Military history



The Nihilists on the Trail of
Alexander II, 1879–1881

THE TSAR WAS sentenced to death on August 26, 1879. The verdict was delivered, incongruously enough, in a pleasant pine grove in a suburb of St. Petersburg where the wealthy had their dachas (summer houses). Here, amid the dry pine needles, assembled the executive committee of the People’s Will (Narodnaya Volya)—twenty-five men and women who had dedicated their lives to bringing about a revolution in Russia.

They were all under thirty, all intellectuals, mainly of the middle class or the lower levels of the nobility. Most had attended university—still an anomaly in a society in which illiteracy was widespread. In their wealth and education, similar to the leaders of the American Revolution and the Ku Klux Klan but to few other contemporary rebels, they anticipated twentieth-century insurgent leaders such as Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and Yasser Arafat. They were known as Nihilists, a term popularized by Ivan Turgenev in his 1862 novel, Fathers and Sons, but their agenda was more accurately described as “populist-socialist.” Unlike the anarchists, who wanted to destroy the state, they wanted to seize control of it. Previously they had belonged to a group called Land and Freedom, but they had split off because some members of Land and Freedom had objected to the use of violence. The executive committee had no such compunctions.

Vera Figner was one of its members, a twenty-seven-year-old from a family of “prosperous noblemen,” “a vivacious, merry, frolicsome girl,” a onetime debutante who had abandoned a budding medical career and a husband to devote herself to the cause of the peasants of whom she knew little. (One historian has written, accurately if acerbically, that the Nihilists were “peasant-lovers in the sense in which some people are animal-lovers.”) She believed, they all believed, that “so much inflammatory material had accumulated among the people that a small spark would easily flare up into a flame, and the latter into a gigantic conflagration.”

And what better spark than the assassination of the Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias? Alexander II had begun his reign as a reformer; he had freed the serfs in 1861. But in the ensuing years he had turned more conservative, refusing to grant a constitution or an elected parliament. This deflated the high expectations raised by his early years and sparked a violent backlash. In 1878 Nihilists killed General Nikolai Mezentsov, chief of the Third Section, the tsarist secret police. The following year it was the turn of Prince Dimitry Kropotkin, a provincial governor and cousin of the famous anarchist. Yet another terrorist shot and wounded the governor of St. Petersburg, a crime for which she was acquitted by a sympathetic jury. These were not isolated incidents of political murder like the killings of Julius Caesar or Abraham Lincoln but rather a concerted campaign of terrorism designed to bring down an entire state. Targeting the tsar himself was the pinnacle of the campaign.

The People’s Will hoped to blow up the tsar’s train as he was returning from a Crimean holiday in November 1879. Vera Figner journeyed to Odessa with a load of dynamite. Dressing up as an “upperclass doll” (her own words), she made an application to procure a job on the railroad for a man who was supposedly her janitor, actually a fellow conspirator. He got the job, but the tsar decided to take another route home so the effort was wasted. Another terrorist, pretending to be a merchant setting up a tannery, buried dynamite on a section of tracks. The tsar traveled over this route on November 18, but the explosives did not explode; the wires had not been connected correctly.

A third ambush still awaited in a suburb of Moscow where two Nihilists pretending to be a married couple rented a house five hundred feet from the tracks and tunneled their way toward the rail line through “cold wet mud.” By November 19, when the tsar’s train was to pass by, they were ready. Their intelligence indicated that the tsar’s party would use three trains with Alexander himself in the fourth coach of the second train. They duly blew that coach to smithereens only to discover that Alexander had decided at the last minute to travel in the first train. The tsar did not even know about the blast until a courtier told him that “the fourth car of the retinue train has been turned into marmalade. There was nothing in it but fruit from the Crimea.”

The tsar in the end was not safe even at home. Stepan Khalturin, a radical carpenter, had gotten a job in the tsar’s Winter Palace, an immense affair of 1,050 rooms, 1,886 doors, and 1,945 windows that was in constant need of repair. He proved to be such a reliable and hardworking handyman that a police corporal approached him as a potential son-in-law. All the while Khalturin was slowly smuggling small bits of dynamite provided by the People’s Will into his room in the cellar, two floors beneath the dining room. On the afternoon of February 5, 1880, Khalturin connected the wires and left the building. Fifteen minutes later, a thunderous explosion rocked the palace. Eleven people were killed and fifty-six injured, but the tsar was not among them. The dining room had been only slightly damaged and the tsar was not yet inside. Most of the casualties had occurred among his bodyguards who occupied a first-floor room between the cellar and the dining room.

Yet another attempt failed in August 1880 when one of the People’s Will members overslept and failed to reach the bridge over which the tsar was traveling in time to set off a bomb. But the terrorists did not give up.

In December 1880 two of their operatives pretending to be “Mr. and Mrs. Kobozev” set up a “cheese shop” in St. Petersburg that was actually a front for a tunneling operation to install a mine under a street where the tsar was known to travel every Sunday to inspect his troops. As a backup, four assassins armed with handheld bombs were to be deployed on the street itself. The tunneling began in late January 1881 and was complete by the end of February.

Even as the conspiracy unfolded, the secret police were closing in. The People’s Will had been able to continue operating with the aid of a mole who was working as a clerk in the police’s Third Section. But following a reorganization in 1880 that moved the secret police, the Okhrana, to a new police department, the terrorists’ luck began to change. By the end of February 1881 many members of the executive committee had been arrested, including their de facto leader Alexander Mikhailov and his successor, Andrei Zhelyabov. Both had been intimately involved in the tsar hunt, and both were now in solitary confinement in the forbidding Peter and Paul Fortress.

On Saturday, February 28, 1881, the day after Zhelyabov’s arrest, a “sanitary inspector”—actually a police general—appeared at the cheese shop. He wanted to know what was in one of the barrels. “Mr. Kobozev” said it was cheese. If the general opened it he would have found dirt from the excavations but he could not be bothered, leading at least one historian to wonder whether the police were deliberately turning a blind eye to the murder of a tsar who was too liberal for their tastes.

That very night the remaining members of the executive committee met at Vera Figner’s apartment to decide whether to abort the plot. They decided to proceed under the leadership of Sophia Perovskaya, Zhelyabov’s aristocratic girlfriend, a beautiful blonde with blue eyes, “a delicate little nose,” and a “charming mouth, which showed, when she smiled, two rows of very fine white teeth.” Notwithstanding her “sweet and affectionate disposition,” she was, in the words of a fellow Nihilist, “one of the most dreaded members of the Terrorist party.” With her in the lead, the attack was scheduled for the next day, Sunday, March 1.

At 1 p.m. on a “dark, dreary” Sunday afternoon the sixty-three-year-old tsar set off for the troop inspection, resplendent in “a red cap, a red-lined overcoat with beaver’s collar, and gold epaulets.” Six Cossacks rode on horseback alongside his carriage and two sleighs full of policemen traveled behind him over the snow-covered cobblestone streets. By 2:15 p.m., after visiting a cousin, he was ready to return to the Winter Palace. The route he took did not carry him past the cheese shop, so it was now up to the bomb throwers. When Perovskaya gave the signal—blowing her nose into a silk handkerchief—three assassins deployed along the Catherine Canal Embankment. (One had lost his nerve at the last minute.)

As the tsar’s carriage raced along, it was approached by a young blond man holding a small package. He swung his arm and there was a “deafening blast.” Several people were killed or wounded but the tsar was unharmed. He got out of the carriage to inspect the damage, ignoring the coachman’s pleas to keep going. As the tsar walked around, surrounded by his Cossacks, another young man approached and threw something at his feet. Alexander and all those around him toppled over like bowling pins. Twenty people had been hit, including the assassin, Ignat Hryniewicki, who died a few hours later. “Through the snow, debris, and blood,” recalled an officer, “you could see fragments of clothing, epaulets, sabers, and bloody chunks of human flesh.”

The tsar, his legs shattered, died at the Winter Palace shortly thereafter. The seventh assassination attempt was the last.61

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