In response to:

Falling in Love with Terror from the January 13, 2022 issue

To the Editors:

I write in response to Gary Saul Morson’s egregious misrepresentations in his review of my biography of Boris Savinkov [“Falling in Love with Terror,” NYR, January 13]. His tactic is consistently to ignore all the abundant evidence I adduce that contradicts his preconception of Savinkov. But he also goes much further when he makes an ad hominem attack on me by claiming that I am an uncritical apologist for Savinkov’s terrorism. An especially offensive aspect of Morson’s attack is that he bases his false claim on my ethnicity, something I did not think I would see in your pages. Morson begins by stating that Russia was “the first country where ‘terrorist’ became an honorable…profession, one that could be passed down in families for generations”; then he identifies me as having grown up in “a Russian émigré family”; and finally, he claims that the “purpose” of my book is “to exalt the Russian terrorist movement in general and Savinkov in particular” (all italics are mine).

Why is my ethnicity even mentioned in this review instead of some other, standard academic identifiers? Is it to suggest that I cannot be objective about terrorism because of my Russian background? In the context of the review’s misrepresentations, this is the only possible conclusion. Whether Morson’s animus is intentional or an unconscious slip, it echoes the recent notorious slur by former director of national intelligence James Clapper that Russians “are almost genetically driven to co-opt, penetrate, gain favor, whatever.”

Because I do not have enough space to cite all the evidence that disproves Morson’s claims about my book and me, I refer readers to my response on Below is a sketch of just some of the points.

Savinkov’s disinterest in the subtleties of revolutionary ideology is hardly evidence of his indifference to “alleviating people’s suffering,” as Morson absurdly claims, and there are dozens of places in my book where I describe Savinkov’s lifelong fight for the Socialist Revolutionary (SR) Party’s ideals of land to the people, free elections, and self-determination for all subject nationalities of the Russian Empire.

Morson is wrong that a morbid preoccupation with violence was all that moved Savinkov and his comrades. As I explain in detail, Dora Brilliant could not overcome her sense of guilt for participating in the murder of imperial grandees, even though she believed their deaths were necessary to free the Russian people. As a result, she, and other members of the SR Combat Organization, including Savinkov, saw their own possible deaths during assassinations, or their executions after being captured, as atonement for their sins. Morson omits this context when quoting Dora Brilliant’s “I must die.”

Morson regularly misrepresents my book by cherry-picking quotations. For example, he cites Savinkov’s “chuckle” about SR theoretician Chernov but leaves out a passage just five lines lower which shows that Savinkov not only supported the SR Party’s commitment to the peasantry but urged a comrade to do so as well. To paint Savinkov as unprincipled, Morson quotes Savinkov’s statement to Gippius that he would work with “anyone” but omits Savinkov’s explanation in the same letter that this means those who are committed to patriotism and “the Constituent Assembly,” the democratically elected body that Lenin scattered at gunpoint in January 1918. To implicate me in irresponsible admiration for Savinkov, Morson quotes only the part of a sentence about Savinkov not killing anyone, thus misrepresenting my point about Savinkov’s paradoxical nature. Morson claims that Savinkov makes only a “rather qualified ‘condemnation’” of Bulak-Balakhovich’s anti-Semitism during his military incursion into Belarus but ignores what I summarize seven lines lower about Savinkov insisting “it is the duty of every honest man to defend the Jews, who as a people are as innocent of being Communists as the Russians are of being Bolsheviks.”

Even bigger omissions abound. Although I admire Savinkov and some of his closest SR comrades for their commitment to the Russian people, I also detail many criticisms of Savinkov during all periods of his life. But Morson mentions none of these in his desire to make it seem as if I view Savinkov as a “secular saint.” And when Morson criticizes my explanations of Savinkov’s behavior he does not engage any of the documentary evidence I provide and, instead, refers to individuals and historical events that have no direct relation to Savinkov.

Morson even conceals that, in the spirit of objectivity, I cite evidence against my own interpretations. When he attempts to refute my conclusion that Savinkov committed suicide while in a Soviet prison he refers to several remarks by others that Savinkov was murdered, as if this were evidence of which I was unaware. But all of it (and more) is in my book. Morson’s carelessness extends to inventing that Savinkov replaced guns with bombs, even though I explain that it was the notorious Evno Azef.

Morson also makes a historical gaffe when he tries to fault me for not mentioning Ignatiev’s recollection of Stalin, which he presents as if it clinches the case against Savinkov’s suicide. Morson does not realize that Lenin could not have ordered Dzerzhinsky to throw Savinkov out of a prison window because Lenin died eight months before Savinkov was imprisoned, as I describe in my book.

Morson concludes by quoting with approval Lenin’s denigration of terrorism and his attacks on those who romanticize revolution. Considering the unbeatable records that the Bolsheviks established in both realms, this is both highly ironic and historically blind. Immediately following Fanny Kaplan’s attempt on his life in 1918, Lenin and his followers launched their “Red Terror,” which slaughtered some 200,000 people. When Lenin recovered from his wounds his closest associates immediately started deifying him. The first Mausoleum on Red Square was built, and Lenin’s mummified corpse placed in it, in 1924, the year he died. And we all know how state terror and the cult of Lenin developed in subsequent decades.

Vladimir Alexandrov
B.E. Bensinger Professor Emeritus of Slavic Languages and Literatures
Yale University
New Haven, Connecticut

Gary Saul Morson replies:

In my review of To Break Russia’s Chains, I cite Alexandrov’s assertion that Russian terrorism in the early twentieth century, including that undertaken by the PSR (Party of Socialist Revolutionaries), to which Savinkov belonged, was entirely different from what that word means today. “The [PSR] assassins called themselves ‘terrorists’ proudly, but what they meant by this bears no resemblance to what the word means now,” Alexandrov explains, because today’s terrorists kill people randomly and “attack almost any national, social, or cultural group chosen by chance and engaged in any pastime…. Had the Socialist Revolutionaries known of such events, they would have condemned them as unequivocally criminal.”

But everyone knew about such events. I cite evidence from Anna Geifman’s authoritative study Thou Shalt Kill: Revolutionary Terrorism in Russia, 1894–1917 that Russian terrorism took the lives of thousands of bystanders and private citizens; that “robbery, extortion, and murder became more common than traffic accidents”; that terrorist groups “competed…to see who had committed the greatest number of robberies and murders, and often exhibited jealousy over others’ successes”; and that they also competed in devising sadistic tortures, which Geifman describes in stomach-turning passages. These terrorists also invented suicide bombing, which would seem to link them to more recent terrorists. In his letter, Alexandrov does not bother to address these facts, or other counterevidence I cite from Geifman and other historians.

On the first page of his book, Alexandrov asserts, without qualification, that Savinkov himself “chose terror out of altruism.” This proponent of “freedoms” (as Alexandrov describes Savinkov in his first sentence) collaborated with Mussolini, excused his imperial ventures, and praised fascism (“Fascism is close to me psychologically and ideologically”). When his party condemned another group (the Maximalists) for an assassination attempt that killed twenty-seven bystanders and wounded thirty others, Savinkov wrote that he “did not approve” of the condemnation. At one point he offered to join with the Maximalist leader, explaining that ideology made no difference to him: “Why cannot we work together?… It is all the same to me whether you are a Maximalist, an anarchist, or Socialist Revolutionist. We are both terrorists. Let us combine our organization in the interests of terror.” Does this not sound as if terror (not just “altruism”) was a goal in itself, and that Lynn Ellen Patyk’s portrait of a Byronic Savinkov (which I describe) makes more sense than Alexandrov’s description of a noble man guided only by pure and humane motives?

Does Alexandrov represent Savinkov as a sort of secular saint? “All his [Savinkov’s] efforts,” he writes, “were directed at transforming his homeland into a uniquely democratic, humane and enlightened country.” All his efforts, terrorism out of altruism, an “absolute commitment to personal and political freedom,” suicide chosen as the only honorable course of action when he could not deliver on his plan to assassinate top Bolsheviks—such descriptions (and there are more) sound like a revolutionary version of “secular sainthood” to me.

Alexandrov writes, “Morson even conceals that, in the spirit of objectivity, I cite evidence against my own interpretations.” But I provide such evidence several times, for example: “According to Alexandrov, a woman Savinkov tried to recruit for terror ‘concluded that terrorism for its own sake had eclipsed all other considerations for Savinkov.’” I also mention how PSR leader Victor Chernov was irritated when “Savinkov…‘with a chuckle,’ in Alexandrov’s words…expressed indifference to the party’s defining commitment to the peasantry.”

My purpose in citing Stalin’s line about Savinkov’s suicide, along with the confession Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn heard from a secret police agent who claimed to have participated in Savinkov’s defenestration, and Savinkov’s own statement that “if you hear that I’ve laid hands on myself—don’t believe it” was to point out how murky the whole issue is and that murder was at least as likely as suicide. We just don’t know.

Alexandrov is perfectly sure that the reason the review mentions that he is “a prominent scholar…who grew up in a Russian émigré family” is that I hate Russians and agree with James Clapper that Russians “are almost genetically driven to co-opt, penetrate, gain favor, whatever.” Alexandrov is so certain of my hatred for Russians, to whose great literature I have devoted my life, that “this is the only possible conclusion”! As it happens, the phrase in question was supplied by editors at The New York Review, not me. They wanted to make clear that Vladimir Alexandrov, despite his evidently Russian name, is not a Russian but an American. In fact, this sort of biographical information is far from rare in the pages of The New York Review. Even if that had not been the case, surely Alexandrov might allow that some other explanation is possible. This sort of simplistic reasoning also characterizes his book.