The Women Who Ended an Emperor

In early spring, on the afternoon of 13 March 1881, the Russian Tsar Alexander II was travelling through St Petersburg, when a man carrying a crudely wrapped parcel stepped out in front of his carriage. Before the guards could react, the man – a 19 year-old student named Nikolai Rysakov – tossed the parcel, detonating a dynamite bomb that instantly killed one of the guards, wounding several others. Rysakov’s intended target remain unscathed. That was until Alexander left his shrapnel-dented carriage to accost his would-be killer. It was then that a second attacker rushed forward with a bomb clutched to his chest, detonating it within feet of the Tsar who, having suffered horrendous wounds, died within an hour.


The assassination of Alexander II of Russia 1881 (wikicommons)

This assassination was a thing of brutal firsts. It is significant that the Tsar’s killer – a Polish student named Ignacy Hryniewiecki – was one of the first recorded suicide bombers. So too is the fact that the bombing had been planned by what most historians view as the world’s first organised terrorist group, Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will). The story of the two years People’s Will spent trying to take the Tsar’s life prior to Hryniewiecki’s bloody deed has been well documented by scholars, whose interest in the group has predominantly been focused on how they organised themselves and the influence they had on terrorist organisations in the 20th century and beyond. This focus on People’s Will as an organisation has obscured another important first in the story of the Tsar’s assassination – the central role played by two women, Sophia Perovskaya and Vera Figner, in the autocrat’s demise. Their role is significant as it reveals the leadership roles women demanded in carrying out revolutionary violence at this moment of upheaval. It also reveals that this was accepted by their male counterparts who, for the most part, accommodated the emancipatory demands of women alongside the broader mandate to free Russia writ-large from bondage.

Sophia Perovskaya (wikicommons)
Vera Figner (wikicommons)

At the time People’s Will struck the participation of women in Russia’s revolutionary movement was far from novel. Indeed, the 1878 attempts by two women who had become radicalised at university reading groups – Vera Zasulich and Maria Kolenkina – to assassinate the governor of St Petersburg and a state prosecutor inspired the founders of People’s Will. Like Zasulich and Kolenkina, the women who were central to creating this new terrorist organisation – Sophia Perovskaya and Vera Figner – were products of an era of hope and fracture in the land of the Tsars. Whilst the peasant population of the countryside had remained socially stagnant and bound to their landlords for generations, in the cities a liberal-minded intelligentsia grew in voice and ambition, fuelled by socialist and Jacobin theories from Europe, and the home-grown ideology of nihilist populism. It was with proponents of these radical ideologies that Figner and Perovskaya mixed in their late teens, finding a sense of belonging and purpose. Both women were born to noble parents, educated and dedicated to the betterment of Russian society. Moreover, in keeping with the trends in reformist thought, Perovskaya and Figner were accepted by their fellow male radicals as equals in the revolutionary struggle.

In an effort to meet the demands of this struggle made by the Russian intelligentsia, in 1861, Tsar Alexander II issued his famous Emancipation Manifesto. This was supposed to free the peasantry from bondage and, where possible, usher in a new, more liberal age. When it became clear that this new era was a false dawn, Perovskaya and other frustrated reformers took it upon themselves to force the pace of change. In 1874 this led to hundreds of revolutionaries leaving St Petersburg to wander the Russian countryside reading tracts on socialism, nihilism, and anarchism to the peasants, in an effort to educate them in preparation for the day when they would rise up and overthrow the Tsar.

This act, known as “Going to The People”, achieved little. The peasants were generally unimpressed with the high-minded philosophies of the urban interlopers, and many even informed on the radicals to agents from the Tsar’s secret police – the Third Section. This led to hundreds of radicals being arrested, including Perovskaya, who was sent to prison for 3 years. In 1877 Perovskaya was finally put on trial, along with 192 other propagandists, for crimes against the state.

Although she was acquitted, the time spent in prison changed Perovskaya. Brooding on her failures like many of the participants in the “Going to The People” campaign, Perovskaya became convinced that propagandising was as futile as the Tsar making good on the promises of 1861. She was not alone in reaching the further conclusion that a more direct and violent approach would be required. Together with her husband Andrei Zhelyabov – a fellow pamphleteer who had turned to violence – and Figner, Perovskaya founded People’s Will in the summer of 1879.  This organisation’s stated purpose was to use terrorist violence to attack the Tsarist regime, undermining its authority and further radicalising its opponents by encouraging acts of state-sponsored repression.

Informed by the rise and fall of other Russian radical groups during the 1860s, which were often penetrated by the Tsar’s Third Section spies or simply fell apart owing to a lack of organisation, Perovskaya, Figner and the other leaders of People’s Will sought to craft a more professional revolutionary group. To this end, People’s Will used a cellular structure not uncommon amongst contemporary terrorist organisations, with small groups working independently of each other and only communicating through a central body. They also sought out specialists, including a chemical engineer who was tasked with designing bombs, and the revolutionary philosopher Nikolai Morozov, whose 1880 treatise, The Terrorist Struggle, championed political violence as the true and only means by which a new, more democratic, Russia could be created.

Perovskaya herself was skilled in organisation. It was she who set up the groups’ many safe houses across St Petersburg. She helped to map out the logistics of the various attacks her group perpetrated on the Tsar’s train and also in his official residence, the Winter Palace, which was decimated by one of Kibalchich’s time bombs in 1880. On the day the Tsar was murdered, Perovskaya was also central. Informed 48 hours before the attack that her husband had been arrested, she kept her nerve, ordering her accomplices to retrieve bomb-making materials from across the city so that the assassination could go ahead, even without Zhelyabov to assist. The night before the Tsar took his fateful carriage ride, Perovskaya was up late with both Figner and Kibalchich assembling dynamite bombs, and when the Tsar unexpectedly altered his route through St Petersburg – making the mines People’s Will had laid under the road he was meant to be travelling along redundant – it was Perovskaya who ordered Hryniewiecki and Rysakov to adapt the plan and intercept their target on foot with bombs in hand.

Both women paid dearly for their part in instigating the emperor’s demise. Figner managed to evade the police dragnet that followed the bombing, only to preside over the collapse of People’s Will in the year that followed. The organisation’s end was brought on by police infiltration, which led to her arrest in 1883. Although she escaped the noose, Figner suffered through twenty years of harsh imprisonment, followed by an exile that lasted until the early 1900s. Figner, at least, was allowed to die in her bed in 1942, having borne witness to the final fall of Tsardom in 1917. Perovskaya’s fate was one of swift martyrdom. Apprehended mere days after the Tsar’s death, she was reunited with her beloved Zhelyabov on the gallows on 15 April 1881 following a brief trial. Even in death, Perovskaya made yet another mark in the history books, becoming the first woman in Russia to be executed for the crime of terrorism.

Together, Perovskaya and Figner left a complex legacy. As many as 20% of those who went “To The People” in 1874 were women. In this respect, Perovskaya and Figner were the products of the gender dynamics of the Russian Revolutionary movement, which welcomed the participation and, indeed, the leadership of women in the struggle to free Russia’s oppressed. This gave Perovskaya and Figner the opportunity to partake in the radical movement at the highest level, achieving success in the field of assassination that had eluded Zasulich and Kolenkina. Through this leadership of People’s Will, however, Perovskaya and Figner became both important figures in the history of women’s participation in radicalism, and exponents of terrorism via dynamite – a mixed legacy cemented by the death of a Tsar on the streets of St Petersburg, by their design, 140 years ago.


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