Spiridonova, Maria Alexandrovna

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(18841941), Socialist Revolutionary terrorist and Left Socialist Revolutionary leader who spent most of her life in prison or exile because of her popular appeal as a revolutionary heroine.

Maria Spiridonova, daughter of a non-hereditary noble in Tambov Province, became a public symbol of heroic martyrdom during the first Russian revolution of 19051907. In January 1906 she shot provincial councilor G. N. Luzhenovsky at the Borisoglebsk Railroad Station, carrying out the death sentence that the Tambov Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs) had passed on Luzhenovsky for his cruel suppression of peasant unrest in the district. Spiridonova's case excited national interest, thus distinguishing her from the many other SR terrorists throughout the empire. A letter Spiridonova wrote from prison was published in a liberal newspaper and debated widely in the national press because it described her torture at the hands of police officials, hinting as well at sexual abuse. Liberal newspapers in particular waxed eloquent about the brutalities inflicted on this beautiful and chaste young woman of the Russian upper classes who had killed a sadistic bureaucrat.

In March 1906, however, a court-martial sentenced Spiridonova to hanging, then commuted her sentence to life imprisonment, the usual practice in cases of females convicted of political crimes until mid-1906. Eleven years of incarceration in the Nerchinsk penal complex in Siberia followed, during which Spiridonova suffered from depression, nervous prostration, and frequent flareups of tuberculosis, her chronic illness. The Provisional Government's amnesty of all political prisoners shortly after the February Revolution allowed Spiridonova to return to European Russia in the spring of 1917. Here she was welcomed, given her reputation as heroine and martyr, into the highest level of revolutionary politics in Petrograd and Moscow.

As a leader of the Left SR Party, Spiridonova employed the aura of her martyrdom, along with her personal charisma and oratorical skills, to sway peasants, workers, and soldiers against the Provisional Government and to popularize the October Revolution. While she did not hold an official post in the first Soviet government, a Bolshevik-Left SR coalition, she was elected chairperson of the Peasant Section of the Central Executive Committee (VTsIK) of the second, third, and fourth Soviet Congresses. Indeed it was her lifelong concern for the peasants and their welfare that ultimately turned Spiridonova against the Bolsheviks.

Spiridonova had been an early supporter of Vladimir Lenin's push to sign a separate peace with Germany, however punitive, because the Russian population was opposed to continuing the war. She adhered to this position despite her party's objections to the "shameful" Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and withdrawal from the government in protest in March 1918. But when Russian concessions to Germany led to a food supply crisis that the Bolsheviks attempted to resolve with stringent grain-procurement measures in May, Spiridonova repudiated the treaty along with Bolshevik policy. She took a leading role in planning the Left SRs' assassination of the German ambassador, an attempt to break the treaty and spark a popular uprising that was aborted by the Bolsheviks in July. With her party's consequent banishment from Soviet politics, a second martyrdom began for Spiridonova. From 1920 on she lived either in prison, under house arrest, in Central Asian exile, or in sanatoria, up to her execution on Josef Stalin's orders during the German invasion in 1941.

See also: brest-litovsk peace; left socialist revolutionaries; socialist revolutionaries; terrorism


Rabinowitch, Alexander. (1995). "Maria Spiridonova's 'Last Testament.'" Russian Review 54(3):424446.

Radkey, Oliver H. (1958). The Agrarian Foes of Bolshevism: Promise and Default of the Russian Socialist Revolutionaries, February to October 1917. New York: Columbia University Press.

Radkey, Oliver H. (1963). The Sickle under the Hammer: The Russian Socialist Revolutionaries in the Early Months of Soviet Rule. New York: Columbia University Press.

Steinberg, Isaac. (1935). Spiridonova: Revolutionary Terrorist. tr. and eds. Gwenda David and Eric Mosbacher. London: Methuen.

Sally A. Boniece