Night with a Nihilist: On Faith Hillis’s “Utopia’s Discontents”

By Ania AizmanAugust 13, 2021

Night with a Nihilist: On Faith Hillis’s “Utopia’s Discontents”

Utopia’s Discontents: Russian Émigrés and the Quest for Freedom, 1830s–1930s by Faith Hillis

RUSSIAN “NIHILISTS” AND “TERRORISTS” fascinated the European public at the end of the 19th century. As émigrés from the tsarist empire fled persecution and economic hardship — first in a trickle in the 1830s, and then in a flood starting in the 1870s — they established colonies, as they called them, in Zurich, Geneva, Paris, and London. Journalists ventured into these enclaves, determined to write their version of the “Night with a Nihilist” story, and major authors — Émile Zola, Joseph Conrad, Helen and Olivia Rossetti, and many others — joined the feeding frenzy. The Russian émigrés were radical, dangerous, sexy, and behind their wild eyes, long beards, and ascetic dress, they were either (a) just like us, but angry at being deprived of bourgeois liberties and comforts, or (b) not like us at all, a barbaric species prone to random outbursts of violence against innocent people. Surprisingly, instead of meekly accepting the crumbs of liberal democratic society in the form of asylum, charity, a tenement home, a sweatshop job, and intense police surveillance, the colonists created rebellious mini-societies in their adopted countries. Their networked worlds of journals, clubs, presses, libraries, free universities, mutual aid associations, and, of course, radical political organizations, were experiments in living in a world they wished to see realized. They were inspiration for revolution.

In her engrossing new study, Utopias Discontents, Faith Hillis tells us their roughly hundred-year tale. It is a sad one: the future looked rosy for émigré radicals in the mid-1800s, while the bewildered Western liberals were fascinated and the bumbling autocrats back home distracted. Yet the tide turned against them swiftly, however, and by the 1880s profound political disagreements and coordinated persecution by some of the world’s most powerful regimes led to increasing dysfunction.

Faith Hillis is a historian of Russia. The colonies, though called “Russian” in their time and in Utopias Discontents, were in fact largely populated by non-Russians, some of whom spoke no Russian at all, but all of whom had in common their double alienation both from their home in the tsarist empire and from their adopted countries. Hillis, “[c]oaxing intellectual history out of the realm of philosophical texts,” makes a bold assertion that these minoritarian émigrés were prime movers of revolutionary thought in the second half of the 19th century. Polish and Jewish revolutionaries inspired not only Russian revolutionary thought and practice, but also reflection on the shortcomings of Western liberalism. Mikhail Bakunin, Alexander Herzen, and other radicals as well as moderate reformers learned from their Polish counterparts to connect a movement for national liberation to struggles for social justice across Europe, and particularly to the cause of socialist revolution. After the failed 1863 January Uprising in the Russian-ruled Kingdom of Poland, radicals formed the International Workingmen’s Association. In time, it would come to be dominated by émigrés from the tsarist empire, many of them Jewish, residing in Europe’s Russian colonies.

Hillis’s most important claim is that these 19th-century revolutionaries wanted to “prefigure the better world of the future through everyday practice.” She borrows the term “prefiguration” from Wini Breines, inviting comparison to the New Left (the SNCC, SDS, and other 1960s movements), which sought to establish social institutions outside of the traditional government, corporate, and nonprofit models. Their impact has only grown more recently. Today, co-ops, non-hierarchical social movements, and mutual aid networks proliferate, most recently in response to COVID-19 and a host of other natural and manmade disasters. They are indeed strikingly similar to the counterinstitutions of their 19th-century predecessors.

Yet contemporary scholarship (just like the turn-of-the-century yellow press) still loves the image of the lone-wolf revolutionary. Scholars still explain their outsize attention to the Russian terrorist of the 19th century by way of comparing his groupuscules with today’s robust terrorist organizations — a comparison that obfuscates a key difference, which is that today’s terrorists are armed and funded by state governments and vie for state power. By contrast, bomb plots and reactionary politics appear late in Utopias Discontents. The book joins a cohort of recent titles that include Katy Turton’s Family Networks and the Russian Revolutionary Movement (2018) and Ben Eklof and Tatiana Saburova’s A Generation of Revolutionaries (2017) in adopting an approach that Turton has called “integrated history.” Highlighting practical, day-to-day work in the revolutionary underground and the revolutionaries’ interpersonal relationships (kinship, friendship, romance), these books uncover much more than dogma and political violence in the revolutionary movement. They reveal that historical revolutionaries’ community-building practices — not lone-wolf revolutionism — anticipate today’s movements.

Hillis’s flair for narrative, small and large, gives Utopia’s Discontents its depth and breadth. We learn about Russian women students who wore large glasses and short haircuts to signify their break with traditional gender norms, about Mensheviks and Bolsheviks brawling in Genevan bars, and about one émigré Populist leader’s successful career as an artisanal kefir maker. Behind the dozens of characters that we meet is an enormous number of archival documents and a conviction that the milieu is the true protagonist of history.

Hence Hillis’s emphasis on the institutions established by female Russian students who arrived in Zurich in the 1870s. After the destruction of the Paris Commune, female students established libraries, discussion groups, and mutual aid associations, giving a new blueprint to the revolutionary movement. “What was novel about the Zurich colony,” Hillis writes, “was the ways in which it inscribed the search for a perfect world in the life of a community whose ideals, in turn, transformed individual behavior.” This “concrete utopia,” as she calls it, was a humbler goal than the revolution of the Paris Commune, but had far-reaching consequences.

Utopias, as we know, don’t exist. Hillis’s book, following Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch, discusses at least two kinds, distinguishing between the “abstract utopias” of armchair philosophers and the “concrete utopias” of communes, free universities, mutual aid associations, and debate societies. Organized by the émigrés from the ground up, émigré institutions were intended to embody a philosophical ideal — as well as to solve the pressing real-life needs of the poor and newly arrived. Hillis traces this history expertly, but her insistence on the term “utopian” tends to obscure the émigrés’ pragmatism. The reprieve granted to them by asylum policies, brief and selective, allowed them to prove their capacity for building civil society. Their institutions were beautiful and flawed (which I think is what Hillis actually means by “utopian”), but they were also practical in the extreme. Facing poverty, discrimination, and persecution abroad as at home, what the émigrés abandoned was not reality but the most utopian (that is, unattainable) of all hopes: that if they play by the rules, they might be allowed to live unexploited.

Most of those who abandoned utopian faith in the status quo were Jewish. To cite just one of Hillis’s striking statistics on the sheer size of this Jewish emigration, at the start of the 20th century, “some 250,000 travelers left the Russian empire each year, 80 to 90 percent of whom were Jewish.” Fleeing religious persecution and economic hardship, Jews established “resolutely proletarian” communities in London’s East End and the Marais in Paris in the 1870s and ’80s. And though Europe offered a respite from persecution, its labor conditions quickly radicalized Jewish émigrés. Nor were wealthy Jewish philanthropists much help, scarcely containing their horror of these unwashed masses and prioritizing inculcating bourgeois values in Jewish émigré children over fighting labor exploitation. Russian Marxists and anarchists, by contrast, agitated for radical worker consciousness in Jewish neighborhoods. Ultimately, though, Hillis argues that it was the Jewish radicals who taught their non-Jewish counterparts key lessons in political organizing. For one thing, Jewish revolutionaries actually lived the abstract internationalism of other radicals, organizing multilingual publications and demonstrations. In another example, they revived the Jewish Labor Bund abroad after its leaders’ immigration, establishing powerful smuggling networks. Unlike some other underground parties, the Bund survived police infiltration, testifying to the effectiveness of its organizing culture and, per Hillis, “making it the most powerful revolutionary party in the Russian empire by far” in the early 1900s. 

Utopias Discontents is especially lucid on the encounter between liberals and radicals at the turn of the century. The radical émigrés managed to appeal to liberal European intellectuals and philanthropists in part by consciously conforming to their fantasies of an exotic other, and in part by inspiring genuine reconsideration of European political hypocrisy. For example, tolerance toward freshly arrived émigrés, many of them Jews fleeing persecution and poverty, helped European regimes obscure their colonial violence in Africa and India — a fact that was not lost on the radical agitators in the Russian colonies. Their increasingly vocal internationalism and their commitment to socialist politics became unpalatable to both authorities and philanthropists. Hillis tells us that, rather than tolerate socialists, by the mid-1880s the leaders of Europe’s liberal democracies started to collaborate with anti-parliamentarian, reactionary forces, including Russia’s antisemitic secret police, the Okhrana. A couple of revolutionary bomb plots faked by the Okhrana in 1889–1890 then drove reaction into high gear, enabling its agents to rewrite European asylum policies to their liking. In a feedback loop, the Okhrana’s tightening net made the colonies more volatile, toxic environments. The mix of mutual sympathy, incomprehension, and fear should sound embarrassingly familiar to anyone watching the liberal-left divide today.

By the mid-1880s, when the European right had emerged with critical assistance from the tsarist police, the radical political parties found themselves fighting off anti-immigrant attacks premised on antisemitism and also fighting among themselves. Like the issue of violence, the “Jewish question” intensified both allegiances and conflicts. On the one hand, Jews were heavily represented: at a summit of émigré radical parties in 1914, nearly 70 percent of their representatives were of Jewish origin. Like women radicals, who by sheer force of numbers put women’s rights on the agendas of all the political parties, Jewish radicals demanded that their political parties articulate a position on assimilation and national liberation. Though the stakes of the Jewish question, and other issues, were high, Hillis calls the bitter ideological disputes they unleashed skloki — squabbles — emphasizing the “the narcissism of small differences” that produced them.

Only Lenin rose above the climate of paranoia and skloki — by harnessing it to divide and conquer the émigré community. As Hillis describes it, the culture of the Bolsheviks was markedly different from that of the other revolutionaries. Less inclined to socialize (or experiment with free love), the Bolsheviks were traditional and even patriarchal — reflecting the structure of Lenin’s own household, Hillis notes. In the wake of the 1905 Russian Revolution, which eventually led to a period of intense tsarist reaction, Bolsheviks had a ripple effect of creating hierarchies: the radicals began to take more conspiratorial, secretive, and violent measures. Even the anarchists centralized operations and established a party school.

The Lenin of Utopias Discontents is a diabolical opportunist. Affirming the importance of decolonial struggles and the unification of the international proletariat, he routinely accuses Jewish revolutionaries of disloyalty, falling back on antisemitic tropes. Demanding strict adherence to party doctrine in some cases, he justifies breaking with it (for instance, to conduct expropriations) as a matter of machismo. As Utopias Discontents closes, Stalin, who was alien to the culture of the Russian colonies and resented them, consolidates power using Lenin’s divide-and-conquer approach. He completes his predecessor’s work of destroying the communities of the émigrés — fearing, Hillis writes, “the astonishing fertility of their political imaginations.”

Landing on Stalin and Lenin, the story takes on the appearance of a cautionary tale. The “utopia” of the book’s title ends up looking like a dangerous business that entangles naïve dreamers in skloki and cultivates authoritarian leaders. But Hillis probably does not mean to advocate for quietism; she seems sympathetic to her rebellious subjects. And she probably does not wish to suggest that communitarian practices are doomed to failure, since her use of contemporary terms such as “prefiguration” and “mutual aid” suggests that they hold steady across 19th, 20th, and 21st-century movements. But Hillis’s story ends with Stalin, not on the contemporary versions of revolutionary “colonies” that establish educational institutions, political organizations, and mutual aid associations in defiance of the status quo.

A still more challenging ending would have followed its Zionist activists to Palestine. The historian of Russia makes a persuasive case for the Russianness and émigré-ness of the Zionist movement, and the extent to which the Russian “colony” experience defined the Zionist utopian imaginary. She shies away, though, from dealing with Zionism’s manifestation in the 20th century’s other major state-building project. The Zionists, unlike the Bolsheviks, remain suspended and freed from judgment in Utopias Discontents. Did these utopians achieve their dreams of safety for Jews in Palestine — and at what cost?

In the meantime, Russian “colonies” may yet reemerge. Today, an increasing number of activists are fleeing persecution by Russian authorities. Contemporary anarchists and antifascists have an especially strong incentive to flee Russia, as trials like those of Azat Miftakhov and the so-called “Network” prove that the outrage of the international community and the support of liberal institutions offer little protection. What a new culture of Russian colonists might yield politically remains to be seen. So far, the new émigrés report being comfortable — and acutely lonely. Perhaps not for much longer.


Ania Aizman holds a PhD from Harvard and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago, both in Comparative Literature, and with a focus on Russian and Czech. At the University of Michigan, she is writing a book: From Tolstoy to Pussy Riot: Anarchist Currents in Russian Culture.

LARB Contributor

Ania Aizman holds a PhD from Harvard and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago, both in Comparative Literature, and with a focus on Russian and Czech. At the University of Michigan, she is writing a book: From Tolstoy to Pussy Riot: Anarchist Currents in Russian Culture. Ania’s other research project focuses on contemporary theater in Russia. Her translations of plays by contemporary playwrights Mikhail Durnenkov, Mikhail Ugarov, and Elena Gremina were published by the Performing Arts Journal and Columbia University Press. An article exploring the anarchist aesthetics of Pussy Riot and the OBERIU was published in The Russian Review in January 2019. Ania has also written about trophy films, Russian “New Drama,” and the politics of Soviet children’s poems. Ania is teaching introductory and advanced courses on the cultures of Russia and Eastern Europe at the University of Michigan. In her courses, she shares her love of archival and library research with students and integrates creative assignments inspired by her research topics.


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