Maria Spiridonova

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Maria Spiridonova
Born(1884-10-16)16 October 1884
Died11 September 1941(1941-09-11) (aged 56)

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 infamous terrorist act by a woman in Russia, and her subsequent abuse by police made her a celebrated hero to the socialists. Having spent 11 years in a Siberian prison, she was freed after the February Revolution of 1917 and 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 labour camps of the Gulag, where she was summarily executed shortly after the outbreak of World War II late in the summer of 1941.


Early life[edit]

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.[1] 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 Vol'skii, a local SR leader.[2]

Like most SRs, she shared the Narodniks' idea of assassination and terrorism as a revolutionary weapon, and was one of hundreds of SRs who, during and after the Russian Revolution of 1905, attacked the Russian state and its leaders.

Luzhenovsky assassination[edit]

Spiridonova's target was Gavriil Nikolayevich Luzhenovsky [ru], a landowner and Tambov provincial councillor who had been appointed district security chief in Borisoglebsk, a town southeast of Tambov. Luzhenovsky was known for his harsh suppression of peasant unrest in the district, and the SR committee in Tambov "passed a death sentence on him". Spiridonova 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. [2]

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.[2]

Spiridonova's story became an immediate sensation with Rus's readers. Though few openly 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.[2] Spiridonova was described as "a pure, virginal being, a flower of spiritual beauty ... into the shaggy paws of brutally repulsive, brutally malicious, brutally salacious orangutans".[3]

The Shesterka ("Six") photographed at the Omsk station
during their triumphal transfer to Siberia
(Spiridonova is the first on the left in the foreground)

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.[2]

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.[2]

The liberal press continued its campaign in her support. On 2 April Avramov was also assassinated, creating a further sensation.[2]

The government released 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 by some as a whitewash.[2]

Secret letters from Spiridonova 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. The governor of Tambov knew all about the affair (Spiridonova appealed for a meeting with Volsky, whom she described as her fiancé, even though he was already married). But he did not pass on the information, which would have demolished Spiridonova's "virginal" image.[2]

The Tambov deputy prosecutor had summarized the letters in a report to the national authorities. His extracts indicate that Spiridonova consciously participated in the image-making that was going on outside - suggesting what should be emphasized, and what should be played down.[2]

The Shesterka ("Six") in exile at Akatuy
(Spiridonova is the first on the left)

Spiridonova was sent to Siberia in the company of five other prominent female SR terrorists. The group was sometimes called the Shesterka ("Six"). Spiridonova was the most famous, being young, attractive, and an ethnic Russian (the others were Jewish, Belarusian, and Ukrainian). The Shesterka were transported by train from Moscow to the Nerchinsk katorga, a system of penal labour colonies in Transbaikal (east of Lake Baikal and near the border of China). During this trip, the train was met at every stop by crowds of sympathizers. Spiridonova addressed these crowds, expounding the SR political program.[2]

At first Spiridonova and her comrades were detained in the Akatuy penal colony where the prison regime was exceedingly mild, more similar to a sort of internal exile or confinement than to a real jail. In 1907, however, they were removed to the new female colony that had been established at Maltsev, another prison of the Nerchinsk katorga. Here the rules of detention were somewhat stricter, albeit surely not so extreme as in 'the regimes of punishment and mistreatment that "politicals" endured elsewhere' (which included beatings, floggings, isolation in dark, freezing cells).[4] 'For the Maltsev women there was no forced labor, only enforced isolation from the outside world in which each day was like the next and the one that had gone before'.[5] In 1908 there arrived at Maltsev a young Ukrainian Maximalist, Irina Konstantinovna Kakhovskaya [ru], who had been convicted of involvement in a terrorist group. She was a descendant of Decembrist revolutionary Pyotr Grigoryevich Kakhovsky, who had been hanged in 1826. She formed a special friendship with Spiridonova and Alexandra Adolfovna Izmailovich [ru], another member of the Shesterka, and they were thenceforth linked together by a close bond of political and personal sisterhood that would last throughout their lives and even after the latter's deaths in 1941.[6]

In April 1911, 28 female inmates, including Spiridonova, were transferred back to Akatuy where the conditions of their detention were further worsened, and they were forced to work in a bookbindery. The constant physical work, however, was eventually welcome by the prisoners, and turned out to make more tolerable their jail life.[7]

Left SR leader[edit]

Accommodation with the revolution

After the February Revolution of 1917, Spiridinova was released from incarceration at the women's Akatuy prison by a general amnesty covering imprisoned political criminals.[1] According to Alexander Rabinowitch, upon her release Spiridonova was widely esteemed by the common people of Russia, being venerated by many peasants as very nearly a saint.[1]

Spridonova travelled 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.[1] Despite this failure, Spiridonova became deeply involved in party affairs as a leader of the PSR organization in the capital city of Petrograd.[8] She was also involved in work helping to establish soviets amongst the peasantry.[9]

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.[9] 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.[9] 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.[9]

Revolt against Bolshevism

Spiridonova at work as a Left SR leader

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.[9] 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.[9] 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.[9]

On 7 July 1918 two members of the Left SR Party, Iakov Bliumkin and Nikolai Andreev, assassinated German ambassador Wilhelm Mirbach.[9] 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.[10] 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.[10] 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.[10]

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.[10] Spiridonova was sentenced to one year in prison for her part in the Left SR revolt but was amnestied the next day.[10]


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.[11] Despite her bitter refusal to compromise, Spiridonova maintained separate 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.[11]

In January 1919, following another public speech in opposition to the Bolshevik government, Spiridonova was arrested by the Moscow Cheka.[11] 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.[11] Spiridonova was found guilty and sentenced to one year's incarceration in a mental sanitarium — thereby effectively removing her from politics in the process.[11]

Instead of a sanitarium, Spiridonova was actually confined in a small holding cell inside a military barracks, where her already frail health rapidly deteriorated.[11] 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.[11] She was eventually rearrested, ill with typhus and suffering from an unstated nervous disorder.[11] Following recovery in a Cheka medical facility, Spiridonova was transferred to a psychiatric prison.[11] 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.[11] In the estimation of historian Alexander Rabinowitch, "there is no evidence that she ever violated this condition."[12] Spiridonova's active political life was at an end.

Death and legacy[edit]

Notwithstanding, on 16 May 1923 she was rearrested: whilst large numbers of moderate socialist and liberal leaders were permitted or obliged to emigrate to the West (as were the two Left Socialist-Revolutionaries to whom Spiridonova had been entrusted), she was charged with "having made preparations to flee abroad" and sentenced to three years of administrative exile. She spent the rest of the 1920s in Kaluga (1923-25), Samarkand (1925-28) and Tashkent (1928-30). "In 1930, following Stalin's consolidation of power, Spiridonova was rearrested. Charged with maintaining contacts abroad, she was sentenced to three more years of administrative exile (the term was extended twice), this time in Ufa, capital of the Bashkir Republic". During the whole period of exile she constantly lived together with her former prison partner Izmailovich, Kakhovskaya associating with them as often and as long as she was permitted to. Besides, in the mid 1920s Spiridonova married her fellow exile Ilya Andreevich Mayorov [ru], also an erstwhile Left Socialist-Revolutionary leader.[13]

In 1937 Spiridonova was once more arrested with twelve other former party comrades living in Ufa, including her husband, her teenaged stepson, her old invalid father-in-law, Alexandra Izmailovich, Irina Kakhovskaya and the latter's aged aunt. The group was accused of plotting to create a united counter-revolutionary centre and to assassinate Bashkir communist leaders. Spiridonova underwent cruel interrogation in prison for several months, in Ufa and in Moscow, without ever admitting any guilt even before her husband's extorted confession.[14] On 7 November 1937, from her cell she wrote a long letter to the 4th Section of the Main Directorate of State Security (GUGB) within the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD), protesting against the ignoble prison treatment inflicted on her, contesting the correctness of the whole judicial procedure and rejecting punctiliously, almost pedantically, every single charge.[15] While proclaiming she fully supported the construction of socialism and fully acknowledged the communist leadership, she did not shrink from raising at least one general political question and concluded what was later called her 'last testament', with a vibrant heart-felt plea against capital punishment, twice abolished by the Revolution and twice re-established by its subsequent governments despite vehement protests from the Left Social-Revolutionaries.

I only disagree with the fact that the death penalty remains in our system. Today the State is powerful enough to build socialism without resorting to the death penalty and should not include such a statute among its laws. [...] The best thoughts of humanity and the passionate work of hearts and minds for centuries on end have seen the elimination of this institution as a crowning achievement. The axe, the guillotine, the rope, the bullet, and the electric chair are representative of the Middle Ages. [...]

It is permissible and necessary to kill in a civil war while protecting the rights of the revolution and the working class, but only when there are no other means at hand to defend the revolution. When, however, powerful means of defense such as we have exist, capital punishment becomes an institution of evil, corrupting in countless ways those who make use of it.

I think constantly about the psychology of thousands of people, about those dealing with technical questions, the executioners, members of the firing squads, those who conduct the condemned to their deaths, about the platoon of soldiers shooting in the semidarkness at the bound, defenseless, and half-crazed prisoner. This should never, never be permitted in our country. We have apple blossoms in our country, we have motion and science, art, beauty, we have books and universal education and health care, we have the sun and children to raise, we have truth. And together with all this we have this enormous corner where cruel and bloody deeds are performed. In connection with this question, I often think of Stalin, who is, after all, an intelligent man, seemingly interested in the transformation of objects and hearts. How is it that he does not see that the death penalty must be abolished?! You started using this death penalty with us Left SRs and you should end it with us, restricting its scope to my person, who, as you assert, has not been disarmed. But you must put an end to the death penalty. [...]

— Maria Alexandrovna Spiridonova, letter to the 4th Section of the GUPB - NKVD - URSS, Moscow, 13 November 1937 (11. 98-99)[16]

On 7 January 1938 she was eventually sentenced to 25 years in prison by a Military Collegium. After a hunger strike she was held in isolation at Oryol Prison. On 11 September 1941 (three months after the German invasion of the USSR), Spiridonova, Izmailovich, Mayorov and over 150 other political prisoners (among them Christian Rakovsky and Olga Kameneva), were executed by order of Stalin in Medvedev Forest outside Oryol.[17]

Despite Kakhovskaya's efforts after the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, "not until 1990 were the 1941 charges against Spiridonova rescinded [...] Finally, in 1992, [she] was exonerated of the charges for which she had been imprisoned and exiled beginning in 1918, and was fully rehabilitated." The exact burial place where the remains of the Medvedev Forest martyrs were interred, has never been found.[18]


  1. ^ a b c d 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.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k 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.
  3. ^ "Nasha zhizn'" (Our Life), 8 March 1906; quoted in Boniece (2010), p. 143
  4. ^ William Bruce Lincoln, The conquest of a continent: Siberia and the Russians, Ithaca/London: Cornell University Press, 2007, p. 279. ISBN 978-0-8014-8922-8
  5. ^ Ibidem, p. 278.
  6. ^ Margaret Maxwell, Narodniki women: Russian women who sacrificed themselves for the dream of freedom, Oxford, Pergamon Press, 1990, chapter 12: Political Heroines in the Gulag, pp. 306 ff ISBN 0-08-037461-1. After being finally released in the 1950s Kakhovskaya demanded in vain the full rehabilitation of her slain comrades. In 1959, at the age of 72, she insisted upon having a memorial she called Notes and Explanations ("Zapiski i Zaiavleniia") sent on to the Central Committee of the Communist party, to the Council of Ministers, and to the Office of the Public Prosecutor, with the sole aim of keeping alive the memory of her comrades' late years. It was only steadfast Kakhovskaya's credit that this memory was not completely lost.
  7. ^ Isaac Nachman Steinberg, Spiridonova: Revolutionary Terrorist. London: Methuen, 1935, p. 141 ff.
  8. ^ Rabinowitch, "Spiridonova," pp. 182-183.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h Rabinowitch, "Spiridonova," pg. 183.
  10. ^ a b c d e Rabinowitch, "Spiridonova," pg. 184.
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Rabinowitch, "Spiridonova," pg. 185.
  12. ^ Rabinowitch, "Spiridonova," pg. 186.
  13. ^ Rabinowitch, Alexander. "Maria Spiridonova's 'Last Testament'", Russian Review, Vol. 54, No. 3 (July 1995), p. 430.
  14. ^ According to the inquisitors of Spiridonova, Mayorov was threatened that his minor son and his sick aged father would be both interned for five years in a labour camp, and was eventually forced into signing his confession while 'wailing like a baby'. 'Mayorov crying?' wondered Spiridonova, 'In my nineteen years with him I had never seen him shed a tear, much less cry out loud. "What have you done to him?"' (Rabinowitch, 'Last Testament', p. 438). Both Izmailovich and Kakhovskaya refused either to confess anything or to accuse anybody.
  15. ^ The original text in Russian is available online at the Sakharov Center website ("Be humane and kill me now ...": The letter M.A. Spiridonova). Large excerpts translated into English are quoted in Rabinovich's cited essay, 'Maria Spiridonova's "Last Testament"'.
  16. ^ Rabinovich, 'Last Testament', p. 443-444.
  17. ^ Rabinowitch, 'Last Testament', p. 445.
  18. ^ Rabinowitch, 'Last Testament', p. 446.

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