The Degaev Affair


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Terror and Treason in Tsarist Russia

Richard Pipes

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A committed terrorist in Russia, an admired professor in America: the astounding story of Sergei Degaev’s double life, told in full detail for the first time

Sergei Degaev (1857–1921), a political terrorist in tsarist Russia, disappeared after participating in the assassination of the chief of Russia’s security organization in 1883. Those who later knew and admired the quietly brilliant Professor Alexander Pell at the University of South Dakota never guessed this was actually Degaev, who had triple-crossed friends and associates while entangled in the revolutionary movement of his homeland. This book is the first in any language to tell in detail the extraordinary story of one of the world’s most intriguing revolutionaries, his role in building and betraying the earliest political terrorist network, and his subsequent conventional academic career in America.

The well-known historian Richard Pipes uses previously unexplored Russian archives to draw a brilliant psychological, political, and sociological portrait of Degaev. Pipes pursues his protagonist on a twisting journey of changing loyalties and fateful collaborations within the network that provided the model for all modern terrorist organizations. A cunning conspirator, Degaev went on to reinvent himself in the United States as a beloved mathematics professor. Either of his lives would be considered remarkable; that Degaev lived both is nothing short of amazing.

Richard Pipes is Baird Professor of History, Emeritus, Harvard University. He is the author or editor of twenty-three books, among them Communism: A History, Russia Under the Old Regime, The Russian Revolution, and Property and Freedom.

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“This is an extraordinary study. I cannot imagine anyone who will not be fascinated.”—Hugh Thomas

The Degaev Affair is both an insightful historical analysis and a gripping read. It’s hard to put down. Pipes brings his brilliant power of analysis to bear on a highly intriguing episode in late imperial Russian history.”—Jonathan Daly, University of Illinois at Chicago

"Mr. Pipes . . . tells an amazing story, part Dostoevsky, part Conrad. It is, among other things, a prophetic tale, the harbinger of a revolution made in the name of humanity but destined to enslave the masses it claimed to liberate. . . . [A] remarkable book."--Michael J. Ybarra, Wall Street Journal

“This book is a pure pleasure to read.”—Norman Naimark, Stanford University

"One of the most distinguished historians of Russia, and of Bolshevism in particular, Pipes habitually deploys a grand narrative sweep. . . . From a handful of obscure memoirs and some unpublished material in the Russian archives, Pipes has reconstructed [Degaev’s] career, giving us a real-life thriller that is also a cautionary tale rich with insight into depths of the human psyche that most of us have the good fortune to know about only by hearsay."—David Pryce-Jones, Commentary

“A real gem. . . . A brilliant history of treason, deception, terror and academe in the underworld of Imperial Russia and the respectability of mid-western U.S. universities.”—Simon Sebag Montefiore, Financial Times

"Marvelously written. . . . Richard Pipes . . . has gathered what little can be discovered about Degaev’s life. The result is indescribable."—J. Bottum, First Things

"Fascinating. . . . Pipes has managed to unearth a wealth of information about Degaev and his circle of conspirators, and he has whipped it together in such a concise and masterly fashion that he creates an atmosphere worthy of Dostoevsky."—Robert Leiter, Jewish Exponent

"Richard Pipes is the finest historian of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Russia. . . . The Degaev Affair takes the reader through dark and terrifying alleyways of the historical underworld. As a story, it ranks as a true-life version of Conrad’s Under Western Eyes, which is aptly cited on the title page."—Nikolai Tolstoy, Literary Review

“This book recounts, for the first time, as extraordinary a story as I have ever read, or heard of. . . . Every page—of which , alas, there are only 133 excluding notes and index—contains a nugget.”—Sir Peregrine Worsthorne, New Statesman

“[A] fascinating tale.”—Orlando Figes, New York Review of Books

“Richard Pipes' book is both a biography of Degaev-Pell and a wider reflection on aspects of terrorism.”—Slavic and East European Review

"Absorbing, brilliantly researched. . . . [A] fascinating display of scholarly detective work. . . . A treatise on terrorism."—Raymond Carr, Spectator

"A genuinely astonishing story of a murderous intrigue, starkly and simply told in this enthralling book. . . . A gripping read."—George Walden, Sunday Telegraph

"A tight little sketch of the 1880s terrorist Sergei Degaev that makes Russian revolutionary history accessible to people more used to reading novels--which is meant as an enormous compliment."—Bob Mercer, Weekly Standard

"One of the best works of Russian history in a long time. Succinctly and elegantly, Pipes tells the story of a University of South Dakota mathematician named Alexander Pell, who betrayed and destroyed the world's first systematic terrorist organization."—Stephen Kotkin, New Republic

ISBN: 9780300107722
Publication Date: May 10, 2005
168 pages, 5 x 8
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