Elizabeth Kovalskaia in 1914

Elizabeth Kovalskaia, the daughter of a serf, was born in 1850. Her father was a wealthy landowner and in 1857 agreed to give Elizabeth and her mother their freedom. When he died he left his illegitimate daughter his large estate.

She joined the Kharkov Society for the Promotion of Literacy. While carrying out her charity work she became interested in socialism and feminism. Impressed by the work of Robert Owen, she used one of the houses she inherited as a college for young women seeking further education.

In 1869 she met Sophia Perovskaya and began attending her women's meetings. Later the two women joined the Land and Liberty group.

When the Land and Liberty group split into two in October, 1879, Kovalskaya joined the Black Repartition, a group that rejected terrorism and supported a socialist propaganda campaign among workers and peasants, whereas Sophia Perovskaya became a member of People's Will, the faction who favoured a policy of terrorism.

Although only involved in propaganda work, Kovalskaia a was arrested in 1881. Found guilty of being a member of an illegal organization, she was sentenced to hard labour for life. During the next twenty-three years Kovalskaia went on several hunger strikes and made two unsuccessful prison escapes.

Kovalskaia was released from prison in 1903. She moved to Geneva and joined the Socialist Revolutionary Party.

Elizabeth Kovalskaia

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 try to persuade the Russian soldiers to use their weapons to overthrow Nicholas II.

Primary Sources

(1) Elizabeth Kovalskaia was born a serf and the illegitimate daughter of a large landowner.

From my earliest years, life seemed incomprehensible and cruel to me. I think I was barely six when I became aware that there were landowners and peasant serfs in the world; that landowners could sell people, that my father could separate my mother and me by selling her to one neighbouring landowner and me to another.

Another discovery struck me as equally cruel: children were divided into legitimate and illegitimate, and the latter were always treated with contempt and subjected to insults and mockery, regardless of their personal qualities. The children of the house serfs to tease me with the dirty word then used to describe illegitimate children.

(2) Elizabeth Kovalskaia first met Sophia Perovskaya at a party held in the home of Alexandra Kornolova in 1869.

She was short and strongly built, with close-cropped hair, and she wore an outfit that seemed almost to have the become the uniform for the advocates of the woman question: a Russian blouse, cinched with a leather belt, and a short, dark skirt. Her hair was pulled back revealling a large, intelligent forehead, and her large grey eyes, in which one sensed exceptional energy, radiated cheerfulness. In general she looked more like a young boy than a girl.

The group began to disperse long after midnight. Alexandra Kornolova, who lived in the apartment, made me stay. When everyone but the girl in grey had gone, she introduced us: the girl was Sophia Perovskaya. Perovskaya suggested that I join a small circle of women who wanted to study political economy, and I agreed.

(3) Elizabeth Kovalskaia was a member of Land and Liberty and later joined the Black Repartition.

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.

(4) Elizabeth Kovalskaia was opposed to the idea of a small group of revolutionaries capturing power for the people.

Any revolution that did not involve the participation of the people - even one carried out by a socialist party - would inevitably be merely political; that is, it would bring the country freedom similar to that enjoyed in Western Europe without changing the economic situation of the working people at all. It would simply make it easier for the bourgeoisie to organize itself and thus become a more formidable enemy of the workers.

(5) In her memoirs Elizabeth Kovalskaia records the repression of the Russian government.

When we returned to Kiev in April 1880, we found everyone in a militant, revolutionary mood. The governor-general, Chertkov, was quick to sign death sentences. He had executed one man, Rozovskii, merely for refusing to name the person who had left a suitcase of illegal literature with him, and another, Lozovskii, for possession of an illegal proclamation.

Find the book you want in seconds by author, title or subject.

Well over a million books - every book in print in the UK.