Perovskaya, Sonia (1853–1881)

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Perovskaya, Sonia (1853–1881)

Member of the Russian aristocracy who turned to terrorism, was executed for engineering the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, and became a national martyr. Name variations: Sofya or Sofia Perovskaia. Pronunciation: Sown-ya Pair-ov-SKY-ya. Born Sophia Lvovna Perovskaya on September 13, 1853; executed on April 3, 1881; daughter of a general who served briefly as governor-general of St. Petersburg, and a mother who was a member of the nobility; since university education was not open to women, studied to be a teacher; never married; no children.

Joined the Chaikovski Circle and took part in the Going to the People movement (1870s); arrested for political activities (1874); met Andrei Ivanovich Zhelyabov during the Trial of 193 and acquitted (1878); went underground to avoid political exile; joined Land and Liberty, the first full-fledged political opposition party in Russian history; joined the extremist group Will of the People and made several attempts on the life of Alexander II; led group in the assassination of Alexander II (1881); following execution for murder of the tsar, recognized as a martyr to the cause of revolution in Russia and the Soviet Union.

March 1, 1881, was a dreary early spring day in the Russian imperial capital of St. Petersburg. A sprinkling of young men and women, members of the extremist group Will of the People, lingered along the Malaya Sodovaya, near the Ekaterinski Canal, waiting for the horse-drawn carriage of Tsar Alexander II to appear. Under the snow-piled, dirty street ran a tunnel which had been tediously hollowed out in anticipation of this day. If Alexander's carriage passed over the tunnel, a bomb would be detonated to kill the monarch. But if the convoy took another route, members of the group would move in with grenades. Although Alexander had once raised the hopes of a better future for many Russians like themselves, the plotters were convinced there was no room under his autocratic rule for true political reform.

Along the Malaya Sodovaya, Sonia Perovskaya was positioned to observe the course the tsar's convoy would take. As it moved toward the Ekaterinski Canal, she took out a large white handkerchief and blew her nose, signaling the change of direction. When the tsar's carriage passed by, a man stepped out and threw a bomb. The explosion broke the back axle of the carriage, but Tsar Alexander, unharmed, got out to examine the damage. "I am safe, thank God," he said, just as a second man stepped forward and detonated a grenade that killed them both.

Perovskaya, who had planned the operation, came from one of Russia's most ancient and distinguished families, an unusual background for a social revolutionary. On her father's side, she was descended from Empress Elizabeth Petrovna by a morganatic marriage, and her grandfather had been minister of the interior. Her father had served as governor-general of St. Petersburg for three years, during which he enjoyed unlimited credit and ran up huge debts. His dismissal brought a crisis in the family fortunes. For a time, Sonia and her mother went to live on the family estate in the Crimea, then rejoined her father when the estate was sold in 1869. That summer, Sonia's father fell ill, and her mother and sister traveled with him on a round of European resorts to help him recover. In her father's absence, the teenaged Sonia got a taste of freedom she had never known. When the family returned, she declared that she wanted to study and live on her own. Such a request was unusual indeed in aristocratic circles, where it was taken for granted that a woman would live under her father's control until she married and was placed under her husband's authority.

In imperial Russia, there were few avenues of independence open to men, and fewer still for women. In Western Europe, women had only begun to win access to a university education, which was still denied women in Russia. In Perovskaya's case, this repressive system was made no easier by her home life. While she loved her mother, a great beauty who was known for her kindness, she loathed her father, a bully who was cruel and rigidly militaristic.

Under a regime in which all liberties were granted by the state, paperwork was essential to accomplish even simple tasks. Stubborn and determined, Perovskaya persuaded her father to acquire the internal passport necessary for her to live on her own. Once she left home, there is no record that she ever saw her father again. Whenever she returned to see her mother, she used the back stairs so her visits went undetected. Too proud to take money from her mother, she did copying and translation work, while sometimes living alone and at other times with friends. She passed an examination to teach school but never got a diploma, probably because she was considered politically suspicious.

The repressive Russian system, in which the tsars were ruthless in quashing opposition, was a breeding ground for extremists. Although noble families were supposed to be pillars of this autocratic structure, many members of the highly educated noble class were among its staunchest opponents. Their opposition began with the Decembrists, a group of army officers, largely from the aristocracy, who revolted against Tsar Nicholas I on December 14, 1825. Sent into harsh Siberian exile, along with some of their wives, including Maria Volkonskaya , the Decembrists inspired generations of revolutionaries by their willingness to suffer for a more liberal government. In Russia's huge bureaucracy—which carried out the dictates of the tsar and supported a Byzantine system of spies and secret police that ensured all attempts at reform were nipped in the bud—moderate reform was out of the question, and the opposition came to regard extreme solutions as viable alternatives.

Perovskaya joined the Chaikovski Circle, the first and most famous of the secret cultural and philanthropic societies of the 1870s. It began as a group of young people who met to read books and hold discussions, without politics being a part of its original agenda. Gradually, however, its members began to hold classes for illiterate and impoverished factory workers. In 1861, Alexander II had freed the serfs, forcing many off the land and into the cities in search of work. Because the tsar then issued an imperial edict in 1862 forbidding educational activities among the poor as "likely to undermine faith in the Christian religion and in the institution of private property, and to incite the working class to revolt," the Chaikovski Circle had to hold their classes in secret.

By 1873, there was considerable discussion in intellectual circles about whether young people should finish their studies or start a revolutionary mission among the peasants. The imperial government, fearing radical activities among women who had left Russia to obtain education at the university level, especially in Zurich, Switzerland, ordered the students to come home. The returning women were accompanied by many men, and their combined efforts instigated a movement called Going to the People. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of young people acquired the necessary false papers to travel into the countryside, bringing with them a call to revolution.

As in many such movements in Russia, the revolutionaries, with their idealistic vision, were unprepared for the obstacles inherent in a rigid class system that had allowed little if any interaction between the upper and lower classes. Aristocrats like Perovskaya idealized those who worked on the land without any notion of how the average Russian peasant thought or felt, while the peasants, often suspicious of strangers and their doctrines, sometimes turned over members of Going to the People to the police. The hostility encountered by the intellectuals, along with blistered feet, poor food, and fatigue, proved to be disillusioning.

During the mass arrests that followed between 1873 and 1877, hundreds of young people, some altogether innocent of radical activities, were picked up, and many would sit in jail for years awaiting trial. In 1874, Perovskaya was arrested but remained free on bail until her trial in 1878. At the Trial of the 193, as her case was called, she was acquitted, but under a clause which allowed the police to prescribe "administrative exile" she was soon picked up again. She acquired false papers and escaped. Once an idealist, Perovskaya now trod the path to extremism. She joined Land and Liberty, the first full-fledged political opposition party in Russian history, which recruited its early supporters first among the peasantry and then factory workers. In December 1876, Land and Liberty sponsored a gathering of 200 workers outside the Kazan Cathedral which accomplished little, prompting Perovskaya to conclude that propaganda and education were not enough to accomplish their goals. She believed that, if the system were to be changed, assassinations, prison rescues, infiltration of official organizations, and counter-intelligence against police spies were necessary tactics. Soon, she became part of the organization's Section Five which masterminded the terror campaign. Although members of Land and Liberty did not consider terror as a primary weapon (most in fact opposed its use), terror was thought to be justifiable as a means of vengeance against judges who mandated brutal floggings, police spies who turned in reformers, or corrupt officials who cheated people.

As an illegal, Perovskaya acquired a great deal of experience, and her cool head served her well in difficult situations. For example, after a visit to her mother in the Crimea, she was arrested as a suspicious character and taken by police escort to St. Petersburg. She made no attempt to escape her first captors whom she found kind. A second set, however, proved less genial. The three stopped for the night near the train station, one sleeping by the door and the other by the bed. Perovskaya waited until she heard the train for St. Petersburg coming, escaped out a window, and boarded the train without a ticket.

During the Trial of 193, Perovskaya had fallen in love with Andrei Ivanovich Zhelyabov, who was married but had been separated from his wife for some time. A large dashing man with a long black beard who provided great contrast to the diminutive, blue-eyed, blonde Perovskaya, Zhelyabov was the son of a house serf, but he had been allowed to be educated and shared Perovskaya's passion for reform. Wrote a friend of Perovskaya: "She had always been a strong feminist and maintained that men were the inferior sex. She had real respect for very few of them. But Zhelyabov was up to her caliber. She was utterly in love with him, in a way I never thought could happen to her with any man."

They had not started off by being terrorists…. They were turned into killers only by the obdurate and unyielding response of the autocracy to all efforts to change the nature of society.

—Edward Crankshaw

When the Land and Liberty party underwent an ideological split, Perovskaya and Zhelyabov joined the splinter group of extremists, Will of the People (Narodnaya Volya). This band of about 20 people, dedicated to the assassination of the tsar, made three attempts to blow up his railway carriage, often employing elaborate means. For one such attack, a member named Stepan Nikolaevic Khalturin accumulated over 100 pounds of dynamite which he secreted under his bunk in the basement of the Winter Palace where he posed as a workman. Tsar Alexander was delayed on his way to dinner in the room where the explosives went off. Although he escaped unharmed, ten members of the palace guard were killed and many others wounded. The bombing spread such fear among the autocracy that it led to greater repression than ever.

The final plot against the tsar's life began with the rental of a building on the Malaya Sodovaya, where the conspirators set up a cheese shop. Although people in the neighborhood found the merchandise scanty, it did not arouse suspicion. The digging of the tunnel began as did the difficult job of hauling away the dirt. Authorities visited the shop, but nothing was suspected. The tunnel was nearing completion when a series of raids by the police swept up many members of Will of the People, including Zhelyabov. Realizing their own arrests were imminent, the remaining members rushed to complete their task.

The arrest of her lover hardened Perovskaya's determination. She finalized the group's plan, supervised the manufacture of the necessary explosives, and held practice sessions, all while urging the group, some of whom had grown reluctant, forward. On that cold afternoon in March, when Perovskaya signaled that the convoy was changing course, she knew that the tunnel had been dug in vain and that they must rely on grenades, comparatively feeble explosives that had to be thrown at close range. One of the group lost his nerve and moved back without making the first throw. Another then threw his grenade, breaking the carriage axle. The completion of the assassination was carried out by Ignatei Grinevitski, who detonated the grenade that killed himself along with the tsar.

The assassins scattered, escaping that day, but were soon rounded up, tried, and found guilty. On April 3, 1881, five members of Will of the People, including Sonia Perovskaya and Andrei Zhelyabov, were hanged in a public execution witnessed by 80,000 people, as 12,000 troops lined the streets. The assassination had not sparked the general revolt the terrorists had hoped for, and, when Alexander III took the throne, he institutionalized a centralized police apparatus that would survive beyond the tsarist empire, becoming a tool equally effective in the hands of the Communists.

When imperial Russia finally disintegrated, terrorists played little role in its demise. The empire simply rotted from within until only a hollow shell was left which collapsed during World War I. A terrorist in tsarist Russia, Sonia Perovskaya became a martyr in the Communist regime that followed.


Crankshaw, Edward. The Shadow of the Winter Palace: Russia's Drift to Revolution 1825–1917. NY: Viking, 1976.

Engel, Barbara Alpern, and Clifford N. Rosenthal, eds. Five Sisters: Women Against the Tsar. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975.

Footman, David. Red Prelude: A Life of A.I. Zhelyabov. London: Cresset Press, 1944.

Knight, Amy. "The Fritischi: A Study of Female Radicals in the Russian Populist Movement," in Canadian-American Slavic Studies. Vol. IX, no. 1. Spring 1975, pp. 1–17.

Sack, A.J. The Birth of Russian Democracy. NYC: Russian Information Bureau, 1918.

Venturi, Franco. Roots of Revolution. A History of the Populist and Socialist Movements in Nineteenth Century Russia. NY: Grosset and Dunlap, 1960.

Karin Loewen Loewen , freelance writer, Athens, Georgia