Previous: Narodniki, part 11

(vii) Formation of Circles

A revolutionary organization starts with a mass movement which engulfs the leading classes of population of the time. Special circles are formed. N. Troitsky writes: "The first circle after the Decembrists circles in Moscow was the circle of the three Kritsky brothers - university graduates, sons of a petty official. The members of the circle included students and youth of officials who worshipped the Decembrists and hated their executioner, Nicholas I. 



Next, we notice the circle of Petrashevtsi. Wikipedia writes that starting in 1845 Petrashevsky gathered in his house, on certain days, the people whom he knew, such as teachers, writers, students, and people from various ranks; he constantly urged a discussion which would criticize the existing form of government in Russia. The founder of this circle was an adherent of Fourier, a communist utopian. The circle of Petrashevsky was arrested in 1849 and sentenced first to a mock execution, and later to years of hard labor. 
Vera Figner

Vera Figner

The initial state of revolutionary circles was a chaos. Vera Figner remembers about the time when she returned from Switzerland as a student:

"Comrades who were involved in activities with me formed a group that was not united, not disciplined, without any experience or general plan of action; the best, the most experienced - Vasily Ivanov and Ionov - were soon arrested; the youth around me didn't have any preparation; the workers, whom we met, were perverted and shamelessly milked us for money. Instead of a widespread and fruitful activity we had some fragments without a system and connections; I couldn't orient myself amid all this chaos".


Petr Kropotkin

Kropotkin remembers how he started a circle:

"In 1859, or in the beginning of 1860, I started publishing my first revolutionary newspaper. At that age I could only be a constitutionalist, and I ardently proved the need for a Constitution in Russia. I wrote about the crazy spending of the imperial court, about the sums spent in Nizza for the fleet, which accompanied the empress dowager, who died in 1860. I mentioned the corrupt practices of the officials, which one constantly heard about, and proved the necessity of the rule of law. I made 3 copies of my newspaper and put them into the tables of my fellow students from higher grades who, according to my thinking, should have had an interest in social affairs. I asked my readers to put their feedback behind the big clock in our library.

With my heart pounding, I entered the library the next day, to see if there is anything for me. Actually, there were two notes behind the clock. Two comrades wrote that they sympathize with me, but advised me not to risk a great deal. I published the second issue, even sharper than the previous one. I proved the necessity of uniting for the sake of freedom. This time behind the clock there was nothing, but the two comrades came of themselves to me.

-We are convinced that it is you who publish the newspaper, they said, - and we came to talk about it. We are completely in agreement with you and would like to say, 'Let's be friends'. But one should publish the newspaper. In the entire building there are only 2 more comrades who are interested in such things. If it will become known that there is such a newspaper, the consequences for us all will be horrible. Let us better make a circle and discuss everything. Perhaps, it will be possible to convince others of some things.

All that was so reasonable that I could only agree to it, and we strengthened our union with a handshake. Since then we became great friends, read a lot together and discussed various questions" (Kropotkin, "Notes of a Revolutionary").

Mark Andreyevich Natanson

Mark Andreevich Natanson (1850-1919) - a founder of the Tchaikovsky circle in 1869 and a founder of "Zemlya i Volya" (Land and Liberty), in 1876.

Narodovoltsky were formed directly from a circle created by Mark Natanson. This circle became known as "the circle of Tchaikovsky". L.A. Tihomirov, a former member of "Narodnaya Volya", remembers:

"In the year eighteen hundred and seventy in St. Petersburg there were four people: Natanson, Serdyukov, Lermontov and Tchaikovsky who, once they got acquainted, completely agreed on the understanding of the current state of things from a revolutionary point of view. Was it really as they said, I don't know, for I didn't see Petersburg back then, but here is how they saw it: 'the youth is in complete apathy, it is scared by the Nechaev pogrom; mutual distrust was the dominant feeling; it is necessary to raise the spirit of the youth'. This idea, in essence, was directly taken from "Historical Letters" of Mirtov, or coincided with them almost completely".

Kropotkin, who was a member of the Tchaikovsky circle, writes about it:

"At that time, in 1872, the circle didn't have anything revolutionary about it. If it were to remain merely a circle for self-development, its members would ossify, as in a religious sect. But the circle found a proper work for itself. The members of the Tchaikovsky circle started to disseminate good books. They would buy the entire editions of Lassale, Berwi-Flerovsky ("On the Condition of the Working Class in Russia"), Marx, works on the Russian history, and disseminated them among students in the provincial towns. In a few year, 'in the thirty-eight regions of the Russian Empire', according to the indictment, there was not a significant town which did not have comrades not connected to our circle who would disseminate this kind of literature. In the course of time, under the influence of the general course of events and instigated by the news coming from Western Europe about the quick growth of the workers' movement, the circle became a center for socialist propaganda among the student youth and a natural intermediary between members of provincial circles. And then came a day when the wall separating the students from workers tumbled down and we started direct relations with the Petersburg and even some provincial workers".

Leonid Shishko

Leonid Shishko, 1852-1910, a member of the Tchaikovsky circle.

L. Shishko, one of the members of the Tchaikovsky circle, writes:

"The goal of the circle was understood by its founders in the following way: they wanted to create among the intelligentsia, and preferably among the best part of the students, revolutionary-socialist cadres, or, as was expressed in the tongue of the times, a true narodnik party in Russia. With this goal in mind, the initial founders of the circle decided to lead a propaganda campaign among the youth students, to start self-education circles and communes, which consisted of comrades well-acquainted with each other".

Another activist of the Tchaikovsky circle, Nikolai Charushin, writes:

"the circle didn't have a constitution, nor a written program. The people were united by a common feeling and views on the basic questions, as all were free to speak their mind; they were all dedicated to the cause and stood on a high moral level. Based on such foundations, the circle didn't need any formalities, and from this followed those exceptional relations which separated this circle from other organizations, and the influence which it had upon the student youth and radical circles".

Kropotkin writes that the circle "put the question 'What can we do for Russia?' We answered: 'We need to preach, to select the best people and organize them. There is no other means".

M. Popov, who studied together with narodnik-terrorist N. Kibalchich in the Medical-Surgical Academy, remembers:

"There were gatherings of youth on which problems posed by life and literature were discussed, where we listened to lectures on social issues, read literature smuggled from abroad. The first circle of such character of which I was a member gathered in the apartment of Kibalchich on Kronwerke Avenue. In this circle there was a program on social questions according to which each member of the circle took upon himself this or that social topic and prepared a lecture. On Sundays and Thursdays the lectures were given and discussed; often, these discussions led to passionate debates lasting after the midnight".

In place of "circles" of XIX century, in the era of Internet we have electronic news groups, forums (such as "RevLeft "), and social networks, such as "Facebook" with the help of which we can organize and discuss. 

Next: Narodniki, part 13

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