Vera Zasulich in 1914

Vera Zasulich was born into a poor family 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 Biakolovo.

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.

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, Alexei Bogoliubov, had been badly beaten in prison, she decided to seek revenge. Zasulich went to the local prison and shot General Trepov, the police chief of St. Petersburg.

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 was forced into hiding but remained active in politics and joined the Black Repartition group. 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 Plekhanovand 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.

At the Second Congress of the Social Democratic Labour Party in London in 1903, there was a dispute between Vladimir 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 . Vladimir 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.

Vera Zasulich

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) When Vera Zasulich met Sergi Nechayev he immediately tried to recruit her into the revolutionary movement.

Nechayev began to tell me his plans for carrying out a revolution in Russia in the near future. I felt terrible: it was really painful for me to say "That's unlikely," "I don't know about that". I could see that he was very serious, that this was no idle chatter about revolution. He could and would act - wasn't he the ringleader of the students?

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. And what did I know of "the people"? I knew only the house serfs of Biakolovo and the members of my weaving collective, while he was himself a worker by birth.

(2) In 1876 Vera Zasulich attempted to kill the police chief, General Trepov after he had given the order to beat fellow revolutionary, Alexei Bogoliubov.

Now Trepov and his entourage were looking at me, their hands occupied by papers and things, and I decided to do it earlier than I had planned - to do it when Trepov stopped opposite my neighbour, before reaching me.

And suddenly there was no neighbour ahead of me - I was first.

"What do you want?"

"A certificate of conduct."

He jotted down something with a pencil and turned to my neighbour.

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.

(3) Olga Liubatovich was in Geneva with Vera Zasulich when news arrived that Alexander Soloviev had attempted to kill Alexander II.

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.