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The Contemporary Review, Volume 36, September 1879

Typical also of the results such a system must needs produce


the aspiring girlhood of Russia threw itself with avidity upon the new sources of knowledge, scant as they were, which had at last been opened to it. The Minister of Public Instruction, Golovnin, who was in office between 1861-66, promoted, in his quality of an opponent of the classical method of education, by preference the study of natural science. Hence a realistic tendency--often verging upon the harsh and the crude--became the prevailing tone. Girls, sick of the idleness and the conventional frivolities of social life, eagerly devoted themselves to scientific pursuits, both as students at the new academies, and as subscribers to the courses of lectures which were getting into vogue. The very antagonists of the more extreme "emancipatory" practices acknowledge that the greater number of these lady-students, who soon were driven to seek for an opportunity of acquiring knowledge at a foreign university--that is, at Zurich--distinguished themselves by much diligence and talent, as well as by a spirit of personal sacrifice in regard to worldly comforts.

At the same time it must be averred that some of them, yielding to an exaltation and eccentricity easily aroused in womankind, mentally overbalanced themselves as it were, and began to assume hideous mannish and hermaphrodite ways. The close-cropped hair, the unnecessarily spectacled face, the short tight jacket, the cigar, and the frequenting of public-houses were unpleasant outward signs; but

far more deplorable was the cynic tone. These were and are the sad excrescences of an otherwise laudable aspiration; but it may be hoped that in course of time the excrescences will disappear. The sooner the better, else the best friends of the progressive tendency among womankind will turn away from it in sorrow and anger at the unsexing of the sex, whose tenderer nature--in Schiller's words, let us hope not quite antiquated--is destined to "weave wreaths of heavenly roses into the earthly life."

However, all the odd eccentricities, all the sad contempt of the natural and recognised forms of beauty, delicacy, or even decency, into which some may have allowed themselves to be betrayed by their eagerness to throw off intolerable intellectual fetters, must not render us unjust to the sounder aspect of the movement. Nor can those vagaries prevent us from giving a due meed of admiring praise to the heroism displayed by those nobly aspiring women, with whom the exaggerated manner is more an outward form, whilst their self-sacrificing deeds in the cause of the freedom of the nation and the welfare of the neglected masses, show the true humanity and nobility of their heart. "Dead souls" they are not. The fire of enthusiasm is within them.


After this rapid general survey of the condition of mind of the more advanced women in Russia I come to the tragic story of Vjera Sassulitch. It is a story typical of the base cruelty of autocratic government; typical also of the results such a system must needs produce.

The victim and heroine of that ever-memorable tragedy was not, at first, a member of any secret organization. Far from it. At the age of seventeen, Vjera, then a mere school-girl, had made the acquaintance of another school-girl, whose brother was a student. In the course of this innocent girlish friendship she was induced to take care of a few letters destined for the student, Netchaieff, who afterwards played a part in the revolutionary movement. A "Nihilist" Miss Sassulitch, at that time, certainly was not. Her whole ambition centred in the wish of passing her examination to qualify herself for a governess, which she did "with distinction."

Netchaieff's democratic connections having been denounced by a traitor, whom he thereupon slew, the school-girl of seventeen, who had known his sister, and him through her, was thrown into prison as one "suspected" of conspiracy. There was not a shadow of proof against her. No accusation was even formulated against her. Nevertheless she was kept, _for two long years_, in the Czar's Bastille--an eternity of torture for a captive uncertain of her fate. These were the words which her counsel, Mr. Alexandroff, addressed to the jury, when, later on, she was tried for an attempt upon Trepoff, one of the most hated tools of despotic profligacy:--

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