Ivanovskaia, Praskovia (1853–1935)

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Ivanovskaia, Praskovia (1853–1935)

Revolutionary and terrorist who was involved in two of the most sensational political assassinations in Russian history. Name variations: P.S. Voloshenko; Praskovya Ivanovskaya. Pronunciation: E-van-OFF-sky-ya. Born Praskovia Semenovna Ivanovskaia in 1853 in Sokovnina, Russia; died in the Soviet Union in 1935; daughter of Semen Ivanov (a village priest); educated at church boarding school in Tula until 1871; attended Alarchin courses in St. Petersburg, 1773–76; married I.F.(?) Voloshenko; no children.

Was involved in the "to the people" movement and other Populist enterprises (1876–79); was a member of Narodnaia Volia (1880–82), with special responsibility for running the party's illegal printing presses; arrested (1882), tried (1883) and sentenced to hard labor for life in Siberia; escaped (1903); was a member of Combat Organization of the Socialist Revolutionary Party (1903–05); participated in the election campaign to the First State Duma (1906).

Selected writings:

"Avtobiografiia" (Autobiography), in Entsiklopedicheskii slovar', vol. XL (1927), pp. 151–163 (reprinted in Deiateli SSSR i revoliutsionnogo dvizheniia Rossii [Personalities of the USSR and the Revolutionary Movement in Russia], Moscow, 1989).

On April 3, 1883, Praskovia Ivanovskaia was sentenced to death by hanging for "striking a blow at the heart of the state" when she assisted in the assassination of Tsar Alexander II. Like many other young Russians, both male and female, she had been actively involved in "going to the people" during the 1870s and had joined the terrorist group Narodnaia Volia (the People's Will) in 1880. Perhaps because her assignment had been to run the organization's illegal printing press, rather than actually throwing the bombs which killed the tsar on March 1, 1881, her sentence was eventually reduced to a life of hard labor in eastern Siberia. After 20 years of confinement and exile, she escaped in 1903 and resumed terrorist activity as a member of the Socialist Revolutionary Party in St. Petersburg.

"My childhood was one of neglect and grim poverty," Ivanovskaia wrote in 1925. "We grew up like weeds in the field, without the slightest supervision." Shortly after Praskovia's birth in 1853 in a small village in Tula Province, her mother had died. Her father, Semen Ivanov, was a parish priest who showed little interest in the upbringing of his six children. He did, however, become the close friend of M.A. Bodisko who as a young officer had taken part in the Decembrist Revolt of 1825 and now was living on a nearby estate. Through Bodisko's generosity, Praskovia and one of her sisters were able to enroll in a church boarding school for girls in Tula where "the wave of new ideas of the sixties found their way to us, penetrating the stone walls of our cloister." Many of these ideas were contained in illegal books and journals supplied by her revolutionary brother and which became the resources for a radical study circle organized at the school. After the police discovered the library, Ivanovskaia was arrested and threatened with dire consequences by the school's rector if she continued along the same path as her brother. "To reject the influence of good books," she wrote later:

the books that gave us a taste for a larger, brighter life, and that put us on guard against the stifling, humdrum existence around us—that was equivalent to suicide! The sense that there was a better way to live had gradually become part of our souls. And not only through reading—we felt it whenever we looked at the injustice all around us, at the downtrodden, benumbed masses. Our souls pined for truth and justice.

Women of Ivanovskaia's generation were barred from seeking "truth" through attending Russian universities. They could, however, audit the Alarchin non-degree courses offered in St. Petersburg. Praskovia enrolled in these in 1873 and thus spent the next three years in the Russian capital supplementing her meager education, joining study circles with other women of radical persuasion, and deepening her commitment to social change. In 1876, she was offered a teaching position by a liberal zemstvo but chose instead to "labor 'in union with the people'" by living and working among the lower classes and perhaps infusing them with her own new-found ideals concerning agrarian socialism. She spent several months in a rope factory in Odessa, the summer of 1876 as a peasant on a Ukrainian estate, and a short time as a cobbler's apprentice in Nikolaev. Even though she did not initially join a revolutionary organization, she considered herself a Narodnik or Populist and participated in several attempts to free fellow Populists from prison. She also helped organize the first armed demonstration in Russian history in Odessa in 1878, and she spent three months in a tsarist jail for her convictions.

In 1880, Ivanovskaia returned to St. Petersburg as an experienced revolutionary and joined Narodnaia Volia—the Populist terrorist organization dedicated to the assassination of Alexander II. She was assigned the job of maintaining the organization's illegal printing press and running off thousands of copies of revolutionary leaflets. It was dangerous but boring work without the glamour associated with throwing bombs or the prestige of writing articles and pamphlets. In some respects, it was considered "women's work" by the leadership; Ivanovskaia did it well and without complaint. As one of the leaders, Vera Figner , recalled, she was a woman with "an attractive face in the purely Russian style and a voice of marvelous timbre; her warmth, simplicity, and sensitivity charmed everyone with whom she came into contact."

The successful assassination of Alexander II in March 1881 did not bring the results Narodnaia Volia had wanted. The peasant masses remained apathetic, the new tsar was opposed to further reforms, and the police arrested most of the leading revolutionaries. Ivanovskaia was one of the few to escape, at least temporarily. She went first to Moscow and then was sent to Vitebsk to help assemble a new printing press. In September 1882, the police caught up with her. The next spring she was one of the defendants in the "Trial of the Seventeen"—all members of Narodnaia Volia involved in the tsar's assassination. While she avoided the gallows, she did not escape the horrors of confinement in Siberia. In her correspondence she gives:

a picture of a small part of our life in these penal tombs, which shattered the lives of thousands of ardent young people, turning human beings into the living dead.…The Kara prison most resembles a tumble-down stable. The dampness and cold are ferocious; there's no heat at all in the cells, only two stoves in the corridor. The cell doors are kept open day and night—otherwise we would freeze to death.…Willy-nilly, people swiftly decay in the tomb that is Kara. There is an inescapable feeling that for many of us, life is irrevocably over; still, one must marvel at the spiritual courage with which we all endure our slow deaths.

By striking a blow at the heart of the state, the party had cried aloud, not only to our compatriots but to the whole world as well: "Russia and the Russian people need political freedom. We need the complete liberation of our country!"

—Praskovia Ivanovskaia (1925)

In 1898, Ivanovskaia was finally released from Kara prison but forced to live in exile elsewhere in eastern Siberia. Five years later, at the age of 50, she escaped and made her way back to St. Petersburg where she joined the Combat Organization of the Socialist Revolutionary Party (SR). In 1904, she played a support role in the organization's sensational assassination of V.K. Plehve, the despised minister of the interior. "The conclusion of this affair," she wrote in her brief autobiography, "gave me some satisfaction—finally the man who had taken so many victims had been brought to his inevitable end, so universally desired." In the early days of the unsuccessful 1905 Revolution, she again was involved in SR assassination plots against the tsarist regime. On March 16, however, before these plans could come to fruition, she and most of the Combat Organization were arrested. After seven months of detention, she was released in accordance with the general amnesty which accompanied the granting of the October Manifesto. Ivanovskaia then moved to Saratov Province where she participated in the 1906 election campaign to the First State Duma or parliament. In 1907, the local police finally sought to arrest her for fleeing Siberia four years earlier. Her autobiography recalls that as they approached the front of her house "I left by the back door." She also walked off the pages of history. We know only that she died in 1935 at the age of 82 in the Soviet Union.


Engel, Barbara Alpern, and Clifford N. Rosenthal, eds. and trans. Five Sisters Against the Tsar. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975 (the quotations used above come from the translated excerpts of Ivanovskaia's autobiography and letters found in this volume).

Ivanovskaia, P.S. "Avtobiografiia," in Entsiklopedicheskii slovar'. Vol. XL, 1927, pp. 151–163.

R. C. Elwood , Professor of History, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada

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