These two words, plus nihilistic, are come across by history students frequently; they may know what the words means, or perhaps not. Imagine a child not yet in its teens who refuses to accept any kind of symbol of authority at home or in school: a child who will always do the opposite of what is ordered or suggested. This is nihilism.
The Nihilists rejected all authority of the State, the Church, the School or the family. Specifically, it was the doctrine of a Russian extremist revolutionary party most active in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As part of their struggle against conservative elements in Russian society, the Nihilists justified any action, including extreme violence. They were concerned in making everyone else believe that ignorance and oppression could only be eliminated by radical means.
Tsar Alexander II repressed the Nihilists with equal violence, and they replied by murdering him outside his palace in March, 1881.
Turgenev wrote a novel called Fathers and Children in which the ‘hero’ Bazanov leads a group calling themselves ‘nihilists’. All traditional values were to be rejected, such as religion, family life, and good manners. This idea stems from the works of Chernyshevsky. “What can be smashed must be smashed!” shouts Bazarov in the novel, a character based on someone real called Pisarev. The Nihilists were also inspired by Bakunin, who insisted that destruction was in itself a creative act.
Lenin (q.v.) admitted to inspiration in the works of Sergei Nechaev, valued highly by the Communist leader. Nechaev said that educated people should be despised as the cause of social inequalities. To a great extent entrance into the great universities of Oxford and Cambridge in the twenty-first century could be said to be ‘nechaevistic’, in that graduates from state comprehensives stand more chance of getting into Oxbridge than any of the ‘elite’ from the fee-paying sector.
Nechaev wrote: ‘The revolutionary is a dedicated man; he has no personal feelings, no private affairs, no emotions, no attachments, no property:’ He must be ready to ‘destroy everyone who stands in his way; all soft and tender feelings of the family, friendship and love must be stifled.’ These must be replaced by ‘the cold and single minded passion for the revolution. Ruling elites must be executed without delay’. To emphasize his point, Nechaev himself murdered four members of his revolutionary group to encourage the others. The eminent writer Dostoevsky used these murders as the basis for Shatov’s murder in his book The Possessed.
Nechaev, having established that a revolutionary must have as much brain as a brick, went to live in Switzerland for his own safety, but underestimated the Swiss, who promptly extradited him back to Russia, where he died in prison in 1882. The murder in 1918 of the Russian Tsar and his wife, children, four servants and a couple of pet dogs at the order of Lenin must have pleased the Nihilists, who could cite the event as an idea way to start a Communist regime When super-revolutionary Trotsky disagreed later with Stalin, his head was divided by a blow from an ice-axe in exile. Nechaev would have approved.