The People's Will (Narodnaya Volya)

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

The book had a great impact on young Russians and in 1876 the group Land and Liberty was formed. Most of the group shared Bakunin's anarchist views and demanded that Russia's land should be handed over to the peasants and the State should be destroyed. The historian, Adam Bruno Ulam, has argued: "This Party, which commemorated in its name the revolutionary grouping of the early sixties, was soon split up by quarrels about its attitude toward terror. The professed aim, the continued agitation among the peasants, grew more and more fruitless."

In October, 1879, the Land and Liberty split into two factions. The majority of members, who favoured a policy of terrorism, established the People's Will (Narodnaya Volya). Others, such as George Plekhanov formed Black Repartition, a group that rejected terrorism and supported a socialist propaganda campaign among workers and peasants. Elizabeth Kovalskaia was one of those who rejected the ideas of the People's Will: "Firmly convinced that only the people themselves could carry out a socialist revolution and that terror directed at the centre of the state (such as the People's Will advocated) would bring - at best - only a wishy-washy constitution which would in turn strengthen the Russian bourgeoisie, I joined Black Repartition, which had retained the old Land and Liberty program."

Vera Figner, Anna Korba, Andrei Zhelyabov, Olga Liubatovich, Nikolai Morozov, Timofei Mikhailov, Lev Tikhomirov, Mikhail Frolenko, Grigory Isaev, Sophia Perovskaya, Nikolai Sablin, Ignatei Grinevitski, Nikolai Kibalchich, Nikolai Rysakov, Gesia Gelfman, Anna Yakimova, Sergei Kravchinskii, Tatiana Lebedeva and Alexander Kviatkovsky all joined the People's Will. Figner later recalled: "We divided up the printing plant and the funds - which were in fact mostly in the form of mere promises and hopes... And as our primary aim was to substitute the will of the people for the will of one individual, we chose the name Narodnaya Volya for the new Party."

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

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

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

Zhelyabov and Perovskaya attempted to use nitroglycerine to destroy the Tsar train. However, the terrorist miscalculated and it destroyed another train instead. An attempt the blow up the Kamenny Bridge in St. Petersburg as the Tsar was passing over it was also unsuccessful. Figner blamed Zhelyabov for these failures but others in the group felt he had been unlucky rather than incompetent.

Five members of the People's Will being executed on 3rd April, 1881
Ilya Efimovich Repin, The Arrest of the Propagandist (1881)

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

Khalturin approached George Plekhanov about the possibility of using this opportunity to kill Tsar Alexander II. He rejected the idea but did put him in touch with the People's Will who were committed to a policy of assassination. It was agreed that Khalturin should try and kill the Tsar and each day he brought packets of dynamite, supplied by Anna Yakimova and Nikolai Kibalchich, into his room and concealed it in his bedding. Cathy Porter, the author of Fathers and Daughters: Russian Women in Revolution (1976), has argued: "His workmates regarded him as a clown and a simpleton and warned him against socialists, easily identifiable apparently for their wild eyes and provocative gestures. He worked patiently, familiarizing himself with the Tsar's every movement, and by mid-January Yakimova and Kibalchich had provided him with a hundred pounds of dynamite, which he hid under his bed."

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

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

The People's Will contacted the Russian government and claimed they would call off the terror campaign if the Russian people were granted a constitution that provided free elections and an end to censorship. On 25th February, 1880, Alexander II announced that he was considering granting the Russian people a constitution. To show his good will a number of political prisoners were released from prison. Mikhail Loris-Melikof, the Minister of the Interior, was given the task of devising a constitution that would satisfy the reformers but at the same time preserve the powers of the autocracy. At the same time the Russian Police Department established a special section that dealt with internal security. This unit eventually became known as the Okhrana. Under the control of Loris-Melikof, undercover agents began joining political organizations that were campaigning for social reform.

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

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

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

A crisis meeting was held in which Timofei Mikhailov called for work to continue on all fronts. However, Sophia Perovskaya and Anna Yakimova argued that they should concentrate on the plans to assassinate the Tsar. Nikolai Kibalchich was heard to remark: "Have you noticed how much crueller our girls are than our men?" It was eventually agreed that Perovkaya and Yakimova were right. It was decided to form a watching party. These members had the task of noting every movement of the Tsar.

It was discovered that every Sunday the Tsar took a drive along Malaya Sadovaya Street. It was decided that this was a suitable place to attack. Yakimova was given the task of renting a flat in the street. Gesia Gelfman had a flat on Telezhnaya Street and this became the headquarters of the assassins whereas the home of Vera Figner was used as an explosives workshop.

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

The Okhrana discovered that their was a plot to kill Alexander II. One of their leaders, Andrei Zhelyabov, was arrested on 28th February, 1881, but refused to provide any information on the conspiracy. He confidently told the police that nothing they could do would save the life of the Tsar. Alexander Kviatkovsky, another member of the assassination team, was arrested soon afterwards.

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

Tsar Alexander II decided to travel along the Ekaterinsky Canal. An armed Cossack sat with the coach-driver and another six Cossacks followed on horseback. Behind them came a group of police officers in sledges. Perovskaya, who was stationed at the intersection between the two routes, gave the signal to Nikolai Rysakov and Timofei Mikhailov to throw their bombs at the Tsar's carriage. The bombs missed the carriage and instead landed amongst the Cossacks. The Tsar was unhurt but insisted on getting out of the carriage to check the condition of the injured men. While he was standing with the wounded Cossacks another terrorist, Ignatei Grinevitski, threw his bomb. Alexander was killed instantly and the explosion was so great that Grinevitski also died from the bomb blast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prosecutor Muraviev concentrated his attack on Sophia Perovskaya: "We can imagine a political conspiracy; we can imagine that this conspiracy uses the most cruel, amazing means; we can imagine that a woman should be part of this conspiracy. But that a woman should lead a conspiracy, that she should take on herself all the details of the murder, that she should with cynical coldness place the bomb-throwers, draw a plan and show them where to stand; that a woman should have become the life and soul of this conspiracy, should stand a few steps away from the place of the crime and admire the work of her own hands - any normal feelings of morality can have no understanding of such a role for women." Perovskaya replied: "I do not deny the charges, but I and my friends are accused of brutality, immorality and contempt for public opinion. I wish to say that anyone who knows our lives and the circumstances in which we have had to work would not accuse us of either immorality or brutality."

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

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

On 3rd April 1881, Zhelyabov, Perovskaya, Kibalchich, Rysakov and Mikhailov were given tea and handed their black execution clothes. A placard was hung round their necks with the word "Tsaricide" on it. Cathy Porter, the author of Fathers and Daughters: Russian Women in Revolution (1976), has pointed out: "Then the party set off. It was headed by the police carriage, followed by Zhelyabov and Rysakov. Sophia sat with Kibalchich and Mikhailov in the third tumbril. A pale wintry sun shone as the party moved slowly through the streets, already crowded with onlookers, most of them waving and shouting encouragement. High government officials and those wealthy enough to afford the tickets were sitting near to the scaffold that had been erected on Semenovsky Square. The irreplaceable Frolov, Russia's one and only executioner, fiddled drunkenly with the nooses, and Sophia and Zhelyabov were able to say a few last words to one another. The square was surrounded by twelve thousand troops and muffled drum beats sounded. Sophia and Zhelyabov kissed for the last time, then Mikhailov and Kibalchich kissed Sophia. Kibalchich was led to the gallows and hanged. Then it was Mikhailov's turn. Frolov was by now barely able to see straight and the rope broke three times under Mikhailov's weight." It was now Perovskaya's turn. "It's too tight" she told him as he struggled to tie the noose. She died straight away but Zhelyabov, whose noose had not been tight enough, died in agony.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When the St Petersburg newspaper carrying the news of Ulyanov's execution reached his family in Simbirsk. His 17 year-old brother, Lenin, was reported as saying "I'll make them pay for this! I swear it." Joel Carmichael, the author of A Short History of the Russian Revolution (1976), has pointed out, Lenin and other young intellectuals in Russia turned away from terrorism to the ideas of Karl Marx: "Perhaps the chief appeal that Marxism held for the Russian intelligentsia, even more so than for the intellectuals of other countries, was its combination of a powerful messianic yearning with an appearance of scientific methodology. It offered youthful enthusiasts the best of both worlds. Their ardent desire to change the world was fortified by sound, or seemingly sound, scientific reasons as to why this was not only possible, but was, even more seductively, inevitable. As far as Russia was concerned, Marxism may be summed up as the contention that Russian history is a part of world history and that, because of this, Russia must pass through capitalism in order to reach the future socialist society. It was not the peasantry, Marxists thought, that would be able to lead the march to socialism, but the industrial working class. Terrorism had to be abandoned as a tactic that was both futile and, in view of the objectively developing social forces, superfluous. The main task of the revolutionary leaders was to be the creation of a disciplined working-class party to conduct Russia into the promised land."

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Primary Sources

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

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

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

(2) Geoffrey Hosking, A History of the Soviet Union (1985)

In the 1870s several hundred students tried to fulfil Lavrov's vision, learning handcrafts and dressing in smocks and felt boots in order to live in the village, practise a trade and pass on the good word. Most, though not all, of the peasants met them with incomprehension and some suspicion: for the time being at least their faith in the "little father" tsar was still unshaken. Many of the student idealists who "went to the people" finished up in prison.

Their failure lent strength to those who argued that a revolutionary movement must lead and it must use violence, disorganizing the government apparatus by terror, and if possible seizing power by a coup d'etat. An organization called the People's Will (Narodnaya volya) was set up to achieve this, and in 1881 it actually succeeded in assassinating the Emperor Alexander II. But setting up a different regime, or even putting effective pressure on Alexander's successor - that proved beyond their capacities. Their victory was a pyrrhic one: all it produced was more determined repression.

By the 1880s, in fact, the Russian revolutionary movement seemed to be in a blind alley, unable to achieve its aims either by peaceful propaganda or by terrorism. It was in this situation that Marxism presented itself as a panacea in troubled times. Its first Russian exponent, Georgy Plekhanov, was the leader of those who had refused to accept the methods of the People's Will. He welcomed Marxism because it suggested he had been right all along in rejecting the idea of a coup d'etat: no revolution could yet come about in Russia, by any means, simply because objective social and economic circumstances were not yet ripe. Plekhanov's interpretation thus emphasized Marxism's determinist features: he argued that capitalism had not yet even begun in Russia, so that naturally the socialist revolution, which could only take place as a result of the contradictions of capitalist society, had no chance of success yet. In his view, Russia must first accept the coming of capitalism, with the concomitant breakdown of the peasant commune and the creation of large-scale industry, because these processes would generate a genuinely revolutionary class, the factory proletariat, which would not let down the hopes of the radical intelligentsia, as the peasantry had done. Plekhanov took up Marxism with such enthusiasm because he discerned in it a scientific explanation of history, and hence the certainty that the revolutionaries, if they followed it, would no longer sacrifice their hopes, and indeed their lives, in vain. Previous revolutionaries he dismissed contemptuously as "Populists".

Historians of Russia often approach Marxism as though it came to the country as a completely formed and internally consistent doctrine. In fact this was far from being the case. Marxism was itself the product of European experiences not unlike those which had troubled the Russian revolutionaries of the 1860s and 1870s, especially the disappointments of the French revolution, and of the European risings of 1848-9. Each time, the shortfall between revolutionary expectation and subsequent reality had been immense. Marx claimed that this was because the revolutionaries had not heeded objective socioeconomic conditions: they were in fact mere "utopian socialists". His kind of socialism, on the contrary, he described as "scientific". He argued that the proletariat, growing now uncontrollably with the expansion of capitalist industry, would overcome the gap between ideal and reality.

(3) Joel Carmichael, A Short History of the Russian Revolution (1976)

The terrorism that supplemented or replaced the populists' folk-worshipping idealism naturally took the form of an attempt on the tsar's life. One of the principal currents of populism was ultimately successful in this, assassinating the same tsar, Alexander II, who had emancipated the serfs. Although this populist organization retained the same humane vocabulary - revolving around socialism, faith in the people, the overthrow of the autocracy, and democratic representation - its sole objective was, in fact, the murder of the tsar. The preparation for this demanded boundless zeal, painstaking diligence, and great personal daring. In fact, the idealism of these young assassins was perhaps the most impressive thing about the whole populist movement. Though a few populist leaders were of peasant origin, most were drawn from the intelligentsia of the upper and middle classes. The motives of the latter were quite impersonal ; one of the things that baffled the police in stamping out the movement - in which they never succeeded - was just this combination of zeal and selflessness.

The actual membership of the populist societies was relatively small. But their ideas attracted wide support, even in the topmost circles of the bureaucracy and, for that matter, in the security police as well. The upper-class origins of many of the revolutionaries meant a source of funds; many idealists donated their entire fortunes to the movement. It must be remembered that the Russian upper classes or many of their individual members were in a peculiarly contradictory situation ; they had been brought up, after all, on the humanitarian ideals common to European civilization, yet they were living in conditions that were more blatantly at variance with European ideals than those of any other country. They had to make a choice: either give lip service to the conventional ideals or take to the high road of action to force society to conform with its own ideals. Even the Bolsheviks were later to benefit by this singular situation; many capitalists assuaged their consciences by contributing funds for their activities.

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

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

(5) When the Land and Liberty movement split in October, 1879, Olga Liubatovich joined the People's Will group.

Stefanovich became the head of the Black Repartition, and his friends Vera Zasulich and Lev Deich joined him. But even ardent populists like Vera Figner, who had been working in one of the countryfolk settlements in the provinces, and Sophia Perovskaia joined the People's Will, the group that had taken up arms to defend the people and their apostles.

Black Repartition was stillborn; it left no visible traces of its work among the people at the end of 1879 and the beginning of 1880, because no such activity was possible on a broad scale. After a series of failures, Stefanovich, Deich, Plekhanov, and Zasulich returned abroad.

As for me, naturally I joined the People's Will. The Executive Committee of the People's Will soon began to chart its own course. Its initial plan had been to carry out a number of actions against the governor-generals, but this decision was called into question at one open-air meeting in Lesnoi: shouldn't we concentrate all our forces against the Tsar instead, it was asked. We resolved that this should indeed be the goal of the Executive Committee. The implementation of that decision engaged the People's Will right up to March 1, 1881.

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

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

(7) Adam Bruno Ulam, Prophets and Conspirators in Pre-Revolutionary Russia (1998)

There was, incomprehensible as it seems, no security check of workman employed at the palace. Stephan Khalturin, a joiner, long sought by the police as one of the organizers of the Northern Union of Russian workers, found no difficulty in applying for and getting a job there under a false name. Conditions at the palace, judging from his reports to revolutionary friends, epitomized those of Russia itself: the outward splendor of the emperor's residence concealed utter chaos in its management: people wandered in and out, and imperial servants resplendent in livery were paid as little as fifteen rubles a month and were compelled to resort to pilfering. The working crew were allowed to sleep in a cellar apartment directly under the dining suite.

(8) Cathy Porter, Fathers and Daughters: Russian Women in Revolution (1976)

His workmates regarded Stephan Khalturin as a clown and a simpleton and warned him against socialists, easily identifiable apparently for their wild eyes and provocative gestures. He worked patiently, familiarizing himself with the Tsar's every movement, and by mid-January Yakimova and Kibalchich had provided him with a hundred pounds of dynamite, which he hid under his bed.

On 5 February he was ready to fire the charge that was to kill the Tsar in the Palace dining-room. In the event, the imperial dining plans were altered, and the blast merely damaged some empty rooms. It was hard to get any idea from him of what had actually happened, since when he arrived at the Podyacheskaya flat a little later he was raving and incoherent.

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

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

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

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

(11) Olga Liubatovich left the People's Will over the issue of Jacobinism in 1880.

During the debates, the question of Jacobinism - seizing power and ruling from above, by decree - was raised. As I saw it, the Jacobin tinge that Tikhomirov gave to his program for the Executive Committee gave to his program for the Executive Committee threatened the party and the entire revolutionary movement with moral death; it was a kind of rebirth of Nechaevism, which had long since lost moral credit in the revolutionary world. It was my belief that the revolutionary idea could be a life-giving force only when it was the antithesis of all coercion - social, state, and even personal coercion, tsarist and Jacobin alike. Of course, it was possible for a narrow group of ambitious men to replace one form of coercion or authority by another. But neither the people nor educated society would follow them consciously, and only a conscious movement can impart new principles to public life.

At this point, Morozov announced that he considered himself free of any obligation to defend a program like Tikhomirov's in public. I too, declared that it was against my nature to act on the basis of compulsion; that once the Executive Committee had taken on a task - the seizure of state power - that violated my basic principles, and once it had recourse in its organizational practice to autocratic methods fraught with mutual distrust, then I, too, reclaimed my freedom of action.

(12) Vera Figner was involved in the planning of the assassination of Tsar Alexander II.

Everything was peaceful as I walked through the streets. But half an hour after I reached the apartment of some friends, a man appeared with the news that two crashes like cannon shots had rung out, that people were saying the sovereign had been killed, and that the oath was already being administered to the heir. I rushed outside. The streets were in turmoil: people were talking about the sovereign, about wounds, death, blood.

On March 3, Kibalchich came to our apartment with the news that Gesia Gelfman's apartment had been discovered, that she'd been arrested and Sabin had shot himself. Within two weeks, we lost Perovskaia, who was arrested on the street. Kibalchich and Frolenko were the next to go. Because of these heavy losses, the Committee proposed that most of us leave St. Petersburg myself included.

(13) Michael Burleigh, Blood & Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism (2008)

One plan involved sinking 250 pounds of dynamite within sealed rubber bags under the waters beneath the Kammeny Bridge. But when the royal carriage swept over the bridge in mid-August, no bomb went off, for the bomber had overslept. The method finally employed to kill Alexander was first essayed in Odessa where Vera Figner and her associates rented a shop and then tunnelled their way under the street with a view to laying a mine to blow up the tsar when he visited the city. A version of this was replayed in St Petersburg. A couple called Kobozev - this was not their name and they were not married - rented basement premises in Little Garden Street where they opened a cheese shop. He had a sun-burnished face and a jolly spade-shaped beard; she spoke in reassuringly provinciall accents. The shop was along the route the tsar took each Sunday from the Winter Palace to the Hippodrome where he inspected his guardsmen. There was enough cheese displayed on the counter to satisfy any customer - Vera Figner tested this by purchasing some Roquefort - but close inspection of the cheese barrels to the rear would have revealed excavated earth rather than Camembert. For, each night, a team of terrorists visited the shop to burrow a tunnel beneath the road. In the event that the mine which was to be laid under the road missed the tsar, there were two back-up teams of assassins. Four men would ambush him with dynamite bombs in kerosene cans at the end of another street, while a lone assassin would lurk with a knife should he survive the second-wave attacks. In fact, this last assassin was arrested before he could be put in position.

Vera Figner was one of those who sat up all night with Kibalchich, the benign master bomber, in an apartment where they nervously assembled the bombs, while a large mine was hastily placed in the tunnel leading from the cheese shop. In the morning the bombers collected their weapons from a safe house. These men were chosen for their representational symbolic effect, an aristocrat, a scion of the middle class, a worker and a peasant. One was virtually a moron; another was very conspicuously tall.

In the event, after lunch with his morganatic wife, whom he rapidly "took" on a table to deflect her pleas that he should stay at home, the tsar did not go to the Hippodrome via Little Garden Street. But at three that afternoon he ordered a return route that brought him very close to where his killers loitered. As his carriage and Cossack escort passed the assassin Rysakov, the latter hurled what appeared to be a chocolate box beneath the carriage. When it exploded it threw one of the Cossacks to the ground, while various passersby were injured. The tsar, who was unharmed, got out of the carriage, saying to an officer who inquired after him: "No, thank God, but" as he gestured to the injured. As appeared to be his habit, Alexander strode up to the captured bomber and said, "You're a fine one!" By now ringed by soldiers, the tsar returned to the carriage, hardly noticing a young Pole holding a newspaper-wrapped parcel. It exploded, killing the Pole and mortally wounding the tsar in his legs and lower body. His left leg was so mangled that it was impossible to staunch the bleeding by squeezing an artery. Whispering that he felt cold, the tsar said he wanted to go home to the Winter Palace. He died there about fifty minutes later. Perhaps his final thoughts were on how his day had started, when he and Loris-Melikov had agreed that elected representatives should be appointed to the State Council to advise on reforms.

Six members of the conspiracy to kill the tsar were put on trial in late March. All six were sentenced to death, although when it was discovered that Gesia Helfman was pregnant, she was reprieved. The remaining five were publicly hanged, with placards reading "Regicide" around their necks. Kibalchich, the bomb maker, tried to interest the authorities in a propellant rocket as a way of securing a reprieve, but they were not to be diverted. The fact that Helfinan was from an Orthodox Jewish background was one of the reasons for violent anti-Semitic pogroms that erupted in the rural Ukraine.

(14) Prosecutor Muraviev, speech at the trial (5th March, 1881)

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

(15) Cathy Porter, Fathers and Daughters: Russian Women in Revolution (1976)

At six am on 3 April the prisoners were given tea and handed their black execution clothes. "Cheer up, Sophia!" said Mikhailov, as they were chained hand and foot to the tumbrils that were to take them to the gallows. A placard was hung round their necks with the word "Tsaricide" on it. Then the party set off. It was headed by the police carriage, followed by Zhelyabov and Rysakov. Sophia sat with Kibalchich and Mikhailov in the third tumbril. A pale wintry sun shone as the party moved slowly through the streets, already crowded with onlookers, most of them waving and shouting encouragement. High government officials and those wealthy enough to afford the tickets were sitting near to the scaffold that had been erected on Semenovsky Square. The irreplaceable Frolov, Russia's one and only executioner, fiddled drunkenly with the nooses, and Sophia and Zhelyabov were able to say a few last words to one another. The square was surrounded by twelve thousand troops and muffled drum beats sounded. Sophia and Zhelyabov kissed for the last time, then Mikhailov and Kibalchich kissed Sophia. Kibalchich was led to the gallows and hanged. Then it was Mikhailov's turn. Frolov was by now barely able to see straight and the rope broke three times under Mikhailov's weight. Frolov was cursing by the time Sophia walked up to the scaffold. "It's too tight,' she told him as he struggled to tie the noose. Then she died, without having to witness Zhelyabov's death. He died in agony - the noose had not been tight enough. Rysakov struggled as he was led to the block.

(16) Joel Carmichael, A Short History of the Russian Revolution (1976)

The assassination of the tsar in 1881 marked the high point of the terrorist wing of the populist movement. After that, it subsided abruptly. By the end of the century, it had totally declined.

The populist branch of the general Russian revolutionary movement seems to have undergone a crisis, perhaps primarily because of the futility of its basic assumptions - the political efficacy of terror and the idea that the peasants could conduct a revolution by themselves. But its basic attitudes were inherited by a party we shall encounter in the 1917 revolutions - the Social Revolutionary Party - a party that was to remain a factor in Russian life until after the Bolsheviks took power in October 1917.

It was, of course, Marxism that was finally to dominate the scene in Russia. It did so after an initial delay - the Russian translation of Marx's Capital was the first to be published, in 1869, only two years after the original had appeared - but, toward the end of the nineteenth century, after having made considerable progress in the rest of Europe, it began overshadowing the populist movement.

Marxism, apart from the idealism it shared with populism, was rooted in an organic social development, the emergence of an industrial working class - the proletariat - that was ultimately responsible for its successful development.

Perhaps the chief appeal that Marxism held for the Russian intelligentsia, even more so than for the intellectuals of other countries, was its combination of a powerful messianic yearning with an appearance of scientific methodology. It offered youthful enthusiasts the best of both worlds. Their ardent desire to change the world was fortified by sound, or seemingly sound, scientific reasons as to why this was not only possible, but was, even more seductively, inevitable.

As far as Russia was concerned, Marxism may be summed up as the contention that Russian history is a part of world history and that, because of this, Russia must pass through capitalism in order to reach the future socialist society. It was not the peasantry, Marxists thought, that would be able to lead the march to socialism, but the industrial working class. Terrorism had to be abandoned as a tactic that was both futile and, in view of the objectively developing social forces, superfluous. The main task of the revolutionary leaders was to be the creation of a disciplined working-class party to conduct Russia into the promised land.