Vyacheslav Plehve

Vyacheslav Plehve

Vyacheslav Plehve was born in Meshchovsk, Russia on 20th April, 1846. After studying jourisprudence at the University of Moscow, Plehve joined the Ministry of Justice in 1867.

An able and intelligent bureaucrat, Plehve served as Director of Police (1881-84), Vice-Minister of the Interior (1884-99) and Secretary of State for Finnish Affairs (1899-1902). During this period he subjected minorities to forced Russification and was responsible for the persecution of Jews and Armenians.

In a speech he made in 1903 he argued: "Western Russia some 90 per cent of the revolutionaries are Jews, and in Russia generally - some 40 per cent. I shall not conceal from you that the revolutionary movement in Russia worries us but you should know that if you do not deter your youth from the revolutionary movement, we shall make your position untenable to such an extent that you will have to leave Russia, to the very last man!"

In 1902 Plehve was appointed Minister of the Interior. His attempts at suppressing those advocating reform was completely unsuccessful. He also secretly organized Jewish Pogroms. Plehve was hated by all radicals in Russia. Leon Trotsky commented: "Plehve was as powerless against sedition as his successor, but he was a terrible scourge against the kingdom of liberal newspapermen and rural conspirators. He loathed the revolution with the fierce loathing of a police detective grown old in his profession, threatened by a bomb from around every street corner; he pursued sedition with bloodshot eyes - but in vain. Plehve was terrifying and loathsome as far as the liberals were concerned, but against sedition he was no better and no worse than any of the others. Of necessity, the movement of the masses ignored the limits of what was allowed and what was forbidden: that being so, what did it matter if those limits were a little narrower or a little wider?"

Sergi Witte claimed that Plehve remarked that Russia needed "a little, victorious war to stem the revolution". There are doubts about the truth of this statement but Plehve's actions definitely precipitated the Russo-Japanese War. However, the war failed in its main objective to win support for Nicholas II and the autocracy.

Plehve was much hated by all those seeking reform and in 1904 Evno Azef, head of the Terrorist Brigade of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, ordered his assassination. Vyacheslav Plehve was killed by a bomb on 28th July, 1904. Praskovia Ivanovskaia who took part in the conspiracy later pointed out: "The conclusion of this affair gave me some satisfaction - finally the man who had taken so many victims had been brought to his inevitable end, so universally desired."

On his death, Theodore Rothstein, wrote in The Social Democrat: "Blood at the beginning, blood at the end, blood throughout his career - that is the mark Plehve left behind him in history. He was a living outrage on the moral consciousness of mankind, a sort of a yahoo who incorporated in him all that is bestial and fiendish in human nature; and no wonder the world breathed freely when at last he has been removed. Still it is not merely from the moral side that Plehve is to be judged. Plehve was both the product and the representative of a political system, and it is in that light that his career and personality acquire their historical significance. What must be that system which produces and places in its centre, as its main driving force, a monster such as Plehve was? The civilised world whose vision has been cleared by the events in the Far East, passed a judgment on that system at the same time that it passed it on Plehve: the system is rotten if its only strength lies in the executioner's arm. It is, indeed, the consciousness of this fact more than anything else that has guided the attitude of the capitalist press towards the assassination of Plehve; and this in itself constitutes a sinister mene mene to the absolutist régime in Russia."

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Vyacheslav Plehve, speech to a Jewish delegation in Odessa in 1903.

In Western Russia some 90 per cent of the revolutionaries are Jews, and in Russia generally - some 40 per cent. I shall not conceal from you that the revolutionary movement in Russia worries us but you should know that if you do not deter your youth from the revolutionary movement, we shall make your position untenable to such an extent that you will have to leave Russia, to the very last man!

(2) Leon Trotsky, History of The Russian Revolution (1933)

After Sipyagin we saw the same position occupied by Plehve, then by Prince Svyatopolk-Mirsky, then Bulygin, then Witte. All of them, one after the other, arrived with the firm intention of putting an end to sedition, restoring the lost prestige of authority, maintaining the foundations of the state - and every one of them, each in his own way, opened the floodgates of revolution and was himself swept away by its current.

Sedition grew as though according to a majestic plan, constantly expanding its territory, reinforcing its positions and demolishing obstacle after obstacle; while against the backdrop of this tremendous effort, with its inner rhythm and its unconscious genius, appeared a series of little mannequins of state power, issuing new laws, contracting new debts, firing at workers, ruining peasants - and, as a result, sinking the governmental authority which they sought to protect more and more deeply into a bog of frantic impotence.

Plehve was as powerless against sedition as his successor, but he was a terrible scourge against the kingdom of liberal newspapermen and rural conspirators. He loathed the revolution with the fierce loathing of a police detective grown old in his profession, threatened by a bomb from around every street corner; he pursued sedition with bloodshot eyes - but in vain.

Plehve was terrifying and loathsome as far as the liberals were concerned, but against sedition he was no better and no worse than any of the others. Of necessity, the movement of the masses ignored the limits of what was allowed and what was forbidden: that being so, what did it matter if those limits were a little narrower or a little wider?

Sipyagin fell to a revolutionary's bullet. Plehve was torn to pieces by a bomb. Svyatopolk-Mirsky was transformed into a political corpse on January 9. Bulygin was thrown out, like an old boot, by the October strikes. Count Witte, utterly exhausted by workers' and soldiers' risings, fell without glory, having stumbled on the threshold of the State Duma which he himself had created.

(3) David Strub was a member of the Social Democratic Party when Vyacheslav Plehve was in power.

In the midst of Russian military defeat Plehve, the reactionary Minister of the Interior, was assassinated by a member of the Terrorist Brigade of the Socialist Revolutionary Party; street demonstrations broke out, opposition from every side grew bolder. For the first time the Tsar retreated, summoning Prince Sviatopolk-Mirsky, a more liberal man, to Plehve's post.

(4) In 1903 Praskovia Ivanovskaia joined the Socialist Revolutionaries and took part in the assassination of Vyacheslav Plehve.

The conclusion of this affair gave me some satisfaction - finally the man who had taken so many victims had been brought to his inevitable end, so universally desired.

(5) Edward Judge, Plehve: Repression and Reform in Imperial Russia (1983)

Azef sat in a very dangerous position, especially after Gershuni's arrest, and he had to think first of his own safety. A continual series of arrests, and a long train of assassination attempts gone awry, could only help convince his SR colleagues that they had a traitor in their midst. If he were found out, his game would be over, and so, most probably, would be his life. On the other hand, if he could successfully plan and accomplish the murder of Plehve, his position among the SRs would be secured. Azef had little love for Plehve: as a Jew, he could not help but resent the Kishinev pogrom and the minister's reputed role.

(6) Theodore Rothstein, The Social Democrat (August, 1904)

Plehve assassinated, and not a word of regret even from the Liberal Press of this country. For once the Nonconformist conscience forgot its thrill of horror and, in the teeth of the traditional de mortuis nil nisi bonum, declared drily and uncharitably: It serves him right. It is, indeed, a monster "dripping blood from every pore" that has been removed from the stage of modern history. He it was who acted as the "examining magistrate" in the case of Zhelyabov, Perovskaya and the others who had taken part in the assassination of Alexander; he it was, who as the Assistant Minister of the Interior diabolically conceived and carried out the anti-Jewish outrages in Southern Russia in 1881 and 1882; he it was who, as the Secretary of State for Finland, by a single stroke of the pen suppressed in 1899 the constitutional liberties of that country, solemnly guaranteed, as they were, by treaty and by the oath of the Czar; he it was who, on being appointed, in 1902, Minister of Interior in the place of the Sipiaguine, shot by Balmashov, at once introduced a regime which resulted in the ruthless suppression of the peasant disturbances of the Kharkov and Poltava provinces, in the flogging of May demonstrators at Wilna, in the wholesale murder at Zlatoust, and in the barbarous treatment of strikers at Tiflis, Baku, and Ekaterinoslaff; lastly, he it was, who was directly responsible for the horrors of Kishineff and Gomel - horrors that remind one of the darkest period of the Middle Ages. If to this be added the number­less other outrages and acts of terrorism com­mitted against various public bodies as well as single individuals who in any way dared to assert their independence of speech or thought, we may well say that there is in modern times but one name that is worthy to rank along with his, and that is the Duke of Alva. Blood at the beginning, blood at the end, blood throughout his career - that is the mark Plehve left behind him in history. He was a living outrage on the moral consciousness of mankind, a sort of a yahoo who incorporated in him all that is bestial and fiendish in human nature; and no wonder the world breathed freely when at last he has been removed.

Still it is not merely from the moral side that Plehve is to be judged. Plehve was both the product and the representative of a political system, and it is in that light that his career and personality acquire their historical significance. What must be that system which produces and places in its centre, as its main driving force, a monster such as Plehve was? The civilised world whose vision has been cleared by the events in the Far East, passed a judgment on that system at the same time that it passed it on Plehve: the system is rotten if its only strength lies in the executioner's arm. It is, indeed, the consciousness of this fact more than anything else that has guided the attitude of the capitalist press towards the assassination of Plehve; and this in itself constitutes a sinister mene mene to the absolutist régime in Russia.

Of course, it is not by political assassinations that freedom will be established in that great and unhappy country. You cannot exterminate vermin unless you change the conditions which favour its existence and reproduction. By exterminating individual specimens of it you merely substitute two living ones for one killed, whilst at the same time running the risk of neglecting and delaying the more important work. Political assassinations are mainly valuable from a moral point of view, as showing that there is still life and sense of human dignity in the down-trodden nation. They are thus a sort of vindication of national honour - precious tokens of a great future. But free­dom itself will have to be won by other means - by the people at large fighting the system itself. Our Social-Democratic comrades in Russia are precisely engaged in this kind of work, and it is to them mainly that we look for the final onslaught on the moribund autocracy. In the meantime, we may well be thankful for having got rid of the most brutal instrument of that system; another such will not be easily found.