Zasulich, Vera

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ZASULICH, VERA (1849–1919), Russian revolutionary.

Born 8 August (27 July, old style) 1849 into a family of impoverished lesser nobility and raised by well-to-do relatives in Smolensk province of imperial Russia, Vera Zasulich first encountered radical ideas when she began attending boarding school in Moscow in 1866. The radicals of the 1860s, critical of the social, political, and cultural order associated with serfdom, regarded gender differences as irrelevant to the struggle against it, and welcomed the participation of women. Yekaterina, the eldest Zasulich sister, introduced Vera to members of the radical Ishutin circle who remained at liberty after Dmitri Karakozov's attempted assassination of the tsar, Alexander II. In the summer of 1868, Vera Zasulich settled in St. Petersburg, where she participated in work collectives and then taught in an evening literacy school for workers. There she met the notorious revolutionary Sergei Nechayev, whom she served briefly as a go-between, her only oppositional act thus far. It led to her arrest in April 1869. Released two years later, she was imprisoned again in the summer of 1872, then sent into exile.

These years, a time of deprivation and suffering, cemented Zasulich's commitment to the destruction of the state. Following her release in September 1875, Zasulich went to Kiev, where she joined the revolutionary Southern Insurgents, and assumed an illegal existence. In the group she met and became involved with Lev Deich, with whom she lived whenever circumstances permitted until Deich's arrest in 1884. In December 1876 Zasulich returned to St. Petersburg; joined the recently established group Land and Liberty, devoted to peasant revolution; and worked in its underground press and at planning comrades' prison escapes. In July 1877 she learned of the flogging of a political prisoner, Arkhip Bogolyubov, ordered by Fyodor Trepov, the governor-general of St. Petersburg, and, outraged, vowed retribution for an act she deemed immoral.

Zasulich's attempted assassination of Trepov the following January won her fame in Russia and abroad. Although she shot at close range, Zasulich only wounded Trepov; then, prepared to accept the consequences of her action, she made no effort to defend herself or flee. Promptly arrested, she was tried and acquitted by a jury at the end of March, then released. Zasulich's acquittal brought the end of jury trials for political crimes. To avoid being arrested again on government orders, she escaped to Geneva, where she remained until 1905 except for two brief, clandestine trips to Russia and three years spent in London.

Liberals and radicals in Russia and Europe applauded Zasulich's acquittal. Russian radicals understood it to indicate widespread popular sympathy for their aims, and it encouraged exponents of terrorism among the fracturing populist movement. Zasulich was not among them. Instead, she rejected terrorism as a political tactic. In August 1879, during a brief visit to Russia, she joined the short-lived Black Repartition, which favored the revival of agitation among the peasantry. Abroad, she gradually moved from a peasant-oriented to a Marxist view of social transformation. In September 1883 Zasulich became one of the founders of Russia's first Marxist organization, the Emancipation of Labor Group. It took seven more years, however, before she fully abandoned her faith in the peasant commune and Russia's ability to bypass capitalism, and became convinced that only the proletariat, a group just emerging in Russia, could make a socialist revolution. Her views were congruent with those known as Menshevism after 1903: the proletariat would assume its historical role only after an extended period of maturation and preparation by radical intellectuals.

Reserved and self-effacing, Zasulich never sought visibility or political authority, despite the level of respect she garnered from the Left. During her years abroad, she established links with European socialists; wrote political analyses and historical/biographical studies; edited émigré publications, most notably the Marxist periodical Iskra (The spark); worked to assist revolutionaries in Russia; and devoted considerable energy to preserving unity in the fractious émigré movement. When the Russian Social Democrats split in 1903, Zasulich sided with the Mensheviks. Eager to be on the scene, she returned to Russia in the fall of 1905; the failure of the Revolution of 1905 marked the end of her active participation in revolutionary politics. When World War I broke out in 1914, Zasulich supported Russia's participation against Germany, because she considered German imperialism a threat to international socialism. Following the revolution of February 1917, Zasulich backed the Menshevik policy of collaboration with liberals in the Provisional Government; in her view, the October Revolution perverted Marxism. Her health was seriously failing by then, weakened by the tuberculosis she had contracted in 1889, and from which she had suffered since. Zasulich died of pneumonia on 8 May 1919.

See alsoMensheviks; Nechayev, Sergei; Populists; Socialism.


Primary Sources

Koni, A. F. Vospominaniia o dele Very Zasulich. Moscow, 1933.

Zasulich, Vera. "Vera Zasulich." In Five Sisters: Women against the Tsar, edited and translated by Barbara Alpern Engel and Clifford N. Rosenthal, 59–94. New York, 1975. Translation of Vospominaniia (1931).

Secondary Sources

Bergman, Jay. Vera Zasulich: A Biography. Stanford, Calif., 1983.

Barbara Alpern Engel