The term was first used by Turgeniev in his novel, "Fathers and Sons" (in "Russkij Vestnik", Feb., 1862): a Nihilist is one who bows to no authority and accepts no doctrine, however widespread, that is not supported by proof.
The nihilist theory was formulated by Cernysevskij in his novel "Cto delat" (What shall be done, 1862-64), which forecasts a new social order constructed on the ruins of the old. But essentially, Nihilism was a reaction against the abuses of Russian absolutism; it originated with the first secret political society in Russia founded by Pestel (1817), and its first effort was the military revolt of the Decembrists (14 Dec., 1825). Nicholas I crushed the uprising, sent its leaders to the scaffold and one hundred and sixteen participants to Siberia. The spread (1830) of certain philosophical doctrines (Hegel, Saint Simon, Fourier) brought numerous recruits to Nihilism, especially in the universities; and, in many of the cities, societies were organized to combat absolutism and introduce constitutional government.
Its apostles were Alexander Herzen (1812-70) and Michael Bakunin (1814-76), both of noble birth. The former, arrested (1832) as a partisan of liberal ideas, was imprisoned for eight months, deported, pardoned (1840), resided in Moscow till 1847 when he migrated to London and there founded (1857) the weekly periodical, "Kolokol" (Bell), and later "The Polar Star". The "Kolokol" published Russian political secrets and denunciations of the Government; and, in spite of the police, made its way into Russia to spread revolutionary ideas. Herzen, inspired by Hegel and Feurbach, proclaimed the destruction of the existing order; but he did not advocate violent measures. Hence his younger followers wearied of him; and on the other hand his defense of the Poles during the insurrection of 1863 alienated many of his Russian sympathizers. The "Kolokol" went out of existence in 1868 and Herzen died two years later. Bakunin was extreme in his revolutionary theories. In the first number of "L'Alliance Internationale de la Démocratie Socialiste" founded by him in 1869, he openly professed Atheism and called for the abolition of marriage, property, and of all social and religious institutions. His advice, given in his "Revolutionary Catechism", was: "Be severe to yourself and severe to others. Suppress the sentiments of relationship, friendship, love, and gratitude. Have only one pleasure, one joy, one reward — the triumph of the revolution. Night and day, have only one thought, the destruction of everything without pity. Be ready to die and ready to kill any one who opposes the triumph of your revolt." Bakunin thus opened the way to nihilistic terrorism.
It began with the formation (1861-62) of secret societies, the members of which devoted their lives and fortunes to the dissemination of revolutionary ideas. Many of these agitators, educated at Zurich, Switzerland, returned to Russia and gave Nihilism the support of trained intelligence. Prominent among them were Sergius Necaev, master of a parochial school in St. Petersburg, who was in constant communication with nihilist centers in various cities, and Sergius Kovalin who established thirteen associations in Cernigor. These societies took their names from their founders — the Malikovcy, Lavrists, Bakunists, etc. They enrolled seminarists, university students, and young women. Among the working men the propaganda was conducted in part through free schools. The promoters engaged in humble trades as weavers, blacksmiths, and carpenters, and in their shops inculcated nihilist doctrine. The peasantry was reached by writings, speeches, schools, and personal intercourse. Even the nobles shared in this work, e.g., Prince Peter Krapotkin, who, under the pseudonym of Borodin, held conferences with workingmen. As secondary centres, taverns and shops served as meeting places, depositories of prohibited books, and, in case of need, as places of refuge. Though without a central organization the movement spread throughout Russia, notably in the region of the Volga and in that of the Dnieper where it gained adherents among the Cossacks. The women in particular displayed energy and self sacrifice in their zeal for the cause. Many were highly cultured and some belonged to the nobility or higher classes, e.g., Natalia Armfeld, Barbara Batiukova, Sofia von Herzfeld, Sofia Perovakaja. They co-operated more especially through the schools.
The propaganda of the press was at first conducted from foreign parts: London, Geneva, Zurich. In this latter city there were two printing offices, established in 1873, where the students published the works of Lavrov and of Bakunin. The first secret printing office in Russia, founded at St. Petersburg in 1861, published four numbers of the Velikoruss. At the same time there came to Russia, from London, copies of the "Proclamation to the New Generation" (Kmolodomu pokolkniju) and "Young Russia" (Molodaja Rosija), which was published in the following year. In 1862, another secret printing office, established at Moscow, published the recital of the revolt of 14 December, 1825, written by Ogarev. In 1862, another secret press at St. Petersburg published revolutionary proclamations for officers of the army; and in 1863, there were published in the same city a few copies of the daily Papers, "Svoboda" (Liberty) and "Zemlja i Volja" (The Earth and Liberty); the latter continued to be published in 1878 and 1879, under the editorship, at first, of Marco Natanson, and later of the student, Alexander Mihailov, one of the ablest organizers of Nihilism. In 1866, a student of Kazan, Elpidin, published two numbers of the "Podpolnoe Slovo", which was succeeded by the daily paper, the "Sovremennost" (The Contemporary), and later, by the "Narodnoe Delo" (The National Interest), which was published (1868-70), to disseminate the ideas of Bakunin. Two numbers of the "Narodnaja Rasprava" (The Tribunal of Reason) were published in 1870, at St. Petersburg and at Moscow. In 1873, appeared the "Vpred" (Forward!), one of the most esteemed periodicals of Nihilism, having salient socialistic tendencies. A volume of it appeared each year. In 1875-76, there was connected with the "Vpred", a small bi-monthly supplement, which was under the direction of Lavrov until 1876, when it passed under the editorship of Smironv, and went out of existence in the same year. It attacked theological and religious ideas, proclaiming the equality of rights, freedom of association, and justice for the proletariat. At Geneva, in 1875 and 1876, the "Rabotnik" (The Workman) was published, which was edited in the style of the people; the "Nabat" (The Tocsin) appeared in 1875, directed by Thacev; the "Narodnaja Volja" (The Will of the People), in 1879, and the "Cernyi Peredel", in 1880, were published in St. Petersburg. There was no fixed date for any of these papers, and their contents consisted, more especially, of proclamations, of letters from revolutionists, and at times, of sentences of the Executive Committees. These printing offices also produced books and pamphlets and Russian translations of the works of Lassalle, Marx, Proudhon, and Büchner. A government stenographer, Myskin, in 1870, established a printing office, through which several of Lassalle's works were published; while many pamphlets were published by the Zemlja i Volja Committee and by the Free Russian Printing Office. Some of the pamphlets were published under titles like those of the books for children, for example, "Deduska Egor" (Grandfather Egor), Mitiuska", Stories for the Workingmen, and others, in which the exploitation of the people was deplored, and the immunity of capitalists assailed. Again, some publications were printed in popular, as well as in cultured, language; and, in order to allure the peasants these pamphlets appeared at times, under such titles as "The Satiate and the Hungry"; "How Our Country Is No Longer Ours". But all this propaganda, which required considerable energy and sacrifice, did not produce satisfactory results. Nihilism did not penetrate the masses; its enthusiastic apostles committed acts of imprudence that drew upon them the ferocious reprisals of the Government; the peasants had not faith in the preachings of those teachers, whom, at times, they regarded as government spies, and whom, at times, they denounced. The books and pamphlets that were distributed among the country people often fell into the hands of the cinovniki (government employees), or of the popes. Very few of the peasants knew how to read. Accordingly, Nihilism had true adherents only among students of the universities and higher schools, and among the middle classes. The peasants and workmen did not understand its ideals of destruction and of social revolution.
Propagation of ideas was soon followed by violence: 4 April, 1866, Tsar Alexander II narrowly escaped the shot fired by Demetrius Karakozov, and in consequence took severe measures (rescript of 23 May, 1866) against the revolution, making the universities and the press objects of special vigilance. To avoid detection and spying, the Nihilists formed a Central Executive Committee whose sentences of death were executed by "punishers". Sub-committees of from five to ten members were also organized and statutes (12 articles) drawn up. The applicant for admission was required to consecrate his life to the cause, sever ties of family and friendship, and observe absolute secrecy. Disobedience to the head of the association was punishable with death. The Government, in turn, enacted stringent laws against secret societies and brought hundreds before the tribunals. A notable instance was the trial, at St. Petersburg in October, 1877, of 193 persons: 94 went free, 36 were sent to Siberia; the others received light sentences. One of the accused, Myskin by name, who in addressing the judges had characterized the procedure as "an abominable comedy", was condemned to ten years of penal servitude. Another sensational trial (April, 1878) was that of Vera Sassulio, who had attempted to murder General Frepov, chief of police of St. Petersburg. Her acquittal was frantically applauded and she found a refuge in Switzerland. Among the deeds of violence committed by Nihilists may be mentioned the assassination of General Mezencev (4 Aug., 1878) and Prince Krapotkin (1879). These events were followed by new repressive measures on the part of the Government and by numerous executions. The Nihilists, however, continued their work, held a congress at Lipeck in 1879, and (26 Aug.) condemned Alexander II to death. An attempt to wreck the train on which the Tsar was returning to St. Petersburg proved abortive. Another attack on his life was made by Halturin, 5 Feb., 1880. He was slain on 1 March 1881, by a bomb, thrown by Grineveckij. Six conspirators, among them Sofia Perovskaja, were tried and executed. On 14 March, the Zemlja i Volja society issued a proclamation inciting the peasants to rise, while the Executive Committee wrote to Alexander III denouncing the abuses of the bureaucracy and demanding political amnesty, national representation, and civil liberty.
The reign of Alexander III was guided by the dictates of a reaction, due in great measure to the counsels of Constantine Pobedonoscev, procurator general of the Holy Synod. And Nihilism, which seemed to reach its apogee in the death of Alexander II, saw its eclipse. Its theories were too radical to gain proselytes among the people. Its assaults were repeated; on 20 March, 1882, General Strelnikov was assassinated at Odessa; and Colonel Sudezkin on the 28th of December, 1883; in 1887, an attempt against the life of the tsar was unsuccessful; in 1890, a conspiracy against the tsar was discovered at Paris; but these crimes were the work of the revolution in Russia, rather than of the Nihilists. The crimes that reddened the soil of Russia with blood in constitutional times are due to the revolution of 1905-07. But the Nihilism, that, as a doctrinal system, proclaimed the destruction of the old Russia, to establish the foundations of a new Russia, may be said to have disappeared; it became fused with Anarchism and Socialism, and therefore, the history of the crimes that were multiplied from 1905 on are a chapter in the history of political upheavals in Russia, and not in the history of Nihilism.