“Sasha, can we go over the details one more time?” Alexei looked over at the short stubby man sitting on the far end of the table. His hook nose locked his shiny monocle in place. Sasha had been chosen as the recorder for this party, and his shaky nervous attitude fit the bill for a good recorder. Sasha glanced at the group nervously. He tried to clear his throat but the only thing that came out was a high pitched groan. He coughed, and began rather whimsically but growing in strength.
“The defendant is Vera Zasulich, a noblewoman by birth, and by marriage, but by all standards, a poor woman, and now a widow to a captain in the army. She spent six years locked away in Litovsk and Peter and Paul’s fortress to name a few. Apparently she was convicted without reason, held, of course, because of the growing menace of student protests. She was then released two years later, immediately rearrested, and then when she was released again, she learned a trade, but was subsequently unable to practice it as she was marked by administrative exile. Reports say she had been living off nothing more than bread and water for the better part of the last decade. After her release, she joined a small band of subversives called the Buntari. Little is known of this group until a couple of years ago, and I remember this incident in the papers, when they tried to kill a suspected traitor in their midst. They beat him with a ball and chain and poured acid on his face. I guess they suspected it would have killed him, but somehow he survived and reported all their names to the police. She was not linked to the beating, but her name did appear as part of the group.
Evidently she reappeared in St. Petersburg this last year and this incident the alleged incident occurred because of her dissatisfaction with the mayor of St. Petersburg, General Fyodor Trebov. He had recently locked away and beaten a certain Arkhip Bogolyubov for not removing his cap in his presence. And as her lawyer made extremely clear, her time in prison made her tremendously sensitive to others who were also punished for no real reason.” The man paused for a second as if lost in thought. “Tak, and so she took it upon herself to give this man, and well, quite frankly, many of the citizens in St. Petersburg justice. As a noblewoman she was permitted to enter the mayor’s estate and submit a petition with others directly to the mayor. When they were ushered into the mayor’s office by an adjutant, she found herself first in line. She handed the mayor the petition muttering something about it being about a certificate of conduct. The mayor silently took it, made a note on it with a pencil and turned to the next petitioner. As he turned the defendant pulled a revolver out of the folds of her cloak and shot him twice in the back. After which, she dropped the revolver to the ground and patiently waited for a guard to tackle her. A few days later the mayor died, and the trial began.
The defense then made a compelling argument as to the nature of the killing, and put the mayor on trial instead of her. And we would all agree, the mayor received his just reward.” The man ended speaking to murmurs of assent and pounding of hands on the table. Alexei looked aghast at the room before him.
“She shot General Trebov! He’s the mayor for Christ’s sake!”
“Yeah, but he was a horrible man!”
“Yes, he deserved it.” Another voice piped in. Alexei looked down at his gray coat. He was fiddling with his fur cap in his right hand, gripping the table in front of him with the other. The room was full of hostility. He seemed to be alone in the defense of the mayor. He couldn’t believe it, the gentry themselves didn’t seem to care for the law. He sighed as he gently plopped his cap back onto the table.
“But isn’t the woman Vera Zasulich on trial, not General Trebov?” He tried, but could hardly hide the exasperation in his voice.
A man from the far end of the room responded in a calm but very firm voice. “She is.” There was a brief pause before he continued, “But isn’t that the point of these reforms? Isn’t it our duty, the duty of the nobility, to ensure that no one is above the law?”
Alexei looked around the room. It would’ve taken a dead tree to not be able to see no one agreed with him. He had lost the battle, and he couldn’t leave with a hung jury. The trial was too important; it was being followed around the world. Silence fell over the room for tense moments.
Slowly, he began to nod his head. “Maybe they’re right.” He thought to himself, and one word kept coming back to his mind, “Samosud.” Self-justice, lynching, or the idea of taking the law into one’s own hands. That was the new Russia. Anarchists and revolutionaries, they were the law now.
Kolya quietly stepped inside of the classroom. He was on time today, which was a rare occasion indeed, even rarer than his attendance to class. The professor was still pulling books out of his small briefcase, so he quietly headed for the middle of the classroom, the center of attention. Some of his classmates looked up happily at him, others with surprise. He was there alone today; no other Bolshevik cronies had made their appearance. And the question on everyone’s mind was whether or not he was there to learn or argue today.
The year was 1908. He had already been a key instrument in the Bolshevik movement in Moscow for the past two years. The year before he had started up a student organization for the Bolsheviks within the university itself with Grigorii Sokolnikov. But it had been disbanded within a year as the Okhrana, or Tsarist police, broke it up.
Attention turned back to the front as the professor began speaking. He was a venerable old man, and had spent many years teaching at Moscow University. He was known for branching off topic and getting lost in his own thoughts. Today didn’t seem like it would be much different. He started speaking without even looking up at the class. Today’s topic was on the recent industrial policy of Ministry of Finance, Sergei Witte. He spoke for awhile regarding the ministry’s careful attention to maintaining control over industrialization while creating a small window for the buildup of capitalism, and especially Witte’s new move to push Russia from an autocracy towards a Constitutional Monarchy. This was old news to everyone, including the change from the number of votes each class had in the Zemstvo. But then the professor turned his attention to the railway, and many smiled in anticipation, the classroom was about to get heated.
“And one of the greatest achievements of these reforms was the completion of the Trans Siberian Railroad in 1904. For once Russia knows no boundaries. Industrialization will come to all corners of the empire, pushing us forward into a…”
“Excuse me sir.” The professor looked up still sputtering his new few words under his breath.
“Oh yes, Nikolai, welcome back to class.”
“Thank you sir, I just wanted to ask, they say the railroad is progress and we are progressing to capitalism, but aren’t the two ideas diametrically opposed?”
“Well, I’m not sure I know what you mean.”
“Hmmm, well yes sir, it’s just, isn’t the fundamental idea behind capitalism privatization of industry?” The professor beamed back at Nikolai.
“Well yes it is my boy.”
“But then doesn’t the railroad then act as counteractive to the buildup of capitalism in our country?”
“Awwww you mean to say that because the railroad is built and owned by the monarchy that it is therefore not privately owned, and therefore is not a step towards privatization, but my boy you can’t say that. The government has made leaps and bounds forward from when I was a child. Yes now it isn’t privatized but eventually it will be…” Nikolai jumped in seizing his chance.
“But right now it is owned by someone who didn’t build it, and when the government privatizes it they can’t give it to the people who built it. No matter what there will be a discrepancy between the proletariat who built it and the petty bourgeoisie that will gain control of the profits of the industry they built. Now just where is the fairness in that?”
“Awww but my boy the point of the current system is to create a specialized workforce as envisioned by Herbert Spencer. High output industrialization is built around people being specially trained and fit for their job and as such there is a need for a monetary compensation, otherwise the worker would only own a piece of the railway, a piece of steel cannot feed many mouths.”
“A piece of steel can’t, but stock in that piece of steel can. And Nikolai Mikhailovsky would argue that the problem with Spencer’s philosophy is it isolates human growth and maturity. A man is born to learn and grow throughout every step of his life. The moment he stops learning is the moment that his mind digresses, and the man relegates himself to devolve back into the creature he was at birth. Therefore the heterogeneity and complexity of society must reflect the heterogeneity and complexity of its individual members to facilitate the ideal of many-sided human development. And if therefore practiced in its fullest sense it would allow members of the proletariat to work and gain portions of the railroad when it is privatized and yes gaining part of the growing profits as inflation as well increases, and it would also allow them to move onto different industries, learning new trades, and facilitating their own mental and physical growth as well.”
The professor looked up at Nikolai in amazement. “Very good, boy especially with the new emphasis the government is putting on stabilizing the ruble, but what does all this mean for us?” Nikolai paused for a second wanting to put emphasis on every word.
“It means temporary monetary compensation, whether under autocracy or capitalism, is a form of slavery. The rich gain investments that accrue funds over time and get richer, while the poor proletariat is poorly compensated with a vanishing monetary value, unable to change specializations, and stuck in their pitiful, state. Just as Marx said, talking of a man who carried his 7 year old child to work every day back and forth in the snow to work for 16 hours, and very often he would have to kneel down to feed the boy next to the machine as he could not leave it or stop. And that, my friends, is what awaits us with the monster of Capitalism.” Nikolai looked around the quiet, shocked class. “More poverty and oppression.”
“But then aren’t we better under an autocracy?” One classmate shouted out, perhaps not even realizing he was speaking. The class turned to the professor, who was now shaking his head sadly.
“No, my boy…” The class fell silent again. Broken only by another student.
“Well then what then?” Nikolai looked at the boy and answered in a cold-icy whisper-