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Sergey Gennadiyevich Nechayev (or Nyechayev; Russian: Серге́й Генна́диевич Неча́ев) (October 2, 1847 – November 21 or December 3, 1882) was a Russian revolutionary associated with the Nihilist movement and known for his single-minded pursuit of revolution by any means necessary, including terrorism.[1][2] He was the author of the radical Catechism of a Revolutionary.

Sergey Gennadiyevich Nechayev
Nechayev in 1870.
Native nameСергей Геннадиевич Нечаев
Born(1847-10-02)October 2, 1847
Ivanovo, Vladimir Governorate, Imperial Russia
DiedNovember 21 or December 3, 1882 (aged 35)
St. Petersburg, Imperial Russia

He fled Russia in 1869 after having been involved in the murder of a former comrade. Complicated relationships with fellow revolutionaries caused him to be expelled from the First International. Arrested in Switzerland in 1872, he was sent back to Russia, received a 20-year sentence and died in prison.

The character Pyotr Verkhovensky in Dostoyevsky's anti-nihilistic novel, Demons, is based on Nechayev.


Early life in RussiaEdit

The house in which Nechaev was born and lived until 1862

Sergey Nechayev was born in Ivanovo, then a small textile town, to poor parents—his father was a waiter and sign painter. His mother died when he was eight. His father remarried and had two more sons. They lived in a three-room house with his two sisters and grandparents. They were ex serfs who had moved to Ivanovo. He had already developed an awareness of social inequality and a resentment of the local nobility in his youth. At 10, Sergey had learned his father's trades—waiting at banquets and painting signs. His father got him a job as an errand boy in a factory, but Sergey refused the servant's job. His family paid for good tutors who taught him Latin, German, French, History, Maths and Rhetoric.[3]

In 1865 at age 18, Nechayev moved to Moscow, where he worked for the historian Mikhael Pogodin. A year later, he moved to St. Petersburg, passed a teacher's exam and began teaching at a parish school. From September 1868, Nechayev attended lectures at St. Petersburg University (as an auditor, he was never enrolled) and became acquainted with the subversive Russian literature of the Decembrists, the Petrashevsky Circle, and Mikhail Bakunin, among others, as well as the growing student unrest at the university. Nechaev was even said to have slept on bare wood and lived on black bread in imitation of Rakhmetov, the ascetic revolutionary in Chernyshevsky's novel What Is to Be Done?.[4]

Inspired by the failed attempt on the Tsar's life by Karakozov, Nechayev participated in student activism in 1868–1869, leading a radical minority with Petr Tkachev and others. Nechayev took part in devising this student movement's "Program of revolutionary activities", which stated later a social revolution as its ultimate goal. The program also suggested ways for creating a revolutionary organization and conducting subversive activities. In particular, the program envisioned composition of the Catechism of a Revolutionary, for which Nechayev would become famous.

Nechayev in 1865.

In December 1868 he met Vera Zasulich (who would make an assassination attempt on General Trepov, governor of St. Petersburg in 1878) at a teachers' meeting. He asked her to come to his school where he held candlelit readings of revolutionary tracts. He would place pictures of Robespierre and Saint-Just on the table while reading.[5] At these meetings he plotted to assassinate the Tsar on the 9th anniversary of serfdom's abolition.

The last of these student meetings occurred on January 28, 1869. Nechayev presented a petition calling for freedom of assembly for students.[6] 97 did, though he wouldn't say what he'd do with the petition. Two days later, he handed it to the police, intending to radicalize the students through prison and exile.[citation needed]

The Geneva exilesEdit

In January 1869, Nechayev spread false rumors of his arrest in St. Petersburg, then left for Moscow before heading abroad. He tried to get Zasulich to emigrate with him by declaring love for her, yet she refused.[7] He sent her a letter claiming to have been arrested. In Geneva, Switzerland, he pretended to be a representative of a revolutionary committee who had fled from the Peter and Paul Fortress, and he won the confidence of revolutionary-in-exile Mikhail Bakunin (who called him 'my boy')[8] and his friend and collaborator Nikolai Ogarev. Ogarev, on Bakunin's suggestion, dedicated a poem to Nechayev:

THE STUDENT (To my young friend Nechaev)
He was born to a wretched fate
And taught in a hard school,
And suffered interminable torments
In years of unceasing labor.
But as the years swept by
His love for the people grew stronger
And fiercer his thirst for the common good
The thirst to improve man's fate.

Bakunin saw in Nechayev the authentic voice of Russian youth, which he regarded as "the most revolutionary in the world". He would hold onto this idealised vision long after his association with Nechayev became damaging to him.

Ogarev, Bakunin and Nechayev organized a propaganda campaign of subversive material to be sent to Russia, financed by Ogarev from the so-called "Bakhmetiev Fund", which had been intended for subsidizing their own revolutionary activities. Alexander Herzen disliked Nechayev's fanaticism and strongly opposed the campaign, believing Nechayev was influencing Bakunin toward more extreme rhetoric. However, Herzen relented to hand over much of the fund to Nechayev, which he was to take to Russia to mobilise support for the revolution. Nechayev had a list of 387 people who were sent 560 parcels of leaflets for distribution April–August 1869.[9] The idea was that the activists would be caught, punished and radicalized. Amongst these people was Vera Zasulich, who got five years exile because of a crudely coded letter sent by Nechayev.

Catechism of a RevolutionaryEdit

In late spring 1869, Nechayev wrote Catechism of a Revolutionary, a program for the "merciless destruction" of society and the state. The main principle of the "Catechism"—"the ends justify the means"—became Nechayev's slogan throughout his revolutionary career. He saw ruthless immorality in the pursuit of total control by Church and State, and believed that the struggle against them must therefore be carried out by any means necessary, with an unwavering focus on their destruction. The individual self is to be subsumed by a greater purpose in a kind of spiritual asceticism, which for Nechayev was far more than just a theory, but the guiding principle by which he lived his life. According to the Catechism,

A revolutionary is a doomed man. He has no private interests, no affairs, sentiments, ties, property nor even a name of his own. His entire being is devoured by one purpose, one thought, one passion – the revolution. Heart and soul, not merely by word but by deed, he has severed every link with the social order and with the entire civilized world; with the laws, good manners, conventions, and morality of that world. He is its merciless enemy and continues to inhabit it with only one purpose – to destroy it.

A revolutionary "must infiltrate all social formations including the police. He must exploit rich and influential people, subordinating them to himself. He must aggravate the miseries of the common people, so as to exhaust their patience and incite them to rebel. And, finally, he must ally himself with the savage word of the violent criminal, the only true revolutionary in Russia".[10]

The book was to influence generations of radicals, and was re-published by the Black Panther Party in 1969 – one hundred years after its original publication. It also influenced the formation of the militant Red Brigades in Italy the same year.[citation needed]

Return to RussiaEdit

Having left Russia illegally, Nechayev had to sneak back to Moscow via Romania in August 1869 with help from Bakunin's underground contacts. On the way he met Christo Botev, a Bulgarian revolutionary.[11] In Moscow he lived an austere life, spending the fund only on political activities. He pretended to be a proxy of the Russian department of the "Worldwide Revolutionary Union" (which didn't exist) and created an affiliate of a secret society called "People's Reprisal Society" (Общество народной расправы); it issued the magazine Narodnaya Rasprava (Народная расправа, "People's Reprisal"). He claimed that the society had existed for quite some time in every corner of Russia. He spoke passionately to student dissidents about the need to organise. Marxist writer Vera Zasulich (whose sister Alexandra sheltered him in Moscow) recalls that when she first met Nechayev, he immediately tried to recruit her:

Nechayev began to tell me his plans for carrying out a revolution in Russia in the near future. I felt terrible: it was really painful for me to say "That's unlikely," "I don't know about that". I could see that he was very serious, that this was no idle chatter about revolution. He could and would act – wasn't he the ringleader of the students? ... I could imagine no greater pleasure than serving the revolution. I had dared only to dream of it, and yet now he was saying that he wanted to recruit me... And what did I know of "the people"? I knew only the house serfs of Biakolovo and the members of my weaving collective, while he was himself a worker by birth.[citation needed]

Many were impressed by the young proletarian and joined the group. However, the already fanatical Nechayev appeared to be becoming more distrustful of the people around him, even denouncing Bakunin as doctrinaire, "idly running off at the mouth and on paper". One Narodnaya Rasprava member, I. I. Ivanov, disagreed with Nechayev about the distribution of propaganda, and left the group. On November 21, 1869, Nechayev and several comrades beat, strangled and shot Ivanov, hiding the body in a lake through a hole in the ice.

The body was soon found, and some of his colleagues arrested, but Nechayev eluded capture, and left for Saint Petersburg in late November where he tried to continue his activities to create a clandestine society. On December 15, 1869, he fled the country, heading back to Geneva.

This incident was fictionalised by writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky in his anti-nihilistic novel, Demons, published three years later, in which the character, Pyotr Stepanovich Verkhovensky, is based on Nechayev.[12]


Bakunin and Ogarev embraced Nechayev on his return to Switzerland in January 1870 — Bakunin wrote "I so jumped for joy that I nearly smashed the ceiling with my old head!" Soon after their reunion, Herzen died (21 January 1870), and a large fund from his personal wealth became available to Nechayev to continue his political activities. Nechayev issued a number of proclamations aimed at different strata of the Russian population. Together with Ogarev, he published the Kolokol magazine (April–May, 1870, issues 1 to 6). In his article "The Fundamentals of the Future Social System" (Главные основы будущего общественного строя), published in the People's Reprisal (1870, №2), Nechayev shared his vision of a communist system which Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels would later call "barracks communism".

Nechayev's suspicion of his comrades had grown even greater, and he began stealing letters and private papers with which to blackmail Bakunin and his fellow exiles should the need arise. He enlisted the help of Herzen's daughter Natalie. While not clearly breaking with Nechayev, Bakunin rebuked Nechayev upon discovery of his duplicity: "Lies, cunning [and] entanglement [are] a necessary and marvelous means for demoralising and destroying the enemy, though certainly not a useful means of obtaining and attracting new friends". Bakunin then threatened Nechayev with breaking relations with him and with his (perhaps inexistent) organization.

"According to your way of thinking, you are nearer to the Jesuits than to us. You are a fanatic. This is your enormous and peculiar strength. But at the same time this is your blindness, and blindness is a great and fatal weakness; blind energy errs and stumbles, and the more powerful it is, the more inevitable and serious are the blunders. You suffer from an enormous lack of the critical sense without which it is impossible to evaluate people and situations, and to reconcile means with ends. (...)

As a consequence of these considerations and in spite of all that has happened between us, I would wish not only to remain allied with you, but to make this union even closer and firmer, on condition that you will change the system entirely and will make mutual trust, sincerity and truth the foundation of our future relations. Otherwise the break between us is inevitable." [13]

Nevertheless, he began warning friends about Nechayev's behaviour.

The General Council of the foremost left-wing organisation, the First International of 1864–1876, officially dissociated themselves from Nechayev, claiming he had abused the name of the organisation. After writing a letter to a publisher on Bakunin's behalf, threatening to kill the publisher if he didn't release Bakunin from a contract, Nechayev became even more isolated from his comrades. First International member German Lopatin accused him of theoretical unscrupulousness and pernicious behaviour,[citation needed] prompting Ogarev and Bakunin to publicly claim to have severed their relations with him in 1870. However privately Bakunin continued to write to Nechayev proposing that they continue to work together. [14]

In September 1870, as the Second French Empire of Napoleon III collapsed, Nechayev published an issue of the Commune magazine in London; later, hiding from the tsarist police, he went underground in Paris and then in Zurich. He also kept in touch with the Polish Blanquists, such as Caspar Turski and others. In September 1872 Karl Marx produced the threatening letter (which Nechayev had written to the publisher) at the Hague Congress of the First International at which Bakunin was also expelled from the organisation.

On August 14, 1872, Nechayev was arrested in Zurich and handed over to the Russian police. He was found guilty on January 8, 1873, and sentenced to 20 years of katorga (hard labor) for killing Ivanov. Nechayev, while locked up in a ravelin of the Peter and Paul Fortress, managed to win over his guards with the strength of his convictions, and by the late 1870s he was using them to pass on correspondence with revolutionaries on the outside. In December 1880 Nechayev established contact with the Executive Committee of Narodnaya Volya ("The People’s Will") and proposed a plan for his own escape. However, he abandoned the plan due to his unwillingness to distract the efforts of the members of Narodnaya Volya from attempting to assassinate the Emperor Alexander II (which they achieved in March 1881).

Vera Zasulich, who ten years earlier had been among those investigated for Ivanov's murder, heard that in 1877 the head of the St. Petersburg police, General Trepov, had ordered the flogging of Aleksei Bogolyubov, a young political prisoner. Though not a follower of Nechayev, she felt outraged at his mistreatment and at the plight of other political prisoners: she walked into Trepov's office and shot and wounded him (5 February [O.S. 24 January] 1878). In an indication of the popular political feeling of the time, a jury found her not guilty on the grounds that she had acted out of noble intent.

In 1882 Nechayev died in his cell.

Despite his personal courage and fanatical dedication to the revolutionary cause, Nechayev's methods (later called Nechayevshchina) were viewed to have caused harm to the Russian revolutionary movement by endangering clandestine organizations.[citation needed] The playwright Edvard Radzinsky suggests that many revolutionaries have successfully implemented Nechayev's methods and ideas – including Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin.[10][need quotation to verify]


  1. ^ Maegd-Soëp, Carolina (1990). Trifonov and the Drama of the Russian Intelligentsia. Ghent State University, Russian Institute. p. 79. ISBN 90-73139-04-X.
  2. ^ Nechayev, Катехизис революционера, publisher's preface, from: Революционный радикализм в России: век девятнадцатый. Документальная публикация. Ed. Е.Л.Рудницкая Moscow, Археографический центр, 1997.
  3. ^ Ana Siljak, Angel of Vengeance, page 90
  4. ^ Andrew Michael Drozd, Chernyshevskii's What is to be done?: a reevaluation, page 115
  5. ^ Ana Siljak, Angel of Vengeance, page 93
  6. ^ Ana Siljak, Angel of Vengeance, page 97
  7. ^ Ana Siljak, Angel of Vengeance, page 98
  8. ^ Ana Siljak, Angel of Vengeance, page 101
  9. ^ Ana Siljak, Angel of Vengeance, page 111
  10. ^ a b Edvard Radzinsky Stalin : The First In-depth Biography Based on Explosive New Documents from Russia's Secret Archives (1997) ISBN 0-385-47954-9
  11. ^ Ana Siljak, Angel of Vengeance, page 120
  12. ^ p. 60
  13. ^ Michael Bakunin, “M. Bakunin to Sergey Nechayev,” in Michael Confino, Daughter of a Revolutionary: Natalie Herzen and the Bakunin-Nechayev Circle (London: Alcove Press, 1974).
  14. ^ Wheen, Francis Karl Marx pp. 346-7


  • Robynski. Nechaev And Bakunin: Left Libertarianism's Lavender Lineage. Northcote, Vic: Autonomous Tendency. 1994
  • Charley Shively, “Anarchism” in Encyclopedia of Homosexuality, ed. Wayne Dynes (New York: Garland, 1990), p. 51.
  • Andrew Hodges and David Hutter, With Downcast Gays, 1977.
  • Payne, Robert. The Fortress, New York, 1967
  • Pomper, Phillip. Bakunin, Nechaev and the "Catechism of a Revolutionary": the Case for Joint Authorship, Canadian Slavic Studies, Winter 1976, 534–51.
  • Bakunin rebukes Nechayev and his Chatechism for vanguardism
  • Avrich, Paul. "Bakunin and Nechaev", Freedom press ISBN 0-900384-09-3
  • Coetzee, J.M. The Master of Petersburg, Secker and Warburg. 1994
  • Eric Ambler, The Care of Time, New York, 1981. Ambler’s last novel uses a purported memoir by Nechayev as a central plot device.
  • Prawdin, Michael The Unmentionable Nechaev: A Key to Bolshevism, London, George Allen & Unwin (1961). Argues that Nechaev was one of the greatest influences on Lenin.
  • Jorge Semprún. Netchaïev est de retour, a 1987 suspense novel. One of the central characters uses Nechaev as a nom de guerre.
  • Payne, Pierre (1975). The Corrupt Society. New York: Praeger. p. 202. ISBN 0-275-51020-4.
  • Hyams, Edward (1975) Terrorists and Terrorism ISBN 978-046-00786-3-4

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