Russian Revolutionary Heroines (Sophia Bardina, 1881)


THE weight of a woman’s brain in Slavonic races is greater than that of a man’s. Among the Germanic peoples the brain weight of the sexes is equal, and in the Latin nations the brain of the man is heavier than that of the woman. Quantity does not necessarily imply quality, but in this case worth follows weight. “For intelligence and resolution,” says M. Anatole Leroy-Beaulieu, the most recent and; the most fascinating of writers on Russia and the Russians, “as well as for education, and the rank she holds in the family, the Russian woman is already the equal of the man. Among the Slavs man ‘is ‘often mobile, flexible, ductile, and impressionable to an excess, but, as if in compensation, woman, in mind and character, possesses so much strength, energy—in one word, virility—that without losing either her grace or her charm, she exercises often a singular and irresistible ascendency.” This ascendency, frequently remarked in diplomacy, is not less remarkable in the revolutionary movement which at the moment supplies many of the youth of Russia with a terrible substitute for religion, which is well-nigh extinguished in the Orthodox Church beneath the superincumbent load of ritual, formality, and officialism. No one can have paid even the most cursory attention to the numerous criminal processes which shed a ray of such grimly lurid light upon the fermenting mass of Russian discontent without being impressed by the prominent part played by women in the work of revolution. Turgenieff, whose admirable novels are far too little read in this country—they appreciate them better in the United States—was, as usual, true to life when, in the Nihilist romance of “Virgin Soil” he made his heroine Marianne the central figure of his picture, and contrasted her decision, self-control, and common sense with the wild, unhealthy, impracticable dreams of her lover, who begins by longing to regenerate society and finishes by blowing out his brains. The plain-looking girl with the round face, short-cut chestnut hair, and an expression made up of strength, passion, and impetuosity, who studied the natural sciences and was aflame with a generous, self-sacrificing enthusiasm for all the oppressed and disinherited, which made her indignant and ready to revolt, especially when irritated by the presence of “calm, plump, self-satisfied people,” embodies in fiction the leading traits of character to be found in many a Russian woman now in Siberia, or fast hastening on the road which leads thither or else to the gallows. Of Sophie Peroffski, the latest and for the moment the most famous of the Charlotte Cordays of Russia, we may have something to say another time. At present it will suffice to notice two or three of the more notable members of the class of which Sophie Peroffski is the most distinguished type.

Sophie Bardin, of Tamboff, a young lady of noble birth, was the first to familiarize the public with the spectacle of a Russian revolutionary heroine. She had not finished her studies and passed her final examinations when she had decided to dedicate her life to the service of “her brothers.” At eighteen years of age she went to Zurich to study the labour question in Switzerland and in Germany, and to sit at the feet of Bakunin, “the apostle of universal destruction” and the prophet of anarchy. She soon returned to Russia confirmed in the faith as to the necessity for remodelling society, and resolved to lose no time in setting to work. She assumed the name of a soldier’s widow, and began to work at daily wages in a factory, the better to be able to carry on the work of proselytism among the disinherited of the world. The self-devotion and self-sacrificing enthusiasm which lead a woman reared in the midst of luxury, and educated as Russian women only are educated, to don the coarse garments of the factory hand and spend her life among the illiterate vulgar, not from any belief in a divine command, but solely from “love for the others,” are by no means unfamiliar in Russia. Sophie Bardin, or rather the twenty-two year-old widow Zaizeff, was not long permitted to conduct her propaganda in peace. A year after her descent among the workers she was arrested. The authorities took two years to prepare her indictment, and she was not tried before the spring of 1877. She conducted her own defence, and surprised every one by the courage and passion with which she pleaded her cause. Thousands of copies of her address were sold in St. Petersburg, and the fate of the eloquent speaker gave force and emphasis to her closing words: “The association will avenge me, and its vengeance will be terrible. Let your hangmen and judges massacre and destroy us now, during the short time that force is still on your side. We set against you our moral might, and that will triumph. Progress, Liberty, and Equality fight for us, and through these ideas no bayonet can thrust.” Her eloquence availed not, and Sophie Bardin was sent to labour in the Siberian mines for. nine years—a dreary expiation for one year’s propagandism of revolutionary doctrine.

Sophie Bardin was the first, and Sophie Peroffski the third, of the popular heroines of the Russian Revolution. The second place was occupied by Vera Sassulitch, whose name is perhaps even more familiar in the West than that of either of the others. Vera, who achieved notoriety by the shot she fired at General Trepoff to avenge the chastisement inflicted on a prisoner, Boglaiouboff, who was personally unknown to her, was four years older than Sophie Bardin at the time of her, trial. Her troubles, however, began even earlier. When only seventeen years old she was flung into gaol as the friend of the sister of Netchaieff, the well-known conspirator. She lay there two years without trial, and after her release she spent three years in exile, being passed on by the police from town to town as a suspect. Oppression drives even the wise man mad, and no one can be surprised that such treatment drove the victim into the ranks of the active conspirators, and at last led her to shoot General Trepoff. She made no attempt to escape, and justified her deed in court as being necessary to call attention to the cruelty which was practised under his control. All other means of publicity being denied her, she resorted to the revolver. Her plea found favour in the eyes of a Russian jury, and her acquittal, which was applauded by almost every newspaper in St. Petersburg, startled Europe. Immediately after her acquittal amid a scene of riotous enthusiasm she disappeared. It was said she had been arrested by “Administrative order” and banished to Siberia. After a short time it was discovered that she had only been in safe hiding, and soon afterwards she was feted as a heroine by the revolutionary refugees of Geneva and Paris, among whom she continues to eke out a livelihood to this day.

Sophie Bardin is in Siberia; Vera Sassulitch is in exile; Sophie Peroffski is dead. But although the three leading actors in the tragic drama are thus accounted for, there are many others whose names appear and reappear in the blood-stained annals of Russian sedition. Of these we catch but passing glimpses, some of which, it must be admitted, are by no means calculated to attract. Olga Rassoffski, who sent a bullet through the head of a police-sergeant; Anna Makharevna, who fled with a passport forged by two other revolutionary women from’ the punishment due for her share in the vitriolization of the spy Goronovitch, and Achristoff, the seventeen-year-old priest’s daughter who made love to the detective Lavroffski in order to betray him into the hands of the Nihilists, who cutoff his ears and sliced off his nose, are among those who, ruthless as destroying angels, keep up the Red terror in Russia. Of others, such as the daughter of Major-General Herzfeld, who was arrested at Kieff, of Vera Panyutin, Larissa Sarudneff, and Olga Shilinski, little more is known than their names and their fate. The case of Julia Krakoffski, the daughter of a university official of Kieff, who was remotely implicated in the affair of Tchigirinski in 1877, was brought to memory the other day by the confirmation of her sentence of banishment to Siberia for the heinous offence of having destroyed compromising papers instead of handing them over to the police, and of being in possession of the forbidden “Story of a Peasant,” by MM. Erckmann-Chatrian. “She was only twenty years old, but all Kieff,” says an admirer, who predicts that ere long her statue will rise upon the site of the fortress of her native city, “knew her charming smile, and the immense treasure of her charity towards the poor.” Still more remarkable was the case of Victoria Goukoffski, daughter of a medical dispenser of Odessa, who, on hearing that the Nihilist Kovalsky had been sentenced to death, created a riot in which two persons were killed by the soldiers, led a mob of red-bloused men through the public streets, and addressed them with revolutionary eloquence from a seat in the middle of the boulevards. She was arrested; but was rescued by the crowd, and made her escape, only to be arrested again the following month and sentenced to Siberia for life. This week, however, the news reaches us that she has terminated her misery by suicide. Whatever may be thought of the madness, or even of the criminality, of these revolutionary heroines of the nineteenth century, it is impossible not to recognize in their sublime devotion to the cause of the downtrodden and disinherited members of the human family a spirit which is nearly allied to the disinterested devotion of the martyrs whose blood was the seed of the Church.

The Pall Mall Budget (June 17, 1881): 7.