Indigenous Revolutions in Russia and Imported Marxism

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Rise of Communism: From Marx to Lenin

By Vejas Liulevicius, Ph.D., University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Long before the arrival of Vladimir Lenin, homegrown revolutions were brewing in Russia. One anarchist, Mikhail Bakunin, Marx’s nemesis and arch enemy, proclaimed destruction to be a creative act. Read on to learn more about some lesser-known revolutions in Russia that paved the way for future successful revolutions.

A large crowd of demonstrators in revolutionary Russia.
The dejected and the harassed people of Russia took to the streets to make their voices heard. (Image: Everett Historical/Shutterstock)

Indigenous Revolutionary Traditions

Long before Marxism or Vladimir Lenin took center stage in Russia, the mounting aspirations for change led to some homegrown revolutionaries in Russia. Though unsuccessful, the chaotic revolts that unfolded during the Tsarist regime were the foundation stones for the successful revolution of 1917.

Narodnichestvo. In the 1860s, middle-class students and intellectuals romanticized the elements of an ideal society. Narod means both people and nation, and the Narodniki argued that the Slavic peasants mystically represented the ideal future society.

Nihilists. This category of revolutionaries in Russia claimed to live by science alone and things that were scientific to their eyes. They rejected all authority and tradition. They were known for their poor hygiene and shabby dark clothes. Nihilists were inspired by Nikolai Chernyshevsky, author of Shto Delat, the title meaning ‘what is to be done’? 

This book fueled a movement that was committed to the cause of revolution in Russia and shedding everything else in their lives. One notorious instance of this urge was the revolutionary terrorist Sergei Nechayev, who articulated a perfect message of hate and revenge. His infamous manifesto, Catechism of a Revolutionary, blends religious devotion with politics. It comprised 26 points of faith, advocating revolution as the sole consideration, where the end justified any means.

Nechayev cemented the group’s cohesion through shared guilt as he contrived the murder of his own comrades. But later, when Dostoevsky worked this story into his novel The Possessed, horrified fellow activists shunned Nechayev. Later, he was arrested and ultimately died in the deep dungeon of the Peter and Paul Fortress of St. Petersburg.

‘Going to the people’ movementIn the summer of 1874, thousands of populist students planned to work with the peasants and educate them on the revolutionary ideas using their subversive underground pamphlets, paving the way for a social revolt. However, much to their disappointment their ideas failed to connect with the peasants. The peasants did not understand these missionaries or their motives. They either passively listened to the newcomers or politely ignored them. In some cases, the peasants even suspected the youngsters and turned them in to the police as dangerous. Thus, the populist movement never transformed into the epic revolution in Russia that the young had envisaged. Later, the movement split into two different factions, and needless to say, the movement was effectively suppressed.

Narodnaya Volya or The People’s Will. A terrorist organization was formed by the students and revolutionaries in 1879. This was the very same terrorist organization that assassinated Tsar Alexander II on the streets of St. Petersburg. The Tsar bled to death in front of his grandson, the last Tsar, Nicholas II. As expected, this attack led to further violence and retaliation in the subsequent years, forming the basis for future revolutions in Russia.

This is a transcript from the video series The Rise of Communism: From Marx to Lenin. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Arrival of Marxism in Russia

In 1880, Marxism arrived in Russia as an imported Western ideology but with the status of science. Marxism was in sharp contrast with the concepts of rural utopias and the violent terrorist acts that were a hallmark of indigenous revolutions. Instead, the Marxists advocated a long process of development and years of industrialization that would help the country reach the point of social democracy.

The concept of Marxism was not homegrown and the Russians seemed to be attracted by its European nature. It was a new, fresh, and exciting concept, which was in total contrast to the disappointments and humiliating failures the Russians had faced so far.

One revolutionary described the lure of Marxism in Orlando Figes’s excellent study Revolutionary Russia as—“Marxism held out a promise that we would not stay a semi‐Asiatic country but would become part of the West with its culture, institutions, and attributes of a free political system. The West was our guiding light. ”

Learn more about revolutionary Russia.

Contributions of Georgi Plekhanov to Marxism

Photograph of the monument of Georgi Plekhanov.
Georgi Plekhanov, a Russian revolutionary, advocated Marxism in Russia.
(Image: Mikhail Markovskiy/Shutterstock)

The one person who made important contributions to introduce Marxism to Russia was Georgi Plekhanov. Plekhanov was born into a family of minor nobility and dedicated himself to the populist revolutionary activity. He fled Russia in 1880 to avoid arrest, only to return in 1917. From his exile in Switzerland, Plekhanov and his comrades established the first Russian Marxist group, called the ‘Liberation of Labor’.

Plekhanov suggested a two-phase revolution, where the first task would be to overthrow the autocratic Tsar and establish a middle‐class democratic regime. This would lead to the development of capitalism in Russia. The Marxists would then organize the working class to topple the democratic capitalist and pave the way for socialism. However, the Marxists believed that there was little they could do to speed up the revolution in Russia. They worked patiently but steadily towards creating a socially and politically conscious working class.

By the 1890s, the humble faction of Plekhanov and his fellow Russian Marxists had a considerable following in the society and by 1898 they founded the ‘Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party’. However, despite his intellectual prominence, Plekhanov was soon overshadowed by a younger man, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov. Better known by his revolutionary pseudonym Lenin, it was Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov who adapted Marx’s teachings to Russian conditions.

Learn more about Lenin’s ‘monumental propaganda’ plan.

Common Questions Related to Indigenous Revolutions in Russia

Q: Who led the indigenous Russian revolutions before 1917?

There was no single leader for the indigenous revolutions in Russia that took place before 1917. These were led by students and the Russian intelligentsia, who criticized and opposed the atrocities committed by the Tsarist regime.

Q: Who were Narodniks?

Nardoniks, meaning populists in Russian, were members of an agrarian socialist movement of the 19th century. They believed in awakening the masses through propaganda amongst the peasants, thereby creating a revolution in Russia and subsequent liberation from the Tsarist regime.

Q: What was the era of mass migration?

In the summer of 1874, thousands of students from the capital city of St. Petersburg and the old capital of Moscow traveled to the villages and hamlets in the deepest Russian countryside with a revolutionary passion. Their objective was to spread their message of a socio-political revolution in Russia. While some historians termed this ‘mass migration’, the students called their new movement ‘going to the people’.

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