Remembering Nikolai Tchaikovsky: lessons from the Narodniks

On January 7th, we remember the birthday of Nikolai Tchaikovsky (1851 – 1926), one of the great Russian anarchist intellectuals and founder of the famous Circle of Tchaikovsky. He was a strong opponent of violence and Bolshevism, and always propagated class reconciliation as a means to achieve a free society, not class warfare.

In the mid-19th century, the intelligentsia of Tsarist Russia were dissatisfied with the social stagnation of the nation and began demanding major reforms. While Europe was rapidly industrializing and democratizing, Russia was still a feudal empire without geopolitical or economic relevance in the modern world. While politics and economy globalized, Russia became more and more isolated from the rest of the world. The Tsar’s regime didn’t posses any political credibility or influence around the world and were on the edge of fading away into the oblivion of history. Even when Tsar Alexander II emancipated the serfs in 1861, which marked the official end of feudalism in Russia, the public demanded more reforms and much faster.

The intellectual revolt against this political and social anachronism gave rise to a number of secret organizations rooted in anarchist thought, such as “Land and Liberty”, “The People’s Revenge”, “The Circle of Tchaikovsky” and, most notably, the Narodniks.

The Circle of Tchaikovsky was founded in Saint Petersburg during the student uprisings in 1968-1869 by a group of students and residents opposed to the reckless violence of Sergey Nechayev, a violent revolutionary anarchist who wanted to end the reign of the Tsar through a violent and bloody revolution. Nechayev’s shenanigans had horrible consequences for the popular support for social and political reforms. Most commoners, especially farmers, remained loyal to the Tsar. Even though they were poor, there was peace and the feudal landlords offered them protection. The revolutionaries on the other hand, promised nothing but the destruction of everything. To the general public, the only goal of the revolutionaries was to kill, pillage and destroy. And it those days, they were probably right.

The initial purpose of the circle, predominantly consisting of medical students, was to share books that were prohibited under Tsarist rule. This form of dissident activity was called “Samizdat”. Two of the most widely distributed books by these illegal publishing companies and book clubs were “Das Kapital” by Karl Marx “On Liberty” by John Stuart Mill. Later, it evolved from being a secret book club to a well-oiled propaganda organization aimed at uniting the students and workers of Saint Petersburg and the provincial peasants with the purpose of conceiving a structural social revolution. Tchaikovsky set high moral standards for the members of the Circle in the face of Nechayev’s unscrupoulesness and his “blind violence”. These moral codes and Tchaikovsky’s vision of a free society was formulated in “Program for the circles of self-education and practical activity”, a work I can highly recommend to all of you. After the first two years of full operational activity, the circle had about 60 members, many of whom would become important protagonists in the Russian Revolutionary War and key figures in the opposition against Lenin. In 1872, Tchaikovsky began organizing circles for workers with the purpose of training propagandists who could relate better to the working class and peasantry than the middle and upper class students. These activities were very successful in Saint Petersburg and Odessa, where the circles were able to train about 400 workers. It shouldn’t be a surprise to us that Saint Petersburg (and Kronstadt!) and Odessa would remain two very rebellious cities against the Bolshevik government, both during and after the Russian Revolutionary War.

The first political action of the Narodniks (from the Russian word “Narod”, meaning “people”) date back from the early 1860’s. Predominantly middle-class better educated Russians were unsatisfied with the Tsarist Decree that emancipated the serfs in 1861. Arguing that freed serfs were being sold into wage slavery, in which the landowners were replaced by industrial bourgeoisie, the Narodniks wanted to become a political vessel to put pressure on the Tsarist government and demand reform through social and political action. A key element in Narodnik rhetoric was strong opposition against the uprooting of the peasants from the traditional “obshcina” or “mir”, communal farms owned by the peasants who lived and worked on the land, as opposed to the individual farmsteads of “khutors”. Indeed, the Narodniks believed neither in feudalism or Jacobinist central planning but promoted the idea of self-managing farms, owned and operated by the same people, namely a small community of farmers (what we call “manorialism” in the West). The Narodniks focused on the growing conflict between the poor peasantry and the “kulaks” (more prosperous farms), fearing the newly freed serfs would trade in their serfdom under a nobleman for a new serfdom under a rich farmer (what I would consider to be capitalism). The Narodnik plan was to distribute land fairly under the peasantry. They generally believed that it was possible to skip capitalism and enter straight into libertarian socialism, contradicting Marx’ historic materialism. Although I must add that a great deal of Narodniks – the so-called “Critical” Narodniks – were more flexible and understanding towards capitalism and were more open to its opportunities and benefits. Yes, the Narodniks believed the peasantry to be the revolutionary class, as opposed to the Bolsheviks, who believed the industrial proletariat to be the spearhead of the revolution. However, the Narodniks agreed with the Bolsheviks that the peasantry could not achieve revolution on their own, insisting indeed that history could only be made by “outstanding personalities” who would lead by example. This was the basis of an important schism between the Narodniks and the Circle of Tchaikovsky. In 1874 the Narodnik intelligentsia left the cities for the villages, attempting to reach the peasantry and convince them to revolt against the Tsar and the kulaks. They found almost no support and the movement collapsed. Given the Narodniks social background as middle and upper middle class citizens, they could hardly relate to the Russian peasants and their folkloristic, sometimes even pagan culture and mindset, even though the Narodniks had studied the peasant culture into great detail, including their dialects and even their eating habits. The Russian peasantry, at that time an absurd anachronism in the industrial age, was probably very suspicious of those weird-looking modern people from the big evil city. A second attempt in 1877 also failed miserably and lead to the imprisonment and death of most of the Narodnik protagonists. After the debacles of the failed peasant uprisings of 1874 and 1877, the less radical wing of the Narodnik movement denounced revolution and violence and started up a democratic party called “Narodnaya Volya” (“The People’s Will”), although there are serious indications the party funded terrorist cells across the country. The peasants had this image of the Tsar of being a sacral, supernatural, messiah-like being, which resulted in ardent support of the peasantry for the regime, while the Narodnik terrorist cells wanted to kill the Tsar, so they could show the peasants that he was just an ordinary moral man. On march 1st, 1881, terrorists were finally able to assassinate Tsar Alexander II. As expected, the peasantry was horrified by the murder and turned their backs on the Narodniks. Party leaders were arrested and hanged for treason. This marked the definite end of the Narodnik movement.

Because of the Circle’s support for the terrorism of the Narodniks, Tchaikovsky – a pacifist himself – broke away from the movement that was named after him and emigrated to Kansas in the United States, where he established a commune. Unfortunately the commune failed and Tchaikovsky started to travel around the world, in search of a project to work in. In 1905, after the First Russian Revolution, when there was no chance anymore of revenge by Narodniks (he feared his assassination for treason by his old comrades), he returned to Russia. When the Bolsheviks took power in 1917 and the Russian Revolutionary War broke out, Tchaikovsky joined side with the White Army and opposed the Bolsheviks. He became head of the White government in Arkhangelsk during the War. When the White Army surrendered in 1923, Tchaikovsky fled the country. He died in England 3 years later.

For us peaceful anarchists, Tchaikovsky is an inspiration. I would like to pinpoint three “strategic” opinions I share with him. First, his ardent belief in peaceful revolution and community organizing as opposed to violent revolution. Second, his argument for class reconciliation as opposed to class warfare. And third, his choice to side with the White Army instead of the Red Army.

Tchaikovsky’s belief in peaceful revolution and community organizing is an idea picked up by a lot of the Western anarchist syndical movements (“Don’t Mourn, Organize!”, Joe Hill). Indeed, just like the peasants have shown in the 1870’s, violence can easily cost you the support of the very people you want to inspire. Violence can’t be a solution to anything. In fact, I am convinced that violent anarchism is a contradiction in terms. It is impossible to promote freedom through force.

Second, Tchaikovsky didn’t believe one class should “rule” over the means of production. He believed in a classless society – just like the Bolsheviks – but didn’t believe in the dictatorship of the proletariat as a means to get there. He believed that class reconciliation, between the landowners and the farmers, between the factory owners and the workers, between clergy and the people, was the only way to achieve a free society based on kinsmanship and solidarity. This is also an idea I have always defended.

Third, his choice to side with the White Army. I totally agree with Tchaikovsky’s choice and it is sad to see a lot of modern anarchists – probably influenced by the FAI and CNT – would rather side with the reds. I am convinced that if the Black and the White Armies would have joined sides against their common enemy, the Bolsheviks, they could have made a deal: Ukraine and Belarus would be granted to the Black Army and its supporters, Western Russia could be given to the White Army and Siberia would be divided under the White and the Green Army. It is sad to see this didn’t happen. How many millions of lives could we have speared in the darkest days of the 20th century?? Siding with the White Army was the best sign of his belief in class reconciliation. His alliance with the patriots and Tsarists prove his pragmatism. Like the Critical Narodnik he was, Tchaikovsky figured that a compromise could be reached between capitalism – as promoted by the Tsar and his court – and anarchism – as promoted by Tchaikovsky. Unfortunately, the black army of Maria Nikiforova and Nestor Makhno, didn’t trust such a strategic alliance, and feared the Tsar would betray his word. Although one could argue that the Tsar himself wasn’t too excited about a plan to ally himself with the same people that assassinated his father. Nikolai Tchaikovsky and the Russian Revolution is a story of missed opportunity. One with the most horrible consequences imaginable.

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