HISTORICAL NIHILISM The Russian Revolutionaries

Nihilism in Imperial Russia

Historical Context

Severe Times - Severe Measures

Nechayev's Revolution

Atheist Manifesto

Michael Bakunin

The Russian Revolutionaries

Although nihilism is often thought of as a vague concept relegated to the arena of philosophy, or perhaps as the unavoidable conclusion to post-modernist thought, nihilism does have a strong historical background that deserves greater recognition. The most significant manifestation of nihilism in recent history also coincides with its most active and organized expression, that of the Russian nihilist revolutionaries who rose to prominence in the 1860s.

The Russian nihilists (the Russian word for nihilist is nigilist) tend to be associated with violence, revolution, and terrorist acts such as the assassination of Czar Alexander II by the ‘Will of the People’ group. 'Student-Nihilist', by Ilya Repin, 1883But although violent acts get recorded in the history books often the lasting impact is carried through non-violent ideas and identities. The Russian Nihilists were intriguing in this regard for their history is like that of an iceberg – only a small portion of their total character is readily visible. Indeed, much of the violent acts associated with the attempted overthrow of the monarchy occurred under the auspices of other groups such as anarchists, Marxists and narodnichestvo populists in the 1870s, rather than those directly associated with the Nihilists themselves who were much more complex than the over-simplified ‘terrorist’ label attached to them by autocratic authorities.

Nihilism was not so much a corpus of formal beliefs and programs (like populism, liberalism, Marxism) as it was a cluster of attitudes and social values and a set of behavioral affects—manners, dress, friendship patterns. In short, it was an ethos. [2]

Historical Context

In order to understand who the Russian Nihilists were we first have to understand what they fought against and why. Europe in the 19th century was a time of dramatic changes -- political, economic, and social. Industrialization created fantastic wealth disparities and entirely new classes of people as the old aristocratic power system transformed into a plutocratic one. Cities grew rapidly and traditional agrarian lifestyles were decimated in favor of the cramped urban life of wage slavery. Imperial Russia experienced many of these difficult changes but events often took on a more extreme character than that of Western Europe and social development for Russia has always been both painful and slow. 

'Putting a Propagandist Under Arrest', by Ilya Repin, 1880-1892All of the wiser Russian monarchs realized that their system of serfdom, with a social structure of the very few existing on the backs of the very many, was not sustainable and would end in bloody rebellion sooner or later. The problem was implementing reforms that were both effective and politically realistic. By the middle of the 19th century the forces of state repression coupled with the longevity of the problem had already created such an intolerable situation that fixing the system through reform was essentially impossible. The only reasonable answer to this kind of situation is nihilism; the only way to live is to destroy. Russia had become a stifling, backwards country run by a ruling elite grown fabulously wealthy through rampant natural resource extraction. The Russian government had become completely disconnected from its subjects and new information and new ideas were impossible to prevent from seeping into the country from the heated and bubbling social scene in Western Europe. Even a brutal and violent police-state could not stop the Nihilists, other dedicated revolutionaries, or the inevitable outcome of the conflict.

Jewel encrusted Fabergé eggs were an emblematic expression of late 19th century Imperial Russian wealth and a grossly distorted society where the monarchy could commission dozens of these eggs while the general public worked and starved to death.

The heart of Russian Nihilism was about breaking with the failures of the past and about crafting a new identity. This was the meaning of the ‘Fathers and Sons’ phrase used at the time and remembered today in Turgenev’s novel of the same name.

Whereas the "fathers" grew up on German idealistic philosophy and romanticism in general, with its emphasis on the metaphysical, religious, aesthetic, and historical approaches to reality, the "sons," led by such young radicals as Nicholas Chernyshevsky, Nicholas Dobroliubov, and Dmitrii Pisarev, hoisted the banner of utilitarianism, positivism, materialism, and especially "realism." "Nihilism" — and also in large part "realism," particularly "critical realism" — meant above all else a fundamental rebellion against accepted values and standards: against abstract thought and family control, against lyric poetry and school discipline, against religion and rhetoric. The earnest young men and women of the 1860's wanted to cut through every polite veneer, to get rid of all conventional sham, to get to the bottom of things. What they usually considered real and worthwhile included the natural and physical sciences — for that was the age when science came to be greatly admired in the Western world — simple and sincere human relations, and a society based on knowledge and reason rather than ignorance, prejudice, exploitation, and oppression. [1]

This was about the destruction of idols, about burning the dead wood of society. And the Russian Nihilists were quite revolutionary, especially given the context of the time and location they existed in, for they include sections of the population that had little if any representation before. Women for example played a key role and included some of the most motivated and charismatic characters of the time period, like Vera Figner and Sophia Perovskaia. “If the feminists wanted to change pieces of the world, the nihilists wanted to change the world itself, though not necessarily through political action.” [3] The Russian word for a female nihilist is nigilistka.

It’s important to point out that the nihilist ethos of the time was primarily individualistic and not always politically revolutionary; some radical nihilist attitudes precluded ideological or political orientation. “While nihilism emancipated the young Russian radicals from any allegiance to the established order, it was, to repeat a point, individual rather than social by its very nature and lacked a positive program — both Pisarev and Turgenev's hero Bazarov died young.” [7] Clothing, attitude, communications style, all were portions of the new nihilist outlook.  The clothing style sought functionality and usefulness over frivolous fashion. The ‘revolt in the dress’ of the nigilistka went something like this:

One of the most interesting and widely remarked features of the nigilistka was her personal appearance. Discarding the "muslin, ribbons, feathers, parasols, and flowers" of the Russian lady, the archetypical girl of the nihilist persuasion in the 1860's wore a plain dark woolen dress, which fell straight and loose from the waist with white cuffs and collar as the only embellishments. The hair was cut short and worn straight, and the wearer frequently assumed dark glasses. [4]

Nigilistka fashion was about more than just juvenile rebellion against bourgeoisie fashion because instead of simply contradicting established forms it went on to create its own identity. Self-empowerment was the reason behind much of this. “The machinery of sexual attraction through outward appearance that led into slavery was discarded by the new woman whose nihilist creed taught her that she must make her way with knowledge and action rather than feminine wiles.” [4] Even deeper than changes in superficial appearance existed a new and quite profound realization, for the nigilistka understood that life had to be defined internally and not solely by external authorities or values. "To establish her identity, she needed a cause or a "path," rather than just a man.” [4] An interesting departure also occurred in communications style. “The typical nigilistka, like her male comrade, rejected the conventional hypocrisy of interpersonal relations and tended to be direct to the point of rudeness…” [4]

Severe times call for severe measures

Seeing their efforts at social change only being met with police brutality and increasing repression by despotic authority, the revolutionaries reassessed their tactics. Peter Tkachev and Sergei Nechayev were two that felt severe times call for severe measures – the revolution was only getting started.

Several years of revolutionary conspiracy, terrorism, and assassination ensued. The first instances of violence occurred more or less spontaneously, sometimes as countermeasures against brutal police officials. Thus, early in 1878 Vera Zasulich shot and wounded the military governor of St. Petersburg, General Theodore Trepov, who had ordered a political prisoner to be flogged; a jury failed to convict her, with the result that political cases were withdrawn from regular judicial procedure. But before long an organization emerged which consciously put terrorism at the center of its activity. The conspiratorial revolutionary society "Land and Freedom," founded in 1876, split in 1879 into two groups: the "Black Partition," or "Total Land Repartition," which emphasized gradualism and propaganda, and the "Will of the People" which mounted an all-out terroristic offensive against the government. Members of the "Will of the People" believed that, because of the highly centralized nature of the Russian state, a few assassinations could do tremendous damage to the regime, as well as provide the requisite political instruction for the educated society and the masses. They selected the emperor, Alexander II, as their chief target and condemned him to death. What followed has been described as an "emperor hunt" and in certain ways it defies imagination. The Executive Committee of the "Will of the People" included only about thirty men and women, led by such persons as Andrew Zheliabov who came from the serfs and Sophia Perovskaia who came from Russia's highest administrative class, but it fought the Russian Empire. [6]

After the assassination of the tsar some began to question the strategic usefulness of the spiraling violence, but few alternatives existed in the oppressive milieu of Imperial Russia. Subsequent monarchs Alexander III and Nicholas II only became more reactionary and narrow-minded while simultaneously voiding even minimal public freedoms. "Murder and the gibbet captivated the imagination of our young people; and the weaker their nerves and the more oppressive their surroundings, the greater was their sense of exaltation at the thought of revolutionary terror.” – Vera Figner [5]

Vera Zasulich , Vera Figner, and Sophia Perovskaia
Perovskaya and her comrades represent a unique phenomenon in nineteenth-century European social history." [8]

The Russian Nihilists were smart, dedicated, and possessed a tenacity that was unparalleled. These were revolutionaries that were well aware of the nature of the political system they were in conflict with but nonetheless they still failed to acquire two critical elements. Without a clear and cohesive social program the Nihilists lacked strategic sustainability for their revolutionary movement. Although they achieved their tactical goal of assassinating the top-level authority figures their wider objective of gaining greater freedom of movement and ideas still remained elusive. It seems that the necessary time-scale of their struggle was longer than anticipated and the entrenched nature of the system and the culture of fear and subservience to autocratic rulers that it rested upon was much deeper than realized; 1000 years of tradition simply can’t be thrown out in a decade. But since the social program is secondary to immediate plans in a larger sense I think the primary problem affecting the 19th century 'The Revolutionary Meeting', by Ilya Repin, 1883Russian revolutionaries had more to do with communications limitations than anything else because they had most everything going for them except numbers. Lacking the ability to reach the Russian public except on the smallest scale made widespread, coordinated revolt practically impossible. Publishing technology was easy for despotic regimes to control while radio and cheap printing didn't arrive in widespread use until the early 20th century.

Although the political violence may have had questionable strategic value the cultural shift in views, attitudes, and ideas made significant contributions that lasted long after the Russian Nihilists themselves had left the scene. 06.12.03

Such were the true nihilists, the destroyers, who did not trouble themselves about what was to be built after them. They did not exactly deny everything, for they believed firmly, fanatically, in science and in the power of the individual mind. But they thought nothing else worth the slightest respect, and they attacked and sneered at family, religion, art, and social institutions, with all the more vehemence the higher they were held in the opinion of their countrymen. – Sergius Stepniak
From: Sergius Stepniak on Nihilism and Narodnichestvo [Extracted from Sergius Stepniak, "Nihilism" in The Great Events by Famous Historians, vol. 19 (n.p.: The National Alumni, 1914), pp. 71-85]


A) A History of Russia, sixth edition, by Nicholas V. Riasanovsky, Oxford University Press 2000.

B) The Women’s Liberation Movement in Russia – Feminism, Nihilism, and Bolshevism 1860-1930, by Richard Stites, Princeton University Press, 1978.


  1. Reference A pg. 381
  2. Reference B pg. 99-100
  3. Reference B pg. 101
  4. Reference B pg. 104
  5. Reference B pg. 146
  6. Reference A pg. 384
  7. Reference A pg. 448
  8. Reference B pg. 153

Nechayev's Catechism

There are notable differences between the cultural and political situation of late 19th century Europe and our 21st century world. The weight of oppressive authority is nowhere near as crushing today as then, especially in comparison to Tsarist Russia. The situation for the masses was so bleak as to make death through violence more attractive than life in slavery; America is no Palestine and California is no Gaza Strip, if you know what I mean.

The severity of revolutionary action has to be matched to the lack of freedom to express dissenting ideas within the region of operations. Otherwise you'll just be blown out of the water by public rejection and police reaction. Fortunately, today we have many (peaceful) tools they did not.

Sergei Nechayev's tenacity was admirable and his methodology scores points for attempting to address more than merely the physical infrastructure so typical of Marxism and other one dimensional "revolutions". And if nothing else, 'The Catechism' certainly stirred up debate and generated enthusiasm for the revolutionary effort. - Freydis 17.05.02

From 'Catechism of a Revolutionist' (1869) By Sergei Nechayev

* * *


1. The revolutionary is a dedicated man. He has no interests of his own, no affairs, no feelings, no attachments, no belongings, not even a name. Everything in him is absorbed by a single exclusive interest, a single thought, a single passion - the revolution.

2. In the very depths of his being, not only in words but also in deeds, he has broken every tie with the civil order and the entire cultivated world, with all its laws, proprieties, social conventions and its ethical rules. He is an implacable enemy of this world, and if he continues to live in it, that is only to destroy it more effectively.

3. The revolutionary despises all doctrinarism and has rejected the mundane sciences, leaving them to future generations. He knows of only one science, the science of destruction. To this end, and this end alone, he will study mechanics, physics, chemistry, and perhaps medicine. To this end he will study day and night the living science: people, their characters and circumstances and all the features of the present social order at all possible levels. His sole and constant object is the immediate destruction of this vile order.

4. He despises public opinion. He despises and abhors the existing social ethic in all its manifestations and expressions. For him, everything is moral which assists the triumph of revolution. Immoral and criminal is everything which stands in its way.

5. The revolutionary is a dedicated man, merciless towards the state and towards the whole of educated and privileged society in general; and he must expect no mercy from them either. Between him and them there exists, declared or undeclared, an unceasing and irreconcilable war for life and death. He must discipline himself to endure torture.

6. Hard towards himself, he must be hard towards others also. All the tender and effeminate emotions of kinship, friendship, love, gratitude and even honor must be stifled in him by a cold and single-minded passion for the revolutionary cause. There exists for him only one delight, one consolation, one reward and one gratification - the success of the revolution. Night and day he must have but one thought, one aim - merciless destruction. In cold-blooded and tireless pursuit of this aim, he must be prepared both to die himself and to destroy with his own hands everything that stands in the way of its achievement.

7. The nature of the true revolutionary has no place for any romanticism, any sentimentality, rapture or enthusiasm. It has no place either for personal hatred or vengeance. The revolutionary passion, which in him becomes a habitual state of mind, must at every moment be combined with cold calculation. Always and everywhere he must be not what the promptings of his personal inclinations would have him be, but what the general interest of the revolution prescribes.


8. The revolutionary considers his friend and holds dear only a person who has shown himself in practice to be as much a revolutionary as he himself. The extent of his friendship, devotion and other obligations towards his comrade is determined only by their degree of usefulness in the practical work of total revolutionary destruction.

9. The need for solidarity among revolutionaries is self-evident. In it lies the whole strength of revolutionary work. Revolutionary comrades who possess the same degree of revolutionary understanding and passion should, as far as possible, discuss all important matters together and come to unanimous decisions. But in implementing a plan decided upon in this manner, each man should as far as possible rely on himself. In performing a series of destructive actions each man must act for himself and have recourse to the advice and help of his comrades only if this is necessary for the success of the plan.

10. Each comrade should have under him several revolutionaries of the second or third category, that is, comrades who are not completely initiated. He should regard them as portions of a common fund of revolutionary capital, placed at his disposal. He should expend his portion of the capital economically, always attempting to derive the utmost possible benefit from it.

Himself he should regard as capital consecrated to the triumph of the revolutionary cause; but as capital which he may not dispose of independently without the consent of the entire company of the fully initiated comrades.

11. When a comrade gets into trouble, the revolutionary, in deciding whether he should be rescued or not, must think not in terms of his personal feelings but only of the good of the revolutionary cause.

Therefore he must balance, on the one hand, the usefulness of the comrade, and on the other, the amount of revolutionary energy that would necessarily be expended on his deliverance, and must settle for whichever is the weightier consideration.


12. The admission of a new member, who has proved himself not by words but by deeds, may be decided upon only by unanimous agreement.

13. The revolutionary enters into the world of the state, of class and of so-called culture, and lives in it only because he has faith in its speedy and total destruction.

He is not a revolutionary if he feels pity for anything in this world. If he is able to, he must face the annihilation of a situation, of a relationship or of any person who is part of this world - everything and everyone must be equally odious to him. All the worse for him if he has family, friends and loved ones in this world; he is no revolutionary if he can stay his hand.

14. Aiming at merciless destruction the revolutionary can and sometimes even must live within society while pretending to be quite other than what he is. The revolutionary must penetrate everywhere, among all the lowest and the middle classes, into the houses of commerce, the church, the mansions of the rich, the world of the bureaucracy, the military and of literature, the Third Section [Secret Police] and even the Winter Palace.

15. All of this putrid society must be split up into several categories: the first category comprises those to be condemned immediately to death. The society should compose a list of these condemned persons in order of the relative harm they may do to the successful progress of the revolutionary cause, and thus in order of their removal.

16. In compiling these lists and deciding the order referred to above, the guiding principal must not be the individual acts of villainy committed by the person, nor even by the hatred he provokes among the society or the people. This villainy and hatred, however, may to a certain extent be useful, since they help to incite popular rebellion. The guiding principle must be the measure of service the person’s death will necessarily render to the revolutionary cause.

Therefore, in the first instance all those must be annihilated who are especially harmful to the revolutionary organization, and whose sudden and violent deaths will also inspire the greatest fear in the government and, by depriving it of its cleverest and most energetic figures, will shatter its strength.

17. The second category must consist of those who are granted temporary respite to live, solely in order that their goofy behavior shall drive the people to inevitable revolt.

18. To the third category belong a multitude of high-ranking cattle, or personages distinguished neither for any particular intelligence no for energy, but who, because of their position, enjoy wealth, connections, influence and power. They must be exploited in every possible fashion and way; they must be enmeshed and confused, and, when we have found out as much as we can about their dirty secrets, we must make them our beasts of burden, as if they were but mere oxen of the field. Their power, connections, influence, gold and energy thus become an inexhaustible treasure-house and an effective aid to our various enterprises.

19. The fourth category consists of politically ambitious persons and liberals of various hues. With them we can conspire according to their own programs, pretending that we are blindly following them, while in fact we are taking control of them, rooting out all their secrets and compromising them to the utmost, so that they are irreversibly implicated and can be employed to create disorder in the state.

20. The fifth category is comprised of doctrinaires, conspirators, revolutionaries, all those who are given to drunken bullshitting, whether before audiences or on paper. They must be continually incited and forced into making violent declarations of practical intent, as a result of which the majority will vanish without trace and real revolutionary gain will accrue from a few.

21. The sixth, and an important category is that of women. They should be divided into three main types: first, those frivolous, thoughtless, and fluff-headed women who we may use as we use the third and fourth categories of men; second, women who are ardent, gifted, and devoted, but do not belong to us because they have not yet achieved a real, passionless, and practical revolutionary understanding: these must be used like the men of the fifth category; and, finally there are the women who are with us completely, that is, who have been fully initiated and have accepted our program in its entirety. We should regard these women as the most valuable of our treasures, whose assistance we cannot do without.


22. Our society has only one aim - the total emancipation and happiness of the people, that is, the common laborers. But, convinced that their emancipation and the achievement of this happiness can be realized only by means of an all-destroying popular revolution, our society will employ all its power and all its resources in order to promote an intensification and an increase I those calamities and horrors which must finally exhaust the patience of the people and drive it to a popular uprising.

23. By “popular revolution” our society does not mean a regulated movement on the classical French model - a movement which has always been restrained by the notion of property and the traditional social order of our so-called civilization and morality, which has until now always confined itself to the overthrow of one political structure merely to substitute another, and has striven thus to create the so-called revolutionary state. The only revolution that can save the people is one that eradicates the entire state system and exterminates all state traditions of the regime and classes on Earth.

24. Therefore our society does not intend to impose on the people any organization from above. Any future organization will undoubtedly take shape through the movement and life of our people, but that is a task for future generations. Our task is terrible, total, universal, merciless destruction.

25. Therefore, in drawing closer to the people, we must ally ourselves above all with those elements of the popular life which, ever since the very foundation of the state power of Moscow, have never ceased to protest, not only in words but in deeds, against everything directly or indirectly connected with the state: against the nobility, against the bureaucracy, against the priests, against the world of the merchant guilds, and against the tight-fisted hillbilly land pirate. But we shall ally ourselves with the intrepid world of brigands, who are the only true revolutionaries in Russia.

26. To knit this world into a single invincible and all-destroying force - that is the purpose of our entire organization, our conspiracy, and our task.

Notes: Original source unknown. Electronic editing of the 'Catechism' provided by kampahana; formatting and condensation done by Freydis, 2002.

Atheist Manifesto

It is hard to say when human thought first conceived of the existence of God. But once having conceived of him, it proceeded to reject him. Possibly the rejection of God occurred immediately after the first conception of him, the first recognition of his existence. In any event, the rejection of God is very old, and the seeds of unbelief appeared very early in the history of mankind. In the course of several centuries, however, these modest seeds of atheism were strangled by the poisonous nettles of theism. But the striving of human thought and feeling for freedom is too great not to prevail. And it has indeed prevailed. Beneath its pressures all religions have broadened their horizons, yielding one point after another and casting off much that only a generation ago was deemed indispensable. Religion, striving to preserve its existence, has made various compromises, piling one absurdity upon another, combining the uncombinable.

The naive legends concerning the origins of the earth, legends created by pastoral folk at the dawn of life, were cast off and relegated to the mythology of 'holy books'. Beneath the pressure of science, religion repudiated the Devil and repudiated the personification of the deity. Instead, God now reveals himself to us as Reason, Justice, Love, Mercy, etc., etc. Since it was impossible to salvage the contents of religion, men preserved its forms, knowing full well that the forms would give shape to whatever contents were placed in them.

The whole so-called progress of religion is nothing but a series of concessions to emancipated will, thought and feeling. Without their persistent attacks, religion would to this day preserve its original crude and naive character. Thought, moreover, achieved other triumphs as well. Not only did it compel religion to become more progressive, or, more accurately, to give birth to new forms, but it also took an independent creative step, moving ever more boldly towards open, militant atheism.

And our atheism is militant atheism. We believe it is time to begin an open, ruthless struggle with all religious dogmas, whatever they may be called, whatever philosophical or moral systems may conceal their religious essence. We shall fight against all attempts to reform religion or to smuggle the outmoded concepts of past ages into the spiritual baggage of contemporary humanity. We find all gods equally repulsive, whether blood thirsty or humane, envious or kind, vengeful or forgiving. What is important is not what sort of gods they are but simply that they are gods — that is, our lords, our sovereigns — and that we love our spiritual freedom too dearly to bow before them.

Therefore we are atheists. We shall boldly carry our propaganda of atheism to the toiling masses, for whom atheism is more necessary than anyone else. We fear not the reproach that by destroying the people's faith we are pulling the moral foundation from under their feet, a reproach uttered by 'lovers of the people' who maintain that religion and morality are inseparable. We assert, rather, that morality can and must be free from any ties with religion, basing our conviction on the teachings of contemporary science about morality and society. Only by destroying the old religious dogmas can we accomplish the great positive task of liberating thought and feeling from their old and rusty fetters. And what can better break such bonds?

We hold that there are no objective ideas either in the existing universe or in the past history of peoples. An objective world is nonsense. Desires and aspirations belong only to the individual personality, and we place the free individual in the main corner. We shall destroy the old, repulsive morality of religion which declares: 'Do good or God will punish you.' We oppose this bargaining and say: 'Do what you think is good without making deals with anyone but only because it is good.' Is this really only destructive work?

So much do we love the human personality that we must therefore hate gods. And therefore we are atheists. The age—old and difficult struggle of the workers for the liberation of labour may continue even longer. The workers may have to toil even more than they already have, and to sacrifice their blood in order to consolidate what has already been won. Along the way, the workers will doubtless experience further defeats and, even worse, disillusionment. For this very reason they must have an iron heart and a mighty spirit which can withstand the blows of fate. But can a slave really have an iron heart? Under God all men are slaves and nonentities. And can men possess a mighty spirit when they fall on their knees and prostrate themselves, as do the faithful?

We shall therefore go to the workers and try to destroy the vestiges of their faith in God. We shall teach them to stand proud and upright as befits free men. We shall teach them to seek help only from themselves, in their own spirit and in the strength of free organizations. We are slandered with the charge that all our best feelings, thoughts, desires and acts are not our own, are not experienced by us, but are God's, are determined by God, and that we are not ourselves but a mere vehicle carrying out the will of God or the Devil. We want to take responsibility for everything upon ourselves. We want to be free. We do not want to be marionettes or puppets. Therefore we are atheists.

Religions recognize their inability to sustain man's belief in the Devil, and are rejecting that already discredited figure. But this is inconsistent, for the Devil has as much claim to existence as God — that is, none at all. Belief in the Devil was once very strong. There was a time when demonism held exclusive sway over men's minds, yet now this menacing figure and tempter of humanity has been transformed into a petty demon, more comical than frightening. The same fate must likewise befall his blood-brother — God.

God, the Devil, faith — mankind has paid for these awful words with a sea of blood, a river of tears, and endless suffering. Enough of this nightmare! Man must finally throw off the yoke, must become free. Sooner or later labour will win. But man must enter the society of equality, brotherhood and freedom ready and spiritually free, or at least free of the divine rubbish which has clung to him for a thousand years. We have shaken this poisonous dust from our feet, and we are therefore atheists.

Come with us all who love man and freedom and hate gods and slavery. Yes, the gods are dying! Long live man! - Union of Atheists

Original source: Soiuz Ateistov, 'Ateisticheskii manifest', Nabat (Kharkov),12 May 1919, p. 3., extracted from: The Anarchists in the Russian Revolution, edited by Paul Avrich, Cornell University Press, 1973.

Michael Bakunin: "Founder of Nihilism and apostle of anarchy." - Herzen

Michael Bakunin was born in 1814 and came from a large wealthy family in Russia. Even from an early age Bakunin’s rebellious personal nature and outlook set him at odds against the ruling class he emerged from although at the same time he never truly identified with the proletarian masses either. Bakunin wanted action, he placed movement over passive thought but this was his charm because he meshed so well with the revolutionary milieu of his era. In another time or place Bakunin would have been simply written off as a fringe element but because of the rapidly changing social and political landscape of the 19th century he became an icon and a legend. Rumor and myth about his escapes from the secret police and his own talk of direct action created an aura of the superhuman revolutionary, fulfilling the eras need for a leader and hero even if his actual deeds failed to fulfill the myths around him.

Bakunin’s Philosophy

Even at the time Bakunin was often difficult to describe and even more difficult to categorize ideologically within the context of his contemporaries, revolutionaries and other great-thinkers of the 19th century. Bakunin gained from process rather than accomplishment in life, whether the process had aim or not wasn’t so much the issue as the act itself, “finished things were a source of weariness to him” [Lampert (1957), pg 123]

Bakunin never really connected with any of the ideologies of his time, he just saw opportunities either for his own advancement or the pure, ground-up revolution he desired to see happen. Destruction, action and revolution as a way of life were primary themes that emerged. Bakunin went so far as to define destruction as the moving force of history. Simple but powerful statements were typical of Bakunin and indeed this was the appeal.

Keeping with the destruction paradigm, Bakunin’s analysis of Hegel was remarkable:

Bakunin argues that the dialectic refutes both those whose ideal is in the past (primitive wholeness, as the dialectical source of the divisions of the present, can never be regained), and those who seek a middle way between extremes. No compromise is possible: 'the whole essence, content, and vitality of the negative consists in destruction of the positive': only thereby can divisions be resolved in a 'new, affirmative, organic reality’. [Kelly (1987), pg. 93-94]

Organizing and Direct Action

Bakunin had little interest in the nuances and details of revolutionary and political organizing because he thought they only contained his energy rather than magnified it and also because he couldn’t focus or stay on task long enough to take an organization towards a goal. Bakunin was no Lenin. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t try to organize a revolution and then try again because he always wanted to see the revolution happen before his eyes even if he had no idea how to actually carry it out! Bakunin lacked planning and organizing skills as much as he had a surfeit of revolutionary zeal and a limitless capacity for making motivating speeches.

After many false starts Bakunin finally found the action he wanted in Dresden in May of 1849 where he ingratiated himself into the local resistance and fought Prussian troops. But despite best efforts the rebel forces were hopelessly outnumbered and eventually the Saxon government arrested Bakunin. After being transferred from one prison to another the governments finally came to an agreement and Bakunin was shipped off to the dreaded Peter and Paul fortress in Russia. Bakunin was imprisoned and later exiled to Siberia for ten years. A long prison sentence broke him physically but not mentally.

After an amazing confluence of chance and opportunity in 1861, Bakunin managed to escape on a ship to Japan and then to San Francisco eventually ending up back in Europe. Bakunin went back to what he did best – trying to stir up revolutionary action, somewhere, anywhere even if more than before his long imprisonment he lacked any substantive connections to the real revolutionary planning on the streets.

Nechayev and Bakunin

In 1869 a mysterious Russian named Sergei Nechayev met with Michael Bakunin. The two immediately found a use for each other amid their collective desire to foment revolution inside Russia – a daunting task that had so far eluded the best of Bakunin’s efforts. But Nechayev was a very crafty man and Bakunin was often naïve and trusting, blinded by his own enthusiasm - trouble emerged. Nechayev for his part probably never had any delusions as to his own aim and kept silent letting Bakunin do the talking.

Nechayev and Bakunin seemed to complement each other in attributes, one was a great speaker, the other not, one a formidable plotter where the other wasn’t, but in the end Nechayev’s selfish view on revolution coupled with Bakunin’s gullibility led to a falling out and the two departed on unfriendly terms without notable revolutionary success but still attracting the concerted attention of the secret police.

Marx versus Bakunin

Trying to fit Bakunin into the larger scheme of political philosophy is challenging because he wrote very little and his own views were often a confusing mix of other’s ideas and his own interpretations. A comparison of Karl Marx and Michael Bakunin is interesting in the very different path two thinkers with differing personalities took in analyzing and attempting to solve the problems of their day and to then direct it into revolutionary action. Bakunin was not a theorist or a planner like Marx, rather he was a promoter of the process of action even regardless of the outcome or eventual effect. “He was by nature a solipsist, despite all his superficial gregariousness and his later advocacy of anti-individualist anarchism, and the world existed for him for the exercise of personal freedom and creative action.” [Lampert (1957), pg. 123]


Although he may have had private discussions that placed him more in the agnostic category, his public message was a consistent one of staunch atheism once asserting that "If God really existed it would be necessary to abolish him.” Bakunin’s individualist credo also influenced the Russian anarchists that followed him as well as more modern forms of individual, libertarian anarchism. Bakunin died in 1876 but the revolution continued. His primary surviving work is the book God and the State, a potent patchwork of ideas and musings on history, revolution, religion and authority.

Further Influence

Although his direct involvement in revolutionary activities was limited, Bakunin had a much greater impact on contemporary and even future ideas. Bakunin’s destructive words influenced the Nihilists in the 1860s characterized by the clean-sweep revolution. “…the modern rebels believe, as Bazarov and Pisarev and Bakunin believed, that the first requirement is the clean sweep, the total destruction of the present system; the rest is not their business. The future must look after itself. Better anarchy than prison; there is nothing in between.” [Berlin, p. 301] And despite Bakunin’s organizing faults it’s agreed that he was actually a generous and very friendly person and for all his exhortations to violence like his most famous maxim “The urge to destroy is also a creative urge, it was not the people he was targeting so much as the actual institutions of oppression. - October, 2004


  • Berlin, Isaiah, Russian Thinkers, Viking Press 1978.

  • Kelly, Aileen, Mikhail Bakunin: A Study in the Psychology and Politics of Utopianism, Oxford, 1987.

  • Lampert, E., Sons Against Fathers – Studies in Russian Radicalism and Revolution, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1965.

  • Lampert, E., Studies in Rebellion, Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1957.

  • Masters, Anthony, Bakunin: The Father of Anarchism, Saturday Review Press NY, 1974.

  • Riasanovsky, Nicholas V., A History of Russia, New York, Oxford University Press, sixth edition, 2000.

"What can be broken, should be broken."
- Dmitrii Pisarev, Nihilist spokesman and 19th century Russian literary critic.


 Content & Design By Freydis
Updated: December, 2017
Created: 2003