Spiridonova, Maria (1884–1941)

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Spiridonova, Maria (1884–1941)

Political assassin who was a hero to the Russian peasantry and a leader of an abortive coup against the fledgling Bolshevik government in 1918. Name variations: Mariya Spiridovna or Spiridinova. Born Maria Alexandrovna Spiridonova on October 16, 1884, in the town of Tambov, Russia; shot to death by Soviet secret police in September 1941 in the Ural town of Orel; daughter of Alexander Alexandrovich (a provincial civil servant of modest means) and Alexandra Yakovlevna; never married; no children.

Shot a government official at the behest of the Russian Socialist Revolutionary Party (SRs, 1906); jailed until the country's political prisoners were amnestied (1917); became a leading figure of the leftist faction of the SRs, the LSRs, who first supported, then opposed the Bolshevik-led Soviet government; organized the assassination of the German ambassador to Russia, which almost resulted in the overthrow of the Bolsheviks (1918); most of the rest of her life spent in exile or in jail; shot by the Soviet police (1941).

Maria Spiridonova was one in a series of women of late 19th- and early 20th-century Russia who devoted themselves to the revolutionary cause with a martyr-like fervor. She served as an unwavering leader for the Russian socialist movement; for her devotion, she faced the wrath of both tsarist and Soviet governments, and spent the vast majority of her adult life in captivity.

Maria Spiridonova was born in 1884, the second of four children. She entered school at the age of 11, but was forced to leave 7 years later due to poor health and "household circumstances." For a short while, she was an office worker for the provincial government.

The Russia of Spiridonova's youth was undergoing massive social and economic upheavals. Unfortunately, the country's leader, Tsar Nicholas II, was both weak and despotic—a dangerous combination—and proved unable to cope with the challenges Russia faced. In January 1905, the tensions came to a head when thousands of men and women marched on the Tsar's Winter Palace in the capital, St. Petersburg, demanding better working conditions. When the guards were unable to turn the crowd away, they panicked and began firing indiscriminately, killing hundreds. Bloody Sunday, as it has become known, sparked a year of upheavals that culminated in a series of general strikes in the fall. On October 17, 1905, the government was forced to grant Russia's first constitution—the October Manifesto.

The revolutionary tenor of the period was not confined to the capital. Strikes and demonstrations were shaking the peace of the provincial regions as well, including Maria's hometown of Tambov. On March 24, 1905, she was arrested at a youth demonstration, held in police custody for a short while, then released.

Spiridonova had been politically active since her school days, when she joined the Socialist Revolutionary Party (SRs), heirs to the populist peasant parties of the 1860s and 1870s. The SRs believed that Russia's only hope for change lay in a socialist revolution based in the countryside. SR party members also inherited some of their predecessors' penchant for terrorist acts as a way of forcing political and social action from recalcitrant governments.

The party in Tambov was outraged at the brutal quashing of peasant uprisings in their region during the 1905 revolutionary upheavals; they decided to pass a death sentence on one of the officials who led the government reprisals—General Luzhenovsky. Spiridonova volunteered to perform the assassination herself. After tracking him for days, she shot and killed him at the Borissoglebsk train station on January 16, 1906. She made no effort to escape from Luzhenovsky's Cossack guards who quickly surrounded her and beat her until she was close to death. While in custody, she was tortured and developed tuberculosis as a result of her treatment; her health remained frail for the rest of her life.

Spiridonova was put on trial in March, found guilty, and sentenced to hang. Her sentence sparked an outcry from leftists both at home and abroad, and was eventually commuted to life imprisonment. The next 11 years were spent in a series of tsarist prisons. The conditions varied, but in all the institutions the "politicals" were housed together and formed bonds of friendship and loyalty that were to last for the rest of their lives. As well, their commitment to socialism remained firm; if anything, it grew stronger while in captivity.

In March 1917, the centuries-old Romanov dynasty was overthrown and replaced by a liberal Provisional Government. One of its first acts was to order the release of all political prisoners held in tsarist jails. Once freed, Spiridonova stayed in the Far East for a few months where she was elected mayor of the town of Chita. She remained devoted to the socialist cause, however, and soon returned to the capital where she teamed up once again with her comrades in the SRs.

The situation in Petrograd, as St. Petersburg was then known, was chaotic. At the time of the establishment of the Provisional Government, a second governing body was also formed, consisting of a series of soviets (councils) representing workers, peasants and soldiers. Many socialist parties were represented, including the SRs and their main Marxist rivals, the urban-based Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.

One of the main issues facing Russia's leaders was the country's participation in World War I. Although the war was draining the country's resources, the Provisional Government felt that it would be best for Russia to continue to support her allies, the British and the French. The SRs and the Bolsheviks opposed this strategy, and argued that Russia should leave the war immediately. The SRs themselves were not completely certain on this issue, and in May the party split unofficially over their war policy. The so-called Right faction argued that Russia should remain in the war, while the Left SRs (LSRs) argued that they should quit fighting at once.

When Maria arrived in Petrograd, she sided with the LSRs, though she fought for months to keep the party together. Partially by virtue of her great popularity and perceived moral force as Luzhenovsky's assassin, she rose to become one of the leaders of the faction, as well as the editor

of the LSR journal Our Way. She spent much of the summer spreading revolutionary propaganda among the masses.

Throughout 1917, the LSRs and the Bolsheviks grew closer together as both parties believed that it was impossible to work with the new liberal leadership. When the Bolsheviks instigated a revolt against the Provisional Government in November, the LSRs supported them, though they did not provide any substantial assistance.

The LSRs were invited to work with the Bolsheviks following the Revolution, and the first Soviet government had 11 Bolshevik and 7 LSR commissars. Spiridonova was not appointed a commissar, but remained outside the government, speaking at workers' gatherings, attending party and soviet meetings and working on the party journal.

Emma Goldman">

Of all the opponents of the Bolsheviki I had met, Maria Spiridonova impressed me as one of the most sincere, well-poised and convincing.

Emma Goldman

At approximately the same time, the split within the SRs became irreparable, and the LSRs held their first official Party Congress in November. Spiridonova's speech at the gathering, as recalled by her biographer and colleague Isaac Steinberg, summarizes the position of the LSRs in Russian politics, and helps underscore her own particular role as well: "[L]et us bear in mind the high moral principle on which [the party] was built up.… It is the duty of us LSRs … to cleanse the moral atmosphere.… What we are striving for is the ennoblement of the human personality in this material struggle." She also revealed her ambivalence to the Bolsheviks: "Large masses stand behind the Bolsheviks today, but that is a temporary phenomenon … because Bolshevism has no inner inspiration."

The LSRs worked with the Bolshevik government for a number of months and their role at this time was ambiguous. When the Bolsheviks dissolved the popularly elected Constituent Assembly in January 1918 after they failed to receive a majority of the vote, the LSRs supported them; a number of their members were also involved in the new government's notorious secret police, the Cheka. At the same time, LSRs members urged the Bolsheviks not to impose the death penalty, and did make some attempt to restrain the excesses of the Cheka. They also lobbied tirelessly on behalf of the Russian peasantry.

In any event, the Bolshevik/LSR coalition broke down quickly. The Bolsheviks, who had hoped they could simply walk away from the war, found themselves forced to negotiate with Germany for a peace treaty. Spiridonova and the LSRs virulently opposed such negotiations, and urged the Bolsheviks to break off talks with Germany. Lenin was not convinced, and the Soviets and Germans signed a peace treaty on March 3, 1918—the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. The LSRs left the government in protest, though they did not resign from the Soviets, and therefore managed to retain some leverage over the Bolsheviks.

Perhaps the final blow was the government's emergency food policy. In the face of growing civil unrest and food shortages, the government began seizing grain from the peasantry to feed the workers in the cities. Lenin declared that the government was initiating a "war against the kulak" (rich peasant), although many of the poorer peasants also lost their grain in the requisitioning. As champions of the peasantry, the LSRs were strongly opposed to such heavy-handed tactics.

Despite the differences between the parties, Spiridonova tried to keep the coalition together for as long as possible. However, by June, she had become convinced that working with the Bolsheviks was no longer possible. She and the other LSR leaders then decided to take action to express their displeasure both with the Bolsheviks in general and their relations with Germany in particular. In the terrorist tradition of the party, Spiridonova organized the assassination of the German ambassador to Russia, Count Wilhelm von Mirbach, in the hopes that it would spark a revolutionary war with Germany.

On July 4, at the All-Russian Congress of Soviets, a series of LSRs members took the floor and loudly criticized the Bolsheviks. Spiridonova herself spoke that day and the next, trying to convince the Bolsheviks to change their policies. She accused the Bolsheviks of betraying the cause of the peasantry, and of being more interested in abstract theories than in the needs of the poor. The Bolsheviks were unmoved.

Consequently, on July 6, two members of the LSRs entered the German embassy in Petrograd and shot the ambassador. In the chaotic hours following the assassination, the LSRs seized the Cheka headquarters, and held its head, Felix Dzherzhinsky, hostage. However, they did not press their advantage, and the Bolsheviks counterattacked the following day, retook the Cheka headquarters and arrested many leaders of the LSRs, including Spiridonova.

At her trial, Spiridonova took full responsibility for organizing the assassination of Mirbach, although in her testimony she denied that there had been any plans to overthrow the Bolshevik government:

I organized the assassination of Mirbach from beginning to end.… [T]he Central Committee never mentioned the overthrow of the Bolshevik Government. What happened was merely a result of the excitement with which the Russian Government rushed to the defense of the assassinated agents of German imperialism, and of an attempt at self-defense on the part of the Central Committee of the party which carried out the assassination.

Whatever the intentions of the LSRs, the Soviets came closer to being toppled in July 1918 than they ever had before or would be again for decades.

Spiridonova was tried on November 27 and sentenced to a year in prison. Others on the LSR Central Committee received sentences of three years, which might illustrate that the Bolsheviks were aware of her immense popularity with the Russian people. Grigorii Zinoviev, a leading Bolshevik at the time, called her a "wonderful woman" with a "heart of gold" whose imprisonment kept him awake at night.

After her release from prison, Spiridonova immediately entered the Russian underground and went to meetings with workers, peasants and soldiers, trying to provide the people with a socialist alternative to the Bolsheviks. She was rearrested on February 18, 1920, in a countrywide sweep aimed at the LSRs and sentenced to a year in a mental sanatorium. She escaped and returned to the underground, only to be arrested one final time on October 26, 1920. The rest of her life was spent in a variety of prison establishments, hospitals and remote exile towns.

In 1937, at the height of Stalin's murderous purges, Spiridonova was seized from her place of internal exile, the Ural town of Ufa, and, along with 12 other former LSRs members, accused of plots against the Bashkir Communist leadership. While they were held on these charges, however, the entire Bashkir government itself was arrested, so charges of plots against Stalin and Politburo member Klementi Voroshilov were substituted. On December 25, 1937, she was sentenced to 25 years in prison, and sent to Orel to serve her time. In September 1941, as the Germans advanced on their position, the prisoners at Orel, including Maria Spiridonova, were murdered by Soviet forces.


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Susan Brazier , freelance writer, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada