The most influential person in the early days of Populism was Bakunin. While Bakunin was able to stir up the peasant’s revolutionary fervour, he was a poor organiser. Bakunin believed that once the peasants had been suitably educated in revolutionary ideas, they, through their own endeavours, would overthrow the tsarist regime. Therefore, the role of the Populists was to act as agents of propaganda but at a level the people could understand. Peter Lavrov, a Populist, believed that the intelligentsia were bad for the average person of Russia as they were unable to get their message across because of their intellectual abilities.
The Populists lived and worked among the peasants in an effort to spread their message and ideas. In particular they got the peasants to ask for more land to work and live off – a demand that they knew no landlord would agree to. This, the Populists believed, would only increase the peasant’s anger and resentment and thus push Russia even further towards a revolution.
However, the Populists had one major disadvantage. Many of them were university students who wanted to help the peasants. The peasants distrusted the motives of those who could only have some vague idea as to the lives peasant families had led for centuries.
The Populists also misunderstood the peasants at another level. They assumed that all peasants were natural socialists and that they only had to be pushed in that direction. In this they were wrong. The peasants were keen to own their own land and farm it accordingly - as Lenin found out when the New Economic Policy replaced War Communism. The principle of land ownership did not sit well with the Populists.
The failure of the Populists is best summarised with the Chigirin Affair of 1876. In the Chigirin area of the Ukraine, the Populists told the peasants that the tsar wanted them to rise up against the landowners in the region. The revolt was a dismal failure and led to a breach between the peasants and the Populists that was never to be mended.
The Populists split in 1875-1876. Some formed the ‘Land and Freedom’ group. This developed into a terrorist organisation – it was not uncommon for a small political group to turn to violence once it had become clear that those who they believed should support its beliefs, did not do so. ‘Land and Freedom’ also split into two factions in 1879 – the ‘People’s Will’ and Black Partition.
The ‘People’s Will’ wanted the creation of a constituent assembly – something the authorities would never agree to at that time in Russia’s history. It also believed that it could only achieve this by assassinating the tsar and using terrorist tactics on a regular basis to force the authorities to listen to them.
Black Partition had a much more simple message – land should be redistributed to the peasants.
The repressive measures brought in by Alexander III after 1881, did a great deal to break up the Populist movement and its offshoots.