Shadows of the Storm

Russia before the Revolutions

Russia prior to the revolutions of 1905 and 1917 was a miserable place. Deeply corrupt, it constrained its citizens in all manner of ways. With a series of autocratic rulers, and a domineering and largely ignorant ruling class, life for many was brutish, harsh, and short. Poverty was rife, starvation was frequent, and opportunities were few. Although many are now familiar with those who were to stand against Royalist forces such as Lenin, Stalin, and Trotsky, there were just a few in a long line of revolutionaries  that sought to equalise Russian society. Some of these largely forgotten revolutionaries unlike the patriarchal view of many later historians were young women who fought, plotted, lived, loved, and died alongside their male comrades. For the most part now committed to the dusty pages of obscure histories, these young women also helped to assassinate a Russia Tsar in the nineteenth century, which ultimately led to the events in the twentieth that still resonate today.

Spring 1874 in Russia saw the melting of the snows, and the rays of the sun finally settling over the landscape.  It also saw a wave of young, educated Russians aged between sixteen and twenty five walking singly or in pairs from village to village in pursuit of employment and with a desire to settle. Far from being roving itinerants, many of those that left Russian cities were university educated idealists, often drawn from the upper echelons of Russian society, and fired up with a desire to impact upon social change. The Narodniks as they came to be known were also motivated to attempt to provide famine relief and medical aid. Following the emancipation of the serfs by Tsar Alexander II in 1861, many of those that had been indentured to landowners, now found that rather than feudalism ending, they had merely been sold into wage slavery to the bourgeoisie. Forced to scratch a subsistence living on small parcels of land, and pay their landlords excessive taxes and rents for the privilege, many found that supposedly free life bought with it no material benefits. Rates of illiteracy were pronounced, opportunities were few, and infant mortality was rife. By 1873 with the failure of several harvests caused by weather conditions and economic privations, starvation was also rampant. Drawing upon a somewhat idealised view of the Russian peasantry, a generation of middle class youngsters sought to go to the people (khozhdeniye v narod) or the Narod (people or folk), as it was believed that by living amongst them and spreading awareness of the economic disparity of Russian life, they could foster revolution amongst those millions sold into agrarian economic bondage.

Narodism did not occur in a vacuum and nineteenth century Russia was awash with radicalism. One of the primary influences on the development of the Narodniks (other than social iniquity) found in the novel, “What Is to Be Done?” by the socialist, philosopher, and sometime writer, Nikolay Chernyshevsky. Born the son of a priest on 12 July 1828, Chernyshevsky like many was horrified by the harsh conditions of his day, and in 1862 found himself detained in the infamous Fortress of St. Peter and Paul for promoting the revolutionary overthrow of Russian autocracy and the introduction of a socialist society based around peasant communes in the pages of the Russian paper, Sovremennik which he was the editor of. Whilst detained in the brutal conditions of one of Russias’ most notorious jail environments, Chernyshevsky was to compose the novel that so inspired Lenin he was to produce his own work of political theory by the same name, and so enraged Fyodor Dostoyevsky he was to compose “Notes from the Underground” in response. For the modern reader, “What is to Be Done?” can come dangerously close to parody, but during the nineteenth century it was to prove hugely influential in Russia. In the novel, the central character of Rakhmetov (which was later to be used as an alias by Alexander Berkman when he attempted to assassinate Henry Clay Frick in 1882 as a response to the US Steel involvement in the notorious Homestead Strike) is wholly dedicated to creating a revolution. To achieve this Rakhmetov lives an life that is both austere and ascetic, devoting all his efforts to the revolutionary cause, and even going as far as to sleep on a bed of nails, and engage in an exercise regimen solely in preparation for the inevitable revolution. Although Rakhmetov can be seen as somewhat ridiculous, in the vain of a holy fool, for modern readers for young Russians of the nineteenth century who craved meaningful democratic social change, he served as the very model of a committed revolutionary, and Chernyshevsky was to go onto to become a major influence on the Narodnik movement. A lesser, but still significant influence can be found in the somewhat unlikely, and definitely contentious figure of Sergey Nechayev.

Born 2 October 1847, Nechayev was the son of a sign painter and sometime waiter, and in his thirty five years alive was to become according to Bakunin the best exemplar of revolutionary youth. Much influenced by the Decmberists and the abortive attempts at revolt of 1825, as well as the work of Chernyshevsky, the measures proposed by Nechayev were far less peaceable and have had a lasting influence even until today. Refusing employment as a servant to the local landed gentry, Nechayev moved to Moscow aged eighteen, and eventually secured work as both an auditor, and teacher. Whilst auditing lectures at St. Petersburg University in 1868, Nechayev became exposed to the radical student politics of the period, which were to exert an influence on him throughout the rest of his short life. In 1869, the twenty two year old Nechayev composed his now infamous “Catechism of a Revolutionary” which with its constant refrain of the ends justifying the means was to influence not only some Russian nihilists, but also Eldridge Cleaver and the initial rumblings of the Black Panther Party. The Catechism is a short manifesto that packs a heavy punch. In it Nechayev presents an idealised image of the revolutionary as a doomed individual, who subsumes their own desires and wants, in pursuit of violent revolutionary change. Strongly influenced by the work of Chernyshevsky, the Catechism is a bleak, furious and impassioned plea for change. Sadly it was not a change, Nechayev was to live to see. After repeated conflicts with other revolutionaries scattered throughout Russia and elsewhere (most notably Switzerland), Nechayev was accused of murdering a student by the name of Ivan Ivanovich Ivanov who was a member of a small revolutionary group, Narodnaya Rasprava (Peoples’ Retribution) which was established by Nechayev in 1869 in Moscow. Quickly detained by police in Geneva, and repatriated to Russia, Nechayev was to die in the Fortress of St. Peter and Paul. He had been held in solitary confinement for ten years, and after striking a General of the secret police who suggested he could be released if he served as a spy, had his hands and feet placed in irons that were not removed for two years, causing the skin to rot in the damp and unforgiving blackness of his cell.

The Russian Nihilists were to take some of their influence from the work and of life of Nechayev, and he, like Chernyshevsky was also to influence the Narodniks when they went to the people (albeit to a lesser extent) in the spring of 1874. Driven by a desire to bring about positive change, the Narodniks, saw the Russian rural poor as an untapped pool of revolutionary potential. The plan, such as it was, involved the young urban intelligentsia giving up their gilded lives, and embedding within the ranks of the peasants. They would then use their position to help educate the peasantry using propaganda that was secretly printed and distributed by a network of couriers. It is worth remembering that for all the supposed early liberality of Tsar Nicholas II, Russia of the period, was one of the most controlled nations on earth, with an active an aggressive secret police force, a trigger happy military, and an active censor. To be found with contentious printed materials or guilty of their dissemination was to risk either execution, or the living death of exile to Siberia, wherein life for political prisoners was both particularly brutal, and in most cases short. Ultimately the wave of nascent propagandists and radicals that flooded the destitute Russian country side was doomed to failure.  This was due in no small part to a number of factors including internal divisions, no overall leadership as such, the embedded nature of a multitude of police informers, and the resistance of the rural narod themselves. Although it was possible in many cases for the Narodniks to embed with the peasantry, and in many cases improve their conditions as well as sharing propaganda, much of the Russian countryside was controlled by not only kulaks (the rural wealthy who owned the farms and tracts of land others were forced to scratch base subsistence from) but priests. As soon as one or other of these found out about the presence of Narodniks in the vicinity, they were either arrested or forced to flee undoing any progress that they may have made up until then. And progress they did make. Often with no tangible means of support, the Narodnik were able to set up a network of schools, and local medical treatments facilities. Many of the female Narodniks were experienced midwives (that being one of the few educational opportunities available to women of the period, who did not wish to become tutors for the privileged classes which was the other career and educational path) and they were able to directly impact on the safety and survivability of child birth. The influence of the Narodniks went beyond spreading populist revolutionary propaganda, and directly helped improve the circumstances of the Russian peasantry that had been abandoned for centuries by a centralised and selfish autocracy. The migration of the young and politically naïve idealists from city to country was ultimately doomed to failure, but its legacy was to endure in Russia, and was also to influence much of what transpired later.

‘Arrest of a Propagandist’ by Ilya Repin (1892), arguably the first Russian artist to achieve European fame using specifically Russian themes and realism.

Starting in 1873, the Russian authorities ably assisted by the grandly named, but deeply repressive Third Section of His Imperial Majesty’s Own Chancellery, which acted as both censors and secret agents, commenced rounding up Narodniks, or anyone suspected of being affiliated with the youthful propagandists. Following the summer of 1874, the forces of supposed law and order swung into high gear, and they had arrested over 1600 young people. Of those detained, initially 770 were selected to face trial. Eventually this figure dwindled, as over four hundred were released from custody and placed under close observation, over fifty went missing, some two hundred were detained indefinitely without trial, and 193 were to stand trial. These figures seem high, but according to some historians they are anything but. According to the account provided by V.Burtsev in “One Hundred Year (1800-1896)” some 3500 arrests took place in 1874 alone. Whatever the true figure, the Russian government had seemingly triumphed in the face of a genuine youth movement dedicated to the removal of autocratic rulers. To reinforce their triumph, it was agreed within government at all levels that the trial of the 193 would commence in earnest, but also that an already repressive state that had begun to temporarily relax in the face of European liberalism, would now increase repression with the aim on clamping down once and for all on dissent. Sadly, those that had been arrested were soon replaced with other individuals from abroad, some of which were far more radical than those who had gone before, and many of whom were women (and thus less suspicious in the eyes of a patriarchal society such as nineteenth century Russia).

Before his deportation, Nechayev had fled to Switzerland, and for many, it was still a place of exile. Access to university education for Russian women was during the nineteenth century significantly limited. Unless a woman wished to learn nursing or aspired to be a tutor to the sons and daughters of the idle rich, she had no other option than to pursue an education abroad. It was amongst the ex-patriate students in Switzerland that the next wave in the rebellious nineteenth century history of Russia would be unleashed. There were two important figures in Zurich that were embraced enthusiastically by both male and female students. One was the incendiary Anarchist firebrand, Mikhail Bakunin and the other lesser known figure now was Pyotr Lavrov. Very much affiliated with the Narodnik cause, Lavrov was considerably less impassioned and immediate than Bakunin, but also believed that revolution was imminent, albeit one that would be both socialist, and for the most part non-violent. Although Bakunin was to become much wider known and remembered, it was the prolific writer and sociologist, Lavrov that found enthusiastic support in a number of university students in Zurich. Amongst the circle that assisted Lavrov when he founded a collective printing press in Zurich in 1873, were a number of young female students who came to be known as the Frichi circle, so named as they all resided in the lodging house of a Frau Frichi. Sharing what limited funds and resources that they had, this small group of five young women, lived in a semi-communal manner, and assisted Lavrov is spreading news of the burgeoning Narodnik movement back in Russia. Chief amongst the Frichi circle was Sophia (sometimes spelt Sofya) Bardina however also associated with the group was the stalwart revolutionist, Vera Figner who is should be noted was only associated tangentially and never lodged with them. Bardina was the nexus of the group, and her story is emblematic of them as a whole and indeed much of the wider ex-patriate student community resident in Switzerland during this period. Born into a poor family which was terrorised by an abusive father, Bardina sought solace in her studies. Denied the opportunity to continue with her education in Russia, Bardina eventually found her way to Zurich where she could study medicine in the hopes of becoming a doctor capable of assisting the poor, unimpeded. Groups of students becoming radicalised was a concern for the all controlling Russian authorities, and indeed they were to feature in a report from The Russian Government Herald of 21 May 1872, which stated:

“Several Russian girls set off abroad to attend lectures at Zurich University. At first there were only a very few of them, but now there are more than a hundred women there… Largely because of this increase in Russian women students, the ring-leaders of the Russian emigration have chosen this town as a centre for revolutionary propaganda, and have done all in their power to enlist into their ranks these young women students. Under their influence, women have abandoned their studies for fruitless political agitation. Young Russians of both sexes have formed political parties of extreme shades… In the Russian Library they hold lectures of an exclusively revolutionary nature… It has become common practice for the girls to attend workers’ meetings… Young and inexperienced minds are being led astray by political agitators, and set on the wrong course. And to cap it all, meetings and party struggles throw the girls into such confusion that they accept this fruitless and fraudulent propaganda as real life. Once drawn into politics the girls fall under the influence of the leaders of the emigration, and become compliant weapons in their hands. Some of them go from Zurich to Russia and back two or three times a year, carrying letters, instructions and proclamations and taking an active part in criminal propaganda”.

It is worthy of note, that although some of the article quoted was to be proved accurate, the same article went on to accuse all female revolutionary students in Zurich of studying obstetrics with the sole intent of making a living as abortionists! Of those engaged in “fruitless political agitation”, the Frichi circle were initially some of the least ardent. Many who were present in Zurich of the period remember them as being mere schoolgirls and affected ones at that. Initially this group of young women wanted nothing more than to continue their studies which in one form or another would ultimately be of benefit to their homeland. That they shared some of the ideology of the Narodniks was unsurprising but rather than calling for the open social revolt and violent revolution so espoused by the likes of Nechayev, the Frichi circle were seeking democratic reform to an autocratic nature. This changed in June 1873 when the Russian government (possibly in response to articles such as that quoted earlier) issued a decree that all Russian female students were to return from Zurich or in essence be exiled. Those that did not return by January 1874 were to be barred from any examinations or studies within Russia, and indeed any activity that relied upon government approval or permission. In a society as dictatorial, bureaucratic and tightly controlled as Russia in the nineteenth century, this last caveat was particularly onerous. In a society that dictated what employment could be engaged in by whom, and indeed who could travel where, to be denied such basic liberties was potentially devastating, unless foreign studies were to turn into a permanent exile. Presented with this choice, and indeed the option of going to the people in 1874, many Russian female students at universities in Zurich, either continued their studies elsewhere in Europe (the decree did not say anything about that) or returned back to Russia. It was the repression of the arrests of the Narodniks coupled with decree of 1873, that arguable incensed the Frichi circle as turned them away from the rationalism of Lavrov towards the unimpeded zeal of Bakunin.

Before leaving Zurich, the residents of Frau Frichis’ boarding house met several male Georgian students. Like many involved in the early revolutionary movements in Russia, all of the young students believed that by uniting all national minorities, and by moving beyond the sectarianism encouraged by the state, their aims could better be served. With a matter of weeks, the young students had thrown in their lot together, and decided to form a clandestine organisation that although lacking a centralised leadership may ultimately lead to them all having to risk their lives. The plan of the All-Russian Social Revolutionary Organisation (sometimes called the Moscow Organisation) was to emulate the Narodniks in smuggling radical literature into Russia from abroad and via underground presses and in doing so utilise it to radicalise workers in both the towns and country. In the November and December of 1874 the female students (including Bardina who had failed to complete her medical studies in Paris owing to time constraints) and the several Georgians drifted across the borders in small groups, and back towards St. Petersburg and Moscow.

An illustration of Sophia Bardina from The Cosmopolitan (September 1891)

Within weeks of arriving in Moscow, Bardina was able to find work in one of the many factories that populated the city. With no prior knowledge of the conditions they would be facing, the overzealous female students all actively sought employment as factory labourers. The Georgian men who had knowledge of industrial labour conditions in Russia tried, and ultimately failed to persuade them. Life in Russian factories of the nineteenth century was punishing. For negligible pay, workers were expected to labour for fifteen hours a day, with only one free day a week. During the working week, all workers were shut up behind large steel gates and were expected to reside in dormitories separated by sex. Any married couples that had the misfortune of working together were separated and only allows contact for ten minutes every several days. As to the living conditions themselves, the dormitories consisted of dirty mattresses stacked on pallets with no bed linen. Food was scarce and typically consisted of little more than a bowl of thin soup. Working conditions were unsafe and living conditions unsanitary with lice, bedbugs, and disease all rampant. Casual violence from overseers to employees was a regular and often unprovoked occurrence. For enduring this, workers were frequently docked wages for the most spurious of reasons, and following deductions for food and lodgings were left with a pittance. For the naïve students it must have come as quite a shock.

Initially the group began by circulating smuggled copies of Bakunins’ weekly paper, Rabotnik (The Worker), however they had soon established their own printing press in Moscow and busily began churning out their own revolutionary screeds. Patiently explaining why conditions were awful and how they could be improved following the removal of the autocratic government and royalty of the period, gradually, the Moscow Organisation gathered workers to its cause most estimates put the total figure at little more than one hundred individuals however. Between them they drafted a set of statutes of expected behaviour that owed much to Nechayev. These well-educated and attractive women were bound to capture the attention of factory owners, and although attempts were made to obscure what was going on it wasn’t long before the Moscow Organisation found they were on the radar of the persistent Third Section. Starting in April 1875 several arrests were made, and confessions coerced by violence, and by August of the same year, over one hundred people, including Bardina and the entirety of the Frichi circle had been arrested and charged with crimes against the state, including forming an unlawful society and distributing “criminal writings”. The Russian state had clamped down on the final spasm of the Narodniks, and was about to flex its muscles.

An illustration of the Russian police conducting a raid against an illegal underground press. Illustrations of this sort were popular in the European press of the period especially if they involved Nihilists who frequently engaged in shoot outs. Sadly the rights to many of these important historical images have been acquired by organisations such as Getty Images, which makes their publication challenging and costly.

Prisons in Russia were bursting at the seams owing to the arrests of the original Narodniks, Nihilists, and those that followed. For the majority of those interred whilst they waited for trials that may or may not be forthcoming, conditions were miserable. Typhoid was rife and resulted in many deaths, and the majority of political prisoners spent the majority of their terms of imprisonment in solitary confinement. Conditions in solitary confinement were harsh, consisting of a cold dank cell with often no natural light, and the only furniture being a slop bucket that was changed infrequently at best. For many, the strain of being deprived of human contact, heat, and light proved too much to bear and a number of political prisoners either succumbed to illness, went blind or deaf, or in many cases insane. For many the interminable and seemingly arbitrary wait for trials became overwhelming. The first wave of political trials did not begin until 1877m by which point some of the accused had been kept in solitary confinement for five years. The trials themselves were causing a headache for the authorities. Many of the Narodnik movement, had been motivated by altruism, but the contention of the Russian state is that they were all part of an overarching conspiracy to commit crimes against the state. Unfortunately evidence to support this assertion was limited at best. Many in the Third Section wanted to hold private trials of small numbers of defendants where such evidence that would be presented would not be subject to too close a scrutiny. Tsar Alexander had other ideas. The mass arrests had sent a palpable message, and it was one he was keen to reinforce. Large public trials of the accused would send a message of strength to his opponents, and so the Third Section bowed to his demands, and acceded to his wishes. The show trials (as that was in essence what they were) began in earnest in 1877 with the trial of the Moscow Organisation, followed by the Narodniks. This may seem chronologically flawed, but it had a legal logic to it. For the Frichi circle and the wider Moscow Organisation, the prosecution could show scant evidence of some level of not only co-operation amongst defendants but also conspiracy. For those idealists that had decided to roam the countryside attempting to spread a message of revolt whilst providing practical assistance, there was little to support the claim.

The trial of Sophia Bardina and the Moscow Organisation commenced in February and March of 1877 and lasted for five weeks in total. The fifty defendants having been held in harsh conditions for years presented a sorry picture as they took the stand one after another before the court. The prosecution also overplayed their hand, and was not able to provide much in the way of proof of a wide an overarching conspiracy. Holding the trial very publicly was also an error, as the defendants in particular, the Frichi circle elicited sympathy from the public who were admitted via ticket (which quickly became a desirable item for the elite of Russian society). Although still young and barely into their twenties in some cases, the young women that were on trial were as steadfast and resolved as their male comrades. The sympathy of the public was perhaps shared by the court, and reflected in the sentences handed down. Of the Moscow Organisation, those who fared the worst were the Georgian male students, who each received sentences of ten years of hard labour. Two female defendants including Sophia Bardina were sentenced to nine years of hard labour. For the rest their sentences were lighter. Later Bardina was sentence to exile for life, but this held true for many of the other defendants too. After serving years engaged in pointless and back breaking work, those convicted would be transported (or rather transport themselves via a long walk in chains) to the far bleak corners of Siberia, where they would pass there days working for scant meals typically in environments such as quarries or gold mines. Although not formal prisoners, they often had no means of escape and were forced to endure the privations of a life in exile for the rest of their young lives.

Following the sentencing, some of the Moscow Organisation took it upon themselves to proclaim their ideas to the court. By all available accounts one of the most telling and certainly that which was to have the greatest impact was provided by Bardina. Advising the court calmly that repression could not stop much needed change in Russian society, she went on to proclaim;

“I am convinced that a day will soon dawn when our sleepy and lazy society will wake up and be ashamed that it has allowed itself to be humiliated for so long; that it has not resisted when its brothers, sisters, and daughters were taken away and destroyed for no greater crime that being true to their convictions. And when this day comes, society will avenge us.”

The speech that Sophia Bardina delivered was done in a measured, controlled, and lucid manner, and was for the courts one of the biggest embarrassments of the entire trial. Illegal transcripts of the speech were widely circulated amongst the revolutionaries still left at large, and a number of arrests were made. Owing to the ex-patriate community of Russians abroad, it also found its way to an eager and receptive international audience. For Sophia Bardina, this was to prove one of her last great attempts at resisting the state. Following the trial she was transferred with a number of her old comrades and student friends from the Frichi circle to Siberia. After subsisting in poverty for several years, Bardina escaped in December 1880 by making the long cold walk across the countryside. Although news of here escape had reached Moscow and her imminent arrival was awaited expectantly, Bardina decided to return to Geneva where her troubles had all began. After a few weeks in the city, she sourced a cheap second hand revolver. In an anonymous room, the then twenty seven year old Sophia Bardina broken in both spirit, and devoid of hope of change, turned the gun on herself and committed suicide. And she was not alone. Of the Moscow Organisation, many of the accused were either declared insane, died of disease, or else committed suicide. Very few survived and those that did were embittered and for a time, politically disengaged.

The trial of the Moscow Organisation had for the Russian state proved somewhat disastrous. The defendants had used the trial as a platform to declare their concept of a free Russia unbound by autocratic rule, and rampant corruption. Worse yet, they had elicited sympathy from not only the public gallery, but also from the press both foreign and domestically. The Russian government, legal authorities and indeed, the Tsar himself were annoyed at this unforeseen development, and thus for the next major trial, namely that of the 193, proceedings would be enacted in camera with no public access. Indeed when the trial began in October of 1877 not even a court stenographer was present. All may have gone to plan were it not for the fact that Tsar Alexander had previously implemented legal reforms meaning that secret trials could not be held. This was eagerly pointed out by not only the Narodniks in the dock, but also by their supporters outside who much to the frustration of the government were growing not only larger in number but also increasingly vocal. Indeed in 1876 in St. Petersburg, a large public demonstration of several hundred students and young people had been held to protest the coming trial. This had led to violence and arrests, and the police who arrived late to the scene had advised local shopkeepers that the agitated students may well turn their illegal intentions to their premises. Thus it was that angry shopkeepers and their staff engaged teenagers in a series of running battles, before the police eventually arrived on scene and arrested the bloodied political youngsters. The trial of the 193 was for all its intent, less dramatic than many had been expecting. Of the defendants, half received sentences of up to ten years with exile for life in the harsh environs of Siberia. Those who did not share this fate were acquitted. For many idealist youngsters they had spent years in the harsh conditions of the Russian Tsarist prison system, endured beating during questioning, sat in silence in solitary confinement, and seen their friends either driven mad, commit suicide, or shipped off to a slow death in Siberian poverty. Many of the Narodniks that had set off in 1874 wanting peaceful change and increased democracy were now back on the streets of Russia, and filled with anger.

The St. Petersburg protest marked the first public appearance of the Zemlya i volya (Land and Freedom) party. Formed by disillusioned Narodniks and those that had been spared the attentions of the Third Section, Zemlya i volya sought to operate along populist lines and use the Russian peasantry as a political base. Using the same tactics as the Narodniks before them and members of the ill-fated Frichi circle, members of Zemlya i volya printed radical literature and spread it amongst urban industrial and rural workers in order to spread awareness of the societal ills of Russia of the period, as well as organisation. Although their platform and operating procedures were mostly non-violent, they were still considered a credible threat to the autocracy and treated as such. In light of the trial of the 193, the attitudes of the revolutionaries and of the state hardened, and it led to Zemlya i volya sanctioning the physical elimination of prominent and harmful members of the Russian government. Although the earlier Russian Nihilists had called for such, it was not until Zemlya i volya codified it that such actions became part of an organised resistance. On the day of the verdict being handed down in the trial of the 193 (24 January 1878), these actions were to begin in earnest. Two young women, Vera Zasulich and Maria Kolenkina were amongst the first to act. On July13 1877, a young man by the name of Alexei Bogolyubov joined over three hundred political prisoners in Predvorika prison. Bogolyubov had been arrested for his part in a non-violent protest, and in keeping with the harsh sentencing of the period has been found guilty and was at the start of what was due to be a fifteen year sentence. That fateful July morning he was in the exercise yard with a number of his comrades, enjoying the touch of the sun on his face. Unfortunately for Bogolyubov, the yard was being crossed by General Dmitri Trepov. Treprov was an upstanding member of Russian society, and had for a number of years been involved in the Third Section and the suppression of student protests. In July 1877, he was the Head of Moscow police, and famed for his brutality. As his crossed the exercise yard, all the prisoners that noticed him, quickly removed their caps and bowed their heads in deference, all that is apart from Bogolyubov. It may have been that Bogolyubov was absorbed eyes closed in the rays of the sun falling on his face, or merely failed to react in time, but for whatever reason, Trepov bellowed out the command that he be flogged. Corporal punishment in Russia had been declared unlawful in 1863, however for the brutal Trepov this did not matter. In full view of the rest of the prisoners, Bogolyubov was stripped and dragged to the centre of the exercise yard, where he was whipped into unconsciousness. The prisoners reacted as best they could, and throughout that July night they banged metal cups against bars, and shouted their resistance. These protests were brutally subdued when prison guards arbitrarily burst into cells and beat inmates insensible, including a political prisoner who having spent years previously was deaf, and who was not even aware of the chaos caused by the extra-legal beating of Bogolyubov. For the Zasulich, Kolenkina and other members of the Zemlya i volya, the action of Trepov in addition to his position as head of the Moscow police made him a viable target. It was decided that Zasulich would focus upon his assassination, whilst Kolenkina would turn her attentions to Vladislav Zhelekhovskii, the prosecutor in the Trial of the 193.

Vera Zasulich was born on 8 August 1849, in Mikhaylovk and like many of her peers in the radical political milieu of the period was the offspring of minor nobility. In her case, her father was impoverished and had four daughters. When Zasulich was only three years old, her father died and her poverty stricken mother unable to care for the children financially, sent them to live with rich relatives, the Mikulich family. After graduating high school, Zasulich moved to St. Petersburg where she was able to secure employment as a clerk. Sometime in 1866 – 1869 she met Sergei Nechaev and began to hold literacy and political classes for factory workers. It was not long before her associations and actions bought her to the attention of the Third Section, and in 1869 she was arrested and imprisoned. Following her release in 1873, Zasulich moved to Kiev, where she quickly found herself working with other insurgents and followers of Bakunin. Following the actions of Trepov in 1877, Zasulich decided to act. After purchasing a Bulldog revolver, Zasulich decided to assassinate Trepov in St. Petersburg. The assassination of the Chief of Police in what was then the hub of the Russian media, and law courts, was virtually guaranteed to make press, and would allow for the revolutionary message and motivations to spread. In January 1878, Trepov was sat in his office, when a young woman entered wearing a long cloak. The twenty nine year old Zasulich quickly withdrew the revolver from beneath her cloak and attempted to fire upon Trepov. Fortunately for the General the revolver initially misfired, after pulling back the trigger a second time, Zasulichs’ aim was shaky, and the bullet only grazed him. Before she could fire again, Zasulich was wrestled to the ground, and was quickly detained.

Vera Zasulich circa 1860 or 1870 (photographer unknown)

Zasulich found herself charged unsurprisingly with the attempted murder of Trepov. What did prove surprising was her trial. During the trial which was not held in camera, the defence team provided evidence of police abuses including the illegal beating of Bogolyubov. For many it seemed that the Chief of Police and his charges were on trial rather than the young woman who responded courteously and with great dignity to all enquiries no matter how hostile from the prosecution. Perhaps because of this, or arguably more likely as a show of defiance towards the overbearing forces of law and order, Zasulich was acquitted. Leaving the court, Zasulich was almost arrested again, but her enthusiastic supporters were able to protect her from the police, and she was rapidly spirited away and into hiding.

The attempt by Maria Kolenkina against the life of the prosecutor of the 193 was to prove less successful than that of Zasulich. Kolenkina was born in the provincial town of Temryuk to a merchant family, and soon found both the town and her family environment stifling. Like many young women of the period, Kolenkina wanted more education that Russia was willing to provide, and her family was willing accept. Defying the aspirations and demands of her family, Kolenkina left home at age twenty and started to study midwifery. In 1873 like many of other idealists of her age group, she joined with the Narodniks, and went to the people. Unlike many other Narodniks, Kolenkina was able to avoid arrest, and had been living with her fellow radical and friend Zasulich in a dilapidated three bedroom flat in St. Petersburg when they hatched their assassination plans. Like Vera, Maria planned to store a revolver beneath a cloak, enter the premises of her would be victim on the same day and time, and when admitted commence firing. Unlike Zasulich, Maria was not admitted and she was unable to fire. Following the release and evasion of another arrest by Vera, police turned their attentions to her friends and comrades. Inevitably, Kolenkina came to their attention. On 11 October 1878, the police attempted to gain entry to the flat to enact an arrest. Maria turned the revolver she had attempted to use against the prosecutor against them. Following a brief gun fight in which there were no injuries (the police had only to wait for Maria to use the few bullets she possessed) she was placed into custody. Zasulich had been spared the brutalities of Russian justice, but Kolenkina was not to be so fortunate and she was sentenced to ten years of hard labour followed by internal exile to the harsh conditions of Siberia. Zasulich and Kolenkina were amongst the first radicals to seek to enact assassinations in Russia but they were not to be the last. Just as Kolenkina is sadly obscured by the more historically well detailed Zasulich, both women are frequently overlooked in favour of those later actions enacted by Sergey Stepnyak-Kravchinsky.

Unlike Zasulich and Kolenkina, the life of Stepnyak-Kravchinsky is far more defined and he is often cited as being the first to enact violence on behalf of Zemlya i volya. Unlike the assassination attempts enacted by his female comrades, those enacted by Stepnyak-Kravchinsky were however to be successful. Born 13 July 1851, Stepnyak-Kravchinsky was the son of an army doctor and another impoverished noble woman in what is now Ukraine. He was trained in both military academy and achieved the rank of second lieutenant in the Russian army before resigning his commission in 1871. Like a surprising number in the serving military, Stepnyak-Kravchinsky felt both empathy and sympathy at the plight of the peasants in Russia, and was moved to both resign his commission and seek to enact social change. Although arrested in 1874 for his efforts at spreading literacy and promoting democratic change amongst peasants, Stepnyak-Kravchinsky was able to make his escape first travelling to the Balkans, and then joining am uprising that occurred in 1877 in the Italian province of Benevento, where thanks to his military training he was able briefly to lead an armed insurgency. Ultimately the short lived rebellion was brutally extinguished, and by 1878 he found himself not only back in Russia, but ensconced in Zemlya i volya and acting as an editor of the party publications. Appalled by the actions of the state in response to the Narodniks, and indeed the treatment of his comrades, Zasulich and Kolenkina,  Stepnyak-Kravchinsky decided to take matters into his own hands. This certainly was not something Stepnyak-Kravchinsky was averse to as both his earlier actions in Benevento and indeed his own words show. As he himself was to state;

“Upon the horizon there appeared a gloomy form, illuminated by a light as of hell, who, with lofty bearing, and a look breathing forth hatred and defiance, made his way through the terrified crowd to enter with a firm step upon the scene of history. It was the Terrorist.” (Underground Russia; Revolutionary Profiles and Sketches from Life, with a preface by Peter Lavrov. SM Stepniak-Kravchinskii – 1973 – Westport, Conn.: Hyperion)

Although Kravchinsky had started life as a propagandist, it was the treatment of his fellow members of Zemlya i volya as well as continued State abuses, such as protracted periods of solitary confinement for political prisoners that drove them to an early grave or insanity, that in all probability pushed him towards direct and bloody actions. It is also worthy of note that Kravchinsky also attended the trial of Bardina and the other members of the Frichi circle and had witnessed the ensuing fate of those involved. As a result of all of these injustices, or merely because for many in nineteenth century Russia, hope appeared to be a commodity as fleeting as a stable diet, Kravchinsky enacted his plan. In August 1878, on the busy streets of St. Petersburg, the head of the secret police and member of the State Council of Imperial Russia, General Nikolai Mezentsov had just left his office. The elegantly dressed figure of Kravchinsky walked briskly up to the general and plunged a dagger into his chest. As the General collapsed to the street, and a cry punctuated the noise of the passing pedestrians, Kravchinsky turned swiftly and ran. The General did not survive, and Zemlya i volya had claimed its first victim. Oddly considering the choice and position of the victim, Kravchinsky was able to live underground in Russia until he finally sought refuge in Switzerland in 1880. His stay in Switzerland was brief however and by 1882, he was like many political radicals of the period resident in London. Kravchinsky found a thriving hot pot of members of the political underground, and in 1882 published his recollections of his time in Russia in the book, Underground Russia. Although well regarded by many members of the disposed European and Russian radicals that were resident in London during the period, Kravchinsky was to meet a fate as bloody and brutal as that which befell Mezentsov. On 23 December 1895 between ten and eleven in the morning on a pedestrian crossing near what was to become Woodstock Road Station on the Hammersmith Line, Kravchinsky was struck by a North London Railway passenger train. He was not to survive. In Russia, perhaps because of the actions that were to follow, Kravchinsky was not to be remembered with the fondness he had found amongst many in London. Indeed Vera Figner was to state of him much later in her seminal memoir;

“Kravchinsky… declared that all methods were fair, but they created a cult of dynamite and the dagger, and crowned the terrorist with a halo. Murder and the scaffold acquired a magnetic charm and attraction for the youth of our country, and the weaker their nervous system, the more oppressive the life around them, the greater their exultation at the thought of revolutionary terror. For since the effects of ideas are hardly perceptible to a revolutionary during the brief span of his lifetime, he wishes to see some concrete palpable manifestation of his will, of his own strength.” (Vera Figner, Memoirs of a Revolutionist)

Following the attacks by Zasulich, Kolenkina, and Kravchinsky, and the ensuing police reprisals left many in Zemlya i volya deeply uncomfortable. There was widespread disagreement amongst party members and associates of the best way forward. Many sought to return to the propagandist approach favoured by the earlier Narodniks, but for those that had been radicalised by harsh prison conditions, and seeing many of their peers forced into an early grave by state repressions, terrorist methods including assassination was favoured to escalate the rate and pace of change. In August 1879, a year after the attack by Kravchinsky, Zemlya i volya formerly fractured into two separate and distinct organisations, that although they shared a common goal had very differing approaches towards its fulfilment, namely, Chornyi peredel (Black Repartition) and Narodnaya Volya (Peoples’ Will).

The fracture in Zemlya i volya saw the creation of two separate organisations, both driven for the desire to enact the social change they perceived as being necessary to combat the corrupt autocracy of the period. Chornyi peredel had perhaps the more confusing name. In the context of the Russian language, the black in their name did not have negative connotations, and its more literal meaning is ‘universal’ and relating to the fertile soil of the rural Russian landscape. Although their goals with in alignment with their rival faction, the methods for promoting what they saw as being an inevitable revolution, were chiefly concerning agitation and dissemination of propaganda, and had much in common with the mechanisms already attempted by the earlier Narodniks. Although many of those involved in Chornyi peredel were to be incarcerated in a wave of arrests unleashed by the Third Section, those that survived, ultimately embraced Marxism and helped to establish the first Russian Marxist organisation, the Emancipation of Labour group in 1883. Following the establishing of the latter group, the Marxist texts they focused upon translation of into Russian, were to prove influential in the development of pre-revolutionary factions such as the Social Democrats, and provide a competing ideology to that which inspired the Narodniks. Although important to the political development of Russia and the ensuing revolutionary movements, traditionally Chornyi perdel are overshadowed by the descendent Social Democrats, or by their more explosive peers in Narodnaya Volya.

Narodnaya Volya was directly inspired by the actions of Zasulich, Kolenkina, and Kravchinsky and indeed those of Alexander Soloviev. Although earlier attacks associated with Zemlya i volya had selected targets that in some cases were easy to access (sitting as they were in their offices), Soloviev decided individually to target the root cause of much of the corruption and repression in Russia during the nineteenth century, namely Tsar Alexander II. This would not be the first attempt on the life of the Tsar, as in 1866 a minor noble, and suicidal revolutionary student, by the name of Dmitry Karakozov would also try and fail. Ironically, Karakozov was prevented by taking a good aim at the Tsar with his cheap double barrelled pistol when he was jostled by a peasant born apprentice. Although the 1866 attempt resulted in monarchist triumphalism, it was the assassination attempt by Soloviev that helped galvanise many members of Narodnaya Volya and in all probability played an integral part in its formation.

Little is known of Alexander Soloviev today, and he remains an elusive figure in the history of Russia. There are contradictory reports even of his place of birth, with some historians claiming his place of birth as St. Petersburg, and others as the town of Luga some ninety miles to the South. In addition to the place of his birth being muddled, so too is the date of birth of Soloviev, with many placing it only to the year of 1846. What is known is that Soloviev was in all likelihood the son of a government official of some description. Although there are scant details of the life of Soloviev many positioning him as an inept loner, given his age it is likely that he was amongst those who were to end up further radicalised by Russian autocracy. Soloviev attended university in St.Petersburg, and following graduation allegedly became a school teacher, which was a popular career choice for young Russian idealists of the period. By 1879, Soloviev although employed as a school teacher was also radicalised by the events in Russia, and the ensuing repression by the state. Although there is limited evidence to suggest he was associated with Zemlya i volya he was certainly sympathetic to their aims, and perhaps inspired by the earlier abortive attempts of Karakozov was driven to enact his own assassination of the Tsar of all the Russias.

On the morning of 20 April 1879, Tsar Alexander II was taking his morning stroll. Despite the failed attempt on his life by Karakozov some thirteen years previously, the Tsar had not altered his common practice of walking the streets of St. Petersburg, typically with only a few retainers and security in tow. In the world of the Tsar, no matter how egregious and undemocratic his actions, he was beloved by the people, and this view was encouraged and supported by the staunch and fervent monarchists that surrounded him. Indeed, it was his very predictability of routine that was to be his undoing. As the Tsar neared the Square of the Guards Staff in St. Petersburg, he found himself face to face with the revolutionary schoolteacher. In his hands, Soloviev held a cheap revolver. Initially shocked by the gaunt and moustachioed figure in front of him, Tsar Alexander was more shocked by what he was holding, and what was pointing at him. In a not particularly regal manner, the Tsar bolted away from the gun toting Soloviev. As the Tsar fled, Soloviev fired five times, missing the Tsar as he weaved a hasty path (as taught to Russian troops under fire) before he was quickly subdued. Of the five bullets fired none reached the Tsar, and Soloviev soon found himself quickly bought to trial before he was hanged in front of seven thousand spectators on 28 May 1879. Other than scarce biographical details and his poor aim, what motivated Soloviev is a largely unknown quantity, as indeed is much of his past. It is easy to ascribe his motivation as being the repression of the Narodniks and their later peers, but his actions could however abortive were certainly to bear a considerable influence on the emergent Narodnaya Volya.

For many associated with Zemlya i volya, the actions of the would-be assassins were seen as destructive acts that only served to bolster support for the monarchy and ruling classes. For many however the radical musings of the earlier Russian Nihilists and Chernyshevsky had captured their attentions. From this group, Narodnaya Volya was born, in an attempt to spark a revolutionary movement, by whatever means, violent or otherwise, it had at its disposal. Many of the early members doubtless saw themselves as the avenging spirit of Rakhmetov, however many were perhaps drawn to violence as peaceful measures had resulted only in further repression, insanity, exile, and death.  Indeed the early days of Narodnaya Volya were for the most part peaceable. During the initial months of their formation, Narodnaya Volya members and sympathisers sought to establish workers study circles throughout Russia. Unlike those founded by the Narodniks, those associated with Narodnaya Volya would be used to foster and support a radical agenda that called for a complete freedom of conscience. Although driven by the altruism of the Narodniks, Narodnaya Volya also drew heavily for the aggression of the earlier Nihilist movement.

It was pointless creating worker study circles, if they workers had nothing to study, and within rapid order, Narodnaya Volya had also established an illegal press. As well as producing proclamations and leaflets in support of their cause, Narodnaya Volya also produced a short print run (consisting of five issues) of an eponymous journal. Although largely autonomous in nature, Narodnaya Volya had learned from the earlier mistakes of the precedents and formed an executive committee, which consisted of a number of notable revolutionaries including Vera Figner and Sophia Perovskaya. Although at its peak this executive committee was to be formed of some fifty young men and women, the overall core membership of Narodnaya Volya was arguably no more than five hundred people. Despite their use of a self-selected executive committee, most of the membership and supporters of Narodnaya Volya were formed into small cells owing to the incessant surveillance and repression of the Russian government. Their stated goal was to break apart just this government, and some months after the abortive assassination attempt by Soloviev, on 28 August 1879 the executive committee issued a proclamation calling for the death of the Tsar for crimes committed against the Russian people. Members of the organisation were quick to answer the call to action.

In the late summer of 1879, members of Narodnaya Volya commenced what was to be a wave of failed assassination attempts. It was common knowledge at the time that the Tsar frequently utilised the Russian railway network to move across his vast empire, and it was here that the revolutionaries first concentrated their efforts. Following the proclamation, Vera Figner obtained employment as a domestic servant for the head of the Odessa railways in order to establish the schedule of the Tsars movements. Figner was one of the few members of Narodnaya Volya to escape the ensuing chaos they would unleash. Born on July, 1852 Vera Figner was the daughter of minor nobility whose father had worked in the forestry service and controlled lands formerly worked by serfs who were liberated in 1861. Originally educated in Kazan, Figner had aspirations towards a career in medicine. These aspirations were to be thwarted when one of the few institutions that accepted female students, the St. Petersburg Medical-Surgical Academy closed its doors, and like many of her background and aspiration, Figner sought to continue her studies in Geneva, and was loosely associated for a period with the Frichi circle. She had been politicised by the closure of education to her, and by the savage treatment of the Russian peasantry, and having survived a spell as a propagandist in the country side, and been further radicalised by the conviction of old friends from Geneva had joined the executive committee of Narodnaya Volya and was amongst those plotting the prospective assassination of the Tsar.

Vera Figner circa 1880 (photographer unknown)

Following her installation as a servant, Figner was able to secure a schedule of the train travels of the Tsar, and other members of Narodnaya Volya were able to find positions as a signalman. Within days, the group had mined with dynamite which they had stolen previously, the prospective route that the Tsars train was due to travel upon. Although the Tsar was predictable in his modes of transportation, he was sadly far from reliable when it came to routes, and Vera soon learned that the planned route had been altered at the last moment. The group quickly retrieved the dynamite that would have exploded if the Tsar had followed the tracks as planned, and quietly disappeared back into the St. Petersburg underground. This was not to be the last abortive attempt on the life of the Tsar, and following an incident where a member of Narodnaya Volya failed to properly a carriage laden with dynamite as that carrying the Tsar due near, another plan concerning use of dynamite on the railway network was hatched by Figner and her co-conspirators.

In November of 1879, two members of Narodnaya Volya, namely Lev Gartman and Sophia Perovskaya moved to a suburban house in Moscow situated near to the major arterial railway line. Posing as a young married couple by the name Sukhorukov, Gartman and Perovskaya began the construction of a tunnel from the cellar of the house towards the nearby tracks, whilst Gartman posed as a railway inspector. They made an attractive couple but their backgrounds were decidedly different.  Lev Gartman was born the Arkhangelsk Province, a land of fertile lands and driving arctic snow in 1850. Details of his early life are fragmentary at best, but what is known is that he was the son of a member of the bourgeoisie, and the scant Russian middle classes. He joined Zemlya i volya as a twenty six year in 1876, and lived in a number of their settlements where he worked as a propagandist. When the group fractured, Gartman was initially associated with the Chornyi perdel faction, however it was not long before he grew disillusioned with them and joined with former comrades who had also switched allegiances to Narodnaya Volya. The life of his counterfeit wife, Sophia Perovskaya is far better documented, and stands as a contrast.

The daughter of an aristocratic family who could trace their lineage back to the Empress of Russia, Elizabeth Petrovna, Sophia was born on 13 September 1853 in St. Petersburg and raised initially in a lavish mansion in the grounds of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Her father had for a period been the military governor of St. Petersburg and her grandfather had for a time been the Russian Minister of Interior. Unlike the humble roots of Gartman, Perovskaya was very much a product of the nobility of her time. Following a youth in the Crimea where she had chosen to reside on the estates of her mother to escape her overbearing father, and in which her studies were infrequent, Sophia began attending the Alarchinsky University for Women in 1869 following the families return to St. Petersburg. Here she quickly found herself accepted and indeed educated by other young women who were involved in the radical movement, and following the objections of her father to her new found friends, abandoned the palatial family home aged sixteen. After moving in radical circles for a number of years, Sophia was arrested in January 1874, and tried as part of the Trial of the 193. Like many of her peers she was acquitted but rather than return to the family that had in large part disowned their prodigal daughter became involved with Zemlya i volya. In 1878 she was arrested again, and this time sentenced to exile and banishment. On route to the savage environment of Siberia, Sophia escaped, returning to St. Petersburg, and going underground with former comrades as part of the far more radical Narodnaya Volya, where she promptly became a member of the executive committee. A year later, she was residing in Moscow with a fellow radical, and assisting with the digging of a tunnel which went all the way to the train tracks running from the station and into the Russian countryside.

Sophia Perovskaya (date and photographer unknown)

For two months in winter of 1789, members of Narodnaya Volya were frequent visitors to the home of the young couple known to their neighbours as Sukhorukov. Working during the day when the noise of their excavations would remain unheard, members of the group slowly and inexorable inched their tunnel closer to the tracks. Although there was a nearby house fire that almost led to the discovery of the group, eventually they had reached their goal. Using intelligence that they had gathered they knew that the Tsar was due to be travelling from Livadia to Moscow in December 1879. Having opened up the tunnel to allow for access to the train track, the group carefully laid bottles of nitroglycerin nearby and prepared to detonate it as the Tsars’ train due near. Their preparations made, Perovskay and Gartman quietly packed their scant belongings and moved from the house, leaving two other members of Narodnaya Volya to blow up the Tsars’ train.

According to all the information the group had been able to gather, the Train carrying the Tsar was one of two trains that were due to the use the tracks on the approach to Moscow between ten and eleven at night. As the time approached, a train sped past. As it was before the expected time the Tsar was due to be travelling, the bombers let it pass, assuming that it was in all probability an advance train, often despatched in front of that carrying the Tsar and his household, and bearing security. Their patience was rewarded when shortly afterwards, a second train approached them. Quickly and efficiently the conspirators detonated the nitroglycerin and retreated back into the safety of the tunnel that was to provide their escape route as the train burst into flame, and smoke and twisted metal filled the cold night air. The explosion was to convulse the Russian aristocracy and unleash a further crackdown on suspected political dissidents however it was to prove a spectacular failure in other ways. In a change from protocol, the train carrying the Tsar had proceeded into Moscow, and the would-be assassins had failed to destroy a train carrying his household servants. In both Moscow and St. Petersburg the response by the authorities was swift and another wave of arrests was unleashed. In response, Lev Gartman escaped abroad. Although later arrested in Paris on 23 January 1880, at the behest of the Russian authorities, Gartman was to be released owing to pressure from public figures no less laudable than Victor Hugo, before proceeding to London where he met and became friendly with both Marx and Engels. In 1881 he was appointed by the executive committee as the foreign representative of Narodnaya Volya, however owing to the later actions of the group this was not to be a position that would last, and he left London in late 1881 for New York where he was to die in 1908.  Undeterred by the possibility of arrest, Sophia Perovskaya returned to St. Petersburg dedicated to continuing to realise the proclamation issued on 28 August 1879.

Following the detonation of the wrong train, members of Narodnaya Volya began to prepare for their next assassination attempt. During this period Sophia Perovskaya also was to fall in love with Andrei Zhelyabov. A fellow member of the executive committee, Zhelyabov would later be compared by Lenin to other staunch revolutionaries such as Maximilien Robespierre. For now he and Perovskaya risked the ire of many of their comrades by marrying in secret. The marriage revitalised both the couple and they used their new found commitment to invigorate those members of Narodnaya Volya whose commitment was flagging. One member of the group that remained steadfast in his beliefs was Stefan Khalturin. Born of peasant stock unlike many in the group, or indeed the executive committee, Khalturin was able to find employment as a carpenter making repairs to the Tsars’ Winter Palace in November 1879. On the night of 17 February 1880, Khalturin detonated pounds of dynamite he had been slowly positioning beneath the palace dining room. This explosion also failed to assassinate the Tsar, and resulted in deaths of both guards and civilians. For the members of Narodnaya Volya it was another dismal failure (this episode is addressed in more detail in my forthcoming book, Bombs, Bullets and Bread: The Politics of Anarchist Terrorism Worldwide, 1866-1926). It was to be their last.

There was a renewed sense of urgency to the actions of Narodnaya Volya given the failed attempts at the aggressive scrutiny of both the police and the Third Section. The executive committee gathered and discussed their options. It was common knowledge that for years, every Sunday had seen the Tsar travelled by carriage to witness the military roll call at the Mikhailovsk barracks in the heart of St. Petersburg. It was decided that members of the group would again to fulfil their proclamation on this route. This was an attack that need not have happened. Following the failed bombing by Khalturin, Narodnaya Volya had issued a proclamation that all attacks against the Tsar would be called off if only he and his government would consider granting a constitution that allowed for free elections, and bought an end to censorship. In February 1880 following the explosion that ripped through the Winter Palace, the Tsar stated publicly that such demands would be granted consideration. In the interim, the Russian police formed what was later to become the notorious Okhrana, and sought to position undercover agents and informants amongst the ranks of both the political radicals and indeed progressive movements throughout Russia. By the following year, although details of a regional congress had been discussed with the Tsar, no tangible progress had been made in allowing for either democracy or freedom of communication, and Narodnaya Volya began to slowly enact their plans. The route along the street to Mikhailovsk barracks was mined, and it was agreed that should that fail to find its mark, members of the group would throw bombs at the royal carriage, and if that too should meet with failure would attack with both knives and revolvers. Those involved knew that if they succeeded or failed they would either be killed during the attack or shortly afterwards. Put in charge of the operation was the daughter of the aristocracy, Sophia Perovskaya whilst the bomb makers who were now becoming adept, occupied the flat of Vera Figner and rapidly assembled the necessary armaments. The route mined, and the bomb throwers prepared for what was in all likelihood due to be a suicide bombing owing to the range of the explosives they had been equipped with, the executive committee decided that the morning of Sunday 13 March 1881 was their most propitious chance.

The members of Narodnaya Volya involved in waiting for the Tsar could not be certain either of his route, or if he would venture out. Repeated attempts on his life had made his closest advisors nervous however the Tsar himself was still largely unconcerned. Thus it was that the royal carriage set off with an escort of six Cossack outriders. Rather than proceeding down the normal route to Mikhailovsk barracks, the procession instead passed along the Catherine canal, thus making the mines that had been so carefully laid by the assassins useless. The attack now would be in the hands of the bomb throwers. Having heard of the Tsar choosing to travel to the barracks, it was decided by Sophia Perovskaya that in all probability that the cortege would in all likelihood return the way it had come. After installing the bomb throwers at regular intervals alongside the railings that ran along the Catherine canal, she began an agonising wait on the other side of the canal where she could view the procession if it was to come into view, and signal to her comrades. At approximately 2.15pm, Perovskaya signalled that the procession was in range and travelling at speed. As the cortege drew along the canal, one of the bombers, a nineteen year old one time engineering student Nikolai Rysakov threw his device. His bomb had been thrown too late, and failed to make much of an impact on the bullet proof carriage the Tsar was seated in. It resulted in serious injury to one of the Cossacks, and a passing delivery boy who had been walking along the canal. Following the loud explosion that ripped through the quiet street, the procession drew to a halt, and Rysakov was quickly wrestled to the ground by the still shaken Cossacks. In a spectacular display of lack of awareness, the uninjured Tsar got out of the bullet proof carriage, and surveying the scene of carnage reportedly stated “Thank God, I am untouched!” His declaration had barely cleared his lips, when a second bomber, a twenty four your old former mathematics student and son of minor nobility, Ignacy Hryniewiecki, stepped closer and shouted “It may too soon to thank God” as he heaved a second device in the direction of the Tsar.

As the smoke gradually cleared, the shattered bodies of both Tsar Alexander and Hryniewiecki could be seen strewn across the street. The Tsar was bleeding profusely from serious wounds to his legs, stomach and face, and following a brief and panicked hunt for a carriage was relayed at speed to the Winter Palace, where at 3:30pm he was to die. His assassin Hryniewiecki was also dragged back to the infirmary attached to the Winter Palace, where after regaining consciousness at 9pm he was questioned by the police before dying from his own wounds at 10:30pm. The third bomber, Timofey Mikhaylov a twenty one year old factory worker and labourer from Smolensk, and Sophia Perovskaya melted away into the busy crowds who had been drawn by the smoke and explosions to the canal.

The Assassination of Tsar Nicholas II (Illustration from London Illustrated News, 1881)

After multiple attempts on his life, and a concentrated campaign of terrorism, the Tsar was dead. Far from prompting the revolution that the members of Narodnaya Volya had for so long envisioned, the death of the Tsar led to an uncompromising and predictably repressive response from the Russian forces of law and order. The dispossessed industrial factory workers of the cities and the serfs in all but name of the country, failed to rise up en masse against the aristocracy and the ruling Russian elite.  Members of Narodnaya Volya that had so long held on to the fantasy of a revolution being bought about by acts of terrorism were in a precarious situation, made more so by the arrest of the youngest and least experienced of their group, Rysakov. Predictably the questioning of Rysakov was brutal, and perhaps equally predictably he broke under it. In rapid fashion, the Third Section had rounded up and detained all those involved principally involved in the plot, Nikolai Kibalchich (the groups explosives expert), Timofei Mikhailov, Sophia Perovskaya, and her husband, Andrei Zhelyabov. Rather than face arrest some members of Narodnaya Volya killed themselves, but once the conspirators were detained the authorities turned their attention to other members of the group. Of those arrested and sentenced to exile for life was Vera Figner who was freed in 1905, and was one of the executive committee who survived to old age. The members of the group that Rysakov had confirmed in the assassination of the Tsar did not. Following a brief trial that commenced in March 1881, all of the accused were convicted and sentenced to death by hanging. On April 3, two carriages filled with the accused left the prison and headed towards the place of execution. At a little after nine in the morning, the executions began. Sophia Perovskaya was hung next to her husband, and was the first woman to be executed in Russia for terrorist offences. It was an unfortunate end for them all, but perhaps worst of all for the humble factory worker Mikhailov. His executioners had not taken into consideration a life of hard labour, and owing to his muscular frame, the first two ropes they attached to his neck broke in rapid succession. After finding a reinforced rope, Mikhailov was finally hung next to the lifeless bodies of his former comrades.

The Execution of the Narodnaya Volya Conspirators (Original source and artist unknown)

The death of Tsar Alexander II had failed to achieve what was hoped for by the members of Narodnaya Volya and had only served to destroy the group. His fathers’ death saw the succession of his son Alexander III of Russia, who spent thirteen years as Tsar. Nicholas III was even more autocratic and brutish than his father and possessed little of his liberalism. The conditions many in Russia endured continued to worsen, as the new Tsar attempted to undo some of the reforms that his assassinated father had implemented. In a quirk of fate, the surviving revolutionaries in Russia drew from the earlier example of Narodnaya Volya and began to plot against the new Tsar. Their conspiracy was discovered by the increasingly powerful Okhrana and this led to the execution of those involved including Alexander Ulyanov, the elder brother of the man Russia and the world would later come to know as Vladimir Lenin.

The history of Russia is littered with rebellion. In this the centennial year and month of the Red October (which ironically occurred in November) many only consider 1917 and 1905 as being emblematic of this Russian fight for democracy. The events that were to unfold in the early part of the twentieth century have their roots established in the nineteenth, when an autocratic and dissociative regime sought to limit basic human rights for its citizens. Those involved in the ensuing acts of terrorism and violence were young men and women drawn from a variety of backgrounds. All shared a common experience of being idealists that the state had sought to repress. It was the very nature of this repression that arguably led to an increase in acts of violence and carnage.  Many of those involved have been forgotten or neglected by history and rarely do they feature in conversations regarding the events of Red October. Without them however, the revolution and ensuing change in Russia would not have occurred. Although many of their efforts did not meet with success, their actions were to inspire those that followed, and finally the autocracy was to fall. Unfortunately for history, and the people of Russia, it was to be replaced by another society based which eventually was also to be based upon subservience and repression.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s