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Vera Nikolayevna Figner was the daughter of a forester living in Kazan, alongside the Volga River. In her Memoir of a Revolutionist, she writes that she was born into a family of prosperous noblemen.
The abolition of serfdom [in 1862, when she was ten] was signalised in our home by the fact that, to Mother's great indignation, Dunyash and Katya, both of her maids, who had lived with us for many years, refused to serve us any longer, and preferred to return to their families in Khristoforovka, where they were soon married.
In 1863, Figner was sent to the Rodionovsky Institute for Women, considered a proper educational institute for a member of Russia's elite. She asks, "What did my six years at the Institute give me? A cultivated manner ... the habit of intellectual work... But as for scientific knowledge, or still more, intellectual training, these years at school not only give me almost nothing, but even retarded my spiritual development, not to mention the harm caused by the unnatural isolation from life and people."
She writes that instruction in history was "the dry mythology of the Greeks and Romans, and ... the history of Persia and Babylon" plus medieval and modern history using a textbook by Ilovaisky (described as a shallow chauvinist.) "Other than Ilovaisky's History there were no textbooks at all."
Vera Figner writes that in the boarding school for four years "they tormented us over penmanship. For seven years we had to study drawing, not withstanding the fact that during all that time not one of us displayed the smallest sign of talent."
At night Vera read unapproved books surreptitiously. An elderly woman in charge at night might sneak a look at the girls. The woman, writes Vera,
...used to pray for whole hours in the room where her bed stood.. From time to time [she] would make the rounds of all the dormitories. Detecting the sound of her catlike steps, I would kneel and repeatedly beat my forehead on the floor, as long a I felt her standing at my back.
Vera Figner describes herself as having emerged from the Institute "a vivacious, merry, frolicsome girl."
She writes of her relatives not being republicans (opposed to monarchy) and recommending to her two books, one on Switzerland and the other on the United States – somewhat subversive in that these were books about places with a political system that differed substantially from Russia's autocracy. This was the extent of her political education before she left to study medicine at the University of Zurich, in Switzerland, in 1872, the year that she turned twenty.
During her studies at the university she joined a club of thirteen women students who studied, she writes "social and labour problems and the history of Socialism."
Members of her club returned to Russia in 1873 and began working with young people who believed in peaceful propaganda and in support for those who rebelled against what they saw as oppression. They called their movement "To the People." By the autumn of 1875 most of the group was wiped out, and, writes Vera, "workingmen were imprisoned." But a few were keeping the movement alive.
In December, 1875, Figner returned to Russia. She met with like-minded movement activists. She was advised that they were in it for the "long haul" and that the work would be "painstaking" and "might be insignificant" but they she should not despair.
She went to work as a paramedic and also to propagandize for social change. By now, she claims, she saw "in the practice of medicine only a palliative for an evil which could be cured only by social and political means."
Figner writes of radicals belonging to one of two groups: the propagandists like she; and the insurrectionists who were ideologically associated with the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin. The propagandists, she writes, "regarded the people as a blank sheet of paper, upon which they were to inscribe socialist characters. They proposed to raise the mass morally and mentally to their own level.... The Insurrectionists, had no intentions of teaching the people but asserted that it is we who ought to learn from the people." She adds that the Bakunin group saw the task of the intelligentsia as organizational [note: believing perhaps in spontaneous organization as opposed to organization by the state].
Working as a paramedic she hid the fact that she had studied in Zurich, in order not to arouse suspicion. She had twelve villages under her management, about which she writes,
Heretofore I had not seen the wretched peasant environment at close range; I knew of the people's poverty and misery rather theoretically, from books, magazine articles, statistical material... One could not look with equanimity at the filthy and emaciated patients. Most of their ailments were of a long standing; rheumatism and headaches ten to fifteen years old; nearly all of them suffered from skin diseases, yet only few villages had baths... There were numerous cases of incurable catarrhs of the stomach and intestines, wheezing chests heard from a distance, syphilis which spared no age, endless sores and wounds, and all of this under conditions of such unimaginable filth of dwelling and clothes, of such unhealthful and insufficient food, that one asked oneself in stupor: was that the life of animals or of human beings!
She went to work in another location, and she writes:
For the peasants, the appearance of an assistant surgeon, "a she-healer," as they called me, was a great marvel... The poor country folk flocked to me by the tens and hundreds as though I were a wonder-working icon... my fame spread swiftly beyond the boundaries of the three counties which I served, and later, beyond the district itself. I was unrestrained by the supervision of a doctor (for there never was one in my district during my stay)... One unfortunate peasant woman who was suffering from a hemorrhage, came to me on foot a distance of forty or fifty miles. On her return home, she declared that as soon as I touched her the hemorrhage ceased. Others brought water and oil, begging me to "speak a charm" over it, for they had heard that I "charmed away" sickness with marvelous success.
In 1879, Figner took part in a congress of what was now called Land and Liberty. The group divided, and she became a member of the Executive Committee of The Will of the People. She conducted propaganda activities among students and military men in the capital, St. Petersburg, Kronstadt and in southern parts of Russia.
Figner was leading a furtive life and carrying a false passport. She writes of "wholesale arrests, exile and penal servitude... and executions... From the middle of 1878 to 1879, Russian beheld eighteen executions of political offenders." In response, she writes, The "Will of the People" declared war. They decided to strike at the heart of that of political system that they detested. They decided to assassinate the tsar, Alexander II. That was in 1879.
Figner participated in planning the assassination attempts. She was a courier carrying dynamite to that end. On March 13, 1881, they succeeded. Figner was arrested in February, 1883. She spent 20 months before her trial in solitary confinement at the Peter and Paul Fortress. She was sentenced to death. It was commuted to perpetual penal servitude, and she served 20 years imprisonment.
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