Volume 28, Number 4 · March 19, 1981

Mr. Possessed

By Aileen Kelly

Sergei Nechaev by David Levine

Sergei Nechaev

Sergei Nechaev

by Philip Pomper

Rutgers University Press, 273 pp., $19.50

On a night in November 1869 a student called Ivan Ivanov, a member of a small cell of revolutionaries, was murdered by his fellow conspirators in a lonely park on the outskirts of Moscow. The leader of the group, Sergei Nechaev, subsequently escaped abroad, but police investigations into the crime uncovered a wide network of people associated with him. At their trial the prosecution produced a document written by Nechaev which caused a sensation. Known as "The Catechism of a Revolutionary," it has secured for its author a place in history.

The Catechism consists of prescriptions on the organization of a revolutionary secret society and the conduct of its members. It begins by outlining the structure of the society—small cells, hierarchically organized; but the document owes its notoriety to the second section which deals with the attitude of the revolutionary toward himself, his comrades, contemporary society, and the oppressed masses. According to Nechaev the ideal revolutionary is a man with no personal interests, feelings, or attachments, no property, and no name. He has made a total break with the laws, traditions, conventions, and values of the society in which he lives; all his activity is directed to its total destruction. This goal, his sole passion, dictates utter ruthlessness in his relations with others: "For him everything that contributes to the triumph of the revolution is moral, everything that hinders it is immoral and criminal."

Blackmail, murder, all manner of treachery and deceit were justified in its name, not merely against the enemy, but—and here is the novelty of Nechaev's doctrine—against the rank and file of the revolutionary organization itself. The central committee at its head was to regard all those beneath it as expendable, to be manipulated, deluded, or destroyed without compunction according to the demands of the cause. The allegiance of the lukewarm should be secured by the use of blackmail, the enthusiasm of the faithful sustained by skillful deception about the size and power of the organization. The masses for whom it was fighting were to be treated no less ruthlessly: by provoking the government into ever more savage repression the revolutionaries must seek to intensify the people's suffering to the point where it would be a willing instrument in their work of destruction.

Point by point, Nechaev demolished the mystique which presented the revolutionary organization as a brotherhood of knights, sanctified by their dedication to a noble ideal. His alternative model was taken from life: the first embodiment of Nechaev's ideal type was Nechaev himself.

He was born in 1847 in the textile town of Ivanovo, 350 kilometers northeast of Moscow. His mother died when he was eight; his father worked as a painter and decorator and a part-time waiter and caterer. Literate himself, he saw to it that his son received a basic education, but it was the energy of the adolescent Sergei, in particular his tenacity in forging contacts with the Ivanovo intelligentsia, which secured him the necessary education to permit him to leave home and obtain a teacher's qualification in St. Petersburg in 1866. He then became an auditor at the university where he came into contact with the movement of revolutionary populism which had grown out of the radical intelligentsia's dissatisfaction with the provisions of the Emancipation Act of 1861.

A strong sense of responsibility for the material misery of the vast mass of the population, a millenarian belief in the moral regeneration of Russia through an agrarian socialism based on the peasant commune, and a rationalist faith in the inevitability of progress once outworn institutions and beliefs were destroyed—all these factors combined in the radical (mainly student) youth of the capital to produce a fervent and self-sacrificing dedication to action that led in 1865 to the formation of the first Russian terrorist group and an attempt on the life of the tsar in the following year.

The government responded with strong measures against the students, and tension in the capital was at its height when Nechaev made his first contacts with revolutionary circles. In 1869 with a group of students he founded a political circle to help prepare the popular revolution which they believed would break out the following year. Their program had a strong Jacobin flavor: after seizing power in a political coup d'état their "committee" would bring about a social revolution.

His contemporaries represent Nechaev as a primitive nature, intellectually narrow and limited, but with an extraordinarily dominating will and a fanatical dedication to revolution, fueled by a vengeful hatred which seemed his only emotion. Repelled by his total lack of compassion for the people or affection for his comrades, his fellow revolutionaries were nevertheless irresistibly drawn to him by his commitment to action. This and his dominating personality were his only claims to leadership; his conspiratorial techniques and methods of recruitment were inept and his vision of the future society vague—he was seen by some as an anarchist, by others as an authoritarian communist—but his only real interests were the immediate future and the task of destruction.

The Catechism seems to have been composed in 1869, and from then on Nechaev devoted himself to exemplifying its principles in his actions. To establish his personal domination over the revolutionary movement he embarked on a systematic policy of deceit and intimidation aimed at surrounding himself with an atmosphere of mystery and fear. When the committee was broken up by arrests in March 1869 he had already fled abroad, spreading a false rumor to the effect that he too had been arrested and had performed the amazing feat of escaping from the impregnable St. Peter and Paul Fortress. Abroad, he made contact with Bakunin and Nikolai Ogarev, who had been co-editor with Herzen of the great émigré journal The Bell, seducing both elderly revolutionaries by his energy and convincing them of his importance as the representative of a powerful network of revolutionary organizations in Russia.

On returning to Moscow in September 1869 he posed with Bakunin's connivance as an emissary of a nonexistent "World Revolutionary Alliance" and on the strength of the authority which this bestowed on him founded a revolutionary secret society based, in accordance with the Catechism, on cells of five members each. The core of the society seems to have been no more than forty students, though according to one member there were as many as four hundred involved in some way with it. Nechaev demanded unquestioning obedience from his followers in the name of the committee which he purported to represent. When one member of his cell, the student Ivanov, became suspicious of his credentials, Nechaev, on the pretext that Ivanov intended to betray them, induced the three other members to collaborate with him in the student's murder. There was no evidence to support his accusation: the aim of the murder was apparently to bind the others to him by complicity in crime.

The discovery of Ivanov's body by the police led to the destruction of Nechaev's secret society and a sweeping round-up of all those who had had any association with him. Nechaev escaped to Switzerland where he continued his policy of mystification, publicly denying the "shameless accusations" of murder made against him, and circulating in Russia a report that he had been captured and died on his way to hard labor. Meanwhile he continued to present himself abroad as the agent of an enormous revolutionary force. But the truth about Ivanov's murder began to circulate in émigré circles and Nechaev became isolated. He broke with Bakunin and in a characteristic farewell gesture stole some letters from him, with the intention of using them to blackmail his former colleague. In 1872 he was arrested by the Swiss police and deported to Russia as a common criminal.

Imprisonment for life in the notorious Peter and Paul Fortress in no way diminished his sense of purpose or his power over others. He converted his guards to the revolutionary cause and through them made contact with the terrorist group The People's Will, which planned to liberate him after assassinating the tsar in 1881. But the group was destroyed after the killing: Nechaev's contacts with the guards were uncovered and he was punished by a regime of extreme severity. He died, apparently of scurvy, in 1882.

Remarkable though this career was, had Nechaev not written the Catechism it is unlikely that he would have earned more than a footnote in Russian history as one of those fringe personalities, half-lunatic, half-criminal, who are to be found in all violent movements. It was the extraordinary unity of ideology and action which gives this "bewildering combination of fanatic, swashbuckler and cad" (as E.H. Carr described him) a claim to historical significance. Before him the principle that the end always justifies the means was not unknown in revolutionary practice, but he was the first practitioner to set it up unashamedly as the cornerstone of revolutionary theory. The advent of "Nechaevism," as this doctrine has come to be called, has been recognized as a milestone in the history of radical ideas. Its antecedents and its moral and political significance have fascinated a succession of writers and historians. Dostoevsky in The Possessed was the first to explore the metaphysical significance of Nechaev's thesis. In L'homme révolté Camus followed him in seeing the doctrine of "la violence faite aux frères" as the logic of revolution pushed to its extreme; while in Berdyaev's picturesque expression, Nechaev's ascetic denial of the world made him the "Isaac the Syrian and Ignatius Loyola of revolutionary socialism."

With the advent of the cold war, interest in Nechaev in the West became more lively and more narrowly practical: historical hindsight proclaimed him a precious source for the understanding of the psychology and policies of Russia's post-revolutionary rulers. Studies such as Robert Payne's The Terrorists: The Forerunners of Stalin (1957) or Michael Prawdin's The Unmentionable Nechaev: A Key to Bolshevism (1961) tried to trace a direct line of succession in political methods and tactics from Stalin through Lenin back to Nechaev. More recently, with the emergence of movements which make no attempt to conceal their affinity with the principles of Nechaev's Catechism, the term Nechaevism has acquired a new vogue, and psychohistory a new authority as a key to the understanding of the present. Mr. Pomper's new study of Nechaev has, as he asserts in his introduction, no pretensions to clinical detachment: his crusading purpose is to show that Nechaevism is an extreme instance of the "politics of revenge"—a phenomenon confined neither to Russia nor to the political left. By examining the psychology both of Nechaev himself and of the "revolutionary subculture" which he manipulated, Mr. Pomper seeks to expose the mechanisms whereby individual pathologies of conscience are transformed into doctrines of salvation which provide a sanction for dictatorship.

Mr. Pomper argues that Nechaev owed his extraordinary influence to the strength of two impulses which his revolutionary contemporaries possessed to a lesser degree—the pursuit of martyrdom and of revenge—which he was able to sanctify ideologically by translating them into political strategies. He seeks to establish the source of these qualities in Nechaev's childhood experience in Ivanovo. Unfortunately, the material on this is very sparse, consisting mainly of a few letters written by the adolescent Nechaev and some rather unrevealing memoirs by one of his two sisters.

None of these provides convincing support for Mr. Pomper's diagnosis of a "powerful martyr identification" on Nechaev's part—a thirst for self-sacrifice as reparation for the fact that he had risen above his family's circumstances. Mr. Pomper hypothesizes that Nechaev must have felt a deep guilt for having been, as a student, a drain on his family's resources. But none of his contemporaries noticed this quality in him and his youthful letters express no compunction about the methods he used to escape from the "devil's swamp" of Ivanovo.

Mr. Pomper seems to need this hypothesis to explain the determination with which Nechaev later worked to acquire the mystique of a martyr, spreading various rumors of his torture and of his death in Siberia or at the hands of gendarmes. But there is no evidence in Nechaev's actions of any excessive eagerness for self-immolation. He was the only one of the killers of Ivanov to escape abroad, where he evaded the pursuit of Russian government agents for three years. He was handed over to them by the canton of Zurich only after the failure of his strenuous efforts to avoid extradition by attempting to prove that Ivanov's killing was a political murder. Though there are no doubts about his courage, there is no reason to believe that his martyr mystique was more than one of the myths with which he manipulated the idealism of his peers. Those, such as the young revolutionary Vera Zasulich, who were never wholly deceived by him, subsequently recall as his dominant characteristics only the lust for revenge and the thirst for power.

These qualities Mr. Pomper attributes to an unconscious reaction to a father who alternated between kindness and brutality. He postulates that Nechaev was able to forgive his father for his victimization by placing the blame on the society which exploited his family, coping with the combined threat of father and environment, and justifying his own aggressive tendencies, by imitating aspects of what he dreaded—the stratagem of "identification with the aggressor." This structure stands on a hypothesis (the brutality of Nechaev senior) which is built entirely on two assertions in the memoirs of a devoted daughter: that her father sometimes beat Sergei, and that he put pressure on her to marry a man of his choice (an action of which Sergei disapproved). But both these measures were quite normal on the part of a Russian father. Only his sympathy for his son seems remarkable: he encouraged ambitions which he could not have been expected to understand, and supplied the funds which allowed the young Nechaev to study in St. Petersburg.

Psychoanalysis at a historical remove seems unlikely to be able to explain the intensity of Nechaev's thirst for revenge. One can speculate usefully only on the social reasons for the appearance of a person whose qualities seemed so much at odds with the traditional ethos of Russian populism. The young revolutionaries of the 1860s still came predominantly from the ranks of the relatively privileged, and compassion for the lower depths of society played a large part in their motivation. Nechaev was the first prominent radical to have personal experience of those lower depths. Ivanovo was one of the early centers of capitalism in Russia, and in Nechaev's youth its textile industry was in a period of depression. His family was spared the dire poverty of the factory workers, but was as far removed as they from the social elite whom Nechaev described with bitter resentment in his adolescent correspondence. His desire for revenge would not have appeared so unusual had he belonged to the Russian terrorist movement of the decade after 1905, which had a much broader social base; memoirs of that period suggest that Nechaevism was threatening to become a mass phenomenon.

Mr. Pomper is on surer psychological ground when he passes from the makeup of Nechaev himself to the problem of the appeal of his theories to men who were not Nechaevs. He argues that Nechaev owed his brief ascendancy over a section of the Russian revolutionary movement to his ability to manipulate the sensitive consciences of the privileged young through the use of the symbols and rhetoric of revolutionary idealism. On the one hand, the extreme asceticism of the Revolutionary Catechism appealed to their urge for self-sacrifice as reparation for the sufferings of the people, an urge which, as the memoirs of that period show, had a peculiarly religious intensity. On the other hand, by the savagery with which he wrote and spoke of real or imagined atrocities committed by the tsar and his officials he encouraged his followers' latent feelings of aggression, and their adolescent urge to rebel, sanctifying these as a righteous desire to avenge the sufferings of the people.

This analysis of the small group around Nechaev is supported by contemporary accounts and carries conviction. But Mr. Pomper uses it as a basis for sweeping conclusions about the psychology of political extremism in general. That later Russian revolutionaries, while repudiating Nechaev's doctrine that the end justifies the use of any means whatever, continued to use techniques of centralized conspiracy and terrorism favored by him is for Mr. Pomper sufficient reason to discount any purity of motivation on their part as well. He argues that Nechaev was not just a "random pathology" in an otherwise healthy movement: the fact that his psychopathology could go undetected, that his paranoid power-seeking was indistinguishable from heroic commitment to the cause, shows that even in the most progressive of revolutionary movements there are no built in safeguards against manipulation or even control by those with a paranoid thirst for revenge; such perversions are inherent in the function of revolutionary ideologies as a cover and a justification for individual mechanisms of defense against guilt, suffering, or wounded pride. The career of Nechaev, he believes, should alert us to the fact that the "logic of commitment" to ideologies of collective salvation prepares the way for Nechaev's means and for Nechaev's goals. The Revolutionary Catechism is to modern extremism what the Communist Manifesto is to communism.

Mr. Pomper formulates his moral less crudely than his cold war predecessors, but the moral is essentially the same. There is something comforting, with more than a touch of self-righteousness, about the attitude of Western liberal historians to the phenomenon of Nechaevism. True, they emphasize that the enemy is closer and more sinister than we might perhaps have supposed, but he is still outside the walls. Those who are vulnerable to the infection of Nechaevism are those with sick consciences, with the "ambivalences of adolescence," those who follow the "logic of commitment." An "all-too-familiar phenomenon in radical movements," as Mr. Pomper observes, Nechaevism has also become a convenient stick with which embattled defenders of the Anglo-Saxon liberal tradition can beat those who challenge the moral respectability and courage of compromise and the middle way.

This version of the lesson of Nechaev claims a pedigree reaching back to Dostoevsky who, as Mr. Pomper reminds us, told the "inner story" of Nechaevism best, not only in The Possessed, but in the entire body of his work. But the pedigree is false. Like many Western critics, Mr. Pomper fails to distinguish between Dostoevsky's hatred and contempt for the real Nechaev and his followers (caricatured in the mean and twisted terrorists of The Possessed) and his deep ambivalence toward the moral significance of Nechaevism. His novels and his life express the dilemmas of a society where the question of how far one should go in resisting violence and oppression by force was a problem not of abstract principle but of daily moral choice. For nineteenth-century Russian society the enemy was very much within the walls.

If Mr. Pomper had extended his analysis beyond the "revolutionary subculture" to the culture which bred it and attempted to interpret it in literature, his version of the psychology of Nechaevism might have been less shallow and less complacent. But he has no time for sources which do not confirm his own analysis. In a brief reference to Ivan Turgenev he comments on the extreme oddness of the fact that this liberal writer, who showed himself so aware in his novels of the role of personal inadequacy in the formation of radical ideologies, nevertheless seemed to believe that some at least of the radicals of his time acted out of higher motives—surely, he suggests, a "willful misunderstanding" on Turgenev's part.

Mr. Pomper's dismissal of Turgenev's view as "amateur sociology," like his presumption that Dostoevsky's analysis coincides with his own, does him no credit as a historian. Any future study of the psychology of Russian extremism, if it is not to be yet another attempt to bend history to political purposes, will have to take serious account of the contribution of Turgenev and Dostoevsky. They devoted most of their mature work over two decades to this problem, and did so for reasons which had little to do with pure art. They believed, as all Russian writers did, that the artist had a duty to address himself to the deepest concerns of his nation and his time; as politically committed individuals—one a conservative, the other a liberal—they each saw in "nihilism" (as applied to the movement which produced Nechaev, the term was invented by Turgenev) a threat to their central values; and they sought through their art to explain the nature of this threat to a morally disoriented society.

Their approach was far from amateurish: they were personally acquainted with several of the radical leaders of their time and prepared to write their novels by immersing themselves in contemporary revolutionary literature and closely following the mass political trials of the late 1860s and the 1870s. But their conclusions on the revolutionary psychology of their time continue to be either misinterpreted or undervalued by historians. Perhaps this is so because they were principally expressed in art (although their diaries, notebooks, and letters are a rich source of material), or perhaps it is so because, refracting complex and rapidly moving events, they are not easy to summarize. But the principal reason, I suspect, is that their version of the moral challenge presented by Nechaevism offers none of the reassurance or the certainties which recent studies seem designed to provide. Yet it deserves to be recalled, at least briefly, as an alternative to the version which has become part of our political culture.

Dostoevsky's answer to the simplifiers who continue to use The Possessed to buttress their theories is contained in an article written some years after the publication of the novel. Here he expresses regret that so many of his readers took him to mean that all those who believed that the end justifies the means in revolution were fools or scoundrels. He points to his own past as a utopian socialist; he could never have been Nechaev, but he and the best of his comrades could certainly have been Nechaevists if it had been represented to them that violence and murder were the only means of relieving the intolerable suffering of the mass of humanity. The "horror" of Nechaevism, he concludes, is not that scoundrels commit crimes in the name of ideals, but that in periods of upheaval such as their own, perfectly decent and honorable men could do the same.

In its original conception as a "political" novel. The Possessed had been intended to show that the personalities of the Russian left were as diseased as its principles; but the "upheavals" of Dostoevsky's time (including the formation of a new terrorist movement which repudiated the cruel extremes of Nechaev) forced him to move to a more complex position, a recognition that, however flawed their personalities might be, some at least of the revolutionary types whom he sought to portray had made a moral choice which sprang from legitimate human needs. Even while writing The Possessed he had expressed the hope that his readers would see Stavrogin (to whom he attributes the authorship of a "revolutionary catechism") as not merely a criminal but also a "tragic" hero.

Dostoevsky's notebooks and the memoirs of his friend Suvorin testify to the qualms which prevented him from wholeheartedly denouncing terrorist violence; and in his last novel, written when this violence was at its height, he allows his most tragic "Nechaevist" hero, Ivan Karamazov, to present the case for the opposition. Ivan argues that the call to violence as a means to the goal of social justice is the answer of reason to the Christian ethic of forgiveness, which seems, on the observable evidence of history and human behavior, to be singularly ineffective as a means of persuading men not to oppress their neighbors. Though Dostoevsky had, as his letters reveal, chosen Christ in spite of reason, he concedes that the arguments of reason can be rejected, but never finally refuted. Ivan and his alter ego, the Grand Inquisitor, are not devils but devil's advocates, challenging the mystery of the Christian ethic in the name of the people whose suffering it does nothing to relieve. Alesha Karamazov, the most saintly of Dostoevsky's preachers of forgiveness, is tested by Ivan with a story of a kind of atrocity not unthinkable in tsarist Russia: a general punishes a peasant child who has lamed one of his hunting dogs by having them tear the child to pieces in front of his mother. Would "moral instinct" not demand that the man be killed? Alesha is forced to confess that it would.

Like later interpreters of Nechaev Dostoevsky had set out to isolate the symptoms of the disease he represented and offer a cure. But he was forced to the reluctant conclusion that there existed no single, consistent ethical system or political ideology which could bring about all conceivable goods, satisfy all man's moral instincts, and guarantee total protection against pathologies of conscience. Each set of circumstances demanded its own particular response along a continuum of choice between the two extremes of the doctrine "all is permitted," on the one hand, and that of nonresistance to evil on the other. Not righteous principles, but an awareness of the inadequacy of general rules in dealing with particular cases, of the incompatibility of some ultimate values and the consequent impurity of all moral choice—this seems to have been Dostoevsky's final defense against the psychic disorder represented by Nechaev's brand of fanaticism.

Many Western interpreters of Nechaev, including Mr. Pomper (on the evidence of his book), would find this conclusion unduly pessimistic. They would argue that the proper immune system to oppose to the virus of Nechaevism is liberalism, the ethic of the middle way. Unfortunately for this alternative, Turgenev explored their ground before them and probed the weakness in its defenses. Like Dostoevsky, he set out to expose, through a gallery of revolutionary types, the narrowness and inhumanity of the utilitarian logic of the left, but he too found himself at a moral loss before the most impressive of the radicals he met, and before some of his own negative heroes. In terrorists such as Vera Zasulich, who shot the St. Petersburg chief of police, he discerned qualities approaching saintliness.

After the publication of his Fathers and Sons he admitted that he was "confused" by his Bazarov, the type of the "intellectual terrorist" (to use Camus's term) who prepared the way for Nechaev: "I don't know whether I loved or hated him." Bazarov's attacks on the personal inadequacy and moral cowardice of many of those who recommend gradual solutions for pressing social injustices are supported by the unflattering portraits of liberals which abound in Turgenev's works: on the basis of painful analysis of himself and his milieu he revealed how liberal rhetoric was used as a screen for a paralyzing Hamletism. His analysis of Nechaevism and its causes convinced him that no political tendency of his time had a monopoly of what Mr. Pomper describes as "higher" or "lower" motives, and that in some historical situations the choice of the middle way might indicate a psychological imbalance as acute as Nechaev's. In his public lecture of 1860, Hamlet and Don Quixote, he suggests that the liberal with his immobilizing skepticism and the radical with his "half-mad" enthusiasm are each, in their way, a "tragic extreme."

Dostoevsky's and Turgenev's determination not to confuse the personality of Nechaev with the universal problem of "Nechaevism" has no parallel in Western studies of the subject. It seems that the temptation is far too great to use the historical accident of Nechaev's appearance as the basis for moral and political generalizations which seem to clarify complex problems. The argument that those who share some or all of Nechaev's principles are as mad or as bad as he was may be logically flawed, but it is psychologically irresistible to those who seek a clear and simple vision of the world, with no gray areas. The explicit aim of works such as the one under review is to help to ensure that history will not repeat itself; but by blunting our moral perceptions they increase the chances that it will.