Ana Siljak

 

On her book Angel of Vengeance: The Girl Who Shot the Governor of St. Petersburg and Sparked the Age of Assassination

Cover Interview of March 01, 2010

The wide angle

From the instant I read about the trial of Vera Zasulich, I knew that I wanted to write a book about her.  The bare facts of her case were so compelling and out of the ordinary—it was a story that begged to be told.  As a professionally-trained historian, I was always taught to place analysis first.  But in my historical endeavors I have always found myself drawn to biographical anecdotes, unexpected historical details, and all of those forgotten stories that often conceal within them a much larger narrative about the spirit and temper of a historical period.

So it was with Vera.  At first, I was only planning to write about her assassination attempt and trial.  As I delved into her biography—her personal papers, the memoirs of her comrades and friends, the books she read—I began to envision a much wider canvas and conceived of the book as a portrait of an era.  Through Vera, I could write about how it was possible for nineteenth-century Russian children of privilege to rebel against their own class and take up the cause of the peasants; I could explain how a Tsar’s partial reformism turned out to be his undoing; I could show how a dissatisfied Russian society could applaud revolution as protest, especially when revolution came in the form of a modest female assassin.

It may surprise my readers to learn that I originally had no intention to write a book about a terrorist.  At first, Vera’s story seemed quite separate from the history of Russian terrorism.  My research, however, showed me otherwise.  Vera was often referred to as the “first female terrorist,” and I soon believed it was my task to elucidate all of the implications of this label.  In the process, I learned much about the intellectual, cultural, and psychological impulses that can lead a person to terrorism.

The most striking of the insights I gained is that the roots of Russian radical socialism lie in a deep Christian soil.  Today, we often speak of the great difference between anarchist or progressive terrorism and the terrorism inspired by traditional religions such as Islam.  I discovered that this distinction explains little in the Russian case.  Socialism can be a faith like any other—with saints, martyrs, and even a vision of the kingdom of heaven on earth.

Vera and many of her comrades were fervent believers as children (whether Jews or Christians) and later wrote about their early faith with nostalgia.  Vera’s childhood dream of martyrdom was born of reading the Bible, and lived on even after she had become an atheist.  Vera was firmly convinced that to die for one’s faith was the highest aim toward which a person could aspire.  She and others like her sought a socialist movement that would provide them with a dream of a radiant future, for which they would gladly kill, and gladly die.