On this date* in 1906, Ivan Kalyayev (also transliterated Kaliayev, or Kaliaev) was hanged by his own assent for assassinating Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich in Moscow.
The Warsaw-born Kalyayev tread the usual path of student radicals — expulsion, arrest, internal exile — into the camp of the Socialist-Revolutionary Party and the trendy propaganda-of-the-deed philosophy.
He was the very epitome there of what Chaliand and Blin call “the moralistic approach to terrorism”; he would slay, of course, from a profound sense of moral outrage, but contextualized that terrible act with a no less dramatic sense of personal moral responsibility.
Revolutionary fellow-traveler Boris Savinkov remembered** of our day’s principal that he
loved the revolution with the tender, profound love felt for it only by those who have made it an offering of the whole of their lives.
Kalyayev voluntarily aborted his first attempt to murder the Grand Duke when he beheld his target’s wife and child riding along in the carriage where he meant to toss his bomb. Upon successfully carrying out the hit two days later, he made no attempt to flee, and at trial requested the death sentence for himself.†
In this behavior, Kalyayev presents the fascinating specter of a terrorist whose certainty of the justice of his crime does not excuse himself from moral responsibility for the crime.
For Kalyayev, the murder itself and its mortal expiation completed its own redemptive cycle. As the murderer wrote to his mother,
I am happy to know I acted in obedience to the call of my duty … It would be ridiculous to think of saving my life now, when my end makes me so happy. I refused to sign the petition for pardon, and you know why. It was not because I have spent all my physical and mental powers; on the contrary, I have preserved all that life gave me for my last triumph in death … I could not accept pardon because it is against my convictions.
The second act of the play features Kalyayev’s revolutionary cell disputing his decision not to follow through on his first opportunity to kill the Grand Duke. Ignacio Gotz describes our killer’s posture as, “kill only when absolutely necessary and then accept your own death as proof that murder is not permitted.”
That’s what love is — giving everything, sacrificing everything, without any hope of it being returned.
-The character Ivan Kalyayev, in Les Justes
This was not the only ethos competing for purchase on the story and the soul of Ivan Kalyayev.
The widowed Grand Duchess Elizabeth Fyodorovna visited her husband’s assassin in prison and unavailingly attempted to convert him to Orthodox Christianity. (The Grand Duchess would take her own solace in a religious life, ultimately being martyred by the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War; she has since been canonized.)
The Russian paper Novaya Gazeta published a fairly lengthy Russian-language biography of Kalyayev on the centennial of his entry into the executioner’s annals.
* May 23 was the Gregorian date of the execution; it was May 10 by the Julian calendar still in use in Russia at the time.
** Cited in The History of Terrorism: From Antiquity to Al Qaeda.
† With the requisite grandstanding, of course — a moral indictment given added depth by Kalyayev’s personal conduct.
We are separated by mountains of corpses, by hundreds of thousands of broken lives, by an ocean of tears and blood that is flooding the entire country in a torrent of outrage and horror. You have declared war on the people. We have taken up the challenge … You are prepared to say that there are two moralities, one for mere mortals, stating, “Thou shalt not kill; thou shalt not steal,” and another, political, morality for the rulers, for whom it permits everything.