People's Will

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

People’s Will


(Narodnaia volia), a revolutionary Narodnik (Populist) organization in Russia at the beginning of the 1880’s. It was formed in August 1879 upon the split of the Land and Liberty (Zemlia i volia) organization into the People’s Will and Black Partition (Chernyi peredel) groups. The founders of the People’s Will were professional revolutionaries, partisans of political struggle against the autocracy.

The members of the People’s Will created a centralized, highly secret organization—the most important organization of the liberation movement in Russia during the period of the raznochintsy (intellectuals of no definite class). The People’s Will was headed by an executive committee, whose members included A. D. Mikhailov, A. A. Kviatkovskii, A. I. Zheliabov, S. L. Perovskaia, V. N. Figner, N. A. Morozov, M. F. Frolenko, L. A. Tikhomirov, A. I. Barannikov, A. V. Iakimova, and M. N. Oshanina. A network of local groups and specialized groups (worker, student, or military groups) was subordinate to the committee. Between 1879 and 1883 there were groups of the People’s Will in nearly 50 cities, with an especially large number in the Ukraine and the Volga Region. Although the number of actual members never exceeded 500, several thousand people participated in the general movement.

The program of the People’s Will demanded the convocation of a constituent assembly, universal suffrage, a permanent system of popular representation, and freedom of speech, conscience, press, and assembly. The program also called for communal self-rule, replacement of the standing army with a popular militia, transfer of the land to the people, and the right to self-determination for the oppressed nationalities. Like previous Narodnik programs, it mixed both democratic and socialist goals; but the program’s detailed formulation of its specifically democratic tasks distinguished it, to its advantage, from earlier programs.

In recognizing the necessity of political struggle against autocracy, members of the People’s Will advanced a step further than the Narodniks of the 1870’s. They remained Utopian socialists, however, and held to the basic tenets of Narodnik ideology, above all to the belief in the possibility of Russia’s bypassing capitalism and arriving at socialism through a peasant revolution. The majority of them believed in the possibility of spontaneously combining the political and socialist revolutions by relying on the socialist instincts of the peasantry. Others divorced the political and social revolutions, assuming that after the overthrow of the autocracy and the establishment of democratic freedoms, the revolutionaries would be able to make preparations for the socialist revolution. The liberal wing, which did not have much influence, intended to content itself with the granting of a constitution by the tsarist government.

The People’s Will conducted revolutionary agitation and propaganda at all levels of the population. The newspapers Narodnaia volia and Rabochaia gazeta (Worker’s Newspaper) strove to popularize the idea of political struggle against the autocracy. In developing the struggle for seizure of power, the revolutionaries used the motto “Now or never!” The People’s Will gave the chief role in preparing and carrying out the rebellion to the revolutionary minority, that is, to its own organization; the masses were to play an auxiliary role. This approach reveals the Blanquist character of the program of the People’s Will, which viewed political struggle as conspiracy.

With the development and intensification of the political struggle, terror acquired ever-increasing importance; the People’s Will made seven attempts on the life of Alexander II. Their terrorism frightened the government and forced it to make some concessions; but once the autocracy ascertained that the revolutionaries were not supported by the masses, it went on the offensive. In the terrorist struggle, the members of the People’s Will squandered their best forces, and the organization was bled dry. From 1879 to 1883 there were more than 70 political trials of adherents of the People’s Will; involving about 2,000 people.

After the murder of Alexander II on Mar. 1, 1881, the People’s Will experienced an ideological and organizational crisis. The most significant attempts to revitalize the organization were made by G. A. Lopatin (1884), P. F. Iakubovich (1883–84), B. D. Orzhikh, V. G. Bogoraz, L. Ia. Shternberg (1885), and S. M. Ginsburg (1889). A special place in the movement is reserved for the Terrorist Faction of the People’s Will, led by A. I. Ul’ianov (1886–87); this group strove to introduce various Marxist positions into the organization’s program. Narodnik organizations of the 1890’s, such as the group of People’s Will followers in St. Petersburg and the group of former adherents of the People’s Will in emigration, essentially repudiated many of the revolutionary principles of the People’s Will.

The activity of the People’s Will became one of the most important elements of the revolutionary situation of 1879–80. The eventual failure of the People’s Will was inevitable, however, owing to the untenability of the program’s premises, the erroneous tactic of secret political conspiracy, and the predominance of terrorist means of struggle over other means.


Arkhiv “Zemli i voli” i “Narodnoi voli.” Moscow, 1932.
Literatura partii “Narodnaia volia.” Moscow, 1930.
“Narodnaia volia” v dok-takh i vospominaniiakh. [Moscow, 1930.]
Narodovol’tsy: Sbornik statei i materialov . . . , vols. 1–3. Moscow, 1928–31.
“Narodnaia volia”pered tsarskim sudom, issues 1–2. Moscow, 1930.
Revoliutsionnoe narodnichestvo 70-kh gg. XIX v: Sb. dok-tov i mat-lov, vol. 2. Moscow, 1965.


Lenin, V. I. Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed. (See index, part 1, p. 395.)
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Plekhanov, G. V. “Nashi raznoglasiia.” Soch., vol. 2. Moscow-Petrograd [no date].
Plekhanov, G. V. “Neudachnaia istoriia partii ’Narodnoi voli’,” vol. 24. Moscow-Leningrad, 1924.
Bogucharskii, V. Ia. Iz istorii politicheskoi bor’by v 70–80-kh gg. 19 v. Moscow, 1912.
Volk, S. S. “Narodnaia volia”: 1879–1882. Moscow-Leningrad, 1966.
Sedov, M. G. Geroicheskii period revoliutsionnogo narodnichestva. Moscow, 1966.
Tvardovskaia, V. A. Sotsialisticheskaia mysl’ Rossii na rubezhe 1870–1880-khgg. Moscow, 1969.
Troitskii, N. A. “Narodnaia volia” pered tsarskim sudom. [Saratov] 1971.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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