On this date in 1880,* Russian revolutionaries Alexander Kvyatkovsky and Andrei Presnyakov were hanged at St. Petersburg’s Peter and Paul Fortress.
Kvyatkovsky (left) and Presnyakov.
Kvyatkovsky, 28, and Presnyakov, 24, had each spent the whole of their brief adulthoods agitating, police ever at their heels. As Russia’s “season of terror” opened in the late 1870s, both immediately cast their lot with the violent Narodnaya Volya movement. They were found by police at their respective arrests to have each had more than a passing interest in Narodnaya Volya’s ongoing project to assassinate Tsar Alexander II — an objective that it would indeed achieve a few months later.
Their fellow-traveler Mikhail Frolenko would remember the mass trial they featured at not for any glorious martyr-making but as a propaganda debacle for his movement.
The Trial of the Sixteen** in October 1880 was a model of judicial procedure — the government had learned, planned carefully and conducted the trial with absolute decorum. The sixteen accused included three of the most important figures in the Movement: Shiraev, who had been arrested in Moscow a year before with two suitcases of dynamite, Presnyakov and Kvyatkovsky. The last two were old friends of Andrei Zhelyabov. The evidence against the accused was provided by Grigory Goldenberg; the prosecution’s case was unanswerable. The sixteen were allowed to address the court and their speeches were reported. The prosecutors questioned them with a mix of deliberate courtesy and provocation: the sixteen were given enough rope to hang themselves. They followed no clear line and contradicted each other on endless details. They improvised counter-accusations, became mired in irrelevancies, and exploded in fits of petulance. They made a miserable impression, highlighted at every stage by the correctness of the proceedings. In its sentence the court was lenient, another propaganda victory: fourteen were sentenced to hard labor; two, Presnyakov and Kvyatkovsky, were sentenced to be hanged. We lost sixteen good people, which was bad enough. But worse was our irreparable loss of public esteem. One small sign of this was the fate of the word terror. Hitherto we had freely called ourselves terrorists; it had much the same ring as revolutionary. Terror was simply the first phase of the revolution. Overnight the word became a term of abuse and the exclusive property of the government. That alone might have told us we were following the wrong path. (Excerpted from Saturn’s Daughters: The Birth of Terrorism
Kvyatkovsky’s son, also named Alexander, was a Bolshevik close to Lenin in the early Soviet years.
* November 16 by the Gregorian calendar; it was still November 4 by the archaic Julian calendar still then in use in the Russian Empire.
** Not to be confused with at least two distinct Soviet-era mass trials also respectively designated the “Trial of the Sixteen”.