Vera Figner (25th June, 1852 - 15th June, 1942) was a member of terrorist group Narodnaya Volya, who tried and later succeeded in killing Tsar Alexander II. She was the last one, who remainded in freedom and she tried to find new members of the group, however, she as arrested. In prison she was learning English and writing biography about her activities in Narodnaya Volya. When she got back to freedom, she joined socialist movement. Her book, “Memories of a Revolutionist” is still available here.
Vera Figner, the child of prosperous parents, was born in Kazan, Russia, on 25th June, 1852. The oldest of six children, she was sent away to a private school in 1863. Her uncle had liberal views and encouraged her to be concerned about the poor.
Vera wanted to go to university but this was not allowed in Russia at this time. In 1872, along with her sister, Lydia Figner, she decided to study medicine in Zurich. While in Zurich she met a group of women who held radical political views. This included Sophia Bardina and Olga Liubatovich. The anarchist Peter Kropotkin met Figner and her friends during this period.
The activities of these young women began to concern the Russian authorities. The Russian Government Herald published an article on 21st May, 1872, claiming: “Several Russian girls set off abroad to attend lectures at Zurich University. At first there were only a very few of them, but now there are more than a hundred women there… Largely because of this increase in Russian women students, the ring-leaders of the Russian emigration have chosen this town as a centre for revolutionary propaganda, and have done all in their power to enlist into their ranks these young women students. Under their influence, women have abandoned their studies for fruitless political agitation. Young Russians of both sexes have formed political parties of extreme shades… In the Russian Library they hold lectures of an exclusively revolutionary nature… It has become common practice for the girls to attend workers’ meetings… Young and inexperienced minds are being led astray by political agitators, and set on the wrong course. And to cap it all, meetings and party struggles throw the girls into such confusion that they accept this fruitless and fraudulent propaganda as real life. Once drawn into politics the girls fall under the influence of the leaders of the emigration, and become compliant weapons in their hands. Some of them go from Zurich to Russia and back two or three times a year, carrying letters, instructions and proclamations and taking an active part in criminal propaganda. Others are led astray by communist theories about free love, and under pretext of fictitious marriages carry to the most extreme limits their rejection of the fundamental laws of morality and feminine virtue. The immoral conduct of Russian women has aroused the indignation of the local citizens against them, and landladies are even refusing to accept them as lodgers. Some of the girls have sunk so low as to practise that branch of obstetrics which is judged a criminal offence, and deserves the utter contempt of all honourable people.”
Vera did not want to go back to Russia to start protests before she had completed her degree, however, after trial of her sister, she went back and joined the Land and Liberty group. Most of the group shared Bakunin’s anarchist views and demanded that Russia’s land should be handed over to the peasants and the State should be destroyed.
In October, 1879, the Land and Liberty split into two factions. The majority of members, who favoured a policy of terrorism, established the People’s Will (Narodnaya Volya). Vera joined them too. Soon afterwards the People’s Will decided to assassinate Alexander II.
A directive committee was formed consisting of Vera Figner, Andrei Zhelyabov, Timofei Mikhailov, Lev Tikhomirov, Mikhail Frolenko, Sophia Perovskaya and Anna Yakimova. Zhelyabov was considered the leader of the group. However, Figner considered him to be overbearing and lacking in depth: “He had not suffered enough. For him all was hope and light.” Zhelyabov had a magnetic personality and had a reputation for exerting a strong influence over women.
Vera rented a flat where group of terrorists gained together after Alexander II was killed in bomb explosion. She later recalled: “Everything was peaceful as I walked through the streets. But half an hour after I reached the apartment of some friends, a man appeared with the news that two crashes like cannon shots had rung out, that people were saying the sovereign had been killed, and that the oath was already being administered to the heir. I rushed outside. The streets were in turmoil: people were talking about the sovereign, about wounds, death, blood…. I rushed back to my companions. I was so overwrought that I could barely summon the strength to stammer out that the Tsar had been killed. I was sobbing; the nightmare that had weighed over Russia for so many years had been lifted. This moment was the recompense for all the brutalities and atrocities inflicted on hundreds and thousands of our people…. The dawn of the New Russia was at hand! At that solemn moment all we could think of was the happy future of our country.”
After several arrests of her friends, Vera was the last leader of Narodnaya Volya who remainded in freedom.
Vera Figner was arrested on 10th February 1883. Tsar Alexander III commented, “Thank God that terrible woman has been caught.” The year she spent in pretrial imprisonment in the Peter and Paul Fortress was spent learning English and writing her memoirs. She was interrogated by Vyacheslav Plehve, Director of the Police Department and Dmitry Tolstoy, the Minister of the Interior. Tolstoy told her: “What a pity there is so little time or I would have been able to convince you of the uselessness of terror.” She replied “I am sorry sorry too. I expect I would have been able to turn you into a narodovolnik.”
Figner’s trial began on 28th September, 1884. She was found guilty and sentenced to death. However, it was commuted at the last moment to life imprisonment in the Schlusselberg Fortress. According to one source the “solitary confinement and semi-starvation in airless unheated cells was the nearest conceivable approximation of death.” Figner wrote that: “The strain under which I had been living during my years of freedom, which had before been subdued and repressed, now left me; there was no task for my will, and the human being woke within me.”
Figner was released in 1904 and joined the Socialist Revolutionaries but left after discovering that Evno Azef had been working as a double agent. Figner welcomed the Russian Revolution in 1917 and for a short time worked for the People’s Commissariat for Social Security under Alexandra Kollontai. She also joined the Writers’ Union when it was formed in 1924.
In 1927 she published an autobiography, Memoirs of a Revolutionary. By this time she was highly critical of Joseph Stalin and Victor Serge later revealed that Figner was closely watched by the Communist Secret Police and for many years was in danger of being arrested.
Vera Figner died in Moscow, aged 89, on 15th June, 1942.