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. Read More