restricted access Epilogue: “All of Europe Thrills to the Horror”
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247 Epilogue “All of Europe Thrills to the Horror” As the year 1881 dawned, the outlook for Russia—at least to Western observers—was promising, and the London Times confidently referred to the country’s “much brighter prospects [and] progress towards real liberal reform.”1 By contrast, in Ireland the prospects were increasingly bleak, as the Pall Mall Gazette reported “new developments of Fenian terrorism in Dublin” and lamented that “the Chief Secretary cannot walk through the streets of one of the important Irish towns without being accompanied by large armed bodies of police.”2 The picture was suddenly and radically altered and the Times’s rosy optimism dashed on March 13, 1881 (March 1 by the Russian calendar) when, in dirge-like tones, the Times announced: “The desperate revolutionists who have so often attempted the life of the Emperor of Russia have at last succeeded in the perpetration of the atrocious crime,” and it predicted: “All of Europe will be thrilled with horror at the intelligence of this tragic termination of a career that was full of promise at its commencement.”3 In this case, the Times proved correct, and the thrill of horror ran up and down the telegraph wires and was taken up by a Greek chorus of the international press. 248 Epilogue “There is no civilized state in either hemisphere which this morning has not been thrilled with horror at the tidings telegraphed from St. Petersburg,” echoed the Pall Mall Gazette (PMG).4 “No words could be too strong to express the feeling of horror and detestation with which the perpetrators of this crime will be regarded the world over,” The Scotsman chimed in.5 It is of course the prerogative of the civilized to “thrill with horror,” and this quaint and now necessarily obsolete turn of phrase testifies to a Victorian sensibility steeped in melodrama with its unmistakably Gothic excesses and journalistic sensationalism. In the late nineteenth century it was still possible and admissible—after the surfeit of twentieth-century horrors it no longer was—for the public to thrill to such a “terrible illustration” of the combined power of shadowy conspirators and modern technology to fell the most powerful sovereign on Earth. This was in fact a condition of terrorism’s emergence: that it would send a powerful jolt through a restless and sensation-craving mass public. Thrill aside, the first reports of Tsar Alexander II’s assassination were steeped in categorical condemnations of the act and unsparing vilification of its perpetrators.6 With the details of the assassination as yet unavailable, the press sketched the story of Alexander II’s reign, emplotted as Shakespearean tragedy, which had “begun with such high hopes of beneficent reform” and culminated in “profound pathos.”7 The Tsar-Liberator was obviously the “Abraham Lincoln of Russia” but also Russia’s “Prince of Denmark”—too soft and indecisive for “times out of joint” that his abolition of the feudal order had ushered in.8 The tragedy as evoked in the British press was not Russia’s alone but one in which every Western nation and citizen shared. Not only was Alexander II admired as one of Europe’s (and indeed, history’s) most progressive, humanitarian monarchs, but in 1880–81 imperial rivalries had subsided and relations between nations were characterized by an almost unruffled calm and amicability.9 Finally, of course, Alexander II was a relation of Queen Victoria: her own flesh and blood had been felled at the same time that the monarchical principle came under renewed and deadly assault. The British would recall the similarly heinous though luckily unsuccessful attempts on their own Queen. These were among the reasons that in the days following the assassination the Western press locked arms in solidarity to mourn the murdered sovereign . The details of lavish funeral and memorial services, with entire imperial families and diplomatic corps present, were reported from St. Petersburg and all the Western capitals; the British court promptly Epilogue 249 went into one month’s mourning; private and state festivities (in Dublin, the St. Patrick’s Day Ball) were cancelled; and perhaps most indicative of the somber import of the occasion, the Times gave notice “that her Majesty’s staghounds will not go out today.”10 In this otherwise unified outpouring of grief and opprobrium, a few dissenting voices were heard, only to be unceremoniously shushed. Socialists in New York defiantly adopted resolutions “applauding” the assassination, and in Paris the radical papers the Intransigeant and the Citoyen...


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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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