Welcome to The Beautiful Nihilist: Representations of Revolutionary Women. The goal here is to gather material from the popular press depicting radical and particularly militant women, in all its sensationalist and often exploitative glory. The articles and tales collected here document a familiar fascination with a political variety of femme fatale, often with a great deal of emphasis on the sexual desirability and social status of the women portrayed in presumably “unwomanly” acts of violence. At the same time, however, the tabloid presentation often allows important bits of history and biography to show through. Indeed, in many cases, this spectacular journalism is all that we have to document the lives of women who were on the front lines of the most militant sorts of struggles.
WOMAN’S SHARE IN RUSSIAN NIHILISM
THE propagation of Nihilistic ideas in Russia received its first great impulse from the novel by Tourgenieff entitled Fathers and Children, which appeared in 1861. Since that time, while much has been written about the men who figured prominently in Nihilism, writers have failed to show the same interest in the women who participated in the movement. It was not until 1862 that women began to take an active part in Nihilism, and the movement is indebted for not a little of its success to the tact and shrewdness of the many brave and cultured ones who have made such noble sacrifices in freedom’s cause. The liberation of the serfs in the same year, by proclamation of Czar Alexander II., gave hope of still greater reforms, especially of a higher education for the gentler sex, when their intellectual pioneers applied for admission to the universities. This being refused them many of the more ambitious visited foreign lands in search of the educational opportunities denied them in Russia. In Switzerland, where the prejudice against women was less bitter, the doors of the colleges were most readily thrown open to the seekers after knowledge; and many women became devoted students, carried off the honors, and returned to their native land to take foremost rank in the professions for which they had studied. The opposition against them was intense, but with characteristic determination they overcame all obstacles. It is from such brave spirits as these that the ranks of the woman Nihilists have been recruited, and many have stepped down from high social positions to take part in a movement which they believed would give to the Russian people something of that freedom enjoyed by the nations of western Europe where civilization had made greater strides.
That the propagation of liberal ideas has not been more successful throughout the empire is owing to the fact that the rural or peasant population refused to participate in any uprising of the Nihilist party; and as they number more than half of the czar’s subjects, this proved a serious obstacle in the path of reform. Their refusal was the means of stimulating the Nihilists to more heroic efforts for the cause, and many high-born ladies donned peasant garb and mingled freely with the people, hoping thereby to secure their confidence and at the same time obtain an opportunity to disseminate liberal ideas.
Among the most noted of the heroines of Nihilism was Sophia Perovskaya, who sacrificed her life to her zeal in the cause of freedom. Nobly born and highly educated, her life’s story was a truly pathetic one. Deprived under very sad circumstances of a mother’s loving care while little more than a babe, she was brought up under the strict supervision of an almost brutal father. Sophia Perovskaya traced her descent from a long line of noble ancestry. Her grandfather was Minister of the Interior during the reign of Nicholas, her father was the Governor-general of St. Petersburg, and one of her great-great-uncles was the morganatic husband of the Empress Elizabeth. Her own rank was that of a countess. When eighteen years old she was acknowledged to be one of the most beautiful girls in Russia and was offered the post of maid of honor to the empress. An aide-de-camp to the late Czar Alexander II. was her accepted lover. Sophia was separated from her mother when only five years old, and believed her dead until she had reached the age of maturity, when by some means she became acquainted with the family history.
The knowledge then gained seems to have changed the whole current of her after life, and she determined to be revenged on the father who had so cruelly treated and driven from their home the countess, her mother. She also had experienced considerable of her father’s tyrannical treatment and as a consequence only too readily espoused her absent mother’s cause. She not only became imbittered against her father, but displayed the same enmity towards the government of which he was an official. About this time a woman from Switzerland appeared on the scene, whom she took into her service as a maid. It afterwards transpired that this woman had been sent by her mother to enlighten Sophia as to her whereabouts. She entered into correspondence with her mother and satisfied herself of the truth of all she had heard of the family history. Soon after she was introduced into a Nihilist circle, in which, with her beauty and high social standing, she soon took a prominent position. Her associations becoming known to her father, she was obliged to flee from home to escape his wrath, and took refuge with her mother in Switzerland. For some unknown reason she returned to St. Petersburg in disguise, and joined a group of conspirators. She had not been long at her old home when she was arrested, but through her father’s influence was released upon promising to leave the country. The motive which prompted the father’s interference was a selfish rather than a paternal one. He feared the disgrace which the disclosure of his daughter’s complicity with the Nihilists would bring. But Sophia refused to remain inactive in the cause which she had so much at heart, and once more returned to St. Petersburg. To her was assigned the task of displaying the signal for the throwing of the bomb when the assassination of Alexander n. occurred. She was again arrested, and for the second time her father’s high official influence prevented her complicity in the plot from becoming known. But a woman who had displayed such remarkable qualities of heroism was not likely to let her companions in crime suffer while she went free. Some assert that it was her determination to see her father disgraced and punished that governed her actions on this occasion, for she had never forgiven his treatment of her mother. She therefore, on the day of the trial of the other conspirators, coolly walked into court, made known her identity, and declared her intention of sharing the same fate as the prisoners who were being arraigned. Knowing her indomitable will this action did not at all surprise her associates. Her request for a trial was granted. and she confessed her guilt and was hanged with the others who were condemned.
Another daring attempt on the emperor’s life in which Sophia Perovskaya participated was that of the railway explosion between Kursk and Moscow, in which a number of carriages were destroyed; but the czar had passed safely over the road half an hour before, having changed cars at a way-station. Leo Hartmann, now in New York, and one of the participants on that occasion, has frequently described to me the parting of the conspirators previous to the firing of the mine. He says of Sophia Perovskaya that she was a woman utterly devoid of sentiment, with her mind filled with but one great purpose—the rights and freedom of her people. The world well knows how heroically she met death on the scaffold, and that while strong men fainted in anticipation of the horrible death in store for them, not a muscle of her face was seen to move. She died as she had lived—nobly.
For heroism and patient endurance I think we should give Vera Zassulitch the second place in the long list of martyrs to the cause of Nihilism. True, it may be a lost cause ; but we must acknowledge that the women who have espoused it have the honesty of their convictions to sustain them, and that they stand out before the world among the best and the bravest of their sex. Vera Zassulitch, whom many of the Russian people would like to adjudge insane, was moved to the committal of a fearful crime on learning of the horrible cruelty practised upon a political prisoner, one of a group of Nihilists to which she belonged. Bogoluboff was the political’s name, and his offence was a refusal to remove his hat during a visit of General Trepoff (then chief of police at St. Petersburg) to the Petropavlovski fortress. Bogoluboff had his hat knocked off by the irate general, who, in addition. ordered that the prisoner be given I00 lashes with the knout. A Nihilist who was one of the guards at the prison carried the news of the punishment to those outside. Vera and live others formed an executive committee. They met to discuss the outrage and decided on the death of Trepoff, as they held him responsible for the punishment. They drew lots to learn who should be the executioner, and the commission of the deed fell to the lot of Vera Zassulitch, who, armed with a revolver, went the next day to visit Trepoff. Securing admission under some pretext, she shot him while he sat in his chair. The case aroused the greatest excitement and being such an unusual one it was decided to try it by jury. The girl was acquitted on the ground of insanity, for it was not deemed possible that so young a woman could commit such a deed while in her rational mind. During the trial the streets adjoining the courthouse were thronged with people anxious to learn the result. When the verdict of acquittal was made known the people with one voice sent up a prolonged shout of approval. The police charged into the mob and several lives were lost. Vera Zassulitch was hurried into a carriage, where she changed her dress for the garb of a man and made her escape across the frontier, finally reaching Switzerland, where she still resides. She is not a beautiful woman, like Sophia Perovskaya, but she possesses a remarkable mind and wonderful nerve. The women of America recently collected quite a sum of money and forwarded it to her to assist in making her pathway to the grave as smooth as possible, for she is a victim of consumption and cannot live much longer.
Sophia Bardina was another shining light in Nihilism. She wrote some verses of remarkable beauty and pathos, which were universally sung by the members of her party. They were regarded as gems of Russian literature, but of a treasonable nature; and the singing of them was looked upon as a state crime, and punished as such. This gift of the muse proved the bane of Sophia Bardina’s existence, for through its exercise she was arrested, and after spending many weary months in prison she was exiled to Siberia, where she probably still remains, unless death has put an end to her sufferings.
The Lubotovitch sisters, Olga and Vera, were young ladies of charming personality and many accomplishments. They were also noted for their beauty and purity, and yet they incited their male coworkers to many deeds of lawlessness and cunning by their example of reckless daring. They travelled through all the large cities of the empire, disseminating liberal ideas and distributing incendiary literature. Moscow and St. Petersburg afforded them the largest fields of labor, and in those cities they succeeded in penetrating into the very offices of the police authorities, where by their winning manners and remarkable beauty they made many converts to the cause of Nihilism. But they could not long expect to escape the fate which surely follows in the wake of such daring. They were arrested and imprisoned, and after undergoing two years of solitary confinement in the Petropavlovski fortress they were sentenced to hard labor in Siberia, one sister for a period of nine years, and the other for six years.
Alexandra Khorjevskaya, another woman who suffered for the cause of freedom, was arrested for distributing Nihilistic literature, and after being imprisoned for many months was sentenced to Siberia for five years. It is believed that she died in exile, as her friends have not been able to learn anything of her since her term of exile expired. Her fate has been that of thousands—exile, obscurity, death.
Mademoiselle Toporkova, another young woman belonging to one of the best families of the empire, was arrested while distributing incendiary literature. She, like the Lubotovitch sisters, travelled all over Russia disseminating liberal ideas, and succeeded in ingratiating herself into the favor of the poorer classes. She was also connected with the printing of forbidden books, and when arrested several of these were found on her person. At the expiration of two years confinement in prison she was sentenced to hard labor in Siberia for a period of six years. Mademoiselle Toporkova was one of the foremost women Nihilists who sprang into existence soon after the assassination of Alexander II.
The sisters Soobotin, Eugenie and Maria, in daring recklessness very much resembled the Lubotovitch sisters. The Soobotins were also noted for their beauty and accomplishments. They masqueraded in the role of spies for their party, and succeeded in obtaining much valuable information which many times saved Nihilists from arrest. They managed to secure the confidence of a high official, and obtained from him all the immediate plans of General Ignatieff for the suppression of Nihilism. In addition to this piece of daring they learned through another source nearly all the names of the Nihilists whom General Ignatieff considered to be implicated in the movement and whom he intended to arrest. By their cunning the whole plan was frustrated, and for the time being the Nihilists rested in their fancied security. But the real spies of the Third Section were set to work and succeeded in securing sufficient evidence to arrest the sisters. By this time they had grown reckless, and little dreamed that any suspicion attached to them. They were arrested at midnight and conveyed to the fortress. When they were missed members of their circle of Nihilists instituted a search for them, but months elapsed ere they discovered where they were imprisoned. The Soobotins, like the Lubotovitch sisters, endured solitary confinement for many months before they were finally sent to Siberia. Each sister received a sentence of six years, which in Maria’s case was afterwards increased to eight years.
Mademoiselle Ivanova, in conjunction with Mademoiselle Griaznova, played a very prominent part in Nihilism. The former was a daughter of a major in the army and became known through her connection with the secret printing office of the Terrorist organ, Narodnaya Volia (People’s Will). When the office was discovered these two ladies, revolvers in hand, kept the soldiers at bay for more than two hours. The gendarmes sought to overcome the party by firing through the doors and windows. But for lack of ammunition those inside were finally conquered and obliged to surrender. One of the gendarmes tied the hands and feet of Mademoiselle Ivanova and threw her on the ground. While in this humiliating position she reproached her comrades for their cowardice in so readily yielding up the situation. A gendarme who guarded her struck her in the face and kicked her brutally, inflicting serious injuries upon her. This man appeared against her as a witness at the trial, and when she complained of his brutality her words were disregarded, and she was condemned to fifteen years’ penal servitude. Mademoiselle Griaznova was transported to Siberia for life, and I believe the sentence of her companion was afterwards commuted to four years, through the influence of the heir-apparent, to whom the court-martial appealed.
Vera Figner, who was accused of complicity in the plot to destroy the Winter palace in 1880, but was afterwards acquitted, was twenty-two years old and the daughter of a high Russian official. She was subsequently condemned, however, to fifteen years’ penal servitude for her connection with the Terrorist party. It was Mademoiselle Figner who planned the assassination of General Strelnikoff at Odessa, which proved successful, and for which she was sentenced to death, but the penalty was afterwards commuted to imprisonment for life in the fortress of Schlusselburg. Of her ultimate fate we know nothing definite, but reports have reached the outside world that she died there in 1885.
Eugenie Figner, like her sister Vera, was a woman of ability and education. She was the associate of Kviatskovsky, a devoted fellow-worker in what she esteemed the cause of freedom. Something more than the bonds of mere friendship seems to have united them, however, as for years they labored together under assumed names. Kviatskovsky had the management of the secret press through which liberalism was propagated. Some articles written by him, discovered during a search of his apartments by the police, were deemed conclusive evidence of his complicity in the Winter palace explosion. The fact of Eugenie’s constant association with Kviatskovsky was the cause of suspicion being directed also towards her, and a search of her lodgings was made in the hope of discovering incriminating evidence. A glass vessel containing dynamite was found, and also a bundle of white paper corresponding in size to that used for the printing of Narodnaya Volia. In addition forty-five copies of a proclamation issued in connection with the railway explosion near Moscow were found, and these discoveries led to her arrest, after which she was exiled to Siberia for fifteen years.
But the brave women I have mentioned thus far are not the only members of their sex who have become martyrs to Nihilism. The case of Madame Sighidi, for example, is still fresh in the minds of American readers. It was she who suffered death at the Kara mines by being stripped and brutally flogged in the presence of the prison officials, for the reason that she had resented an insult offered to her womanhood by the governor of the mines. The rest of the women politicals, fearing like treatment, inaugurated a hunger strike, which lasted many days and was only broken by a promise to have the governor of the prison removed. This was not fulfilled, however, and Madame Kovalskaya, with several others, took poison and succumbed to its effects before the officials learned of their act.
The island of Saghalicn was during the past year the scene of brutal treatment to a woman whose name has not reached us, but the occurrence has been vividly described by an eye-witness.
Perhaps the most popular of recent sufferers for this cause was Madame Tschebrikova, who, while not a Nihilist, had sufficient courage to forward a letter to the czar expressive of her ideas of the administration of justice in Russia. It was a clear, logical and impassioned appeal to the ruler of more than one hundred millions of people for the reorganization of the tchinovnik (official) system throughout the empire. With what result the letter was received the world already knows. The noble-minded woman, who, having the courage of her convictions did not hesitate to speak, now languishes in an obscure village in the westernmost part of the province of Archangelsk. The latest accounts received describe her condition as truly pitiable.
The present attitude of Russia toward her people is not such as to inspire confidence in the Nihilistic movement in the future. Russian possessions must be Russianized at all hazards, and centralization appears to be the sole aim of the government. Suppression and not expansion seems to be the motto of the ruler of Russia. In a country where the rights of the people receive little or no recognition it is but natural to look for discontent, and to find in constant motion a movement toward the amelioration of the condition of the masses. That it will ever reach greater proportions than at present is doubtful, for the chief of the dreaded Third Section has such means at his disposal in the form of spies as to make a successful uprising well-nigh impossible.
The agitators fail to understand that education alone can achieve the end they are trying to gain by force. A broader education is now permitted to certain classes which before were restricted in this matter; but the fact still remains that the peasant or rural population at the present day is as densely ignorant as it was at the time of its emancipation more than a quarter of a century ago. Until this state of things is changed the leaders of the liberal movement, who comprise the educated people of the empire, can hope for little success from any scheme tending to better their condition. True, thousands of lives have been sacrificed on the altar of freedom, and it is also true that many thousands more will share the same fate, for the rising generation is imbued with ideas of freedom amounting almost to fanaticism. No persecution, no suppression or oppression, will eradicate these ideas, and men and women will continue to suffer and yield up their lives for what, I fear, will in the end prove a lost cause.
The social and political conditions of the empire have developed a peculiar class of women whose one aim in life is the liberation of their people from the thraldom of oppression, and who, to attain that end, are willing to sacrifice home, friends, and even life if necessary. Tourgenieff, in the following quotation from his Verses and Prose, portrays the character of these women more forcibly than could any words of mine:
“I see a huge building with a narrow door in its front wall. The door is open and a dismal darkness stretches beyond. Before the high threshold stands a girl—a Russian girl. Frost breathes out of the impenetrable darkness, and with the icy draught from the depths of the building there comes forth a slow and hollow voice:
‘‘‘Oh! thou who art wanting to cross this threshold; dost thou know what awaits thee?’
“‘I know it,’ answers the girl.
“‘Cold, hunger, hatred, derision, contempt, insults, a fearful death even?’
“‘I know it.’
“‘Complete isolation and separation from all?’
“‘I know it. I am ready. I will bear all sorrows and miseries.’
“‘Not only if inflicted by enemies, but when done by kindred and friends?’
“‘ Yes, even when done by them.’
“‘Well, are you ready for self-sacrifice?’
“‘For anonymous self-sacrifice? You shall die, and nobody shall know even whose memory is to be honored.’
“‘I want neither gratitude nor pity. I want no name.’
“‘Are you ready for a crime?’
“The girl bent her head. ‘I am ready even for a crime.’
“The voice paused awhile before renewing its interrogatories.
“Then again, ‘Dost thou know,’ it said at last, ‘that thou mayest lose thy faith in what thou now believest, that thou mayest feel that thou hast teen mistaken, and hast lost thy young life in vain?’
“‘I know that also, and nevertheless I will enter.’
“The girl crossed the threshold and a heavy curtain fell behind her.
“‘A fool,’ gnashed someone outside.
“‘A saint,’ answered a voice from somewhere.”
The Countess Ella Norrnikow is not a Russian by birth, although she has long been interested in the cause of popular government in Russia.
She was born in Toronto, Canada, and her first literary work, a story, was published while she was in her teens. She married young and spent many years in travel, living successively in most of the European capitals. She returned to America a widow, and in 1837 took up her residence in New York, where she has since married the exiled Russian nobleman whose name she hears. She is considered to be well posted upon matters pertaining to Russia, though she is a persistent foe of the czar’s government. She has been a contributor to a number of the best periodicals, and her articles have been quoted by the friends of democracy throughout the world. To her interest in their cause many Polish and Russian exiles in America are deeply indebted. She has written a book on Nihilism which will soon be published. and which will be a comprehensive description of the Russian revolutionary movement.
Ella Norraikow, “Woman’s Share in Russian Nihilism,” Cosmopolitan 11 (September 1891): 619-627.
General & Introductory
- Beautiful Nihilists, Pretty Anarchists, Red Virgins and Others
- Ella Norraikow, “Woman’s Share in Russian Nihilism” (1891)
- “The Term ‘Nihilist’” (1887)
- Voltairine de Cleyre, “Some Nihilists I Have Met” (1893)
- “The Nihilist Rebellion” (1879) [coming soon]
- “Russian Revolutionary Heroines” (1881)
- Ella Norraikow, “Woman’s Share in Russian Nihilism” (1891)
- “A Beautiful Nihilist” (1892)
- “Imprisoned Twenty Years” (1904)
- Hubert Church, “Vera Figner,” [poem] (1908)
- May Beals-Hoffpauir, “Sketches of Russian Heroines. I. Vera Figner” (1909)
- “Revival of Nihilism” (1893)
- “A Horrible Story” (1881)
- “Beautiful Nihilist Girl” (1890)
“The girl Goukoffski, aged 15”
- Cruel Punishments (1879)
- “Plot of a Beautiful Nihilist” (1891)
- Stepniak, “A Female Nihilist” (1886)
- “The Stuff of Which Martyrs are Made” (1881)
- Joaquin Miller, “Sophia Perovskaya” [poem] (1881)
- Sir Henry Parks, “The Beauteous Terrorist” [poem] (1885)
- “The Beautiful Nihilist” (1889)
- Ella Norraikow, “Woman’s Share in Russian Nihilism” (1891)
- George Barlow, “Sophia Perovskaia” [poem] (1895)
- Ernest Tissot, “Une Nihiliste: Sophie Perovskaia” (1895) [coming soon]
- Tragic Stories from Russia (1905)
- “Another beautiful nihilist…” (1887)
- “Arrested as Nihilists” (1891)
- “Tragedy in San Francisco” (1893)
- “A Nihilist Crime” (1897)
- “A Female Nihilist” (1902)
- Oscar Wilde, Vera; or, The Nihilists (1881)
- Stepniak, The New Convert (Novoobrashchennyi)(1897)
- Ernest Lavigne, A Female Nihilist (1880)
- Charles H. Eden, George Donnington; or, In the Bear’s Grip (1885, 3 volumes) [Google Books]
- Philip May, Love: The Reward (1885, 3 volumes) [Google Books]
- Loiuse Gagneur, A Nihilist Princess (1886)
- Kathleen O’Meara, Narka, the Nihilist (1887)
- Joseph Hatton, By Order of the Czar (1890)
- Richard Henry Savage, My Official Wife (1891)
- St. George Rathborne, Major Matterson of Kentucky (1894)
- William Le Queux, Stolen Souls (1895)
- Thomas Patrick Deegan, The Rescue of Victoria: The Beautiful Nihilist (1909)
If any asked the student, which
He thought the prettiest among
A score of Moscow school-girls, “Young
And gentle Vera Sassulitch,”
He answered with a ready tongue.
Netchaieff was the student named,
And Vera and his sister moved
In the same social grade, and loved
Each other, and the student claimed
The heart of Vera unreproved.
But oft Netchaieffs mind was bent—
With passion which to youth belongs—
Upon the many cruel wrongs
Of a despotic Government,
Deriding it in tales and songs.
And some of these to Vera given,
Around her drew the fatal coil
Of eager spies, whose hateful toil
Already had the student driven
For ever from his native soil.
And Vera, only seventeen,
A maiden spotless as the snow—
Still troubled by the heavy blow
Of broken love, which youth is keen
To feel, in all its bitter woe—
Suspected by the grim police,
Despite her innocence, her tears,
To satisfy a despot’s fears
Was dragged from home and love and peace,
To pine in prison two long years.
There time rolled, like a viewless sea,
In breaking waves of nights and days,
And dull, monotonous prison ways;
And not a face did Vera see
Save the stern jailor’s sphinx-like gaze.
The clanking of the shouldered gun,
The sentinel’s unfailing stride,
The wind blown through the courtyard wide,
Free, while of freedom there was none
For any human soul inside:
The striking of the fortress clock,
Making the weary prisoner weep-
So many hours remained ‘ere sleep
Would come, her sinking heart to mock
With dreams of home, in slumber deep—
Such was her life; and Vera strove
To guess what purpose there could be
In robbing her of liberty,
And gentle friends, and holy love—
And when the jailor turned the key
At night and morn to bring her food,
From day to day, from year to year,
She questioned him with many a tear—
“If you are human flesh and blood,
Tell me, why am I lingering here?”
But silent as the blocks of stone
Of which the fortress walls were built,
Where many a patriot’s blood was spilt,
He answered not a single tone,
And left her ignorant of guilt.
At length (in secret, as of old
They brought her to the dreary cell)
One night, when the slow prison bell
The Janitor’s approach foretold,
On her astonished ears there fell
The magic sentence, “You are free!”
No reason could her tyrants find
Longer a simple girl to bind;
And Vera gained her liberty
To pacify the public mind.
Soothed by a tender mother’s care,
A glimpse of happiness returned—
New life within her bosom burned,
With wholesome food and pleasant air;
And not a cloud could be discerned
O’er those brief days of freedom, rich
In love and tenderness, and blest
With simple joys and needed rest,
When fated Vera Sassulitch
Once more was taken in arrest;
But a “paternal Government,”
Fearing the wrath of honest men,
Or sting of democratic pen,
Resolved upon her banishment
Afar beyond the public ken.
Therefore, one leaden wintry day—
Giving no time for fond caress,
For parting word, or change of dress—
They bore her many a league away,
To spend her days in loneliness.
The frost was keen, she scarce could stir,
And might have perished of the cold,
But pity, dear to Christ of old,
Touched the rude soldiers guarding her—
Would that in characters of gold
I might the simple record tell!
How, with pure, sacred, human love—
Love such as cynics scarce reprove,
Love which, from earth whereon we dwell,
Doth many a heavy yoke remove—
A soldier covered Vera warm,
In his own furs, against the blast,
As o’er the frozen wastes they passed;
And, after weeks of snow and storm,
They reached the exile’s home at last.
A rouble and a book in French,
A tiny box of homely sweets—
A remnant of her school-girl treats—
Was all her store. Well might she blench,
Thus cast adrift in lonely streets,
Beneath a wintry northern sky,
Ill clad, to wander o’er the snow,
And watched wherever she might go
By sleepless iron tyranny,
Indifferent to human woe.
Thus Vera, friendless and unhoused,
With bitter want and bitter tears,
In exile passed eleven years,
Until her very soul was roused
To trample on her woman’s fears.
Her own distresses she had borne
As meekly as a cloistered nun,
And her unhappy fate had won
Pity from people as forlorn
As any underneath the sun.
But Vera had an honoured friend
With whom, when youth was in its flower,
She often passed a blissful hour;
He, daring boldly to contend
With some extreme abuse of power,
Soon with authority at odds,
And marked by the detested race
Of spies, was in a public place
Scourged, like the vilest slave, with rods,
And scarce survived the foul disgrace,
Not woman, but avenger now,
Vera appeared to feel the blows
Dealt to her friend, and fiercely rose,
With sacred wrath upon her brow,
The cruel tyrants to oppose.
The instigator of the wrong,
Of which none dared to speak aloud,
Was Trepoff, insolent and proud—
Ever with fetter, brand, and thong
Striving to quell the timid crowd.
Without a thought, or plan, or plot,
None giving counsel or advice,
Without considering the price
The act might cost her, Vera shot
The hated chief of the police!
He was but wounded—Vera’s aim
Was not intended for his heart,
She only sought in hovel, mart,
And palace, to awake the claim
Of justice, and thus bore her part;
And made no effort to obtain
Her freedom when they came to seize
Their victim, binding her with ease,
And to the gloomy cells again
Taking her by the law’s decrees.
But, spite of despots, holy truth
Had pierced the sullen prison wall,
And bolder tongues began to call
For justice. Vera’s wrongs, her youth,
Her provocation, touched them all.
And when, to the Tribunal brought,
Her advocate the story told
With simple truth and accents bold,
And swiftly, eloquently wrought
Upon the hearts of young and old,
Telling the poor excuse for which
(When little older than a child)
A jealous Government exiled
Unhappy Vera Sassulitch,
Into the chill Siberian wild:
The jurors, through oppression bold,
Acquitted her, and students leapt,
And workmen cheered, and women wept,
As through the streets the tale was told,
When Vera from the prison stept,
Quitting the fortress that glad morn,
Welcomed by thousands, rich and poor;
Yet ‘ere she reached her mother’s door,
Again she was from freedom torn,
And saw her peaceful home no more!
What dreams of vengeance since have filled
The heart of Vera few can tell;
Yet this we know, that freedom’s spell,
Until life’s latest pulse is stilled,
Will strife with tyranny compel.
Whether amid Siberian snows,
Or exiled far beyond the sea,
She yet may wander sad but free,
Or in the grave may find repose,
Her name a household word will be!
Poems: Grave and Gay (London: Tinsley, Brothers, 1880): 65-74.
A BEAUTIFUL NIHILIST.
From the French of Leon de Tinseau; V.E.T., Chateau Bange, Bordeaux.
In 187-, somewhat before the tragic death of the least Czar, one of the most notable men of the Russian Empire was Prince Michael ——-, whose family name, an illustrious one, reasons of the highest importance forbid our giving. During a visit to France after the war, while at one of the receptions of the Princesse Lise, he met that superb daughter of General de Contremont, whom the Parisian world, springing to life again from its ashes, knew already as “la belle Madeleine,” a girl as poor as she was lovely. Michel was subjugated in spite of his forty years, his avowed intentions of celibacy, and the case with which, for fifteen seasons, he had resisted the attacks of all the maidens and young widows of the Russian aristocracy. All their efforts produced as little effect as though they had opened fire on an ironclad with bouquets of lilies and roses; but now, he surrendered at a glance.
“Mother,” said Madeleine one evening to the window of the hero of Gravelotte,” will you be satisfied if I become a princess?”
“Not completely, for you are beautiful enough to be a queen.”
And as a fact, I do not remember ever having met so completely perfect a type of human beauty, I see her yet, adorable creature, a certain night at the opera, a few weeks after her marriage. There were in the orchestra fifty spectators who were, or had been, more or less desperately in love with her. You can imagine how they listened to the music. Mireille could have been given instead of the Huguenots, without one of them perceiving the substitution. That was, and. will be, probably the most memorable evening of Madeleine’s youth. She felt revenged, as it were, upon a sex who inspired her only with rancor. Among those men who now would have impoverished themselves for her smiles, not one but formerly would have found her too poor to become his life companion.
Alone in the vast stage box with her husband, proud, scarcely smiling, but in reality vibrating in every nerve with the excitement of triumph, sparkling with admiration as her diamonds sparkled in the light, she was a living superlative, for she could say to herself: “I see here twenty-five women who are beautiful, but it is I who am the most beautiful.”
That evening an American woman, wealthy in the millions but not pretty, exclaimed in her loge: “I do not ask to be like the Princess Michel—that would be expecting too much—but only to own her teeth. I would give my hotel of the Champs-Elyses with all its contents, even to my jewel casket. “With such teeth as those one does not need to be pretty. One smiles or one yawns, according to circumstances, and the world at is one’s feet.”
“That is to say, at the feet of your teeth,” added an old diplomat, “ and I greatly fear that the Princess is destined to yawn more than to smile. His Excellency, her husband, looks anything but amusing or easy to manage. More than once in her life la belle Madeleine will regret Paris.
The Prince, truly, was not easy to manage, not even at first, and several I years after his marriage still less tractable, as the Princess learned to her cost. To the coquetry of his wife he owed his becoming jealous as a tiger, and to the favor of the Czar he owed his post of Minister of the Police. It must be acknowledged that these two qualifications are not calculated to make a man amicable. Nevertheless, he found means to utilise his public functions in the service of his private jealousy. It is thus, in France: A young attaché of the ministry sends a cuirassier armed to the teeth, and even higher, to notice the favor two seats at the hippodrome.
It was not cuirassiers that Prince Michel employed, though he had any number at his disposition. He found it more simple to choose, among the most expert of his detectives, the coachman who drove his wife, and the door-keeper of his hotel. Then, to make matters quite sure, he had his department where all suspected letters were opened and investigated. At first, the unfortunate minister had read by dozens passionate declarations addressed to his wife, in every note of the scale of love. Then these letters became somewhat less frequent, not that the Princess grew less seductive, but the lovers become suspicious that all was not as it should be. Those who had confided to his Majesty’s postal service their hopes and fears, had almost always seen bad luck follow their every step thereafter under the most unexpected forms and in unaccountable ways. It was said the victims were enough to make one believed the Princess had “the evil eye,” or the Prince had eyes too good.
Let it be well understood that the replies to these letters passed also under inspection, and His Excellency was thus convinced that he was the husband of a desperate coquette, but nothing worse, which gave him but slight satisfaction. It is a relief for one who hears the cry of fire in his house to learn that a badly swept chimney is the only difficulty. The poor Prince had no time, however, to play chimney-sweep, for preserving the life of his Czar from the Nihilists gave him quite as much anxiety as the Princess and her adorers. Judge, therefore, of his stupefaction when he read, one day, the following letter in a handwriting he knew but too well, although, it was signed by a single initial only:
“It appears that the Emperor will leave for Warsaw sooner than was thought. Be ready, therefore, to start on the first intimation, for who knows when we shall again find such an occasion. I have not hidden from you the difficulties of the undertaking; in consequence, make your arrangements to succeed at once and without hesitation. You will present yourself at my home as a friend of my family, travelling in Russia for pleasure. Go to see your mother before leaving: she will give you some sort of commission for me that will serve you as an introduction, if needful.”
The unhappy prince fell his brain reel on finishing this horrible reading. This conspiracy that he was combatting day and night by irons, prison and exile; this war, without pity, of a whole army of monsters against one man, was found sheltering at his own fireside. It was his own wife, his beautiful Madeleine, who said to the assassin: “It is the hour, be ready!”
Of what use to struggle longer? What fatality armed against his unfortunate sovereign even a woman from another country? That woman had everything for her own—youth, beauty, luxury, admiration. She a Nihilist! Why? What wrongs had she to avenge? What drove her, even her, to commit such a crime, at the risk of bruising her lovely form on a dungeon-bed of straw, of a cord to gall that ivory throat, of Siberian snows to freeze her little feet, white even as they?
“Ah!” thought the unfortunate man, “I have not known how to make her happy! I have shown jealousy too often. She hates me, and her hatred has found this refinement of torture, sublime in its impossible horror!”
What must he done? He thought of killing his wife, himself after, letting the public believe it was some love trouble—his wife faithless—for the loyal subject preferred even that dishonor to the other. Then he longed to throw himself at the Emperor’s knees and tell him all, after which he would disappear forever with the guilty woman. A sense of duty alone prevented this course. He held the thread of a plot; he must unravel it, and for that it sufficed to let the letter go to its destination. The assassin would then deliver up himself. Already the Minister had the name of this man—Nicholson, some Englishman, or American, perhaps, expert in the use of dynamite, or simply a Russian student having taken a false name. The letter was sent, and that evening the prince and princess, in their box, listened to un opera—he pale, consumed with fever, aged many years since morning: she more charming and more surrounded than ever.
“Are you ill, Michel”” said Madeleine, smiling at her husband in the carriage which bore them home.
“Why do you say that?” said he in a strangely sombre tone.
“Why? Because you have not been jealous once this evening! “
At the end of a week the Minister of Police said to his wife, without seeming to attach the slightest consequence to his remark:
“It is Thursday that the Czar leaves St. Petersburg?”
“Really,” said she, scarcely affected by what she heard; the newspapers give another date.”
He replied, deceiving with design, the accomplice of Nicholson, for he had his plan: “Yes, they wish to frustrate those who may have guilty projects.”
Then he spoke of other matters, while forced to admire the strength of character of the despicable creature. The same day he knew his ruse had succeeded for the telegraph company communicated to him this dispatch, addressed by the princess to Nicholson; “It is for Thursday. Be punctual.”
Of course Thursday passed by without either the Czar or his Minister having left the Capital. Madeleine became suddenly very anxious on learning of this pretended change. On the morrow, in the afternoon, a personage, richly attired and ornamented with a large button-hole rosette presented himself at the palace of Prince Michel.
“What do you wish, sir?” asked, with a very low bow, the doorkeeper loaned by section 5.
“To pay my respects to the princess, and give her a message from her mother. I am Dr. Nicholson.”
“Very well, sir,” said the man; “you are expected, but my lady, the princess, is paying a visit to a friend, and left orders that we conduct you to her. In five minutes the carriage will be ready.”
Nicholson had barely time to admire several fine paintings, which decorated the reception room, and he was a connoisseur, before he was asked to get into a coupe, which the man who had received him entered also, and sat down beside him without even asking permission.
“Strange custom,” thought Nicholson “he might have gone outside with the driver.”
It is needless to say that a quarter of an hour later the supposed doctor was in the best, which means the strongest, prison of St. Petersburg, and that if he were expected there, it was not by the princess.
In a dreary sort of office, lined on all sides with armed policemen, a person unknown to him, but who was the prince himself, questioned poor Nicholson with a roughness of manner to which he was unaccustomed.
“This is infamous!” said he, indignantly. “I arrived from Paris this morning only. I have not said three words to any one, and, when I present myself at the hotel of the princess, I am picked up and carried off like a thief!”
“You know the princess,” coldly questioned the Minister.
“Do I know her? Why, almost from her birth! Here is a letter from her mother, the widow of a great general; besides, I am an American citizen, and I protest——”
“Search this man thoroughly,” interrupted the high functionary without seeming to have heard, “and with all precaution.”
Nothing suspicious was found upon Nicholson save a very pretty little box carefully enveloped.
An engineer from the Torpedo School, attached to the Ministry for such occasions, opened the box with all the caution and precautions prescribed by science. The greater number of those present wee more or less uneasy, expecting some terrible explosion. Nothing abnormal occurred, but the engineer had a singular smile when he held out the open box to the prince, who, after a hasty glance, hurried it into his pocket, then addressing Nicholson, he said: “So you are——”
“An American dentist, sir, and much pressed for time. I wish to return to Paris as soon as possible. My patients need me.”
Five minutes after, Nicholson was once I more in the coupe, having this time as his companion the prince, who overwhelmed him with apologies.
“But,” said the husband of “la belle Madeleine,” “ how is it that I never noticed anything?”
“If your Excellency had perceived the least thing,” proudly replied the American, “the Nicholson Artificial Teeth would be unworthy of their reputation.”
“Then the teeth of the princess are——-”
“All false, Prince. When very young, Mademoiselle do Contremont was thrown from her horse, and shattered her jaw. I then made for her one of the finest sets of teeth that ever left my office. Everything, however, wears out in time, and I came, during your absence, to adjust for her a new set.”
The details of this adventure have never before been made public. It has nevertheless, been remarked that the prince appears less in love. O, human heart!
Geelong Advertiser no. 14,047 (March 5, 1892): 2.
[aka Jessy Helfman, Hessy Helfman, Hesse Helfman, Hesia Helfman]
JESSY HELFMAN, THE HUMBLE MARTYR
[From Stepniak’s Underground Russia]
There are unknown heroines, obscure toilers, who offer up everything upon the altar of their cause, without asking anything for themselves. They assume the most ungrateful parts; sacrifice themselves for the merest trifles; for lending their names to the correspondence of others; for sheltering a man, often unknown to them; for delivering a parcel without knowing what it contains. Poets do not dedicate verses to them; history will not inscribe their names upon its records; a grateful posterity will not remember them. Without their labor, however, the party could not exist; every struggle would become impossible.
Yet the wave of history carries away one of these toilers from the obscure concealment in which she expected to pass her life, and bears her on high upon its sparkling crest, to a universal celebrity. Then all regard this countenance, which is so modest, and discern in it the indications of a force of mind, of an abnegation, of a courage, which excite astonishment among the boldest.
Such is precisely the story of Jessy Helfman.
I did not know her personally. If I deviate, however, in this case from my plan of speaking only of those whom I know personally, I do not do so because of the fame which her name had gained, but because of her moral qualities, to which her celebrity justifies allusion. I am sure the reader will be grateful to me for this, as her simple and sympathetic figure characterizes the party which I am depicting, better perhaps than an example of exceptional power; just as a modest wildflower gives a better idea of the flora of a country, than a wonderful and rare plant.
Jessy Helfman belonged to a Jewish family, fanatically devoted to their religion, a type unknown in countries where religious persecution has ceased, but which is very common in Russia. Her family regarded as an abomination everything derived from the gentiles, especially their science, which teaches its disciples to despise the religion of their fathers. Jessy, excited by the new idea, and unable to bear this yoke, fled from her parents’ house, taking with her, as her sole inheritance, the malediction of these fanatical believers, who would willingly have seen her in her coffin rather than fraternizing with the “goi”. The girl proceeded to Kiev, where she worked as a seamstress.
The year 1874 came. The Revolutionary movement spread everywhere, and reached even the young Jewish seamstress.
She made the acquaintance of some of the women who had returned from Zurich, and who afterwards figured in the trial of the fifty, and they induced her to join that movement. Her part, however, was a very modest one. She lent her address for the Revolutionary correspondence. When, however, the conspiracy was discovered, this horrible “crime” subjected her to two years, neither more nor less, of imprisonment, and a sentence of two more years’ detention at Litovsk. Shut up with four or five women, confined for participation in the same movement, Jessy for the first time was really initiated into the principles of Socialism, and surrendered herself to them body and soul. She was, however, unable to put her ideas into practice, for, after having undergone her punishment, instead of being set at liberty she was by order of the police interned in one of the northern provinces, and remained there until the autumn of the year 1879, when, profiting by the carelessness of her guardians, she escaped and went to St. Petersburg. Here, full of enthusiasm, which increased in her all the more from having been so long restrained, she threw herself ardently into the struggle, eager to satisfy that intense craving to labor for the cause which became in her a passion.
Always energetic, and always cheerful, she was content with little, if she could but labor for the benefit of the cause. She did everything: letter-carrier, messenger, sentinel; often her work was so heavy that it exhausted even her strength, although she was a woman belonging to the working classes. How often did she return home, late at night, worn out, and at the end of her strength, having for fourteen hours walked about all over the capital, throwing letters into various places and corners with the proclamations of the Executive Committee. But on the following day she rose and recommenced her work.
She was always ready to render every service to any one who needed it, without thinking of the trouble it might cost her. She never gave a single thought to herself. To give an idea of the moral force and boundless devotion of this simple, uneducated woman, it will suffice to relate the story of the last few months of her revolutionary activity. Her husband, Nicholas Kolotkevich, one of the best known and most esteemed members of the Terrorist party, was arrested in the month of February. A capital sentence hung over his head. But she remained in the ranks of the combatants, keeping her anguish to herself. Although four months pregnant, she undertook the terrible duty of acting as the mistress of the house where the bombs of Kibalchich were manufactured, and remained there all the time, until, a week after March 13, she was again arrested.
On the day of her sentence she stood cheerful and smiling before the tribunal which was to send her to the scaffold. She had, however, a sentence more horrible, that of waiting four months for her punishment. This moral torture she bore during the never-ending months without a moment of weakness, for the Government, not caring to arouse the indignation of Europe by hanging her, endeavored to profit by her position to extract some revelations from her. It prolonged, therefore, her moral torture until her life might have been endangered, and did not commute her sentence until some weeks before her confinement.
The St. Petersburg correspondent of the Daily Telegraph says that official details now published confirm the astonishment which has been felt at the terrible severity of the sentences on the Odessa political convicts. The official publication states that all the 28 prisoners were found guilty of having belonged to an illegal society, which called itself the Social Revolutionary party. No further accusation was brought against Lissogoub, a gentleman aged 29, who had already been hanged; against Bolomeze, aged l8, condemned to 20 years’ hard labour; against the lady Levandovski, aged 25, and condemned to 15 years hard labour; or against Popko and the merchant’s son Kravitsoff, condemned to hard labour for life. No overt acts are charged to any of the above, or to the gentlemen Eithner and Stohepansky, the student Rakoff, or the peasant Komoff, condemned to 15 years’ hard labour. The girl Goukoffski, aged 15, who was condemned to banishment in Siberia for an unfixed term, is specially charged with having on July 21, 1878, on the condemnation of Kovalski, cried out, “Kovalski is condemned to death!” It is reported from Vienna that all the officers of the Russian army at Odessa have been placed by secret orders of the Government under the surveillance of the police. These orders having become known, ill-feeling has, it is stated, been engendered between the two forces, and some disturbances have occurred.
The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser (NSW) 36 no. 4018 (November 13, 1879): 7.
RUSSIAN REVOLUTIONARY HEROINES
THE weight of a woman’s brain in Slavonic races is greater than that of a man’s. Among the Germanic peoples the brain weight of the sexes is equal, and in the Latin nations the brain of the man is heavier than that of the woman. Quantity does not necessarily imply quality, but in this case worth follows weight. “For intelligence and resolution,” says M. Anatole Leroy-Beaulieu, the most recent and; the most fascinating of writers on Russia and the Russians, “as well as for education, and the rank she holds in the family, the Russian woman is already the equal of the man. Among the Slavs man ‘is ‘often mobile, flexible, ductile, and impressionable to an excess, but, as if in compensation, woman, in mind and character, possesses so much strength, energy—in one word, virility—that without losing either her grace or her charm, she exercises often a singular and irresistible ascendency.” This ascendency, frequently remarked in diplomacy, is not less remarkable in the revolutionary movement which at the moment supplies many of the youth of Russia with a terrible substitute for religion, which is well-nigh extinguished in the Orthodox Church beneath the superincumbent load of ritual, formality, and officialism. No one can have paid even the most cursory attention to the numerous criminal processes which shed a ray of such grimly lurid light upon the fermenting mass of Russian discontent without being impressed by the prominent part played by women in the work of revolution. Turgenieff, whose admirable novels are far too little read in this country—they appreciate them better in the United States—was, as usual, true to life when, in the Nihilist romance of “Virgin Soil” he made his heroine Marianne the central figure of his picture, and contrasted her decision, self-control, and common sense with the wild, unhealthy, impracticable dreams of her lover, who begins by longing to regenerate society and finishes by blowing out his brains. The plain-looking girl with the round face, short-cut chestnut hair, and an expression made up of strength, passion, and impetuosity, who studied the natural sciences and was aflame with a generous, self-sacrificing enthusiasm for all the oppressed and disinherited, which made her indignant and ready to revolt, especially when irritated by the presence of “calm, plump, self-satisfied people,” embodies in fiction the leading traits of character to be found in many a Russian woman now in Siberia, or fast hastening on the road which leads thither or else to the gallows. Of Sophie Peroffski, the latest and for the moment the most famous of the Charlotte Cordays of Russia, we may have something to say another time. At present it will suffice to notice two or three of the more notable members of the class of which Sophie Peroffski is the most distinguished type.
Sophie Bardin, of Tamboff, a young lady of noble birth, was the first to familiarize the public with the spectacle of a Russian revolutionary heroine. She had not finished her studies and passed her final examinations when she had decided to dedicate her life to the service of “her brothers.” At eighteen years of age she went to Zurich to study the labour question in Switzerland and in Germany, and to sit at the feet of Bakunin, “the apostle of universal destruction” and the prophet of anarchy. She soon returned to Russia confirmed in the faith as to the necessity for remodelling society, and resolved to lose no time in setting to work. She assumed the name of a soldier’s widow, and began to work at daily wages in a factory, the better to be able to carry on the work of proselytism among the disinherited of the world. The self-devotion and self-sacrificing enthusiasm which lead a woman reared in the midst of luxury, and educated as Russian women only are educated, to don the coarse garments of the factory hand and spend her life among the illiterate vulgar, not from any belief in a divine command, but solely from “love for the others,” are by no means unfamiliar in Russia. Sophie Bardin, or rather the twenty-two year-old widow Zaizeff, was not long permitted to conduct her propaganda in peace. A year after her descent among the workers she was arrested. The authorities took two years to prepare her indictment, and she was not tried before the spring of 1877. She conducted her own defence, and surprised every one by the courage and passion with which she pleaded her cause. Thousands of copies of her address were sold in St. Petersburg, and the fate of the eloquent speaker gave force and emphasis to her closing words: “The association will avenge me, and its vengeance will be terrible. Let your hangmen and judges massacre and destroy us now, during the short time that force is still on your side. We set against you our moral might, and that will triumph. Progress, Liberty, and Equality fight for us, and through these ideas no bayonet can thrust.” Her eloquence availed not, and Sophie Bardin was sent to labour in the Siberian mines for. nine years—a dreary expiation for one year’s propagandism of revolutionary doctrine.
Sophie Bardin was the first, and Sophie Peroffski the third, of the popular heroines of the Russian Revolution. The second place was occupied by Vera Sassulitch, whose name is perhaps even more familiar in the West than that of either of the others. Vera, who achieved notoriety by the shot she fired at General Trepoff to avenge the chastisement inflicted on a prisoner, Boglaiouboff, who was personally unknown to her, was four years older than Sophie Bardin at the time of her, trial. Her troubles, however, began even earlier. When only seventeen years old she was flung into gaol as the friend of the sister of Netchaieff, the well-known conspirator. She lay there two years without trial, and after her release she spent three years in exile, being passed on by the police from town to town as a suspect. Oppression drives even the wise man mad, and no one can be surprised that such treatment drove the victim into the ranks of the active conspirators, and at last led her to shoot General Trepoff. She made no attempt to escape, and justified her deed in court as being necessary to call attention to the cruelty which was practised under his control. All other means of publicity being denied her, she resorted to the revolver. Her plea found favour in the eyes of a Russian jury, and her acquittal, which was applauded by almost every newspaper in St. Petersburg, startled Europe. Immediately after her acquittal amid a scene of riotous enthusiasm she disappeared. It was said she had been arrested by “Administrative order” and banished to Siberia. After a short time it was discovered that she had only been in safe hiding, and soon afterwards she was feted as a heroine by the revolutionary refugees of Geneva and Paris, among whom she continues to eke out a livelihood to this day.
Sophie Bardin is in Siberia; Vera Sassulitch is in exile; Sophie Peroffski is dead. But although the three leading actors in the tragic drama are thus accounted for, there are many others whose names appear and reappear in the blood-stained annals of Russian sedition. Of these we catch but passing glimpses, some of which, it must be admitted, are by no means calculated to attract. Olga Rassoffski, who sent a bullet through the head of a police-sergeant; Anna Makharevna, who fled with a passport forged by two other revolutionary women from’ the punishment due for her share in the vitriolization of the spy Goronovitch, and Achristoff, the seventeen-year-old priest’s daughter who made love to the detective Lavroffski in order to betray him into the hands of the Nihilists, who cutoff his ears and sliced off his nose, are among those who, ruthless as destroying angels, keep up the Red terror in Russia. Of others, such as the daughter of Major-General Herzfeld, who was arrested at Kieff, of Vera Panyutin, Larissa Sarudneff, and Olga Shilinski, little more is known than their names and their fate. The case of Julia Krakoffski, the daughter of a university official of Kieff, who was remotely implicated in the affair of Tchigirinski in 1877, was brought to memory the other day by the confirmation of her sentence of banishment to Siberia for the heinous offence of having destroyed compromising papers instead of handing them over to the police, and of being in possession of the forbidden “Story of a Peasant,” by MM. Erckmann-Chatrian. “She was only twenty years old, but all Kieff,” says an admirer, who predicts that ere long her statue will rise upon the site of the fortress of her native city, “knew her charming smile, and the immense treasure of her charity towards the poor.” Still more remarkable was the case of Victoria Goukoffski, daughter of a medical dispenser of Odessa, who, on hearing that the Nihilist Kovalsky had been sentenced to death, created a riot in which two persons were killed by the soldiers, led a mob of red-bloused men through the public streets, and addressed them with revolutionary eloquence from a seat in the middle of the boulevards. She was arrested; but was rescued by the crowd, and made her escape, only to be arrested again the following month and sentenced to Siberia for life. This week, however, the news reaches us that she has terminated her misery by suicide. Whatever may be thought of the madness, or even of the criminality, of these revolutionary heroines of the nineteenth century, it is impossible not to recognize in their sublime devotion to the cause of the downtrodden and disinherited members of the human family a spirit which is nearly allied to the disinterested devotion of the martyrs whose blood was the seed of the Church.
The Pall Mall Budget (June 17, 1881): 7.
- “Achristoff, the 17-year-old priest’s daughter, who made love to the detective Lavroffski, in order to betray him into the hands of the nihilists…”
- “Victoria Goukoffski, daughter of a medical dispenser of Odessa, who, on hearing that the Nihilist Kovalsky had been sentenced to death, created a riot…”
- “the daughter of Major General Herzfeld, who was arrested at Kief…”
- “Jude Krakoffski, the daughter of a university official at Kieff, whose banishment to Siberia for having destroyed certain compromising papers in 1877, was confirmed only the other day…” (1881)
- “the lady Levandovski, aged 25, and condemned to 15 years hard labour…”
- “Anna Makharevna, who fled with a forged passport for her part in the vitriolization of the spy Goronovitch…”
- Vera Panyutin
- “Olga Rassoffski, who sent a bullet through the head of a police sergeant…”
- Larissa Sarudneff
- Olga Shilinski
Sketches of Russian Heroines. I. Vera Figner
BY May Beals-Hoffpauir
Twenty-two years, nearly one-third of the expected three score and ten, spent in a black prison cell with no glimpse of passing cloud or starry skies; no message for thirteen of these years from friend or relative; no hope, in all that dreary time, of any change but death—such is the record of nearly one-half of Vera Figner’s life. It is not strange that her recent appearance in London aroused the wild enthusiasm to which she was already accustomed on the continent.
Few can survive twenty years in a Russian prison, and those few are usually utter wrecks both physically and mentally. Vera Figner is an exception to this rule. London Justice describes her, in her white robe, as appearing youthful and beautiful as of yore; and her public lectures are ample proof of her mental vigor.
At the time that Alexander II reverted to his reactionary policy, Vera Figner was a young and lovely girl who seemed destined by birth and education to move tranquilly in the highest circles of Russian society. Her parents were aristocratic, prosperous and independent and there seemed to be no reason why their daughter should disappoint their expectation of a brilliant future. But the persecution of the press, the suppression of free speech, the increasing number of exiles, roused the latent fires of the younger generation, and the socialistic doctrines beginning to spread in Russia fanned them to fever heat.
Although for a time Vera Figner was too young to take an active part in this movement she came in contact with many advanced thinkers of different schools while she and her older sister were studying natural science at Zurich in 1872. She attended the meetings of the different groups, Socialist and anarchist, and listened with great interest to their debates.
Her active work began when her elder sister, Lydia, her friend Sophie Bardina, and others were arrested and thrown into prisons; where, during their long suspense while awaiting judgment, many fell ill and died or became insane, or committed suicide. Vera joined the society formed for relief work among the prisoners—dangerous and strenuous work in which her personal charm, physical endurance and strength of character were of great service to those unfortunates. It was after several years of this work, and after her sister had been sentenced to Siberia, that Vera decided to join the ranks of the revolutionists.
During the fiery years before the assassination of Alexander II, while her friends were being sentenced to death and exile, and her work was carried on amongst constant perils. Vera Figner and her friend Sophie Perovskaya were tireless propagandists of the “Narodnaya Volya” (People’s Will Party). Vera’s genius for organization and her fearless earnestness made her influence widely felt, especially in her favorite work of spreading the cause in the army, which in Russia, as elsewhere, is the main bulwark of tyranny. Even the officers were often converted by her, and she commanded the respect of all she met, even her enemies. The famous Russian writer, N. Mikhailowsky, says of her:
“It is difficult to say in what exactly consisted the force and charm emanating from her, and attracting those around her so much. She was certainly both intelligent and fair to look at, but intelligence was not everything in her case, and as to beauty, that did not play any great part in her circle; she had besides, no specific talents. She fascinated by the great unity and harmony of her whole being; her entire self appeared in every word and gesture; hesitation and doubt were unknown to her. She was, however, quite free from the ascetic austerity so often to be observed in characters of this type. On the contrary, when the party’s affairs were going well, she was as sprightly and full of fun as any child.” The Narodnaya Volya group believed that when the crisis came the rest of the educated classes would join in their revolt. Their disappointment and sense of isolation when, after the assassination of Alexander II and their betrayal by the spy, Degaieff, they found that they were mistaken, has been vividly described by Vera Figner since her release. They were sentenced to death but the agitation against the execution of Russian political offenders, started by Victor Hugo and others in France, influenced the authorities to commute her sentence and that of some others to one of life imprisonment in the terrible fortress of Schlusselburg.
The following account of her life in prison is from a private letter that has been published instead of a preface, in a volume of her poems.
“Only a real poet could express in words all the phases of rage, trenchant despair, and the soul’s agony passed through in a period of twenty-two years. And what a variety of spiritual moods there was during all this time! Now it was the mood of a woman martyr in the early days of Christianity resigned to suffer everything with the gentleness of a lamb…. Now it was the fury of a panther striking with her chest and claws at the rails of her cage in her irrepressible desire to get free…. And now the mood changed to one of utter indifference without moods at all, when the soul became chilled as if covered with a mantle of snow. Then a state of lingering mere existence began, in which one ceased to suffer from a consciousness of either the strength still left or of an utter helplessness. In such moments it seemed that everything was finished, that death was approaching, bringing the only comfort of being laid down to rest by the side of comrades who have gone before and deserving the same warm feeling as I myself have cherished toward the dear departed.”
“…And suddenly! Again a knock at the closed door… This time it is a knock of life itself with its voice: “Arise and go! . . Oh what a tragedy! When one has already given up everything, refused to live any longer, and reconciled oneself to one’s fate, then suddenly to be awakened again by the call: “Come and live. Is not all this a whole tragedy, an anguish of which I cannot free myself even at this moment?”
The poems that she wrote while in prison, of course, without hope of ever seeing them published, reflect these moods with great realism and pathos. I give Jaakoff Prelooker’s translation of “The Best Have Fallen,” dedicated to the comrades who had died in prison:
The best have fallen. Swallowed by the earth
Unknown their resting place remains.
No tear fell o’er their lifeless frames,
Borne to their graves by strangers hands
No cross, no rail, nor e’en a tablet
Is there the glorious name to honor.
The humble grass and moss alone
The spot caress—its mystery cover.
The whirling waves as only witness,
Raging, foaming, the shores attack.
But awful as their roar may be
The tragic tale they ne’er can tell.
May Beals-Hoffpauir, “Sketches of Russian Heroines. I. Vera Figner,” The Progessive Woman 3 no. 28 (September, 1909): 4.
LIBERTY’S MARTYRED HEROINE.
Hanged April 15, 1881,
For Helping to Rid the World of a Tyrant.
Down from her high estate she stept, A maiden, gently born And by the icy Volga kept Sad watch, and waited morn; And peasants say that where she slept The new moon dipped her horn. Yet on and on, through shoreless snows Stretched tow'rd the great north pole, The foulest wrong the good God known Rolls as dark rivers roll. While never once for all these woes Upspeaks one human soul. She toiled, she taught the peasant, taught The dark-eyed Tartar. He, Inspired with her lofty thought, Rose up and sought to be, What God at the creation wrought, A man! God-like and free. Yet e'er before him yawn the black Siberian mines! And oh, The knout upon the bare white back! The blood upon the snow! The gaunt wolves, close upon the track, Fight o'er the fallen so! And this that one might wear a crown Snatched from a strangled sire! And this that two might mock or frown, From high thrones climblng higher, To where the parricide looks down With harlot in desire! Yet on, beneath the great north star, Like some lost, living thing, That long line stretches black and far Till buried by death's wing! And great men praise the goodly czar — But God sits pitying. The storm burst forth! From out that storm The clean, red lightning leapt! And lo, a prostrate royal form! Like any blood, his crept Down through the snow, all smoking warm, And Alexander slept! Yea, one lies dead, for millions dead! One red spot in the snow For one long damning line of red; While exiles endless go — The babe at breast, the mother's head Bowed down, and dying so! And did a woman do this deed? Then build her scaffold high, That all may on her forehead read Her martyr's right to die! Ring Cossack round on royal steed! Now lift her to the sky! But see! From out the black hood shines A light few look upon! Poor exile, see! from dark deep mines, Your star at burst of dawn ! A thud! a creak of hangman's lines — A frail shape jerked and drawn ! The czar is dead; the woman dead. About her neck a cord. In God's house rests his royal head — Here in a place abhorred; Yet I would rather have her bed Than thine, most royal lord! Yea, rather be that woman dead, Than this new living czar, To hide in dread, with both hands red, Behind great bolt and bar — While like the dead, still endless tread Sad exiles tow'rd their star.
Joaquin Miller, “Sophie Perovskaya, Liberty’s Martyred Heroine,” Liberty 1, no. 1 (August 6, 1881): 1.
Blue-eyed, fair-haired, a girl in outward seeming,
With lips, men held, that only cared to sing,
When thy foot passed along the meadows dreaming
Soft dreams and tender of the gold-haired Spring—
When other maidens dreamed with longing wonder
Of love, thou crowned with Spring’s most loving light
Beneath blue skies wast dreaming of the thunder,
Beneath the morn wast dreaming of the night .
High-born, thou didst forsake the lordly places;
Thy young heart thrilled at Freedom’s trumpet-call:
Thou wanderedst forth, a light for poor men’s faces;
Love, wealth, repose,—thou didst surrender all.
And has not yet from our free isle resounded
One song, one hymn of passionate love for thee,
Who, when the tyrant’s red-stained deeds abounded,
Didst say, “One soul in Russia still is free”?
When thou didst strike, were all our singers staggered
At thy vast force of soul that none could say,
“A strong god at a touch turned pale and haggard,
A Czar before a girl’s stroke passed away “?
I would not die without one true word spoken
Whereby, if but for one short moment’s space,
The English chill grim silence may be broken:
I love, who never looked upon thy face.
Singing, I hail thee from a land that never
For all its errors, countless though they are,
Stooped to endure, nor will it stoop for ever
To endure, the smile or sceptre of a Czar.
The message of our English ringing fountains,
The message of the fells, to thee I bear:
For thee speaks once again from cloud-crowned mountains
The voice at which world-tyrannies despair.
The greeting of our English oaks and willows,
The greeting of our flowers, I send to thee;
The royal love-song of our kingless billows,
And our sun’s song, wherewith he loves our sea:
The solemn kiss of England’s pure-souled daughters
That should have been, that one day will be, thine;
The song of stars that gleam o’er English waters;
The song that makes the enchanted night divine:
The song of English cliff and gold-flowered hollow;
The chant of poet-souls as yet unborn,
Whose stronger footsteps on my step shall follow;
The love-song of the winds that woo the morn:
All these are thine for ever.—When Love hearkened
With listening heart and tearful eyes to thee,
Thou then didst choose the loveless road that darkened;
Beloved by Time, didst choose Eternity.
Behind, a thousand flowers of varied pleasure;
In front, the scentless air, the starless gloom!
A life that might yield joy in sumptuous measure,
Glad rainbow-hopes, behind. In front, the tomb!
Yet thou didst choose the tomb. With stern lips firmer
Than hers by whom foul Marat’s fate was planned
Thou chosest death. Thou diedst without a murmur,
Thy white hand locked in Charlotte Corday’s hand.
George Barlow, From Dawn to Sunset (London: Roxburghe Press, 1895): 190-191.
THE Moscow journals relate an extraordinary escape of a young Nihilist girl named Gobieslawska from the hands of the police. They had discovered the house in which she was concealed, and were about to make the arrest, when, to their surprise, they saw a balloon rising from the garden containing the object of their search and two men. The balloon rapidly disappeared.
Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper (September 13, 1879): 23.
Up in a Balloon.— A novel mode of escape was recently practiced by a Nihilist. A young woman named Olga Gobieslawska had been wanted for a long time by the police, when on July 25 the house at Moscow in which she had sought a refuge was discovered. The authorities determined to arrest on the following night ; but, unfortunately for them, some time in the afternoon they saw a balloon rising rapidly from the garden, which soon disappeared beyond the horizon. The balloon contained Mdlle Olga and two young men and all efforts to capture the fugitives have since proved fruitless.
Star (Canterbury) no. 3630 (November 28, 1879): 2.