At 17, Vera Zasulich defied her relatives’ plans to turn her into a governess—the only decent profession for an impoverished young noblewoman—and moved to St. Petersburg. She hoped to emulate another Vera, Vera Pavlova, the heroine of Chernyshevsky’s novel What Is To Be Done? Following her idol, Vera helped establish a sewing cooperative and came into with Russia’s most infamous and influential revolutionary, Sergei Nechaev. Her relationship with him had a profound effect on her life.
Nechaev was a charismatic psychopath. The model for Dostoevsky’s character Peter Verkhovensky in The Possessed, he believed anything—lies, violence, murder—could be justified in the name of the ‘cause.’ Picked up for questioning by the police in January 1869, he decided to leave Russia. He wanted Vera to join him. He loved her, he said. He needed her. Vera hesitated—and then refused.
Nechaev left but every letter sent back to Russia, every letter to friends and supporters, asked for news of Vera. Nechaev knew the police would read these letters yet he made no effort to protect her identity. Stupidity? Hardly. Revenge? Possibly. Nechaev was not used to hearing ‘no.’ Vera was picked up for questioning and in April 1869, arrested.
She was imprisoned in the Lithuanian Castle, one of Russia’s worst prisons. Death and disease ran rampant. Rotted floorboards gave way beneath her feet and prisoners were afraid to touch the walls lest the slime that grew there come off on their hands and clothes. Covered in damp and mildew, the prison stank so badly visitors, literally, could not stomach it.
Vera wasn’t interrogated nor was she charged. She was simply left alone. Kept in a cell, by herself, for over a year, she had no human contact and no reading materials. Her mother complained to authorities that she’d been allowed only one short visit with her daughter. The 19-year-old Vera struggled to stay sane.
Conditions improved when she was transferred to the Peter and Paul Fortress. Here, at least, her cell had windows, the food was edible and she was allowed to read any book she could get her hands on. And then, in March 1871, she was released. The government decided the evidence against her was too weak to get a conviction.
She was arrested again ten days later. Again, no charges were pressed. With only one ruble in her pocket and the light dress and shawl she was arrested in, Vera was exiled to Novgorod. A sympathetic guard, afraid she would freeze, literally gave her the coat off his back. For months, she survived on the charity of villagers and their local church. She was returned to St. Petersburg in June. The government wanted her to testimony.
Nechaev had killed one of his followers. He had escaped abroad but over a hundred of his supporters had been rounded up and put on trial. Why the government wanted Vera’s testimony can only be guessed at. She was incarcerated when the murder occurred. In any case, she was less than cooperative. “I don’t know” or “I don’t recall” were her most usual replies. Others were more outspoken, blaming everything on Nechaev. Among those convicted was Peter Uspensky, Vera’s brother in law. Sentenced to 15 years hard labor, he was murdered in his cell, suspected of being a police informant.
Nechaev was finally arrested and extradited to Russia in 1872. Tried and convicted, his hold on the Russian revolutionary movement collapsed. By then, Vera had no illusions about him. But, for her, the damage was done. Her sole goal was the overthrow the autocracy. The 1870’s were marked by years of exile and increasingly radical activity.
It all came to a head in January 1878. In the mid-1870’s, Russia had witnessed a remarkable movement, ‘going to the people.’ Young men and women left their homes and universities to work among the peasants or take jobs in factories, hoping to foment change. Arrested by the hundreds, many, like Vera, were held for months, then years, without trial.
One of those prisoners was Arkhip Bogoliubov. He was not a remarkable man. He didn’t head any movement nor were his ‘crimes’ any worse than anyone else’s. His only mistake was to be standing in the prison courtyard , talking to friends, when General Feodor Trepov, Governor of St. Petersburg, made an unannounced visit. Already outraged by what he saw as the breakdown of discipline in the prison, Trepov snapped when Bogoliubov refused to remove his cap. Trepov struck the young man and ordered him flogged.
It was a stupid, petty show of tyranny and that was exactly how the press portrayed it. Vera waited to see what would happen. Surely the government wouldn’t get away with something so vile. Trepov had to be punished. He wasn’t. Taking matters into her own hands, Vera returned to St. Petersburg. On the morning of January 24, 1878, she hid a revolver under her shawl and joined the other petitioners lined up to see the Governor. When Trepov approached her, Vera fired twice.
That she didn’t kill him was a miracle. Arrested and put on trial, Vera expected to hang. But neither she nor the prosecutor recognized the mood in the country had changed. Educated society was disgusted with Trepov. Far from condemning the quiet, unassuming Vera, they admired her. She had done what men had feared to do. She’d said ‘enough.’ Then her attorney, Peter Alexandrov, turned the court on its head. He defended Vera—and attacked the government.
The jury deliberated only 30 minutes before Vera was acquitted on all charges. People came to their feet and cheered. Amid rumors the government planned to re-arrest her, Vera was spirited away. Friends convinced her to leave Russia.
A reluctant heroine, Vera continued her revolutionary activities abroad but came to disavow terrorsim. She opposed the October Revolution of 1917 and attacked Lening openly, seeing too much of Nechaev in the man. She predicted what Lenin's brand of Communism would do to Russia. She died in 1919.
(For further reading, Ana Siljak’s Angel of Vengeance: The Girl Assassin, the Governor of St. Petersburg and Russia’s Revolutionary World offers great insights into the event and turbulent period of pre-revolutionary Russia. )