A radical movement in late nineteenth-century Russia, the Nihilists emerged as the political wing of a Russian counterculture that prefigured nearly every detail of the hippie culture of the 1960s. The “New People” rebelled against the mores of Tsarist Russia with unconventional dress and manners; men grew long hair and beards, women wore their hair bobbed and refused makeup. Blue-tinted spectacles, high boots, and a passion for cigarettes formed other parts of the kit. Most were college students though few completed degrees. The New People rejected Christianity and argued for civil and sexual freedom for women, ideas that were at least as shocking in 1860s Russia as in 1960s Britain and America.

All these trends surfaced in 1855 after the death of the arch-conservative Tsar Nicholas I and the accession of his son, the more liberal Alexander II. Reforms that allowed Russian citizens to travel abroad gave many young Russians a taste of freedom and a desire for more. Many Russian students enrolled in foreign universities, especially at Heidelberg and Zurich, where they were exposed to radical ideas. In Russia, Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s 1863 novel What is to be Done? – the story of a young woman’s journey from the narrow world of middle-class St Petersburg to freedom among the New People – had the same cultural impact that Kerouac’s On the Road had a century later among young Americans. Another novel, Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, attached the label of “Nihilist” to the New People, though it came to be used for the movement’s political faction as the nineteenth century drew on.

This political dimension rose to prominence as Alexander II’s government backed away from its more liberal reforms. Part of this withdrawal came from the Tsar’s worries about the spread of radical ideas in Russia. Already in 1861 a manifesto titled To the Younger Generation was in circulation, calling for the Tsar to be replaced by a salaried official. Several influential writers among the New People, including Chernyshevsky himself, were imprisoned in Siberia after widely publicized trials. This served only to embitter the New People and drive more of them into revolutionary politics.

Nihilism exploded into political violence in 1866, when Dmitri Karakozov, a young student in St Petersburg, tried to assassinate the Tsar. The attempt failed, but harsh new laws passed by the Tsar’s government in response launched a spiral of violence and repression that ultimately brought Russia to the threshold of the 1917 revolution. Mass arrests of suspected radicals began in 1873, but each Nihilist hanged or sent to permanent exile in Siberia was quickly replaced by others. More assassination attempts followed, some aimed at the Tsar and others targeting important government officials. A terrorist bomb thrown by Nihilists of the “People’s Will” faction finally killed the Tsar on March 1, 1881.

This assassination was in many respects the last hurrah of Nihilism. By that time the New People were decidedly old news, and a younger generation of radicals was turning from the Nihilists’ rejection of authority and vague belief in freedom to the new theory of social revolution proposed by a German writer named Karl Marx. See Communism.


The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies : the ultimate a-z of ancient mysteries, lost civilizations and forgotten wisdom written by John Michael Greer – © John Michael Greer 2006