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21 November 2018

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Angel of Vengeance

by Ana Siljak

One could draw up a very long list of the ways Russia has influenced the world – artistically, politically, economically, militarily. Somewhere on that list, likely buried halfway down, hiding in shame, would be “political terrorism.”

Russia did not invent terrorism. That “distinction” traces back at least to the Jacobin Reign of Terror during the French Revolution. But Russian anarchists and revolutionaries, impatient with the pace of reform in Tsarist Russia, employed new, easily portable technology (handguns, bombs secreted on their person) to assassinate political leaders in hopes of inciting revolution or in retribution for “crimes against society.” They initiated the idea that one could carry out murder for a “greater good.”

It was revenge for the brutal beating of a prisoner that seems to have driven Vera Zasulich, a shy, distraught noblewoman, to shoot the governor of St. Petersburg in 1878. Her trial and subsequent acquittal, alongside her transformation into an “avenging angel” on behalf of socialism, helped place terrorism on Russia’s political menu. Three years later, Tsar Alexander II was blown up by one of the world’s first suicide bombers.

Siljak uses the Zasulich case (offering plenty of useful backstory) to paint a vivid portrait of Russia in the second half of the 19th century, when no side in the political debates seemed to understand or tolerate the other, when lines were being drawn for a civil war that would break out three decades on. Rich with first-person accounts and well-placed citations from literature, this is far more than the account of the trial which forms its narrative core. For what Siljak wants to get at is what motivated terrorists like Zasulich – how love for one’s fellow humans can lead one to kill.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: May/June 2008