Friday, 31 March 2023 to Sunday, 2 April 2023

Political violence in Russian literature, 1905-1914

Fri31  Mar04:35pm(20 mins)
Senate Room


Ben Phillips1
1 University of Exeter, UK


In the years during and immediately after the 'first Russian Revolution' of 1905-1907, the Russian Empire witnessed what one historian has characterised as an 'epidemic of violence'. Yet if the wave of revolutionary bloodletting that marked the initial upheaval of 1905-1906 (ranging from military mutinies and nationalist uprisings in the borderlands to terrorist attacks carried out by the parties of the left) was deeply shocking for the Russian public, the indiscriminate repressions of the government that followed were no less so: in the latter half of 1906 alone, Stolypin's military field courts and 'punitive expeditions' claimed thousands of victims. As a result, political violence, as committed both by the revolutionaries and by the Tsarist regime, became a matter for urgent (and, after the reforms of October 1905, largely uncensored) public discussion in the press, from the Duma rostrum, and in the literature of the time. This paper examines how several prominent Russian writers – Tolstoi, Merezhkovskii, Rozanov, Leonid Andreev and the terrorist-turned-writer Boris Savinkov – represented and problematised the violence of this period in moral, political and aesthetic terms. In particular, it asks how they understood the relationship between state and revolutionary violence (were they opposites, or, as some claimed, symbiotically linked?) and how they addressed the problem of legitimacy: in short, who was permitted to kill whom in the name of what.