Vera Figner circa 1880
July 7, 1852|
Kazan Governorate, Russian Empire
|Died||June 15, 1942
Moscow, Soviet Union
Vera Nikolayevna Figner Filippova (Russian: Ве́ра Никола́евна Фи́гнер Фили́ппова, 1852-1942) was a revolutionary political activist born in Kazan Governorate, Russian Empire, into a noble family of ethnic German and Russian descent.
A leader of the clandestine Narodnaya Volya (People's Will) group, which advocated the use of terror to achieve a revolutionary overthrow of the government, Figner was a participant in planning the successful assassination of Alexander II in 1881. Figner was later arrested and spent 20 months in solitary confinement prior to trial, at which she was sentenced to death. The sentence was subsequently commuted and Figner was imprisoned in the Shlisselburg fortress for 20 years before being sent into internal exile.
Figner gained international fame in large part because of the widely translated memoir of her experiences. She was treated as a heroic icon of revolutionary sacrifice after the February Revolution in 1917 and was a popular public speaker during that year. Figner later became prominent in the Society of Former Political Prisoners and Exiles in the Soviet Union until its dissolution in 1935.
Figner managed to survive the Great Terror of 1937 and died of natural causes in Moscow in 1942 at the age of 89.
Vera Figner was born July 7 (June 25 O.S.), 1852, the oldest of six children of Nikolai Alexandrovich Figner and his wife, the former Ekaterina Khristoforovna Kuprianova, both members of the hereditary Russian nobility. The family owned well over 1,000 acres of land, worked by serfs existing in a state of semi-slavery until the Emancipation of 1861. Her father served in the state forestry service, resigning that post to become a local administrative functionary called a "peace mediator" in the years after emancipation. She was the sister of Lidija Figner.
In 1863, at the age of eleven, Figner was sent to the Rodionovsky Institute for Noble Girls in the city of Kazan, which she attended for the next six years. As one of only six cities in the Russian Empire to host a university, the provincial capital of Kazan was a city of culture and ideas and Figner gradually came to question and ultimately reject the passive and submissive gender role which the Radionovsky Institute attempted to inculcate into its pupils. Despite the stifling intellectual regime at the cloistered institute, Figner expanded her intellectual horizons by surreptitiously reading prohibited books obtained during brief visits home. She proved to be an excellent student, taking a particular interest in history and literature, and received the prize given to the top academic performer upon her graduation in 1869.
Figner desired to study medicine, which was not permitted in Russia following the closure to women of the St. Petersburg Medical-Surgical Academy from the early 1860s. This meant leaving Russia to study abroad, and Vera Figner turned her eyes to the University of Zurich, which was accepting Russian women despite their lack of gimnazium diplomas. Figner's father forbade her from going, so she married Alexei Filippov, saved money and sold her dowry, and traveled to Zurich.
From 1872 to 1875, she was a student of Department of Medicine at the University of Zurich. In 1873, Figner joined the Fritsche circle, which was composed of thirteen young Russian radical women, some of whom would become important members of the All-Russian Social Revolutionary Organization. She had trouble reconciling her new political view of herself as a parasitic member of the gentry with her previous view of herself as a good, innocent, person. A directive banning all Russian women students from remaining in Zurich was published in the Government Herald, accusing them of using their medical knowledge to perform abortions on themselves, in 1873.
Most of the Fritsche decided to return to Russia and spread socialist propaganda among the Russian peasantry, but Figner decided to remain in Switzerland to finish her studies. In 1875, Mark Natanson told her that the Fritsche desperately needed her help in Russia. She returned to Russia that year without getting her degree, but found herself unable to help the circle and so got a license as a paramedic and divorced her husband, where she became active with other revolutionary intellectuals in the Zemlya i Volya (Land and Liberty) organization.
Figner took part in the Kazan demonstration in St. Petersburg in 1876. From 1877 through 1879, working as a doctor's assistant, she conducted revolutionary propaganda in the villages around Samara and Saratov.
In the spring of 1879 the Zemlya i Volya organization was deeply divided over the question of terrorism, with one wing of the party advocating revolutionary propaganda in the villages and the other in favor of creating a revolutionary situation through the assassination of key figures in the Tsarist government and monarchy. In June of that year party activists gathered at the Voronezh Congress in a final effort to settle these differences. No permanent solution was reached and by the fall the Zemlya i Volya organization has split into two independently functioning groups: an anti-terror faction led by proto-Marxist Georgy Plekhanov called Cherny Peredel (Black Repartition), which included Pavel Akselrod, Lev Deich, Vera Zasulich, and others; and a pro-terror faction called Narodnaya Volya (People's Will).
Vera Figner aligned herself with the latter, terrorist wing, becoming a member of the group's Executive Committee, which in a proclamation later in 1879 called for the execution of Tsar Alexander II for crimes committed against the people of the Russian Empire. The Narodnovoltsy (Narodnaya Volya members) established study circles of workers in St. Petersburg, Moscow, Odessa, Kiev, and Kharkov, and coordinated propaganda efforts among students at the country's universities. It also established printing presses for the production of leaflets and issued a magazine and a newspaper in an effort to build support for its revolutionary program.
As a member of the Executive Committee, Figner also took part in the creation of the paramilitary wing of Narodnaya Volya and coordinated its activities. Figner participated in planning the assassination of the Tsar, including a failed attempt in 1880 in Odessa and a successful effort in March 1881 in St. Petersburg.
The State secret police were relentless in tracking down members of the terrorist organization responsible for the killing of the Tsar and by the spring of 1882 only Vera Figner remained at large in Russia out of Narodnaya Volya's Executive Committee of 1879-80. This status made Figner the focal point and leader of the group's depleted forces. One assassination was carried out on her watch, the shooting of a member of the secret police in Odessa in March 1882. Figner's main activity as the de facto head of the Narodnaya Volya organization in 1882 related to the restoration of the underground apparatus, which was devastated by secret police arrests and seizures of equipment. The Narodnovoltsy managed to set up a new underground press in the period and conducted propaganda work among university students.
Originally based in Odessa, Figner later moved to Kharkov, where she was ultimately betrayed by fellow Executive Committee member Sergey Degayev, who turned police informer in order to lessen his punishment after his December 20, 1882 arrest. On February 10, 1883, Figner, characterized by police as "one of the most dangerous of the Central Committee of terrorists," was herself arrested at her Kharkov apartment. The event moved new Tsar Alexander III to write in his diary, "She was finally caught." The next chapter of Figner's life, that of a political prisoner, had begun.
Following her arrest, Vera Figner spent the next 20 months before her trial in solitary confinement at the Peter and Paul Fortress. In 1884 Figner was sentenced to death, during the Trial of the Fourteen. This sentence was commuted through the intercession of Niko Nikoladze to perpetual penal servitude in Siberia. She was instead imprisoned for 20 years in the fortress at Schlüsselburg.
In 1904, Figner was sent into internal exile to the Arkhangelsk guberniya, then Kazan guberniya, and finally Nizhny Novgorod. In 1906 she was allowed to go abroad, where she organized a campaign for political prisoners in Russia. She spoke in different European cities, collected money, published a brochure on Russian prisons translated into many languages. In 1907 Figner joined the Socialist Revolutionary Party (PSR), but left the organization in 1909 after the Azef scandal. In 1915 she returned to Russia.
After the revolution
After the October Revolution (she never accepted the way it had happened), Figner published her book Запечатлённый труд (English title: Memoirs of a Revolutionist), which is still considered one of the best examples of the Russian memoir genre. The book made her famous worldwide and was translated into many languages.
Figner was a prominent member of the Society of Former Political Prisoners and Exiles and played an active role with the society's official magazine, Katorga i ssylka (Hard Labor and Exile). Figner authored a number of biographies of several narodniks and articles on history of the Russian revolutionary movement from the 1870s-1880s.
In 1932 Figner's collected works were published in the Soviet Union by the publishing house of the Society of the Former Political Prisoners and Exiles in seven volumes.
Death and legacy
Vera Figner died in Moscow on June 15, 1942. She was 89 years old at the time of her death.
- Lynne Ann Hartnett, The Defiant Life of Vera Figner: Surviving the Russian Revolution. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2014; pg. 2.
- Hartnett, The Defiant Life of Vera Figner, pg. 7.
- Hartnett, The Defiant Life of Vera Figner, pg. 17.
- Hartnett, The Defiant Life of Vera Figner, pp. 17-19.
- Hartnett, The Defiant Life of Vera Figner, pg. 19.
- Hartnett, The Defiant Life of Vera Figner, pg. 20.
- Hartnett, The Defiant Life of Vera Figner, pg. 29.
- Barbara A. Engel and Clifford N. Rosenthal (eds.), Five Sisters: Women Against the Tsar. Routledge, 1975; pg. ???.
- Derek Offord, The Russian Revolutionary Movement in the 1880s. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1986; pg. 26.
- Offord, The Russian Revolutionary Movement in the 1880s, pg. 28.
- Offord, The Russian Revolutionary Movement in the 1880s, pg. 51.
- Hartnett, The Defiant Life of Vera Figner, pg. 133.
- S.S. Volk, Narodnaia Volia, 1879-1882. Moscow: Naukak, 1966; pg. 148. Cited in Hartnett, The Defiant Life of Vera Figner, pg. 133.
- Russian: Общество бывших политкаторжан и ссыльнопоселенцев.
- Vera Figner, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v semi tomakh. Moscow: Izdatel'stvo Vsesoiuznogo Obshchestva Politikatorzhan i Ssyl'no-poselentsev, 1932.
- Vera Broido, Apostles into Terrorists: Women and the Revolutionary Movement in the Russia of Alexander II. New York: Viking Press, 1977.
- Anna Geifman, Thou Shalt Kill: Revolutionary Terrorism in Russia, 1894-1917. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.
- Wada Haruki, "Vera Figner in the Early Post-Revolutionary Period," Annals of the Institute of Social Science, vol. 25 (1983-84), pp. 43-73.
- Hilde Hoogenboom, "Vera Figner and Revolutionary Autobiographies: The Influence of Gender on Genre," in Rosalind Marsh (ed.), Women in Russia and Ukraine. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996; pp. 78-93.
- Dinah Jansen, "Life Lessons: Vera Figner and the Russian Revolutionary Movement, 1861-1881," Minerva Journal of Women and War, Vol. 3, No. 1 (Spring 2009): 24-42.
- Franco Venturi, Roots of Revolution: A History of the Populist and Socialist Movements in Nineteenth-Century Russia. Francis Haskell, trans. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1960.
- Andrei Valdimirovich Voronikhin, В.Н. Фигнер в русском освободительном движении 1873-1884 гг. (V.N. Figner in the Russian Liberation Movement, 1873-1884). PhD dissertation, Saratov University, 1992.
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