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Ana Siljak's Angel of Vengeance is the story of an unlikely would-be assassin. On Jan. 24, 1878, Vera Zasulich, then just 29, unmarried, gaunt, shy, the youngest child of an impoverished aristocratic mother, pulled an English Bulldog revolver from her shawl and fired two shots at General Fedor Trepov, governor of St. Petersburg. It was Trepov's misfortune - and Zasulich's stroke of luck - that he lived. For in place of his client, Zasulich's lawyer put Trepov and Russia's prison system on trial. In a sensational verdict, the jury, out for half an hour, acquitted Zasulich.

  • Angel of Vengeance: The "Girl Assassin," the Governor of St. Petersburg, and Russia's Revolutionary World, by Ana Siljak, St. Martin's, 370 pages, $28.95

Angel of Vengeance has tremendous narrative drive, combined with an epic, Tolstoyan scope. Ana Siljak, who teaches Russian and eastern European history at Queen's University, draws the provincial life of Russian nobles of the second rank with rare skill. She uses a novelistic touch to evoke their rituals, hierarchies and politesse, their clothes, their food, their physical and moral furniture. Pre-revolutionary Russia's contradictions, its freedoms and constraints, are superbly drawn. Such deftness is rare in an academic historian. So too is the author's sense of humour. Angel of Vengeance is a very good book.

The first of many terroristka, Zasulich became famous overnight. In France, Le Temps editorialized that her story resembled an Alexandre Dumas tale. She was compared to Charlotte Corday (who assassinated Jean Paul Marat in his bath) and Joan of Arc. Turgenev, Engels, Dostoevsky and Henry James enthused over her case. Oscar Wilde made her the subject of his first play, Vera, or the Nihilists. It failed, Siljak points out, because it contained "none of the satire for which Wilde would later become so well known. Instead, it is an earnest tragedy, a sincere attempt on the part of Wilde to enter into the world of the nihilists and expose what he called their essential 'passion.' "

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Angel of Vengeance succeeds - and succeeds brilliantly - where Wilde failed. To enter into the world of nihilists and expose their "essential passion," Siljak counterpoints Zasulich's story with quotations from contemporary sources. These include Turgenev's Fathers and Sons (1862), whose protagonist, Bazarov, coined the word "nihilist" from the Latin nihil, for "nothing." It was not that the nihilists believed in nothing. Rather, they wanted to annihilate everything: feudalism, monarchy, class structure, marriage, the state, war and religion. And this they would do with religious fervour.

Nihilism espoused the new religion of materialism. According to Ludwig Büchner's Force and Matter (1855), science would "bring man not only spiritual and moral, but likewise political and social deliverance." Materialism would destroy the "whole clique of pharisees, hypocrites, mystics, Jesuits, and pietists," Büchner maintained. "In essence," Siljak comments, "the nihilists had faith in Force and Matter."

Another source - for nihilism specifically as for leftist ideology generally - was Charles Fourier. In the period immediately after the Napoleonic Wars, Fourier's Theory would have an inordinate impact on progressive thought. Like his fellow Gallic ideologue, Comte Saint-Simon, Fourier advocated the organization of workers into state cadres. Called "phalanges" (and emblazoned in heraldic gear), they would revolutionize agricultural production. Fourier predicted a harmonious age in which science and free love would abolish class distinction and war. "Nature herself," Siljak observes, "would bless this new order. The climate would become universally mild, and the seas would turn into sweet potable liquid much like lemonade."

Another millenarian impulse (perhaps more influential in Russia than was Marx) was Nikolai Chernyshevsky's What Is To Be Done? Written while he was imprisoned in St. Petersburg's infamous Peter and Paul Fortress, and serialized in 1863 in his magazine, The Contemporary, Chernyshevsky's dogmatic novel amalgamated scientism, free love, free thought and utilitarianism with the gospel of electricity (beloved of Lenin and Stalin). According to Siljak, Vladimir Nabokov "maliciously speculated that the [Russian]censor found Chernyshevsky's book so tedious, long-winded, and insufferable that he assumed it would inspire only mockery and disdain." It was enormously successful.

A yet more terrible influence, with whom both Vera Zasulich and her sister were personally involved, was Sergei Nechaev. (Enshrined as the adjective "Nechaevistic," his name would evoke a terror too outrageous even for anarchists like Nechaev's friend and mentor - some would say lover - Mikhail Bakunin.) In The General Rules of the Organization, Nechaev formulated the cell system used by revolutionaries and resistance fighters from his day to our own. His Catechism of a Revolutionary (written with Bakunin's stylistic help) could serve as a guidebook to the contemporary apostles of terror.

"The revolutionist is a person doomed," Siljak quotes Nechaev's Catechism: "He has no personal interests, no emotions, no attachments, no property, and no name. ... [H] has broken all the bonds which tie him to the civil order and the civilized world with all its laws, moralities and customs. ... He is their implacable enemy, and if he continues to live it is only in order to destroy them more speedily."

After Vera Zasulich's attempt on the life of the governor of St. Petersburg, Russia would be consumed by ever-increasing violence. Its victims would include Tsar Alexander II in 1881 and prime minister Pyotr Stolypin in 1911. Nihilism would spread the so-called "propaganda of the deed" (selective assassination), encompassing the deaths of French president Nicolas Léonard Sadi Carnot (1894); Spanish prime minister Antonio Cánovas del Castillo (1897); Elisabeth of Bavaria, wife of the Austrian Emperor Franz Josef (1898); King Umberto I of Italy (1900); U.S. president William McKinley (1901); Spanish prime minister José Canalejas (1912); and King George I of Greece (1913). One can only speculate at the effect of such targeted assassinations were they to occur in our fragile post-9/11 era.

Zasulich would go into a long exile. She corresponded with Marx on the "proper revolutionary strategy [for]Russia," returning to Russia after the abortive 1905 revolution. She died in 1919 at the beginning of the Bolshevist tyranny that, her letters reveal, she knew would prove far worse than the tsarist autocracy it had replaced.

Angel of Vengeance is Siljak's second book (her first was Redrawing Nations: Ethnic Cleansing in East-Central Europe, 1944-1948. It should be required reading for policy advisers everywhere.

An eminently readable introduction to the politics and personalities of pre-revolutionary Russia, it also has much to teach us about today's world and the use of history.

Novelist Chris Scott is a long-time student of Russian history.

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