1. Writing in Blood
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211 1 Writing in Blood On March 1, 1881, the Russian public could not have been surprised when a bomb thrown by a member of the People’s Will fatally wounded the emperor. As the seventh attempt on his life in less than two years, the only astonishing thing about it was its success. As the police closed in on the People’s Will’s most elaborate conspiracy to date and arrested key members of the Executive Committee (Alexander Barannikov, Nikolai Kletochnikov, Alexander Mikhailov, and Andrei Zhelyabov) in late January and February 1881, the conspirators who remained at large feverishly finalized their preparations.1 Zhelyabov’s second-incommand , Sophia Perovskaya, took charge of the operation and deployed four “throwers” armed with bombs that were effective only when thrown at close range. As the tsar’s convoy sped past along the Ekaterinsky Canal, the first thrower, Rysakov, threw his bomb beneath the horses’ hooves. The resultant explosion did not meet its mark but destroyed the back of the tsar’s carriage and the lives of a Cossack guard and a young boy.2 The tsar, stunned but miraculously uninjured, had stopped to question his assailant and examine the crime scene when a second explosion at close quarters accomplished its deadly goal. A member of the tsar’s retinue, Colonel Dvorzhitsky, recalled the unprecedented scene: “I was deafened by the new explosion, burned, wounded and thrown to the ground. Suddenly, amid the smoke and 212 Part Four: The Beautiful Dead (Deed) snowy fog, I heard his majesty’s weak voice cry ‘Help!’ . . . Twenty people with wounds of varying degree lay on the sidewalk or on the street. Some managed to stand, others to crawl, still others tried to get out from the bodies that had fallen on top of them. Through the snow, debris, and the blood you could see fragments of clothing, epaulets, sabers, and the bloody chunks of human flesh.”3 Illustrations of terrorist attacks featuring the tsar or explosions had been prohibited by the censor, and following March 1, a number of requests to print lithographs of the attack were rejected by the Minister of the Imperial Court.4 Nonetheless, a few images did slip through, and descriptions of Alexander II’s mortal injuries (shattered legs, a crushed abdomen) published in daily mass circulation papers such as the St. Petersburg Gazette conveyed the horror of the carnage, and in doing so, constituted a radical re-imagining of the king’s body and the tsar’s inviolability .5 When the tsar died in the Winter Palace only a few hours after suffering his fatal wounds, the government, the conservative Russian press, and the Church joined forces to portray Alexander II as a martyr (muchennik) who had perished on the First Sunday of Lent (the Feast of Orthodoxy) at 3 p.m.—precisely the hour when Christ died on the cross.6 Scarcely a month later, over the personal appeals of Leo Tolstoy and the philosopher Vladimir Solovyev, the convicted tsaricides were hanged on Semyonovsky Square before a massed crowd of more than 100,000 spectators and an international press corps. Whether the executioners were drunk (as was rumored) and/or merely incompetent, the regime squandered both public support and international prestige as a consequence of the bungled and barbarous spectacle of the scaffold.7 In a diary entry for April 3, Minister of War Count Miliutin noted with evident disgust: “They did not even know how to hang them properly. Mikhailov twice fell from the gallows. During the transportation of the criminals there were some disturbances along the street: the crowd almost tore apart several madmen [bezumtsy] who got it in their head to express sympathy for the tsaricides.”8 The challenge for the remaining narodovol’tsy during the intensified manhunt that followed was to capitalize upon the illusion of power that their unprecedented success had conferred and project an image befitting such an illusion.9 The revolutionaries’ hopes for a popular revolt upon the successful regicide proved unrealistic, at best, and the public was aghast at the atrocity and deeply unnerved by the uncertainty of the situation, as were Writing in Blood 213 the revolutionaries themselves, who found themselves both unprepared for a seizure of power and in mortal danger. The instantaneously transformative act, so long awaited, failed to transform, and the party rushed in to fill the gap with words.10 On March 10, 1881, the People’s Will published A Letter from the Executive Committee to Alexander...



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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