Praskovia Ivanovskaia, the daughter of a priest, was born in Tula, Russia, in 1853. After the death of her mother she was educated at the local boarding school
Praskovia's older brother, Vasilii Ivanovskaia, was a medical student who became a follower of Sergi Nechayev. He provided Praskovia with radical literature and she distributed at school. This resulted in her being arrested but she was released without charge.
After leaving school Ivanovskia moved to Odessa where she immediately made contact with other radicals living in the city. She distributed socialist propaganda to factory workers during the day and provided literacy lessons in the evenings. She later explained: "All the women workers were illiterate. They would have been eager to learn, but when was there time to teach them? After a brief dinner, they caught up on the hours of sleep they'd missed in the morning by curling up on the filthy ropes. By the time we went home, the sun was the thinnest of crescents, sinking into the sea. On holidays, the women couldn't study in their quarters even if they wanted to. How, then, could I conduct propaganda among these women, who were so cut off from everyone and everything? Perhaps if I'd remained at the factory longer than two or three months, I might have been able to get something going: a few girls were becoming interested in reading and had begun to drop in at my apartment, and in time I might have been able to propagandize and organize them. But I found conditions at the factory too difficult and depressing to continue working there."
In the summer of 1876 Ivanovskaia found work as a farm labourer in the Ukraine. The main objective was to spread information about the Land and Liberty movement. However, she was so exhausted at the end of the day's work that she had little energy for propaganda work.
In October, 1879, the Land and Liberty group split into two. One faction, Black Repartition, rejected terrorism and supported a socialist propaganda campaign among workers and peasants. However, Ivanovskia became a member of People's Will, the faction who favoured a policy of terrorism. Sophia Perovskaya became an important influence: "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."
Ivanovskaia was briefly imprisoned by the authorities and after her release she lived in an émigré colony of Russian radicals in Rumania. In 1880 Ivanovskaia returned to Russia where she worked in an underground printing plant producing propaganda material for People's Will. One of her jobs was the printing of the leaflet that explained why the group had assassinated Alexander II.
Following the death of the Tsar several members of the People's Will were arrested. On 3rd April, 1881, Sophia Perovskaya, Andrei Zhelyabov, Nikolai Kibalchich, Nikolai Rysakov and Timofei Mikhailov were hanged for the crime.
Ivanovskaia and sixteen other members of People's Will were also arrested and charged with being involved in the assassination of Alexander II. Ivanovskaia was sentenced to death but this was later commuted to hard labour for life.
After serving fifteen years in prison Ivanovskaia was released and sent to Siberia. In 1903 Ivanovskaia escaped and went into hiding. She joined the Socialist Revolutionary Party and became involved in the activities of the SR Combat Organization. In 1904 she took part in the assassination of the Minister of the Interior, Vyacheslav Plehve.
Betrayed by Evno Azef, Ivanovskaia was arrested and imprisoned. However, as a result of the 1905 Revolution, Nicholas II granted an amnesty to a large number of political prisoners and Ivanovskaia was released.
Praskovia Ivanovskaia published her autobiography in 1925.
All the women workers were illiterate. They would have been eager to learn, but when was there time to teach them? After a brief dinner, they caught up on the hours of sleep they'd missed in the morning by curling up on the filthy ropes. By the time we went home, the sun was the thinnest of crescents, sinking into the sea. On holidays, the women couldn't study in their quarters even if they wanted to. How, then, could I conduct propaganda among these women, who were so cut off from everyone and everything? Perhaps if I'd remained at the factory longer than two or three months, I might have been able to get something going: a few girls were becoming interested in reading and had begun to drop in at my apartment, and in time I might have been able to propagandize and organize them. But I found conditions at the factory too difficult and depressing to continue working there.
On our first day, we joined the other women workers in some pretty filthy work: shearing sheep. We performed this monotonous task in a large covered shed, saturated with the smell of sheep. Some of us sheared, while others picked burrs and all sorts of trash that had gotten caught in the wool.
We were soon transferred from the foul shed to a distant work site in the broad steppe, the realm of green fields. We were assigned to hay mowing.
At four in the morning, as the sun's rays were just beginning to spill over the steppe, the overseer would wake us, kicking the legs of those who wouldn't get up immediately. At the camp, the steward assigned us to the various sectors. In the morning, we froze from the bitterly cold dew, which drenched our clothing up to the waist. Staggering along, still half asleep, we worked as automatically as robots, gradually warming up a bit.
At ten, we returned to camp for breakfast, which lasted around half an hour. Despite the camp hubbub, some people preferred to nap instead of eating. Our food was of rather poor quality - very plain and unappetizing. In the morning, they cooked us a watery gruel made from wheat and water with a dose of salt, or buckwheat dumplings as big as cobblestones - one or two of these would satisfy the hunger of even the greatest glutton. The meal was poured into a wooden trough, from which you'd pull the dumplings with long, pointed splinters. We got the same modest fare for lunch and dinner.
After our brief breakfast, we returned to work. As the day wore on, the heat became so intense that you wanted to take shelter in any available patch of shade. The sun was so strong that the backs of most of the newly arrived vagabonds were practically covered with swollen blisters; later, as their skin toughened up, the burns went away. We women were often so exhausted from the heat that we lost much of our modesty: when we reaped and bound the hay, we wore only our shirts, since that made it a lot easier to work.
During the busy season, there were no set limits to the work day: if the steward wished, it could last for sixteen hours or more, with only an hour off for lunch. Actually, the work itself was lively and gay, although Galina and I found it difficult and alien.
In the evening, after the sun had set, we returned to camp. The fire would be going and dinner waiting. Some people filled their stomachs with the plain, unsatisfying food and fell asleep on the spot, scattered around camp. Everyone slept under the open sky, harassed by mosquitoes and subject to the bites of other enemies as well: the black spiders, whose venom could make your whole body swell up.
At first, people found it rather strange to hear ordinary girls - manual labourers like themselves - speak of many things they'd never heard or even thought about. They became most interested when the conversation touched upon the land: this immensely important topic was dear to every heart. Everyone was united on this issue; they all felt the need for land most acutely, and this provided us a way to reach even the simplest peasant.
However, we didn't actually conduct socialist propaganda; it was clear that we were still an alien, incomprehensible element in a world we scarcely knew.
Of course, our difficulties were compounded by the repressive political system of Russia and the peasants' own fear. They reacted to all radical talk with caution, distrust, and sometimes the most natural incomprehension. Frequently our evening talks ended with the peasants saying: "That's our fate - so it's been written", or, "We're born - we'll die."
In fact, we were rarely able to talk at all: after the day's work, our limbs shrieked with weariness, our exhausted bodies demanded rest and peace.
In the intervals between printing jobs, we visited Sofhia 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.
The Kara prison most resembles a tumbledown stable. The dampness and cold are ferocious; there's no heat at all in the cells, on;y two stoves in the corridor. The cell doors are kept open day and night - otherwise we would freeze to death. In winter, a thick layer of ice forms on the walls of the corner cells and at night, the undersides of the straw mattresses get covered with hoarfrost.
Everyone congregates in the corridor in winter, because it's closer to the stoves and you get a warm draft. Since the cells farthest from the stove are completely uninhabitable, the people who live in them carry their beds into the corridor.
I've been one of the temporary residents of the corridor, and I can say that the accommodations weren't particularly comfortable or quiet. Cooking, bread baking, and all sorts of washing were done there: at the table, someone would be reading periodicals, while right next to her, there would be someone making chopped meat for the sick people or sloshing underwear around in a trough.
Last winter, however, we drew up a constitution for ourselves. Since the cold made it impossible to do any studying in the cells, and since the bustle in the corridor would be used exclusively for reading. Anyone who wanted to strike up a conversation had to move off into one of the distant cells and speak softly, since the partitions were thin and loud talk could be heard everywhere.
The conclusion of this affair gave me some satisfaction - finally the man who had taken so many victims had been brought to his inevitable end, so universally desired.