The Degaev Affair: Terror and Treason in Tsarist Russia

The first installment of literalab: Best Reads, in which sometimes neglected books from and about Central and Eastern Europe are put in the spotlight they deserve ..

The Degaev Affair

That reality is stranger than fiction must once have been an original and thought-provoking point. Today, it is taken for granted, a cliché even, leaving a number of significant questions unasked.

Are reality and fiction as distinct as they are ordinarily made out to be? Is it possible that far from being opposites their relationship is more ambiguous, and that in places they are so closely intertwined they cannot be told apart?

The story recounted here is extraordinary enough. A Russian revolutionary turned police spy and murderer ends up a mild-mannered professor of mathematics in South Dakota. Beyond the drama of presenting such an unusual life Pipes’ work could purport to be a number of different things: a case study of a singular psychology, a comparative social analysis of the differences between autocratic tsarism and an emerging democracy, an investigation of the unfathomable Russian soul. In fact, the author suggests all of the above, although without committing himself to any of them. He is presenting the available facts, allowing the reader to make his own conclusions.

In a way Sergei Degaev was a fairly typical product of Russia’s 19th century liberal middle class. Sincerely lamenting the injustices and oppression of tsarism, he and his contemporaries became enamored of all the trappings of revolution. Involvement could range anywhere from heated all-night discussions on changing the world to secret societies or the occasional bomb-throwing assassination. A Polish historian cited in the book describes Degaev as “not a committed revolutionary but rather someone who sought in the revolutionary movement the fulfillment of personal aspirations.”

Pipes does an excellent job evoking the kind of decisions and commitments the milieu demanded, showing both the tragic and comic sides of the revolutionary sympathies of a family like Degaev’s. In this way we see the very ordinary context out of which such an implausible destiny arose.

As Degaev gradually moves away from the revolutionary chatter of the drawing room to the risks and schemes of the real thing Pipes deftly describes the increasingly sinister surroundings. No less effective is the way he dramatizes the twists and turns of his unheroic hero’s mind. But however fascinating the psychological portrait, however engaging the glimpse into the murky world of terrorists and the Tsarist secret police, the most compelling aspect of the book lies elsewhere.

This is a work of history, a true story. Yet the names which come to mind reading it aren’t those of historians or historical figures, but novelists: Dostoevsky, Conrad, Joseph Roth. In fact, the plots of Conrad’s Under Western Eyes and Roth’s Confessions of a Murderer contain striking parallels to the events of Degaev’s life. The blurred border between fiction and reality runs through the entire book and beyond it.

The figure of Lieutenant Colonel Sudeikin, head of the secret service, exemplifies these blended categories equally well. He is the one who compels Degaev to betray his comrades, even making him believe they have formed a kind of partnership for non-violent progress, only to end up being murdered by him in a final betrayal.

Sudeikin had been inspired to join the police by his reading of the French detective writer Emile Gaboriau, and the allure of secrecy and intrigue always seemed to have a stronger pull on him than loyalty to the Tsar. When he sends Degaev to Switzerland to infiltrate the revolutionaries and lure them back into a trap, it is with Dumas’s sequel to The Three Musketeers in mind, where D’Artagnan engages in a similar scheme (this parallel returns to fiction in the novels of Conrad and Roth, just as for Dumas it was originally drawn from history).

At the point where Degaev is trapped in his double role between the revolution and secret police, the reader is thrust into a no-man’s-land where the distinctions between the fictional and the real seem to disappear altogether. A sinister charade is being carried out, largely at Sudeikin’s prompting. The reality of events is no longer certain, and as far as beliefs, it’s safest to assume people believe the opposite of what they say.

What follows is a riveting adventure, although almost entirely scripted and acted out. There are false prison escapes, false convictions, false revolutionary periodicals falsely censored, false assassination attempts (which at one point Degaev, supposed to merely shoot Sudeikin in the hand before escaping, plans to actually carry out) There are lies which turn out to be true, and false renunciations which end up as sincere convictions (In one case a revolutionary pretends to renounce his beliefs, then becomes a convinced monarchist, only to end up renouncing his renunciation just in time to become a revolutionary commissar in 1917).

It should come as no surprise that after treading through the multiple layers of falsity and betrayal Degaev might have found university life in South Dakota a tremendous relief. It was perhaps as much for clarity, to know who he was and where he stood, that he decided to betray and kill Sudeikin, thus precipitating his escape abroad.

At the outset Pipes admits to a “shortage of sources”. This makes for a concise book filled with gaps and speculation. From the point of view of historical writing the scant evidence he had to work with was an obvious disadvantage. What it loses in documentary fact though it gains in its suggestive, novelistic character. Reading about this hidden episode of history you have the feeling that a Nineteenth Century Russian masterpiece, a novella, has been dug out of the archives. Given the strangeness reality is capable of, who knows? Perhaps one has.

Photos:  1 – N. P. Starodvorsky, one of Degaev’s co-conspirators, 2 – Degaev’s Wanted poster

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Categories: Best Reads, Book Reviews


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  1. A tale of two conspirators: Simonini and Degaev | literalab - 14/12/2011

    […] “The Degaev Affair” by Richard Pipes also happens to be the story of a wayward young man with a less than iron will who stumbles into the world of conspiracy, double-dealing, murder, plots (both real and invented) along with fabricated enemies all at the disposal of the Tsar’s secret service, the Okhrana. It is also the story of police chiefs and their informers as influenced and carried away by the novels they have read as any Emma Bovary, if not quite Don Quixote. […]

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