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

A close-up

In the mid 1870s, thousands of wealthy young people, many no more than eighteen years of age, left their luxurious homes, good schools, and comfortable clothing to live like ordinary workers and peasants in the slums and villages of Russia.  Many sewed their own coarse linen apparel, others purposefully sunburned their faces to darken their complexions, and still others learned ordinary trades such as shoemaking, all in order to work and live side by side with the poorest of their countrymen. 

Their purpose was twofold: to repent for the sins of the Russian noble and merchant classes, and to preach socialism to those who were meant to be saved.  It was an extraordinary time—after a long day’s work on a grimy factory floor or in a baking hot farm field, Russian radicals would bring out their socialist pamphlets or even the Bible and speak to peasants and workers of the coming revolution against the exploiters, and the joy that was to follow.  Sadly, most peasants and workers found socialism incomprehensible at best and pernicious at worst, and the movement crumbled within a few short years.

Every historian of Russia knows about the “to the people” movement, but I wanted to bring it to life for the general reader.  I wished to capture all of the intoxicating hope of the initial days of the movement, and also its subsequent collapse into disillusionment and despondency.  To me, the movement is a snapshot of the tragedy of Russian socialism—a tragedy of good intentions gone astray.

On the one hand, I want the reader to appreciate the noble self-sacrifice of those Russians who sought desperately to alleviate the suffering of the poorest among them.  On the other hand, I wish to make it clear that it was fatal folly for socialists to ignore the voices of those they wished to save.  Socialism proposed a clear, elegant, and rational solution for the inequality and oppression of imperial Russia.  But few stopped to ask the oppressed what they thought.