When the Polytechnicum, as the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule was then known, became one of the first institutions of higher education in Europe to admit women, in the early 1870s dozens of young Russian women flocked to Zurich, most often to study medicine. They met the radical Russian exiles who had fled there before, and when Tsar Alexander II ordered them to return to Russia in 1873, they took home the fight for social justice. Some of the former students, most of them around twenty years old, established the Allrussian Social-Revolutionary Organization, also known as the Moscow Circle. They tried to introduce socialist ideas to the factories, but were soon rounded up, and were accused in 1877 in what became known as the Trial of the Fifty. The government brought the case in order to discredit the accused, but its intention backfired: especially the defense of Sof'ya Bardina (1852-1883) made a deep impression and set an example for others. That this was not necessarily peaceful was demonstrated by Vera Zasulich, who less than a year after the trial shot the chief of the St Petersburg police.

Most Russians in Zurich shared the ideas of either Pyotr Lavrov, who stressed the importance of propaganda, or Mikhail Bakunin, who considered a popular revolution inevitable. Bakunin also played a prominent role in the international workers' movement and, in his double quality of Russian and conspirator, had become a target of criticism by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Yet, from the point of view of the East, the combination of Russia with secret societies was obvious rather than strange, as Pyotr Tkachov (1844-1886) explained in reply to an article by Engels. Tkachov, who, from his stay at the University of St Petersburg in 1861 to his flight to Switzerland in 1873, had alternated revolutionary activity with prison, belonged to neither of the two Zurich groups. In his opinion (which had earned him the sobriquet 'Russian Jacobin') equality was an ideal that could only be realized in Russia by means of a strictly organized revolutionary elite that would seize power in the state. Tkachov's posthumous reputation is partly based on his youthful remark, publicized by Albert Camus, that the real renewal of society can only be obtained by liquidating everyone above the age of twenty-five.

Read also Tkachov's reply to Engels (Pdf 1,52 Mb).
Source: Peter Tcatschoff, Offener Brief an Herrn Friedrich Engels, Verfasser der Artikel 'Flüchtlings-Literaur' in Nr. 117 und 118 des 'Volksstaat', Jahrgang 1874, Zürich: Typographie der Tagwacht, 1874. (Call number: 1989/135).