In 1872, against the advice of her father, she obtained a job as a teacher at a school in Orlov. She also became involved in the program to give smallpox vaccinations to the peasants living in local villages. During this period she became influenced by the radical political ideas of Mikhail Bakunin and distributed pamphlets to the peasants. Cathy Porter, the author of Fathers and Daughters: Russian Women in Revolution (1976) argued: "Although she found the peasantry eager to listen to her explanation of the injustices under which they laboured, they seemed incapable of applying what they learnt to their own lives. The fault, she concluded, lay in herself; she was isolated from any central revolutionary organization."
Yakimova joined forces with Sophia Perovskaya and Tatiana Lebedeva to distribute revolutionary literature. For a while on a commune with Catherine Breshkovskaya. In 1875 the school in which Yakimova was teaching was searched and she was arrested. She spent a year in solitary confinement in the local prison before being taken to St. Petersburg to await trial.
Yakimova refused to speak in her own defence at the trial where 193 women were accused of revolutionary activities. Breshkovskaya was one of eighteen women to be sentenced to between three to ten years hard labour in Siberia. Forty were sent to exile in the "remote provinces" of Russia. However, most of the women, including Yakimova were acquitted for lack of evidence.
After spending three years in prison Yakimova and a couple of friends set off for the Tver region, "dressed all in black and living on a diet of black bread and onions (they had learnt to do without tea in prison)." Yakimova then moved to Nizhny Novgorod, where she got a job in a textile factory. When she protested about factory conditions she was denounced as a "propagandist" and she was forced to flee the area.
Yakimova now returned to St. Petersburg where she joined the secret society, Land and Liberty. Senior members of the organisation included Mark Natanson, George Plekhanov and Vera Zasulich. She disagreed with Plekhanov about the way forward and began associating with figures such as Lev Tikhomirov and Alexander Kviatkovsky.
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. Others, such as Plekhanov formed Black Repartition, a group that rejected terrorism and supported a socialist propaganda campaign among workers and peasants.
Soon afterwards the People's Will decided to assassinate Alexander II. A directive committee was formed consisting of Yakimova, Andrei Zhelyabov, Timofei Mikhailov, Lev Tikhomirov, Mikhail Frolenko, Vera Figner and Sophia Perovskaya. The following month 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.
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. 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.
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 Yakimova, Sophia Perovskaya, Andrei Zhelyabov, Vera Figner, Grigory Isaev, Gesia Gelfman, Nikolai Sablin, Ignatei Grinevitski, Nikolai Kibalchich, Nikolai Rysakov, Mikhail Frolenko, Timofei Mikhailov, Tatiana Lebedeva and Alexander Kviatkovsky.
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, Yakimova and Sophia Perovskaya 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 was 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.
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 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 Yakimova and Vera Figner, 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.
The trial of Zhelyabov, Perovskaya, Kibalchich, Rysakov, Helfman 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."
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.
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.
Anna Yakimova remained in prison until the 1905 Russian Revolution. After the failure of the revolution she was rearrested and sent to Siberia. She was released finally after the Russian Revolution in 1917. It is believed she died during the Second World War.
Those sentenced in the Trial of the 20 were sent to the Trubetskoy 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. It was here that Anna Yakimova had her baby, watching over him night and day to protect him from rats, trying to warm him with her breath and watching him slowly die as she ran out of milk. After a year in Trubetskoy, during which most of the prisoners had died or committed suicide, she and Tatiana Lebedeva were transferred to the Kara prison mines. The journey north, which lasted two years, was scarcely more endurable than life in the dungeons. Anna Yakimova abandoned all hope for her baby, and under such conditions it was hardly surprising that she eventually gave him over to some well-wishers who had come out to greet the prisoners with messages of support and tears of sympathy.