The Romanov Dynasty

Ivan the Great established the Russian Empire in 1462. He held power until 1505. The size of the Empire was increased by Ivan the Terrible who was crowned in 1547. During his long reign he nearly doubled the already large Russian territory. Thus, by the end of the 16th century Russia was transformed into a multi-ethnic, multi-denominational and trans-continental state. However, the Tsardom was weakened by the long and unsuccessful Livonian War against the coalition of Poland, Lithuania, and Sweden for access to the Baltic coast and sea trade.

When Ivan died in 1584 he was replaced by Fedor I who was an incompetent ruler as well as being childless. When Fedor died in 1598 the country went through a period known as the Time of Troubles. This was a conflict between Boris Godunov and Vasili Shuiski. Godunov won the struggle and became the new tsar. He managed to hold on to power for the next few years but had difficulty ruling the empire and in 1601-03, Russia suffered a famine that killed one-third of the population (about two million). On his death in 1605, Tsar Vasili replaced him but his rule was also unstable. (1)

In 1613 the leading nobles decided to place the sixteen-year-old Michael Romanov, a distant relative of Ivan the Terrible, on the throne. He took the title "Emperor and Autocrat of all Russia". The Emperor of Russia became known as the Tsar (Czar) and imposed autocratic rule - government by one man. All the other contenders were murdered. Unlike in other European countries, the Tsars of Russia did not take advice from an elected parliament. The country wa s run by a ten man ministerial council. Each minister was both appointed and dismissed by the Tsar. (2)

The Tsar also appointed the Chief Procurator of the Russian Orthodox Church. In fact, since 1721, the Orthodox Church had been run as a government department. In order to ensure that armies could be raised and the country defended, the tsars imposed a tight hierarchy of service on the whole population. Nobles were awarded land in the form of service estates, on condition they performed civilian or military service. They also had to raise a unit of fighting men from among the peasants committed to their charge. (3)

Tsar Alexander II

Alexander II became the sixteenth Romanov tsar in 1855. He attempted to bring in some political reforms. This included permitting each district to set up a Zemstvo. These were local councils with powers to provide roads, schools and medical services. However, the right to elect members was restricted to the wealthy. He also continued with rigid censorship and to take part in political discussion groups, could be punished by execution. The novelist, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, was found guilty of this offence and was sentenced to death, but it was commuted and he was sent to Siberia instead. (4)

Alexander II
Alexander II

In 1861 Alexander issued his Emancipation Manifesto that proposed 17 legislative acts that would free the serfs in Russia. Alexander announced that personal serfdom would be abolished and all peasants would be able to buy land from their landlords. The State would advance the the money to the landlords and they would recover it from the peasants in 49 annual sums known as redemption payments. (5)

Victor Serge, the author of Year One of the Russian Revolution (1930), pointed out: "With a population of sixty-seven million, Russia had twenty-three million serfs belonging to 103,000 landlords. The arable land which the freed peasantry had to rent or buy was valued at about double its real value (342 million roubles instead of 180 million); yesterday's serfs discovered that, in becoming free, they were now hopelessly in debt." (6)

Alexander's reforms did not satisfy liberals and radicals who wanted a parliamentary democracy and the freedom of expression that was enjoyed in the United States and most other European states. The reforms in agricultural also disappointed the peasants. In some regions it took peasants nearly 20 years to obtain their land. Many were forced to pay more than the land was worth and others were given inadequate amounts for their needs.

In 1869, two Russian writers, Mikhail Bakunin and Sergi Nechayev published the pamphlet 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 men went onto argue: "The revolutionary despises public opinion. He despises and hates the existing social morality in all its manifestations. For him, morality is everything which contributes to the triumph of the revolution. Immoral and criminal is everything that stands in its way. The revolutionary is a dedicated man, merciless toward the State and toward the educated classes; and he can expect no mercy from them. Between him and them there exists, declared or concealed, a relentless and irreconcilable war to the death. He must accustom himself to torture. Tyrannical toward himself, he must be tyrannical toward others. All the gentle and enervating sentiments of kinship, love, friendship, gratitude, and even honor, must be suppressed in him and give place to the cold and single-minded passion for revolution." (7)

The pamphlet had a great impact on young Russians and in 1876 a secret society, Land and Liberty, was formed. The group, led by Mark Natanson, demanded that the Russian Empire should be dissolved. It also believed that two thirds of the land should be transferred to the peasants where it would be organized in self-governing communes. It remained a small group and at its peak only had around 200 members. Undercover agents employed by Okhrana soon infiltrated the organization and members began to be arrested and imprisoned. (8)

Vera Zasulich, the daughter of a minor noble, became a revolutionary at the age of seventeen, when her elder sister introduced her to student radicals. Vera later recalled that she became a revolutionary to escape the dismal fate of being a governess: "Of course it would have been much easier if I had been a boy; then I could have done what I wanted... And then, the distant specter of revolution appeared, making me the equal of any boy." (9)

Zasulich joined a weaving collective and became active in the movement to educate workers, conducting literacy classes for them in the evenings. In 1876 Zasulich found work as a typesetter for an illegal printing press. A member of the Land and Liberty group, when Zasulich heard that one of her fellow comrades, Tatiana Lebedeva, had witnessed one of the prisoners, Alexei Bogoliubov, take a terrible beating at the hands of Dmitry Trepov, the Governor General of St. Petersburg, she decided she must take revenge. (10)

According to Cathy Porter, the author of Fathers and Daughters: Russian Women in Revolution (1976): "By July 1877 the atmosphere in the prison had already reached boiling-point when Trepov, Governor-General of St Petersburg, made his tour of inspection. The political detainees watched from their cell windows as Trepov, who was in a particularly vicious mood that day, examined prisoners in the yard below. Suddenly, over-reacting to some imagined misdemeanour of Bogolyubov's, he ordered him to be flogged savagely. Bogolyubov went insane as a result of the beating... That night the prison resounded to the shouts of the detainees. In the women's section Tatiana Lebedeva, whose health had been seriously undermined by prison conditions, vociferously urged her friends to shout out their support for Bogolyubov. Prison officers made savage reprisals, and many women were dragged out of their cells by their hair and flogged." (11)

When Zasulich heard the news she went to the local prison determined to assassinate Trepov. She later recalled that she went to Trepov's office with a revolver hidden under her cloak: "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." (12)

Zasulich was arrested and charged with attempted murder. During the trial the defence produced evidence of such abuses by the police, and Zasulich conducted herself with such dignity, that the jury acquitted her after deliberating for seven minutes. When the police tried to re-arrest her outside the court, the crowd intervened and allowed her to escape. Zasulich commented: "I could not understand this feeling then, but I have understood it since. Had I been convicted, I should have been prevented by main force from doing anything, and I should have been tranquil, and the thought of having done all I was able for the cause would have been a consolation to me." (13) Zasulich, fled abroad, and did not return to Russia for 28 years. (14)

Vera Zasulich
Vera Zasulich

Sergei Kravchinsky argued that Vera Zasulich was a new kind of hero to the people of Russia: "On the horizon appeared the outlines of a sombre figure, illuminated by some kind of hellish flame, a figure with chin raised proudly in the air, and a gaze that breathed provocation and vengeance. Passing through the frightened crowds, the revolutionary enters with proud step on to the arena of history. He is wonderful, awe-inspiring and irresistible, for he unites the two most lofty forms of human grandeur, the martyr and the hero." (15)

Most of the Land and Liberty 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. The historian, Adam Bruno Ulam, has suggested: "This Party, which commemorated in its name the revolutionary grouping of the early sixties, was soon split up by quarrels about its attitude toward terror. The professed aim, the continued agitation among the peasants, grew more and more fruitless." (16)

The People's Will

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 (Narodnaya Volya). Vera Figner was one of those who joined the new organisation: "Reason told us that we must not follow the course chosen by our comrades, political terrorists who were drunk with the spirit of strife and animated by success . But our hearts spoke otherwise... it drew us to the world of the dispossessed." (17)

Others, such as George Plekhanov formed Black Repartition, a group that rejected terrorism and supported a socialist propaganda campaign among workers and peasants. Elizabeth Kovalskaia was one of those who rejected the ideas of the People's Will as she was "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." (18)

Michael Burleigh, the author of Blood & Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism (2008), has pointed out that the main influence on this small group was Sergi Nechayev: "The terrorist nucleus of Land and Freedom had already adopted many of Nechayev's dubious practices, including bank robberies and murdering informers. People's Will also borrowed his tactic of suggesting to the credulous that it was the tip of a much larger revolutionary organisation - the Russian Social Revolutionary Party - which in reality was non-existent. There was an imposing-sounding Executive Committee all right, but this was coterminous with the entire membership of People's Will... In fact, People's Will never had more than thirty or forty members, who would then recruit agents for specific tasks or to establish affiliate cells within sections of society deemed to have revolutionary potential." (19)

Soon afterwards the People's Will decided to assassinate Alexander II. According to the historian, Joel Carmichael: "Although this populist organization retained the same humane vocabulary - revolving around socialism, faith in the people, the overthrow of the autocracy, and democratic representation - its sole objective was, in fact, the murder of the tsar. The preparation for this demanded boundless zeal, painstaking diligence, and great personal daring. In fact, the idealism of these young assassins was perhaps the most impressive thing about the whole populist movement. Though a few populist leaders were of peasant origin, most were drawn from the intelligentsia of the upper and middle classes. The motives of the latter were quite impersonal ; one of the things that baffled the police in stamping out the movement - in which they never succeeded - was just this combination of zeal and selflessness.... The upper-class origins of many of the revolutionaries meant a source of funds; many idealists donated their entire fortunes to the movement." (20)

A directive committee of the People's Will was formed consisting of Andrei Zhelyabov, Timofei Mikhailov, Lev Tikhomirov, Mikhail Frolenko, Vera Figner, Sophia Perovskaya and Anna Yakimova. Zhelyabov was considered the leader of the group. However, Figner considered him to be overbearing and lacking in depth: "He had not suffered enough. For him all was hope and light." Zhelyabov had a magnetic personality and had a reputation for exerting a strong influence over women.

Zhelyabov and Perovskaya agreed to attempt 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. Figner blamed Zhelyabov for these failures but others in the group felt he had been unlucky rather than incompetent. (21)

Ilya Efimovich Repin, The Arrest of the Propagandist (1881)
Ilya Efimovich Repin, The Arrest of the Propagandist (1881)

In November 1879 Stefan Khalturin managed to find work as a carpenter in the Winter Palace. According to Adam Bruno Ulam, the author of Prophets and Conspirators in Pre-Revolutionary Russia (1998): "There was, incomprehensible as it seems, no security check of workman employed at the palace. Stephan Khalturin, a joiner, long sought by the police as one of the organizers of the Northern Union of Russian workers, found no difficulty in applying for and getting a job there under a false name. Conditions at the palace, judging from his reports to revolutionary friends, epitomized those of Russia itself: the outward splendor of the emperor's residence concealed utter chaos in its management: people wandered in and out, and imperial servants resplendent in livery were paid as little as fifteen rubles a month and were compelled to resort to pilfering. The working crew were allowed to sleep in a cellar apartment directly under the dining suite." (22)

Khalturin approached George Plekhanov about the possibility of using this opportunity to kill Tsar Alexander II. Khalturin believed that the Tsar should be killed by a representative of the labouring classes. Plekhanov rejected the idea but did put him in touch with the People's Will who were committed to a policy of assassination. It was agreed that Khalturin should try and kill the Tsar and each day he brought packets of dynamite, supplied by Anna Yakimova and Nikolai Kibalchich, into his room and concealed it in his bedding. "His workmates regarded him as a clown and a simpleton and warned him against socialists, easily identifiable apparently for their wild eyes and provocative gestures. He worked patiently, familiarizing himself with the Tsar's every movement, and by mid-January Yakimova and Kibalchich had provided him with a hundred pounds of dynamite, which he hid under his bed." (23)

On 5th February, 1880, Stefan 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 II 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. (24)

This disaster resulted in a heated debate on the purposes of terrorism. One faction that included Nikolai Morozov and Olga Liubatovich, argued that the main objective was to force the government to grant democratic rights to the people of Russia. However, another faction, led by Lev Tikhomirov, believed that it was possible for a small group of revolutionaries to use terrorism in order to directly capture power. Liubatovich argued: "During the debates, the question of Jacobinism - seizing power and ruling from above, by decree - was raised. As I saw it, the Jacobin tinge that Tikhomirov gave to his program for the Executive Committee gave to his program for the Executive Committee threatened the party and the entire revolutionary movement with moral death; it was a kind of rebirth of Nechaevism, which had long since lost moral credit in the revolutionary world. It was my belief that the revolutionary idea could be a life-giving force only when it was the antithesis of all coercion - social, state, and even personal coercion, tsarist and Jacobin alike. Of course, it was possible for a narrow group of ambitious men to replace one form of coercion or authority by another. But neither the people nor educated society would follow them consciously, and only a conscious movement can impart new principles to public life." Liubatovich and Morozov left the organization and Tikomirov's views prevailed. (25)

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. Mikhail Loris-Melikof, the Minister of the Interior, was given the task of devising a constitution that would satisfy the reformers but would also 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, undercover agents began joining political organizations that were campaigning for social reform. (26)

In January, 1881, Mikhail Loris-Melikof presented his plans to Alexander II. They included an expansion of the powers of the Zemstvo. Under his plan, each Zemstvo 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, Vera Figner, Anna Yakimova, Grigory Isaev, Gesia Gelfman, Nikolai Sablin, Ignatei Grinevitski, Nikolai Kibalchich, Nikolai Rysakov, Mikhail Frolenko, Timofei Mikhailov, Tatiana Lebedeva and Alexander Kviatkovsky.

Kibalchich, Isaev and Yakimova were commissioned to prepare the bombs that were needed to kill the Tsar. Isaev made some technical error and a bomb went off badly damaging his right hand. Yakimova took him to hospital, where she watched over his bed to prevent him from incriminating himself in his delirium. As soon as he regained consciousness he insisted on leaving, although he was now missing three fingers of his right hand. He was unable to continue working and Yakimova now had sole responsibility for preparing the bombs.

A crisis meeting was held in which Timofei Mikhailov called for work to continue on all fronts. However, Sophia Perovskaya and Anna Yakimova argued that they should concentrate on the plans to assassinate the Tsar. Nikolai Kibalchich was heard to remark: "Have you noticed how much crueller our girls are than our men?" Andrei Zhelyabov agreed with Sophia: "History is too slow. We must hurry it on, or the nation will have degenerated before the liberals wake up and start work again." (27)

It was eventually agreed that Perovkaya and Yakimova were right. It was decided to form a watching party. These members had the task of noting every movement of the Tsar. It was discovered that every Sunday the Tsar took a drive along Malaya Sadovaya Street. It was decided that this was a suitable place to attack. Yakimova was given the task of renting a flat in the street. Gesia Gelfman had a flat on Telezhnaya Street and this became the headquarters of the assassins whereas the home of Vera Figner was used as an explosives workshop. (28)

Sophia Perovskaya became the leader of the conspiracy. As Mikhail Muraviev was later to point out: "We can imagine a political conspiracy uses the most cruel, amazing means; we can imagine that this conspiracy uses the most cruel, amazing means; we can imagine that a woman should be part of this conspiracy. But that a woman should lead a conspiracy, that she should take on herself all the details of the murder, that she should with cynical coldness place the bomb-throwers, draw a plan and show them where to stand; that a woman should have become the life and soul of this conspiracy, should stand a few steps away from the place of the crime and admire the work of her own hands - any normal feelings of morality can have no understanding of such a role for women." (29)

Nikolai Kibalchich wanted to make a nitroglycerine bomb but Andrei Zhelyabov regarded it as "unreliable". Sophia Perovskaya favoured mining. Eventually it was decided that the Tsar's carriage should be mined, with hand grenades at the ready as a second strategy. If all else failed, one of the members of the assassination team should step forward and stab the Tsar with a dagger. It was Kibalchich's job to provide the hand grenades.

The Okhrana discovered that their was a plot to kill Alexander II. Andrei Zhelyabov was arrested on 28th February, 1881, 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. Alexander Kviatkovsky, another member of the assassination team, was arrested soon afterwards. (30)

The conspirators decided to make their attack on 1st March, 1881. Sophia Perovskaya was worried that the Tsar would now change his route for his Sunday drive. She therefore gave the orders for bombers to he placed along the Ekaterinsky Canal. Grigory Isaev had laid a mine on Malaya Sadovaya Street and Anna Yakimova was to watch from the window of her flat and when she saw the carriage approaching give the signal to Mikhail Frolenko.

Alexander II decided to travel along the Ekaterinsky Canal. 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. Perovskaya, who was stationed at the intersection between the two routes, 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. (31)

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. In the confusion Sophia Perovskaya was able to slip away. She told the surviving members of the group: "I think it was a success he was either killed or very badly wounded." Soon afterwards news reached Sophia that the Tsar had died at the scene of the bombing. (32)

The terrorists quickly escaped from the scene and that evening assembled at the flat being rented by Vera Figner. She later recalled: "Everything was peaceful as I walked through the streets. But half an hour after I reached the apartment of some friends, a man appeared with the news that two crashes like cannon shots had rung out, that people were saying the sovereign had been killed, and that the oath was already being administered to the heir. I rushed outside. The streets were in turmoil: people were talking about the sovereign, about wounds, death, blood.... I rushed back to my companions. I was so overwrought that I could barely summon the strength to stammer out that the Tsar had been killed. I was sobbing; the nightmare that had weighed over Russia for so many years had been lifted. This moment was the recompense for all the brutalities and atrocities inflicted on hundreds and thousands of our people.... The dawn of the New Russia was at hand! At that solemn moment all we could think of was the happy future of our country." (33)

The evening after the assassination the Executive Committee of the People's Will sent an open letter announcing it was willing to negotiate with the authorities: "The inevitable alternatives are revolution or a voluntary transfer of power to the people. We turn to you as a citizen and a man of honour, and we demand: (i) amnesty for all political prisoners, (ii) the summoning of a representative assembly of the whole nation". (34)

Nikolai Rysakov, one of the bombers was arrested at the scene of the crime. Sophia Perovskaya told her comrades: "I know Rysakov and he will say nothing." However, Rysakov was tortured by the Okhrana and was forced to give information on the other conspirators. The following day the police raided the flat being used by the terrorists. Gesia Gelfman was arrested but Nikolai Sablin committed suicide before he could be taken alive. Soon afterwards, Timofei Mikhailov, walked into the trap and was arrested. (35)

Thousands of Cossacks were sent into St. Petersburg and roadblocks were set up, and all routes out of the city were barred. An arrest warrant was issued for Sophia Perovskaya. Her bodyguard, Tyrkov, claimed that she seemed to have "lost her mind" and refused to try and escape from the city. According to Tyrkov, her main concern was to develop a plan to rescue Andrei Zhelyabov from prison. She became depressed when on the 3rd March, the newspapers reported that Zhelyabov had claimed full responsibility for the assassination and therefore signing his own death warrant. (36)

Perovskaya was arrested while walking along the Nevsky Prospect on 10th March. Later that month Nikolai Kibalchich, Grigory Isaev and Mikhail Frolenko were also arrested. However, other members of the conspiracy, including Vera Figner and Anna Yakimova, managed to escape from the city. Perovskaya was interrogated by Vyacheslav Plehve, the Director of the Police Department. She admitted her involvement in the assassination but refused to name any of her fellow conspirators.

V. N. Gerard later recalled "When his men came to see Kibalchich as his appointed counsel for the defense I was surprised above all by the fact that his mind was occupied with completely different things with no bearing on the present trial. He seems to be immersed in research on some aeronautic missile; he thirsted for a possibility to write down his mathematical calculations involved in the discovery. He wrote them down and submitted them to the authorities." According to Lee B. Croft, the author of Nikolai Ivanovich Kibalchich: Terrorist Rocket Pioneer (2006) in a note written in his prison cell, Kybalchych proposed a manned jet air-navigating apparatus. He examined the design of powder rocket engine, controlling the flight by changing engines angle. (37)

The trial of Zhelyabov, Perovskaya, Kibalchich, Rysakov, Gelfman and Mikhailov, opened on 25th March, 1881. Prosecutor Mikhail Muraviev read his immensely long speech that included the passage: "Cast out by men, accursed of their country, may they answer for their crimes before Almighty God! But peace and calm will be restored. Russia, humbling herself before the Will of that Providence which has led her through so sore a burning faith in her glorious future." (38)

Prosecutor Muraviev concentrated his attack on Sophia Perovskaya. In her own defence Perovskaya replied: "I do not deny the charges, but I and my friends are accused of brutality, immorality and contempt for public opinion. I wish to say that anyone who knows our lives and the circumstances in which we have had to work would not accuse us of either immorality or brutality." (39)

Karl Marx followed the trial with great interest. He wrote to his daughter, Jenny Longuet: "Have you been following the trial of the assassins in St. Petersburg? They are sterling people through and through.... simple, businesslike, heroic. Shouting and doing are irreconcilable opposites... they try to teach Europe that their modus operandi is a specifically Russian and historically inevitable method about which there is no more reason to moralize - for or against - then there is about the earthquake in Chios." (40)

Sophia Perovskaya, Andrei Zhelyabov, Nikolai Kibalchich, Nikolai Rysakov, Gesia Gelfman and Timofei Mikhailov were all sentenced to death. Gelfman announced she was four months pregnant and it was decided to postpone her execution. Perovskaya, as a member of the high nobility, she could appeal against her sentence, however, she refused to do this. It was claimed that Rysakov had gone insane during interrogation. Kibalchich also showed signs that he was mentally unbalanced and talked constantly about a flying machine he had invented. (41)

On 3rd April 1881, Zhelyabov, Perovskaya, Kibalchich, Rysakov and Mikhailov were given tea and handed their black execution clothes. A placard was hung round their necks with the word "Tsaricide" on it. "Then the party set off. It was headed by the police carriage, followed by Zhelyabov and Rysakov. Sophia sat with Kibalchich and Mikhailov in the third tumbril. A pale wintry sun shone as the party moved slowly through the streets, already crowded with onlookers, most of them waving and shouting encouragement. High government officials and those wealthy enough to afford the tickets were sitting near to the scaffold that had been erected on Semenovsky Square. The irreplaceable Frolov, Russia's one and only executioner, fiddled drunkenly with the nooses, and Sophia and Zhelyabov were able to say a few last words to one another. The square was surrounded by twelve thousand troops and muffled drum beats sounded. Sophia and Zhelyabov kissed for the last time, then Mikhailov and Kibalchich kissed Sophia. Kibalchich was led to the gallows and hanged. Then it was Mikhailov's turn. Frolov was by now barely able to see straight and the rope broke three times under Mikhailov's weight." It was now Perovskaya's turn. "It's too tight" she told him as he struggled to tie the noose. She died straight away but Zhelyabov, whose noose had not been tight enough, died in agony. (42)

Five members of the People's Will being executed on 3rd April, 1881
Zhelyabov, Perovskaya, Kibalchich, Rysakov and Mikhailov being executed on 3rd April, 1881.

Gesia Gelfman remained in prison. According to her friend, Olga Liubatovich: "Gesia languished under the threat of execution for five months; finally her sentence was commuted, just before she was to deliver. At the hands of the authorities, the terrible act of childbirth became a case of torture unprecedented in human history. For the delivery, they transferred her to the House of Detention. The torments suffered by poor Gesia Gelfman exceeded those dreamed up by the executioners of the Middle Ages; but Gesia didn't go mad - her constitution was too strong. The child was born live, and she was even able to nurse it." Soon after she gave birth her daughter was taken from her. Gelfman died five days later on 12th October, 1882. (43)

Anna Yakimova, who was also pregnant, probably by Grigory Isaev, managed to escape to Kiev. She was soon arrested and she was tried alongside Isaev, Mikhail Frolenko, Tatiana Lebedeva and sixteen other party members. Although they were all found guilty, because of the international protests by Victor Hugo and other well-known figures, they were not sentenced to death. Instead they were sent to Trubetskov Dungeon. As Cathy Porter has pointed out: "Those sentenced in the Trial of the 20 were sent to the Trubetskov Dungeon, one of the most horrible of Russian prisons. Few survived the ordeal; torture and rape were everyday occurrences in the dungeons, through whose soundproofed walls little information reached the outside world.... After a year in Trubetskoy, during which most of the prisoners had died or committed suicide." (44)

Yakimova had her baby in the prison and had to watch over him night and day to protect him from rats. In 1883 she and Tatiana Lebedeva were transferred to the Kara Prison Mines. The journey north, which was on foot, lasted two years, was hardly better than life in Trubetskov Dungeon. As it was clear that her baby would not survive the long journey, Yakimova gave it away to "some well-wishers who had come out to greet the prisoners with messages of support and tears of sympathy".

The women joined other revolutionaries such as Catherine Breshkovskaya and Anna Korba at Kara. Anna was twenty-five years old by the time she reached the prison mines. Tatiana, three years older, was in a poor state of health and was described as a "semi-blind, shaven-headed, prematurely aged cripple". Despite being cared for by Korba, who was a qualified doctor, she died in 1887, aged 34.

Vera Figner was the one remaining leader of the People's Will who initially escaped capture. She claimed that the "harvest was plentiful, the reapers were few". She tried to recruit "reapers" but with little success. Geoffrey Hosking, the author of A History of the Soviet Union (1985), wrote that ultimately the efforts of the People's Will ended in failure: "In 1881 it actually succeeded in assassinating the Emperor Alexander II. But setting up a different regime, or even putting effective pressure on Alexander's successor - that proved beyond their capacities. Their victory was a pyrrhic one: all it produced was more determined repression." (45)

Alexander III

Alexander III became Tsar of Russia on the assassination of Alexander II in 1881. He immediately cancelled his father's plans to introduce a representative assembly and announced he had no intention of limiting his autocratic power. During his reign he followed a repressive policy against those seeking political reform. Alexander also pursued a policy of Russification of national minorities. This included imposing the Russian language and Russian schools on the German, Polish and Finnish peoples living in the Russian Empire.

Lionel Kochan, the author of Russia in Revolution (1970) pointed out: "In this new world of flux, when all manner of alien institutions and alien political and philosophic doctrines threatened Russia's precarious stability the autocracy was more necessary than ever as an agent of the status quo." Konstantin Pobedonostsev, the Ober-Procurator of the Most Holy Synod, the non-clerical official who supervised the Russian Orthodox Church, was Alexander's key adviser: "Pobedonostsev... initiated and justified the enforcement of uniformity of belief and conduct in every sphere of life.... On this basis, Pobedonostsev defended the censor and denounced freedom of the press as an avenue to the dissemination of falsehood." (46)

Alexander III
Alexander III

Despite this repression, there were attempts by the People's Will to kill Alexander III. One plot was led by Alexander Ulyanov, who was a student at St. Petersburg University. In secret meetings at his apartment, plans were laid to kill the Tsar on 1st March 1887, the sixth anniversary of the assassination of his father, Alexander II. Ulyanov also prepared a manifesto to the Russian people, to be published immediately after the Tsar's death. It began: "The spirit of the Russian land lives and the truth is not extinguished in the hearts of her sons." (47)

As David Shub, the author of Lenin (1948), has pointed out, the secret police was aware of the conspiracy. "The date was advanced several days when the terrorists learned that the Tsar was planning to leave for his summer palace in the Crimea. Assassins were planted in the square before St Isaac's Cathedral. But the Tsar did not appear and at twilight the conspirators returned to their underground headquarters. Ulyanov then heard that on 28 February the Tsar was to drive along the Nevsky Prospect, probably to attend memorial services at his father's crypt in the Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul. Once more the terrorists waited, but no Tsar's carriage appeared. The secret police, suspecting an assassination plot, had warned the monarch to remain in the Winter Palace. Hours later the terrorists left their stations along the Nevsky and met in a tavern. One of them, Andreiushkin, had been shadowed for days by detectives. They followed him to the tavern, where he and his comrades were seized." (48)

In Ulyanov's possession they found a code-book with a number of incriminating names and addresses, including that of the Polish revolutionary leader, Josef Pilsudski. Over the next few days hundreds of suspects were picked up in various cities and towns throughout Russia, the police having obtained the key to the code by torturing one of the terrorists. They singled out fifteen men, including Ulyanov, for trial. The charge: conspiracy to assassinate the Tsar. (49)

Alexander Ulyanov's mother, Maria Alexandrovna, wrote a letter to Tsar Alexander III and asked for permission to see her son. The Tsar wrote in the margin of the letter: "I think it would be advisable to allow her to visit her son, so that she might see for herself the kind of person this precious son of hers is." During her visit Ulyanov told his mother that he was sorry for the suffering he had caused her but admitted that his first allegiance was to the revolutionary movement. As a revolutionist, he had no alternative but to fight for his country's liberation. (50)

At his trial Alexander Ulyanov refused to be represented by counsel and carried out his own defence. In an attempt to save his own comrades, he confessed to acts he had never committed. In his final address to the court Ulyanov argued: "My purpose was to aid in the liberation of the unhappy Russian people. Under a system which permits no freedom of expression and crushes every attempt to work for their welfare and enlightenment by legal means, the only instrument that remains is terror. We cannot fight this regime in open battle, because it is too firmly entrenched and commands enormous powers of repression. Therefore, any individual sensitive to injustice must resort to terror. Terror is our answer to the violence of the state. It is the only way to force a despotic regime to grant political freedom to the people." He stated that he was not afraid to die as "there is no death more honourable than death for the common good". (51)

Ulyanov's mother pleaded with her son to ask for imperial clemency. He refused, although some of his co-defendants petitioned the Tsar and their death sentences were commuted. Helen Rappaport, the author of Conspirator: Lenin in Exile (2009): "On 8 May, having been lulled into a false sense of security that their sentences were to be commuted, the men were woken at 3.30 a.m. and informed that they were to be executed in half an hour's time. The prison officials had been so secretive in the construction of the gallows during those intervening three days that none of the prisoners in the isolation block had known. But they only had room for three gallows, which had been made up in sections, outside the prison, and silently assembled near the main entrance, without so much as a single blow of an axe being heard. As the rest of the prisoners slept the heavy sleep of those with an eternity on their hands, the commandant, priest and guards accompanied the five prisoners in single file to the place of execution. The condemned men were offered the consolation of a priest but all refused. There being only three gallows, they had to hang them in two batches... The sack was thrown over their heads and the stools kicked from under them. The condemned in Russia were not yet accorded the merciful death of the trapdoor, but a slower one, by strangulation." (52)

When the St Petersburg newspaper carrying the news of Ulyanov's execution reached his family in Simbirsk. His 17 year-old brother, Lenin, was reported as saying "I'll make them pay for this! I swear it." Joel Carmichael has pointed out, Lenin and other young intellectuals in Russia turned away from terrorism to the ideas of Karl Marx: "Perhaps the chief appeal that Marxism held for the Russian intelligentsia, even more so than for the intellectuals of other countries, was its combination of a powerful messianic yearning with an appearance of scientific methodology. It offered youthful enthusiasts the best of both worlds. Their ardent desire to change the world was fortified by sound, or seemingly sound, scientific reasons as to why this was not only possible, but was, even more seductively, inevitable. As far as Russia was concerned, Marxism may be summed up as the contention that Russian history is a part of world history and that, because of this, Russia must pass through capitalism in order to reach the future socialist society. It was not the peasantry, Marxists thought, that would be able to lead the march to socialism, but the industrial working class. Terrorism had to be abandoned as a tactic that was both futile and, in view of the objectively developing social forces, superfluous. The main task of the revolutionary leaders was to be the creation of a disciplined working-class party to conduct Russia into the promised land." (53)

By 1890 there was an estimated 5,500,000 Jews living in Russia. Under a law introduced by Alexander III, all Russian Jews were forced to live in what became known as the Pale of Jewish Settlement. Exceptions were made for rich business people, students and for certain professions. The Pale comprised the ten Polish and fifteen neighbouring Russian provinces, stretching from Riga to Odessa, from Silesia to Vilna and Kiev. This led to a large increase in Jews leaving Russia. Of these, more than 90 per cent settled in the United States. (54)

Tsar Nicholas II

Despite several assassination attempts Alexander III died a natural death on 20th October, 1894. He was succeeded by his son Nicholas II, who had narrowly escaped assassination in Japan three years earlier. He inherited an empire that occupied one-sixth of the land surface of the world: "Stretching from Poland in the west of the Pacific Ocean in the east, from the Arctic Circle in the north to the Black Sea in the south, it was an area of considerable diversity in climate and landscape, and in the variety of peoples who attempted to make a living within it. The vast majority of the inhabitants were peasant farmers, living in scattered village communities." (55)

The population of Russia was growing faster than any other European country. In 1867 it was 63 million but by the time Nicholas had reached power it had increased to 92 million. It was estimated that there were about 1.8 million members of the nobility in Russia. At the same time over 80 per cent of the Russian people lived in the countryside and earned their living from agriculture. Industry employed not much more than five per cent of the entire labour force and contributed only about one-fifth of the national income. (56)

Nicholas had been love with Alexandra of Hesse-Darmstadt since 1889. Nicholas wrote in his diary: "It is my dream to one day marry Alix H. I have loved her for a long time, but more deeply and strongly since 1889 when she spent six weeks in Petersburg. For a long time, I have resisted my feeling that my dearest dream will come true." However, his father was vehemently anti-German and had no intention of allowing the couple to marry. (57)

Nicholas proposed to Alexandra in April 1894, but she rejected him on the grounds of her refusal to convert to the Russian Orthodox faith. However, after pressure from Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany she changed her mind and accepted the offer. Her grandmother, Queen Victoria, also approved of the marriage and lived with her until the wedding that took place in the Grand Church of the Winter Palace of St Petersburg on 26th November 1894. (58)

Nicholas II
Nicholas II

Alexandra was a strong believer in the autocratic power of Tsardom and she urged him to resist demands for political reform. According to Barbara W. Tuchman, the author of The Guns of August (1962): "Though it could hardly be said that the Czar governed Russia in a working sense, he ruled as an autocrat and was in turn ruled by his strong-willed if weak-witted wife. Beautiful, hysterical, and morbidly suspicious, she hated everyone but her immediate family and a series of fanatic or lunatic charlatans who offered comfort to her desperate soul." (59)


(1) Martin Walker, The Soviet Union (1989) page 28

(2) Henry Moscow, Russia Under the Czars (1962) page 71

(3) Geoffrey Hosking, A History of the Soviet Union (1985) page 17

(4) Martin Walker, The Soviet Union (1989) page 38

(5) Cathy Porter, Fathers and Daughters: Russian Women in Revolution (1976) page 51

(6) Victor Serge, Year One of the Russian Revolution (1930) page 29

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

(8) Victor Serge, Year One of the Russian Revolution (1930) page 30

(9) Jay Berman, Vera Zasulich: A Biography (1983) page 4

(10) Michael Burleigh, Blood & Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism (2008) page 43

(11) Cathy Porter, Fathers and Daughters: Russian Women in Revolution (1976) page 211-211

(12) Barbara Alpern Engel and Clifford N. Rosenthal, Five Sisters: Women Against the Tsar (1975) page 82

(13) Sergei Kravchinsky, Underground Russia: Revolutionary Profiles and Sketches from Life (1883) page 21

(14) Michael Burleigh, Blood & Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism (2008) page 43

(15) Sergei Kravchinsky, Russia Under the Tsars (1886) page 25

(16) Adam Bruno Ulam, In the Name of the People: Prophets and Conspirators in Prerevolutionary Russia (1977) page 272

(17) Vera Figner, Work Completed: Volume III (1934) page 328

(18) Barbara Alpern Engel and Clifford N. Rosenthal, Five Sisters: Women Against the Tsar (1975) page 222

(19) Michael Burleigh, Blood & Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism (2008) page 47

(20) Joel Carmichael, A Short History of the Russian Revolution (1966) pages 30-31

(21) Victor Serge, Year One of the Russian Revolution (1930) page 31

(22) Adam Bruno Ulam, In the Name of the People: Prophets and Conspirators in Prerevolutionary Russia (1977) page 340

(23) Cathy Porter, Fathers and Daughters: Russian Women in Revolution (1976) page 211-212

(24) Michael Burleigh, Blood & Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism (2008) page 49

(25) Barbara Alpern Engel and Clifford N. Rosenthal, Five Sisters: Women Against the Tsar (1975) page 147

(26) Michael Burleigh, Blood & Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism (2008) page 49

(27) Victor Serge, Year One of the Russian Revolution (1930) page 32

(28) Cathy Porter, Fathers and Daughters: Russian Women in Revolution (1976) pages 264-265

(29) Igor N. Asheshov, Sofia Perovskaya (1920) page 127

(30) Cathy Porter, Fathers and Daughters: Russian Women in Revolution (1976) page 267

(31) Michael Burleigh, Blood & Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism (2008) page 51

(32) Cathy Porter, Fathers and Daughters: Russian Women in Revolution (1976) page 269

(33) Vera Figner, Memoirs of a Revolutionary (1927) page 311

(34) Statement published by the Executive Committee of the People's Will (2nd March, 1881)

(35) Barbara Alpern Engel and Clifford N. Rosenthal, Five Sisters: Women Against the Tsar (1975) page 56

(36) Cathy Porter, Fathers and Daughters: Russian Women in Revolution (1976) page 267

(37) Lee B. Croft, Nikolai Ivanovich Kibalchich: Terrorist Rocket Pioneer (2006) page 164

(38) Prosecutor Mikhail Muraviev, speech at the trial (25th March, 1881)

(39) Cathy Porter, Fathers and Daughters: Russian Women in Revolution (1976) page 275

(40) Karl Marx, letter to Jenny Longuet (28th March, 1881)

(41) Michael Burleigh, Blood & Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism (2008) page 51

(42) Cathy Porter, Fathers and Daughters: Russian Women in Revolution (1976) page 275

(43) Barbara Alpern Engel and Clifford N. Rosenthal, Five Sisters: Women Against the Tsar (1975) page 187

(44) Cathy Porter, Fathers and Daughters: Russian Women in Revolution (1976) page 279

(45) Geoffrey Hosking, A History of the Soviet Union (1985) page 22

(46) Lionel Kochan, Russia in Revolution (1970) page 64

(47) Alexander Ulyanov, statement (1st March 1887)

(48) David Shub, Lenin (1948) page 14

(49) Bertram D. Wolfe, Three Who Made a Revolution (1948) page 80

(50) David Shub, Lenin (1948) page 15

(51) Alexander Ulyanov, speech in court (5th May, 1887)

(52) Helen Rappaport, Conspirator: Lenin in Exile (2009) page xxiv

(53) Joel Carmichael, A Short History of the Russian Revolution (1966) pages 32

(54) Geoffrey Hosking, A History of the Soviet Union (1985) page 96

(55) P. D. Allan, Russia and Eastern Europe (1983) page 1

(56) Lionel Kochan, Russia in Revolution (1970) page 17

(57) Robert K. Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra (1967) pages 49-50

(58) Greg King, Last Empress: Life and Times of Alexandra Feodorovna, Tsarina of Russia (1994) pages 55-56

(59) Barbara W. Tuchman, The Guns of August (1962) page 8