[Quite early in life Stepnyak began secretly to sow the sentiments of democracy among the peasants in the Russian countryside. His teaching did not long remain a secret, and in 1874 he was arrested. Stepnyak went to the Balkans and joined the rising against the Turks in Bosnia in 1876, and used that experience to write a manual on guerrilla warfare. He also joined Errico Malatesta in his small rebellion in the Italian province of Benevento in 1877. Returning to Russia in 1878, he joined Zemlya i volya (Land and Liberty). On August 4, 1878, he assassinated General Nikolai Mezentsov, the chief of Gendarme corps, the head of the country’s secret police with a dagger in the streets of St Petersburg.
Here is a short excerpt from his book Underground Russia ]
I should like now to say a few words respecting the other section of Russian society, which, owing to my position, I frequented much more; I mean the students, not yet enrolled among the conspirators-for those already in the ranks it would be impossible to say too much.
Had I not the evidence of my own eyes, I should have difficulty in believing that in the same city, within so short a distance, such striking contrasts could exist as are presented between the peaceful middle classes and the Russian young men.
I will merely relate what I have seen and heard.
Civil courage, in which the maturer portion of Russian society is entirely wanting, is only to be found among the young.
It is strange, but it is perfectly true. Here is a notorious fact, which for many days was in every mouth
In the Academy of Medicine, one of the students, a Viscount,’ as they called him, took it into his head to start a collection for a crown of flowers to be placed upon the coffin of the dead Emperor.
This proposal was received in utter silence. The Viscount flung five roubles into his bat, and then went about from one to another. Nobody gave him even a kopeck.
‘But, gentlemen,’ asked the Viscount, what shall we do then!’
‘Attend Professor Mergeevski’s lecture,’ said a voice among the students.
But he would not give in, and continued to go about pestering everybody. At last he succeeded in finding somebody who put two more roubles into his hat. The lecture of Professor Mergeevski being over, the Viscount went about again and urged them to subscribe. But he obtained nothing more.
But what shall we do, then, gentlemen?’ he cried in despair.
‘Attend the lecture of Professor-’ I do not recollect the name.
This second lecture passed off. Then the Viscount resolved to put his companions in a fix.
Throwing the money upon the table, be exclaimed:
‘What shall I do with this money?’
‘Give it to the prisoners,’ replied a voice among the throng, which everybody present echoed.
The Viscount and his companion hurried away in a fury.
One of the students then arose, took the money which remained upon the table, and no one doubted that the famous seven roubles were sent to those who were entitled to them.
The same day the students of the Academy collected fifty roubles for ‘the prisoners.’
This happened some days after the event of March 13, when the whole population was delirious with terror.
In the other higher schools the conduct of the throng was similar, but not identical; for only those who were in Russia at that time can understand what courage was required to act as the students of, the Academy of Medicine acted.
What is so striking in the life of the great mass of the Russian students, is the slight account taken a personal interests connected with their profession, their future, etc., and even of the pleasures which are said to grace the morning of life.’
It would seem as though the Russian students cared only for intellectual interests.
Their sympathy with the Revolution is immense, universal, almost undivided. They give their last farthing for the Narodnaia Volia and for the Red Cross; that is, for the prisoners and exiles. All take an active part in the Organisation of concerts and balls, in order to obtain, by the sale of tickets, some few roubles to assist the revolution. Many endure hunger and cold in order to give their mite to the ‘cause.’ I leave known whole Communes which lived upon nothing but bread and soup, so as to give all their savings to the Revolution.
The Revolution may be said to be the principal and absorbing interest of these young men, and it should be borne in mind that when arrests, trials, executions happen, they lose the privilege of continuing their studies.
They meet in little parties in their rooms, and there, around the samovar, whisper, discuss, and communicate to each other their views and their feelings of indignation, of horror, and of admiration, and thus their revolutionary fervour increases, and is strengthened. That is the time to see them; their faces become anxious and serious, exactly like those of elderly men.
They grasp with avidity at everything, at every trifle connected with the revolutionary world. The rapidity with which everything now of this kind spreads throughout the entire city is incredible. The telegraph, which the Government has in its bands, cannot vie with the legs of the Nihilists. Somebody is arrested, perhaps. The very next day the melancholy news is disseminated throughout the whole of St. Petersburg. Somebody has arrived; someone else is making disclosures; a third, on the other hand, maintains an exemplary firmness towards the police; all this is known immediately and everywhere.
It need scarcely be added that, animated by such feelings, these young men are always ready to render every kind of service to the Revolutionists without giving a thought to the danger they may run. And with what ardour, with what solicitude they act!
But I must finish. I have not the slightest pretension to depict the young men of Russia as they are; it would be a task much above my powers.
I return, therefore, to my peregrinations.
It was from these young men I had all my nights’ lodgings when the worthy Madame Dubrovnia and a few other friends could no longer conceal me in their houses.
But here I cannot pass by in silence another circumstance.
Having received the invitation I went, and, although in accordance with the rules of Nihilist hospitality, no questions respecting myself were ever put to me, I always began the same old story, that I had nothing whatever to do with the conspiracy, that I was not even one of the illegal,’ but merely a I vagabond,’ as I had no passport, and did not care to get a false one. I said this to tranquillise my hosts, and so as not to appear in borrowed plumes, and even, I must confess it in the hope that I should be invited another time.
But to my great astonishment, my words never produced the desired effect. Notwithstanding that I am short-sighted, I could discern upon their faces a slight expression of disappointment, which seemed to say: ‘What! Nothing more?’
And they never invited me to return a second time. At first this vexed me, but afterwards I laughed at it, and became accustomed to my lot, that of passing the whole day in search of a lodging, for the night.
I observed that, generally speaking, the more the Revolutionist is feared and sought after by the police, the more readily is he welcomed concealed, and everything done for him. In the first place, a man who belongs to the Organisation always has something interesting to relate; then, to conceal him gives more satisfaction; for, to assist a man of great importance is, in a sense, to display revolutionary ‘activity.’ Finally, there is also the honour. This counts for not a little. A young man of a rich middle-class family said to me one day:
‘Do you know we have a sofa, an easy chair, and a seat upon which Geliaboff and Perovskaia sat. We shall never part with them,’ he added, ‘for all these things, are “historical.”