Magazine article The Spectator

Getting Away with Murder

Magazine article The Spectator

Getting Away with Murder

Article excerpt

THE DEGAEV AFFAIR by Richard Pipes Yale, 16 95, pp. 153, ISBN 0300098480

Few suspected that 'jolly little Pell', Professor of Mathematics at the University of South Dakota, where he was a much loved father figure to his students whose enthusiasm for football he shared, was in reality Sergei Degaev, one-time terrorist and police informer. He had co-operated with the Tsarist security chief, Lieutenant-Colonel Sudeikin, in betraying his fellow terrorists. Either from remorse or in order to escape execution by terrorists as a traitor, he agreed to assassinate Sudeikin. When, in 1921, he died peacefully in his bed he seemed an exemplary poor immigrant who had made his way successfully in the free society of the melting-pot.

Degaev came from a bourgeois family of romantics `with exalted if unfocussed ambitions'. He became a terrorist, one of his fellow terrorists suspected, because he was a psychopath suffering from folie de grandeur. Unimpressive as a personality, as a terrorist he would become a person of importance.

In this absorbing, brilliantly researched short book Professor Richard Pipes not only examines Degaev's twisted personality, characteristic alike of spies and those who work in the underworld of counterintelligence, e.g. Burgess and Peter Wright. He sets Degaev's extraordinary career in the context of Russian revolutionary politics in the late 19th century. For Pipes the Bolshevik revolution of October 1917 was a coup d'etat engineered by a minority of professional revolutionaries who, like Lenin, despised liberal democracy. They realised that they could only stay in power by terror. More than this, Lenin, he argues, had been impressed by the terrorist organisation the People's Will, formed in 1879 for the specific purpose of assassinating the reigning Tsar Alexander II, which Degaev joined in 1880. Confronted by police repression and infiltration by informers, the People's Will developed clandestinely the particular morality described by Dostoevsky in The Devils. The end, the overthrow of Tsarist absolutism, justifies the means, legitimising the 'execution', not only of members of the political establishment but of weaklings and suspected traitors in their own ranks. With the October Revolution the morality of a clandestine terrorist organisation became that of the Bolshevik state.

The central story of this fascinating display of scholarly detective work is the bizarre relationships that developed between Degaev and Sudeikin. Both were frustrated and bitter men. Degaev hoped for glory but was cold-shouldered by the Executive Committee of the People's Will as 'soft', lacking the commitment and ruthlessness of a hardened terrorist. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.