People's Will

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The Party of the People's Will was a late-nineteenth-century conspiratorial revolutionary organization that assassinated the Russian emperor Alexander II and other high officials, with the aim of securing political liberties. The organization grew out of the intelligentsia's disillusionment with Russia's incomplete "Great Reforms" of the 1860s. Influenced by writings of (among others) Nikolai Chernyshevsky, Mikhail Bakunin, and Peter Lavrov, activists sought to remedy the poverty and oppression of the Russian peasantry through direct action. They hoped to steer Russia away from the perceived evils of capitalist development, toward a free socialist society resting upon the peasantry's communal traditions. In the "mad summer" of 1874 several thousand young people traveled through rural districts to spread ideas of social revolution. They found the peasants unreceptive and suspicious, and the police vigilant. Some sixteen hundred would-be propagandists ended up in police custody.

Those who avoided arrest adopted more conspiratorial tactics. The Land and Liberty group (Zemlya i Volya, 1876–1879) established secret hideouts, false identities, and clandestine printing presses. Its "disorganizing" efforts included jail-breaks and defensive or retaliatory terrorism, epitomized by Land and Liberty member Vera Zasulich's 1878 attempt to kill the military governor of St. Petersburg, F. F. Trepov, after he ordered the flogging of a radical prisoner.

In the spring of 1879 exponents of terrorism began to reevaluate Land and Liberty's strategy and objectives, advocating instead that terror should be turned into an offensive weapon against the autocratic state. In one radical's words, "no activity aimed at the good of the people is possible, given the despotism and violence which here reign supreme. There is no freedom of speech or freedom of press, which would allow us to act by means of persuasion…. [Hence we] must put an end to the existing regime" (quoted in Venturi, p. 649). Leaders of this new faction were wary of "Jacobinism" and did not propose to take state power into their own hands. They argued that a direct attack against the state would promote creation of a free and socialistic society "from below." The militants formed a secret Executive Committee that functioned briefly within Land and Liberty and then, when the latter group split over the terrorists' agenda, took the name People's Will (Narodnaya Volya).

Over the next eighteen months the conspirators made a series of dramatic and bloody attempts to kill the emperor. The committee had barely a hundred adherents, but the mystique of a vast conspiracy created widespread panic. In response the Russian state tightened its police regime. Interior Minister M. T. Loris-Melikov recognized that repressive policies alone would not overcome the threat and urged Alexander II to seek broader popular support from the propertied classes through reforms and consultations. On 1 March 1881 (the day of his assassination) Alexander accepted these proposals, but they were later rejected by his successor.

The assassins prepared their attack with great care, monitoring the emperor's movements about St. Petersburg. They dug a tunnel under a main thoroughfare in order to blow up his sleigh when he passed by. When Alexander changed routes, two of the conspirators attacked him with hand-thrown bombs. Police soon apprehended the plotters. Five were executed, and the rest received long prison sentences. A few activists escaped abroad to a life of isolation and, for several, disillusionment. Instead of triggering a popular revolt, the emperor's assassination provoked pro-monarchist demonstrations, anti-Semitic riots, and an extended crackdown on all oppositionists.

After killing Alexander II, the remaining conspirators declared their political agenda in a public letter: They would abandon terrorism if the new monarch granted basic freedoms (of speech, assembly, and press) and transferred power to an elected assembly. Alexander III was unswayed. In July 1881 the surviving members of the People's Will denounced the murder of U.S. president James Garfield. Assassination, they declared, was a last resort in a tyrannical state such as Russia, but unacceptable in a free country.

Over the next decade several new groups tried to revive the People's Will. Some cooperated with Marxists and "propagandist" Populists, while others flirted with the idea of a revolutionary dictatorship. In 1887 five members of a new People's Will—including Alexander Ulyanov, older brother of Vladimir Lenin—were hanged for planning to murder Alexander III. In all, more than five thousand people were arrested in the 1880s for antistate activities.

Later generations remembered the People's Will as idealists, fanatics, and utopians. (Soviet historians underscored their petty-bourgeois origins and "voluntarist" conception of revolution.) The group's direct heirs were terrorists associated with the Socialist Revolutionary Party who carried out many assassinations between 1898 and 1918. More broadly, the terms of struggle laid down by the People's Will—centralized, conspiratorial, and uncompromising—became a shared legacy of other revolutionary factions, including the Bolshevik wing of Russian Social Democracy. The state's response, equally uncompromising, was to reject all constitutional proposals and treat all manner of critics as revolutionaries. Instead of bringing political liberty to Russia, the People's Will helped to polarize state and society and destroy the possibility of reform.

See alsoAlexander II; Nechayev, Sergei; Populists; Zasulich, Vera.


Primary Sources

Figner, Vera. Memoirs of a Revolutionist. Authorized translation from the Russian; introduction by Richard Stites. DeKalb, Ill., 1991. Translation of Zapechatlennyi trud (1921).

Secondary Sources

Naimark, Norman M. Terrorists and Social Democrats: The Russian Revolutionary Movement under Alexander III. Cambridge, Mass., 1983.

Venturi, Franco. Roots of Revolution: A History of the Populist and Socialist Movements in Nineteenth Century Russia. Translated from the Italian by Francis Haskell. London, 1964. Translation of Il Populismo Russo (1952).

Robert E. Johnson