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The Contemporary Review, Volume 36, September 1879

Playing in the revolutionary contest a most remarkable part


Strictly

speaking, the word "Nihilist" covers, at most, a small group of persons of a brooding and impracticable temper, such as is sometimes created under the darkest tyrannies. It may be doubted whether the majority of those who use the dagger and the revolver without compunction against the vile _sbirri_ of an intolerable despotism would call themselves Nihilists, or even Socialists. The greater number of the members of the secret leagues are believed to hold views not far removed from those which have found a practical expression in some freely constituted countries. The violent means employed are, with many, only the outcome of a feeling of revenge easily to be understood under the circumstances; or else they are regarded as a dire necessity in insurrectionary warfare. True, there have been Russians abroad who spoke of "abolishing the Family and Property." But nothing warrants the assumption that this is the principle of the Nihilists in Russia itself.

If either mere anarchy, or a system of barrack Communism, be the object of the majority of the men and women whose deeds have of late riveted the attention of all Europe, it is hard to comprehend that these conspirators should have secured so many friends among classes which by education and position cannot possibly have any sympathy with mere destructive or utopian schemes. Of the existence of numerous friends of the Nihilists in the higher classes there is, however, no doubt. Thus only can the hold

be explained which the occult propaganda of this _hic et ubique_ conspiracy has obtained upon the commonwealth.

VI.

I have mentioned the participation of women in the present desperate struggle. Students, lawyers, officers, Government officials, landed proprietors, merchants, all kinds of men of the more educated or well-to-do classes, have been found to be mixed up with the "Nihilist" Conspiracy. By far the most characteristic feature, however, is the share which women have taken in the late startling events. When women thus actively and enthusiastically step forth in a revolutionary or national movement, even to the extent of sacrificing their lives, it is always a sign of a people's feelings being wrought up to the highest tension. So great a strain upon the more delicate nature of the fairer sex cannot be borne very long. It is only at a time of extreme crisis that the unusual event occurs; and Russia is now at the very acme of such a crisis.

We have seen, in succession, Vjera Sassulitch, a captain's daughter; Sophia Loeschern von Herzfeld, a lady of high rank; Nathalie von Armfeldt, the daughter of an Imperial councillor; Mary Kovalevski, who also ranks as a noble; Katharina Sarandovitch, the daughter of a _tchinovnik_, or official; and several more, of equally prominent position, playing in the revolutionary contest a most remarkable part. They have suffered imprisonment; they have risked their lives; some of them have been condemned to hard labour. One of them was sentenced to be shot--but this latter decision even the Czar, though having to wage war against women, dared not carry out. This extraordinary mixing of the female sex in a widely ramified conspiracy is of so phenomenal a character that a sketch of the educational and emancipatory movement which led up to it, may well be here in its place.


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