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The Narodniks (Russian: Наро́дники; "Narodnikey") were a socially conscious movement of the Russian middle class in the 1860s and 1870s, some of whom became involved in revolutionary agitation against the Tsardom. Their ideology was known as Narodnichestvo (Наро́дничество), which can be translated as "peopleism", though it is more commonly rendered as "populism". The term itself derives from the Russian expression "Going to the people" (Хождение к народу). Though their movement achieved little in its own time, the Narodniks were in many ways the intellectual and political forebears of the socialist revolutionaries who went on to greatly influence Russian history in the 20th century.


The Narodnik position was mostly held by intellectuals who read the works of Alexander Herzen (1812–1870) and of Nikolay Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky (1828–1889), whose convictions were refined by Nikolay Mikhaylovsky (1842–1904). In the late 19th century, Marxism and capitalism were slowly becoming the primary theories of Russian political thought, and Mikhaylovsky, realizing this shift in thought, began to tweak his original ideas of Narodnism, such that two groups of Narodniks emerged: the so-called "Critical Narodniks" and "Doctrinaire Narodniks". Critical Narodniks followed Mikhaylovsky, and assumed a flexible stance on capitalism, whilst adhering to their basic orientation. The more well-known Doctrinaire Narodniks had a firm belief that capitalism had no future in Russia or in any agrarian country.

Narodnism arose after the emancipation of the serfs in 1861 under Tsar Alexander II, which signalled the end of feudalism in Russia. Arguing that freed serfs were being sold into wage slavery, in which the bourgeoisie had replaced landowners, Narodnism aimed to become a political force opposed to the phenomenon. Narodniks viewed aspects of the past with nostalgia: although they resented the former land ownership system, they opposed the uprooting of peasants from the traditional obshchina system of communes.

Narodniks focused upon the growing conflict between the peasantry and the so-called kulaks (more prosperous landowning farmers). The groups which formed shared the common general aims of destroying the Russian monarchy and the kulaks, and of distributing land fairly among the peasantry. The Narodniks generally believed that it was possible to forgo the capitalist phase of Russia's development and proceed directly to socialism.

The Narodniks saw the peasantry as the revolutionary class that would overthrow the monarchy, and perceived the village commune as the embryo of socialism. However, they also believed that the peasantry would not achieve revolution on their own, insisting instead that history could only be made by outstanding personalities, who would lead an otherwise passive peasantry to revolution. Vasily Vorontsov called for the Russian intelligentsia to "bestir itself from the mental lethargy into which, in contrast to the sensitive and lively years of the seventies, it had fallen and formulate a scientific theory of Russian economic development".[1] However, some Narodnik intellectuals called for an immediate revolution that went beyond philosophical and political discussion.

In the spring of 1874, the Narodnik intelligentsia left the cities for the villages, "going to the people" in an attempt to teach the peasantry their moral imperative to revolt. They found almost no support. Given the Narodniks' generally middle- and upper-middle-class social background, they found difficulty relating to the impoverished peasants and their culture. They spent much of their time learning peasant customs, such as clothing and dancing. Narodniks were viewed with suspicion by many Russian peasants, who were completely removed from the more modernized culture of the urban sphere. The authorities responded to the Narodniks' attempt with repression: revolutionaries and their peasant sympathizers were imprisoned and exiled.

Arrest of a Propagandist (1892) by Ilya Repin.

One response to this repression was the formation of Russia's first organized revolutionary party, Narodnaya Volya ("People's Will"), in June 1879. It favoured secret society-led terrorism, justified “as a means of exerting pressure on the government for reform, as the spark that would ignite a vast peasant uprising, and as the inevitable response to the regime's use of violence against the revolutionaries”.[2] The attempt to get the peasantry to overthrow the Tsar proved unsuccessful, due to the peasantry's idolisation of the latter as someone "on their side". Narodism therefore developed the practice of terrorism: the peasantry, they believed, had to be shown that the Tsar was not supernatural, and could be killed. This theory, called "direct struggle", intended "uninterrupted demonstration of the possibility of struggling against the government, in this manner lifting the revolutionary spirit of the people and its faith in the success of the cause, and organising those capable of fighting".[3] On March 1, 1881, they succeeded in assassinating Alexander II. This act backfired on a political level, because the peasantry were generally horrified by the murder, and the government had many Narodnaya Volya leaders hanged, leaving the group unorganized and ineffective.[2]

However, these events did not mark the end of the movement, and the later Socialist-Revolutionaries, Popular Socialists, and Trudoviks all pursued similar ideas and tactics to the Narodniks.[4] The philosophy and actions of the Narodniks therefore helped prepare the way for the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917.

Influence outside Russia[edit]

Narodnichestvo had a direct influence on politics and culture in Romania, through the writings of Constantin Dobrogeanu-Gherea and the advocacy of the Bessarabian-born Constantin Stere (who was a member of Narodnaya Volya in his youth). The latter helped found various groups, included one formed around the literary magazine Viața Românească, which he published along with Garabet Ibrăileanu and Paul Bujor.

Stere and the Poporanist (from popor, Romanian for "people") movement eventually rejected revolution altogether. Nevertheless, he shared the Narodnik view that capitalism was not a necessary stage in the development of an agrarian country. This perspective, which contradicted traditional Marxism, also influenced Ion Mihalache's Peasants' Party and its successor, the National Peasants' Party, as well as the philosophy of Virgil Madgearu.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Von Laue, Theodore H. "The Fate of Capitalism in Russia: The Narodnik Version". American Slavic and Easy European Review 13, no. 1 (1954): 11–28.
  2. ^ a b Pearl, Deborah. “The People’s Will”. Encyclopedia of Russian History. Ed.: James R. Millar (2003). Tomson Gale. p.1162–1163.
  3. ^ Narodnaya Volya program of 1879.
  4. ^ Glossary of Terms and Organisations. Retrieved 21 February 2013.


  • Pedler, Anne. "Going to the People. The Russian Narodniki in 1874–5." The Slavonic Review 6.16 (1927): 130–141. Web. 19 October 2011.
  • von Laue, Theodore H. "The Fate of Capitalism in Russia: The Narodnik Version." American Slavic and East European Review 13.1 (1954): 11–28. Web. 19 October 2011.

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