Angel of Vengeance

By Ana Siljak

In Angel of Vengeance Queen’s University history professor Ana Siljak tells the story of Russian radicalism by taking as her hook the biography of would-be assassin and revolutionary doyenne Vera Zasulich. Of Vera herself there isn’t much to be said. A gray, retiring figure from the shabby backwoods nobility, even her moment of glory was a bit of a damp squib. Though she shot the governor of St. Petersburg in 1878 she only wounded him in the groin. In the sensational trial that followed she took a backseat to her flamboyant attorney. An idealistic and spiritual soul, her ironic fate was to become identified with a kind of radical chic. “She had wanted, more than anything else, to become a martyr. Instead, she had become a celebrity.” In a bit of understatement Siljak tells us that this, to Vera’s mind, “was not a fair exchange.”

Instead of poring over biographical details, most of the book provides a popular cultural history of nineteenth-century Russian revolutionary movements, an examination of the intellectual and political currents that ultimately lead to the terrorist “propaganda of the deed.” And it does an excellent job introducing all of the key personalities to the general reader in the form of a compelling dramatic narrative.

Few non-specialist readers will have heard of Vera Zasulich. She is a footnote in most histories of the period. And Siljak rushes through what came after her moment of fame, only dealing very quickly with the later events of Vera’s life, including her subsequent role in European radical circles and interaction with figures like Marx and Lenin. But it all makes for a good story, and good history too.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, March 2008.

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