Alexander II's Great Reforms of the early 1860s unleashed hopes among Russians for a true civil society that would enjoy the benefits of increased political freedom and exclusion from want. Instead, after the attempt on the Tsar's life by D. V. Karakozov in 1866, Russian political life became trapped within a vicious circle of political reaction, growing disillusionment with the government and intensifying political dissent that increasingly manifested itself in acts of terrorism against Tsarist officials.
The creation of the Department of State Police in 1880, to combat all forms of political subversion, served as a declaration of war by the Russian government, not only against Russia's terrorists, but also against enlightened society as a whole. The secret police acted as the vanguard of the forces of order in this internal war, its tentacles penetrating every corner of Russian life.
Zuckerman's book is the first to place the entire history of the so-called 'Okhrana' within the context of the political and social history of late imperial Russia. Indeed, by using a historical-sociological approach, Zuckerman shows that, ironically, the secret police were themselves victims of the political culture they strove to preserve.