Narodnaya Volya

From New World Encyclopedia

Narodnaya Volya (Народная Воля in Russian, known as People’s Will in English) was a Russian revolutionary organization in the early 1880s. It was formed in August 1879, after Land and Liberty (Zemlya i volya) had split in two: Narodnaya Volya and Cherniy Peredel (Black repartition). (The word 'volya' means both 'will' and 'liberty' in Russian.) Narodnaya Volya represented a radicalization of the Narodniki, or Russian Populists. After the failure of the "Going to the people" campaign, in which members of the Russian intelligentsia and disaffected aristocrats went into the villages to educate the peasants as to their responsibility (according to the Narodnik's socialist beliefs), the more radical elements resorted to a campaign of terrorism in an attempt to trigger the revolution. However, the assassination of Alexander II failed to start a popular revolt and after an initial surge in popularity over their success, the movement faded away.


Its founders were professional revolutionaries—supporters of political struggle against autocracy. They created a centralized, well disguised, and most significant organization in a time of diverse liberation movements in Russia. Narodnaya Volya was led by its Executive Committee: Alexander Mikhailov, Aleksandr Kvyatkovsky, Andrei Zhelyabov, Sophia Perovskaya, Vera Figner, Nikolai Morozov, Mikhail Frolenko, Lev Tikhomirov, Alexander Barannikov, Anna Yakimova, and Maria Oshanina among others.

The Executive Committee was in charge of a network of local and special groups (comprised of workers, students, and members of the military). In 1879–1883, Narodnaya Volya had affiliates in almost 50 cities, especially in Ukraine and the Volga region. Though the number of its members never exceeded 500, Narodnaya Volya had a few thousand followers.

The Program of Narodnaya Volya

Narodnaya Volya’s program contained the following demands: convocation of a Constituent Assembly (for designing a Constitution); introduction of universal suffrage; permanent people’s representation, freedom of speech, press, and assembly; communal self-government; exchange of the permanent army with a people’s volunteer corps; transfer of land to the people; gradual placement of the factories under the control of the workers; and granting oppressed peoples of the Russian Empire the right to self-determination.

Narodnaya Volya's program was a mix of democratic and socialist reforms. Narodnaya Volya differed from its parent organization, the narodnik Zemlya i volya, in that its members had come to believe that a social revolution would be impossible in the absence of a political revolution; the peasantry could not take possession of the land as long as the government remained autocratic. Zemlya i Volya had initiated a propaganda effort among the peasants in the early 1870s that was known as "going to the people." These efforts were designed to put the revolutionaries in touch with peasant life and instigate revolution from below. Due to Zemlya i Volya's failures in its propaganda efforts among the peasants, Narodnaya Volya turned its energies against the central government. However, unlike Marxists, they continued to believe that Russia could achieve socialism through a peasant revolution, bypassing the stage of capitalism.

The members of Narodnaya Volya were not in complete agreement about the relationship between the social and political revolutions. Some believed in the possibility of achieving both simultaneously, relying on the socialist instincts of the Russian peasantry, as demonstrated in the traditional peasant commune. Other members believed that a political revolution would have to take place first and, after the autocracy had been overthrown and democratic liberties established, revolutionaries would prepare people for the socialist revolution. The Liberal faction of Narodnaya Volya (which had no real influence) proposed to limit their demands to getting a Constitution from the tsarist government.

Narodnaya Volya spread its propaganda through all strata of the population. Its newspapers, "Narodnaya Volya" and “The Worker’s Gazette,” attempted to popularize the idea of a political struggle with the autocracy. Their struggle to topple autocracy was crowned by the slogan “Now or never!” Narodnaya Volya never did succeed in enlisting the peasantry in its work, which would later lead Soviet historians to charge it with Blanquism; these historians would argue that Narodnaya Volya understood political struggle only in terms of conspiracy and, therefore, looked more like a sect.

Resort to terrorism

As time went by, in the face of their failure at efforts to persuade the peasantry to revolt, terror played a more important role. A special place in the history of Narodnaya Volya belongs to its “Terrorist faction,” whose members—including Aleksandr Ulyanov (Vladimir Lenin's brother)—are also known as Pervomartovtsi. Narodnaya Volya prepared seven assassination attempts on the life of Alexander II of Russia (until they finally succeeded), and later on Alexander III of Russia. Its terror frightened the government and persuaded it to make a few concessions. However, the regime soon realized that the masses would not rise up in support of the revolutionaries, which gave the regime all the more reason to counterattack. From 1879 until 1883, there were more than 70 trials of Narodnaya Volya’s members with about 2,000 people brought to trial (see Trial of the Fourteen). Narodnaya Volya lost almost its entire membership to imprisonment and exile, and was rendered lifeless.


After the assassination of Alexander II, Narodnaya Volya went through a period of ideological and organizational crisis. The most significant attempts at reviving Narodnaya Volya are associated with the names of Gherman Lopatin (1884), Pyotr Yakubovich (1883–1884), Boris Orzhikh, Vladimir Bogoraz, L.Sternberg (1885), and S.Ginzburg (1889). Organizations similar to Narodnaya Volya in the 1890s (in St.Petersburg and abroad) pretty much abandoned many of the revolutionary ideas of Narodnaya Volya.

Narodnaya Volya’s activity became one of the most important elements of the revolutionary situation in the late 1879–1880. However, ineffective tactics of political conspiracy, and preference of terrorism over other means of struggle failed. At the turn of the century, however, as increasing numbers of former members of Narodaya Volya were released from prison and exile, these veteran revolutionaries helped to form the Socialist Revolutionary Party, which revived many of the goals and methods of the former narodniki, including peasant revolution and terror.

Modern usage of the name

In December 2001, a small nationalist party led by a veteran Russian nationalist politician Sergey Baburin was created under the name Party of National Revival "Narodnaya Volya". Later the new Narodnaya Volya joined the Rodina coalition that performed surprisingly well in the 2003 State Duma elections. Narodnaya Volya is seen by many as the most nationalist element in the mostly leftist Rodina and a number of its members in the past were associated with Russian far right movements. When Rodina merged into the new party Fair Russia, Narodnaya Volya left the Rodina coalition.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Berlin, Isaiah. "The Populists' Moral Condemnation of Russia Political and Social Systems," in Problems of European Civilization: Imperial Russia after 1861. Arthur E. Adams, ed. D. C. Heath and Company, 1965.
  • Maynard, Sir John. Russia in Flux: Before the October Revolution. Collier Books, 1962.
  • Yarmolinsky, Avrahm. Road to Revolution: A Century of Russian Radicalism 1956. Chapter 12. The People's Will. Retrieved October 7, 2007.


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