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The History of Terrorism is Written in Blood

Today the University of Wisconsin Press releases Written in Blood: Revolutionary Terrorism and Russian Literary Culture, 1861–1881. Author Lynn Patyk reveals the spark hidden in Russian literature that ignited terrorism across history.

Another day, another attack. Somewhere in the world, a suicide bomber kills himself and countless others at a teeming market, in a subway car, at a pop concert. Terrorism seems so fundamentally a part of our reality and so numbingly endless that it is hard to imagine that it has a history, or that this history may even be told in the heroic mode. But, in fact, historians have traditionally credited Russian revolutionaries of the mid-nineteenth century—or “Nihilists” as they were called—with the invention of terrorism, which they deployed in their struggle with Russian autocracy. While the means (systematic political assassination) were morally odious, a significant segment of progressive public opinion in Russia and abroad could endorse the terrorists’ ends: the overthrow of tyranny and the introduction of Western-style freedoms.
In the case of nineteenth-century Russia, terrorism had a very particular and powerful impetus: the literary imagination. Writers in Russia served as social critics, moral authorities, visionaries, and prophets. As Russia underwent a wrenching transformation from a feudal society founded on serf labor to a modern industrializing society, literature undertook to portray new kinds of characters befitting the new reality: “men of action” in both literature and life. The necessary result in a largely untransformed and repressive political system was that this active hero would look remarkably like the modern terrorist.
19th century Russian literature's active hero, stifled by a repressive regime, anticipates the modern terrorist. Click To Tweet
Of Russia’s great realist novelists, Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821–1881) was uniquely positioned to observe and contribute to this phenomenon. Dostoevsky had himself been involved in political conspiracy, sentenced to death, and reprieved at the last moment, only to spend ten years in exile and hard labor in Siberia. These experiences gave him acute insight into tensions between the individual personality and any entity or system that tried to limit the expression of its free will, and thus into individual political violence as an emergent phenomenon.
If Dostoevsky’s novels, and in particular his terrorism trilogy of the 1860s–1880s (Crime and Punishment, Demons, and Brothers Karamazov), remain today so vitally relevant, it is because he recognized that these tensions were not peculiar to Russia and that the modern self was intrinsically terroristic. The modern self, bent on autonomy and self-realization, strains against all limitations—moral, political, religious, and aesthetic—and recognizes only itself as the highest, sovereign authority.
In the epilogue of Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky’s hero Rodion Raskolnikov has a terrifying nightmare: individuals and entire societies are infected with “trichinae,” causing them to fall prey to an unshakable self-righteousness and inevitably leading to mutual incomprehension, hatred, and a war of all against all. Dostoevsky clearly conceived this as a pathology of Western modernity, the irony being that it could just as easily manifest in the form of anti-modern ideologies (as in Dostoevsky’s case).
The modern self, bent on autonomy and self-realization, strains against all limitations. Click To Tweet
Despite his misgivings about the trajectory of modernity and the extreme individualism that it fostered, Dostoevsky rejected any external systematic constraints on freedom as a slippery slope to despotism and hegemonic state terror. When we lament the ineradicable evil that terrorism seems to be, Dostoevsky would have us recall that it is not a meaningless evil, but a profoundly meaningful one. It derives from the unprecedented freedom of modern societies, which empower individuals for maximum good or maximum harm. But this freedom has not yet given rise to a consciousness of our own individual and collective responsibility for pain and suffering in the world, which Dostoevsky saw as the key to staunching the bleeding wound that is terrorism. Instead of children at a concert, they (“the terrorists”) see “enemies.” Instead of our own culpability for violence and suffering, we see them as evil personified.

Lynn Ellen Patyk is an assistant professor of Russian at Dartmouth College.