Crime or Punishment: Russian Narratives of Incarceration

Memoirs of a Revolutionist

Memoirs of a Revolutionist
Vera Nikolayevna Figner
Shlisselburg Fortress

PLOT SUMMARY: In Memoirs of a Revolutionist, Vera Figner gives an account of her life as a revolutionary Russian activist leading up the assassination of Alexander II in March 1981 and her eventual imprisonment in 1983. The book is categorized into two sections: “A Task Fulfilled” and “When the Clock of Life Stopped.” The first section of the book, “A Task Fulfilled,” begins in 1952 exploring her upbringing in a Russian aristocratic household. During her youth, she was noted for being beautiful and this influenced her early dreams of marrying a tsar. She eventually attended a private boarding school known as the
Rodionovsky Institute for Noble Girls where she developed an intellectual curiosity. After attending the Institute, she married a lawyer and studied medicine at the University of Zurich. By this time, Figner began to be exposed to revolutionary ideas which eventually moved her to divorce her husband, drop out of medical school, and return to Russia in 1976. She spent some time helping the rural peasants in Volga village and the experience with poverty further radicalized Figner. Eventually, her revolutionary group, Land and Freedom, split into two groups: the Black Partition and the Will of the People. Figner aligned herself with the latter, which advocated for political terrorism, and, she remained with the group until her arrest in 1883.


     The second section of the book, “When the Clock of Life Stopped,” describes her time in prison. While the first section focused heavily on the structure and concepts of her
revolutionary group, the second section is a more personal account of her own experiences while imprisoned. Figner begins her journey by describing how she had lost the will to live on her first day and how her own passion for justice helped motivate her to continue living. She also touches upon routine events in prison, such as executions and suicides, in addition to more personal accounts
of the friendships she created. Figner also continued her spirit of resistance while incarcerated by leading hunger strikes and exploring poetry. By the conclusion of her memoir, Figner describes the uncertainty she felt about leaving the prison raising the issue of reintegration into society.           


ANALYSIS: Figner’s Memoirs of a Revolutionist is a classic text in the Russian memoir genre. Unlike many other texts that discuss the Russian prison system, Figner begins her memoir with her upbringing and spends half the text discussing the events that led to her incarceration. This is important since the circumstances of her incarceration are significantly different from other authors in the genre. Unlike texts that discuss the gulag system under the Soviet Union, Figner’s memoir gives a glimpse into the life of a Russian revolutionary. The text is also explicit and uncompromising in demonstrating Figner’s opinions which evolved throughout her time working as a Russian revolutionary and as a prisoner. Adding to the uniqueness of the text is the fact that Figner was a woman which is a departure from the male-dominated prison memoir genre. However, she still stays grounded in the horrors of the prison system, which touch on similar themes of isolation, decadence, control, and death that are discussed by other authors in the genre.


     As a revolutionary, Figner’s memoir illustrates how she was able to find meaning from her imprisonment which is similar to how other author’s in the prison memoir genre try to discuss their own experience. Figner describes prison as a place that kills the will to live and as a place where people lose their agency, which is consistent with the themes of other Russian texts like Dostoevsky’s Notes from a Dead House. This consistency is made more apparent when she discusses her relationship with other prisoners where she forms a kinship with several prisoners to the extent where the good of the collective community outweighs the life of an individual. This kinship among prisoners is reproduced in several works in Russian prison literature. Figner also discusses moral expectations and resistance which are explored further in works such as Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag em> Archipelago. In her memoir, Figner demonstrates her strength of character by consistently taking responsibility over her actions, following through on her word, and remaining resolute in her thinking. By abiding by these strict moral codes, Figner resisted her imprisonment through her participation in hunger strikes, demanding equal punishment, and insisting that she should be punished, which are forms of resistance that are reproduced in other works, such as Ratushinskaya’s Grey is the Color of Hope. By the conclusion, her memoir fully depicts the hardships of the Russian prison system and the hardships of being a Russian revolutionary in the Russian Empire.



“This thesis and its corollaries, political warfare, the transfer of the revolutionary center of gravity from the country to the city; preparation, not for a popular uprising, but for a conspiracy against the higher authority, with the aim of seizing it and turning it over to the people, together with the most rigid centralization of
revolutionary forces as being the only condition to insure success in the warfare with a centralized enemy, all these considerations brought about a veritable subversion in the revolutionary world of that time.” (73)


 “From the very moment of my arrest, I had felt that I no longer belonged to myself. I no longer asked myself, what I was going to do, but what they were going to do to me. Verily, to lose one’s freedom means to lose the ownership of one’s own body.” (175)


“Never did I regret that I had chosen the path that had led me to this place. It was my will that had chosen that path- there could be no regret. Never once did I regret the fact that I was deprived of delicate underclothing and fine garments, wearing instead a coarse rag and a convict’s gown with a brand on the back. I did not regret but I suffered.” (187)


BIOGRAPHY: Vera Figner was a Russian medical aide and revolutionary socialist who was born in 1852 to a noble family. She would later become an activist for the marginalized and impoverished classes in Russia. While she championed populist causes, her activism would later evolve into insurrectionary socialism (Hartnet 22). She became the leader of Narodnaya Volya (the People’s Will) which was a revolutionary socialist group that focused on undermining and overthrowing the Russian Imperial state through terrorism. Figner was an accomplice in the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881 (Hartnett 116).


Following this assassination, she was arrested and sentenced to death. However, the sentence was eventually commuted, and she was imprisoned for two decades at Schlüsselburg before being exiled to the Arkhangelsk guberniya, then Kazan guberniya, and finally Nizhny Novgorod. After her exile, Figner returned to Russia in 1915 and dedicated her time to writing. She
eventually published her famous work Memoirs of a Revolutionist after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution (Hartnett 218). She managed to survive Stalin’s Great Purges and died of natural causes in Moscow in 1942 at the age of 89 (Hartnett 258). 



Lynne A. The Defiant Life of Vera Figner: Surviving the Russian Revolution. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2014.



Patyk, Lynn. “Dressed to Kill and Die: Russian Revolutionary Terrorism, Gender, and Dress.” Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas, vol. 58, no. 1, 2010, pp. 192-209.
Patyk explores the way that gender and dress contributed to the meaning of a terrorist act in revolutionary Russia. This is explored through memoirs of female terrorists, such Vera Figner, who participated in a great renunciation of the women’s right to act politically. The article also explores how gender contributed to their view of the moral legitimacy of terrorist acts.


Rindlisbacher, Stephan. “Radicalism as Political Religion? The Case of Vera Figner.” Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions, vol. 11, no. 12010, pp. 67-87.
Rindlisbacher explores the concept of political religion in the writings of Vera Figner. He identifies her participation and justification for political violence as the product of a political religion that identifies her struggle as a moral quest to liberate people.


Scheffler, Judith A. “Women's Prison Writing: An Unexplored Tradition in Literature.” The Prison Journal, vol. 64, no. 1, 1984, pp. 57-67.
In this chapter, Scheffler tries to identify the characteristics of writing by women prisoners and how they form a unique genre. She explores how Vera Figner contributes to the genre of prison literature and how her writings influenced other women prisoners and their writings.

This page has tags:

Contents of this tag: