Vera Figner as she appeared during the Revolution of 1905
Vera Figner in 1930 as a leading figure of the Society of Former Political Prisoners and Exiles
Contemporary view of the façade of the Smolny Institute in St. Petersburg, constructed as the model Institute for Noble Maidens
In 1863, at the age of eleven, Vera Nikolayevna was sent to the Rodionovsky Institute for Noble Girls (now Institute for Noble Maidens) in the city of Kazan, which she attended for the next six years. Despite the stifling intellectual regime at the cloistered institute, Vera Nikolayevna expanded her intellectual horizons by surreptitiously reading prohibited books obtained during brief visits home. She proved to be an excellent student, taking a particular interest in history and literature and received the prize given to the top academic performer upon her graduation in 1869.
Vera Nikolayevna desired to study medicine, which was not permitted in Russia. She turned her eyes to the University of Zurich, which was accepting Russian women despite their lack of gymnasium diplomas. Figner's father forbade her from going, so she married Alexei Filippov, saved money and sold her dowry, and traveled to Zurich.
From 1872 to 1875, she was a student of the Department of Medicine at the University of Zurich.
Vera Nikolayevna decided to remain in Switzerland to finish her studies. In 1875, Mark Natanson told her that the Fritsche desperately needed her help in Russia. Vera Nikolayevna returned to Russia that year without getting her degree, but found herself unable to help the circle and so got a license as a paramedic and divorced her husband, where she became active with other revolutionary intellectuals in the Zemlya i Volya (Land and Liberty) organization.
Vera Nikolayevna took part in the Kazan demonstration in St. Petersburg in 1876. From 1877 to 1879, working as a doctor's assistant, she conducted revolutionary propaganda in the villages around Samara and Saratov.
In the spring of 1879, the Zemlya i Volya organization was deeply divided over the question of terrorism, with one wing of the party advocating revolutionary propaganda in the villages and the other in favor of creating a revolutionary situation through the assassination of key figures in the Tsarist government and monarchy. In June of that year party activists gathered at the Voronezh Congress in a final effort to settle these differences. No permanent solution was reached and by the fall the Zemlya i Volya organization has split into two independently functioning groups: an anti-terror faction led by proto-Marxist Georgy Plekhanov called Cherny Peredel (Black Repartition), which included Pavel Akselrod, Lev Deich, Vera Zasulich, and others; and a pro-terror faction called Narodnaya Volya (People's Will).
Vera Nikolayevna aligned herself with the latter, terrorist wing, becoming a member of the group's Executive Committee, which is a proclamation later in 1879 called for the execution of Tsar Alexander II for crimes committed against the people of the Russian Empire. The Narodnovoltsy (Narodnaya Volya members) established study circles of workers in St. Petersburg, Moscow, Odessa, Kiev, and Kharkov, and coordinated propaganda efforts among students at the country's universities. It also established printing presses for the production of leaflets and issued a magazine and a newspaper in an effort to build support for its revolutionary program.
As a member of the Executive Committee, Vera Nikolayevna also took part in the creation of the paramilitary wing of Narodnaya Volya and coordinated its activities. Figner participated in planning the assassination of the Tsar, including a failed attempt in 1880 in Odessa and a successful effort in March 1881 in St. Petersburg.
Figner's main activity as the de facto head of the Narodnaya Volya organization in 1882 related to the restoration of the underground apparatus, which was devastated by secret police arrests and seizures of equipment. The Narodnovoltsy managed to set up a new underground press in the period and conducted propaganda work among university students.
Originally based in Odessa, Vera Nikolayevna later moved to Kharkov, where she was ultimately betrayed by fellow Executive Committee member Sergey Degayev, who turned police informer in order to lessen his punishment after his December 20, 1882 arrest. On February 10, 1883, Vera Nikolayevna, characterized by police as "one of the most dangerous of the Central Committee of terrorists," was herself arrested at her Kharkov apartment.
Following her arrest, Vera Nikolayevna spent the next 20 months before her trial in solitary confinement at the Peter and Paul Fortress. In 1884 she was sentenced to death, during the Trial of the Fourteen. This sentence was commuted through the intercession of Niko Nikoladze to perpetual penal servitude in Siberia. She was instead imprisoned for 20 years in the fortress at Schlüsselburg.
In 1904, Vera Nikolayevna was sent into internal exile to the Arkhangelsk guberniya, then Kazan guberniya, and finally Nizhny Novgorod. In 1906 she was allowed to go abroad, where she organized a campaign for political prisoners in Russia. She spoke in European cities, collected money, published a brochure on Russian prisons translated into many languages. In 1907 Vera Nikolayevna joined the Socialist Revolutionary Party (PSR) but left the organization in 1909. In 1915 she returned to Russia.
After the October Revolution, Vera Nikolayevna published her book Memoirs of a Revolutionist, which is still considered one of the best examples of the Russian memoir genre. The book made her famous worldwide and was translated into many languages.
Vera Nikolayevna was a prominent member of the Society of Former Political Prisoners and Exiles and played an active role with the society's official magazine, Katorga i ssylka (Hard Labor and Exile). Figner authored a number of biographies of several narodniks and articles on the history of the Russian revolutionary movement from the 1870s to the 1880s.
Vera Nikolayevna died in Moscow on June 15, 1942. She was 89 years old at the time of her death.
In 1873, Vera Nikolayevna joined the Fritsche circle, which was composed of thirteen young Russian radical women, some of whom would become important members of the All-Russian Social Revolutionary Organization. She had trouble reconciling her new political view of herself as a parasitic member of the gentry with her previous view of herself as a good, innocent, person. A directive banning all Russian women students from remaining in Zurich was published in the Government Herald, accusing them of using their medical knowledge to perform abortions on themselves, in 1873.
Quotes from others about the person
S. Ivanov: "Some natures do not bend, they can only be broken, broken to death, but not tilted to the ground. Among them is Vera Nikolaevna."