How many firsts we owe to Russians! Lenin invented the political system we call totalitarianism. The Soviet Union was the first state based on terror and the first “one-party state.” (Previously, a party, as its name implies, represented only a part of society.) The first dystopian novel was not Huxley’s Brave New World or Orwell’s 1984, but Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, well known by Huxley and Orwell. Czarist Russia inspired both the modern prison-camp novel, beginning with Dostoyevsky’s House of the Dead, and the “terrorist novel,” starting with Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed. Prison camps, dystopia, terrorism: Whatever else it has been, Russian history has been a godsend for literature. And for political language as well: We get the word “intelligentsia” from Russia, where it was coined about 1860; and before the American “populists” of the 1890s there were the Russian narodniks (populists) of the 1870s. Political extremism and great fiction—these are Russia’s obsessions.

Great writers like Dostoyevsky took terrorism as the subject of major novels, and the terrorists themselves composed riveting memoirs and fiction. Sometimes it is hard to tell whether terrorist experience demanded literary treatment or was chosen to provide compelling material.

Russia was also the first country where young men and women, asked to name their intended careers, might well say “terrorist.” Beginning in the 1870s, terrorism became an honored, if dangerous, profession. It was often a family business employing brothers and sisters generation after generation. Historians sometimes trace modern terrorism to the Carbonari of early-19th-century Italy, but it was Russia that gave it unprecedented importance. You cannot relate the history of czarist Russia in its last half-century without the history of terrorism. As we now associate terrorism with radical Islam, Europeans then associated it with “Russian nihilism.” By the early 20th century, no profession, except literature, enjoyed more prestige among well-educated Russians.

Russian history, one of novelist Vasily Grossman’s characters observes, stands as an object lesson to the rest of the world, a lesson it has failed to learn. People still romanticize revolutionary violence, as we see in all those posters of an angelic-looking Che Guevara. In czarist Russia, the mentality Tom Wolfe was to dub “radical chic” gripped educated society. The privileged cheered on those who would destroy them.

Terrorism has arisen in many cultures, but Russian terrorism, so far as I know, is unique in one respect: its intimate connection with literature. Not only did great writers like Dostoyevsky and the symbolist Andrei Bely (author of Petersburg) write major novels about terrorism, the terrorists themselves composed riveting memoirs and fiction. Prince Peter Kropotkin, once the world’s most influential anarchist, authored a masterpiece of Russian autobiography, Memoirs of a Revolutionist, and many other terrorists, most notably women, have left classic accounts of terrorist movements. When the assassin Sergei Kravchinsky escaped to Europe and assumed the name Stepniak, he became internationally famous for both his history Underground Russia: Revolutionary Profiles and Sketches from Life and his novel Career of a Nihilist. Still more amazing, Boris Savinkov, the longtime leader of Russia’s most important terrorist organization, responsible for spectacular killings of high officials, also published his Memoirs of a Terrorist as well as three novels about terrorists. Sometimes it is hard to tell whether terrorist experience demanded literary treatment or was chosen to provide compelling literary material.

The scale of 19th- and 20th-century Russian terrorism boggles the mind. According to the movement’s best historian, Anna Geifman, terrorism affected just about everyone. Conventionally, accounts describe a brief prehistory in the 1860s and early 1870s, then a “heroic phase” from 1878 to 1881, and, after a pause, a period when terrorism assumed staggering proportions. In 1866, Dmitri Karakozov, a member of a radical organization called “Hell,” tried to kill the czar and was hanged. Sergei Nechaev, who inspired The Possessed, not only committed murder but, more important, wrote the infamous Catechism of a Revolutionary, which provided a model for revolutionaries to come. The true revolutionary, according to Nechaev, “has no interests, no affairs, no feelings, no habits, no property, not even a name. Everything in him is wholly absorbed by a single, exclusive interest, a single thought, a single passion—the revolution.” He must suppress all feelings of compassion, love, gratitude, “even honor.” For him only one criterion of good and evil exists: “Everything that promotes the revolution is moral; everything that hinders it is immoral.” Without hesitation the revolutionary uses other people, including other revolutionaries, as Nechaev did. By comparison, Machiavelli was a softie.

In the mid-1870s, idealistic men and women became “populists” and “went to the people.” They flocked to the countryside to imbibe the peasants’ natural goodness while instructing them in socialism. (I described this movement recently in these pages.) The peasants were unimpressed and often turned them in to the police, in much the way Turgenev describes in his novel Virgin Soil. Far from abandoning their ideals, the populists decided to realize them without the people, even against the will of the people, through terror and a coup d’état. Ironically enough, they called their organization “The People’s Will.” Eventually, in 1881, they succeeded in killing the czar.

Why should they have targeted Alexander II, the most liberal czar Russia ever had? Alexander had freed the serfs—thus liberating the third of the population owned outright by private landowners, not to mention an equal number owned by the crown. Before the liberation of 1861, serfs were routinely bought, sold, and lost at cards. His “great reforms” included creating organs of self-government, first in the countryside (1864) and then in towns (1870). The entire justice system was reformed along Western models. The modernization of the military in 1874 reduced mandatory active service from 25 to 6 years. Nevertheless, the radicals insisted that terrorism was their only choice. “There was nothing to hope for in legal and pacific means,” Stepniak explained with a straight face. “After 1866 a man must have been either blind or a hypocrite to believe in the possibility of any improvement except by violent means.” The very day the czar was killed he had approved a reform moving in the direction of a constitution.

Russian terrorism’s “heroic period” began in January 1878 when Vera Zasulich shot General Trepov, who had ordered corporal punishment of a member of the intelligentsia as if the man were some peasant: These radicals took their class privileges seriously! At her trial in the new law courts, the defense attorney, the Clarence Darrow of his day, in effect put Trepov on trial while portraying Zasulich as a saint. In his account, she was living in a “rural wilderness”—it was actually a revolutionary commune where she rode about carrying a gun—when she heard about Trepov’s outrage and resolved to sacrifice herself for justice. The cream of society vied for tickets to the trial, applauded the defense, and were utterly delighted when the jury preposterously acquitted her.

Soon after, Stepniak stalked General Nikolai Mezentsev, head of Russia’s security police, and, finding him unprotected, stabbed him in the back with a stiletto, turned it in the wound, and made his escape. He became the toast of British society, the friend of William Morris and George Bernard Shaw, among others. Abroad, the radicals would claim that all they wanted were basic civil liberties, but in fact they either rejected Western “freedoms” or favored them only to make revolution easier. They opposed democracy because they knew very well the peasants would never support them. As one historian observes, “Terror seemed easier than beating one’s head against the wall of peasant indifference.” It gave a small group the chance to demoralize the government while creating a mystique of violence to ensure endless recruits. They achieved both these goals.

Failed attempt to assassinate Czar Alexander II in February 1880 at the Winter Palace
The grisly aftermath of a February 1880 dynamite bomb in the Winter Palace—one of many attempts to assassinate Czar Alexander II. Fine Art Images / Heritage Images / Getty

The story of how the People’s Will, the world’s first modern terrorist organization, killed the czar makes gripping reading. Surviving attack after attack, Alexander seemed to enjoy divine protection. He certainly had a run of good luck. The terrorists tunneled under a street on which he was to pass and planted explosives, but his route changed. Then they blew up what was supposed to be his railway carriage but, because of a last-minute rearrangement, turned out to be a baggage car. The most amazing attempt took place when they blew up the dining room in the Winter Palace, intending to kill the czar and everyone else present. Police incompetence staggers the imagination. They had already arrested a terrorist in possession of a map of the Winter Palace with an X marked on the dining room! Guards checked visitors to the Winter Palace but paid no attention to workers going in and out of the basement. A terrorist had no trouble getting a job, smuggling in a little dynamite every day, and eventually causing the explosion. The bomb killed 11 people and injured 56 others, but Alexander was late. The People’s Will blamed their failure on the ruler’s unpunctuality. “What is most depressing,” opined one conservative journalist, “is that so-called political crime has become a veritable national tradition.”

The police were closing in and on February 27, 1881, arrested terrorist leader Andrey Zhelyabov, but his lover Sofya Perovskaya took over. The terrorists got their man on March 1, when an assassin threw a bomb at Alexander’s carriage, wounding two people but leaving the czar unharmed. Instead of just driving on, he stopped to see to the wounded. The bomb-thrower had just said ironically, “Still thanking God?” when a second terrorist hurled his bomb. The mangled czar died hours later. Under the leadership of Vera Figner, the People’s Will survived for a few more years.

The uniform worn by Czar Alexander II when he was killed.
Shredded and bloody, the uniform Czar Alexander II wore when he was killed is now in the Hermitage. Album / Alamy

During the 1880s and 1890s, sometimes called pejoratively “the era of small deeds,” terrorism pretty much took a holiday. To be sure, there was one spectacular exception. On March 1, 1887, the sixth anniversary of the assassination of Alexander II, a group of terrorists planned to murder his successor, Alexander III, by throwing bombs at his carriage but were stopped by the police. The conspirators were sentenced to death, but the czar pardoned all but five of them. One of those hanged, the group’s leader and chemist, Alexander Ulyanov, was the older brother of Vladimir Lenin, who, as legend has it, swore to take revenge.

When the movement resumed after 1900, it grew to unprecedented dimensions. It is hard even to fathom the extent of the terror. The Party of Socialists-Revolutionaries (or SRs), founded in 1901, immediately created a combat organization to conduct mass terror. Each of its three leaders—the second was Savinkov—achieved mythic status. In 1879, the People’s Will had some 500 members, but by 1907, the SRs had 45,000. So many bombs—referred to as “oranges”—were manufactured that people joked about fear of fruit. In 1902, SRs killed minister of the interior Dmitri Sipiagin and in 1904 his successor Vyacheslav von Plehve, along with the czar’s uncle Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich in 1905, among others.

Two of the assassins of Czar Alexander II
A sketch of Sofya Perovskaya and Andrey Zhelyabov during their trial. The lovers were hanged, along with several other co-conspirators, for the czar’s assassination. Azoor Photo Collection / Alamy

As Geifman calculates, between 1905 and 1907, some 4,500 government officials of all ranks were murdered, plus at least 2,180 private individuals killed and 2,530 wounded. Between January 1908 and May 1910, authorities recorded 19,957 terrorist acts that claimed the lives of 700 government officials and thousands of private people. Robberies—called “expropriations”—became commonplace. Terrorists robbed not just banks and the imperial treasury but also landowners, businessmen, and eventually just ordinary people with barely a ruble to steal. According to one liberal journalist, robberies occurred daily “in the capitals, in provincial cities, and in district towns, in villages, on highways, on trains, on steamboats.” Newspapers published special sections chronicling violent acts, while murder became more common than traffic accidents.

The SRs were far from the only terrorist organization. Even more crimes were committed by various anarchist groups. The Bolsheviks, while late to the game, caught up. Though some other Marxist parties rejected terrorism as contrary to the dogma that individuals don’t matter, the Bolsheviks engaged in it anyway. Criminals calling themselves revolutionaries joined in, but since revolutionaries themselves recruited criminals and applauded their violence, it is impossible to draw a line between revolutionary and criminal action. Some terrorists would give half their take to a revolutionary party and use the other half to buy a villa or even their own business. In Riga, terrorists effectively replaced the local government by levying taxes, establishing police patrols, and, of course, creating their own secret police to uncover disloyalty.

Liberal professionals and industrialists did more than applaud: They offered their apartments for concealing weapons and contributed substantial sums of money. Lenin supposedly said “when we are ready to hang the capitalists, they will sell us the rope,” but he might better have said “buy us the rope.” Liberals proudly defended terrorists in court, in the press, and in the Duma. Paul Miliukov, the leader of the liberal Constitutional Democratic (Kadet) party, affirmed that “all means are legitimate . . . and all means should be tried.” The Kadets rejected the government offer of amnesty for political prisoners unless it included terrorists, who would, they well knew, promptly resume killing government officials. “Condemn terror?” exclaimed Kadet leader Ivan Petrunkevich. “Never! That would mean moral ruin for the party!”

If the strategy was to demoralize the government, it worked. Wearing a uniform made one a target for a bullet—or sulfuric acid in the face, another favorite form of attack. In Petersburg the head of the security police faced insubordination from agents afraid of revolutionaries. My favorite story concerns the reporter who asked his editor whether to run the biography of the newly appointed governor-general. Don’t bother, came the reply. Save it for the obituary.

In Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novel August 1914, two radical aunts, Adalia and Agnessa, struggle to raise their nephew Sasha and niece Veronika. Sasha is willing to follow family tradition and become a terrorist like executed Uncle Anton, but Veronika falls in with a disreputable crowd, including her unspeakably lower-class friend Yelikonda, that prefers poetry to propaganda. When Veronika refers to the radicals’ “herd behavior,” the aunts accuse her of “nihilism”! “Silly girls like Yelikonda, the aunts thought, can do what they like, their families are tradesmen or moneygrubbers of some sort,” but Veronika must be persuaded to change her ways.

“In our day,” they tell her, “girls used to be blessed—you were, Nessa!—with Vera Figner’s portrait, as though it was an icon. And that determined your whole future life.” Everyone learned about saintly Vera Zasulich, whose acquittal, “a still more glorious moment in Russian history than her pistol shot,” inspired “a long and brilliant succession of women,” including “iron” Sofya Perovskaya, who not only directed the assassination of the czar but also earned glory as the first Russian woman to be executed for a political crime. Bombmaker Dora Brilliant’s “black eyes shone with the holy joy of terrorism” and another woman became a suicide bomber: “What fanatical zeal for justice! To turn yourself into a walking human bomb!” the aunts enthuse. “What women they were! The glory of Russia!” Even better than suicide, in their view, is to survive long enough to make a fiery speech at one’s trial and then experience “a still greater happiness—to die on the scaffold!”

When Veronika recoils from celebrating lying and killing, the aunts explain that depending on who commits it, the same act is not the same act. One cannot equate

the oppressors of the people and its liberators, speaking as though they had the same moral rights! . . . Let him [the terrorist] lie—as long as it is for the sake of the truth! Let him kill—but only for the sake of love! The Party takes all the blame upon itself, so that terror is no longer murder, expropriation is no longer robbery.

Veronika succumbs, but it is not love of the people that convinces her. Rather, she cannot resist the “precariousness and poignancy of life in the underground, a life that was really a succession of thrilling experiences.” Solzhenitsyn got it right: what is most remarkable in the memoirs of terrorists is how rarely they express concern for the unfortunate. “Sympathy for the suffering of the people did not move me to join those who perished,” Vera Zasulich explains. “I had never heard of the horrors of serfdom [when growing up] at Biakolovo—and I don’t think there were any.”

Then what did motivate terrorists? Zasulich describes how as a girl she wished to become a Christian martyr, but when she lost her faith, terrorism offered a substitute martyrdom. Some men and women were, like Veronika, attracted to the excitement of living the prescribed terrorist biography. The fact that life was likely to be short endowed each moment with a vertiginous intensity that became addictive, and many reported that they could not live for long without committing another murder.

Zasulich also saw terrorism as an escape from a lifelong feeling that she “didn’t belong. No one ever held me, kissed me, or sat me on his knee; no one called me pet names. The servants abused me.” Like many others, she loved the camaraderie of the closely knit terrorist circle, in which mortal danger created bonds of intimacy experienced nowhere else. Many found the idea of suicide enchanting. We often think of suicide bombing as a modern invention, but it, too, was pioneered by the Russians.

It never occurs to these memoirists that their motives are entirely selfish. They amount to saying that one practices terrorism for one’s own satisfaction. Other people, whose suffering is a mere excuse, become what Alexander Herzen called “liberation fodder.” Interestingly enough, some heroes of Savinkov’s novels do know that such murder is above all self-affirmation. As aesthetes affirm art for art’s sake, they accept terror for terror’s sake. “Earlier I had an excuse,” one hero reflects, “I was killing for the sake of an ideal, for a cause. . . . But now I have killed for my own sake. I wanted to kill, and I killed. . . . Why is it right to kill for the sake of an ideal . . . and not for one’s own sake?”

Like Kropotkin’s autobiography, Figner’s became a classic, but the two differ in one important respect. Figner is utterly unable even to imagine any point of view but her own. “My mind was not encumbered with notions and doubts,” she explains. She describes her early life as the sudden discovery of one unquestionable truth after another. “Every truth, once recognized, became thereby compulsory for my will. This was the logic of my character.” Although she disdains attachment to any specific socialist program, she is certain that socialism will at once cure all ills. She gives up medicine for revolution when she concludes that medicine can only palliate ailments but socialism will eliminate them.

Russian terrorist leader Vera Figner
Vera Figner, a leader of the terrorist group People’s Will, survived prison and exile to die old and unrepentant in Stalin’s Russia. Hulton Archive / Getty

After the revolution, Bolsheviks insisted that anyone who differed from party dogma in the slightest respect deserved liquidation: There could be no nuance or middle ground. Figner, too, presumes that no decent person could think otherwise. “If all means of convincing him [someone who disagrees] have been tried and alike found fruitless,” she explains matter-of-factly, “there remains for the revolutionist only physical violence: the dagger, the revolver, and dynamite.”

To be a terrorist, Figner explains, one must practice constant deception. One lives under a false identity and regularly abuses trust. One spreads rumors among the peasants and plants spies in the enemy’s camp. So it is mind-boggling to read of her shock upon discovering that she herself has been deceived. It turned out that her comrade Degaev was working for the police. His betrayal led to her capture, but what did that matter “in the face of what Degaev had done, who had shaken the foundation of life itself, that faith in people without which a revolutionist cannot act? He had lied, dissimulated, and deceived. . . . To experience such a betrayal was a blow beyond all words. It took away the moral beauty of mankind, the beauty of the revolution and of life itself.” The same act is not the same act.

On one page Figner denounces the unjust persecution of radicals’ harmless work in the countryside while on the next she describes their work as revolutionary propaganda. With no irony she says that soon after Perovskaya killed the czar she “was treacherously seized on the street.” She finds imprisonment of terrorists immoral even though she also claims that upon release they immediately resume killing. How dare the government defend itself! She mentions only casually the death of many innocent bystanders, as if no one could seriously object. More horrifying than her actions is her mentality. Someone who reasons this way could justify anything. Stalin added very little to this sort of thinking.

The revolutionaries had no more effective advocate abroad than Stepniak, with his charisma, facility for languages, literary talent, and oratorical skills. It was Stepniak who tutored Constance Garnett in Russian, suggested she translate Turgenev, and helped correct her early work. Garnett, of course, went on to translate some 70 volumes of Russian classics, and many of her versions, lightly revised, remain the best ever done.

The Russian terrorist Stepniak
The Russian terrorist Sergei Kravchinsky—known as Stepniak—assassinated General Mezentsev and became the toast of literary London for his writings. (The Scottish artist William Strang used a photograph for the basis of this sketch, now in the British Museum.) Painters / Alamy

Stepniak made his literary reputation with Underground Russia (1882), written in Italian but soon translated into English, Swedish, German, French, Dutch, and Hungarian. The best commentator on Stepniak, Peter Scotto, stresses the significance of a letter Stepniak wrote to some Russian comrades to explain why the book was less than candid. Underground Russia was designed, Stepniak explained in the letter, to convince polite Europeans that Russian radicals shared their liberal ideals—a bald-faced lie—even if they were compelled to resort, highly reluctantly, to violence. Westerners won’t sympathize if you talk to them the way we talk among ourselves, he cautioned, and so you must omit mentioning our program and illuminate the movement “in a way that makes it clear that the aspirations of Russian socialists are identical—temporarily, to be sure—with those of the radicals of European revolutions.” By “temporarily” Stepniak means that the radicals demand civil liberties only so long as they make terrorism easier. “Propaganda in Russian for Russian youth should, of course, have a completely different character.”

More than one commentator has compared Underground Russia to an Orthodox paterikon, a collection of incidents from saint’s lives. Stepniak first offers a composite portrait of “the terrorist”: “He is noble, terrible, irresistibly fascinating, for he combines in himself the two sublimities of human grandeur: the martyr and the hero. . . . From the day when he swears in the depths of his heart to free the people . . . he knows he is consecrated to Death. . . . Alone, obscure, poor, he undertook to be the defender of outraged humanity. . . . Proud as Satan rebelling against God . . . [with] almost superhuman energy, which astounds the world . . . such is the Terrorist.” Even if we dismiss such rhetoric, it is hard not to find Stepniak’s accounts of trials, persecutions, and hairbreadth escapes thrilling. Scotto shrewdly observes that Stepniak, who represents his terrorists as victims, never describes an actual killing. Even the murder of Mezentsev is ascribed not to himself, nor to any human agent, but to something he calls “the Terrorism”: “On August 16, 1878 . . . the Terrorism, by putting to death General Mezentsev . . . boldly threw down the glove in the face of autocracy.”

Stepniak’s novel is more candid than his memoirs. Set in the late 1870s, The Career of a Nihilist (1889) describes a group of terrorists who plot assassinations and a prison escape while arguing about terrorist morality. To the distress of the hero Andrei, one comrade despises all ideology as “metaphysics” and believes in terrorism for its own sake. When Andrei falls in love with a new convert to the cause, Tatiana, they must consider the propriety of love among those already married to the revolution. The terrorists are shocked when a court sentences a group of terrorists to death since, in their view, one of the condemned was entirely “innocent of any real offense”: He had only aided and financed the others, but hadn’t himself killed anyone.

The moment Andrei sees his comrade Zima hang, “everything was changed in him.” All feelings are now “submerged by something thrilling, vehement, indescribable. . . . It was a positive thirst for martyrdom, a feeling . . . which was . . . the fulfillment of an ardent desire, a dream of supreme happiness.” Andrei attempts to kill the czar, is caught, and hanged. The narrator ends the novel: “He had perished. But the work for which he died did not perish. It goes forward from defeat to defeat towards the final victory, which in this sad world of ours cannot be obtained save by the sufferings and sacrifice of the chosen few.” It is the “chosen few,” not the suffering people, who matter in terrorist memoirs and fiction.

Boris Savinkov’s life not only reads like fiction but, as historian Lynn Ellen Patyk has argued, was consciously lived according to fictional models. As director of the SR Combat Organization, Savinkov organized several important assassinations. His career also included a prison escape, a later attempt to set up a new combat organization, service in the French Army during World War I, a cabinet post in Alexander Kerensky’s Provisional Government, and the founding of a terrorist organization directed against the Bolsheviks. Pretending to be a group of his followers, Bolshevik officials lured him from abroad, arrested him, and condemned him to death, after which he offered to join them. He begged the head of the secret police, Feliks Dzherzhinsky, to be employed in more terror, but soon after, in 1925, either committed suicide or, more likely, was defenestrated. Much later, Stalin, demanding that one of his henchmen employ more torture during interrogations, supposedly exclaimed: “Do you want to be more humanistic than Lenin, who ordered Dzherzhinsky to throw Savinkov out a window?”

The trial of Boris Savinkov, 1924
Terrorist, assassin, and (of course) novelist Boris Savinkov, second from left, on trial in 1924 for his participation in anti-Bolshevik plots Fine Art Images / Heritage Images / Getty

The hero of Savinkov’s novel What Never Happened at last realizes that “he had fallen in love, yes, yes, fallen in love with terror.” Savinkov’s own memoirs describe one figure after another who shared this passion. His friend Kaliayev, a terrorist almost as famous as Savinkov himself, “dreamed of future terror . . . he said to me . . . ‘A Socialist-Revolutionary without a bomb is no longer a Socialist-Revolutionary.’” Savinkov describes Christians who worship terror and a “convinced disciple of Kant . . . [who] nevertheless regarded terror with almost religious reverence.” Russian philosophers are a breed of their own.

Savinkov’s career exhibits a dynamic found in most, if not all, revolutionary movements. At first the goal is social justice, which must be achieved by revolution. Soon the goal becomes revolution itself, which in turn requires terror. Finally, terror itself becomes the goal. Whenever sufficient justification for a position is that it is more radical, and whenever compromise suggests cowardice or collusion, the drift toward greater horror becomes irresistible.

After 1917, SRs and anarchists denounced the Bolsheviks as betrayers of the cause, but all the Bolsheviks did was direct the same tactics against them that they had directed against others. The terrorist state emerged directly from the terrorist movement and did so without a break. The Bolsheviks employed terror—including random killing, taking hostages, and seizing property by force—as soon as they took power. Lenin set up the Cheka, his secret police force, in December 1917, before the Bolsheviks faced any serious armed resistance. That same month Trotsky declaimed: “There is nothing immoral in the proletariat finishing off the dying class. . . . Be put on notice that in one month at most this terror will assume more frightful forms.” Concentration camps were set up in 1918. We “must execute not only the guilty,” Nikolai Krylenko, a top Bolshevik, demanded. “Execution of the innocent will impress the masses even more.” Even in relatively peaceful 1922, Lenin wrote that in any new criminal code “jurisprudence must not eliminate terror. . . . It must vindicate and legalize it.’”

So brutal was the new Cheka that its deputy director found it hard to recruit agents because candidates were too “sentimental.” It is hardly surprising, then, that terrorists of all stripes joined the Cheka and the revolutionary tribunals. Especially in remote regions, mass murder and torture were common.

Dzherzhinsky, the founder of the Cheka, was himself an experienced terrorist, while Stalin, though he did not take part personally, led the Bolshevik combat organization in the Caucasus.

Dostoyevsky’s Possessed had suggested that terrorist success depends on support from polite liberal society, and that proved accurate. The division of people into friends and enemies, the celebration of righteous anger, and the romanticization of violence eventually led to a state based on sheer terror. In the name of the many, the radical intelligentsia and their liberal defenders made possible the rule of the chosen few.