underlying the problem of tactics were even more serious contradictions of principle. Believing that freedom could be guaranteed only through evolution on the basis of existing institutions, Nikitenko was unable to discern in any of these institutions a trace of the principles from which the liberal concept of freedom could be developed. The church and the administration had no interest in the task of “guiding hearts and minds”—their sole preoccupation was self-preservation. Society, on the other hand, had been morally paralyzed by the long rule of “bureaucratic administration allied with sovereign despotism,” while the mass of the people had not “the slightest understanding of social and political issues.” It was only among his enemies on the left that Nikitenko could discern “noble impulses.” As he reflects during the trial of Nechaev’s followers, it was a justifiable contempt for their society which led them to seek to destroy it, but their violent methods and their atheistic “socialist morality” were abhorrent to him.

The result was an insoluble dilemma. Nikitenko detested extremism, but in his society to protest against despotism was to be an extremist; he hated socialist morality, but the system he defended had no alternative morality to offer. At the beginning of the 1870s he expressed a bitter disillusionment with the moral idealism which had led him, a decade earlier, to seek to help the government to realize noble aims:

Autocracy is clinging to its divine power with both hands; government officials cling to autocracy and support it because they, like insects who appear and disappear with the sunshine, are wholly dependent on it for their existence; the people, not yet aroused from a thousand year sleep, stir and toss from side to side without knowing whether and whither they should bestir themselves.

What is there left, he asks, “for thinking, honest men, standing completely alone, to do?” The absence of an answer to this question led him to substitute a stoical determinism for the liberal’s faith in human freedom: “It seems that no human effort can save us from our fate. We are in the hands of history, which is drawing us…towards a fatal, inevitable crisis.”

Nikitenko’s dilemma is one which has become familiar in our century: that of a tiny intellectual elite seeking to defend values borrowed from a more advanced culture in a backward society where vast masses steeped in ignorance are held down by brute force. Ivan Turgenev embodied it perfectly in his story “The Hamlet of Shchigrov District,” whose hero is defeated by the irrelevance of his Western education to his environment. Hegel’s philosophy, with its vistas of human progress, reduces him to despair:

Tell me, please, what use is Hegel’s Encyclopaedia to me? Tell me, what is there in common between that Encyclopaedia and Russian life? And how would you direct me to apply it to our system of life—and not just the Encyclopaedia, but German science in general, in fact I’ll go further—science itself?

Liberals in nineteenth-century Russia were “superfluous men,” often, like Nikitenko, reduced to a pessimistic determinism by their inability to reconcile their values with their environment. Turgenev, who immortalized this type in his novels, was himself one of its most striking representatives. In a famous letter to Alexander Herzen at the end of the 1860s he makes a brilliant attack on the utopianism of the populist faith in the peasant, but offers in its place not liberal optimism, but the aphorism of Goethe: “Der Mensch ist nicht geboren frei zu sein.” He found his personal solution in the pessimism of Schopenhauer, achieving, like Nikitenko, a kind of resignation through a stoically deterministic view of the world.

The dilemma of liberals in Russia was not resolved by the formation of a liberal party after the revolution of 1905. They continued to be unable to arouse any response among the masses, or, in the continuing autocracy, to define an ideology which could distinguish them from the parties of the left.

Populism claimed to have found a solution to the problem of Russia’s backwardness that avoided the impasse into which the liberals had been forced. Populism originated in the 1840s among the same Westernized nobility as did liberalism, combining as did the liberals an aristocratic faith in the dignity and autonomy of the individual with an ideal, influenced by romanticism and German philosophy, of the individual’s self-fulfillment as an inner autonomy gained through the harmonious development of his faculties.

But their sense of the debt owed by the cultured minority to the enserfed masses led the future populists to emphasize the specific conditions of Russia, and to reject liberalism on the grounds that the liberties it defended benefited only the middle classes and had no relevance to Russia, where the vast mass of the population was too ignorant and economically deprived to take advantage of them. On the other hand, their individualism led the populists to reject contemporary Western socialist doctrines as sacrificing the principle of individual freedom to that of equality. They believed that the primitive anarchy of the Russian peasant commune offered a third option—the germ of a social structure which would synthesize individualism with socialism while avoiding the fragmentation suffered by the personality through the division of labor in the advanced countries of the West.

The populist ideal contained a contradiction that gave it a peculiar radical dynamism: it was a utopia, colored by nostalgia for a primitive golden age, but its conception of liberty as inner “wholeness” encouraged a radical critique of all final solutions to social problems which sought to prescribe finite and absolute limits to human aspirations. The populists attacked the sacred cows of left and right alike, above all the determinist ideologies which demanded the subordination of the aspirations of real individuals to such abstractions as progress or the march of history.

The populists at first believed that their own ideal was free from such contradictions—that the existence of the commune showed peasant socialism to be the true expression of popular aspirations. But when at the end of the 1850s they began to make contacts with the peasants they discovered a considerable gap between reality and the ideal. If they met rebelliousness and a deep discontent with the results of the Emancipation, they also encountered much more apathy and a religious attachment to the tsar. They argued that the latter was the effect of centuries of serfdom, but their hostility to ideologies which imposed freedom from above made them acutely sensitive to the need to harmonize their own ideal with the real demands of the peasants.

The tension in populism between millenarian impatience and a respect for the aspirations of real, unregenerated human beings created insoluble problems for generations of thinkers and eventually destroyed the movement. But it also generated discussions, whose scope has no parallel in any other revolutionary tradition, on the central problem of all political thought—that of the relation of means to ends. This was because, in its mixture of realism and idealism, populism attracted a wide variety of intellects and temperaments. Some, like Bakunin, were drawn exclusively by its millenarian vision; others, like Herzen, Mikhailovsky, and Lavrov, developed its more sober and humanistic tendencies, and have affinities with liberals such as J.S. Mill.

The debates among them are the most interesting aspect of populism and are essential for an understanding of the violent events which are the subject of studies such as Mr. Ulam’s. But the paradigm implicit in his approach prevents him from giving them any significance; having posited one populist psychology, he has to concentrate on the millenarian aspect of populism to the exclusion of all others. To say that men are driven by a blind religious faith is to deny all importance to their ideas; hence on the ideological sources of populism Mr. Ulam is terse in the extreme—the reader is given only the merest hint in one mysterious sentence stating that “practically all Russian radicals” had “a life-long interest in German social thought.” But why bother to concern ourselves with ideas and attitudes which, as the author assures us on nearly every page, are “childish,” “silly,” “puerile,” “inept,” “sophomoric,” the constructions of “young lunatics,” “young asses,” “young hotheads,” “young fools,” “eternal adolescents,” or “a bunch of deluded adolescents who needed a reform school rather than Siberia”?

The extent of the distortion resulting from Mr. Ulam’s bias can be measured by comparing his chapters on the most extreme elements in populism (the Jacobin secret societies of the 1860s which sought to synthesize the populist ideal with a political revolution) with the biographical data on the members of these societies supplied in Franco Venturi’s seminal study of the movement, Il populismo russo (translated into English as Roots of Revolution). In Mr. Ulam’s lurid version the societies consist of deranged monsters of “madness and criminality,” “sick minds” out of touch with all reality, servants of a religion of terror, “psychopaths” and “victims of group psychosis,” “tainted with perversion,” whose “lust for violence” leads them to acts of “surrealistic horror,” which, inevitably, are “stranger than fiction.”

Venturi, on the other hand, drawing on extensive sources, reveals that even the most extreme of populist revolutionaries (with probably the sole exception of Nechaev) strove to attain some sort of personal balance between the urge for the millennium and the respect for individuals demanded by their ideology. Most of the members of these groups had gone into the countryside after the Emancipation of 1861 in order to understand the needs and aspirations of the masses and to find a common political language with them. And, a fact not to be found in Mr. Ulam’s work, they devoted the major part of their energies within the societies to spreading education and creating cooperative societies among the urban workers.

It was because the populist conscience could not finally reconcile respect for popular aspirations with the concept of a revolution made for, rather than by, the people that the Jacobin tendency disappeared by the end of the 1860s after a final perverted manifestation in Nechaev’s amoral cult of violence. It was replaced by a movement of slow infiltration into the countryside, to increase contact with the peasantry and understanding of their mentality and problems. In preparation for this, circles of self-education were established in the cities to study political and economic literature and make contact with the working class. One such circle is credited with establishing the seeds of a working-class organization in Russia.

This enterprise culminated in the years 1874-1876 in a mass exodus of young intellectuals into the villages, to work (mainly as teachers and doctors) among the people, to teach and to learn from them. This movement, and the terrorism which followed, are much distorted by Mr. Ulam’s need to prove that the populists en masse were adherents of a “religion of violence.” He represents them as semi-mystics in their cult of revolution, unprepared to cope through patient propaganda with the human failings of their deity the people, and resorting to terror as the “easier” alternative.

This does considerable violence to the facts. While the movement was religious in the intensity of its dedication and search for self-purification, it was by no means ignorant of the realities of the countryside. Considerable knowledge had been accumulated about the peasantry over the preceding decade from direct experience and from literature; one of the most widely read books among the city circles had been a study of class differentiation in the villages and the breakup of the commune, the fruit of the personal observations of the author, Bervi-Flerovsky.

The continuing apathy and hostility of the peasantry to propaganda did, however, put an end to the hopes of Bakunin’s followers among the populists that peasant discontent could be easily fomented into revolution. But the result was the opposite from Mr. Ulam’s version: the conflict within the movement between realism and utopian faith was finally resolved in favor of the former. The majority of populists came to conclusions similar to those formulated seven years earlier by the founder of populism, Alexander Herzen, in a famous polemic with Bakunin. He had posed the central question of populism: “The slowness of history in reaching our goals infuriates us: is it permissible to speed the process up?” Against Bakunin’s credo that violent destruction of the existing order was the quickest path to utopia, he argued that those who seek to raze the field of history to ashes are overgrown students, living in a world of abstractions, unaware that “this field with all its wheat and cockle is the immediate ground of the people, of all its moral life, all its habits and all its consolations.” The popular consciousness, as the product of the past, contained the contradictions of the past. The chains the people wore, while imposed by force, had acquired a moral hold over it, so that those most oppressed by them would defend them most energetically; popular conservatism was more stubborn than that of the church or the throne.

To the argument, “Let’s make the revolution first and then explain it to the people,” Herzen replies that the populist ideal of liberty conceived as inner autonomy cannot be imposed by force: “terror destroys prejudices as little as conquest destroys nations.” It destroys forms but leaves content untouched: “the bourgeois world, blown up by gunpowder, will, when the smoke settles and the ruins are cleared, arise again, with some modifications, as another sort of bourgeois world, because it is not yet internally exhausted and the new world is not ready to replace it.”

All previous revolutions, having failed to understand that it was easier for people to cope with familiar slavery than unfamiliar liberty, had been forced into self-contradiction, inaugurating their new world by “floggings and police.” The only method consistent with the populist ideal was patience and preaching, based on a study of popular prejudices. No one expected the truths of mathematics to be instantly obvious to all: “Why should it be believed that the final conclusions of sociology…can be injected like vaccine, or poured into the brain as medicine is poured into the mouths of horses?”

The events of 1874-1876 led most of the populists to a similar conclusion, that long and patient work among the masses was necessary if they were freely to accept socialism (again, a look at the relevant material in Venturi’s book is sufficient to refute Mr. Ulam’s version of events), and intellectuals began to return to the villages to establish long-term colonies. But Herzen had not foreseen the possibility that even the path of propaganda might be closed. All intellectuals found in the countryside were rounded up and sentenced in mass political trials. At the same time the commune was disintegrating under the pressures of industrialization. If Russia were to avoid the horrors of mass pauperization, time was very short. It was these considerations that drove the populists to form a conspiratorial party called Land and Freedom and to discuss a terrorist campaign to force the government to grant constitutional liberties which would allow them to carry on propaganda in the villages.

Nowhere in the documents on these discussions does one find Bakunin’s or Nechaev’s faith in the salutary effects of violence; terror was seen, by the party which formed after Land and Freedom split on the issue, as an unavoidable and temporary distraction from their real work in the villages. They strongly rejected the Jacobin idea of a revolutionary dictatorship: to call a revolutionary a Nechaevist was for them to accuse him of betraying the ideals of the movement. They sought instead what Venturi has described as an original synthesis between a political and a social revolution.

The killing of the tsar in 1881 destroyed the movement—it was too small for any but a few to escape the ensuing police hunt, and the rapid industrialization of Russia soon made the populist vision seem an anachronism.

Terrorism could thus be said to be the least characteristic aspect of the populist movement and the one most inconsistent with its conception of freedom. Yet the dramatic effect of two acts of violence—Nechaev’s murder of a fellow-revolutionary, and the assassination of a tsar—has been enough to create a legend of the movement as characterized by a mystical cult of violence. Dostoevsky created the legend in his novel The Devils, inspired by Nechaev’s crime; it is perpetuated by historians like Mr. Ulam. But if in Dostoevsky’s case the imaginative reconstruction of reality involved is good art, in Mr. Ulam’s it is merely bad history.

Psychohistory of this kind can always be relied on to produce what it is looking for. When populists resort to terror, they “succumb to the lure of terror”; when they return to propaganda among the peasants, they are “fleeing from the overwhelming urge to go on killing.” The author always understands his subjects’ motivations better than they do themselves: compare the terrorists’ version (from the memoirs of Vera Figner), “reason said that it was necessary to become terrorists, but feeling called us to the poor,” with Mr. Ulam’s confident assertion: “intellectually [the members of the future Land and Freedom] remained committed to education…among the peasants…; emotionally most of its members became obsessed with terror.”

Mr. Ulam has a condescending attitude to historical evidence: his psychological insights reduce complex historical processes to B-feature movie highlights (“the single shot of a deranged former student…changed the course of Russian history”), and he has no need of history to support his own theses: “it can be confidently asserted that even had [the measures of oppression after 1866] not taken place, Nechaev would have remained Nechaev and would still have found accomplices for his savage deeds.” When historical evidence for an assertion is thin or non-existent, Mr. Ulam’s brand of psychohistory produces its trump card: the revolutionaries of the Sixties, we are told, “viewed with dread, even if unconscious,” the prospect of peaceful change in Russia.

The discovery that the historian stranded by lack of evidence has only to commune with the hidden levels of his subjects’ consciousness to find what he needs disposes of one of the most stubborn of the facts which contradict Mr. Ulam’s assertions: the populist party’s consistent opposition to the Jacobin idea of revolutionary dictatorship. Land and Freedom, he asserts, “never lived up to what might be described as its subconscious ideal of a militant authoritarian party, imposing its will on the masses.” The understanding of what the historical actors actually intended in their secret depths opens up possibilities for a new brand of criticism in which they can be censured for not achieving the heights which they did not know they intended to achieve.

If Mr. Ulam had not succumbed to the lure of didactic history, and had had greater respect for his material, he would have appreciated that populism was not the precursor of Bolshevik totalitarianism; it was an attempt, which has some relevance for our own time, to formulate a social philosophy that would avoid the atomization suffered by the personality in advanced capitalist societies without submerging it in an egalitarian mass. Moreover, it was an ideology fundamentally opposed to what is the central characteristic of all totalitarian faith—the transferring of the individual’s responsibility for his actions onto impersonal entities such as classes or economic forces. If the structure of the populist party has some resemblances to that of the Bolsheviks, its members never justified their acts by representing themselves as instruments of historical forces. They believed, as Herzen wrote to Bakunin, that “to become the blind instrument of fate,…God’s executioner, one must have a simple faith, a naïve ignorance, a primitive fanaticism and a sort of unsullied intellectual infancy.”

It has taken a century for the rise of the art of psychohistory to show that their dismissal of these vices was only a cloak for a subconscious desire to succumb to them. One awaits with some trepidation the arrival of a work from some disciple of the psychohistorical school who, believing with Mr. Ulam that “one does not have to be Doctor Freud” to make colorful diagnoses, may assure us that Hitler’s rages against the Jews in Mein Kampf were evidence of his “fleeing from the overwhelming urge” to organize his life on Disraeli’s model of the English country gentleman.

This Issue

June 23, 1977