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The Degaev Affair: Terror and Treason in Tsarist Russia Paperback – May 10, 2005
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The organization People's Will, which was responsible for the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881, is pertinent not only to the genealogy of Russian radicalism but also, as one of its earliest modern exponents, to the practice of a terrorist. In one member of the People's Will, eminent historian Pipes has found a roiling theater of the inner psychology of terrorism. From a comfortable Muscovite family, Sergei Degaev was, like many students of the time, sympathetic to the People's Will. Although they inducted him into the organization, its leaders regarded Degaev as intelligent but dreamy and weak willed. These traits cross-fertilized bizarrely with those of Pipes' second protagonist, the gendarme who suppressed the People's Will: Georgii Sudeikin. Disgusted with czarism, like Degaev, though for careerist rather than idealistic reasons, Sudeikin apparently turned Degaev. Guilt-wracked, he confessed to the People's Will, who turned their traitor back against Sudeikin, whom Degaev eventually murdered. As well as a true-crime account, Pipes offers shrewd insights about the revolutionary mind. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Some may bemoan the book's brevity given the story's interesting qualities. But, those who look past the length will find rewards that belie the book's briefness. One will find a well-written retelling that highlights one person's role in shaping both the Russian revolutionary movement and the government's response to that movement. Additionally, enough material is presented to allow the reader to draw parallels with current events. Thanks to Pipes' uncomplicated presentation, The Degaev Affair stands as a distinctive look at a unique case.
Russia, in the latter half of the nineteenth century, consisted of a newly educated commercial and industrial class that was rising in wealth and power -- perhaps 10 percent of the population. The other 90 percent were peasants, totally dedicated to the monarchy with an absolute trust the Czar would solve all of their problems.
The self-made newly rich, frustrated by the status quo, wanted revolutionary change that would make everyone rich. Sergei Degaev, the son of a doctor, was frustrated by the lack of social progress in Russia. Pipes explains, "When life offers little so that the results of ideological work are not yet evident, the activist wants to see some concrete, palpable manifestation of his will, his power."
If it sounds familiar, think of the well-educated middle class Palestinian youth who volunteer to be suicide bombers, plus the support they receive from other Palestinians. Pipes cites similar attitudes in Russia in the 1880's. Terror was born as the original "shock and awe" campaign; assassinate the Czar, and Russia would rise up in glorious revolt that would bring democracy, justice and prosperity for all.
Pipes writes, "For some dimly understood reason, in modern societies from time to time, a sizable body of the young is seized by an overpowering destructive urge which, at the same time, exhibits self-destructive symptoms."
Degaev became part of a terrorist network dedicated to changing the entire social structure and attitudes of Russia by means of a few assassinations. Terrorists killed Czar Alexander II in 1881. But when US President James Garfield was assassinated the same year, Degaev's group wrote to Americans, "In a country where individual freedom offers opportunities for honest ideological struggle, where the free will of the nation determines not only the law but also the personality of those who govern -- in such a country, political assassination as a means of struggle is a manifestation of the same despotic spirit, the destruction of which in Russia is our goal . . . . . violence is justified only when it is directed against violence."
Keep in mind the vast social changes the world was seeing in the second half of the nineteenth century through industrialization and global trade; America fought a bloody civil war pitting the new industrialism against the old slave-owning mentality. For many, whether in America with the new industrialization or in Russia with the overthrow of the Czar, the future held unlimited promise and opportunities.
It's hardly new. Eric Hoffer in 'The True Believer' illustrates the rage of those who expect instant utopia and will blindly follow anyone who promises fulfillment. Pipes explains that ". . . since in our imperfect world there are always matters that can be improved, 'causes' can always be found to justify the urge to destroy and murder."
Degaev helped kill the head of the Czar's secret police. Then, he fled to America where, in a society that offered him unlimited opportunity, he became a model citizen. If you can understand Degaev, and Pipes offers an extraordinary study of his character that will fascinate anyone, you will get an insight into the mind of a terrorist.
After Sept. 11, 2001, Americans asked, "Why do they hate us?" Pipes never addresses that issue directly, but by looking into the motives of Degaev, he suggests the underlying target of terrorist hatred is their own limitations and powerlessness. If people feel limited in their opportunities, terrorism is one response.
Pipes doesn't address the issues of Sept. 11, 2001; nor of protecting our society from terrorism. It's not the purpose of his book. Instead, he looks at the "Why" of terrorism and suggests answers that also explain recent events.
It's a superb book for people who like to think for themselves.
This is an interesting and quick read. I find it fascinating that some of the Russian Secret Police actually collaborated with the People's Will. For a similar story of betrayal, see
Comrade Valentine, The True Story of Azef the Spy-The most dangerous Man in Russia at the Time of the Last Czars by Richard E. Rubenstein.