1865: Not George S.E. Vaughn 1178 B.C.E.: Penelope’s suitors, by Odysseus

1881: The assassins of Tsar Alexander II

April 15th, 2009 Headsman

On this date* in 1881, five members of the Russian terrorist organization Narodnaya Volya were publicly hanged in St. Petersburg, where they had slain the tsar Alexander II a few weeks before.

“The People’s Will” etched in blood its place in the dangerous late 19th century ferment of Russian revolutionaries. In time they would read as the politically immature forerunners of the Bolsheviks, whose turn into terrorism was a political dead end.

But as of this date, they were at the top of their arc.

Every St. Petersburg tourist sees the place Alexander II died: the spot received a picturesque church that is now one of the city’s principal attractions.

On March 13, 1881, Narodnaya Volya assassinated the former tsar with a suicide bombing on the streets of St. Petersburg. With the death of the monarch who had emancipated the serfs, and was on the very day of his murder tinkering with plans to introduce an Assembly, liberalism arguably lost its weak purchase on Russia’s future.

The Nihilists** — who immediately sent an open letter to the new tsar demanding amnesty and a representative political body† — did not prevail in any direct sense.

Their dramatic gesture failed to ignite a social revolution or topple the autocracy, and they would find in Alexander III an implacable foe.

But while this spelled the end for the old man’s five assassins,‡ and even the end of Narodnaya Volya as an effective organization as the 1880’s unfolded, Alexander III’s efficacious repression was a Pyrrhic victory for the Romanov dynasty.

By depending on police operations rather than political reforms, Alexander III bequeathed his doomed successor a hopelessly backward political structure … and a considerably more dangerous revolutionary foe.


Refusal of Confession (Before Execution), by Ilya Repin, 1879-1885. (Via)

Alexander II’s death in the context of the times and its effect for Russia’s fate receive diverting treatment in a BBC In Our Times broadcast

* April 15 was the date on the Gregorian calendar; per the Julian calendar still in use in Russia at the time, the date was April 3.

** A quick summary of the strains of Russian revolutionary thought of the time here.

† Despite their dramatic tyrannicide, the Nihilists’ letter was angled for the consumption of mainstream post-Enlightenment Europeans. Karl Marx noted its “cunning moderation,” and its call for freedom and civil rights commonplace in more developed countries drew considerable support in the west. The Nihilists even took care to underscore their reasonableness a couple months later by condemning the senseless assassination of American President James Garfield. (See Inside Terrorist Organizations.)

Andrei Zhelyabov, Sophia Perovskaya, Nikolai Kibalchich, Nikolai Rysakov and — though he had backed out of the plot — Timofei Mikhailov, whose noose broke twice in the attempt to hang him. A sixth condemned assassin, Gesya Gelfman, escaped hanging due to pregnancy … but she and her child both died shortly after the birth.

Perovskaya gets adulatory treatment in this 1910 New York Times retrospective (pdf) on Russian political violence and repression.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Assassins,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Russia,Terrorists,Treason,Women

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