1880: Alexander Kvyatkovsky and Andrei Presnyakov, Narodnaya Volya terrorists

Add comment November 16th, 2017 Headsman

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”.

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1864: Nikolay Chernyshevsky’s “civil execution”

Add comment May 19th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1864, the Russian writer Nikolay Chernyshevsky was publicly executed in St. Petersburg.

Then he was shipped to Siberia.

Chernyshevsky’s punishment was only a pantomime “civil execution,” somewhat akin to the symbolic executions by effigy elsewhere in Europe. In this case, the faux death penalty was imposed not upon a peeling portrait but on Chernyshevsky’s actual person: “The hangmen led Chernyshevsky to the scaffold on Mytninskaya Square in St. Petersburg, made him kneel down, broke a sword over his head and then chained him to the pillory. Chernyshevsky stood calmly under the rain waiting for this mockery to come to an end.” (Source)

The pillory, exposed to the hoots and brickbats of an offended populace, was supposed to be a humiliation to its sufferer; occasionally, it even proved lethal. Not so for Chernyshevsky: the crowd stood silently. Someone threw a bouquet of flowers.

This ludicrous theater was enacted to punish Chernyshevsky for his leadership of the St. Petersburg intellectual circle that gave birth to the Narodnik movement. Literally “going to the people,” this was a peasant-focused populist-democratic-socialist philosophy paradoxically germinated among Russia’s small coterie of intellectual elites.

Think Marxism for a feudal society here: the Narodnik adaptation was the hope that Russia’s vast peasantry could be roused to serve the part of a revolutionary working class, and skip Russia directly to a socialism still preserving communal traditions unsullied by that interim period wherein (per Marx in the Communist Manifesto) capitalism had “pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties … [and] left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest.”

This is why Chernyshevsky and the Narodniks viewed the “emancipation” of serfs of 1861 with a gimlet eye: it was a shift towards capitalist property relations, in which the feudal shackles were merely replaced with new, and heavier irons. Chernyshevsky subversively urged his “emancipated” countrymen to view the move as a heist.

It is of course unlikely that many of the actual peasant malcontents stirred up in the wake of the emancipation perused Chernyshevsky’s “To the Manorial Peasants from Their Well-Wishers, Greetings”. But other bourgeois radicals who did read that sort of thing would in due time — after the suppression of the Narodniki in the 1860s and 1870s drove its underground remnants to terrorism — spawn the revolutionary network Narodnaya Volya, and assassinate the tsar who enacted that emancipation, Alexander II.

Chernyshevsky was more a writer than a fighter. He spent his pre-“execution” imprisonment in Peter and Paul Fortress forging his definitive contribution to the movement — the novel What Is To Be Done?.*

(Our own Sonechka regards What Is To Be Done? as quite possibly Russia’s single worst literary product, but the didactic novel imagined (in the dreams of its principal character, Vera Pavlovna) an egalitarian future, including for women. Chernyshevsky himself wrote that he “possess[ed] not one bit of artistic talent … any merit to be found in my tale is due entirely to its truthfulness.”)

Whatever its artistic shortcomings, What Is To Be Done? entered the revolutionary literary canon. Vladmir Ilyich Ulyanov — better known as Lenin — wasn’t even born until 1870 but as a young man he admired What Is To Be Done? In 1902 Lenin himself published a political pamphlet under that same title.

Far less impressed were the likes of Dostoyevsky, himself a former radical who also underwent mock execution in his time. Unlike Chernyshevsky, Dostoyevsky apostasized from his revolutionary credo; Dostoyevsky’s 1864 Notes from the Underground is “a bitter artistic answer” to (and in several spots a direct parody of) Chernyshevsky’s magnum opus.

* What Is To Be Done? responds to Turgenev‘s Fathers And Sons. A previous Narodnik classic by Alexander Herzen asked the parallel question Who Is To Blame?.

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1882: Stepan Khalturin, Winter Palace bomber

Add comment April 3rd, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1882* Stepan Khalturin** was hanged in Odessa, Ukraine … but not for his most (in)famous crime.

Khalturin (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) came from a well-off peasant family near the city of Vyatka (today, Kirov; it was renamed for an assassinated Bolshevik). As a young carpenter in 1870s St. Petersburg, he fell in with revolutionary circles and became a distinguished propagandist and organizer. Khalturin helped found the first political labor labor organization in Russia, the “Northern Russian Workers’ Union”.

He’s said by other leftist agitators who knew him to have “persuaded his student workers with tears in his eyes to continue propagandizing, but in no event go down the path of terror. From this, there is no return.”

If that used to be his sentiment, Khalturin’s thinking … evolved.

By February 1880, Khalturin was for all intents and purposes in on the terrorism strategy. He took advantage of a workman’s gig at the Winter Palace to pack the cellar full of dynamite,† two floors below the imperial dining room.

But Tsar Alexander II and party had not yet returned when it blew. Eleven people, mostly guardsmen in the intervening room below the dining hall, died in the blast; dozens of others were injured.

Khalturin watched in frustration from the iron gates of the Winter Palace, and slipped away — never detected. His co-conspirator Zhelyabov consoled him with the prospects of mass recruitment sure to be unleashed by this spectacular propaganda of the deed. “An explosion in the king’s lair — the first attack on the autocracy! Your deed will live forever.” (Russian source)

The tsar, at any rate, was running out of luck.

A year later, Narodnaya Volya finally succeeded in assassinating Alexander II in St. Petersburg. Zhelyabov and five others hanged for that.

Khalturin wasn’t involved in that plot: he had escaped to Odessa.

There, he shot a police officer named Strelnikov. He was captured and hanged under a bogus alias, nobody realizing that they were also executing the mysterious Winter Palace bomber.

Unusually considering Lenin’s distaste for terrorism and Narodnaya Volya, Khalturin was elevated in post-Soviet times into an officially-approved revolutionary exemplar. The street Millionnaya running to the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg was cheekily renamed for him (it’s subsequently been changed back). Public monuments went up for the bomber, especially in the environs of his native soil around Kirov.


(cc) image from Zeder.

* April 3 by the Gregorian calendar; March 22 by the Julian calendar still in use in 19th century Russia.

** Appropriately given Khalturin’s Winter Palace work, khaltura is Russian for an item of shoddy construction. The word has no etymological connection to our man, however. (Linguistic tip courtesy of Sonechka.)

† He was able to manage the feat by bringing in explosives little by little and secreting them in the room where he bunked on-site.

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1880: Ippolit Mlodetsky, Loris-Melikov’s would-be assassin

Add comment February 22nd, 2010 Headsman

If you were a person of any privilege or official authority in late 19th century Russia, chances are that Narodnaya Volya was planning to take a shot at you.

If you were General Loris-Melikov, a Ukrainian Jew did that to you two days before this date in 1880.*

And if you were that errant assassin, Ippolit Mlodetsky, this was your execution date.

Even though Melikov rated as something of a liberal on the Russian autocracy spectrum, he had no qualms about ordering legal proceedings barely this side of summary.

Gen. Melikoff, on Wednesday evening, ordered a court-martial to assemble on Thursday morning. The trial of the prisoner was opened at 11 o’clock in the morning. The prisoner was insolent in his language and demeanor, and refused to stand up or take any part in the proceedings. He said he had nothing to add … that he did not want to be troubled any more, and wanted the matter finished. … at 1 o’clock … judgment was pronounced against him. The judgment on the prisoner sentenced him to be hanged, and his execution was appointed for 10 o’clock this (Friday) morning on the Simeonofsky Plain, near the Tsarskoe-selo Railway terminus.

And so he was.

Mlodetsky’s public hanging was witnessed by novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky in the very square where Dostoyevsky himself had faced mock-execution for revolutionary activity 30 years before.

Dostoyevsky was, even then, pulling together his magnum opus, The Brothers Karamazov.

The very day Mlodetsky tried to kill Melikov found Fyodor Mikhailovich chatting with fellow reactionary journalist Aleksey Suvorin about the plague of terrorism and its accompanying social malaise.

On the day of the attempt by Mlodetsky on Loris Melikov I was with F. M. Dostoyevsky.

… Neither he nor I knew anything about the assassination. But our conversation presently turned to political crimes in general, and a [recent] explosion in the Winter Palace in particular. In the course of talking about this, Dostoyevsky commented on the odd attitude of the public to these crimes. Society seemed to sympathize with them, or, it might be truer to say, was not too clear about how to look upon them … (Quoted here.)

Dostoyevsky in this conversation revealed that for the planned sequel to The Brothers Karamazov — never to be realized in the event —

he was going to write a novel with Alyosha Karamazov as the hero. He planned to bring him out of the monastery and make a revolutionary of him. He would commit a political crime. He would be executed.

(Much more about this sequel in this paper.)

Melikov’s brush with death did not dissuade him from continuing to push for constitutional reforms as the antidote to terrorism, including introduction of a parliament. Tsar Alexander II was on the point of implementing that proposal … when he himself was assassinated by Narodnaya Volya, precipitating a political backlash.

That murder of Alexander II helped put the kibosh on the Karamazov sequel, which would thereafter have become politically problematic.

Nor was that the only artistic casualty of the Russian terrorists.

A discomfiting thematic similarity in Mlodetsky’s execution with that of the protagonist resulted in the cancellation of a just-opened opera: The Merchant Kalashnikov. (It would be a few more decades before that connection could appear ironic.)

* The assassination attempt occurred on February 20, with the execution on February 22, according to the Julian calendar still in use in Russia at that time. By the then-12-days-later Gregorian calendar, the dates were March 3 and March 5, respectively.

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1881: The assassins of Tsar Alexander II

8 comments 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.

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1887: Alexander Ilyich Ulyanov, Lenin’s brother

10 comments May 8th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1887, a young revolutionary went to the gallows with four other comrades for an attempt on the life of Tsar Alexander III.

Alexander (or Aleksandr) Ilyich Ulyanov was among 15 members of Narodnaya Volya, the terroristic revolutionary organization, nabbed (in an “amateurish” scheme) trying to blow up the monarch on the anniversary of his father’s assassination. The five of these who refused to plead for mercy paid for their principles with their necks.

The young man had kept his political affiliations rigorously secret from his close-knit bourgeois family. Little could he have suspected that the boy he shared a room with —

— would render his own passion a footnote in perhaps the 20th century’s epochal event.

Seventeen-year-old Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, years yet from the moniker “Lenin” by which history knows him, was supposedly fired by this event with a vow for vengeance and the politically mature resolve that “we will go another way!” — that is, another way than terrorism. Here’s the manful young Bolshevik* consoling his grief-stricken mother with revolutionary ardor:

But Lenin’s radicalization seems in fact to have not even begun as of this date, when he was consumed with studying for his exams (in a month’s time, he would graduate with a gold medal from a school headed by the father of Lenin’s future opponent during the Russian Revolution).

Though Lenin’s eventual political persona would comprehensively reject his brother’s tactics, the impression Alexander left upon him must have been profound. According to Tony Cliff in Building the Party: Lenin, 1893-1914, Vladimir Ilyich grappled with Narodism, Marxism and their proper relationship throughout his political development during his university years, and at least at certain moments Narodism appeared compelling to him.

According to Cliff, Lenin’s wife considered this passage from his What Is To Be Done? somewhat autobiographical:

Many of them [Russian Social Democrats] had begun their revolutionary thinking as adherents of Narodnaya Volya. Nearly all had in their early youth enthusiastically worshipped the terrorist heroes. It required a struggle to abandon the captivating impressions of those heroic traditions, and the struggle was accompanied by the breaking off of personal relations with people who were determined to remain loyal to the Narodnay Volya and for whom the young Social Democrats had profound respect.

Lenin mastered that struggle. In the end, he indeed went another way.

* Except there was no such thing yet, but never mind.

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