Vera Zasulich was born into a poor family living in Mikhaylovka, Russia, in 1849. Her father died when she was three years old and as her mother was unable to cope, she sent Vera to live with wealthy relatives in Balakovo.
When Zasulich finished her schooling she moved to St. Petersburg and found work as a clerk. She became involved in radical politics and met Sergi Nechayev, the co-author with Mikhail Bakunin of Catechism of a Revolutionist. "Nechayev began to tell me his plans for carrying out a revolution in Russia in the near future.... I could imagine no greater pleasure than serving the revolution. I had dared only to dream of it, and yet now he was saying that he wanted to recruit me, that otherwise he wouldn't have thought of saying anything."
Lev Deich got to know her during this period: "Because of her intellectual development, and particularly she was so well read, Vera Zasulich was more advanced than the other members of the circle... Anyone could see that she was a remarkable young woman. You were struck by her behavior, particularly by the extraordinary sincerity and unaffectedness of her relations with others."
Zasulich joined a weaving collective and became active in the movement to educate workers, conducting literacy classes for them in the evenings. In 1876 Zasulich found work as a typesetter for an illegal printing press. A member of the Land and Liberty group, when Zasulich heard that one of her fellow comrades, Tatiana Lebedeva, had witnessed one of the prisoners, Alexei Bogoliubov, take a terrible beating at the hands of Dmitry Trepov, the Governor General of St. Petersburg, she decided she must take revenge.
According to Cathy Porter, the author of Fathers and Daughters: Russian Women in Revolution (1976): "By July 1877 the atmosphere in the prison had already reached boiling-point when Trepov, Governor-General of St Petersburg, made his tour of inspection. The political detainees watched from their cell windows as Trepov, who was in a particularly vicious mood that day, examined prisoners in the yard below. Suddenly, over-reacting to some imagined misdemeanour of Bogolyubov's, he ordered him to be flogged savagely. Bogolyubov went insane as a result of the beating... That night the prison resounded to the shouts of the detainees. In the women's section Tatiana Lebedeva, whose health had been seriously undermined by prison conditions, vociferously urged her friends to shout out their support for Bogolyubov. Prison officers made savage reprisals, and many women were dragged out of their cells by their hair and flogged."
When Zasulich heard the news she went to the local prison determined to assassinate Trepov. She later recalled that she went to Trepov's office with a revolver hidden under her cloak: "The revolver was in my hand. I pressed the trigger - a misfire. My heart missed a beat. Again I pressed. A shot, cries. Now they'll start beating me. This was next in the sequence of events I had thought through so many times. I threw down the revolver - this also had been decided beforehand; otherwise, in the scuffle, it might go off by itself. I stood and waited. Suddenly everybody around me began moving, the petitioners scattered, police officers threw themselves at me, and I was seized from both sides."
Zasulich was arrested and charged with attempted murder. During the trial the defence produced evidence of such abuses by the police, and Zasulich conducted herself with such dignity, that the jury acquitted her. When the police tried to re-arrest her outside the court, the crowd intervened and allowed her to escape. Zasulich commented: "I could not understand this feeling then, but I have understood it since. Had I been convicted, I should have been prevented by main force from doing anything, and I should have been tranquil, and the thought of having done all I was able for the cause would have been a consolation to me."
Sergei Kravchinsky argued that Vera Zasulich was a new kind of hero: "On the horizon appeared the outlines of a sombre figure, illuminated by some kind of hellish flame, a figure with chin raised proudly in the air, and a gaze that breathed provocation and vengeance. Passing through the frightened crowds, the revolutionary enters with proud step on to the arena of history. He is wonderful, awe-inspiring and irresistible, for he unites the two most lofty forms of human grandeur, the martyr and the hero."
Vera Zasulich was forced into hiding but remained active in politics and joined the Black Repartition group as by this time she had rejected the use of violence to gain a democratic system. Zasulich was a strong supporter of George Plekhanov. Zasulich, like Plekhanov, was highly critical of the terror campaign being carried out by the People's Will.
In 1883 Zasulich joined with George Plekhanov and Paul Axelrod to form the Liberation of Labour, the first Russian Marxist group. Later she moved to Switzerland where she became active in the Social Democratic Labour Party (SDLP) and served on the editorial board of Iskra.
Zasulich became known for her propaganda work amongst industrial workers. In an article in Justice in 1897 she argued: "The Russian Labour movement is the youngest and the weakest in Europe. Only a year ago, and its very existence was denied by the Russian Government, the whole Russian Press, and all Russian society. It was only a handful of Social-Democrats who patiently laboured to free this movement, long since born, from its swaddling clothes. And, lo! at the present moment the German Government is hardly more afraid of the great German Social-Democratic Party than is the Russian Government of our young movement. At the first rumour of the last strike, during the beginning of January, and which affected over 5,000 cotton-spinners and weavers, extraordinary Cabinet Councils were called, and sat for several days. It is not easy to say what these Cabinet meetings decided."
At the Second Congress of the Social Democratic Labour Party in London in 1903, there was a dispute between Lenin and Jules Martov, two of SDLP's leaders. Lenin argued for a small party of professional revolutionaries with a large fringe of non-party sympathizers and supporters. Martov disagreed believing it was better to have a large party of activists.
Jules Martov based his ideas on the socialist parties that existed in other European countries such as the British Labour Party. Lenin argued that the situation was different in Russia as it was illegal to form socialist political parties under the Tsar's autocratic government. At the end of the debate Martov won the vote 28-23 . Lenin was unwilling to accept the result and formed a faction known as the Bolsheviks. Those who remained loyal to Martov became known as Mensheviks.
Gregory Zinoviev, Anatoli Lunacharsky, Joseph Stalin, Mikhail Lashevich, Nadezhda Krupskaya, Mikhail Frunze, Alexei Rykov, Yakov Sverdlov, Lev Kamenev, Maxim Litvinov, Vladimir Antonov, Felix Dzerzhinsky, Gregory Ordzhonikidze and Alexander Bogdanov joined the Bolsheviks. Whereas Zasulich, George Plekhanov, Pavel Axelrod, Leon Trotsky, Lev Deich, Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko, Irakli Tsereteli, Moisei Uritsky, Noi Zhordania and Fedor Dan supported Jules Martov.
She returned to Russia during the 1905 Revolution but after its failure ceased to be active in politics. During the First World War Zasulich supported the war effort and opposed the Bolshevik Revolution.
Vera Zasulich died in 1919.