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Liubatovich, Vera (1855–1907)

Liubatovich, Vera (1855–1907)

Revolutionary and founding member of the All-Russian Social-Revolutionary Organization, the first formal organization of Russian Populists. Pronunciation: Lu-ba-TOE-vich. Born Vera Spiridonovna Liubatovich on July 26, 1855 (o.s.) in Moscow; died in Moscow on December 19, 1907; daughter of Spiridon Liubatovich (a wealthy factory owner); her mother was the daughter of a wealthy gold mine owner (name unknown); sister of Olga Liubatovich (1853–1917); attended Second Moscow Women's Gymnasium, 1868–71; attended Medical Faculty, University of Zurich, 1873; married V.A. Ostashkin, in 1880; no children.

Was a member of the Fritschi circle in Zurich and Bern (1872–74); was a Populist propagandist and organizer for the All-Russian Social-Revolutionary Organization (1875); arrested (1875), tried (1877) and exiled to Siberia until 1890s; lived thereafter in Orel and Moscow but did not participate further in the revolutionary movement.

On April 9, 1873, Vera Liubatovich enrolled in the Medical Faculty of the University of Zurich. She was only 17 years old, but she had the opportunity to get a university education which was denied women in her native Russia. She had plenty of company in Switzerland. Over 100 Russian women were enrolled in the faculty along with scores of men attracted by the free and radical milieu of student life in Zurich. Together with her older sister Olga Liubatovich , Vera belonged to the Fritschi—a group of 14 young Russian women who shared humble apartments, supported each other and discussed social issues of the day. Many of their discussions centered on the competing views of Michael Bakunin and Peter Lavrov—Russian revolutionaries who frequented Zurich—concerning the appropriate way to change the autocratic tsarist system. In the fall of 1874, most of the Fritschi abandoned their studies and sought to put their radical theories into practice. Vera returned to Moscow, where she was a central figure in the formation of the All-Russian Social Revolutionary Organization. In August 1875, after less than eight months of trying to enlist the support of factory workers around Moscow and shortly after her 20th birthday, she was arrested. Her youth and moral fervor elicited great public support at the "Trial of the Fifty" in February 1877, but this could not save her from being banished to Siberia.

Vera Liubatovich, like most of the female Populists of the 1870s, came from a privileged background. She was born on July 26, 1855, in Moscow. Her father Spiridon Liubatovich, an engineer by training, was a political refugee from Montenegro who had prospered in Russia. After working in the Survey Office in Moscow, he had built a profitable brick factory and had been given the title of Collegiate Assessor. Her mother, the daughter of a wealthy gold mine owner, had at least five children. She had studied in the best French boarding school in Moscow and counted among her friends many of the leading literati of the day. Perhaps at her mother's insistence and certainly thanks to her father's wealth, Vera received a good and presumably liberal education for three years at the Second Women's Gymnasium in Moscow. In 1871, prior to graduation, she left the Gymnasium and shortly thereafter traveled abroad to join her older sister Olga at the University of Zurich. Despite her youth, Vera went abroad with her father's blessing and his financial support. A contributing factor in this decision may have been the death of her mother when Vera was 13 and her father's remarriage two years later to the family governess.

For a girl of 16, the personal, intellectual and political freedom of life in Zurich must have been invigorating. She lived with her sister in a local rooming house and spent her days discussing politics in coffee houses, reading in the Russian Library, and, not surprisingly, associating with the other Russian women at the university. For unexplained reasons—perhaps her youth, perhaps the need to prepare for newly instituted entrance examinations—she did not formally enroll in the Medical Faculty until April 1873. Far more important than the limited medical training she obtained was the companionship and political education she received through the Fritschi circle, named after Madame Fritsch , the owner of the boarding house where many of the young women lived. The formal discussions within the circle about utopian socialism and economic exploitation radicalized the political orientation of its participants. Vera, the youngest of the group, was known as "Wolfie" because of what Vera Figner called "her morose stare and her habit of swearing 'by the devil' and 'by the bourgeoisie.'" She took herself very seriously. When one of the group, Sofia Bardina , admitted to a liking for raspberries and Swiss cream, Vera labelled her "bourgeois" and reminded her of her "weakness" at every opportunity. Like the other members of the Fritschi, Vera attended meetings of the International Workingmen's Association, and she helped typeset Lavrov's revolutionary journal Vpered in Zurich.

In due course, the tsarist government became alarmed at the political activities of the Russian women in Zurich and in May 1873 issued an edict requiring that they leave the university by the end of the year or risk being denied employment when they returned home. Vera and her friends professed that, though they were concerned about the curtailment of their foreign education, they were more concerned about the false accusation that they were preaching that they had been "led astray by communist theories about free love" and were using their medical skills to perform abortions on each other. Indeed, since the edict mentioned only the University of Zurich, Vera and several of her friends simply moved to Bern and resumed their studies in the Swiss capital. Increasingly, however, they wanted to pass from thought to action; to be, in Vera Figner's words, "useful to society." Lavrov had said that the privileged minority to which they belonged owed "a debt to the people" and had a responsibility to help change Russian society. Together with some male radicals from Georgia living in Switzerland, the Fritschi discussed the formation of a revolutionary organization in Russia to coordinate their efforts to "go to the people." Rather than targeting the peasantry, as had most of the Populist students who had gone out into the countryside during the summer of 1874, the Fritschi decided to concentrate on preaching the gospel of socialism to the factory workers around Moscow.

Vera Liubatovich's involvement in the Populist movement was almost aborted before it began. On October 16, 1874, shortly after crossing the Russian frontier, she was arrested in Chernigov, having in her possession incriminating letters from friends abroad to compatriots in Russia. She was freed only when her father was allowed to post bail in December 1874. She then hastened to Moscow, where in February the All-Russian Social-Revolutionary Organization was constituted along lines discussed in Switzerland. This was the first formal organization set up by the Populists in Russia, and, not surprisingly, its young, well-born and foreign-educated members knew little about conditions in Russia or about conspiratorial techniques. At first Vera, like the 11 other Fritschi in the organization, put on old clothes and tried with limited success to propagandize textile workers in their factories and dormitories. When several members were arrested in April, she became part of a three-person headquarters group in Moscow that maintained communications with members in the provinces and with those already in jail. In August, when the police broke into their apartment, Vera unsuccessfully tried to resist arrest.

In February 1877, after a year and a half in jail and with much of that time spent in solitary confinement, Vera was one of 16 women to appear in the "Trial of the Fifty." Rather than plead for mercy, the defendants sought to explain the ethical basis for their actions and to use the occasion to propagandize their views. As Barbara Engel has noted, "by virtue of their 'high moral qualities, and boundless devotion and self-sacrifice', many felt they represented what was best in Russian womanhood." The judges, nevertheless, sentenced Vera Liubatovich to six years' hard labor, which on appeal was reduced to exile in Siberia.

She was sent to Tobolsk Province where in 1880 she married a fellow political prisoner, V.A. Ostashkin. The next year, because of their "harmful influence on the peasantry and insolent disobedience of local authority," they were banished farther east to Krasnoiarsk. Sometime in the 1890s, Vera was freed from exile and allowed to return first to Orel and then to Moscow. She apparently played no further role in the revolutionary movement and died at the age of 52 in 1907.

sources:

Deiateli revoliutsionnogo dvizheniia v Rossii: Bio-bibliograficheskii slovar' (Personalities in the Russian Revolutionary Movement: A Bio-bibliographic Dictionary). Vol. II, pt. 2, 1930, pp. 825–826.

Engel, Barbara Alpern. Mothers and Daughters: Women of the Intelligentsia in Nineteenth-Century Russia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

——, and Clifford N. Rosenthal, eds. and trans. Five Sisters Against the Tsar. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975.

Knight, Amy. "The Fritschi: A Study of Female Radicals in the Russian Populist Movement," in Canadian-American Slavic Studies. Vol. IX, no. 1. Spring 1975, pp. 1–17.

R. C. Elwood , Professor of History, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada

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