The Term “Nihilist” (1887)


November Century.

 The word “Nihilist” was introduced in Russia by Turgenef, who used it in his novel “Fathers and Children” to describe a certain type of character which had then recently made its appearance in the ranks of the rising generation, and which he contrasted sharply and effectively with the prevailing types in the generation which was passing from the stage. As applied to Bazaroff, the skeptical, materialistic, iconoclastic surgeon’s son in Turgenef’s novel, the word “Nihilist” had a natural appropriateness which the Russian public at once recognized. There were differences of opinion as to the question whether any such class as that represented by Bazaroff really existed, but there was no difference of opinion with regard to the appropriateness of the term as applied to that particular character. It was accurately descriptive of the type.

The word “Nihilist,” however, was noon caught up by the Conservatives, and by the government, and was applied indiscriminately by them as an opprobrious and discrediting nickname to all persons who are not satisfied with the existing order of things, and who sought, by an active method, to bring about changes in Russian social and political organization. To many of the reformers, iconoclasts and extreme theorists of that time, the term “Nihilist” was fairly applicable — as it certainly was, for example, to Bakunin and his followers — and by some of them it was even accepted in a spirit of pride and defiance as an application which, although a nickname, expressed concisely their opposition to all forms of authority based on force

To the great mass of the Russian malcontents, however, it had then, and has now. no appropriate reference whatever. It would be quite as fair and quite as reasonable to say that the people in the United States who were once called “Know Nothings” were persons who really did not know anything, as to say that the people in Russia who are now called “Nihilists” are persons who really do not believe in anything, nor respect anything, nor do anything except destroy.

By persistent iteration and reiteration, however, the Russian Government and the Russian conservative class have succeeded in making the world accept this opprobrious nickname as really descriptive of the character and opinions of all their opponents, from the “terrorist” who throws an explosive bomb under the carriage of the Czar down to the peaceful and law-abiding member of a provincial assembly who respectfully asks leave to petition the Crown for the redress of grievances. It would be hard to find another instance in history where an incongruous and inappropriate appellation has thus been fastened upon a heterogeneous mass of people to whose beliefs and actions it has no sort of applicability, or a case in which an opprobrious nickname has had so confusing and so misleading an influence upon public opinion throughout the world.

The people most misrepresented and wronged by this nickname are unquestionably the Russian Liberals — the members of the protesting party who seek to obtain reforms by peaceful and legal methods.

“The Term ‘Nihilist,’” Daily Alta California 42 no. 13953 (November 13, 1887): 10.