On this date in 1866 (September 3 O.S.; September 15 N.S.), Russian revolutionary Dmitry Karakozov was hanged in Peter and Paul Fortress for attempting to assassinate Tsar Alexander II.
Karakozov was a son of noble stock — the self-hating variety, obviously, and suicidally disturbed into the bargain. He supposedly hailed from a terrorism cell branding itself “Hell”, although this was bandied about by the police afterwards and conveniently supported a hunt for radicals.
Karakozov, at least, considered the state of tsarist Russia positively infernal, and on April 4, 1866, he went to scourge it — firing a shot at the monarch at St. Petersburg’s Summer Garden. He missed.
The tsar’s guards tackled him as he fled, and the unharmed Alexander walked up to the gunman and asked him, “What do you want?” He may have been genuinely bewildered: Alexander was the guy trying to liberalize Russia. Just a few years before, he had freed the serfs.
“Nothing,” Karakazov replied. “Nothing.”
A statement of implacability: no progress would be bargained with even the most progressive despot. The despotism itself must go. A manifesto addressed to “Friends-Workers” was found in his pocket underscoring the point; it read in part (translated from p. 21 of this Russian pdf):
I have decided to destroy the wicked Tsar, and to die for my beloved people…
If I accomplish this deed, I will die with the thought that in death I did something good for my dear friend, the Russian peasant.
If I do not accomplish it, then others will follow my path. Where I fail, they will succeed, and my death will be their example and inspiration.
Karakozov himself, the first Russian revolutionary to attempt regicide, didn’t seem to have revolutionary satisfaction on his mind at the end. He converted to Orthodox Christianity in prison, sought “as a Christian, of a Christian” his prospective victim’s clemency … and multiple newspaper accounts report him kneeling to kiss a cross presented to him on the scaffold by the priest. (All via Odd Man Karakozov, which argues that all this need not imply such a reversal of conscience as it might appear.)
What certainly did happen — more immediately than those copycat assassinations — was a reactionary wave of national chauvinism, whose more wretched manifestations will not be unfamiliar to the present day. The patriotic Glinka opera Ivan Susanin was staged a few days later at the Bolshoi in Moscow. According to an eyewitness account of Tchaikovsky quoted in Romanov Riches: Russian Writers and Artists Under the Tsars, this salute to a Russian peasant’s sacrifice for the Romanov dynasty went a little bit off-script.
I think the Moscow audience went beyond the bounds of sense in their outburst of enthusiasm. The opera was not really performed, for as soon as the Poles appeared onstage, the whole theater shouted, “Down with the Poles!” and so on. In the last scene of Act 4, when the Poles are supposed to kill Susanin …
… the actor playing him started fighting the chorus members who played Poles, and being very strong, knocked down several of them, while the rest of the extras, seeing that the audience approved this mockery of art, truth, and decency, fell down, and the triumphant Susanin left unharmed, brandishing his arms, to the deafening applause of the Muscovites.
If true, that is little short of fantastic.
The apparatus of state went so far as to build up a new Susanin for the occasion at hand, hyping a questionable story that a young peasant named Osip Komissarov — who was from Susanin’s own province of Kostroma — had jostled Karakozov just as he took the shot, causing it to go awry. The good-natured bumpkin was rewarded with summary ennoblement as “Komissarov-Kostromskoy” and eye-rollingly terrible poetic tributes from the likes of Vyazemsky and Nekrasov. However, Komissarov’s embarrassing stupidity and want of manners would eventually necessitate Komissarov-Kostromskoy’s being packed out of polite society to country estates on a generous pension to bankroll his ample appetite for liquor.
So Dmitry Karakozov did do something for the Russian peasant after all.