Arthur Benni

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Arthur Benni
Born Arthur Benni
Tomaszów-Rawski, Poland
Died November 27, 1867
Rome, Italy
Nationality British
Other names Артур Иванович (Иоганнович) Бенни
Occupation Journalist, political activist
Known for 19th century Socialist movement in Russia

Arthur Benni (1839, Tomaszów-Rawski, Congress Poland {now Tomaszów Mazowiecki, Poland}, - November 27, 1867, Rome,[1] Italy, Артур Иванович Бенни) was a Polish-born English citizen, known in Russia (where his name was spelled Арту′р Ива′нович Бе′нни) as a journalist, Hertzen associate, Socialist activist and women liberation commune-founder.[2] He served a three months prison sentence as part of the "32 Process",[3] was deported from the country and died in 1867 in Rome hospital, after having been injured, as a member of the Giuseppe Garibaldi's squad. Arthur Benni's activities and persona caused controversy in Russia where rumours of him being a spy and a 3rd Department agent were being spread, much to his outrage and distress. Ivan Turgenev and Nikolai Leskov did much to clear Benni's name. The latter (who chose Benni as a prototype for Rainer, the No Way Out novel's revolutionary character) wrote a posthumous essay on him called The Mystery Man.[4]


Arthur Benni was born in 1839 (1840, according to other sources)[1] to a Jewish-born father and English mother, the fifth child in the family (he's had two brothers, Hermann and Karl, and two sisters, Anna and Maria).[5] His father, Iohann Benni, a Hebraist scholar, was an evangelical pastor in Tomaszów. Although a Polish native he, much under the influence of his wife (who's never even attempted to learn Polish language) was keeping an "English house", bringing his sons up in a 'knighthood' tradition and gave them a classic primary education, so that Arthur, as he at the age of 10 joined the local lyceum, felt, in his own words, "more a Spartan or Roman man, than a Polish citizen".[6]

Being up until then totally ignorant of the native ways, Benni's got instantly appalled with them. "Common with those boys were lies, deceit and dirty talk which in my father's home was unheard of. What was totally unacceptable to me, though, was the contemptuous way they treated people of lower classes and their own servants, while in our house servants were treated in the mildest possible manner", Benni remembered, according to his friend, writer Nikolai Leskov. Still without any books to aid, he came to the conclusion that at the root of all the injustice in the world around him was the economic and political system. He's become friends with some Russian soldiers (simply in defiance of his Polish classmates, who hated them), have learned from them of primal ways of collective ownership (obschina, artel) and principles of mutual responsibility which existed in their country and, having formed in his mind his own, totally idealistic concept of Russia, decided that was the land where he was destined to put his Socialist ideas into practice.[6]

After leaving school Benni left for England to enroll at the technical college and, upon the graduation, joined the Woolwich arsenal as an engineer. By this time, in 1858 he became close to the circle of Russians in exile, led by Hertzen, Bakunin and Ogaryov.[1] Full of idealistic aspirations, Benni has got the English passport and volunteered to go to Russia to investigate the revolutionary situation there (which was quite ripe, as his new friends were assuring him) and distribute Hertzen's Kolokol‍ '​s latest issue he were to smuggle there. The self-proclaimed revolutionaries' sympathizer, a Russian merchant named Tomashewski who happened to be in London, agreed to accompany the 22-year old Benni on his mission. In Berlin[7] Tomashewski declared that their ways from then on were to part, or either he'd report him to the police. Unthwarted, Benni, load of Kolokol with him, found himself in Saint Petersburg in the summer of 1861,[1] still eager to "serve the great cause of Russian liberation".[6]

Benni in Russia[edit]

In the Russian capital Benni was befriended by a group of radicals (Nikolai Kurochkin, Pavel Yakushkin, Andrei Nichiporenko and others) who started referring to him as 'a Hertzen's envoy' (something Benni had never claimed to be) and instilling into him the idea that "everything was ready in Russia for a revolt". Unimpressed, Benni demanded some demonstration of forces, but only five people came up, some by foot "others by cabs so as to make a retreat easier, just in case", as Leskov put it.[6] Disillusioned with the 'revolutionary situation' in Saint Petersburgh, Benni with Nichiporenko, the Kolokol edition with them, embarked upon a trip to the province, where, as the latter assured the young man, 'revolutionary forces' could be found in much better shape. Nichiporenko's outrageous behaviour and general unpleasantness, though, ensured the pair has been thrown out of every house they've tried to stay in, following their recommendation list. Finally, the two got in trouble with local Cossacks (while trying to help a drunken man whom the latter, apparently, mugged) and, after the police' visit, burnt the whole stack of Kolokol. Outraged with his companion's obnoxiousness, Benni started making attempts to leave him behind. Nichiporenko retaliated by coming back to Saint Petersburgh with the theory of Benni being an "English spy", backing his allegations by stories of the latter's "suspicious behaviour" which involved, among other things, refusing to participate in drinking sprees and sex orgies, and defending 'reactionaries' whom Nechiporenko was habitually insulting in their own homes. The idea was instantly accepted by Petersburg "revolutionaries" who by now (according to Leskov) were embarrassed and frightened by Benni's eagerness.[6] Another project of Arthur Benni, collecting signatures under the Constitutional petition, addressed to the Tsar, failed too.[4]

Meanwhile, Nichiporenko came to England, met Hertzen there, made a good impression upon him and became another ‘envoy’. With the load of another issue of Kolokol, though, he was stopped at the Russian border, got arrested and was taken to the Russian capital for interrogation where he eagerly reported on every person he knew, including Benni and Leskov, and some he'd never met, like Ivan Turgenev. By this time Benni become a member of Severnaya ptchela, a respectable newspaper where for the first time in Russia he's found himself among people who treated him with respect and sympathy.[6]

Benni the communard leader[edit]

For some reason the women liberation movement activists in Russia preferred to involve their protégés in printing business which naturally made authorities, who were hunting the proclamations distributors, suspicious. "There were few honest men in the capital who sincerely wanted to provide women with jobs at the time, and Benny was one of them", Leskov wrote.[6] What Benni did first was bring a group of women translators to the Severnaya ptchela editorial office, then took them to the Grech house in Saint Petersburgh, where they became known as The Grech commune. This enterprise proved inefficient: Benni himself had to do all the work and pay his employees from his own pocket. As the commune disintegrated, Benni brought four type-setting machines into the house and invited four more female communards in. "This enterprise was doomed, like all of the others he's been involved in, for Benni, whom simple men thought to be 'a scheming type', was in fact naïve as a child. This tragicomic 'naturalized English subject' who came to Russia with the view of making social-democratic revolution… has demonstrated such inability to organize other people's as to quickly turn this new business of his into a joke," Leskov commented. The commune proved a disaster. What was worse, by this time a bunch of male 'communards', being 'true Socialists', made his flat their home, using his money, stealing his clothes and even driving him off, from time to time. Benni became seriously ill after spending two sleepless nights in the open air on the banks of Neva embankment when a woman, thrown out of her home by husband, came to his flat and settled in his bedroom.[6]

Meanwhile, another literary figure, Sleptsov, created the Znamensky commune. One of the workers there was Maria Kopteva, a girl from respectable Moscow family, and Benni fell in love with her.[6] Quickly falling into destitute, Benni started looking for a job and soon realized what his reputation of a "spy" meant in reality: none of the "progressive" press wanted him. Warmer was the reception in the centrist magazines, Dostoyevsky's Epokha and Biblioteka dlya tchtenya, led by Pyotr Boborykin, the later even suggested he’d become a stuff translator in his magazine. In both magazines Benni's been treated with great sympathy and forged friendships – notably, with Nikolai Strakhov and Nikolai Voskoboinikov. In March 1862 Benni participated in the publication of the two issues of illegal Russkaya pravda neaspaper. Charles Dickens' Our Mutual Friend novel was published in 1864 by Boborykin in Arthur Benni's translation.[1] By this time though, according to Leskov, "he was a wasted, disillusioned man, taken to apathy… Even his love for a Russian girl failed to bring him happiness, in fact, it seemed to make him even more lost and misguided, his whole persona seemed to disintegrate under this emotional stress."[6]


Starting to neglect his professional obligations, Benni soon lost all of his money and possessions, then became homeless. "He was talking nonsensical things in those days, making plans to go to Siberia and free Chernyshevsky, cried and prayed a lot", remembered Leskov, who's given him shelter. In the spring of 1863 Benni was arrested for debts in Leskov's Kolomna home and sent to a single cell in the Spassky jail. Pastor Hermann Benni sent in the money to pay his brother's debts, but by the time they came in, Benni was considered already a political prisoner, accused of helping another Herzen's associate, Vasily Kelsiev, who came to Russia illegally and in March 1862 stayed at Benni's place (the fact Nichiporenko has reported to the authorities). The Russian Senate sentenced him to three months imprisonment and deportation which was a mild sentence. Benni applied for the Russian citizenship but was refused. In jail he spent his time reading a lot, and reportedly, once confessed: "Would you imagine, it is only now, as they are throwing me out of Russia, that I can see how ignorant I was… All my misfortunes here stem from the fact that I've failed to read Dead Souls in time. Had I done it, I'd be the first to dispute Herzen's idea of making revolution in Russia". Asked why, he replied: "Because no one can hope to instill any of the noble principles into the likes of Nozdryov and Tchichikov, ever".[6]

In October 1865 Benni was deported to Prussia and settled in Switzerland. It was there that he officially married Maria, the girl he was in love with. One article[8] he published in England, though, showed that "even The Dead Souls reading behind, Benni was still under the impression the revolution in Russia would be not only possible, but desirable," according to Leskov.[6]


In the end of 1867 a small note appeared in Illustrirovannaya gazeta, edited by Vladimir Zotov, according to which "Arthur Benni, of whom different contradictory, mostly unfavourable rumors were being spread, has been killed in Menton". This story, short as it was, provided ground for a new rumour, that of Benni having been killed by a Garibaldi man, as a Russian spy. "And the same industrious people, who could have been blamed for poor Benni's initial troubles, all of a sudden with unheard of energy started to support this new slander, which seemed all the more bitter for not a trace of possible thread for reinstating the truth was in sight", Nikolai Leskov wrote in The Mystery Man. Then in June 1870 Nedelya (## 21-23) published memoirs of Valery Jacobi's wife Alexandra Jacobi, who spent several months with Garibaldi men and was beside Benni all through November 1867. By the time of the Battle at Mentana, Benni was in the Garibaldi camp, where he arrived as a Fortnightly Review correspondent.[1] According to Jacobi, as the 9th regiment commander had been killed, Garibaldi's son Menotti asked Benni to take the leadership upon himself. He did, was injured in the right hand and on November 4 found himself in the Sant'Onofrio hospital in Rome, in the most awful conditions.[9] Alexandra Jacobi, assisted by an English priest, managed to transfer him to Sant'Agata hospital where conditions were better. What appeared to be a slight wound led to the amputation of the right hand, but even this proved to be too late. On November 27 (December 27, according to other sources)[4] Arthur Benni died in Rome, from complications of ergotism (according to other sources, gangrene).[6] Two days later he was buried at the Protestant Cemetery, Rome, his grave "full of white and red flowers with green leaves, symbolizing Italy’s colours", according to Alexandra Jacobi.[6]


  1. ^ a b c d e f С.Рейсер (1962). "Бенни, Артур Иванович". Литературная энциклопедия, т.1. Retrieved 2011-10-10. 
  2. ^ Richard Stites. The women's liberation movement in Russia: feminism, nihilism and Bolshevism, 1860-1930. Princeton University Press. Retrieved 2011-10-10. 
  3. ^ "Процесс 32-х". Большая Советская энциклопедия. Retrieved 2011-10-10. 
  4. ^ a b c "Бенни, Артур Иванович". Русский биографический словарь. Retrieved 2011-10-10. 
  5. ^ Rumors that were later spread in Russia, as to his real name being Benislawsky, were proven wrong.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Leskov, Nikolai. "The Mystery Man". Собрание сочинений в 11 томах. Т. 3. М.: Государственное издательство художественной литературы. Retrieved 2011-10-10. 
  7. ^ Or in Saint Petersburgh according to commentaries to the 1957 Moscow 12 volume edition of Complete Leskov.
  8. ^ The article, called The Russian Society, appeared in The Fortnightly Review (1866, book III). It was re-published in the USSR in 1933 and praized for "provodung the correct characteristic to the Russian dvoryanstvo at the time of the Reform".
  9. ^ According to the alternative account, credited to some 'private sources', Benni has been hit by a French cavalry man as he was walking by his small carriage, armless, fell and fainted, then was taken to the Garibaldi camp where gangrene developed.

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