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Death Orders: The Vanguard of Modern Terrorism in Revolutionary Russia
By Anna Geifman
Praeger, 229 Pages, $34.95

A common sociology links the Russian terrorists and the Islamists. As Geifman notes, Russia’s “urban populace swelled from around 9 million people in the mid-19th century to about 25 million in 1913, with inhabitants of most major Russian cities increasing four- or five-fold,” leading to a “breakdown of social values.” All of Europe experienced political upheaval associated with urbanization; but, “Less prepared for the advent of modernization, the Russians were vulnerable to an even greater degree,” according to Geifman, “increasingly prone to take an opportunity to release the bottled-up rage, especially when external circumstances stimulated the expression of distress.”

Geifman sifts the psychological literature for explanations of the nihilistic rage of the Russian terrorists, but she ultimately sees the phenomenon in theological terms: “Regardless of the espoused creed, be it secular, as among the Russian extremists, or religious, such as radical Islam, the terrorist cult practices a modern type of paganism.” By this she means an apocalyptic messianism encountered in Islamism and Communism as well as at the heretical margins of Russian Orthodoxy. “The fatal attraction of Communism,” she writes, “was that it was messianic. Its atheism notwithstanding, it contained an enormous potential of an avowedly scientific prediction championed as faith and venerated.” Soon after its formation in 1902, [the Social Revolutionary Combat Organization] turned into a sect, which presupposed reverence for the ‘holy terror’ as a sacred thing. “For Mariia Benevskaia, an ardent Christian Orthodox who never parted with the Gospels, preparations for fatal acts were religious rituals. Kaliaev, nicknamed ‘the poet,’ composed prayers in verse exalting the glory of the Almighty. Sazonov believed that the terrorists continued the work of Jesus.” Jews infected by the messianic delusion joined the terrorist organizations as well.

Geifman’s narrative shifts back and forth between prerevolutionary Russia and modern Islamism, hammering away at contemporary intellectual apologies for the Russian Nihilists, a precedent for today’s intellectual apologies for terrorism.

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