The Odd Man Karakozov
Imperial Russia, Modernity, and the Birth of Terrorism
Cornell University Press 2009
Scan the historical literature of the Russian revolutionary movement and you’ll find that Dmitrii Vladimirovich Karakozov occupies no more than a footnote. After all, Karakozov was no great theorist. He led no political organization. He hardly fit the image of the iron willed, revolutionary aesthetic who preached the maxim ‘The ends justifies the means.’No, to his contemporaries, Karakozov was a nobody, an odd and sickly school dropout who, like so many of his ilk, dabbled in student radicalism. That is until he tried to assassinate the tsar. And with that act he unleashed the unthinkable.
Pinpointing the exact moment a historical phenomenon is born is no easy endeavor. But after reading Claudia Verhoeven‘s The Odd Man Karakozov: Imperial Russia, Modernity, and the Birth of Terrorism (Cornell UP, 2009), we can now locate the birth of terrorism in its more or less modern form. Terrorism was born on April 4, 1866 at around 3:45 pm. It’s father was the aforementioned odd student, who pulled out a double-barreled flintlock pistol and shot at Alexander II as he stepped out of St. Petersburg’s Summer Garden on to the boulevard. Karakozov missed, and perhaps his act would have remained a historical abortion if it weren’t for terrorism’s mother: modernity. For, according to Verhoeven, it was the modern conditions of Imperial Russia that allowed Karakozov’s shot to reverberate throughout the Russian body politic. It was modernity that gave us a new form of political violence, and perhaps more important a new political subject, the terrorist, who through his or her political will could alter the course of history. The Odd Man Karakozov is, in Verhoeven’s words, truly a work of nanohistory. Through a singular moment she shows how the consummation between an odd man like Karakozov and modernity influenced the idea of revolutionary conspiracy, literature, celebrity, revolutionary fashion, art, and our present understanding of terrorism and the terrorist.