Memoirs of a Revolutionist
Memoirs of a Revolutionist
Assassination of Alexander II, Tsar of Russia
By: Peter Alexeievich Kropotkin
Source: Excerpt from Peter Kropotkin's Memoirs of a Revolutionist (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1899), chapter 32.
About the Author: Peter Kropotkin, the "Anarchist Prince," was born in Moscow on December 12, 1842, the son of a Russian prince. After several years in the military, he left in 1867 to pursue his interests in science (especially geography), and to study the condition of the Russian peasantry. In 1872, Kropotkin traveled to Switzerland, where he joined the International Workingmen's Association. During the 1870s and 1880s, he came to reject the Darwinian concept of "survival of the fittest" in favor of anarchist-communist principles based on mutual aid among members of society. He expressed these views in such books as Memoirs of a Revolutionist (1899) and Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (1902). Kropotkin died on February 8, 1921.
Tsar Alexander II (1818–1881) of Russia ascended to the throne in 1855. History will forever link his name to the emancipation of the Russian serfs. In 1856, he famously stated that it would be "better to abolish serfdom from above than to wait until it begins to abolish itself from below." He carried through on his conviction in 1861, when he signed a manifesto freeing some 20 million Russian serfs.
This move met with little opposition, for among all classes of Russian society the conviction had been growing that the serf system was inefficient. Further, many of Russia's intellectuals and members of the higher classes, led by Alexander, wanted to forge a more modern Russia by adopting the liberal reforms of western Europe.
In the years that followed, Alexander initiated further reforms. In 1864, he reformed the judiciary, making it an independent branch of government and abolishing secret trials and corporal punishment. That year, too, he created the zemstvo system, granting autonomy and some measure of democracy to local government. Alexander advocated a free press, and he restructured the military, requiring military service of all social classes, not just of the lower classes.
In this more liberal climate, numerous anarchist, populist, and revolutionary groups began to flex their muscles. Many of these groups believed that the only way to reform Russian society was through violence and terrorism, including the assassination of top government officials. Alexander himself survived a number of assassination attempts. On April 4, 1866, an attempt on his life was made in St. Petersburg; on April 20, 1879, the tsar fled on foot as a would-be assassin fired five shots at him; in December 1879, the anarchist group Narodnaya Volya (People's Will) tried unsuccessfully to bomb the tsar's train; on February 5, 1880, the same group detonated a bomb beneath the tsar's dining room at the Winter Palace, but he survived because he was late arriving to dinner. In response to these attempts on his life and to the spread of anarchist and revolutionary doctrines, Alexander adopted more repressive policies in the later years of his reign.
Narodnaya Volya finally succeeded on March 13, 1881. The tsar was in St. Petersburg when a bomb was thrown at the carriage in which he was riding near the Winter Palace. Alexander got out of the carriage to check on the condition of an injured bystander. When he approached the man who had thrown the bomb, a second terrorist threw a bomb that severely injured the tsar, who died a few hours later. Peter Kropotkin describes the scene in the excerpt from Memoirs of a Revolutionist that follows.
The person of the Liberator of the serfs was surrounded by an aureole, which protected him infinitely better than the swarms of police officials. If Alexander II had shown at this juncture the least desire to improve the state of affairs in Russia; if he had only called in one or two of those men with whom he had collaborated during the reform period, and had ordered them to make an inquiry into the conditions of the country, or merely of the peasantry; if he had shown any intention of limiting the powers of the secret police, his steps would have been hailed with enthusiasm. A word would have made him the Liberator again, and once more the youth would have repeated Hérzen's words: "Thou had conquered, Galilean." But just as during the Polish insurrection, the despot awoke in him, and, inspired by Katkóff, he found nothing to do but to nominate special military governors—for hanging.
Then and then only, a handful of revolutionists—the Executive Committee—supported, I must say, by the growing discontent in the educated classes, and even in the Tsar's immediate surroundings, declared that war against absolutism which, after several attempts, ended in 1881 in the death of Alexander II. . . .
It is known how it happened. A bomb was thrown under his iron-clad carriage, to stop it. Several Circassians of the escort were wounded. Rysakóff, who flung the bomb was arrested on the spot. Then, although the coachman of the Tsar earnestly advised him not to get out, saying that he could drive him still in the slightly damaged carriage, he insisted upon alighting. He felt that his military dignity required him to see the wounded Circassians, to condole with them as he had done with the wounded during the Turkish war, when a mad storming of Plevna, doomed to end in a terrible disaster, was made on the day of his fête. He approached Rysakóff and asked him something; and as he passed close by another young man, Grinevétsky, the latter threw a bomb between himself and Alexander II, so that both of them should be killed. They both lived but a few hours.
There Alexander II lay upon the snow, profusely bleeding, abandoned by every one of his followers! All had disappeared. It was cadets, returning from the parade, who lifted the suffering Tsar from the snow and put him in a sledge, covering his shivering body with a cadet mantle and his bare head with a cadet cap. And it was one of the terrorists, Emeliánoff, with a bomb wrapped in a paper under his arm, who, at the risk of being arrested on the spot and hanged, rushed with the cadets to the help of the wounded man. Human nature is full of contrasts.
Narodnaya Volya was formed in 1879, and the members of its executive committee included some of the leading anarchist revolutionaries in Russia. Its program called for creation of a parliament and the drafting of a constitution; universal voting rights; freedom of the press, speech, and assembly; local self-government; a volunteer army; redistribution of land to the people; and self-determination for oppressed peoples.
An influential faction of the group believed that violence was the only way to spark a revolution and reform the government. The members of this faction, which included the brother of later Communist dictator Vladimir Lenin, made at least seven attempts on the life of Alexander II and his successor and son, Alexander III.
The government took severe countermeasures against Narodnaya Volya. In connection with the assassination of Alexander II, six members of the group were arrested (a seventh, who threw the bomb that killed the tsar, died in the attack), and five were sentenced to death. During the period 1879–1883, 2,000 members of the group were prosecuted in seventy trials, effectively breaking the back of the organization.
In later years, attempts were made to revive Narodnaya Volya, but these efforts failed, in large part because of the group's terrorist agenda. Meanwhile, Alexander III believed that the growing anarchist movement during his father's reign was the result of excess liberalization, so he adopted more autocratic, nationalist policies. In particular, he stripped the zemstvos of their power and began a plan of Russification among his German, Polish, Finnish, and Jewish subjects.
Kropotkin, Peter. Anarchism: A Collection of Revolutionary Writings. Mineola, NY: Dover, 2002.
Van der Kiste, John. The Romanovs, 1818–1959: Alexander II of Russia and His Family. Gloucester, UK: Alan Sutton, 2000.
LaborLawTalk.com. "Peter Kropotkin." <http://encyclopedia.laborlawtalk.com/Peter_Kropotkin> (accessed May 16, 2005).