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Comparison and Contrast of Russian and Irish Revolutionary Terrorism

Posted March 29th, 2018 at 01:34 PM by Futurist

Comparison and Contrast of Russian and Irish Revolutionary Terrorism


While Russian and Irish revolutionary terrorists had somewhat similar origins, relatively similar goals, and similar methods, only the latter ended up achieving their desired goal. While their ability to effectively portray their cause in the foreign press initially caused Russian revolutionary terrorists to appear more popular than Irish revolutionary terrorists, in the long-run, Irish revolutionary terrorists succeeded in their goal of ending British rule in Ireland while Russian revolutionary terrorists failed in their goal of ending autocratic Tsarist rule in Russia. The reason that Irish revolutionary terrorists ultimately succeeded while Russian revolutionary terrorists failed is that, unlike Russian revolutionary terrorists, Irish revolutionary terrorists succeeded in getting public opinion on their side. Specifically, Irish revolutionary terrorists were able to do this by getting the British to overreact to them—something that Russian revolutionary terrorists never managed to make the Tsarist Russian government do.

Russian and Irish revolutionary terrorism is similar in the sense that, in both of these cases, terrorism originated as a result of oppression and a lack of self-determination. In Ireland, British settlers had continuously taken the best land in northeastern Ireland—driving Irish Catholics away from this land and reducing them to the status of poor tenant farmers (Law 139). In turn, this combined with the negligent British response to the Irish potato famine in the late 1840s caused some Irish to begin looking at terrorism as a means to achieve independence from Britain (L8,S7). Meanwhile, in Tsarist Russia, some people resorted to terrorism due to the fact that they had no power and influence and no other outlet to express their grievances (Law 72). Specifically, unlike countries such as the United States of America, Tsarist Russia had “no elections, no representative assemblies, no legal political parties or trade unions, and virtually no recognized civil rights[]” (Law 72). In turn, what this meant is that reforms could only come from the top—specifically from the Russian Tsar (Law 73). In fact, once Russian Tsar Alexander II emancipated privately held serfs in 1861 and launched some other administrative and judicial reforms, some Russians—especially reform-minded university students in the cities—became hungry for more (Law 73, L4,S8). When additional reforms didn't come—with the autocratic Russian system remaining in place—some of these Russians became revolutionaries and began resorting to terrorism (Law 73).

In the later part of the 19th century, Russian revolutionary terrorists were able to appear stronger and more influential than Irish revolutionary terrorists due to the fact that, unlike Irish revolutionary terrorists, they were able to come up with a powerful narrative about virtue, suffering, the immorality of the Tsarist Russian regime, and their lack of other options to justify the terrorism that they commit (L4,S23). In turn, this is why, unlike early Irish revolutionary terrorists, early Russian revolutionary terrorists received a large amount of positive publicity in the foreign press—thus initially making them appear more powerful and influential than Irish revolutionary terrorists are (L4,S17-19, L4,S27). For instance, Russian revolutionary terrorist Vera Zasulich—who shot Governor-General Trepov—was portrayed favorably in the Western media after she emphasized her suffering, sympathy, and love as well as the violence of the autocratic Russian state at her trial (she was ultimately acquitted) (L4,S17-19). In contrast, Irish revolutionary terrorists never managed to come up with a compelling narrative such as that and were thus often dehumanized by the media and portrayed as being dangerous, clueless gorillas, uncivilized mixed-race mongrels, or something of that sort (L8, S11).

While Russian and Irish revolutionary terrorists used similar tactics, only the Irish ultimately achieved their goals due to the fact that only they succeeded in getting their enemy—in this case, the British—to overreact and thus to generate large support for their cause among the general population. Historically, both Russian and Irish revolutionary terrorists targeted people in prominent positions of power in an attempt to awe the public and recruit additional followers to their cause. For instance, Russian revolutionary terrorists known as the People's Will (Narodnaia Volia) assassinated Russian Tsar Alexander II in 1881 in the hope that this would trigger an uprising among the Russian population which will completely destroy the autocratic Tsarist Russian system (Law 80-81). Meanwhile, Irish revolutionary terrorists known as the Fenians assassinated two key British officials in 1882 and launched a terrorist campaign against symbolic and public sites in Britain shortly afterward in an attempt to influence both the British government and British public opinion (L8, S9-10). Ultimately, though, neither Russian nor Irish revolutionary terrorists generated large-scale public support for their cause before the start of World War I. Indeed, in Ireland's case, the gradual dismantlement of anti-Catholic laws and attitudes caused most people in Catholic-majority southern Ireland to slowly assimilate into British political and economic life and to look forward to the inevitable granting of home rule—in other words, greater autonomy within the United Kingdom—for Ireland (Law 141). Ultimately, it was the 1916 Easter Uprising that paved the way for Irish revolutionary terrorism to succeed and to overshadow its Russian counterpart. Specifically, when Irish republicans who had adopted the name Irish Republican Army (IRA) launched a small uprising in Ireland in 1916, the British authorities—who were outraged and considered this uprising to be an act of wartime treason—strongly overreacted by launching a wave of repression that radicalized the Catholic Irish population (Law 141-142). Specifically, the British executed fifteen rebels within a month, executed wounded IRA leader James Connolly even though he was already stricken with gangrene, beefed up and enhanced the powers of the Royal Irish Constabulary (the mostly Protestant police force which was filled with unionists), put home rule for Ireland on the back burner, and threatened to introduce mass conscription just two years after this uprising occurred (Law 141-142). In response to all of this, the IRA-associated Sinn Fein won three-quarters of Ireland's seats in the December 1918 British elections and the IRA launched a series of assassinations in Ireland which targeted Royal Irish Constabulary policemen, spies, informers, and unionists (Law 142). In response, Britain began engaging in counterrevolutionary terrorism when it realized that it could not defeat the IRA by conventional means (Law 143). Specifically, Britain executed two captured republicans for every British soldier or policemen murdered by the IRA and the Royal Irish Constabulary and its auxiliary units began launching mass reprisals against Irish civilians (Law 143). In turn, this significantly increased support for the IRA among the Irish population and thus resulted in Britain having a larger IRA problem than it previously had (Law 143). Once British policymakers realized that escalating the stakes—specifically by increasing British troop levels in Ireland to 150,000 and creating concentration camps on the Boer War model—would be unacceptable to the British public, they realized that a British withdrawal from Ireland is the only realistic option (Law 144-145). Thus, Britain withdrew from the Catholic-majority southern Ireland—which in turn became known as the Republic of Ireland (Law 144-145).

Ultimately, while Russian and Irish revolutionary terrorists had similar origins, similar goals, and similar methods, only the latter managed to succeed due to the fact that, unlike the former, they were eventually able to get their enemy—in their case, the British—to overreact and thus to shift public opinion over to their side. While Russian revolutionary terrorists were able to become popular in the foreign media by portraying themselves as noble fighters for freedom, they failed to do what the IRA did in regards to significantly shifting public opinion in its favor. In Tsarist Russia's case, it was ultimately World War I, rather than revolutionary terrorism, which resulted in the overthrow of the autocratic Tsarist system (Law 92). Meanwhile, the IRA's success in using terrorism to get the British to withdraw from southern Ireland served as both an inspiration and a successful model for pro-independence activities in various other countries later on.
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