Aseff and the Early Revolution
Menu JTA Search

Aseff and the Early Revolution

Download PDF for this date

Aseff the spy, Boris Nikolajewsky, Doubleday Doran & Co. $2.50.

In 1908 a wave of pessimism swept over the revolutionary movement in Russia. Russian revolutionaries suddenly discovered that the man who had directed most of the assassinations of tyrants and who had been hailed as the arch-foe of Russian Czarism was a police spy.

With the discovery that Ievno Aseff, leader of the Social Revolutionary Battle Organization, had been in the employ of police even when he was engaged in attempts on the lives of the Czar and leading Russian officials, terror, which had been one of the chief weapons of the Social Revolutionary party, fell into disrepute and an important chapter in Russian revolutionary history came to a close.


While Aseff’s treachery, which had long been suspected, became fully known in 1908, the complete truth about his career was not established until the revolution finally triumphed and the records of the Ochrana, the secret Czarist police, were opened to investigators.

It is on the basis of these records that “Aseff The Spy,” written by a former Socialist Revolutionary, Boris Nikolajewsky, may be regarded as a definitive work on the life and career of Ievno Aseff, whose simultaneous career as a revolutionary and police spy continues to fascinate countless readers.

Aseff was the son of a poverty-stricken Jewish tailor, Fischel Aseff. As a boy he tasted the grinding poverty that was the lot of the poor Jew who lived in the Russian pale. At great sacrifice his family managed to send him through high school, but lack of funds prevented him from going further. Like most intelligent young Russians, Aseff soon came into contact with the revolutionary movement. When suspicion fell on him, he absconded with a sum of money which belonged to a merchant and fled to Germany, where he enrolled in the Karlsruhe Polytechnic.


His money soon gave out, so Aseff began to write letters to the Ochrana, offering to sell out the Russian revolutionaries who lived in Germany. At first he attempted to hide his identity, but the Ochrana agents soon discovered who was writing to them and made Aseff a full-fledged agent. For fifty rubles a month and a bonus on Easter and Christmas, he furnished information that led to many arrests.

Aseff’s path in the Social Revolutionary party was not a smooth one. At the beginning he nearly betrayed himself and directed suspicion to his activities, but by the time of his graduation from school he was accepted as a full-fledged and trusted revolutionary.

Like most police agents, Aseff graduated to the extreme left wing of the Social Revolutionary group and became a leading advocate of terror. G. A. Gershuni, Russian Jewish terrorist, was impressed with Aseff’s “sincerity” and he became a member of the battle organization.


With Gershuni he planned the assassination of Minister of the Interior V. K. Plehve, but at the same time he hid the plot from his police chiefs, giving them unimportant information and hiding the planned killing and the role Gershuni played. In this particular case Aseff seems to have been actuated by hatred for Plehve, who had organized the Kishineff pogrom merely to divert the attention of the Russian people from their own misery.

A band of revolutionaries headed by Boris Savinkov killed Plehve by throwing a bomb into his carriage.

Gershuni was captured and sent to Siberia and Aseff became undisputed chief of the terrorist section. As organizer of the Plehve assassination, his prestige in the party was enormous. He controlled the funds of the battle organization and his police pay was no longer essential to him.

As the revolutionary cause advanced Aseff became less useful to his police masters and he even proposed to blow up the Ochrana building, which would have followed his tracks effectively and permanently.

After the reaction which followed the revolt of 1905, Aseff once more resumed relations with police and helped frustrate all revolutionary terrorist activity. By 1907, however, the revolutionaries were aware there was a traitor highly placed in their ranks, but even when suspicion was directed toward Aseff, the charges were termed monstrous and Aseff’s services to the revolution saved him from any real investigation.

Vladimir Burtsev, Social Revolutionary writer, became convinced of the truth of the charges against Aseff, but could make no headway. When he finally published his suspicions, he was placed on trial before his party.

But with the aid of a disgruntled police official he was finally able to convince the Social Revolutionary court and Aseff’s incredible career was over.

Aseff fled to Germany with his mistress and lived the life of a hunted man until 1915, when he was arrested and jailed. He was in prison until 1918. Imprisonment ruined his health and he died that same year, a broken man.

Hundreds of volumes have been written about this fantastic career. Nikolajewsky’s book strips Aseff of much of the glamor that has clung to him.

M. I.

Founding Funders

The digitization of the JTA Archive would not have been possible without the generous support of the following donors:
  • The Gottesman Fund
  • Righteous Persons Foundation
  • Charles H. Revson Foundation
  • Elisa Spungen Bildner and Robert Bildner, in honor of Norma Spungen
  • George S. Blumenthal
  • Grace and Scott Offen Charitable Fund