Vera Figner in 1914

Vera Figner, the daughter of prosperous parents, was born in Kazan, Russia, on 25th June, 1852. The oldest of six children, she was sent away to a private school in 1863.

On her return to Kazan she came under the influence of an uncle who held radical political views. With his encouragement she decided that she wanted to become a doctor. This was impossible in Russia at this time and so Figner moved to Zurich in Switzerland to obtain her training.

In Geneva she met Russian political exiles such as Mark Natanson and was converted to revolutionary socialism. After her medical training Figner returned to Russia and worked as a medical aide in Samara and Saratov.

Figner joined the Land and Liberty group and when it split into two in October, 1879, she joined the People's Will, the faction who favoured a policy of terrorism.

Several figures in the group were arrested and in March, 1881, Figer became the leader of the People's Will. She was involved in planning several acts of terrorism including the successful the assassination of Alexander II. She remained at large until being arrested in 1883 and the following year was sentenced to death. This was eventually commuted to life imprisonment.

Figner was released in 1904 and joined the Socialist Revolutionaries but left after discovering that Evno Azef had been working as a double agent. For the rest of her life she played no active role in politics.

Vera Figner

1. Was highly critical of Nicholas II and the autocracy.

2. Wanted Russia to have universal suffrage.

3. Wanted the Russian government to allow freedom of expression and an end to political censorship of newspapers and books.

4. Believed that democracy could only be achieved in Russia by the violent overthrow of Nicholas II and the autocracy.

5. Was strongly opposed to Russia going to war with Austria-Hungary and Germany.

6. Believed that if Russia did go to war with Austria-Hungary and Germany the Mensheviks, Bolsheviks and the Socialist Revolutionaries should join the war effort as he did not want to lose the war and be ruled by foreigners.

Primary Sources

(1) In her memoirs Vera Figner explained why she became a revolutionary.

There is poverty in the world; there is ignorance and disease. People who are educated and - like me - born to well-to-do families ought to share my natural desire to assist the poor. Under the influence of my mother and my uncle, as well as the journal articles I read, I made up a social program for myself; some day I was going to help peasants in Russia buy horses, or build new huts after their old ones had burnt down; as a doctor I hoped to cure people suffering from tuberculosis and typhoid, to perform operations and give advice on medicine and hygiene; and as a zemstvo activist I planned to set up schools, spread literacy, and provide grain elevators to help peasants save money.

(2) In her memoirs Vera Figner explained how her political views developed while she was living in Geneva.

Our circle in Zurich had arrived at the conviction that it was necessary to assume a position identical to that of people in order to earn their trust and conduct propaganda among them successfully. You had to "take to plain living" - to engage in physical labour, to drink, eat, and dress as the people did, renouncing all the habits and needs of the cultural classes. This was the only way to become close to the people and to get a response to propaganda; furthermore, only manual labour was pure and holy, only by surrendering yourself to it completely could you avoid being an exploiter.

(3) In October, 1879, Vera Figner joined the People's Will.

I was invited to become an agent of the Executive Committee of the People's Will. I agreed. My past experience had convinced me that the only way to change the existing order was by force. If any group in our society had shown me a path other than violence, perhaps I would have followed it; at the very least, I would have tried it out. But, as you know, we don't have a free press in our country, and no ideas cannot be spread by the written word. And so I concluded that violence was the only solution. I could not follow the peaceful path.

(4) Members of the People's Will were constantly being arrested by the Okhrana. Although leader of the group, Vera Figner managed to avoid capture for many years.

Occasionally, they stumbled on the trial of people who actually had been involved in the Moscow Organization's work; in other instances, however, they contrived to tie in people who were not implicated at all. That's how the "Trial of the Fifty" came about. It included eleven of the women who had studied in Zurich; a twelfth, Keminskaia, was not brought to trial, ostensibly because she became mentally disturbed during her preliminary detention. There was a rumour that the quiet melancholia from which she suffered would not have saved her from trial if her father hadn't given the police 5,000 rubles. After her comrades were sentenced. Kaminskaia's thwarted desire to share their fate led her to poison herself by swallowing matches.

(5) Vera Figner was involved in the planning of the assassination of Alexander II.

Everything was peaceful as I walked through the streets. But half an hour after I reached the apartment of some friends, a man appeared with the news that two crashes like cannon shots had rung out, that people were saying the sovereign had been killed, and that the oath was already being administered to the heir. I rushed outside. The streets were in turmoil: people were talking about the sovereign, about wounds, death, blood.

On March 3, Kibalchich came to our apartment with the news that Gesia Gelfman's apartment had been discovered, that she'd been arrested and Sabin had shot himself. Within two weeks, we lost Perovskaia, who was arrested on the street. Kibalchich and Frolenko were the next to go. Because of these heavy losses, the Committee proposed that most of us leave St. Petersburg myself included.