In all my reading of Russian lit and history, I’ve never come upon a character like Boris Savinkov. Even now, months after finishing a fine, massive biography of Savinkov by Vladimir Alexandrov, I find it difficult to accept that he actually existed.
Indeed, if I’d encountered him as a fictional character, I’d determine he made the novel so absurd I couldn’t finish it. But in no fiction have I run into anybody remotely like Savinkov. Oh, maybe if I re-read Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock stories I’d find someone with a life half as extraordinary as Savinkov’s. But probably not. I don’t believe world history (or world fiction) has ever given us another such person.
Savinkov stated his profession as “terrorist,” although his use of the term did not mean what it means to us today. He was not a terrorist as much as he was a political assassin. First anti-Tsar and then anti-Bolshevik, Savinkov was remarkably consistent in his enemy: tyranny, Russian tyranny. And he was painstaking in his plotting: he and his small, dedicated group of co-conspirators (men and women) avoided killing anyone other than the precisely chosen target.
Initially, I had moral qualms and intricate questions about Savinkov. He was neither a hero nor a villain yet he was both. Reading biographies of Russian revolutionaries, whatever they call themselves, is a venture into the sort of endogenous depression I associate with Russians, as demonstrated by my father’s immediate family, who did have their small pleasures but who kept them carefully restricted, lest the Okhrana or Cheka or KGB bang on the door. I am endlessly grateful for my mother’s genetic make-up.
(“Who could’ve told me that Chekhov is the most depressing Russian writer?” Mr. Navalny wrote in a letter that [his friend Sergey] Parkhomenko shared on Facebook.
I read the above in a wonderful Times article about Navalny’s life in prison and I burst out laughing. I’ve just finished all of Chekhov’s stunning short stories and realized each night as I read my head was drooping lower and lower. Chekhov wrote great fiction about real life in end-of-the-19th century Russia; the misery is omnipresent.)
The full title of Alexandrov’s biography answers my central question about Boris Savinkov: why did a rational, educated, upper middle class Russian guy chose to kill Russian aristocrats (unquestionably awful people) as a political movement rather than, say…well, that was the situation. Savinkov, who had a vision of a tyranny-free Russian future, reasoned there was no alternative to killing the rulers. To Break Russia’s Chains, Boris Savinkov made himself a revolutionary assassin.
He did not succeed.
Strange to write this, but I’m giving Savinkov short shrift by calling him an assassin. His careers — and there were many, all concerned with Russian politics; he showed up everywhere, even as a minister in the interim Kerensky government, and he became a journalist and novelist — were like a thread wildly stitched through his country and its politics.
But his work as an assassin is the most striking and the one I’ve been focused on, even before Aleksei Navalny’s murder.
Navalny — ebullient, visionary and funny — was utterly different from Savinkov. I read the following in a New York Times guest editorial by Nadya Tolokonnikova, a founder and member of the anti-Putin resistance group Pussy Riot. She describes when she first encountered Aleksei Navalny:
And then Aleksei spoke about his anticorruption investigations. I can divide my life into before and after that speech. “We take a stick and poke at the bad guys with this stick, and you can do it with me,” he said. For all of us in that packed room, Aleksei made it feel not only that a free Russia was possible but also that we could get there with joy, laughter and camaraderie.
I think about Boris Savinkov and assassination.