2. An Original Plan
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155 2 An Original Plan On January 24, 1878, two young women, Vera Zasulich and Maria Kolenkina, undertook the simultaneous assassinations of the notorious governor general of St. Petersburg, Fyodor Trepov, and the public prosecutor in the recent mass trial of the populist propagandists (“The Trial of the 193”), Vladislav Zhelekhovsky.1 While Kolenkina aroused suspicion and was barred access to Zhelekhovsky, Zasulich fired at her victim from point blank range and inflicted a serious, though not fatal, wound. For this reason, Zasulich alone became renowned as the first revolutionary terrorist, although the women’s innovation is better appreciated as it was conceived, rather than as it was realized. On the surface, Zasulich’s attempt—like Dmitry Karakozov’s attempted regicide in 1866—failed. Yet unlike Karakozov’s failure, Zasulich’s was the key to her ultimate success. Her act, and not Karakozov’s, marked the inception of terrorism as a systematic method of political struggle. Zasulich’s attempt may legitimately be considered the first act of terrorism thanks to the coalescence of elements previously absent, the most important of which was only marginally within Zasulich’s personal control: the public reception of her deed. What distinguished Zasulich’s and Kolenkina’s plan from the actions of the Southern Rebels or even a parallel plot hatched by their male comrades in Land and Freedom to assassinate Trepov was their acute consciousness of the public impact of their act as a “double blow” that would be subsequently broadcast 156 Part Three: “The Little Devil Sitting in Your Heart” by the media.2 Zasulich’s media-consciousness is reflected in the meticulous preparations she made prior to the assassination attempt with the realization that “tomorrow” her act “would be in all the papers.”3 And unlike Karakozov, who when questioned regarding his motive by his intended victim (the tsar), gave a reply so cryptic that no one is sure what he actually said,4 Zasulich had an unambiguous message to broadcast: “For Bogoliubov.”5 Arkhip Bogoliubov was the revolutionary pseudonym of Alexei Stepanovich Emilianov, a member of Land and Freedom who had been arrested and imprisoned in the House of Preliminary Detention (Prelim) for his participation in the demonstrations outside of Kazan Cathedral on December 6, 1876. Bogoliubov joined 395 fellow political prisoners in the Prelim, many of whom had been awaiting formal charges and trial by the government for more than two years.6 On July 13, 1877, Bogoliubov precipitated a public scandal when in the course of his daily walk in the prison yard he encountered the visiting governor general and reportedly failed to doff his prisoner’s cap. The outraged Trepov, aware that the windows facing the courtyard made it something of a theater-in-the-round for the prisoners who had observed the incident, ordered an exemplary (though illegal) flogging of Bogoliubov, with preparations carried out in full view of the women prisoners.7 News of Bogoliubov’s flogging and the “prison riot” that supposedly ensued was smuggled out of prison and reported in liberal newspapers in the capital as well as in provincial centers, but a brief public outcry and calls to account faded swiftly in light of more pressing political and economic issues, namely the war in the Balkans and the economic recession.8 Zasulich and Kolenkina essentially adapted the model of political terrorism pioneered by the Southern Rebels, in which an act of revolutionary violence was linked to a specific government abuse.9 This had the effect of conferring instantaneous legibility, and in the process staking a claim to moral and political legitimacy. Yet it remained for this instantaneous legibility to be further fleshed out by the word, in the first place, through the radicals’ own publications, but also ideally through the official law courts and the mass media. In recalling earlier acts of revolutionary violence in the countryside, the veteran revolutionary Vera Figner cited the lack of publicity and resonance as an impediment not only to revolutionary morale, but more specifically to the consolidation of the terrorist struggle.10 An Original Plan 157 Zasulich and Kolenkina’s innovation consisted in transporting these tactics of the periphery to St. Petersburg, the hub of the law courts, media, and public opinion. Zasulich was not incorrect in her “wager on the media.” After the initial shock and horror had subsided, the press was enthralled with the drama of the attack, the details of Trepov’s condition (although he himself won little sympathy), and the person and motivation...


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Subject Headings

  • Russian literature -- Political aspects.
  • Terrorism -- Russia -- History -- 19th century.
  • Terrorism in literature.
  • Alexander II, Emperor of Russia, 1818-1881 -- Assassination.
  • Dostoyevsky, Fyodor, 1821-1881 -- Political and social views.
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