Sketches of Russian Heroines. I. Vera Figner
BY May Beals-Hoffpauir
Twenty-two years, nearly one-third of the expected three score and ten, spent in a black prison cell with no glimpse of passing cloud or starry skies; no message for thirteen of these years from friend or relative; no hope, in all that dreary time, of any change but death—such is the record of nearly one-half of Vera Figner’s life. It is not strange that her recent appearance in London aroused the wild enthusiasm to which she was already accustomed on the continent.
Few can survive twenty years in a Russian prison, and those few are usually utter wrecks both physically and mentally. Vera Figner is an exception to this rule. London Justice describes her, in her white robe, as appearing youthful and beautiful as of yore; and her public lectures are ample proof of her mental vigor.
At the time that Alexander II reverted to his reactionary policy, Vera Figner was a young and lovely girl who seemed destined by birth and education to move tranquilly in the highest circles of Russian society. Her parents were aristocratic, prosperous and independent and there seemed to be no reason why their daughter should disappoint their expectation of a brilliant future. But the persecution of the press, the suppression of free speech, the increasing number of exiles, roused the latent fires of the younger generation, and the socialistic doctrines beginning to spread in Russia fanned them to fever heat.
Although for a time Vera Figner was too young to take an active part in this movement she came in contact with many advanced thinkers of different schools while she and her older sister were studying natural science at Zurich in 1872. She attended the meetings of the different groups, Socialist and anarchist, and listened with great interest to their debates.
Her active work began when her elder sister, Lydia, her friend Sophie Bardina, and others were arrested and thrown into prisons; where, during their long suspense while awaiting judgment, many fell ill and died or became insane, or committed suicide. Vera joined the society formed for relief work among the prisoners—dangerous and strenuous work in which her personal charm, physical endurance and strength of character were of great service to those unfortunates. It was after several years of this work, and after her sister had been sentenced to Siberia, that Vera decided to join the ranks of the revolutionists.
During the fiery years before the assassination of Alexander II, while her friends were being sentenced to death and exile, and her work was carried on amongst constant perils. Vera Figner and her friend Sophie Perovskaya were tireless propagandists of the “Narodnaya Volya” (People’s Will Party). Vera’s genius for organization and her fearless earnestness made her influence widely felt, especially in her favorite work of spreading the cause in the army, which in Russia, as elsewhere, is the main bulwark of tyranny. Even the officers were often converted by her, and she commanded the respect of all she met, even her enemies. The famous Russian writer, N. Mikhailowsky, says of her:
“It is difficult to say in what exactly consisted the force and charm emanating from her, and attracting those around her so much. She was certainly both intelligent and fair to look at, but intelligence was not everything in her case, and as to beauty, that did not play any great part in her circle; she had besides, no specific talents. She fascinated by the great unity and harmony of her whole being; her entire self appeared in every word and gesture; hesitation and doubt were unknown to her. She was, however, quite free from the ascetic austerity so often to be observed in characters of this type. On the contrary, when the party’s affairs were going well, she was as sprightly and full of fun as any child.” The Narodnaya Volya group believed that when the crisis came the rest of the educated classes would join in their revolt. Their disappointment and sense of isolation when, after the assassination of Alexander II and their betrayal by the spy, Degaieff, they found that they were mistaken, has been vividly described by Vera Figner since her release. They were sentenced to death but the agitation against the execution of Russian political offenders, started by Victor Hugo and others in France, influenced the authorities to commute her sentence and that of some others to one of life imprisonment in the terrible fortress of Schlusselburg.
The following account of her life in prison is from a private letter that has been published instead of a preface, in a volume of her poems.
“Only a real poet could express in words all the phases of rage, trenchant despair, and the soul’s agony passed through in a period of twenty-two years. And what a variety of spiritual moods there was during all this time! Now it was the mood of a woman martyr in the early days of Christianity resigned to suffer everything with the gentleness of a lamb…. Now it was the fury of a panther striking with her chest and claws at the rails of her cage in her irrepressible desire to get free…. And now the mood changed to one of utter indifference without moods at all, when the soul became chilled as if covered with a mantle of snow. Then a state of lingering mere existence began, in which one ceased to suffer from a consciousness of either the strength still left or of an utter helplessness. In such moments it seemed that everything was finished, that death was approaching, bringing the only comfort of being laid down to rest by the side of comrades who have gone before and deserving the same warm feeling as I myself have cherished toward the dear departed.”
“…And suddenly! Again a knock at the closed door… This time it is a knock of life itself with its voice: “Arise and go! . . Oh what a tragedy! When one has already given up everything, refused to live any longer, and reconciled oneself to one’s fate, then suddenly to be awakened again by the call: “Come and live. Is not all this a whole tragedy, an anguish of which I cannot free myself even at this moment?”
The poems that she wrote while in prison, of course, without hope of ever seeing them published, reflect these moods with great realism and pathos. I give Jaakoff Prelooker’s translation of “The Best Have Fallen,” dedicated to the comrades who had died in prison:
The best have fallen. Swallowed by the earth
Unknown their resting place remains.
No tear fell o’er their lifeless frames,
Borne to their graves by strangers hands
No cross, no rail, nor e’en a tablet
Is there the glorious name to honor.
The humble grass and moss alone
The spot caress—its mystery cover.
The whirling waves as only witness,
Raging, foaming, the shores attack.
But awful as their roar may be
The tragic tale they ne’er can tell.
May Beals-Hoffpauir, “Sketches of Russian Heroines. I. Vera Figner,” The Progessive Woman 3 no. 28 (September, 1909): 4.