Nikolai Kibalchich

Timofei Mikhailov

Nikolai Kibalchich, the son of a parish priest, was born in Kroop, Chernigov, in 1850. He studied at the Petersburg Engineering College and began experiments into jet propulsion. In 1871 he wrote to Catherine Breshkovskaya while she was in St Petersburg Prison: "I give you my word that I shall devote all my time and powers to helping on the revolution by terrorist means. I possess a certain amount vof knowledge which will enable me and my comrades to exploit my capabilities in the cause of the revolution. Very possibility it will require years of study before my knowledge is sufficiently complete to be of real help." Kilbalchich was carrying out research into explosives that could be used by terrorists.

In 1875 Kibalchich was arrested for lending a prohibited book to a peasant. He spent three years in prison before being tried and sentenced to two months' imprisonment. On his release he joined the Land and Liberty organisation. Most of the group shared the anarchist views of Mikhail Bakunin and Sergi Nechayev 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."

Nikolai Kibalchich, Vera Figner, Anna Korba, Andrei Zhelyabov, Timofei Mikhailov, Lev Tikhomirov, Mikhail Frolenko, Grigory Isaev, Sophia Perovskaya, Nikolai Sablin, Ignatei Grinevitski, Nikolai Rysakov, Gesia Gelfman, Anna Yakimova, 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. 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.

As Cathy Porter, the author of Fathers and Daughters: Russian Women in Revolution (1976), has claimed that Kibalchich was the group's exlosives expert: "By 1879 he was a brilliant technician and the Party's undisputed explosives expert. People said that it was he who provided the Russian Revolution with dynamite... Kibalchich, despite his shambling, shifty ways, his ludicrous top hat and his infuriating habit of spending the housekeeping money on technical books, was an invaluable teacher."

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 Kibalchich and Anna Yakimova, into his room and concealed it in his bedding. Cathy Porter 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 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 Nikolai Kibalchich, Sophia Perovskaya, Andrei Zhelyabov, Vera Figner, Anna Yakimova, Grigory Isaev, Gesia Gelfman, Nikolai Sablin, Ignatei Grinevitski, 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 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.

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.

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 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, 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."

Nikolai Kibalchich, Sophia Perovskaya, Andrei Zhelyabov, 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 new 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.

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) 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.