The Degaev Affair: Terror and Treason in Tsarist Russia
By Richard Pipes
Yale University Press. 153 pp. $22.95
Once upon a time—well, actually, it was in 1897, on the campus of the public university that the citizens of South Dakota had just built in the town of Vermillion to express their pride in their recently achieved statehood. But fairy tales generally need to avoid those kinds of specifics if they're going to keep their universality. The story of Little Red Riding Hood loses something when it begins: “On or about April 23, 1748, a vulpine suspect (a.k.a. ‘Big Bad Wolf'; see cross-indexed casefiles ‘Pigs, The Three Little' and ‘Wolf, Peter and the') was observed feloniously entering a thatched-roof domicile in the Black Forest administrative region, in contravention of the Bavarian Public Safety and Control of Animals Act of 1694, section 2, subsection 3.”
The specifics of this fairy tale set at the University of South Dakota revolve primarily around a Russian revolutionary named Sergei Degaev. That is, of course, an unlikely combination. St. Petersburg is a long way from Vermillion, and Degaev was, as it happens, an astonishingly slippery triple agent in Tsarist Russia who somehow managed to escape death despite doing such normally suicidal things as betraying to his fellow revolutionaries the names of the police agents to whom he had just betrayed his fellow revolutionaries—among whom were several police agents masquerading as revolutionaries.
In a slim but marvelously written new book called The Degaev Affair: Terror and Treason in Tsarist Russia, Richard Pipes, the well-known historian of the Russian Revolution at Harvard, has gathered what little can be discovered about Degaev's life. The result is nearly indescribable. Imagine Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment rewritten as a farce or, even better, Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent retold as a fairy tale. There's a reason Pipes begins The Degaev Affair with an epigraph from Conrad: “For who, with us in Russia, is to tell a scoundrel from an exceptionally able man?”
In fact, the life of Sergei Degaev really is something of a fairy tale-a little murderous and bloody perhaps, but that's true of many of the best fairy tales. (See the police files on the famous “Little Red Riding Hood” case, for instance.) The only way to understand Degaev's life is to begin it with “Once upon a time”—and, really, that's the way his story starts: once upon a time, a man named Alexander Pell arrived in Vermillion, South Dakota, to take up his duties as a mathematics professor at the newly formed university of which the young state of South Dakota was so proud.
The forty-year-old scholar with a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins quickly made himself a fixture on campus. The school newspaper dubbed him “Jolly Little Pell.” The students of 1904 elected him their class “father” and told stories of his fighting alongside the students when supporters of another college's football team tried to steal the school colors. Along the way, Pell published in national and international mathematics journals and managed to persuade the university's trustees in 1905 to start an engineering department, of which he became the first dean.
After the death of his first wife, he resigned from the university and married one of his students (who would live to become chair of the mathematics department at Bryn Mawr and one of America's leading women mathematicians). After teaching a few years at the Armour Institute in Chicago, Alexander Pell died in 1921, a mild, well-respected man—the recipient of a good and gentle life, beloved by his students and admired by his colleagues. His widow established a small mathematics scholarship at the University of South Dakota that continues to this day.
Of course, no one in Vermillion knew that jolly little Alexander Pell had started life as Sergei Degaev, the Russian revolutionary who, on December 16, 1883, achieved international fame for murdering Georgii Sudeikin, the all-powerful head of the Tsar's secret police.
Actually, his story is much worse than that, for Degaev agreed to undertake Sudeikin's murder only when his fellow revolutionaries in the “People's Will” movement discovered that he had already betrayed most of them to the police. And Sudeikin wasn't your usual run of secret policeman. He seems to have been, in fact, a determined reformist who had turned Degaev into a double agent in pursuit of a plan to use the People's Will to assassinate the minister of the interior, a royal governor, and several other people, all to turn himself into the new Rasputin and the power behind Alexander III's throne—from which position he imagined he could carry out many of the reforms the revolutionaries demanded.
The strangest part is how close Sudeikin came. His plan was reasonable enough, in those strange Russian days, that it may have been thwarted only by the fact that Degaev decided to save his own neck by assassinating his police patron. By turning Degaev into a triple agent and aiming him back at Sudeikin, the dying People's Will movement managed to eliminate its best chance to achieve some of its goals. But, then, “who, with us in Russia, is to tell a scoundrel from an exceptionally able man?” Neither the People's Will nor the Tsar's secret police ever entirely recovered from their experience of Sergei Degaev.
In The Degaev Affair, Richard Pipes insists that the People's Will movement has contemporary echoes. It was a group of educated young Russians who joined together in 1879 “for the specific purpose of assassinating the reigning Tsar, Alexander II,” Pipes writes. (Degaev helped dig the tunnel used in one attempt; they succeeded at last with a thrown bomb in 1881.) “It was the first organization in history dedicated to systematic political terrorism.” He goes on to compare the movement with the Weathermen, the Baader-Meinhof gang, and even al-Qaeda. “People were condemned to death not for what they did but for what they were, namely, representatives of a regime regarded by its very nature to be criminal.”
But Degaev's story doesn't actually need any immediate application to make it sell—for it is a fairy tale less about revolutionary politics than about what happens to revolutionary politics when it encounters someone like Degaev. Pipes is right that the murderous naiveté of the People's Will ought to remind us just how much blood always gets shed when innocents decide to set themselves above the law. But he was even more right to demote Terror and Treason in Tsarist Russia to his subtitle and to take the man's name as his main title.
After Sudeikin's murder, Degaev managed to escape, first to Paris, then to London. Eventually, realizing that—contrary to his quite bizarre expectations—the revolutionary movement in Russia was not going to forgive his betrayals and elevate him as its greatest hero, he emigrated to St. Louis, where he found work as a superintendent at a chemical firm. Naturalized under the name “Alexander Pell” (for no as-yet understood reason), he studied in his spare time at Washington University—from which he was sent on to Baltimore for his doctorate. When the trustees of the University of South Dakota asked the Johns Hopkins professor Lorrain S. Hulburt to recommend a teacher, he answered, “Yes, I have a mathematician for you. He would get a good position almost anywhere here in the East were it not for the Russian brogue with which he speaks.” Vermillion wired back, “Send your Russian mathematician along, brogue and all.”
The question at the center of Pipes' book is: “Which was the true Degaev-Pell: the kindly professor . . . or the revolutionary turncoat?” Was America different enough from Russia “to transform him into a different human being”? “Or perhaps was Joseph Conrad right in saying that the Russian personality is so enigmatic that a Westerner cannot hope to penetrate it?”
I tend toward the theory that Degaev was simply one of those people doomed to be a bad actor on a big stage and a good actor on a small one. For a revolutionary intellectual, it's hard to imagine a greater stage than St. Petersburg in those days, and Sergei Degaev seems to have ruined everyone whose life he touched there. It's hard to imagine a smaller stage than Vermillion, South Dakota, in those days, and Alexander Pell seems to have found, on those windswept Dakota plains, a measure of the gentleness and peace he once imagined only murder and revolution could bring about. That's the real moral of Richard Pipes' fairy tale.
Joseph Bottum is Books & Arts Editor at the Weekly Standard and Poetry Editor of First Things.