Figner, Vera (1852–1942)

views updated

Figner, Vera (1852–1942)

Russian revolutionary whose work to free all Russian people led to her involvement in the assassination of Alexander II. Name variations: Vera Feigner; Verochka. Pronunciation: VEE-rah FIG-nur. Born on July 7, 1852, in Khristoforovka, Kazan Province, Russia; died in the USSR on June 15, 1942; daughter of Nikolai Alexandrovich Figner (a noble and local justice) and Ekaterina Khristoforovna Figner (daughter of a judge); sister of Olga Figner, Lydia Figner, and Evgenia Figner; attended Rodionovsky Institute at Kazan, 1863–69; attended medical school in Zurich and Bern, Switzerland, 1872–75; married Aleksei Victorovich Filippov, in 1870 (legally separated in 1876); no children.

Family moved to Nikoforovo, where Vera entered school (1863); graduated (1869); left for Swiss universities with husband and sister Lydia (1872); joined the Fritsche group (1872); returned to Russia (1875); passed exams for assistant physician in Yaroslavl (1876); became a member of the populist group Land and Liberty (1879); joined the radical insurrectionist group People's Will after the Voronezh conference (1879); took control of the People's Will group in Odessa, then recalled to St. Petersburg to become a member of the party's Executive Committee (1880); assisted in the assassination of Alexander II (1881); remained the last member of the People's Will Executive Committee at large in Russia (1882); arrested in Kharkov (1883); tried and sentenced in St. Petersburg (1884); incarcerated in the Schlüsselburg fortress (1884–1904); exiled in Russia (1904–06); lived abroad (1906–15). Publications: Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v shesti tomakh (Complete Works in Six Volumes, Moscow, 1929).

The memoirs of Russian political revolutionaries of the late 19th century contain the names of many women who figured prominently in the movement; arrest totals show that some 15% were women. In these accounts, the name Vera Figner stands out as synonymous with a dedicated revolutionary. Indeed, her participation in the scheme to assassinate Tsar Alexander II, her trial, and the ensuing years of imprisonment left an imprint on those who would follow a militant revolutionary path.

Figner was born into the Russia of the 1850s, a time of intense public debate in the country's history. Western Europe was in the process of evolving socially and politically to meet the challenges of a modern industrial state, while for the previous 70 years Russia had been fixated on the issue of serfdom and its eradication without changing existing social, economic, and political structures.

Figner's parents were members of the gentry class (or nobility). Her father Nikolai Figner was educated as a forester, a career he followed until the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. He then became a justice of the peace and moved his family to his estate in Nikoforovo when Vera was 12. Her mother Ekaterina Figner was the daughter of a judge and had received the type of home education usual for her time. Vera Figner would write about life in the provinces for women as "confined within the narrow boundaries of petty interests, and it seemed as though there were no escape from those boundaries." Her youthful dream was to become a tsarina.

During her childhood, Vera rarely had contact with her parents. As the eldest of six surviving children, she spent most of her time with nannies and siblings. In 1863, she was enrolled in the Rodionovsky Institute in Kazan, where she was taught little other than the usual finishing-school curriculum. During breaks from school, she read novels and journals recommended by her mother and uncle. As her six children grew up, Ekaterina had more time to spend with her older children. Vera formed a solid relationship with her mother and would remain devoted to her for the rest of her life. Although Nikolai Figner did not die until 1870, when Vera was 18 years old, he evidently had little impact on her life other than as an early political model. She described her parents, extended family members, and their close acquaintances as liberal democrats and not socialists of any type. They were basically utilitarians, who believed that each individual is responsible to do the greatest good to affect the greatest number of people. Her parents and many other liberals believed that the avenue to social change in Russia was through the gentry and its service to the state.

After graduation from the institute in 1869, Figner wanted to attend university; her parents, however, decided that she should have a debut in Kazan. There, she met her future husband Aleksei Victorovich Filippov, a legal investigator. Married in 1870, several weeks before her father died, Figner then moved forward with her plans to attend a university. She wanted to acquire a useful degree, hoping to find a cure for the social and economic ills that beset her country. Because medical degrees were unobtainable in Russia, Figner, her husband, and sister Lydia Figner decided to study abroad. The three left for Zurich, Switzerland, in 1872 when Figner was 21 years old.

Once installed in Zurich, she became involved with a Russian women's circle, a forum for women to learn to speak "logically" in order to articulate their ideas in front of men and thus undo centuries of Russian cultural practices as they pertained to women. The circle met only twice before breaking into smaller groups of like-minded women. One of these groups, the Fritsche, to which Figner and her sister belonged, espoused socialism and class warfare. Members of the group were to become the leading women in the political movements of Russia in the late 1870s and early 1880s. Figner absorbed the books of Proudhon, Fourier, Blanc, Bentham, and Bakunin. From these works, and discussions with the other women of the group, she formulated a new political identity. For the women of the Fritsche, their work was obvious: to return to Russia and live among the workers in order to bring social, political, and economic change to Russia. They firmly believed that the key to Russia's success would be a social revolution led by the urban workers. Figner pointed out that factory laborers should be the target group as "they were more highly developed mentally." She did not, however, believe she had the strength to live among the workers and survive the long days and arduous tasks of the factory.

As Figner evolved as a socialist, her husband Aleksei, never more than a liberal, became more conservative. She changed universities in 1873 as a result of a Russian government decree that female students in Zurich return to Russia at once or be barred from taking licensing exams. They were accused by the government of studying medicine in order to practice free love and obtain abortions. The decree said nothing, however, of women studying elsewhere, so Figner moved to Bern to continue her training. Aleksei did not go with her, and from that time forward they were separated. While she continued her studies, the Fritsche group put together a program before leaving Zurich, deciding on a populist approach for their ideas. They determined to live among the peasants, working at manual labor.

In 1875, after her sister Lydia's imprisonment in Moscow for possessing socialist literature, Figner returned to Russia to work for the revolutionaries. She did not see or communicate with Lydia, however, for fear it would alert the authorities. In 1876, Vera stood for the state licensing exam for physician's assistant and midwife, passing both. License in hand, she continued to carry out the plan the Fritsche group had articulated, living among the people in order to raise their political awareness.

Prior to 1876, revolutionary groups were of two types—propagandists and insurrectionists. Propagandists believed that people were blank slates on which socialist principles could be etched. Insurrectionists believed that all methods of social upheaval were legitimate, and that the people would be able to create a new order only after the existing one was brought down. Out of the failures of both these groups came the narodniki or Populists. The basic program of the Populists was simple: by organizing petitions the tsar would not honor, they would prove his inability to take care of peasant needs and, thereby, foster discontent and insurrection among the peasants. Thus, they could gain ownership of the land for those who worked it. New groups, such as the Land and Freedom (Zemlya i volya) and the People's Will (Narodnaya volya), were formed to take this message to the people.

To lose one's freedom means to lose the ownership of one's own body.

—Vera Figner

Franco Venturi, a historian of political thought, claims that while the Populist program failed to incite the longed-for revolution, the peasants were exposed to different ideas: "Everywhere the peasants had listened to these strange pilgrims with amazement, surprise and sometimes suspicion. But the government understood that a new revolutionary movement had now been born." Believing in the Populist ideals, Figner picked up where those imprisoned had left off.

Her first opportunity came in August 1877. Taking a post as a physician's assistant at Studentsy in Samara province, she was in charge of the medical well-being of 12 peasant villages. For the first time, Figner was confronted with the realities of human suffering and deprivation. She lasted only three months. In 1878, she went to St. Petersburg, where she met and befriended Sonia Perovskaya , a friendship that would last until Perovskaya was hanged for political terrorism. In the same year, Figner moved as a surgeon's assistant to the village of Vyazimo in Saratov province with her sister Evgenia Figner . In order to practice in the countryside, Vera needed to win over the superstitious peasants and local officials. For most of the population, this was the first woman physician with modern medical training they had ever met. Figner estimated in her memoirs that she saw over 5,000 patients in the first ten months.

Beyond the use of her medical knowledge, Figner opened a school together with Evgenia, in which they taught reading, writing and simple mathematics to peasant children and parents. Over time, the local peasantry grew to respect them, requesting, on more than one occasion, that the sisters intervene for them with the local bureaucracy over issues such as taxation. During her sojourn in the countryside, Figner met Populist Alexander Soloviev, and together they talked about the futility of change in the peasant villages; they felt that the population, overall, was too backward to create a revolution. From this point on, Figner became an advocate for Soloviev's idea that political freedom was necessary for any change in Russia. Soloviev was hanged in May 1879 for an assassination attempt on Alexander II.

Ironically, Alexander II was known as the "tsar liberator." He had emancipated the serfs in 1861 and had instituted the first legal and political reforms in an effort to modernize Russia. "It is better to abolish serfdom from above," he said, "than to await the time when it will begin to abolish itself from below." But Alexander's reforms failed to produce the rapid social and economic growth that he had hoped they would achieve. After 1866, he gradually abandoned his liberal and reform program, partly as a result of the Polish rebellion of 1863–64. In addition, the profound disappointment of the peasants and radical intellectuals in the reforms led to widespread social unrest and even violence. A struggle developed between his government and the dedicated revolutionary elements that had been organizing even as he passed his reforms. On April 4, 1866, a student, Dmitri V. Karakazov, fired several shots at Alexander. Frightened and angry over the incident, Alexander moved steadily towards a reactionary response to the radicals. Several treason trials were held, and the police were given broad powers to keep order. These responses undermined Alexander's relationship with the Russian intellectuals, and the trials gave exposure to the radical cause.

In 1879, Figner became a member of the Land and Freedom movement, but when the group split over the method required to obtain political freedom, she chose the more radical People's Will, with its party platform centering on the legitimacy of political terror. She described the use of terror not as a goal but as a "weapon for protection." Leaving her work among the peasants, she became a terrorist revolutionary, involved with conspiracies to assassinate the tsar. Though several of the plans came to naught due to changes in the tsar's schedules, attempts continued to be made by Figner's colleagues. For the bombing of the Winter Palace in February 1880, Figner collected and stored the dynamite used. The dining room was blown up as the tsar, the empress Marie of Hesse-Darmstadt , and their eight children entered, but the would-be assassin, Stepan Halturin, did not have a large enough charge to destroy the room.

Wrote Figner:

Society, at any rate its more intelligent element, greeted our activity with great enthusiasm, and offered us sympathetic aid and ardent approval. From this point of view we had the right to speak in the name of society. We constituted to a marked degree the front rank of a part of that society. Knowing that this group sympathized with us, we did not feel ourselves a sect, isolated from all the elements of the empire, and this contributed not a little to that "implacable quality" which we showed in our actions, and of which the public prosecutors used to speak at our trials.

For Figner and the others, the sacrifice of their lives, as well as the lives of the royals, was a small price to pay for delivering the Russian people from oppression.

In January 1880, she was given leadership of the People's Will group in Odessa. There, she organized an assassination attempt on a government official who had exiled many students and intellectuals for political crimes. That summer, after an abortive attempt on the governor of the province, she returned to St. Petersburg. Figner then took up secretarial work for the group and became a member of the Executive Committee, which made the decisions about targets and the methods to be used.

In the assassination of Alexander II, Vera Figner played a significant supporting role, while her friend, Sonia Perovskaya, orchestrated the event. Late in the morning of March 1, 1881, as Alexander rode through the streets of St. Petersburg, members of the People's Will Party hurled a bomb at his carriage. The tsar was uninjured, but when he left his coach to attend a wounded guard or check the damage, a second bomb was thrown that shattered both of his legs. At his request, Alexander was taken on a police sleigh to the Winter Palace to die that same day.

The group then sent a letter to the new tsar, Alexander III, demanding representative government, free press, free speech, and free elections. They also asked for amnesty for their crimes, asserting that they had only done their civic duty. The government response was to arrest those who could be found and track down the rest. Figner left St. Petersburg on April 3, the same day that Sonia Perovskaya was hanged for her part in the assassination. Figner and her group returned to Odessa in the hopes of rebuilding the party.

She had limited success. Figner believed that once outside the political center—where there had been an educated working population—the purpose of the group was not understood. By the end of 1881, only eight of the original twenty-three members of the Executive Committee were still at large. There were no longer enough leaders to plan, or carry out, any acts of terrorism. Angry that Russian society had failed to respond to the opportunity she felt it had been given with the tsar's assassination and realizing the impossibility of recreating the party as it had been, Figner began to recruit in the military. By June 1882, she was the only member of the Executive Committee still free. Continuing her work in Kharkov, Figner also helped to reestablish a printing operation in Odessa. Only five weeks later, the Odessa group was picked up by the police. Figner remained in Kharkov until February 10, 1883, when she was betrayed by her comrades and arrested on the street.

The following day, she was taken to St. Petersburg, questioned by the police and incarcerated in the Sts. Peter and Paul Fortress for 20 months while awaiting her trial. During this time, she refused to answer questions about her life after March 1, 1881, in order to protect those individuals still involved with party work. She saw no harm in discussing previous events, as the people involved were either dead or in prison.

Figner's life in prison was initially one of reflection upon the acts committed and the people who had committed them. As time passed, she did little besides read and wait for the bi-weekly 20-minute visits from her mother and her youngest sister Olga Figner . She lost the use of her vocal cords, became depressed, and no longer wished to be connected to the outside world. During this period of enforced silence and isolation, the only thing that kept her from going mad was her sense of duty to the cause: the chance to make a political statement at her trial. She was indicted with 13 others. The trial commenced in September 1884.

At the trial, Figner did not underplay her role or activities in the group and took full responsibility for her actions. Allowed to make her statement, she recounted her reasons for joining the group, justified her actions based on the existing political situation in Russia, and stated her resolve to take whatever punishment the court gave. She wrote later that when she ended her speech she felt that she had "outlived my spiritual and physical forces—there was nothing left—even my will to live had vanished." She sensed a liberation from her political duty, a freedom to become simply someone's daughter and sister. She was sentenced by the court to hang along with seven others. All, except Figner, asked for a sentence commutation.

After a final visit with her mother and sister, Figner was returned to the fortress to await execution. Eight days later, she was informed that her sentence had been commuted to penal servitude. Public sentiment was against the execution of women after Sonia Perovskaya's hanging three years earlier. Figner was well aware of what the altered sentence meant. "I had outlived all my strength," she said, "and I should merely have preferred a speedy death on the scaffold to a slow process of dying, the inevitability of which I recognized at that time."

In October 1884, Figner was moved north to the fortress at Schlüsselburg. She saw the bleached limestone towers, one with a gold key painted on its side, and later would remember that "the key rising to the sky, like an emblem, seemed to say that there would be no coming out." The only other inhabitants of the fortress were revolutionaries who were not to see, or speak to one another, for two years. Their guards were not allowed to communicate with the prisoners either, so they all lived in silence. Many went insane, which Figner feared above all else, or committed suicide. She felt they had been entombed alive; her only method for human contact was by tapping messages to other prisoners through the walls.

In January 1886, Figner was allowed to walk every other day for exercise with another prisoner, one of her codefendants, Ludmila Alexandrovich Volkenstein . Though the isolation was broken, the harsh punishments meted out to the prisoners continued. During 1887, Figner put herself in jeopardy to save one of her fellow inmates from severe punishment, when they were caught tapping on the walls and the guards intended to punish only the man. Fearing for his sanity, she demanded to be included. She was put in a punishment cell for seven days.

When a new commandant was brought in, the prison changed for the better. Starting in 1894, she petitioned the commandant for books from the public library. Prisoners were granted the use of a circulating natural history museum and prepared rock and plant collections. Their findings were used in the primary and secondary schools of St. Petersburg.

After 13 years of solitude, she was given the privilege of writing to her relatives. Still, she rarely exercised the option, not knowing how to avoid causing her family grief. Her mother died in 1903 having petitioned the tsar for mercy for Vera. By then, there were only 13 prisoners left in the fortress. Many had died, but several had served their sentences and been released into the world of exile. As for Figner, she never thought of leaving her prison existence and spent her days in introspection. At age 51, the revolutionary believed that the "mind and soul" must find equilibrium so the individual could live in harmony with the world around her even if it be prison.

On January 13, 1904, Figner was informed that her sentence had been commuted to 20 years and that her incarceration would end on September 28. Released 22 years after her arrest, she was exiled to Kazan province. In 1906, she left Russia to live abroad, raising money to help prisoners and convicts. She returned to Russia in 1915 and supported the program of the Bolsheviks during the revolutions of 1917.

The goal of her youth had been realized, a revolution for the freedom of the people. But before her death in 1942, at age 90, she would see the dream of freedom for all disintegrate first into civil war and later into Stalin's brand of totalitarianism. In the Soviet Union, Vera Figner remained a heroine in textbooks. Of what she thought about the radical changes wrought in her homeland after Stalin's rise to power, we know nothing.


Berlin, Isaiah. Russian Thinkers. NY: Penguin, 1978.

Figner, Vera. Memoirs of a Revolutionist. NY: International Publishers, 1927.

——. Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v shesti tomakh. Moscow, 1929.

Venturi, Franco. Roots of Revolution. NY: Alfred Knopf, 1960.

suggested reading:

Engel, Barbara Alpern, and Clifford Rosenthal, eds. Five Sisters: Women Against the Tsar. NY: Alfred Knopf, 1975.

Linnea Goodwin Burwood , Instructor in History, Memphis State University, Memphis, Tennessee

About this article

Figner, Vera (1852–1942)

Updated About content Print Article