Russia’s Destroying Angel – “Angel of Vengeance” by Ana Siljak
On January 24th, 1878, Vera Zasulich waited in line to seek counsel from the Governor of St. Petersburg. After years of activism in the name of the suffering poor in Russia, when Zesulich reached the Governor, she pulled a gun from under her cloak and shot him.
Talk about a “shot heard ’round the world.”
“Angel of Vengeance” author Ana Siljak is a professor of Russian History, per her bio. Having read the book, a detailed account of how Zasulich’s trial ignited flames of violence and truly began the age of Russian terrorism, Siljak’s familiarity and comfort with these names and places shines through. Perhaps a bit too much in some cases. Knowing nothing of 99% of the names mentioned, I had to head back to previous pages in order to keep all the Russian names clear from one another.
It’s a heady book, in all honesty. Though I found Vera Zasulich and her actual crime and trial to be fascinating, it takes around 200 pages to actually get through the entire backstory of her life and the rise of revolutionary behavior in Russia before the “girl assassin” ever fires her gun.
However, once that shot is fired, things happen fast and furious.
The Zesulich trial brings the musical “Chicago” to mind for a variety of reasons – namely the acquittal of an obviously guilty defendant due to public sympathy, and a showman lawyer treating the trial like a theatrical production.
I also found the fact that there were actually supposed to be two girl assassins on that fateful day. Masha Kolenkina also waited to attempt the life of a noted official, but her target simply never showed up. (Masha remained a revolutionary, sentenced to hard time and exile, until the end of her life.)
Zasulich, acquitted by a jury of sympathetic peers, flees to Switzerland with a man and they spend months living in the mountains. Returning to the world, she finds herself a celebrity and an icon all over the world. (Chicago’s Haymarket Square bombing is even distantly traced back to her act.) Oscar Wilde, Arthur Conan Doyle, Albert Camus, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky are all inspired (or rumored to have been) inspired by her act in the creation of characters in their works. She’s so famous that in France, loaves are bread are baked in her likeness. (Beat that, Angelina Jolie.) A shy woman who had planned on spending the rest of her days in prison, as a martyr, she was unprepared for celebrity and never knew what to do with it. Eventually, she would renounce terrorism (and turn to Marxism) and turn her attention to writing articles and translating works.
Half a lesson in Russian history, half a portrait of a fascinating woman who triggered an age of revolution, “Angel of Vengeance” is worthy of a read. Just be warned that the first half drags for a while, and you’ll be fine.