Word and Deed: On Lynn Ellen Patyk’s “Written in Blood: Revolutionary Terrorism and Russian Literary Culture, 1861–1881”

IN 1890, a new English-language newspaper titled Free Russia emerged in London and, briefly, in New York City. It championed the struggle against the tsarist government, and many of its issues included a list of books that would instruct the reader on the political, social, and economic situation facing Russians at the turn of the century. Free Russia‘s editors recommended almost exclusively fiction: the works of Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Ivan Turgenev, and Nikolay Chernyshevsky, among others. What could explain the new interest in all things Russian? In part, it was a spate of spectacular assassinations, most notably the murder of Tsar Alexander II by the terrorist group the People’s Will (Narodnaya Volya) on March 13, 1881. That contemporary observers both inside and outside Russia turned to the nation’s literature to understand the emergence of the first modern terrorist group is not surprising. But what Lynn Ellen Patyk sets out to demonstrate in her imaginative, beautifully written new book Written in Blood is less intuitive. According to her, Russian fiction not only described terrorism but presaged it, molded it, perhaps even inspired it. “Without Russia’s far from negligible ‘literary talents,’” she writes, “it is by no means certain that there would be any historical terrorism at all.”

Patyk is quick to calm the skeptic. She does not believe that literature caused terrorism, but rather that there existed “a subtle and intricate feedback loop between art and life,” one that scholars have missed, she argues, because histories of radicalism are too narrowly focused on radical texts. Setting out to write a “literary history of terrorism,” Patyk argues that the notion of modern terrorism was fostered by the larger literary culture of Russia in the mid-19th century, which was straining against autocracy and working to imagine new behaviors, indeed new people, for a Russia unmoored by social, political, and economic upheavals. It is this larger culture that explains why the People’s Will’s contemporaries — the Ku Klux Klan in the American South and the Fenians of Ireland — are not considered the “first” modern terrorist groups. Russians of every political stripe wrote endlessly, and realistically, about their domestic terrorists; they simply told better stories. Russian radicals updated the historical model of tyrannicide to create a model of terrorism that combined an emphasis on the individual (serving the will of the people) and the use of the modern technology of dynamite. While the People’s Will imitated earlier models of justified violence, theirs was a completely Russian innovation (known as the “Russian Method” worldwide) “arising from a Russian cultural ground that had absorbed and adapted those influences.” And it was Russia’s cultural workers that fixed this “Method” in writing and spread it across the globe.

Written in Blood, then, is a multidisciplinary study of how Russians — rulers, writers, and radicals — tried to suppress, articulate, and actualize terrorism. Understanding terrorism not as an ideology but a method, Patyk is particularly interested in how literature captured the “formless” and “fantastic” nature of this new mode of activism. A terrorist, by their very nature, is both martyr and murderer, hovering on the “boundary of the real and the imagined.” Terrorism derives its power from our emotional response to it, from the way we imagine and fear it. Literature, then, is an appealing site of investigation, for it is in words that the “formless,” contradictory phenomenon of terrorism was first given form, appearing as a “social fact” before it became a “brute fact.” Indeed, she suggests that, due to its literary origins, terrorism was always perched on the blurry line between imagination (word) and reality (deed).

Patyk dedicates the majority of her analysis to what she has termed the “terrorism trilogy” of Dostoyevsky: Crime and Punishment (1866), Demons (1871–1872), and The Brothers Karamazov (1879–1880). Although Dostoyevsky was no friend of the Nihilists — as the Russian radicals of the 1860s were called — Patyk argues that the writer ultimately embraced goals similar to theirs: to create a “new man,” to affirm the “human dignity of the individual,” and to unite and regenerate Russia. In Dostoyevsky she finds a compelling example of how art and life created a “feedback loop.” Obsessed with exposing the moral emptiness of Nihilists, Dostoyevsky actually “discovered the symbolic center of what would become ‘the Russian Method.’” She cites Le Roman russe (The Russian Novelists), the first Western-language volume on Russian literature from 1886, whose author, Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé, wrote of Dostoyevsky: “he did not foresee that the intensity of his portrayals [of terrorists or revolutionaries] might act in an opposite sense, and tempt the demon of imitation existing in a certain type of brain.”

Meticulously and convincingly, Patyk explores the reciprocal relationship between Dostoyevsky’s works and the emerging revolutionary movement, integrating succinct histories of terrorism into her analysis of Dostoyevsky’s A Writer’s Diary (1873–1881). Each entry in his terrorism trilogy finds an analogue in a real-life revolutionary act — Crime and Punishment in Dmitry Karakozov’s attempt on the tsar’s life, Demons in Sergey Nechayev’s grisly murder of a fellow revolutionary, and The Brothers Karamazov in the trial of Vera Zasulich. Each novel was serialized as these events unfolded, meaning that Dostoyevsky was often influenced by, and perhaps influenced, revolutionary deeds and their ongoing trials. As Patyk’s analysis shows, the author’s fixation on the question of whether one could justify murder led him to mirror, strangely, the Nihilists he reviled.

In Crime and Punishment, Patyk notes that Dostoyevsky struggled to explain the motive for Raskolnikov’s gruesome double murder, a question directly influenced by Karakozov’s act, and in the process articulated an explanation of “he who would claim the right to kill.” The ending of the novel, often lamented as its weakest section, is vitally important to Patyk. In realizing the “error of his crime,” Raskolnikov imagines the crime he “should have committed,” and in the process, he “progresses from ordinary murder, to outmoded tyrannicide, to ‘something a hundred million times more hideous’ — modern terrorism.” Crucially, Raskolnikov does not employ, only imagines, terrorism. At this early stage, Patyk argues, Dostoyevsky “cram[med] all of terrorism’s contradictions into Raskolnikov,” but he went on to explore terrorism more deftly in his next two novels.

In 1869, Nechayev, along with two accomplices, murdered his revolutionary colleague Ivan Ivanov and, unsuccessfully, tried to portray the murder as political. In Demons, Dostoyevsky wanted to “clarify” the possibilities of such a deed in society, something that Patyk notes is only possible in literature. She argues that, “through the written word,” he transformed the murder of Ivanov (represented by Shatov in the novel) “into something that it was not, an act of revolutionary terrorism.” Hence, “it is in literature […] that revolutionary terrorism becomes fully visible, despite the fact that it had not yet been historically actualized.” The novel’s message is clearly anti-Nihilist, but Patyk nevertheless argues that Dostoyevsky foresaw the “first step” of the “Russian Method,” which she identifies as the “symbolic replacement of the sovereign (sacrificial king) by the terrorist.” The terrorist, like the king, willfully becomes society’s scapegoat, absorbing all discord and hatred and allowing the rest of the populace to live in peace.

Patyk ends her analysis of Dostoyevsky with The Brothers Karamazov and the trial of Vera Zasulich. In 1878, in what scholars typically consider the beginning of terrorism in Russia, Zasulich attempted to assassinate the governor general of St. Petersburg for his ill-treatment of a political prisoner. She defended her act as a moral answer to despotism and a jury found her innocent despite the testimony of several eyewitnesses and her own confession. Dostoyevsky observed the trial, and Patyk argues that no scholar has examined the proceedings “in order to glean what Dostoevsky experienced that fateful day” nor how it “profoundly shaped his last masterpiece and his own ‘new word.’” Again, despite Dostoyevsky’s attempt to reveal the hypocrisy of Nihilists and their supporters, Patyk notes that he “discovered the moral, religious, and emotional justification for terror(ism).” She writes that the protagonists of Dostoyevsky’s proposed sequel, “with Kolya Krasotkin at their head, were clearly destined to become revolutionary terrorists,” citing Alyosha Karamazov’s speech, in which he warns the boys that they may become “wicked,” but only if they laughed at people who wanted to suffer for all (which Patyk reads as a description of the self-abnegating terrorist). Dostoyevsky clearly drew on the same “cultural repertoire” as those he wished to undermine. Even as he sought to expose the “pride and vanity” beneath the radicals’ desire to be a Christ-like martyr, Dostoyevsky too believed in the “instantaneously transformative” word/deed (the emblematic act) that enacted the individual’s self-sacrifice for communal guilt.

The book closes with an examination of how terrorists turned to the word to celebrate their deeds. Like Raskolnikov, Russian terrorists faced “the disjunction between the horror of the act and the heroic image to which [they] aspired” after the murder of an official or the tsar. Patyk highlights Sergei Stepniak-Kravchinsky, whose Underground Russia (1882) defined the terrorist as a new type (echoing the Nihilist and Dostoyevskian “new man”). Patyk perceptively identifies Stepniak’s use of the celebrity profile in his book as a method that echoed terrorism itself: just as the terrorist was a challenge to the king’s immortality, so too did celebrities — a relatively new phenomenon in the 19th century — usurp the type of charismatic power and influence previously controlled by the king. In her final chapter, Patyk offers a pithy encapsulation of her argument in her examination of Vsevolod Garshin’s story “Nadezhda Nikolaevna” (1885), in which an artist tries to “render terror’s most obscure aspect: its face.” The plot follows the artist Lopatin as he searches for a woman to model the face of Charlotte Corday, the assassin of Jean-Paul Marat, in order to portray her as a “fanatic for good.” Following Alexander II’s assassination, all images of People’s Will members were erased, and Patyk sees this novella as an attempt to grapple with the event. Patyk argues that Russian writers had the power to “inspire the deed” precisely because words “have the capability to render more complex and therefore fundamentally more ambiguous realties, with all their attendant ironies.”

Although Written in Blood may require a familiarity with Dostoyevsky’s works, what Patyk offers has implications far beyond Russian literature and culture. Hers is an innovative study of one of the most pressing issues of our age: what is terrorism, and what makes a terrorist? Her research underscores how the “age of terrorism” coincided with the “age of literature,” an explosion of media, the rise of a new celebrity culture, and the brutal, democratizing technology of the dynamite bomb. These developments fueled modern terrorism, enabling it first to be imagined, then realized. The “Russian Method” soon inspired other terrorist groups around the world, testifying to the power not only of daring action, but also of daring words.

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Chelsea Gibson is a PhD candidate at Binghamton University. Her dissertation examines the interplay between female Russian revolutionaries and American reform efforts in the decades before 1917.

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