The Catechism of the Revolutionary and the Demands of the Narodnaia Volia both demonstrates the extreme side of the revolutionaries in Russia in the late nineteenth century. The Catechism of the Revolutionary is the ideal guidelines which a revolutionary should live by, outlining their goals, behaviors, and even feelings to define a true ‘revolutionary’. The Demands of the Narodnaia Volia is the product of these guidelines, and shows the extent to which followers of the Catechism of the Revolutionary were willing to go to achieve their goals and how they felt they were justified in doing so.
I got a distinct feeling while reading these documents of a cult-like feeling developing. The Catechism of the Revolutionary required not just a dedication of time or beliefs to a cause, but of the revolutionary’s entire life. Most of what is done, even if it only effects one person such as that person connections to their ‘second and third rank’ revolutionaries. This kind of hive-mind behavior coupled with the extremes that Bakunin and Nechaev called for created an almost religious tone. I was also shocked at portrayal of violence that these documents seem to idealize. Not only is it mentioned and encouraged or justified often throughout the texts, but it also seems to address the revolutionary as a tool for violence rather than as a thinking person. Paragraph 13 states “The revolutionary joins the state, society, and so-called civilized world and lives in it only for the purpose of its more total and speedier destruction”, and goes on to discuss how compassion is a weakness. The document attempts to take believers in revolution and make them into blind-instruments by telling them that this is the only way to truly support a cause that they believe in.
Reading these texts left we with questions as to how both the documents themselves and this mindset overall were view by the population of Russia. How did the Catechism of the Revolutionary in particular make it into Russia past the censors? If it was written while the authors were in exile how much of the document was influence by outside ideologies that they encountered, and how much was directly from them (and probably the cause of their being exiled)? Additionally, how many followers were willing to follow such dire measures for the sake of revolution?
The Catechism of the Revolutionary is disturbing to say the least, but it clearly defines the lengths that the revolutionary fanatic authors were willing to go to see Russia destroyed. From the very beginning, Bakunin and Nechaev define a true revolutionary as someone that exists solely for the purpose of carrying out a revolution, and for a revolutionary, all else in life is a distant second.
The pure annihilation preached by Bakunin and Nechaev is extreme, but they state in no uncertain terms just what a revolutionary is and what they live for. Their idea of revolution could be said to be pure, as it defines the revolution as a central aspect of life. In fact, their commitment to the revolution and their belief in its purpose is borderline religious. They write that to be a true revolutionary, one must sever all ties, visible or not, to the government and civil order itself, and they may only exist in the civilized world “for the purpose of its more total and speedier destruction” (p. 352).
The Catechism of the Revolutionary classifies people into different classes based on their dedication to the cause, their standing in the Russian government, and even their sex. They determine a person to be a comrade only if they can devote themselves to the revolution and a human only if they can offer something to the revolution. Their class system is nearly as complete as the Table of Ranks created by Peter the Great, and it clearly defines the purposes and fate of many different people groups.
Nechaev and Bakunin are absolutely clear when they define their vision, but one of the most important statements that they make is said in Paragraph 24. They state that they didn’t lay out this design for a group that would seize power from the government, they only created the system to tear down the government that already existed. After the social order and the government are gone, they leave it up to the people to build a new system after they’ve done their job.
“Live to destroy” as the goal of a revolutionary turns Sergei Nechaev’s catechism into a program of broad -scale terrorist activity. He aims to infiltrate society with the purpose of “passionate, total, universal, and total destruction.” A scary idea, even thinking about Russian nineteenth-century society, where, according to the Program of the Narodnaia Volia, “economically and politically” Russian people lived “in a state of absolute slavery.” They were deprived of any citizens’ rights and worked to “support the parasitic classes,” – the Russian elite. The Catechism of the Revolutionary is so extreme and terror-oriented, that it is hard to try understanding the good intentions behind it. Saving the Russian people from oppression by eliminating all traditions and orders of Russian life is an impossible thing to do – Russian character relies upon tradition and long history, so total destruction as a way to change the order of life is a dead end in Russian society, or any other society for that matter.
The Program of the Narodnaia Volia also sets the task to improve the miserable lives of the Russian people. The members of Narodnaia Volia protested against the state oppressing the Russian people and worked to achieve freedom, equality and prosperity of the people through the revolution. Inspired by the slogan “power to the people,” they put duty to the country above human feelings and were ready for self-sacrifice to fulfill their aim at any cost. At the same time, Narodnaya Volia saw terror as the last resort and blamed the fact that they had to use terror on the Russian monarchy, cruelly vanquishing any attempts of social unrest. It waged “partisan warfare” within society, that was undermining the foundation of the Russian state and winning the sympathies of broad social circles.
It seems strange and unfortunate that the activity of Narodnaia Volia were so passionately directed against the tsar Aleksander II, known as the Liberator, who put an end to serfdom in Russia and supported many reforms in Russian society. Even after assassinating Aleksander II, Narodnaia Volia, let alone the revolutionary organizations more terrorist in nature, like those described in Nechaev’s Catechism of the Revolutionary, could never achieve their goals. This brings me to the conclusion that extremist ideologies like Nechaev’s or, to some extent, that of Narodnaia Volia, are not effective methods to bring about positive change into society. The principle “the purpose justifies the way” often causes destruction without creating a successful alternative for the future.