Nechaev the Nihilist

He did not want to build a new world but tear down the old one, he had no desire to live in harmony with his fellow man but to confront them, and he believed in destruction for its own sake – he was a Nihilist.

Sergei Gennadiyevich Nechaev, was born in Ivanovo, a small textile town in Western Russia on 2 October 1847 an only child spoiled and pampered who was excitable and prone to temper tantrums.

He was radicalised at an early age from witnessing his father struggle to make ends meet as a waiter and sign painter and in particular by the humiliations he endured at the hands of the local gentry which caused great resentment in a young man devoted to books and ideas who failed to see why his father and family should be considered inferior and refused to accept inequality on the basis of wealth and accident of birth.

But there was little opportunity or freedom in Ivanovo for someone increasingly obsessed with the idea of revolution and so in 1865, aged 18, he moved to Moscow where the future leading Marxist Vera Zasulich recalled meeting him:

“I could see that he was very serious, that his was no idle chatter about revolution. He could act, and he would act.”

But he found Moscow to be a deeply conservative city unresponsive to the skewed radicalism of an autodidact from the provinces and he soon left for the capital St Petersburg supposedly to train as a teacher but more interested in student politics and promoting unrest his studies were just a distraction.

In 1869, he published a programme for revolutionary activity that came to the attention of the Authorities and a warrant was issued for his arrest. Not waiting for the inevitable knock on the door in late January he faked his own death and fled for Switzerland. Arriving in Geneva he portrayed himself as the leader of a dedicated band of Russian revolutionaries, though he was at the time no such thing. As such, he quickly made the acquaintance of the revolutionary diaspora.

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In particular, he became close to the leading anarchist and his fellow Russian, Mikhail Bakunin. Indeed, their relationship was to be passionate and develop into more than just friendship but as Bakunin was soon to discover his young lover was not all that he seemed.

In the spring of 1869, Nechaev published his Catechism of a Revolutionary a 26 point document austere, brutal , and unforgiving in its content and unflinching in its objectives which was to influence generations of revolutionaries in particular Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin.

It called for the utter destruction of the State and all its institutions including the elimination of the Church and religion from the human psyche, and of the necessity of doing these things by violent means. There could be no consensus, no reform, and no pity. What already existed had to be utterly destroyed before anything new could be built. If this resulted in the death of millions then so be it, and it was Nechaev and not, as is so often thought Lenin who first coined the phrase – the end justifies the means.

To this and this alone must the revolutionary dedicate his life, there could no existence outside of its accomplishment:

“The revolutionary is a doomed man. He has no private interests, no affairs, sentiments, ties, property nor even a name of his own. His entire being is devoured by one purpose, one thought, one passion – the revolution. Heart and soul, not merely by word but by deed, he has severed every link with the social order and with the entire civilized world; with the laws, good manners, conventions, and morality of that world. He is its merciless enemy and continues to inhabit it with only one purpose – to destroy it.

A revolutionary must infiltrate all social formations including the police. He must exploit rich and influential people, subordinating them to himself. He must aggravate the miseries of the common people, so as to exhaust their patience and incite them to rebel. And, finally, he must ally himself with the savage word of the violent criminal, the only true revolutionary in Russia.”

The Catechism became the effective blueprint for Lenin’s later formation of the Bolshevik Party but it was too much for Bakunin, too negative, devoid of hope, and the barren landscape it created sat uncomfortably with the anarchists who dreamed of a better future. It was damaging to his reputation.

With the encouragement of Bakunin who provided him with the false documentation required and the money designed to keep him there, Nechaev was persuaded to return to Russia.

Nechaev however was the character of his own creation and he could not be distracted from his course, he would live an austere life and the money he had, no matter how much, would be used for political activity only.

He designated himself the Russian Representative of the World Revolutionary Movement, another figment of his imagination, but he also established the Narodnya Resprava, or Peoples Reprisal.

But in exile from his old friend Bakunin he began to write of him at great length and the portrait he drew was not a flattering one. The hero of the Anarchist Movement, he said, was soft and indolent, a coward without conviction, and no revolutionary at all.

In isolation, with no friends just followers, no one with whom to share those inner-emotions, no one he could trust, he became increasing paranoid and erratic in his behaviour.

When Ivan Ivanov, a young member of the fledgling Narodnya Resprava dared to criticise him Nechaev went berserk beating him severely and stabbing him repeatedly before taking his gun and shooting him through the head.

Along with some other members of the party who could no longer be in doubt whose side they should be on, he disposed of the body in the River Neva after cutting a hole in the ice.

Now a wanted man not just for his politics but for the capital offence of murder he was once again forced to flee Russia.

Returning to Geneva Nechaev and Bakunin were reconciled, at least for a time, with the older man, as older men often are when confronted with young love weak of heart and going to great lengths to defend his ‘Tiger Cub’ from his critics, but Nechaev had no greater enemy than himself.

Believing that Bakunin’s colleagues were out to destroy him he began to steal and copy the anarchist leader’s private papers with the intention of blackmailing others into protecting him.

Bakunin against his inclinations had no choice but to warn others of his behaviour and not to reveal to him any of their activities.

When Nechaev threatened to kill a publisher who was demanding that Bakunin fulfil a contract he had already been paid for his act of intimidation was reported to the police and he was forced to go into hiding.

Haunted by the thought of betrayal he rarely ventured out by day and moved from house to house at night but his capture was only a matter of time.

On 14 August 1872, he was arrested in Zurich and at their request handed over to the Okhrana, or Russian Secret Police.

Returned to Russia on 8 January 1873, he was tried and found guilty of the murder of Ivanov and though he was spared the death penalty (which had been temporarily suspended by Tsar Alexander II under his reform programme) was sentenced to twenty years hard labour in Siberia.

The Tsar however, who so intrigued by and fearful of this new kind of dedicated revolutionary that he would receive regular updates of how he spent his time under lock and key and personally intervened to ensure that he was imprisoned in the notorious Peter and Paul Fortress in St Petersburg.

Nechaev, who was permitted few visitors, was able to bribe his guards into passing on his correspondence with fellow revolutionaries. He hoped to facilitate his liberation but despite repeated assurances that an escape plan was being hatched and organised the truth was that many were relieved to see him out of the way.

There was to be no dramatic rescue but despite the pain of rejection and the frequent beating and threats of arbitrary execution that were designed to break his spirit he never betrayed his revolutionary colleagues.

On 3 December 1882, he was discovered dead in his cell it was said from the effects of dropsy but also possibly the victim of murder.

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