Sergei Nechayev was born in Ivanovo on 20th September 1847. His parents were of serf origin but by the time he was born his father was a sign painter and his mother a seamstress.
At the age of eighteen Nechayev moved to St. Petersburg and found work as a teacher in a parochial school. In 1868 he enrolled at the Saint Petersburg State University. As a student he associated with a group of radicals that included Mark Natanson, V. N. Cherkezov, F.V. Volkhovsky, Z.K. Ralli and German Lopatin. They read and discussed the work of Philippe Buonarroti. It has been argued that Buonarroti's book on Gracchus Babeuf "helped shape a generation of Russian rebels."
In 1869 Nechayev joined with Peter Tkachev to draft A Program of Revolutionary Action. It included the following: "Those who join the organization must give up every possession, occupation, or family tie, because families and occupations might distract members from their activities."
In March of that year Nechayev moved to Geneva where he met Mikhail Bakunin. Soon afterwards Bakunin wrote to James Guillaume that: "I have here with me one of those young fanatics who know no doubts, who fear nothing, and who realize that many of them will perish at the hands of the government but who nevertheless have decided that they will not relent until the people rise. They are magnificent, these young fanatics, believers without God, heroes without rhetoric."
The two men wrote several political pamphlets together including Catechism of a Revolutionist (1869) that included the famous passage: "The Revolutionist is a doomed man. He has no private interests, no affairs, sentiments, ties, property nor even a name of his own. His entire being is devoured by one purpose, one thought, one passion - the revolution. Heart and soul, not merely by word but by deed, he has severed every link with the social order and with the entire civilized world; with the laws, good manners, conventions, and morality of that world. He is its merciless enemy and continues to inhabit it with only one purpose - to destroy it."
Paul Avrich argues that Nechayev was "one of the first prominent Russian radicals with a thoroughly plebeian background." Vera Zasulich said in her memoirs that he was "not a product of our world but a stranger among us." Another member of his group said that he was a "real revolutionist, a peasant who had preserved all the serf's hatred against his masters."
Catechism of a Revolutionist had a great influence on radical young students throughout Europe. In August, 1869, Nechayev returned to Russia and settled in Moscow where he set up a secret terrorist organization, People's Retribution. When one of its members, Ivan Ivanovich Ivanov, questioned Nechayev's political ideas, he murdered him. The body was weighted down with stones and dumped through an ice hole in a nearby pond. He told the rest of the group, "the ends justify the means".
Nechayev escaped from Moscow but after discovering the body, some three hundred revolutionaries were arrested and imprisoned. Nechayev arrived in Locarno, where Mikhail Bakunin was living, in January 1870. At first Bakunin was pleased to see Nechayev but the relationship soon deteriorated. According to Z.K. Ralli, Nechayev no longer showed any deference to his mentor. Nechayev told friends that Bakunin had lost the "level of energy and self-abnegation" required to be a true revolutionary. Bakunin wrote that: "If you introduce him to a friend, he will immediately proceed to sow dissension, scandal, and intrigue between you and your friend and make you quarrel. If your friend has a wife or a daughter, he will try to seduce her and get her with child in order to snatch her from the power of conventional morality and plunge her despite herself into revolutionary protest against society."
German Lopatin arrived from Russia with news that Nechayev was responsible for the murder of Ivan Ivanovich Ivanov. Mikhail Bakunin wrote to Nechayev: "I had complete faith in you, while you duped me. I turned out to be a complete fool. This is painful and shameful for a man of my experience and age. Worse than this, I spoilt my situation with regard to the Russian and International causes."
Bakunin completely disagreed with Nechayev's approach to anarchism which he called his "false Jesuit system". He argued that the popular revolution must be "invisibly led, not by an official dictatorship, but by a nameless and collective one, composed of those in favour of total people's liberation from all oppression, firmly united in a secret society and always and everywhere acting in support of a common aim and in accordance with a common program." He added: "The true revolutionary organization does not foist upon the people any new regulations, orders, styles of life, but merely unleashes their will and gives wide scope to their self-determination and their economic and social organization, which must be created by themselves from below and not from above.... The revolutionary organization must make impossible after the popular victory the establishment of any state power over the people - even the most revolutionary, even your power - because any power, whatever it calls itself, would inevitably subject the people to old slavery in new form."
Mikhail Bakunin told Nechayev: "You are a passionate and dedicated man. This is your strength, your valor, and your justification. If you alter your methods, I would wish not only to remain allied with you, but to make this union even closer and firmer." He wrote to N. P. Ogarev that: "The main thing for the moment is to save our erring and confused friend. In spite of all, he remains a valuable man, and there are few valuable men in the world.... We love him, we believe in him, we foresee that his future activity will be of immense benefit to the people. That is why we must divert him from his false and disastrous path."
Nechayev rejected Bakunin's views and in the summer of 1870 he moved to London where he published a new journal called The Commune. This venture ended in failure and he eventually returned to Switzerland where he found work as a sign-painter. On 14th August, 1872, Nechayev was arrested in Zurich and was extradited to Russia.
Nechayev was tried for the murder of Ivan Ivanovich Ivanov in January 1873. He said in court "I refuse to be a slave of your tyrannical government. I do not recognize the Emperor and the laws of this country." He would not answer any questions and was finally dragged from the dock shouting: "Down with despotism!" He was found guilty and sentenced to twenty years' hard labour and sent to the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg.
Mikhail Bakunin wrote to N. P. Ogarev: "I pity him deeply. No one ever did me, and intentionally, as much harm as he did, but I pity him all the same. He was a man of rare energy, and when we met there burned in him a very ardent and pure flame for our poor, oppressed people; our historical and current national misery caused him real suffering. At that time his external behavior was unsavory enough, but his inner self had not been soiled. It was his authoritarianism and his unbridled willfulness which, very regrettably and through his ignorance together with his Machiavellianism and Jesuitical methods, finally plunged him irretrievably into the mire... However, an inner voice tells me that Nechayev, who is lost forever and certainly knows that he is lost, will now call forth from the depths of his being, warped and soiled but far from being base or common, all his primitive energy and courage. He will perish like a hero and this time he will betray nothing and no one. Such is my belief. We shall see if I am right."
As Paul Avrich pointed out: "The last tell years of Nechayev's life were spent in solitary confinement in the Peter-Paul fortress... When General Potapov of the secret police visited his cell and offered him leniency if he would serve as a spy, Nechayev struck him across the face, drawing blood. For the next two years his hands and feet remained in chains until the flesh began to rot."
Nechayev continued to be involved in politics and was in contact with the People's Will group while in prison. They planned to rescue him from prison but decided to defer this until they assassinated Tsar Alexander II. This took place on 1st March, 1881, but all the conspirators were arrested and eventually executed.