In 1880, Oscar Wilde made the uneventful decision to write a play about Russian terrorism. I say it was uneventful because the play (his first), Vera; or the Nihilists, appeared amid a deluge of other crime thrillers, adventure tales, and even romance novels about Russian nihilists and their terror plots. The Vera of Wilde’s play was inspired by the real-life figure of Vera Zasulich, whose attempted assassination in 1878 of the governor of Saint Petersburg made her an international lightening rod, especially in England where the public feared Russian nihilists might stoke domestic tensions and inspire Irish separatists. In many ways, fears of Russian interference unfolded in Victorian Britain in a manner not unlike what we see today. As was the case in Wilde’s era, the specter of an external threat had a way of unmasking internal strife.
English publishers were eager for anything that satisfied the public’s demand for terrorist intrigue, especially when seen through the lens of the Russian outside agitator. In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1894 short story, “The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez,” Sherlock Holmes solves a murder involving fugitive Russian nihilists. Henry James’s 1885 novel, The Princess Casamassima, follows a London bookbinder named Hyacinth who becomes involved in a terrorist plot; the novel was James’s homage to Ivan Turgenev’s novel about Russian nihilism, Virgin Soil (1877). These “dynamite romances” (as they were called) frequently starred Russian femmes fatales who enticed innocent, unsuspecting British men into the dark underworld of nihilist conspiracy and terrorism. For instance, in George Alfred Henty’s adventure novel Condemned as a Nihilist (1892), the protagonist, a young man named Godfrey Bullen, is seduced by an agent named Katia into taking part in a plot to secure the escape of a revolutionary leader. After unintentionally becoming implicated in the conspiracy, Godfrey is exiled to Siberia … of course.
But with the specter of Irish terrorism looming large (and aided by a new invention called dynamite), the bombings and assassinations being carried out by nihilists in Russia hit uncomfortably close to home for British audiences. In September 1880, two alleged Russian assassination plots were reported on in Britain, one to blow up the tsar’s yacht, Levadia, and the other to bomb the Grand Duke Konstantin’s train. That neither threat was proven to be credible did little to calm public panic and media hysteria over the potential presence of Russian nihilists in England. The British press was especially prone to connecting those fears to national concerns about Irish independence. The humor magazine Punch frequently described the Land War uprisings (1879–1882) as being the work of “Irish Nihilists.” And in September 1881, posters were distributed throughout Castlebar, in Ireland, declaring that “nihilism is not confined to Russia” and calling on the “nihilists of Castlebar” to rise up against the English.
Wilde’s play tells the story of Vera Sabouroff, a feared nihilist who has thrown all of Moscow into terror. In the opening scenes, she works in her father’s inn in Siberia, which primarily caters to the officers who work at the nearby penal camps. Shortly after the play begins, Vera and her father, Peter, recognize her brother Dmitri (who they believed was studying medicine in Saint Petersburg) among a group of prisoners. Vera learns that Dmitri has been sentenced for revolutionary activities, and she decides to avenge him by joining the nihilists herself. However, she falls in love with another member of the terror cell, Alexei, who is eventually revealed to be the son of the tsar. Vera must choose between her love for Alexei and her commitment to ending tyranny.
Taking on the Russian nihilist theme was a risky move for Wilde. His Irish background rendered Vera immediately suspect in the eyes of the British. Wilde was not only Irish, his family was known for their Irish republican sympathies. Wilde’s mother, Jane, known by her pen name Speranza, was a regular contributor to the Irish nationalist newspaper the Nation. She was closely associated with the Young Ireland cause, which called for armed Irish rebellion against the British. As the scholar Michael Newton, who has written about Vera, explains, “Here was a play by a noticeably Irish author, equivocally praising sedition, assassination, and republican rule.” And though the governments of Great Britain and Russia were at the time competing militarily for dominance in Central Asia, they were united in their fight against radical terrorism. They feared collusion between the Russian nihilists and the radical Irish independence movements like the Fenian Brotherhood. When the Russian emperor Alexander II was successfully assassinated in Saint Petersburg in 1881, Wilde’s play, originally planned to premiere in London, was put on indefinite hold.
Wilde’s Vera was eventually produced in the safer milieu of New York City. It premiered at the Union Street Theater on August 20, 1883. Despite Wilde’s celebrity and a huge marketing campaign (the costumes were on display in the windows of Lord and Taylor’s department store on Fifth Avenue), Vera closed after just a week due to poor ticket sales and dismal reviews. The New York Herald described the play as “long-drawn, dramatic rot,” and a theater critic from the New York Daily News called it “a foolish, highly peppered story of love, intrigue, and politics, with Russian accessories of fur and dark lanterns, and overlaid with bantam gabble about freedom and the people.” It is “Vera” that contains the oft-quoted line by Wilde: “experience, the name men give to their mistakes.”
However, the Russian nihilist theme continued to interest Wilde. In his 1891 short story, “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime,” Lord Arthur, seeking a bomb to take out a family member, calls upon his friend Count Rouvaloff, “a young Russian of very revolutionary tendencies.” Rouvaloff, ostensibly in London to write a book about Peter the Great’s time in England, is thought by many to be a nihilist. Wilde makes light of this, writing that Lord Arthur “felt bound to admit to [Rouvaloff] that he had not the slightest interest in social questions, and simply wanted the explosive machine for a purely family matter.”
Yet Vera, Wilde’s most explicit Russian nihilist work, is rarely staged. For scholars of Wilde’s work, it is generally relegated to the status of a footnote, an aberration in an otherwise critically successful career. But the play’s wider context, particularly that its London cancellation might have been effected by Wilde’s Irish background (combined with the play’s Russian theme), offers a lesson in what has traditionally underpinned charges of Russian “collusion.” In the past, fears of an outside (Russian) agitator were often used to test the loyalty of people who had very little reason to feel loyal in the first place: the Irish in Great Britain, African Americans during the Red Scare. The present-day fears of Russian collusion have an altogether different tinge to them: they are associated with the powerful, not the powerless, a paradigmatic shift that has left many feeling confused as to what to believe. Perhaps the epistemological anxieties of the present, where news of Russian collusion is coming at a time when we don’t know what news is real or fake, are best expressed by a character in Vera, Prince Paul, one of the tsar’s loyal advisors who changes sides and joins the nihilists. When told by the revolutionaries, “This must be a new atmosphere for you, Prince Paul. We speak the truth to one another here,” he replies, in true Wildean fashion, “How misleading you must find it.”
Jennifer Wilson is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Russian and East European Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.