“Brute Force”

May 24, 1879

Thomas Nast

“Brute Force”

Analogies, Ancient Mythology; Anarchism and Nihilism; Assassination; Symbols, Liberty; Terrorism; Women, Symbolic;

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.


The Russian Cossack Carrying Off the Bride of Civilization--Liberty.

In the wake of an unsuccessful assassination attempt on Tsar Alexander II of Russia, Harper's Weekly published this cartoon by Thomas Nast, which appeared over an article on Russian Nihilism.  As befits the liberal republican philosophy of the newspaper, the cartoon condemns the harsh repression of the autocratic Russian government, while the article denounces the violent methods of Russian revolutionaries.  The cartoonist uses a Russian Cossack in the guise of a monstrous centaur to characterize the Russian military and government.  The article warns that the oppressive situation in Russia is similar to that which preceded the French Revolution of 1789.

Alexander II came to power in February 1855 while Russia was embroiled in the Crimean War against Britain and her allies.  The war provoked calls for political and social reform in Russia, and the Tsar embarked on a policy of "modernization."  Alexander facilitated railroad construction, which stimulated other segments of the national economy; emancipated the serfs by imperial decree in February 1861; established an independent judiciary and local assemblies in 1864; released some political prisoners and lessened the burdens on religious minorities.  These and other reforms, however, did not make Tsar Alexander II a liberal.  He believed that God granted his right to rule absolutely, and that Russia was not ready for constitutional monarchy.

Tsar Alexander was particularly concerned about the spread of Nihilism in Russia.  Its doctrines can be traced to the early-nineteenth century, but the term entered the popular lexicon in the 1860s, following its use in Ivan Turgenev's novel, Fathers and Children (1862).  The word derives from the Latin for "nothing," and conveys adherents' refusal to accept the traditional authority of church or state.  Instead, they viewed scientific rationalism as the source of human progress.  

Nihilism soon became a catchall label for various types of Russian radicalism that aimed to destroy the autocratic regime of the Tsar and replace it with a communistic system.  In the late 1860s, Mikhail Bakunin, a leading Nihilist theorist, urged the abolition of property, marriage, and all religious and social institutions.  He warned his colleagues to "be ready to die and ready to kill anyone who opposes the triumph of your revolt." 

In 1862, the government of Tsar Alexander II began cracking down on Nihilistic secret societies.  An assassination attempt on the tsar in 1866 by a Russian radical led to even harsher tactics by the secret police.  In the summer of 1874, young Russian radicals traveled to villages across European Russia, preaching their gospel of revolution to the peasants.  The agitators were surprised to find their poor audience unreceptive to their anti-authoritarian message of dramatic social change, and committed to the Tsar and the Orthodox faith.  The government arrested 800 of the radicals, fearing that they would attract the support, not of the peasants, but of the rural elites.  

Incidents of revolutionary terrorism escalated after the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878.  Narodnaya Volya ("People's Will"), a revolutionary terrorist organization, targeted high government officials and royal figures.  They focused on killing Tsar Alexander, but he survived attempts to shoot him, wreck his train, and bomb his winter palace.  

In response, the tsar placed Count Mikhail Loris-Melikov in charge of both repressing the terror and disorder and investigating its underlying causes.  Loris-Melikov proposed mild political change:  local councils would elect representatives who would sit with government-appointed experts on a legislative advisory commission.  The plan was never implemented because on March 1, 1881, members of Narodnaya Volya assassinated Tsar Alexander II, who had approved the measure.  The administration of the new tsar, Alexander III, stepped up government repression, while revolutionary activists continued to plot and agitate for fundamental change.

Robert C. Kennedy

“Brute Force”
July 14, 2024

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