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"Going-to-the-People"

 

In the late 1860s - early 1870s a whole number of groups among the youth and students sprang up which were under the ideological influence of revolutionary Narodnichestvo. None of them were strict adherents to Lavrov’s, Bakunin’s, or Tkachev’s methods of struggle. The revolutionary underground drew on their theoretical recommendations selectively, adopting mixed tactics, depending  on the situation. In 1874 these young people initiated a massive ‘going-to-the-people’ movement under Bakunin’s slogans of insurrection and Lavrov’s calls for revolutionary propaganda. Thousands of young intellectuals, both men and women, left their homes, universities and employment and joined in a crusade to spread the socialist gospel throughout the Russian countryside.  They were motivated by genuine sympathy for the sufferings of the peasantry and youthful enthusiasm to serve a noble cause.   

Arrest of an Agitator. By I. Repin

The whole affair proved a miserable fiasco. Many became disillusioned with the sullen and conservative nature of the peasants; others were arrested by the local police; and some were actually detained by the suspicious peasants and handed over to the authorities for ‘speaking against God and the tsar’. Hundreds were imprisoned and later put on public trial in St Petersburg and Moscow. The failure of the intelligentsia to establish contact with the people was a clear and tragic illustration of the continuing gulf that separated Russia’s educated classes from the narod.

The failure of the ‘movement to the people’ actually to move the people forced the revolutionaries to reappraise the situation and search for new ideas and different methods. It  had revealed the utopianism of Bakunin’s assertions about the peasantry’s ‘readiness’ for insurrection, as well as the organizational weakness of a movement decentralized in a network of uncoordinated groups. Certain theoretical positions had to be revised, including the belief in the peasants’ innate socialist qualities. Agitation for socialism was replaced by more simple and popular slogans of ‘land’ and ‘liberty’. To many radicals the way of propaganda had been completely discredited. The path of conspiracy and terror against the autocratic regime now seemed to be the only possible way forward.

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