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224 3 Celebrity Icons The year 1878 earned the distinction of “The Year of Assassinations” as across the European continent malcontents lashed out against emperors and heads of state,1 but it could just as well have been designated “The Year of the Threshold.” Not only did Russian revolutionary terrorism stand poised to emerge, but so did the attentat (attempt) of anarchist terrorism on the continent, followed by Fenian dynamite outrages. In Russia, 1878 was the year when revolutionary terrorism as a practice of serial assassinations came into being, inspired in part by Zasulich’s acquittal (applauded by public opinion) and in part by the increasing militancy of revolutionaries in the south, who founded the precursor to the People’s Will, Liberty or Death. While Zasulich’s attempt served as the inspiration, the act that heralded the new strategy of political violence occurred six months later, when assassins struck down the St. Petersburg chief of police, General Nikolai Mezentsev, in broad daylight. Two days later, an anonymous declaration entitled “A Death for a Death” (published in the party organ of Land and Freedom) claimed responsibility for Mezentsev’s murder—on behalf of “us,” “socialistrevolutionaries ,” and trumpeted “we are embarking on a whole series of killings and are transforming it into a system” (My reshaemsia na tselyi riad ubiistv i vozvodim ikh v sistemu).2 As the title “A Death for a Death” implies, the author(s) of the pamphlet took the logic of Zasulich’s Celebrity Icons 225 trial to its ultimate conclusion: if government abuses remain unpunished , the revolutionaries would take it upon themselves to answer in kind. In his long tenure as chief of police, Mezentsev had quite a tally to his credit, but he had only one life to give, and this life was taken, explained the author of “A Death for A Death,” for the execution on August 2 in Odessa of Ivan Kovalsky. The timeline drawn is as unambiguous as the equivalences established: a death will follow—invariably and in short order—a death. Revolutionary terrorism had articulated a narrative of reciprocity as instantaneously legible and mathematically precise as two points connected by a line. What Franco Venturi has called “the most perfect act of terrorism of the time” was conceived and carefully planned long before Kovalsky’s execution.3 At 9 a.m. on August 4, two gentlemen collided with General Mezentsev while walking in the Mikhailovsky gardens in the city’s center. One fatally wounded the General with an Italian stiletto, while the other fired at his adjutant in order to forestall apprehension. A coach, with a dark mustachioed coachman on the box, whisked the assailants away from the scene without leaving a trace. A sharper contrast with Nechaev’s amateurish murder of Ivanov is hardly imaginable. The police launched a futile manhunt, but the perpetrators had disappeared seemingly into thin air, but in fact into the interstices of legal Russia that came to constitute another dimension, soon to be known as “Underground Russia.” Sans perpetrator, the only thing left to do was to “create by imagination”—to quote Dostoevsky—“the person, the type, that really corresponds to the crime.”4 The person to accomplish this task was in fact the assassin himself , Sergei Stepniak-Kravchinsky.5 Wanted for Mezentsev’s murder, Kravchinsky fled abroad, where he undertook a series profiling the most notorious figures of the Russian revolutionary movement for the Milanese newspaper il Pungolo. The series enjoyed tremendous success, so much so that at the invitation of his Italian publisher, Kravchinsky compiled the profiles into a book titled La Rossia Sotteranea (Underground Russia), which was published in all the European languages, as well as in Japan and North America. Meanwhile, Kravchinsky’s coconspirator , Alexander Barannikov, as a member of the Executive Committee of the People’s Will, participated in all but one attempt of the fatal Emperor Hunt while living inconspicuously as Dostoevsky’s neighbor.6 226 Part Four: The Beautiful Dead (Deed) Kravchinsky has proved as elusive a biographical subject as he was an outlaw, and scholars have had great difficulty in establishing even the most fundamental facts of his childhood and youth. In the introduction to Underground Russia, the revolutionary historian Peter Lavrov confidently presented Kravchinsky as a man at the hub of the revolutionary movement through its formative phases in the 1870s and therefore able to impart to “European readers a sufficiently truthful idea of [its] form and substance.”7 Without doubt, Kravchinsky was everywhere: a member of...


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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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