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Tsar killers

The 13,000 miles of railway track that had been laid in the preceding decade, financed for the tsar by loans from Western capitalists, must have appeared a terrible affront to the left-wing terrorist organisation People’s Will, whose members prided themselves on standing in the vanguard of science and enlightenment. A piece of autocratic sleight of hand, it stole their progressive thunder, dressing cold-hearted reaction in the stuff of forward-looking optimism. For despite representing a practical statement of control and confidence, the expanding railway network was experienced by the tsar’s subjects as a monumental act of generosity that embraced them all. By striking the tyrant down as he raced along these sleek new tracks, using state-of-the art explosives, the People’s Will could symbolically reclaim their rightful place as heirs to the future, while laying bare the tsar’s hubris
and vulnerability.

In expectation of the tsar’s return from the imperial family’s winter vacation at the Black Sea resort of Yalta, the decision was taken to mine the railway network simultaneously at three points, hundreds of miles apart, covering the most likely permutations in the tsar’s itinerary.

Targeting the first possible route, Vera Figner was dispatched to employ her female wiles to assist one of the radicals in securing a job with the railway company near Odessa. The sob story she told concerned a manservant in St Petersburg who was being sent south in search of fresh air for his consumptive wife. It was an approach fraught with risks, and Figner barely escaped an interview with her first mark, Baron Ungern-Sternberg, with her honour intact; as the governor of the region, the Baltic aristocrat had assumed that her approach implied recognition of his seigneurial rights. Dusting herself off, Pigner next aimed lower, enthralling the local railway master with the sleek velvet and swaying peacock plumes of her outfit. Frolenko, the movement’s master of disguise, fresh from springing three revolutionaries from prison by posing as their gaoler, was chosen to take the part of the railway guard and plant the bombs.

“While the men tunnelled, Perovskaya sat cradling a pistol, ready to fire at a bottle of nitroglycerine and blow them all up”

Leading the second team, Zhelyabov posed as an industrialist looking to set up a tannery in Alexandrovsk, near the railway boom town of Kharkov. His target was a section of track on the Simferopol-St Petersburg line, the tsar’s most direct route home, along which police patrols passed every three or four hours. Nerves of steel and a high level of concentration were required, and the mere presence of the zealous, charismatic Zhelyabov helped maintain the group’s morale: “He was a man who compelled attention at first glance,” wrote one of his colleagues. “He spoke quietly, in a low full bass, with determination and conviction, on the necessity of terror.” Women succumbed readily to his charms, but in the heroine of the third team, Sofia Perovskaya, he met his match: while she tamed his philandering ways, he won her over from a distrust of men, rooted in a hatred of her tyrannical father.

The third route seemed the least likely, as it would require the tsar to divert his journey to Moscow, but Perovskaya and her comrades were not deterred. From the small house they had purchased near the railway line, only a couple of miles out from the Moscow terminus, a 50-yard tunnel had to be dug before the middle of November. The men worked in shifts; arriving before daybreak and continuing until the early hours. For weeks on end they edged forward: the bookish Morozov, wilting under the physical effort; the conceited Grigori Goldenburg, at whose hand [Kharkov Governor-General] Dmitri Kropotkin had died, and who insisted on being at the forefront of any action; and Lev Hartmann, one of those freed from prison by Frolenko and since co-opted to the executive committee of the People’s Will. Four others helped too, taking their turn at digging. They advanced a scant four yards each day, inserting props that sagged under the weight of the earth overhead and continually bailing out the water that seeped in, threatening to flood the tunnel. The wet sandy soil they excavated while wedged into the tunnel on their hands and knees, with scarcely room to wield their tools, was scattered as discreetly as possible over the yard outside. Piles of it filled the rooms of the house and its outbuildings, which smelled like a grave. The possibility of collapse loomed large as the tunnel passed beneath a muddy track; even the reinforced props creaked and bowed whenever a laden water cart passed overhead, and the sappers carried poison to ensure a speedy death should they be entombed.

While the men tunnelled, Perovskaya sat cradling a pistol, ready to fire at a bottle of nitroglycerine and blow them all up should the alarm be rung on the upper floor to warn of approaching police. Incidental problems were resolved with a quick wit: clever procrastination when an old resident arrived to retrieve her possessions from the soil-filled shed; a superstitious rant to deter neighbours who came rushing to extinguish a fire; the invocation of a cat with an inexhaustible appetite to explain the quantities of provisions observed entering the house. When a gendarme and local surveyor arrived to assess a mortgage application made by the group to fund the purchase of a drill, Perovskaya’s sangfroid saw them through. And day by arduous day, the intermittent thunder and clack of train wheels sounded out the diggers’ growing proximity to the line, and the approaching moment when their work would be tested.

Then disaster struck. Dispatched to collect a case of dynamite and meet Kibalchich so that the scientist and bomb-making expert could advise him in its use, Goldenburg was arrested; after a mix-up over their rendezvous Kibalchich arrived just in time to see him dragged away. Fresh explosives were sourced, but then, at the last moment, the Moscow electricians who had promised to provide Hartmann with the battery needed to detonate the charge haggled over the price. Lacking access to ready cash, Hartmann handed over his engraved gold watch: lavish overpayment and an incriminating error that would nearly cost him dear.

At last, though, everything was set. The three groups waited in feverish anticipation to know which route the tsar would take. At the last minute news came through. Fearing seasickness in rough weather, the tsar had decided against the Odessa route. If Zhelyabov failed, it would be down to the Moscow unit.

It was the night of 19th November 1879. Reeling from lack of sleep, having for months been leading the double life of aspiring businessman and local personality by day and ruthless terrorist by night, Zhelyabov could do no more. Heavy rain had flooded the depression between the high railway embankment and the position from which he would stake out the passing train, leaving him and his collaborators drenched and shivering as they buried their bombs and laid the wires. But as he watched the first decoy train pass and awaited the arrival of the second, as advised by spies in Simferopol, he must have felt confident that his moment of glory was fast approaching. Calmly he counted: one, two, three carriages, then the fourth. Was that the tsar at the window? Timing it perfectly, he pressed the lever. Nothing, save the sound of the trainrolling on, uninterrupted. The bomb had failed to detonate.

On the outskirts of Moscow, Hartmann had dismissed the rest of the team: he and Sofia Perovskaya would stay on alone, two respectable citizens in their home, to all appearances: she with the honour of giving the signal, he to fire the charge that would kill the tsar. “Price of flour two rubles, our price four” read the coded telegram that had arrived earlier, locating their target. Deep into the evening they too waited, as Zhelyabov had done a few hours before, allowing the first train to pass. But this time, as the fourth carriage of the second train drew level, the detonator was triggered. A deafening explosion of earth and the wrenching of steel. Then sudden pandemonium. It was a ghastly scene. Amidst the wreckage of the fourth carriage, sticky red ooze covered everything; only after the initial shock subsided and the sweet smell of preserved fruit began to pervade the air did onlookers realise that it was merely a bloodbath of jam, being shipped from the Crimea to supply the pantries of the imperial palaces. The tsar had changed trains just before his departure and had already arrived safely in Moscow.

Sofia Perovskaya

Andrey Zhelyabov

Nikolai Kibalchich

The combat unit of the People’s Will had learned the lessons of its failed attacks on the tsar’s train, spread across locations several hundred miles apart, and now focused its attention on a shorter route: that of Alexander’s weekly Sunday excursion from the Winter Palace to his riding school at the Mikhaylovsky manege. A cheese shop was rented on the Malaya Sadovaya, and in the biting cold of early January 1881 a tight-knit team that included Zhelyabov, Vladimir Degaev and Alexander Barannikov set about digging a tunnel from its cellar in order to mine the road. A backup squad would wait by the roadside with hand-held grenades, and Zhelyabov would loiter alone with a concealed dagger, ready to deliver the coup de grace if all else failed.

The tunnelling tested their resources to the limit. The frozen ground made it hard and heavy work, and the old problem of how to dispose of the soil was solved by filling empty cheese barrels. With scant funds to provide stock that would allow the “shopkeeper” to play his role, the barrels at least filled out the storeroom; when a surprise police inspection noticed liquid from the melting earth seeping from between the staves, it was plausibly explained as spilled sour cream. But still they were edgy.When Barannikov was apprehended, the knowledge that they would all be exposed to immediate arrest if he broke under interrogation drove morale even lower.

Then, one day at the end of January 1881, a letter smuggled out of the Peter and Paul Fortress was delivered to Vera Figner: a voice from the past that carried an almost mythic force. In the eight years since Sergei Nechaev’s capture and incarceration in the Alexeyevsky Ravelin, shackled in solitary confinement on the tsar’s express instructions, little had been heard of him. Some assumed that he had been left to die, after striking a police general who had visited his cell to recruit him as a spy. Now it was clear that not only had he survived but had retained enough of his guile to capture the sympathy of all the prison guards, and establish communication through one of them with the outside world.

The first request Nechaev sent Figner to pass on to the executive committee of the People’s Will was that a team be assigned to break him out of prison. On learning that the resources committed to the assassination plot made this impossible, ‘The Eagle’, as he named himself, nimbly assumed a more selfless and flattering tone: though awed by their boldness, he would like to offer the benefit of his tactical expertise. Zhelyabov, he suggested, should assume the position of ‘Revolutionary Dictator’ once the established political order was overturned. But first, he said, they must “Kill the tsar!” .

When Nechaev’s orchestration of the murder of his rival Ivanov had come to light back in 1870, many young radicals had been willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and exonerate his crime as a fine example of ruthless necessity in a greater cause. For those populists who had themselves now abandoned the moral scruples that had guided their action during the intervening years, something like their original assessment of Nechaev again pertained. “There remained only an intelligence that had retained its lucidity in spite of years of imprisonment, and a will that punishment had failed to break,” Figner would later enthuse of her new correspondent. His smuggled approval was a decisive factor, perhaps, in light of the new shocks that the terrorists would face as the moment for action approached. For on Friday 27th February, only two days before the date scheduled for the attack, Zhelyabov was arrested, betrayed by a colleague who had turned informant to save his own life when awaiting trial the previous autumn.

‘The assassination of Tsar Alexander II in St. Petersburg on 13 March 1881’, unknown artist

With the entire project thrown into jeopardy, an emergency meeting of the core conspirators was called for three o’clock on the Saturday afternoon. As Sofia Perovskaya minuted the meeting’s urgent resolutions, starting with the recovery of the bomb-making material from her lover Zhelyabov’s apartment, she must have known that success in their enterprise would surely now mean execution for him. The self-control she showed inspired the others to hold their nerve. In Vera Figner’s apartment, hours later, she and Kibalchich settled down to a long, tense night of bomb-making, while Perovskaya slept, emotionally exhausted.

It was hazardous work for tired eyes and shaky hands: cutting to size empty kerosene canisters, before filling them with nitroglycerine to create the impact grenades which Kibalchich had devoted his recent energies to perfecting. One slip and the entire building would have been rubble; wisely, Kibalchich set aside his trademark top hat, lest it fall disastrously from his head. By daybreak, four neat canisters sat on the table, ready for delivery to the home of Gesia Gelfman, where the designated bomb-throwers had convened. When Figner got there, she was unimpressed to find Frolenko – who was to light the mine’s fuse – shovelling into his mouth a breakfast of bread and salami, washed down with wine. “To do what I have to do, I must be in complete control of my faculties,” he retorted, continuing with what seemed likely to be his last meal. The diary of another accomplice, Grinevitsky, makes plain the bombers’ suicidal intent: “I or another will strike the decisive blow… He will die, and with him, us, his enemies and murderers.”

“The Tsar of all the Russias crumpled on the ground. So pathetic a sight did he present that one of the other assassins instinctively made to help him”

Ever since Goldenburg had named Zhelyabov as the prime mover of the assassination plots, he had topped the “Wanted” lists. News of his arrest came as a great relief to the tsar, who had not spent consecutive nights in the same bed for many weeks, to confound the imminent attempts on his life that anonymous letters regularly threatened. Throughout that time Alexander II had shown courage of a kind for which few at the time gave him credit, determined as he was to fulfil his “civilising mission” and redeem his legacy as the Saviour Tsar: “to see Russia set on her peaceful path of progress and prosperity”. With his nemesis now in custody, he had surely approached his crucial meeting with [General of the Cavalry] Loris-Melikov that Saturday with a new lightness of spirit. For once, he may even have allowed himself a reprieve from checking faces in the passing crowd against the police album containing photographs of those known to want him dead. The following morning, when the tsar’s entourage pulled out of the palace and on to the icy streets of St Petersburg, it took an unusual route to the home of Grand Duchess Catherine. It was a courtesy visit, at which Alexander would explain to his elderly aunt the groundbreaking package of constitutional reforms that he had agreed with Loris-Melikov the day before, and whose announcement was imminent. The detour taken by the imperial party reduced, at a stroke, the intended three-pronged ambush by the People’s Will assassins to a single point.

Loitering on either side of the road that ran beside the Catherine Canal, the four appointed bomb-throwers must have felt that the devices concealed beneath their coats rendered them agonisingly conspicuous. Yet by 1.30pm, when Sofia Perovskaya lifted her handkerchief in warning, and the first horses of the tsar’s Cossack bodyguard appeared, nobody had raised the alarm, nor even paid them the faintest attention.

Nicholas Rysakov was the first to step forward and launch his grenade; a momentary glimpse of Alexander as he passed was burned into Rysakov’s retina by the blinding light of the explosion that followed a second later, catching the company of guards that followed. Undamaged, but for a few splinters, the imperial sleigh slowed to a halt a few dozen yards further on. From that moment, accounts differ. The loyalist press would later report how the tsar had stepped out and walked calmly back to survey the damage and offer what solace he could to those who lay injured on the road: soldiers with shrapnel wounds, some fatal, and a young boy who would not make it alive to hospital. If these accounts were accurate, it was a brave but disastrous decision. Approaching the small group clustered around Alexander, Grinevitsky raised the second canister over his head and dashed it down between himself and his target. The blast consumed them both, and left the tsar of all the Russias crumpled on the ground: his legs shattered, he tried to crawl, hands clawing the compacted snow as his entrails spilled out through a ragged hole ripped through dress uniform and stomach. So pathetic a sight did he present that one of the other assassins instinctively made to help him, only to be pushed back by guards.

His death, less than an hour later, was reported throughout the capitals of Europe before the end of the day. Almost as quickly, his planned programme of reforms was buried as the forces of reaction set about implementing long-cherished plans for repression. Whose purposes the rabid voice of the unseen Nechaev had best served is a matter of opinion: the nihilists may have finally made their point, but the result was to return the initiative to the reactionaries, with [influential cleric] Pobedonostsev’s protégé in line to assume the throne as Alexander III. Either way, by the end of the following year Nechaev’s voice was silenced once and for all. The official record would state tuberculosis as the cause of death. However, the aptitude for dissimulation later shown by the reactionary cabal, and by its security chiefs above all, makes it is almost possible to imagine that the letter-writing Nechaev of 1881 never existed at all.


Copyright © Alex Butterworth 2010: Extracted from ‘The World That Never Was’ by Alex Butterworth, published by Vintage at £8.99

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