16 October 1884|
Tambov, Russian Empire
|Died||11 September 1941
Oryol, Soviet Union
Maria Alexandrovna Spiridonova (Russian: Мари́я Алекса́ндровна Спиридо́нова; 16 October 1884 – 11 September 1941) was a Russian socialist revolutionary. Her assassination of a police official in 1905 was the most famous terrorist act by a woman in Russia, and her subsequent abuse by police made her a celebrated martyr. After 11 years in Siberia, she returned as a heroine of the Revolution. She led the Left SRs into alliance with Lenin and the Bolsheviks, but was imprisoned for a time and incarcerated in a mental sanitarium after the Left SRs broke with the Bolsheviks in 1918.
Spiridonova was arrested by the secret police during the Great Purge of 1937 to 1939 and consigned to the forced labor camps of the Gulag, where she was summarily executed shortly after the outbreak of World War II late in the summer of 1941.
Maria Alexandrovna Spiridonova was born in the city of Tambov, located approximately 480 kilometres (300 mi) south-southeast of Moscow. Her father, a bank official, was a member of the non-hereditary minor nobility of the Russian empire. She attended the local gymnasium, until her father's death and tuberculosis caused her to drop out in 1902. She then studied dentistry in Moscow for a short while. Returning to Tambov, she worked as a clerk for the local assembly. Soon she became involved in political activism; she was arrested during the student demonstrations of March 1905. In September 1905, she applied for training as a nurse, but was rejected for her political record. Instead she joined the Socialist-Revolutionary Party, and became a full-time activist. She also became the lover of Vladimir Volsky, a local SR leader.
Like many SRs, she embraced the idea of assassination and terrorism as a revolutionary weapon. She was one of hundreds of SRs who during and after the Russian Revolution of 1905 attacked the Russian state and its leaders.
Spirodonova's target was G. N. Luzhenovsky, a landowner and Tambov provincial councilor who had been appointed district security chief in Borisoglebsk, a town southeast of Tambov. Luzhenovsky was notorious for brutal suppression of peasant unrest in the district, and the SR committee in Tambov "passed a death sentence on him". Spirodonova volunteered to kill him. She stalked Luzhenovsky for several days, and finally got her chance at the Borisoglebsk railway station on 16 January 1906. She fired several shots from a revolver, and hit Luzhenovsky five times. He died on 10 February. 
Spiridonova was immediately captured by Luzhenovsky's Cossack bodyguards, and taken to Tambov the next day.
Little more was heard of the case until 12 February, when Rus, a liberal newspaper in Saint Petersburg, published a letter from Spiridonova, describing the abuse and torture she had suffered since her arrest - beaten with fists, whips, and boots, burned with a lit cigarette on bare skin, stripped naked, and repeatedly groped by the Cossacks' loutish commander, Avramov. The letter hinted that he had raped her on the train to Tambov.
Spiridonova's story became an immediate sensation with Rus's readers. Though few supported SR terrorism, most were outraged by this appalling cruelty to a prisoner, especially to an attractive young woman. Liberal circles throughout Russia condemned the Tambov authorities. Spiridonova was described as "a pure, virginal being, a flower of spiritual beauty... in the hands of a salacious orangutan". Women of all classes demanded "justice for our desecrated sister."
Rus sent reporter V. A. Vladimirov to Tambov. He produced seven sensational articles that appeared in March. These articles actually exaggerated Spiridonova's mistreatment and injuries, and even more explicitly touched on her alleged rape. Vladimirov also exaggerated her history as a radical while glossing over her actual political convictions, which annoyed the SRs almost as much as the conservatives and the authorities. Spiridonova herself repudiated Vladimirov's account.
On 11 March, Spiridonova was tried and convicted of Luzhenovsky's murder, and sentenced to death. However, the tribunal also asked that the sentence be commuted to penal servitude in Siberia, in view of her ill health. This was done on 20 March.
The liberal press continued its campaign in her support. On 2 April Avramov was also assassinated, creating a further sensation.
The government releaseed its report on the case on 8 April. The report acknowledged that Spiridonova had been beaten by the Cossacks at the time of her arrest, and that Avramov had verbally abused her on the train, but denied all the more lurid accusations. This was denounced as a whitewash.
Secret letters from Spirodonova in prison to her sister Yulia, a fellow SR, had been seized by police on 19 February. The report quoted a request in one letter not to reveal her "romantic history" - presumably her relationship with Volsky. Many liberals called this an attempt to slander her morals. Ironically, the governor of Tambov knew all about the affair. (Spirodonova appealed for a meeting with Volsky, whom she described as her fiancé, even though he was married.) But he did not pass on the information, which would have demolished Spirodonova's "virginal" image.
The Tambov deputy prosecutor had summarized the letters in a report to the national authorities. His extracts indicate that Spirodonova consciously participated in the image-making that was going on outside - suggesting what should be emphasized, and what should be played down.
Spirodonova was sent to Siberia in company with five other prominent SR female terrorists. The group were sometimes called the Shesterka ("Six"). Spirodonova was the most famous, being young, attractive, and an ethnic Russian. (The others were Jewish, Belarussian, and Ukrainian.) The Shesterka were transported by train from Moscow to the prison complex at Nerchinsk (east of Lake Baikal and near the border of China). During this trip, the train was met at every stop by crowds of sympathizers. Spirodonova addressed these crowds, expounding the SR political program.
For the next 11 years, Spirodonova was kept in Maltzevskaya Prison. She was harshly treated, and was sometimes severely caned with birch rods (розги) while stripped naked. Such fully undressed corporal punishment was not usual for political prisoners at that time.
Left SR leader
Accommodation with the revolution
After the February Revolution of 1917, Spiridinova was released from incarceration at the women's prison in Nerchinsk by a general amnesty covering imprisoned revolutionaries. Upon her release the former political prisoner Spiridonova was widely esteemed by the common people of Russia, being venerated by many peasants as very nearly a saint.
Spridonova traveled from Siberia to Moscow to attend the 3rd National Congress of the Party of Socialists-Revolutionaries (PSR) late in May 1917, but the gathering did not elect her to the governing Central Committee of the party. Despite this failure, Spiridonova became deeply involved in party affairs as a leader of the PSR organization in the capital city of Petrograd. She was also involved in work helping to establish soviets amongst the peasantry.
Following the October Revolution, Spiridonova cast her lot with the autonomous organization of Left SRs in support of their erstwhile rivals of the Bolshevik Party. Spiridonova was extremely supportive of efforts to forge a unity government between the Bolsheviks, the Left SRs, and the Menshevik Internationalists, and was one of but a handful of Left SR leaders to support Lenin's decision to agree to the draconian terms of immediate peace put forward by the government of Imperial Germany in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Spiridonova's loyalty was rewarded when she was named head of the Peasant Section of the Central Executive Committee of the All-Russian Soviet of Workers', Peasants', and Soldiers' Deputies — nominally a chief official over peasant affairs.
Revolt against Bolshevism
The honeymoon between the Left SRs and the Bolsheviks proved to be short-lived. Late in the spring of 1918 Bolshevik military detachments were formed to conduct forced requisitions of grain in a desperate effort to stave off famine in the cities amidst economic collapse. Unity turned to rivalry over the future of the revolution and a competition with the Bolsheviks ensued for control of the forthcoming 5th Congress of Soviets, scheduled to begin in Moscow on 4 July 1918. On 24 June the Central Committee of the Left SRs decided to begin a campaign of terror against German officials in Russia in an effort to sabotage the hated Brest-Litovsk Treaty and to force a more firm alliance with the peasantry during the crisis which would ensue.
On 7 July 1918 two members of the Left SR Party, Iakov Bliumkin and Nikolai Andreev, assassinated German ambassador Wilhelm Mirbach. Instead of fueling a new conflagration with Germany, Lenin used the Mirbach assassination as a pretext for the suppression of the Left SR organization. Troops were rapidly mobilized to successfully isolate the fighting units of their former allies. Spiridonova rushed to the Bolshoi Theatre, site of the ongoing 5th Congress of Soviets, to make an official statement of policy regarding the Left SR uprising, but found the Congress had been suspended in the aftermath of the assassination and more than 400 Left SR delegates detained. Spiridonova and a number of other Left SR leaders were imprisoned in Moscow, and her Peasant Section of the All-Russian Congress of Soviets was dissolved.
Announcements were made that Spiridonova was to be tried on 1 December 1918, but to undercut the possibility of a potentially volatile situation developing a secret trial was conducted on 27 November instead. Spiridonova was sentenced to one year in prison for her part in the Left SR revolt but was amnestied the next day.
Spiridonova became the voice of a radical faction of the Left SRs opposed to any accommodation with the Bolshevik regime and she publicly denounced the government for having betrayed the revolution with its policies and actions. Despite her bitter refusal to compromise, Spiridonova maintained separation from the terrorist wing of the Left SRs, instead concentrating her agitation around the idea of revitalizing the system of soviets in opposition to the rule of the Bolshevik party by bureaucratic edict.
In January 1919, following another public speech in opposition to the Bolshevik government, Spiridonova was arrested by the Moscow Cheka. She was tried once more on 24 February 1919, with Bolshevik leader Nikolai Bukharin the sole witness for the prosecution, charging that Spiridonova was mentally ill and a menace to society in the deadly political atmosphere of the Russian Civil War. Spiridonova was found guilty and sentenced to one year's incarceration in a mental sanitarium — thereby effectively removing her from politics in the process.
Instead of a sanitarium, Spiridonova was actually confined in a small holding cell inside a military barracks, where her already frail health rapidly deteriorated. An escape was organized by Left SR militants and on 2 April 1919 Spiridonova was freed, thereafter living underground in Moscow under the pseudonym Onufrieva. She was eventually rearrested, ill with typhus and suffering from an unstated nervous disorder. Following recovery in a Cheka medical facility, Spiridonova was transferred to a psychiatric prison. She was finally released to the custody of two Left SR comrades on 18 November 1921 under the condition that she cease and desist all political activity. In the estimation of historian Alexander Rabinowitch, "there is no evidence that she ever violated this condition." Spiridonova's active political life was at an end.
Death and legacy
In 1937 Spiridonova was arrested in Ufa with twelve other former Left Socialist-Revolutionaries living there. She was convicted of plotting a peasant uprising, and sentenced to 25 years in prison by a Military Collegium on 8 March 1937. After a hunger strike she was held in isolation at Orel Prison.
On 11 September 1941 (three months after the German invasion of the USSR), Spiridonova and over 150 other political prisoners (among them Christian Rakovsky and Olga Kameneva), were executed in Medvedev Forest outside Oryol.
- Alexander Rabinowitch, "Spiridonova," in Edward Acton, Vladimir Iu. Cherniaev, and William G. Rosenberg (eds.), Critical Companion to the Russian Revolution, 1914-1921. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1997; pg. 182.
- Sally A. Boniece, "The Spiridonova Case, 1906: Terror, Myth and Martyrdom," in Anthony Anemone (ed.), Just Assassins: The Culture of Terrorism in Russia. Northwestern University Press, 2010; pp. 127-151.
- Школьник, Мария ЖИЗНЬ БЫВШЕЙ ТЕРРОРИСТКИ, ГЛАВА VI
- Rabinowitch, "Spiridonova," pp. 182-183.
- Rabinowitch, "Spiridonova," pg. 183.
- Rabinowitch, "Spiridonova," pg. 184.
- Rabinowitch, "Spiridonova," pg. 185.
- Rabinowitch, "Spiridonova," pg. 186.
- Rabinowitch, Alexander. "Maria Spiridonova's 'Last Testament'", Russian Review, Vol. 54, No. 3 (July 1995), pp. 424-446.
- Sally Boniece, Maria Spiridonova, 1884-1918: Feminine Martyrdom and Revolutionary Mythmaking. PhD dissertation. Indiana University, 1995.
- I. Steinberg, Spiridonova: Revolutionary Terrorist. London: Methuen, 1935.
- "Maria Spiridonova," www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/
- Emma Goldman, My Disillusionment in Russia: Chapter 16: Maria Spiridonova, www.marxists.org/