Vera Zasulich (1849-1919) was a revolutionary and an early Russian Marxist.
Born in Mikhaylovska as one of the daughters of a minor noble, she was brought up by wealthier relatives following her father’s death, and found her first job working as a clerk in St. Petersburg at the age of sixteen.
It was in the Imperial capital that Zasulich first became involved in the kaleidoscopic revolutionary milieu of Alexander II’s Russia, associating with the group around the “nihilist” Sergey Nechayev and, later, with the Kievan Insurgents, who were supporters of the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin.
Zasulich first came to public prominence during the “Trepov Incident”. In 1877, a political prisoner, Alexei Bogolyubov, refused to remove his cap in the presence of Colonel Theodore Trepov, the butcher of the Polish rebellions of 1830 and 1863.
In an act which outraged revolutionaries and the radical intelligentsia, Bogolyubov was flogged for his supposed insolence. A group of six revolutionaries plotted to kill Trepov; Zasulich acted first, shooting and seriously wounding the Colonel with a revolver on 24 January 1878,
Zasulich, with the help of her skilled legal counsel, turned the trial on its head, effectively putting Trepov in the dock. She was found not guilty by a sympathetic jury and became a hero to the Russian “populist” movement, fleeing to Switzerland before she could be rearrested.
After some correspondence with Karl Marx on the nature of the peasant commune in Russia, she became convinced of Marxist ideas and co-founded the Emancipation of Labour Group with Georgi Plekhanov and Pavel Axelrod in 1883. Her translations of Marx’s work contributed greatly to the spread of Marxism in Russia and laid many of the foundations for the formation of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) in 1898.
Zasulich, Plekhanov and Axelrod were soon joined by the leaders of a new generation of Russian Marxists, including Julius Martov, Vladimir Lenin, and Alexander Potresov in Switzerland, and founded the revolutionary newspaper Iskra. The Iskra group was sucessful in opposing more moderate factions such as the so-called “legal Marxists” around Peter Struve, who became sympathetic to the German theoretician Eduard Bernstein’s “revisionism” en route to an eventual embrace of liberalism.
However, the editorial board of the paper split at the Second RSDLP Congress in London in 1903, and Zasulich sided with Martov to form the “Menshevik” wing of the party. Although returning to Russia after the 1905 Revolution, she gradually lost interest in revolutionary politics, and supported the Russian war effort in 1914. An opponent of the October Revolution, she died on 8 May 1919, in the newly renamed Petrograd.
Recalling Zasulich some years after her death, Leon Trotsky, with whom she had been friendly in London in 1903, wrote: “She remained to the end the old radical intellectual on whom fate grafted Marxism. Zasulich's articles show that she had adopted to a remarkable degree the theoretic elements of Marxism.
“But the moral political foundations of the Russian radicals of the 70s remained untouched in her until her death.”