The Degaev Affair
by Richard Pipes
Yale. 153 pp. $17.95
Late-19th-century Russian revolutionaries became a byword for terrorism in much of the world. Self-declared socialists and Marxists, they were Utopian in outlook but nihilist in method. The murder of the czar and a few of his advisers, they had convinced themselves, was the necessary prelude to remaking autocratic Russia into a society of perfect justice and equality. The end justified the unlimited violence of the means. At a wide remove from reality, the revolutionaries lived in a seething atmosphere of messianism and murder, conspiracy and self-deception, to which only novelists of the stature of Fyodor Dostoevsky (in The Possessed) and Joseph Conrad could do justice. Conrad’s Under Western Eyes describes the fate of Razumov, a Russian caught between the practice of revolutionary terror and his finer feelings: “For who, with us in Russia, is to tell a scoundrel from an exceptionally able man?”
This question serves as the epigraph to Richard Pipes’s The Degaev Affair. One of the most distinguished historians of Russia, and of Bolshevism in particular, Pipes habitually deploys a grand narrative sweep. By contrast, his new book, more of an extended essay, is a miniaturist portrait of a single terrorist and murderer who was without doubt “an exceptionally able man”—and a scoundrel. Only specialists are likely to be familiar with the name of Sergei Degaev. From a handful of obscure memoirs and some unpublished material in the Russian archives, Pipes has reconstructed his career, giving us a real-life thriller that is also a cautionary tale rich with insight into depths of the human psyche that most of us have the good fortune to know about only by hearsay.
Born in Moscow in 1857, Degaev was the son of a military physician who bore the title of State Councilor and who died young, leaving a widow and several children. According to the later testimony of Vera Figner, herself a leading revolutionary, the whole Degaev family had a “tendency to exaggeration, effects, and even extravagance.” Intelligent and practical at one level, Sergei Degaev was also unstable; for him, revolution seems to have been, at least at first, a way of striking a fashionable posture in the circles in which he moved.
In 1880, at the age of twenty-three, Degaev became a member of People’s Will, a clandestine group numbering at most a few hundred. Its inner executive committee had no more than two dozen members. Most of the terrorists themselves came from the educated and propertied classes; so, Pipes makes clear, did most of their sympathizers in Russian society. In today’s parlance, the terrorists were psychopaths, for whom death provided the meaning and purpose of their lives. Eager to sacrifice themselves for the revolutionary cause, they blurred the line between murder and suicide. Over a few short years, People’s Will succeeded in assassinating Czar Alexander II, terrifying his son and successor Alexander III, shaking the entire regime to its foundations, and setting an example that would be widely imitated by revolutionaries in other autocracies.
As for Degaev, he suffered from what his fellow revolutionaries criticized as “moral squeamishness”—to be specific, a disposition to faint at the sight of blood that temperamentally unfitted him for the task ahead. To complete his misfortune, Pipes writes, he had crossed the path of Lieutenant Colonel Georgii Sudeikin, head of the Okhrana, the czar’s security service. This feared organization had a total of 26 surveillance officers and eleven secret agents to its name: a smaller body than People’s Will. But Sudeikin, described by Pipes as “mysterious and sinister,” was a master of his special brand of policing.
“I always count on human weakness,” was Sudeikin’s favorite maxim. Acting on it, he corrupted some of the revolutionaries by means of bribery and persuaded others to place their perverted idealism at his service. Terror, he explained to potential turncoats, would only lead them to the gallows and oblige the regime to become even more oppressive; it was wiser by far to collaborate with someone like himself, a decent reformist who was, or so he said, endeavoring to change the regime from within.
Sudeikin had a high opinion of himself; as Pipes tells the story, it was not unjustified. Many a youthful revolutionary fell for his line, and some would end up killing themselves in prison when they realized how thoroughly they had been suckered. One who failed to live up to Sudeikin’s expectations was Vladimir, Degaev’s younger brother, arrested at the age of seventeen for distributing seditious literature. Displaying the family tendency to go for “effects,” he proved useless as a double agent.
Sergei’s own story was more complex. Two of a kind in terms of social background and experience, the revolutionary Degaev and the policeman Sudeikin, each equally untrustworthy, shared an obsessive underworld of secret assignments, safe houses, alibis, and lies, and played out roles that in retrospect seem almost interchangeable. In reality another able scoundrel, Sudeikin nursed an increasingly urgent grievance against his police superiors and the czar for failing to acknowledge his superb talents. When he caught Degaev red-handed with the illicit printing press of People’s Will, the pair’s well-matched fantasies married. Together, they hatched a plot; inside that plot, each devised a sub-plot by which he would get the better of the other and advance his own ambitions.
Sudeikin contrived to let Degaev escape from prison. In return, Degaev was to betray his comrades, take over People’s Will, disarm the revolution, have a meeting with Czar Alexander III and Sudeikin, and set in motion Russia’s peaceful reform. Just in case the czar proved reluctant to reward him with the rank of general, Sudeikin had a further plan: he would resign his post and engineer, through People’s Will, the assassination of Count Dmitri Tolstoy, the stand-offish Minister of the Interior. Such a step, he hoped, would establish how indispensable were his services in the Okhrana.
So well did Degaev carry out the first part of this joint program—betraying his comrades—that by 1883, as one of the terrorists would record in his memoirs, “The entire revolutionary organization was wholly in the hands of the police, which directed its top management and censored the revolutionary press.” (Maskirovka is the Russian word for deeply deceptive practices of this sort, later perfected by the Communists with their various front organizations.) But then, switching allegiance, Degaev confessed to his few remaining comrades that he had been acting as Sudeikin’s agent. Although this merited the death sentence, they reprieved him on condition that he execute Sudeikin—a job for which the squeamish Degaev needed the help of thugs. A trap was set for Sudeikin; the deed was horrific. Afterward, the belatedly appreciative czar mourned his secret-police chief in a panicky memorandum as “a loss that is positively irreplaceable.”
Degaev and his wife escaped to London and then evidently to Canada. From there, they moved to the United States where, in true immigrant style, he wholly reinvented himself. In St. Louis he was employed for nine years as the superintendent of a chemical firm. Then he and his wife were naturalized under the names of Alexander and Emma Pell. In 1897, he completed a doctorate in mathematics at Johns Hopkins, writing a dissertation with an almost metaphorical title, On the Focal Surfaces of the Congruences of Tangents to a Given Surface. That fall, he accepted the post of professor of mathematics at the recently founded University of South Dakota.
Quoting contemporary accounts from faculty and student journals, Pipes shows how popular the new professor was. He certainly kept his secrets to himself. Only a single strange incident pointed to his past. One day, it seems, a group of local toughs attacked some college boys. The locals were getting the better of the brawl when Degaev/Pell, apparently squeamish no longer, intervened. “When he struck a tough, the man went to the ground,” an admiring witness reported. With similar ferocity, the terrorist Nikita hits Razumov and brings Under Western Eyes to its unforgettable close.
Pipes gives the last word to Vera Figner, who almost alone among the members of People’s Will lived a long life and died of natural causes. In Stalin’s day, some Russian intellectuals complained to her that the Bolsheviks had been no true revolutionaries but impostors and demagogues. Lowering her eyelids, she replied that what had occurred in Russia under Lenin was “the work of our own hands.” Using murderous means for their ends, the Bolsheviks had done only what their terrorist predecessors had taught them.
In all sorts of cultures at all sorts of times, extreme religious or political faith has fueled a disposition to murder and martyrdom, separately or together. Pipes, in this tour de force, lets the facts speak for themselves. But the implication of The Degaev Affair is that People’s Will was a prototype of contemporary terror movements. Peering out at us from numerous fascinating photographs in this book, the members of People’s Will, for all the world resembling members of al Qaeda or the Taliban, project the air of abstracted self-absorption that marks the fanatic.
Some special frame of mind illuminates the suicide-martyr, who comes to believe that the cause to which he has devoted himself will be enhanced by the gift to it of his death. But what that special element is remains elusive. After all, those who sacrifice their lives in this manner have to take a great deal on trust. Voluntary death risks being lost in the press of events as a freakish gesture achieving nothing, and outrages perpetrated in the name of a cause create widespread revulsion. In this respect, Pipes’s moral is encouraging: it may take a while, and it may entail costs of its own, but reality in the end catches up with delusionary causes and conspiracies.