Category Archives: Vera Lubotovitch

Ella Norraikow, “Woman’s Share in Russian Nihilism” (1891)

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WOMAN’S SHARE IN RUSSIAN NIHILISM

Ella Norraikow

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.

Screen Shot 2016-06-21 at 10.49.13 PMAmong 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.

Screen Shot 2016-06-21 at 10.50.39 PMFor 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.

Screen Shot 2016-06-21 at 10.53.47 PMSophia 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.

Screen Shot 2016-06-21 at 10.51.43 PMThe 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.

Screen Shot 2016-06-21 at 10.52.37 PMAlexandra 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.

Screen Shot 2016-06-21 at 10.58.32 PMThe 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.

Screen Shot 2016-06-21 at 10.55.21 PMMademoiselle 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.

Screen Shot 2016-06-21 at 11.00.11 PMVera 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.

Screen Shot 2016-06-21 at 10.56.20 PMEugenie 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.

Screen Shot 2016-06-21 at 11.01.09 PMBut 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?’

“‘Yes.’

“‘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.’

“‘Enter, then.’

“The girl crossed the threshold and a heavy curtain fell behind her.

“‘A fool,’ gnashed someone outside.

“‘A saint,’ answered a voice from somewhere.”


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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.

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Filed under 1891, Alexandra Khorjevskaya, Anna Toporkova, Eugenie Figner, nihilism, Olga Lubotovitch, Sophia Bardina, Sophie Perovskaya, Vera Figner, Vera Lubotovitch, Vera Zasulich