Review: Undercover Agents in the Russian Revolutionary Movement – The SR Party, 1902 -14, by Nurit Schleifman

Victor Chernov.
Victor Chernov was the leader of the Socialist Revolutionary Party.

The Socialist Revolutionary Party, like other groups working in opposition to the autocratic regime that ruled Russia until 1917, was rife with secret police agents. The most famous of these, Ievno Azef, rose to become the leader of the party’s terrorist wing, the Battle Organisation. Azef was exposed in large part due to the work of Vladimir Burtsev, who has been described as a “one man detective agency,” devoted to revealing the dirty work of the tsarist police, known as the Okhrana.

In this short academic work from 1988, Nurit Schleifman looks at a few neglected aspects of this story. One of these is the extraordinary impact exposure of agents had on the SR party. The revolutionaries, and especially the Battle Organisation members among them, were an elite, and something of a family. The idea that one could no longer trust their comrades was unbearable to them. The exposure of Azef led to widespread disillusionment and in some cases, suicides.

Schleifman reached the conclusion that the efforts of the Okhrana to prevent the exposure of their agents may have been counter-productive. Far better, it seems, for the police to sacrifice a few of their agents in order to undermine the cohesion of the revolutionaries. As she writes, this is an under-researched part of the history of the revolutionary movement. This well-researched volume offers a nuanced account of one part of this neglected story.