The New International Encyclopædia/Nihilism

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NIHILISM (from Lat. nihil, nil, nothing, from ne, not + hilum, trifle, little thing). A term applied to the tenets of the revolutionary wing of the Russian Liberal Party. The term was first used in a novel by Ivan Turgenieff, Fathers and Sons. Originally it was a school of philosophic and ethical individualism which held aloof from political agitation. In the common mind Nihilism is associated with assassination and revolution, since Russian Nihilists seek to overthrow the present Government by force. The movement which resulted in the formation of the Nihilistic Party began early in the nineteenth century. As early as 1818 those who aspired for greater freedom in Russia formed an association to further the common welfare. On December 26 (old style, 14), 1825, occurred the celebrated rising of the Decembrists among the officers and soldiers of the army, which aimed at the emancipation of the serfs and the introduction of constitutional government. The revolt was easily quelled, and six leaders were executed; 125 others were imprisoned or exiled. Toward the middle of the century liberal ideas received an impetus from the study of socialistic writers of other countries. On April 23, 1849, some thirty-three men were arrested who belonged to an association formed by Petrashevsky, an official of the Foreign Office. These were sentenced to death, but the sentences were commuted to imprisonment and banishment. There were no further disturbances during the reign of Nicholas I.

In 1857 Alexander Hertzen founded in London his journal, the Kolokol (Tocsin), which had enormous influence upon the Russian youth. About this time there arose in Russia itself a literary movement, under the leadership of Tchernishevsky, which criticised existing society and sought to arouse the people. Tchernishevsky's paper was suppressed in 1862, but later he wrote a novel, What is to be Done? which had great influence in popularizing revolutionary ideas. Shapoff, writing from the historical point of view, urged the introduction of self-government and local autonomy. Organizations sprang up in the universities, and new regulations introduced by the Government increased the opposition of the students. The secret associations of Saint Petersburg united in 1863 under the name ‘Land and Freedom.’

During the decade from 1860 to 1870 true Nihilism was first developed. Its fundamental principle was absolute individualism, the negation of duties imposed by family, State, and religion. An active materialistic propaganda was maintained. It stood for the rights of women and children, demanding cciuality of treatment for women, and in this respect it won a decided victory. But this individualism was confronted with misery among the common people which was not removed by the emancipation of the serfs. Economic conditions forced a change of policy and the development of political agitation. In 1868 Bakunin (q.v.) started a paper at Geneva, and became the leader of the anarchists, who gained control of the movement. Bakunin advocated the total abolition of the State and the substitution of small communes. The mir, or village commune (q.v.), had only to be freed from the State to make an ideal basis. The Russian students, forbidden in 1873 to study at Zurich, returned home to take active part in the propaganda. Associations sprang up throughout the land. Many of the aristocrats took part in this movement. The attention of the Government was of course attracted, and in 1873 and 1874 some 1500 persons were arrested. Most of these were released after a few months' imprisonment; the rest were confined for three or four years, and in 1877 193 were banished to Siberia. During this same period, and indeed at all times, there existed a more moderate party; but it did not satisfy the demands of the young men and women, particularly of the universities, which have been a hotbed of political agitation. About 1875 the ‘Narodniki’ became a prominent and widespread organization. It was under the leadership of the society at Saint Petersburg. The Government now became active, and during 1876 and 1877 the prisons were filled with propagandists. The trials of 1877 and 1878 mark the end of the first period of revolution. The number of persons involved in these trials was about 3800.

The attempts to organize the people into revolt now ended. The cruelty of the Government led to reprisals, and the Nihilism which began peacefully in the seventies took on another nature. At first spies of the Government were murdered. February 5, 1878, Vera Zassulitch, a young woman of twenty-eight, shot at General Trepoff, who had caused a prisoner to be whipped for refusing to take off his hat to him. She was tried before a jury of educated men, eight of whom held Government positions, and to the general surprise, she was acquitted. The Government was enraged at this, and the verdict was annulled. August 4. 1878, General Mezentseff was killed in the streets of Saint Petersburg. On February 21, 1879, the Governor of Kharkov, Prince Krapotkin, was assassinated, and other attempts were made to assassinate hated officials. April 14, 1879, an attempt to assassinate the Emperor, Alexander II., was made by Solovieff, who was captured and hanged. Two later attempts were likewise failures, but the next (March 13, 1881) was successful. (See Alexander II.) It was hoped that the terror inspired by the death of the Emperor would lead to the introduction of a constitutional system. When this hope failed, constructive measures were sought. In 1880 two reform parties were prominent: one of them had as its mouthpiece the Tcherny Peredicl, which found its chief support in the workingmen, and proposed to educate and organize society in order that social revolution might be effected. The second and more important party was the Narodnaia Volia (Will of the People), which sought to overthrow despotism by the communistic instincts of the peasants. It set forth a programme with the following demands: (1) A representative assembly having supreme control in all State matters; (2) provincial self-government with elective officers; (3) village communes, which were to be economically and executively independent; (4) freedom of conscience, press, speech, association, and political agitation; (5) manhood suffrage; (6) militia instead of a standing army; (7) nationalization of land; (8) measures to socialize factories, etc. The Narodnaia practically dissolved in 1884. With its downfall there came a period of quiet in the social movement, although in the cities there still exists a reform movement among the workingmen. See Communism; Socialism.

Consult: Turgenieff, La Russie et les Russes (Paris, 1847); Hertzen, La conspiration russe de 1825 (London, 1858); Thun, Geschichte des russischen Nihilismus (Basel, 1883); Stepniak, Underground Russia (London, 1883); id., Russia Under the Tsars (ib., 1885); Tikhomirov, Russia, Political and Social (ib., 1887); Oldenburg, Der russische Nihilismus {Leipzig, 1888); Stegmann, Handbuch des Socialismus, article “Russland” (Zurich, 1897); Karlowitsch, Die Entwickelung des russischen Nihilismus (3d ed., Berlin, 1880), a convenient short history of the movement; Kennan, Siberia and the Exile System (New York, 1891); Krapotkin, Memoirs of a Revolutionist (Boston, 1899).