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Russian Terrorism

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Russian Terrorism The devastating defeat of Russian forces in the Crimean War exposed the backwardness of Russia. In response, Tsar Alexander II passed a series of reforms, which were intended to liberalize Russian society. They included the abolition of serfdom, the modernization of the government, the opening of universities to people of all socioeconomic classes, the granting of semi-autonomy to the Russian territory of Poland, and the relaxation of some laws that were punitive to various religious groups (Burleigh 27). While these reforms had good intentions they failed to have the intended effects. The educational reforms did allow more people to be admitted to universities, but they did little to change life conditions for these new people. For example, women left universities with no new societal roles in which they could utilize their education. In addition, educated people of lower classes had few employment opportunities available for them upon graduation (Alexander and His Times). The tough situation for the newly accepted students caused students to rise up and take control of their professors (Burleigh 28). The emancipation of the serfs was also not entirely successful. This is because it left awkward agreements between former serfs and landlords that forced serfs to reimburse their former masters for the financial loss of losing them as unpaid workers. These agreements caused tension and some unrest in rural areas. Even in Poland, the limited self-rule that was granted to them failed because it caused many Polish people to demand full independence (Alexander and His Times). Since the reforms were not working out as originally planned, Tsar Alexander II decided to pull back some of the reforms, but the pullbacks were also unsuccessful. In order to prevent students from threatening their professors, two generals were placed in control of higher education and student organizations were banned. These actions caused unrest among students, which was then brutally suppressed by the government. In addition, the government tried to stop a potential rebellion in Poland by arresting radical youth of Warsaw and banishing them to the Russian interior. Ironically, this action caused a rebellion that resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths (Burleigh 28). The most important result of the reforms and the subsequent pullbacks was that people briefly experienced some freedoms and rights that they did not know existed. This caused demands for additional reforms to increase and groups with revolutionary ideas to gain power. Populism was one of the first ideologies to develop during this time period. Populism, in Russia, was based off the idea that socialism was inherent in peasant communes and that it would naturally arise if the autocracy were removed. Many people involved in populism were people of higher class who either wished to erase some class guilt or just escape the mundane nature of their lives (Workers’ Liberty). Another group of thought was nihilism. Nihilists consisted of younger people who rejected all morals and religious principles on the basis that there was no meaning to life (Burleigh 32). These people were not content with the status quo and accepted terrorism as a way to change it. The first revolutionary organization to form was a group called Land and Freedom. This group was formed as a response to the pullbacks in education reform. The members of the group differed in opinion, but they all agreed that killing the tsar would have no lasting impact and it never was one of their long-term goals. Not long after its creation, the leader of this group, Chernyshevsky was arrested. A new group called The Organization was formed to liberate Chernyshevsky. The members of the Organization experienced a rift in opinion and a smaller group called Hell split off from them. The Organization used tactics that consisted of political propaganda and social work, while Hell utilized assassinations, robbery, and blackmail. A member of Hell attempted to assassinate the tsar, and although he failed, he left the tsar alarmed at the state of Russia (Burleigh 35). In order to preserve order, the tsar cracked down on “dangerous” ideas. This was viewed as an act of oppression and Nihilist terrorism expanded as a result. A famous early nihilist terrorist was Serge Nechaev. Nechaev believed that the situation in Russia had to get much worse before it could get better. He thought that if the government becomes too oppressive, the people would rise up in revolution. Nechaev was convicted of murder and arrested, but his ideas inspired many future revolutionaries (Burleigh 36-40). Inspired by revolutionaries of the time, populists began a “pilgrimage to the people” in 1873. This pilgrimage had two intended purposes, to help the common people of rural Russia socially and politically. In order to help them socially, the populists taught the illiterate to read and provided medical services. The populists’ political goal was teaching the commoners the ideas of socialism and encourage them to be part of a revolution. The social goals were successful but the political goals were far from being accomplished (Copleston 120-121). The peasants had unconditional respect for the tsar and they essentially worshiped him as a religious figure, therefore when the populists spoke negatively about the tsar, it felt like blasphemy to them. Realizing that changing the mindset of the peasants was not going to be a simple task, the populists became supportive a strike against the tsar in hopes that it would ignite a revolution. A new revolutionary group called Land and Freedom (not related to the previous group) was formed and was inspired by populist ideas of the time period. This new group started with populism as a guiding ideology, but it soon considered terrorism as a more effective strategy than the “patient agitation” that populists traditionally used (Burleigh 42-44). Due to differing opinions a faction broke off of Land and Freedom called the Black Repartition, which held more radical views such as land redistribution. In the end, the supporters of terrorism in both groups joined together to form a new organization called the People’s Will (People’s Will). The People’s Will was not a very large group, but in order to appear credible, its members claimed that People’s Will was part of a much larger organization, the Russian Social Revolutionary Party (which did not actually exist). In addition, all of the members also claimed to be part of an executive council in order to make it seem that there were many people working under them in a hierarchical structure. The People’s Will adopted the strategy of using dynamite to carry out murders and targeted the tsar. After seven attempts, People’s Will successfully assassinated Tsar Alexander II on Match 1, 1881. Since one of the members of People’s Will was Jewish, anti-Semitic the government instigated pogroms in rural Ukraine. These pogroms turned Jewish people against the government and would explain why such a large percentage of the membership of later revolutionary groups were Jewish. The tsar’s successor, Tsar Alexander III, was offered a truce in exchange for the release of political prisoners and an elected assembly. Tsar Alexander III rejected the offer, but continued negotiations in order to delay any additional terrorist attacks. The talks ended when the tsar discovered that the People’s Will was in no position to strike again in the near future, (Biographies - Alexander III). People’s Will continued to fall apart because of the “Degaev affair.” Serge Degaev was responsible for directing the military actions of People’s Will. He was arrested by tsarist police and worked out a bribe deal with them. He exchanged information about all of the members of People’s Will in exchange for his freedom and the right to establish a new radical political organization (that had to be nonviolent). His actions broke the trust of the remaining members of People’s Will because they now continually feared that their organization was saturated with police informants (Burleigh 54). After this event, revolutionaries had to reorganize and some of the people who still supported terrorism started a new organization called the Terrorist Faction of People’s Will. One of the members of this new group, Alexander Ulyanov (Lenin’s elder brother), argued that terrorism would increase the people’s desire for revolution. The group’s recruiting tactics worked and more revolutionaries joined their cause, including a large number of Jews, (Burleigh 55). Eventually Jews made up 50 percent of the membership (only 5% of the population of Russia). Terrorism from 1860 to 1900 had only caused around 100 causalities, but in the first decade of the twentieth century the rate of terrorism increased and over seventeen thousand people were killed by the end of the decade, (Burleigh 56). Terrorism increased mainly because of the defeat in the Russo-Japanese War, the massacre of protesters in 1905 (Bloody Sunday), and the support people with liberal views gave to terrorism. The tsar did not effectively deal with terrorism because he feared backlash in from foreign liberals. When Tsar Nicholas II became the tsar he passed reforms that granted basic rights and legislative powers to the Duma (1905) (Burleigh 57). Revolutionaries viewed the actions as signs of weakness and dramatically increased their attacks. During the beginning of this tsar’s reign, the Bolsheviks gained political power. The Bolsheviks resorted to suicide bombings, which were a new tactic, along with extortion, hostages-taking, and armed robbery. A party based off their ideology was formed and was called the Party of Socialist Revolutionaries. This group performed terrorism in an attempt to further Marxist goals. They believed that terrorism was a psychological and physical weapon because it eliminates enemies and excites people about revolutionary change (Party of Socialist Revolutionaries). The party abandoned terrorism because of reforms, and in response some members started a new organization, the Union of Socialist Revolutionary Maximalists. Maximalists held very radical views such as the belief that those in economic or state power were literally a different race that was “morally inferior to our animal predecessors,” (Burleigh 62). Later on these views would be adopted by the Soviet Union. The Social Democratic Party did not support terrorism because they believed that it was not consistent with Marxist views. Lenin agreed with this philosophy at first, but he soon realized that terrorism could actually work with his ideas. He then encouraged class terrorism and terrorism against members of the government, (Burleigh 62-64). While the Mensheviks (the Bolshevik’s rivals) did not ever support terrorism, many people were unaware that there was a difference in opinion between the two groups and practiced terrorism anyway. Terrorism in Russia slowed down due to governmental intervention. Prime Minister Stolypin allowed governors to utilize military courts to prosecute terrorists, which sent many terrorists to their deaths. In addition, police agents were used to infiltrate terrorist organizations and destroy them from the inside out. When terrorists saw the governments resolve, terrorism decelerated. Although, Russian terrorism was contained, its impact on Russia was very important. Terrorism destroyed the resolve of agents of the government and they were less willing to deal with threats in the future such as World War I and the Russian Civil War. Also the way in which the government dealt with terrorism disgusted people and a liberal camp that supported terrorism developed. The fall of the Russian Empire was not the direct result of terrorism, but terrorism certainly played a role in igniting the revolution that ended the Empire.

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