In 1869, two Russian writers, Mikhail Bakunin and Sergi Nechayev published the book Catechism of a Revolutionist. It included the famous passage: "The Revolutionist is a doomed man. He has no private interests, no affairs, sentiments, ties, property nor even a name of his own. His entire being is devoured by one purpose, one thought, one passion - the revolution. Heart and soul, not merely by word but by deed, he has severed every link with the social order and with the entire civilized world; with the laws, good manners, conventions, and morality of that world. He is its merciless enemy and continues to inhabit it with only one purpose - to destroy it."
The book had a great impact on young Russians and in 1876 the group Land and Liberty was formed. Most of the group shared Bakunin's anarchist views and demanded that Russia's land should be handed over to the peasants and the State should be destroyed.
In October, 1879, the Land and Liberty split into two factions. The majority of members, who favoured a policy of terrorism, established the People's Will. Others, such as George Plekhanov formed Black Repartition, a group that rejected terrorism and supported a socialist propaganda campaign among workers and peasants.
Soon afterwards the People's Will decided to assassinate Alexander II. The following month Andrei Zhelyabov and Sophia Perovskaya attempted to use nitroglycerine to destroy the Tsar train. However, the terrorist miscalculated and it destroyed another train instead. An attempt the blow up the Kamenny Bridge in St. Petersburg as the Tsar was passing over it was also unsuccessful.
The next attempt on Alexander's life involved a carpenter, Stefan Khalturin, who had managed to find work in the Winter Palace. Allowed to sleep on the premises, each day he brought packets of dynamite into his room and concealed it in his bedding.
On 17th February, 1880, Khalturin constructed a mine in the basement of the building under the dinning-room. The mine went off at half-past six at the time that the People's Will had calculated Alexander would be having his dinner. However, his main guest, Prince Alexander of Battenburg, had arrived late and dinner was delayed and the dinning-room was empty. Alexander was unharmed but sixty-seven people were killed or badly wounded by the explosion.
The People's Will contacted the Russian government and claimed they would call off the terror campaign if the Russian people were granted a constitution that provided free elections and an end to censorship. On 25th February, 1880, Alexander II announced that he was considering granting the Russian people a constitution. To show his good will a number of political prisoners were released from prison. Loris Melikof, the Minister of the Interior, was given the task of devising a constitution that would satisfy the reformers but at the same time preserve the powers of the autocracy.
At the same time the Russian Police Department established a special section that dealt with internal security. This unit eventually became known as the Okhrana. Under the control of Loris Melikof, the Minister of the Interior, undercover agents began joining political organizations that were campaigning for social reform.
In January, 1881, Loris Melikof presented his plans to Alexander II. They included an expansion of the powers of the Zemstvo. Under his plan, each zemstov would also have the power to send delegates to a national assembly called the Gosudarstvenny Soviet that would have the power to initiate legislation. Alexander was concerned that the plan would give too much power to the national assembly and appointed a committee to look at the scheme in more detail.
The People's Will became increasingly angry at the failure of the Russian government to announce details of the new constitution. They therefore began to make plans for another assassination attempt. Those involved in the plot included Sophia Perovskaya, Andrei Zhelyabov, Gesia Gelfman, Nikolai Sablin, Ignatei Grinevitski, Nikolai Kibalchich, Nikolai Rysakov and Timofei Mikhailov.
In February, 1881, the Okhrana discovered that their was a plot led by Andrei Zhelyabov to kill Alexander II. Zhelyabov was arrested but refused to provide any information on the conspiracy. He confidently told the police that nothing they could do would save the life of the Tsar.
On 1st March, 1881, Alexander II was travelling in a closed carriage, from Michaelovsky Palace to the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. An armed Cossack sat with the coach-driver and another six Cossacks followed on horseback. Behind them came a group of police officers in sledges.
All along the route he was watched by members of the People's Will. On a street corner near the Catherine Canal, Sophia Perovskaya gave the signal to Nikolai Rysakov and Timofei Mikhailov to throw their bombs at the Tsar's carriage. The bombs missed the carriage and instead landed amongst the Cossacks. The Tsar was unhurt but insisted on getting out of the carriage to check the condition of the injured men. While he was standing with the wounded Cossacks another terrorist, Ignatei Grinevitski, threw his bomb. Alexander was killed instantly and the explosion was so great that Grinevitski also died from the bomb blast.
Of the other conspirators, Nikolai Sablin committed suicide before he could be arrested and Gesia Gelfman died in prison. Sophia Perovskaya, Andrei Zhelyabov, Nikolai Kibalchich, Nikolai Rysakov and Timofei Mikhailov were hanged on 3rd April, 1881.
The Revolutionist is a doomed man. He has no private interests, no affairs, sentiments, ties, property nor even a name of his own. His entire being is devoured by one purpose, one thought, one passion - the revolution. Heart and soul, not merely by word but by deed, he has severed every link with the social order and with the entire civilized world; with the laws, good manners, conventions, and morality of that world. He is its merciless enemy and continues to inhabit it with only one purpose - to destroy it.
He despises public opinion. He hates and despises the social morality of his time, its motives and manifestations. Everything which promotes the success of the revolution is moral, everything which hinders it is immoral. The nature of the true revolutionist excludes all romanticism, all tenderness, all ecstasy, all love.
I was invited to become an agent of the Executive Committee of the People's Will. I agreed. My past experience had convinced me that the only way to change the existing order was by force. If any group in our society had shown me a path other than violence, perhaps I would have followed it; at the very least, I would have tried it out. But, as you know, we don't have a free press in our country, and no ideas cannot be spread by the written word. And so I concluded that violence was the only solution. I could not follow the peaceful path.
Stefanovich became the head of the Black Repartition, and his friends Vera Zasulich and Lev Deich joined him. But even ardent populists like Vera Figner, who had been working in one of the countryfolk settlements in the provinces, and Sophia Perovskaia joined the People's Will, the group that had taken up arms to defend the people and their apostles.
Black Repartition was stillborn; it left no visible traces of its work among the people at the end of 1879 and the beginning of 1880, because no such activity was possible on a broad scale. After a series of failures, Stefanovich, Deich, Plekhanov, and Zasulich returned abroad.
As for me, naturally I joined the People's Will. The Executive Committee of the People's Will soon began to chart its own course. Its initial plan had been to carry out a number of actions against the governor-generals, but this decision was called into question at one open-air meeting in Lesnoi: shouldn't we concentrate all our forces against the Tsar instead, it was asked. We resolved that this should indeed be the goal of the Executive Committee. The implementation of that decision engaged the People's Will right up to March 1, 1881.
In the spring of 1879, after Governor Krapotkin was assassinated, there was a wave of searches and arrests in Kharkov. I had to flee and go understanding for good. I spent brief periods of time in various cities, reaching St. Petersburg in the fall of that year. By this time, Land and Liberty had split into the People's Will and Black Repartition. Firmly convinced that only the people themselves could carry out a socialist revolution and that terror directed at the centre of the state (such as the people's Will advocated) would bring - at best - only a wishy-washy constitution which would in turn strengthen the Russian bourgeoisie, I joined Black Repartition, which had retained the old Land and Liberty program.
In the intervals between printing jobs, we visited Sophia Perovskaya's apartment. She shared the place with Andrei Zhelyabov, and when we stayed late, we saw him, too. To us, the visits to Perovskaia were like a refreshing shower. Sophia always gave us a warm, friendly welcome; she acted as if we were the ones with stimulating ideas and news to share, rather than the reverse. In her easy and natural way, she painstakingly helped us to make sense of the complicated muddle of everyday life and the vacillations of public opinion. She told us about the party's activities among workers, about various circles and organizations, and about the expansion of the revolutionary movement among previously untouched social groups. Perovskaia spoke calmly, without a trace of sentimentality, but there was no hiding the joy that lit up her face and shone in her crinkled, smiling eyes - it was as if she were taking about a child of hers who had recovered from an illness.
Occasionally, they stumbled on the trial of people who actually had been involved in the Moscow Organization's work; in other instances, however, they contrived to tie in people who were not implicated at all. That's how the "Trial of the Fifty" came about. It included eleven of the women who had studied in Zurich; a twelfth, Keminskaia, was not brought to trial, ostensibly because she became mentally disturbed during her preliminary detention. There was a rumour that the quiet melancholia from which she suffered would not have saved her from trial if her father hadn't given the police 5,000 rubles. After her comrades were sentenced. Kaminskaia's thwarted desire to share their fate led her to poison herself by swallowing matches.
During the debates, the question of Jacobinism - seizing power and ruling from above, by decree - was raised. As I saw it, the Jacobin tinge that Tikhomirov gave to his program for the Executive Committee gave to his program for the Executive Committee threatened the party and the entire revolutionary movement with moral death; it was a kind of rebirth of Nechaevism, which had long since lost moral credit in the revolutionary world. It was my belief that the revolutionary idea could be a life-giving force only when it was the antithesis of all coercion - social, state, and even personal coercion, tsarist and Jacobin alike. Of course, it was possible for a narrow group of ambitious men to replace one form of coercion or authority by another. But neither the people nor educated society would follow them consciously, and only a conscious movement can impart new principles to public life.
At this point, Morozov announced that he considered himself free of any obligation to defend a program like Tikhomirov's in public. I too, declared that it was against my nature to act on the basis of compulsion; that once the Executive Committee had taken on a task - the seizure of state power - that violated my basic principles, and once it had recourse in its organizational practice to autocratic methods fraught with mutual distrust, then I, too, reclaimed my freedom of action.
Everything was peaceful as I walked through the streets. But half an hour after I reached the apartment of some friends, a man appeared with the news that two crashes like cannon shots had rung out, that people were saying the sovereign had been killed, and that the oath was already being administered to the heir. I rushed outside. The streets were in turmoil: people were talking about the sovereign, about wounds, death, blood.
On March 3, Kibalchich came to our apartment with the news that Gesia Gelfman's apartment had been discovered, that she'd been arrested and Sabin had shot himself. Within two weeks, we lost Perovskaia, who was arrested on the street. Kibalchich and Frolenko were the next to go. Because of these heavy losses, the Committee proposed that most of us leave St. Petersburg myself included.