A review of TO BREAK RUSSIA'S CHAINS appeared in the January 13, 2022, issue of THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS. Below is the response I sent to the NYRB's editors on January 10, 2022.
(Scroll down for subsequent correspondence)
To the Editors:
I’d like to respond to Professor Morson’s review of my biography of Savinkov (“Falling in Love with Terror,” January 13, 2022) and request that you publish my response in a future issue. I’ve subscribed to your publication for years, but I can think of few examples in your pages when a reviewer has misrepresented a book as egregiously as Morson has mine. His fundamental tactic is to ignore all the abundant evidence in my book that doesn’t fit his preconception of Savinkov. But he goes even further when, through targeted omissions of numerous passages in my book, he tries to make me into an uncritical apologist for Savinkov’s terrorism. I reject the imputation categorically and will demonstrate its falsehood below.
But let me begin with his claims in the order in which they appear.
Savinkov did have little interest in the fine points of revolutionary theory and ideology, but this is hardly the same as indifference to “alleviating people’s suffering.” In 1902 he joined the agrarian, populist Russian Socialist Revolutionary Party (SR), which was the largest and most popular of the radical parties, and which fought to establish a democratic socialist republic in Russia. Savinkov dedicated the rest of his life to using violence against the tsarist and Bolshevik regimes precisely because he believed their destruction would free the Russian people from tyranny and alleviate their suffering. Even after being expelled by the SRs in 1917 (about which see more below) Savinkov never wavered in his focus on the needs of the peasantry, who constituted 80% of the Russian population, and self-determination for the formerly subject peoples of the Russian Empire. This was the aim of his terrorist campaigns; his work as a “commissar” and the Acting Minister of War in 1917 (he feared a German victory would reverse the gains of the February Revolution, and was prescient in seeing the danger the Bolsheviks represented even before their October coup d’état); the private armies he raised against the Bolsheviks both in Russia and in Poland; his collaboration with Churchill; his attempt to get help from Mussolini (even if deluded, see below); and his return to Russia (for some statements about his commitments to democracy and freedom for the Russian people, see my pp. 33, 127, 142, 216, 219, 244-45, 246, 247, 260, 271, 272, 298, 306, 308, 315, 364, 375, 376, 382, 396, 453, etc., etc.).
There is no doubt that terrorist acts and the prospect of one’s own death haunted Savinkov and his comrades. Morson does not mention that I write about this (e.g., pp. 118, 128, 168-69, 195-96), and also about the powerful bonds that formed among members of the Combat Organization as a result of having faced death together, which is reminiscent of what combat troops experience (e. g., pp. 58, 71). However, to claim that a morbid preoccupation with violence was all that moved Savinkov and his comrades is wrong. Savinkov revered Dora Brilliant as one of his most cherished comrades in arms. She believed that the targeted assassination of imperial grandees would help free the Russian people and yearned to become a terrorist for this reason. But because she could not reconcile her conscience with the need to kill others and agonized over this (like other members of the Combat Organization), she saw her own death during the act, or when executed after being captured, as necessary atonement for her sin. As I explain in passages that Morson omits, this is the context for her saying “I want to die” (p. 68).
Vnorovsky also wanted to sacrifice himself for others and Morson again leaves out a crucial passage that explains this. In the letter that Savinkov cites, which Vnorovsky wrote to his parents shortly before being executed, after mentioning his youthful suicidal thoughts, he explains: “Now I live for you, for the people, for all humankind. Now I am not sacrificing my life because of my unhinged nerves, but to improve, as far as I can, the situation of the fatherland [italics mine].” Vnorovsky also explains that after deciding to become a revolutionary he had to find a political party that accorded with his views. That is why he rejected the Marxists and chose the SRs, which was hardly a random choice considering the major differences between their programs and aims. As far as Nazarov is concerned, Savinkov does acknowledge that he did not fit the typical SR mold. But Morson omits the explanation that Savinkov also provides: Nazarov had “his own original philosophy” and was moved not by “love for the humiliated and hungry,” but hatred for those who were well-fed and caused the humiliation of others. It’s a different side of the same coin (unless one believes that the only way to resist evil is through non-violence).
When quoting Chernov on Savinkov, Morson also leaves out a passage showing that Savinkov actually supported the SR party’s commitment to the peasantry. After the “chuckle” in question, Savinkov explains to his interlocutor that he defers to Chernov on all technical matters, such as exactly how many desiatins of land a peasant needs, and then adds: “Everything that the Party says about this I accept and will not utter a word against it; and I advise you not to as well” (p. 40). Moreover, Chernov, who was a leader of the SR Party and its theoretician, wrote his memoir after Savinkov was expelled from the SRs in 1917 for supporting Kornilov and accusing a leading SR of treason (p. 287), so it’s hardly surprising that Chernov maligned him. That’s also the case with the recollections of Lydia Dan, the woman Savinkov tried to recruit to terrorism, who became a Marxist, and as such a passionate opponent of the SRs and their program and tactics.
Equating Savinkov with his fictional hero in The Pale Horse, which is, at the very least, questionable in literary analysis, even in a first-person novel, becomes completely untenable if one knows the facts of Savinkov’s life—his beliefs, behavior, and relations with family, comrades, and friends (see pp. 190-91). But few readers of Savinkov’s novella knew or know enough about him to discern the difference (pace Kelly). Similarly, Savinkov’s novel What Never Happened (note its subtitle: Three Brothers) has a range of perspectives on the Revolution of 1905 and none of them can be seen as simply embodying Savinkov’s.
It is incorrect to claim that Savinkov introduced bombs instead of guns. As I explain, Evno Azef, the enigmatic double or triple traitor and head of the Combat Organization, had made bombs the weapon of choice before Savinkov joined the SRs. Azef also established laboratories to make explosives and oversaw the training of bomb-making technicians, who then went on to train others (pp. 42, 67, 83, 119, 131).
Specific, pragmatic goals and beliefs mattered greatly to Savinkov when he began to fight the Bolsheviks, and Morson again omits an important passage that proves the opposite of what he claims about Savinkov’s supposed indifference to ideology. When Savinkov wrote to Gippius that he would work with “anyone,” he explained that he doesn’t care about an individual’s political persuasion or economic class, only that they could provide material help or be willing to fight the Bolsheviks to establish democracy in Russia: “I will personally continue to fight as long as I am still standing on my feet. To fight for Russia, 1st of all, for the Constituent Assembly, 2nd. Let the ‘comrades’ call me a ‘traitor’.” The Constituent Assembly—the product of the first free elections in Russian history—was the national elected body that Lenin scattered at gunpoint in January 1918 when he saw that the SRs had a majority and that the Bolsheviks were going to lose the vote to form a new government. Restoring this popularly elected body became one of Savinkov’s overriding goals. Savinkov also lived up to his principle of non-partisan inclusiveness, when, after being rejected by the White generals, most of whom he saw as insufficiently democratic, he formed his Union for the Defense of the Motherland and Freedom and accepted members with political views ranging from constitutional monarchist to anti-Bolshevik Marxist. The Union’s four cornerstones were, in Savinkov’s words, “patriotism, the Allied cause, the Constituent Assembly, and land to the people” (pp. 314-15).
Morson claims that Savinkov makes only a “rather qualified ‘condemnation’” of Bulak-Balakhovich’s anti-Semitism during his military incursion into Belarus. However, Morson ignores what I summarize six lines lower: “Savinkov ends his report about this sorry episode in the army’s history by insisting that it is the duty of every honest man to defend the Jews, who as a people are as innocent of being Communists as the Russians are of being Bolsheviks” (p. 400).
Early Fascism did seduce Savinkov, whose essence he misunderstood (as I indicate, pp. 417-18), but he had lots of company. Mussolini was seen favorably for years by leaders of liberal democracies, such as Churchill. In the United States Presidents Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt expressed approval of his regime, and Wall Street eagerly pursued economic deals with it. Even Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the Zionist leader, showed early interest in Mussolini’s Fascism that lasted into the 1930s and claimed that it was a true ally of the Jewish people. Only after Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 and his alliance with Hitler in 1936 would any of this change (p. 417). However, Morson’s quotation of Savinkov’s admiring remarks about fascism omits two important words and still misrepresents what he said: “it stands on a national platform and at the same time is deeply democratic because it relies on the peasantry [my italics]” (p. 475).
That Savinkov committed suicide is the most plausible conclusion based on all the available evidence, including numerous documents published by historians who were given brief access to some of the KGB archives, and despite the remarks by Savinkov’s mistress and son, which I cite openly in the spirit of objectivity (p. 494), and which are not something that Morson introduces as evidence. As a Russian writer said about the OGPU and Savinkov, they “needed not his dead body, but his captive soul” (p. 495). The problem with rumors reported by eminent figures like Solzhenitsyn (and Shalamov, both of whom I cite, p. 494) is that their information comes second hand. Morson’s reliance on Ignatiev’s recollections of Stalin illustrates the problem and is also careless. Lenin could not have ordered Dzerzhinsky to throw Savinkov out of a window because Lenin died eight months before Savinkov returned to Russia and was imprisoned.
About Savinkov, terrorism, and terrorists in general. I do admire Savinkov and some of his closest SR colleagues, such as Kalyaev, Sazonov, and Brilliant, for their grit and commitment to the Russian people. (I also detail many criticisms of Savinkov, none of which Morson mentions; see below.) However, to say that I exalt the Russian terrorist movement in general is not just inaccurate but irresponsible. As the title of my book indicates, it is a biography of Savinkov specifically, and I chose to write about him and his closest collaborators because he was not only a fascinating figure but an atypical one. Morson’s quotations from Geifman and Naimark (or Lavrov) do not apply to Savinkov or his closest colleagues, as my descriptions of their actions and beliefs demonstrate in detail. Here’s just one specific example. When Sazonov, whom Savinkov also revered, was captured after assassinating Plehve, the police lied to him that there were many innocent victims. This false claim, and not the prospect of execution, was Sazonov’s greatest source of agony in prison, because, as paradoxical as it may sound, he was, like Savinkov, a moral terrorist (pp. 79-80; see also pp. 32-33; and Kalyaev’s incredible reaction to Grand Duke Sergey’s widow when she visited him in prison, pp. 106-108). Even when cataloging and evaluating horrors, I believe it’s necessary to recognize differences; and although all terrorists may claim a high moral ground, it is reductive not to distinguish among them. The assassination of a reviled, authoritarian, anti-Semitic government minister, which tragically includes an innocent coachman or several innocent passersby, is not the same as “killing . . . ordinary citizens, randomly and in mass numbers” (Morson’s quotation from Geifman). In the same way that Savinkov condemned the attempt on Stolypin because of the number of innocent victims, he would have been appalled by the random slaughter of nearly three thousand innocent office workers in two New York towers. Similarly, Savinkov’s willingness to work with Sokolov after he left the Maximalists following their botched attempt on Stolypin’s life, which killed many innocent victims, does not mean that Savinkov suddenly decided to engage in random murder of innocent civilians himself. As Savinkov explains in a passage about Sokolov that Morson omits, what he wanted was an alliance with a strong fighter.
To implicate me in irresponsible admiration for Savinkov, Morson quotes only the second half of a sentence about Savinkov in my Author’s Note (he “never killed anyone himself”), a tactic that misrepresents what I said and makes it seem as if I were trying to exonerate Savinkov from culpability in terrorist killings. My full sentence about Savinkov reads: “He closely supervised teams of terrorists and agonized over the morality of his actions, but never killed anyone himself.” This is one in a series of nine sentences whose purpose is to catalog aspects of Savinkov’s complex and paradoxical nature. The next sentence shows this from another perspective: “He was a cunning conspirator, but fell victim to the greatest deception in the annals of Russian political skullduggery” (pp. xii-xiv).
The last sentence is also my criticism of Savinkov’s blindness of course. But Morson does not mention this or any of my other critical remarks and claims that I present Savinkov as a “secular saint” and “the noblest, most spotless” of revolutionary heroes. Let me therefore point out some of my other critiques: Savinkov’s fondness for posing (p. 14); his ineptitude during the initial phases of the plot against Plehve (pp. 50, 60, 64); his confusion and blindness after Plehve’s assassination (which he acknowledged himself in his memoir, p. 77); his failure to recognize Azef’s duplicity over the course of many years or to accept the initial evidence demonstrating it (pp. 44, 65, 84, 123, 178, 179, etc.); his inept planning of an attack in 1905 (p. 119); his failures as a leader (which he acknowledged himself, p. 195); his “stupid honesty,” which he also acknowledged (p. 283), and which allowed him to become the unwitting tool of Kerensky’s machinations, thus repeating what happened with Azef; his egotism, which the GPU exploited (pp. 428-29); his alliance late in his life with Pavlovsky, the brutality of whose depredations, as I explain, was matched only by their ineffectiveness from the point of view of a revolutionary struggle against Soviet rule (p. 433); his betrayal of his principles in the end, which he tried to redeem by killing himself (p. 501). Similarly, Morson also ignores everything I say about Savinkov’s personal life and his interactions with friends, family, and famous artists and writers, all of which show important facets of his personality and are essential aspects of his biography.
My description of Savinkov’s return to Russia, and my hypothesis that he feigned joining the Bolsheviks, is based on different kinds of evidence and is not a “scenario” that I simply dreamt up to rescue my “hero’s reputation.” The evidence includes Savinkov’s crucial “confession” to Burtsev about his plan to continue to fight the Bolsheviks after he returned to Russia (pp. 451-53); changes in the tone of Lyubov’s diary entries (pp. 465-67); testimony by Russian historians about the documents in the KGB archives (p. 467); my detailed analysis of Savinkov’s show trial (pp. 469-76); my inference that Savinkov’s letter to Burtsev from prison may have contained an encoded reference to the “confession” he made in Paris (479-80); etc.
Morson concludes by quoting with approval Lenin’s denigration of terrorism and his attacks on those who romanticize revolution and “revolutionism.” However, Savinkov lost his struggle against Lenin and his ilk because he was too principled—and thus too naive in the context of the great political scrum of 1917—to act as ruthlessly as they did (see the so-called Kornilov Affair in 1917, which I discuss at length, pp. 278-83). And it is the height of irony for Morson to suggest that Lenin and his followers were immune to the appeal of terror or of romanticizing themselves and their coup d’état because they established unbeatable records in both realms. Immediately following Fanny Kaplan’s attempt on Lenin in 1918, he and his followers instituted a new form of terrorism—but one practiced by the state, not by individuals. The febrile rhetoric that the Bolsheviks used for their “Red Terror” does not sound like a sober rejection of the tactic: “we will kill our enemies by the scores of hundreds, let them be thousands, let them drown themselves in their own blood”; “We must carry along with us 90 million out of 100 million of Soviet Russia’s inhabitants. As for the rest, we have nothing to say to them. They must be annihilated” (p. 336). Lenin’s opposition to romanticized views of revolution and revolutionaries may have sounded good on paper but did not translate into reality. His recovery from his wounds was seen as “miraculous” and led his closest associates to begin a policy of deifying him. Just days after Kaplan’s attempt, Trotsky proclaimed that Lenin was “the greatest human being of our revolutionary epoch,” and Zinovyev called him “the greatest leader ever known by humanity” (Kotkin, Stalin, vol. I, pp. 286, 287). Does the fact that Lenin disapproved of this really make a difference? Lenin’s “romanticization” would continue to grow into a cult after his death. The first Mausoleum on Red Square was built, and Lenin’s mummified body placed in it, in 1924, the year he died. And we all know how state terror and Lenin’s mythologization developed in subsequent decades.
Had more Russians of different political persuasions a century ago not fallen for the utopian fantasies and lies of the Bolsheviks and been willing to fight them with weapons in hand, Russia might well have followed an entirely different path in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
Because Morson’s review might make some readers think that I’m an advocate for terrorism, I would like to conclude by quoting the final lines of my book: “There are aspects of Savinkov’s violent legacy that will, and should, remain frozen in the past as part of the historical record. But perhaps over time he will come to receive his due for his conception of a free Russia and for his remarkable struggle to bring it to life” (p. 503).
There is more about my book on www.valexandrov.com, which is also where I will post any updates to this matter.
B. E. Bensinger Professor Emeritus of Slavic Languages and Literatures
On January 14, 2022, a senior editor at the NYRB replied to the letter above and offered me 800 words for a response that would be published in a future issue. On January 17, 2022, I sent the following letter to him and to the editor of the NYRB:
Dear Mr. Katzenstein and Ms. Greenhouse,
Thank you for your email. However, I would like to explain why I don’t believe that 800 words are enough in my case.
If Professor Morson had criticized me for being a bad historian because I misinterpreted events or misread documents pertaining to Savinkov, our disagreement would have remained in the scholarly realm. But Professor Morson segues from historical interpretation to attacking me personally by claiming that I celebrate Russian terrorism. This has potentially grave real-world consequences, especially in our time.
Moreover, the way Professor Morson structures his attack is particularly offensive because he bases his false claim on my ethnicity. He begins by stating that Russia was “the first country where ‘terrorist’ became an honorable . . . profession, one that could be passed down in families for generations”; then he identifies me as having grown up in “a Russian émigré family”; and finally, he claims that the “purpose” of my book is “to exalt the Russian terrorist movement in general and Savinkov in particular.” (All italics are mine.) Why is my ethnicity even mentioned in this review instead of some other, standard academic identifiers? Is it to suggest that I celebrate terrorism because of my Russian background and cannot be objective? In the context of Professor Morson’s other comments, I don’t see any other possible conclusion.
I would have thought that identifying anyone in this way would be seen as completely inappropriate (which is what several readers of the review have told me). There is also the broader issue of “Russian terrorism” which has been much in the news in recent years (the Skripal and Navalny poisonings, etc.). Am I to be associated with this “national characteristic” via my genealogy as well?
Because of the seriousness of Professor Morson’s accusation and misrepresentations, and because they cannot be countered with generalizations but require specific factual and textual references, I would like to request that you allow me to respond under the rubric “An Exchange.” The current issue of the Review has one between David Wengrow and Kwame Anthony Appiah, and Wengrow’s response is 1,500 words.
The letter I sent you is 3,200 words and I am prepared to condense it, but I cannot make my points persuasively in 800 words. Referring readers to my website to see my full response would not be the same as defending myself in the pages where I have been maligned.