Revolutionary Terrorism in Russia

In 1869, two Russian writers, Mikhail Bakunin and Sergi Nechayev published the book Catechism of a Revolutionist. It included the famous passage: "The Revolutionist is a doomed man. He has no private interests, no affairs, sentiments, ties, property nor even a name of his own. His entire being is devoured by one purpose, one thought, one passion - the revolution. Heart and soul, not merely by word but by deed, he has severed every link with the social order and with the entire civilized world; with the laws, good manners, conventions, and morality of that world. He is its merciless enemy and continues to inhabit it with only one purpose - to destroy it."

The book had a great impact on young Russians and in 1876 the group Land and Liberty was formed. Most of the group shared Bakunin's anarchist views and demanded that Russia's land should be handed over to the peasants and the State should be destroyed. It remained a small secret society and at its peak only had around 200 members.

Some reformers favoured a policy of terrorism to obtain reform and on 14th April, 1879, Alexander Soloviev, a former schoolteacher, tried to kill Alexander II. His attempt failed and he was executed the following month. So also were sixteen other men suspected of terrorism.

Alexander Soloviev
Alexander Soloviev

The government responded to the assassination attempt by appointing six military governor-generals that imposed a rigorous system of censorship on Russia. All radical books were banned and known reformers were arrested and imprisoned.

In October, 1879, the Land and Liberty split into two factions. The majority of members, who favoured a policy of terrorism, established the People's Will. Others, such as George Plekhanov formed Black Repartition, a group that rejected terrorism and supported a socialist propaganda campaign among workers and peasants.

Soon afterwards the People's Will decided to assassinate Alexander II. The following month Andrei Zhelyabov and Sophia Perovskaya attempted to use nitroglycerine to destroy the Tsar train. However, the terrorist miscalculated and it destroyed another train instead. An attempt the blow up the Kamenny Bridge in St. Petersburg as the Tsar was passing over it was also unsuccessful.

The next attempt on Alexander's life involved a carpenter, Stefan Khalturin, who had managed to find work in the Winter Palace. Allowed to sleep on the premises, each day he brought packets of dynamite into his room and concealed it in his bedding.

On 17th February, 1880, Khalturin constructed a mine in the basement of the building under the dinning-room. The mine went off at half-past six at the time that the People's Will had calculated Alexander would be having his dinner. However, his main guest, Prince Alexander of Battenburg, had arrived late and dinner was delayed and the dinning-room was empty. Alexander was unharmed but sixty-seven people were killed or badly wounded by the explosion.

The People's Will contacted the Russian government and claimed they would call off the terror campaign if the Russian people were granted a constitution that provided free elections and an end to censorship. On 25th February, 1880, Alexander II announced that he was considering granting the Russian people a constitution. To show his good will a number of political prisoners were released from prison. Loris Melikof, the Minister of the Interior, was given the task of devising a constitution that would satisfy the reformers but at the same time preserve the powers of the autocracy.

At the same time the Russian Police Department established a special section that dealt with internal security. This unit eventually became known as the Okhrana. Under the control of Loris Melikof, the Minister of the Interior, undercover agents began joining political organizations that were campaigning for social reform.

In January, 1881, Loris Melikof presented his plans to Alexander II. They included an expansion of the powers of the Zemstvo. Under his plan, each zemstov would also have the power to send delegates to a national assembly called the Gosudarstvenny Soviet that would have the power to initiate legislation. Alexander was concerned that the plan would give too much power to the national assembly and appointed a committee to look at the scheme in more detail.

The People's Will became increasingly angry at the failure of the Russian government to announce details of the new constitution. They therefore began to make plans for another assassination attempt. Those involved in the plot included Sophia Perovskaya, Andrei Zhelyabov, Gesia Gelfman, Nikolai Sablin, Ignatei Grinevitski, Nikolai Kibalchich, Nikolai Rysakov and Timofei Mikhailov.

In February, 1881, the Okhrana discovered that their was a plot led by Andrei Zhelyabov to kill Alexander II. Zhelyabov was arrested but refused to provide any information on the conspiracy. He confidently told the police that nothing they could do would save the life of the Tsar.

On 1st March, 1881, Alexander was travelling in a closed carriage, from Michaelovsky Palace to the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. An armed Cossack sat with the coach-driver and another six Cossacks followed on horseback. Behind them came a group of police officers in sledges.

All along the route he was watched by members of the People's Will. On a street corner near the Catherine Canal Sophia Perovskaya gave the signal to Nikolai Rysakov and Timofei Mikhailov to throw their bombs at the Tsar's carriage. The bombs missed the carriage and instead landed amongst the Cossacks. The Tsar was unhurt but insisted on getting out of the carriage to check the condition of the injured men. While he was standing with the wounded Cossacks another terrorist, Ignatei Grinevitski, threw his bomb. Alexander was killed instantly and the explosion was so great that Grinevitski also died from the bomb blast.

Of the other conspirators, Nikolai Sablin committed suicide before he could be arrested and Gesia Gelfman died in prison. Sophia Perovskaya, Andrei Zhelyabov, Nikolai Kibalchich, Nikolai Rysakov and Timofei Mikhailov were hanged on 3rd April, 1881.

It is estimated that about a third of the people in People's Will were women. In Russia at this time women remained subject to the absolute authority of their husbands or fathers. Furthermore no education beyond the secondary school level was available to women in Russia. Women felt a particular feeling of being oppressed and felt the need to rebel. Women who emerged as leaders of the various revolutionary groups included Vera Figer, Sophia Perovskaya, Vera Zasulich, Praskovia Ivanovskia, Olga Liubatovich, Gesia Gelfman, Elizabeth Kovalskaia, Catherine Breshkovskaya, Alexandra Kollontai and Nadezha Krupskaya.

In 1901 Catherine Breshkovskaya, Victor Chernov, Gregory Gershuni, Nikolai Avksentiev, Alexander Kerensky and Evno Azef, founded the Party of Socialist Revolutionaries (SR). The main policy of the SR was the confiscation of all land. This would then be distributed among the peasants according to need. The party was also in favour of the establishment of a democratically elected constituent assembly and a maximum 8-hour day for factory workers.

The Socialist Revolutionaries also had a terrorist wing, the SR Combat Organization. Membership of this group was secret and independent of the rest of the party. Gregory Gershuni, became its head and was responsible for planning the assassination of the Minister of the Interior, D. S. Sipyagin. The following year he arranged the assassination of N. M. Bogdanovich, the Governor of Ufa.

Gregory Gershuni was unaware that his deputy, Evno Azef, was in the pay of the Okhrana. In 1904 Azef secretly provided the secret police with the information needed to arrest and try Gershuni with terrorism.

After the arrest of Gershuni, Evno Azef became the new leader of the SR Combat Organization and organized the assassination of Vyacheslav Plehve in 1904 and Father Gregory Gapon in 1906. At the same time he was receiving 1,000 rubles a month from the Okhrana. Several members of the police leaked information to the leadership of the SR about the undercover activities of Azef. However, they refused to believe the stories and assumed the secret service was trying to undermine the success of the terrorist unit.

The Socialist Revolutionaries continued to infiltrated by agents employed by Okhrana. Between 1911 and 1914, Dmitri Bogrov supplied information about the party. However, in what appeared to be an act of remorse, Bogrov entered the Kiev Opera House on 1st September, 1911, and assassinated the Minister of the Interior, Peter Stolypin.

Primary Sources

(1) Mikhail Bakunin and Sergi Nechayev, Catechism of a Revolutionist(1869)

The Revolutionist is a doomed man. He has no private interests, no affairs, sentiments, ties, property nor even a name of his own. His entire being is devoured by one purpose, one thought, one passion - the revolution. Heart and soul, not merely by word but by deed, he has severed every link with the social order and with the entire civilized world; with the laws, good manners, conventions, and morality of that world. He is its merciless enemy and continues to inhabit it with only one purpose - to destroy it.

He despises public opinion. He hates and despises the social morality of his time, its motives and manifestations. Everything which promotes the success of the revolution is moral, everything which hinders it is immoral. The nature of the true revolutionist excludes all romanticism, all tenderness, all ecstasy, all love.

(2) When Vera Zasulich met Sergi Nechayev he immediately tried to recruit her into the revolutionary movement.

Nechayev began to tell me his plans for carrying out a revolution in Russia in the near future. I felt terrible: it was really painful for me to say "That's unlikely," "I don't know about that". I could see that he was very serious, that this was no idle chatter about revolution. He could and would act - wasn't he the ringleader of the students?

I could imagine no greater pleasure than serving the revolution. I had dared only to dream of it, and yet now he was saying that he wanted to recruit me, that otherwise he wouldn't have thought of saying anything. And what did I know of "the people"? I knew only the house serfs of Biakolovo and the members of my weaving collective, while he was himself a worker by birth.

(3) In 1876 Vera Zasulich attempted to kill the police chief, General Trepov after he had given the order to beat fellow revolutionary, Alexei Bogoliubov.

Now Trepov and his entourage were looking at me, their hands occupied by papers and things, and I decided to do it earlier than I had planned - to do it when Trepov stopped opposite my neighbour, before reaching me.

And suddenly there was no neighbour ahead of me - I was first.

"What do you want?"

"A certificate of conduct."

He jotted down something with a pencil and turned to my neighbour.

The revolver was in my hand. I pressed the trigger - a misfire.

My heart missed a beat. Again I pressed. A shot, cries. Now they'll start beating me. This was next in the sequence of events I had thought through so many times.

I threw down the revolver - this also had been decided beforehand; otherwise, in the scuffle, it might go off by itself. I stood and waited.

Suddenly everybody around me began moving, the petitioners scattered, police officers threw themselves at me, and I was seized from both sides.

(4) In October, 1879, Vera Figner joined the People's Will.

I was invited to become an agent of the Executive Committee of the People's Will. I agreed. My past experience had convinced me that the only way to change the existing order was by force. If any group in our society had shown me a path other than violence, perhaps I would have followed it; at the very least, I would have tried it out. But, as you know, we don't have a free press in our country, and no ideas cannot be spread by the written word. And so I concluded that violence was the only solution. I could not follow the peaceful path.

(5) Olga Liubatovich was in Geneva with Vera Zasulich when news arrived that Alexander Soloviev had attempted to kill Alexander II.

In the spring of 1879, the unexpected news of Alexander Soloviev's attempt on the life of the Tsar threw Geneva's Russian colony into turmoil. Vera Zasulich hid away for three days in deep depression: Soloviev's deed obviously reflected a trend toward direct, active struggle against the government, a trend of which Zasulich disapproved. It seemed to me that her nerves were so strongly affected by violent actions like Soloviev's because she consciously (and perhaps unconsciously, as well) regarded her own deed as the first step in this direction.

Other émigrés were incomparably more tolerant of the attempt: Stefanovich and Deich, for example, merely noted that it might hinder political work among the people. Kravchinskii rejected even this objection. All of us knew from our personal experience, he argued, that extensive work among the people has long been impossible, nor could we expect to expand our activity and attract masses of the people to the socialist cause until we obtained at least a minimum of political freedom, freedom of speech, and the freedom to organize unions.

(6) Elizabeth Kovalskaia was a member of Land and Liberty and later joined the Black Repartition faction.

In the spring of 1879, after Governor Krapotkin was assassinated, there was a wave of searches and arrests in Kharkov. I had to flee and go understanding for good. I spent brief periods of time in various cities, reaching St. Petersburg in the fall of that year. By this time, Land and Liberty had split into the People's Will and Black Repartition. Firmly convinced that only the people themselves could carry out a socialist revolution and that terror directed at the centre of the state (such as the people's Will advocated) would bring - at best - only a wishy-washy constitution which would in turn strengthen the Russian bourgeoisie, I joined Black Repartition, which had retained the old Land and Liberty program.

(7) Praskovia Ivanovskaia joined the People's Will and often visited the home of Sophia Perovskaya and Andrei Zhelyabov.

In the intervals between printing jobs, we visited Sofhia Perovskaya's apartment. She shared the place with Andrei Zhelyabov, and when we stayed late, we saw him, too. To us, the visits to Perovskaia were like a refreshing shower. Sophia always gave us a warm, friendly welcome; she acted as if we were the ones with stimulating ideas and news to share, rather than the reverse. In her easy and natural way, she painstakingly helped us to make sense of the complicated muddle of everyday life and the vacillations of public opinion. She told us about the party's activities among workers, about various circles and organizations, and about the expansion of the revolutionary movement among previously untouched social groups. Perovskaia spoke calmly, without a trace of sentimentality, but there was no hiding the joy that lit up her face and shone in her crinkled, smiling eyes - it was as if she were taking about a child of hers who had recovered from an illness.

(8) Members of the People's Will were constantly being arrested by the Okhrana. Although leader of the group, Vera Figner managed to avoid capture for many years.

Occasionally, they stumbled on the trial of people who actually had been involved in the Moscow Organization's work; in other instances, however, they contrived to tie in people who were not implicated at all. That's how the "Trial of the Fifty" came about. It included eleven of the women who had studied in Zurich; a twelfth, Keminskaia, was not brought to trial, ostensibly because she became mentally disturbed during her preliminary detention. There was a rumour that the quiet melancholia from which she suffered would not have saved her from trial if her father hadn't given the police 5,000 rubles. After her comrades were sentenced. Kaminskaia's thwarted desire to share their fate led her to poison herself by swallowing matches.

(9) Victor Serge, Year One of the Russian Revolution (1930)

The SR Battle Organization was founded by Gregory Gershuni in 1902; its first act, in the same year, was the execution of the Minister of Education Sipyagin by the student Balmashev (who was later hanged). On the day after the murder, the SR party published under a similar verdict. The arrest of Gershuni, who was delivered to the police by Azef, caused the latter's promotion to the top leadership of the terrorist detachment. A man named Boris Savinkov, for whom terrorism was a vocation and whose courage was indomitable, now found himself under the orders of the agent-provacateur. In 1904 the Prime Minister, Plehve, fell mutilated by Yegor Sazonov's bomb. Sazonov had organized the assassination on instructions from Azef.

(10) Edward Judge, Edward Judge, Plehve: Repression and Reform in Imperial Russia (1983)

Azef sat in a very dangerous position, especially after Gershuni's arrest, and he had to think first of his own safety. A continual series of arrests, and a long train of assassination attempts gone awry, could only help convince his SR colleagues that they had a traitor in their midst. If he were found out, his game would be over, and so, most probably, would be his life. On the other hand, if he could successfully plan and accomplish the murder of Plehve, his position among the SRs would be secured. Azef had little love for Plehve: as a Jew, he could not help but resent the Kishinev pogrom and the minister's reputed role.