Nechaev, Sergei Gennadievich

Nechaev, Sergei Gennadievich


Born Sept. 20 (Oct. 2), 1847, in the village of Ivanovo, now the city of Ivanovo; died Nov. 21 (Dec. 3), 1882, in St. Petersburg. Figure in the Russian revolutionary movement.

The son of a house painter, Nechaev studied at a school for adults. He moved to Moscow in 1865, where he studied on his own and became a close associate of the writer F. D. Nefedov. In 1866 he moved to St. Petersburg, where he passed the qualifying examination for teachers and taught at the Sergii parish school. He audited courses at the University of St. Petersburg and in 1868–69 participated in the student disturbances with P. N. Tkachev and others, heading the radical minority. A Program of Revolutionary Action, which Nechaev helped write, proclaimed the social revolution planned for the spring of 1870 to be the ultimate goal of the student movement and set forth a plan for the creation and operation of a secret revolutionary organization. Among the measures called for in this plan was the drafting of what emerged as the Revolutionary Catechism, written by Nechaev in the summer of 1869. From the outset, Nechaev was guided in his revolutionary activity by the Jesuit slogan “the end justifies the means,” which lay at the basis of his Catechism.

In January 1869, having spread a false rumor about his own arrest, Nechaev left for Moscow and in March went into hiding abroad. In Geneva he posed as the representative of a revolutionary committee who had supposedly escaped from the Peter and Paul Fortress and gained the trust of M. A. Bakunin and N. P. Ogarev. Together they carried out a propaganda campaign with resources provided by Ogarev, over A. I. Herzen’s objections, from the Bakhmetev Fund, which had been established to subsidize revolutionary activity. On his return to Moscow in September 1869, Nechaev posed as an agent of the Russian section of the World Revolutionary Union, which did not in fact exist, and proceeded to create a section of a secret society called Narodnaia Rasprava (The People’s Summary Justice), which ostensibly existed everywhere. Meeting with distrust and opposition from a member of the organization, a student named I. I. Ivanov, Nechaev accused him of treachery and on Nov. 21, 1869, murdered him with the aid of four other members of the group.

At the end of November, Nechaev left for St. Petersburg, where he continued his attempt to create a secret society. On Dec. 15, 1869, having learned of the arrest of others connected with the Ivanov case, he fled to Switzerland. There he received the other half of the Bakhmetev Fund and published a number of leaflets aimed at various strata of Russian society. With Ogarev, he published six issues of Kolokol (The Bell) during April and May 1870. In a programmatic article, “The Basic Principles of the Future Society” (Narodnaia rasprava, 1870, no. 2), he outlined his concept of a communist system. Marx and Engels called the system concocted by Nechaev “a sample of barracks communism” (Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 18, p. 414). Nechaev’s abuse of the name of the First International forced the General Council in 1871 officially to dissociate itself from him. His theoretical unscrupulousness and fraudulent, provocateur methods, which were revealed with the help of G. A. Lopatin, provoked Ogarev and Bakunin to sever all ties with him in the summer of 1870.

In September 1870, Nechaev published one issue of Obshchina (The Commune) in London. Pursued by agents of the tsarist government, he went into hiding in Paris and Zurich, maintaining contacts with K. M. Tursky and the Polish Blanquists. On Aug. 14, 1872, he was arrested in Zurich and handed over to the Russian authorities as a common criminal; on Jan. 8, 1873, in Moscow, he was sentenced to twenty years’ hard labor for the murder of Ivanov. He was held in the Aleksei Ravelin of the Peter and Paul Fortress. There he spread propaganda among the guards and by the late 1870’s had brought them under his influence. In December 1880 he established ties with the executive committee of Narodnaia Volia (People’s Will); he proposed a plan for his own escape but rejected it himself out of desire not to divert the organization from its attempt to assassinate Alexander II. Nechaev died in the Aleksei Ravelin.

A man of great personal courage, fanatically devoted to the revolutionary cause, Nechaev nonetheless used methods unworthy of a revolutionary and brought great harm to the Russian revolutionary movement. Such methods, known collectively as nechaevshchina, were decisively condemned and rejected by Russian revolutionaries.


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