In 1876 a secret society, Land and Liberty, was formed. The group, led by Mark Natanson, demanded that the Russian Empire should be dissolved. It also believed that two thirds of the land should be transferred to the peasants where it would be organized in self-governing communes. It remained a small group and at its peak only had around 200 members.
Undercover agents employed by Okhrana soon infiltrated the organization and in 1877 members began to be arrested. This included Mark Natanson who was imprisoned in Siberia where he was to remain for the next eleven years.
In October, 1879, the Land and Liberty split into two factions. The majority of members, who favoured a policy of terrorism, established the People's Will. Others, such as George Plekhanov formed Black Repartition, a group that rejected terrorism and supported a socialist propaganda campaign among workers and peasants.
In the spring of 1879, the unexpected news of Alexander Soloviev's attempt on the life of the Tsar threw Geneva's Russian colony into turmoil. Vera Zasulich hid away for three days in deep depression: Soloviev's deed obviously reflected a trend toward direct, active struggle against the government, a trend of which Zasulich disapproved. It seemed to me that her nerves were so strongly affected by violent actions like Soloviev's because she consciously (and perhaps unconsciously, as well) regarded her own deed as the first step in this direction.
Other émigrés were incomparably more tolerant of the attempt: Stefanovich and Deich, for example, merely noted that it might hinder political work among the people. Kravchinskii rejected even this objection. All of us knew from our personal experience, he argued, that extensive work among the people has long been impossible, nor could we expect to expand our activity and attract masses of the people to the socialist cause until we obtained at least a minimum of political freedom, freedom of speech, and the freedom to organize unions.
Stefanovich became the head of the Black Repartition, and his friends Vera Zasulich and Lev Deich joined him. But even ardent populists like Vera Figner, who had been working in one of the countryfolk settlements in the provinces, and Sophia Perovskaia joined the People's Will, the group that had taken up arms to defend the people and their apostles.
Black Repartition was stillborn; it left no visible traces of its work among the people at the end of 1879 and the beginning of 1880, because no such activity was possible on a broad scale. After a series of failures, Stefanovich, Deich, Plekhanov, and Zasulich returned abroad.
As for me, naturally I joined the People's Will. The Executive Committee of the People's Will soon began to chart its own course. Its initial plan had been to carry out a number of actions against the governor-generals, but this decision was called into question at one open-air meeting in Lesnoi: shouldn't we concentrate all our forces against the Tsar instead, it was asked. We resolved that this should indeed be the goal of the Executive Committee. The implementation of that decision engaged the People's Will right up to March 1, 1881.
In the spring of 1879, after Governor Krapotkin was assassinated, there was a wave of searches and arrests in Kharkov. I had to flee and go understanding for good. I spent brief periods of time in various cities, reaching St. Petersburg in the fall of that year. By this time, Land and Liberty had split into the People's Will and Black Repartition. Firmly convinced that only the people themselves could carry out a socialist revolution and that terror directed at the centre of the state (such as the people's Will advocated) would bring - at best - only a wishy-washy constitution which would in turn strengthen the Russian bourgeoisie, I joined Black Repartition, which had retained the old Land and Liberty program.
Joining Black Repartition had involved accepting the basic principles of the Land and Liberty program. Those principles had, in fact, guided my own political work previously; my reservations about joining the organization concerned tactics. The experiences of the revolutionaries who had worked in the countryside had not been very successful. From my various approaches to the masses, I had gradually come to the conclusion that two activities should be paramount. The first was economic terror. Now, the program of Black Repartition included this, but the party's emphasis was on local popular uprisings. In my opinion, economic terror was more readily understood by the masses; it defended their interests directly, involved the fewest sacrifices, and stimulated the development of revolutionary spirit. The other major task was organizing workers' union, the members of which would rapidly spread revolutionary activity from the cities to the native villages; and there, too, economic terror should be the heart of the struggle.
I recall a very stormy meeting about the printing press which Black Repartition held in one of its conspiratorial apartments. Maria Krylova, who had been serving as the proprietress of Land and Liberty's printing operation, emphatically refused to let the People's Will have the press - she was even prepared to use arms against them, if they took any aggressive actions to get it. George Plekhanov was also strongly opposed to giving up the press, but at the same time, in his characteristic manner, he wittily and venomously ridiculed Krylova's plan for "armed resistance".