Zasulich, Vera (1849–1919)

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Zasulich, Vera (1849–1919)

Russian revolutionary whose 1878 attempt to assassinate the governor of St. Petersburg followed by her acquittal in a sensational jury trial made her a popular heroine and influential figure in the Russian radical movement during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Name variations: Zasul. Pronunciation: VYE-ra Za-SU-lich. Born Vera Ivanovna Zasulich on August 8, 1849, on her parents' estate at Mikhailovka, in the Gzhatsk district of Smolensk province in Imperial Russia; died in Petrograd in Soviet Russia of pneumonia on May 8, 1919; daughter of Ivan Petrovich Zasulich(a petty noble and former army officer) and Feoktista Mikhailovna Zasulich; educational training on estate of her relatives and in Moscow in preparation to serve as a governess; never married, but had a longtime liaison with Lev Deich, a fellow revolutionary.

Sent to live with relatives on neighboring estate (1852); attended school for governesses in Moscow (1866–67); arrested and imprisoned in St. Petersburg (1869–71); rearrested, exiled to Kostroma province and then to city of Kharkov (1872–75); released from exile, joined revolutionary group in Kiev (1875); attempted assassination of Trepov, tried and acquitted, and fled to Western Europe (1878); returned to Russia (1879–80); lived in Switzerland, France, and Britain (1880–1906); founded Liberation of Labor group in Geneva (1883); longtime companion Lev Deich arrested and exiled to Siberia (1884); returned to Russia (1899–1900); Second Russian Marxist Congress (1903); permanently returned to Russia (1906); defended Russian participation in World War I (1914–17); criticized Bolshevik Revolution (1918).

Selected writings:

"Revolutionaries of Bourgeois Background" (1890); Jean Jacques Rousseau (1898); "Elements of Idealism in Socialism" (1901–02); "The Organization, the Party, the Movement" (1904).

Russia in the middle of the 19th century was a country in crisis. Defeat in the Crimean War of 1854–56 at the hands of Britain, France, and Turkey had demonstrated the weakness of the nation ruled by Tsar Nicholas I. Military failure had its roots in Russia's backwardness: the mass of the country's population consisted of impoverished peasants tied to the land as serfs; in an era of rapid industrialization in Western Europe, Russia lagged far behind other countries in its economic and social development.

The reforms of Tsar Alexander II, which began in the 1860s, freed the peasants from serfdom, modernized the armed forces, and set in motion a number of other measures that brought Russia closer to the pattern of other countries. But the limited nature of these reforms—the peasants were still tied to the land and left in poverty—encouraged the growth of radical groups committed to revolution. Vera Zasulich emerged as an important radical figure, first within the extreme groups committed to a peasant revolution, then within the Russian Marxist movement with its stress on the factory workers as the driving force of revolution.

Vera Zasulich was born into a family of impoverished nobles on August 8, 1849, in the province of Smolensk. Her early years were spent in harsh and tragic circumstances, starting with the death of her father when she was three. Females from impoverished noble families in Russia normally found work as governesses. Thus, Vera's mother, a widow with five orphans to raise, sent the child to live with more affluent cousins where she could receive the education needed to prepare her for such work. Her training included instruction in foreign languages, and during her career as a revolutionary this permitted her to earn her living as a translator.

Young Vera was lonely and miserable in the midst of wealthy relatives who treated her with disdain. At age 17, she moved to Moscow to continue her preparation for the role of governess. In the two main cities of Russia—Moscow and St. Petersburg—groups of political radicals comprised of both men and women met to discuss revolutionary literature, to plan ways to reach and influence the peasant mass of the population, to ponder how to overthrow the existing order. The atmosphere of the 1860s, in which the young Alexander had emancipated the peasants but left the country short of truly sweeping reform, encouraged feelings that a new social and political order could be created. Guided by her sister Ekaterina Zasulich , she became involved in a new world of exciting comrades.

Some of Vera's new friends had ties to Dmitri Karakozov, who had made an unsuccessful effort to murder the tsar in 1866. A wave of police searches and arrests after Karakozov's deed temporarily suppressed the radicals. Zasulich escaped this crackdown, but her ties to another charismatic revolutionary, Serge Nechaev, led her to her first jail cell. Nechaev like Karakozov believed in the tool of violence, but he became famous by first turning it against a member of his own circle whom he murdered. Feodor Dostoevsky immortalized the event in his novel The Possessed.

Nechaev often turned in names of his comrades to the police. In this way their suffering in prison would strengthen their hatred for the regime. According to Richard Stites, Zasulich was another one of Nechaev's victims. In 1869, the police arrested her for revolutionary activity. Zasulich, a quiet woman most at home with her books, may have paid a high price for her brief acquaintance with Nechaev. Over the next six years, she was imprisoned, exiled to the provinces, arrested a second time, and exiled once again. When she was released in 1875, she joined a group of radicals located in Kiev. By now she was a committed revolutionary, hoping like all her political comrades-in-arms to spark a peasant revolution that would overturn Russia's existing order. Her prison experiences remained vivid in her mind. Always a shy and lonely woman, she had been particularly pained by the even greater isolation she found in prison.

The series of events that made her famous began in July 1877. A political prisoner named Arkhip Bogoliubov failed to remove his hat to the governorgeneral of St. Petersburg, Feodor Trepov. Trepov, who had already acquired a reputation for brutality, had the young man flogged. Like many other Russian radicals, Zasulich was outraged. In early February 1878, she entered Trepov's office pretending to present a petition to him. Not caring if she killed or merely wounded him, she fired a bullet into his pelvis, and the police seized her immediately. Her trial two months later turned into a public sensation.

The government, hoping for a demonstration of public loyalty to the tsar's authority, submitted the case to the ordinary criminal courts, even though Zasulich could have been placed before a special tribunal for political criminals. Since 1864, Russian courts used the Western European practice of trial by jury. Thus, the young revolutionary had a chance to be judged by a group of ordinary Russians.

Her defense attorney presented a dramatic argument stressing how Zasulich, a former political prisoner, had identified herself with the suffering, loneliness, and humiliation experienced by Bogoliubov. He likewise reminded the jury that Zasulich committed her act of violence selflessly, to prevent the government from again acting in such a vicious way. She was willing to accept punishment "without a reproach, without a complaint." The jury members were permitted by Russian law to follow their consciences even when they thought a defendant was guilty. In the end, they echoed the thought of Dostoevsky who claimed that "to punish this young woman would be inappropriate and superfluous." The verdict of "not guilty" was delivered after only ten minutes of deliberation.

The government refused to accept the jury's conclusion as final. Zasulich barely escaped being arrested and retried immediately after her acquittal, and she went into exile in Western Europe. With the exception of brief trips home, she remained in Switzerland and England until after the Revolution in 1905.

But Zasulich recoiled from the example she had set. As one historian has put it, Zasulich had become "the unwitting initiator of an age of terror" as Populist revolutionaries began a frightening series of political assassinations. She herself opposed this wave of terrorism directed at tsarist officials and the tsar himself in the late 1870s and early 1880s. She had no desire to be remembered as the revolutionary heroine who directly attacked tsarist authority, gun in hand. She saw her attack on Trepov as a moral statement. As her attorney had pleaded at her trial, her act of violence had been designed to call attention to the government's misdeeds, and she had been willing to face punishment for her deed. The terrorists who seemed to follow her example, on the other hand, were out to spark a political and social revolution.

Her years in exile put Zasulich at the center of a basic change in the revolutionary movement. Along with George Plekhanov and other devotees of peasant revolution, she shifted her allegiance to Marxism and a revolution based upon the discontent and actions of the factory workers. She was one of the original group of Russian exiles who formed the "Liberation of Labor" in Switzerland in 1883, the first organized group of Russian Marxists. She and her colleagues, including Lev Deich who was her companion and lover for ten years, promoted Marxism with a series of writings designed to educate a later generation of Marxist revolutionaries.

According to Zasulich's biographer Jay Bergman, this awkward woman, who spent much of her life living in squalid poverty, drew essential psychological sustenance from her participation in a closeknit band of revolutionary colleagues. Her liaison with Deich was the personal highpoint of her life. She was crushed when he was captured by the police and exiled to Siberia—and doubly crushed when he married a fellow exile in 1895. Beyond the companionship of the revolutionary movement, she found her life's purpose in bettering the lives of the Russian masses.

Zasulich was overshadowed by more talented thinkers and leaders of her own generation like Plekhanov and younger figures like V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky. Moreover, she had no taste for the brutal face to face and newspaper polemics in which Marxist leaders argued out their differences. Her legendary reputation served her well, however, as the chief peacemaker and architect of compromise on the Russian Left. Unburdened by rigid doctrinal beliefs, Zasulich urged her fellow Marxists to join with other political factions in a "Popular Front" against the tsarist system.

For Zasulich, a revolutionary party was not a hierarchy or an arena in which different groups could strive for domination. Rather the party must be a society of equals tied together by goodwill and solidarity. In one of her few original ideas, she expressed the hope that the party would be a model for the just, fraternal society she hoped the future revolution would create.

In 1903, Russian Marxists gathered in Brussels and then London to form a united party. Their deep personal and ideological differences led instead to a split that eventually became permanent. On one side stood V.I. Lenin and his Bolsheviks, committed to a party composed of professional revolutionaries. On the other stood figures like Julius Martov and the Mensheviks, with their belief in a party open to broader portions of the population. Zasulich became a victim of the infighting of the time: she found herself ousted from her membership on the editorial board of Iskra, the Marxist newspaper. This post was the center of her life, but characteristically she did not even speak out publicly to protest her removal. In the end, Zasulich's sympathies came to rest with the Mensheviks, but she worked tirelessly to bridge the gap between the two factions.

The Russian government established a political amnesty and a limited system of civil liberties after the Revolution of 1905, and Zasulich found she could return home after more than a quarter century in exile. She spent the last years of her life in poverty and away from the political arena. In 1914, however, her continuing renown as the woman who struck out at Trepov allowed her a further role in Russian political life. She joined her longtime colleague George Plekhanov in urging Russians of all political views to help defend their country against Germany during World War I. After the March Revolution of 1917 toppled the tsar and seemingly set the basis for a democratic state, Zasulich went to the front to urge Russia's weary soldiers to keep up the fight against the German enemy. She spoke out critically against the younger Lenin when he and his Bolsheviks seized power in the November 1917 Revolution.

In the new Communist Russia the Bolsheviks were creating, Zasulich found herself badly treated. She was expelled by Red Army soldiers from her abode at the Russian Writers home in 1918 and died the following year on May 8, 1919. Still, Zasulich received a final tribute from Pravda, the newspaper of the Bolshevik Party. Her later years had seen Zasulich break with the proletariat, the obituary in Pravda said, but her great services to the class of factory workers would assure that "they will never forget her name."


Bergman, Jay. Vera Zasulich: A Biography. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1983.

Broido, Vera. Apostles into Terrorists: Women and the Revolutionary Movement in the Russia of Alexander II. NY: Viking, 1977.

Engel, Barbara Alpern, and Clifford N. Rosenthal, eds. and trans. Five Sisters against The Tsar. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975.

Stites, Richard. The Women's Liberation Movement in Russia: Feminism, Nihilism, and Bolshevism, 1860–1930. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978.

suggested reading:

Ulam, Adam B. In the Name of the People: Prophets and Conspirators in Prerevolutionary Russia. NY: Viking, 1977.

Venturi, Franco. Roots of Revolution: A History of the Populist and Socialist Movements in Nineteenth Century Russia. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1960.


Some unpublished materials pertaining to Zasulich are located in the Nikolaevsky Collection at the Hoover Library, Stanford, California, and the Bakhmetoff Collection at Columbia University, New York City.

Neil M. Heyman , Professor of History, San Diego State University, San Diego, California

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Zasulich, Vera (1849–1919)

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