In 1861 Alexander II., Emperor of Russia, signed a proclamation for the emancipation of the Russian serfs, giving freedom by a stroke of the pen to over fifty millions of human beings. In 1881, twenty years afterwards, when, as there is some reason to believe, he was about to grant a constitution and summon a parliament for the political emancipation of the Russian people, he fell victim to a band of revolutionists, and the thought of granting liberty to his people perished with him.
This assassination was the work of the secret society known as the Nihilists. To say that their association was secret is equivalent to saying that we know nothing of their purposes other than their name and their deeds indicate. Nihilism signifies nothingness. It comes from the same root as annihilate, and annihilation of despots appears to have been the Nihilist theory of obtaining political rights. This society reached its culmination in the reign of Alexander II., and, despite the fact that he proved himself one of the mildest and most public-spirited of the czars, he was chosen as the victim of the theory of obtaining political regeneration by terror.
Threats preceded deeds. The final years of the emperor's life were made wretched through fear and anxiety. His ministers were killed by the revolutionists. Some of the guards placed about his person became victims of the secret band. Letters bordered with black and threatening the emperor's life were found among his papers or his clothes. An explosive powder placed in his handkerchief injured his sight for a time; a box of asthma pills sent him proved to contain a small but dangerous infernal machine. He grew haggard through this constant peril; his hair whitened, his form shrank, his nerves were unstrung.
In February, 1879, Prince Krapotkin, governor-general of Kharkoff, was killed by a pistol-shot fired into his carriage window. In April a Nihilist fired five pistol-shots at the czar. In June the Nihilists resolved to use dynamite with the purpose of destroying the governors-general of several provinces and the czar and heir-apparent. Among heir victims was the chief of police, while two of his successors barely escaped death.
The first attempt to kill the czar by dynamite took the form of excavating mines under three rail-roads on one of which he was expected to travel. Of these mines only one was exploded. A house on the Moscow railroad, not far from that city, was purchased by the conspirators, and an underground passage excavated from its cellar to the roadway. Here auger-holes were bored upward in which were inserted iron pipes communicating with dynamite stored below. On the day when the emperor was expected to pass, a woman Nihilist named Sophia Perovskya stood within view of the track, with instructions to wave her handkerchief to the conspirators in the house at the proper moment. The pilot train which always preceded the imperial train was allowed to pass. The other train drew up to take water, and was wrecked by the explosion of the mine. Fortunately for the emperor, he was in the pilot train and out of danger.
Some of the participants in this affair were arrested, but their chief, a German named Hartmann, escaped. Despite the utmost efforts of the police, he made his way safely out of Russia, aided by Nihilists at every step, sometimes travelling on foot, at other times in peasants' carts, finally crossing the frontier and reaching the nest of conspirators at Geneva. Here he is supposed to have taken part with others in devising a new and what proved a fatal plot. Meanwhile a fresh attempt was made on the life of the czar.
On February 5, 1880, Alexander II. was to entertain at dinner in the Winter Palace a royal visitor, Prince Alexander of Hesse. Fortunately, the czar was detained for a short time, and the hour fixed for the dinner had passed when the party proceeded along the corridor to the dining-hall. The brief delay probably saved their lives, for at that moment a tremendous explosion took place, wrecking the dining-hall and completely demolishing the guard-room, which was filled with dead and dying victims, sixty-seven in all. It proved that a Nihilist had obtained employment among some carpenters engaged in repairs within the palace, and had succeeded in storing dynamite in a tool-chest in his room. He escaped, and was never seen in St. Petersburg again. Two days later the corpse of a murdered policeman was found on the frozen surface of the Neva, a paper pinned to his breast threatening with death every governor-general except Melikoff, the successor of the murdered Krapotkin.
Their failures had proved so nearly successes that the Nihilists were rather encouraged than depressed. New plans followed the failure of old ones. It was proposed to poison the emperor and his son, the murder to be followed by a revolt of the disaffected in Moscow and St. Petersburg, the seizure of the palaces, and the establishment of a constitutional government. This plan, however, was given up as not likely to have the "great moral effect" which the Nihilists hoped to produce.
A Nihilist student in St. Petersburg had sent to the Paris committee of the society a recipe for a formidable explosive of his invention. A quantity of this dangerous substance was manufactured in France and secretly conveyed to St. Petersburg, where bombs to contain it had been prepared. The plans of the conspirators were now very carefully laid. They did not propose to fail again, if care could insure success. A cheese-monger's shop was opened on a street leading to the palace, under which a mine was laid to the centre of the carriage-way, it being proposed to kill the czar when out driving. If his carriage should take another route and follow the street leading from the Catharine Canal, it was arranged to wreck it with bombs flung by hand. The death of the czar was the sole thing in view. The conspirators seemed willing freely to sacrifice their own lives to that object. As regards the mine, it was so heavily charged with dynamite that its explosion would have wrecked a great part of the Anitchkoff Palace while killing the czar.
How the explosive material was conveyed from Paris to Russia is a mystery which was never successfully traced by the police. The utmost care was taken at the frontiers to prevent the entrance of any suspicious substance. For a year or two even the tea that came on the backs of camels from China was carefully searched, while all travellers were closely examined, and all articles coming from Western Europe were almost pulled to pieces in the minuteness of the scrutiny. The explosive is said to have looked like golden syrup, and to have been sweet to the taste, though acrid in its after-effects. A drop or two let fall on a hot stove flashed up in a brilliant sheet of flame, though without smell or noise.
The arrest of a Nihilist
Among the conspirators, one of the most useful was Sophia Perovskya, the woman already named. She was young, of noble family, handsome, educated, and fascinating in manner. Her beauty and high connections gave her opportunities which none of her fellow-conspirators enjoyed, and by her influence over men of rank and position she was enabled to learn many of the secrets of the court and to become familiar with all the precautions taken by the police to insure the safety of the czar. There was another woman in the plot, a Jewish girl named Besse Helfman. Eight men constituted the remainder of the party.
The fatal day came in March, 1881, On the morning of the 12th Melikoff, minister of the interior, told the czar that a man connected with the railroad explosion had just been arrested, on whose person were found papers indicating a new plot. He earnestly entreated Alexander to avoid exposing himself. On the next morning the czar went early to mass, and subsequently accompanied his brother, the Grand Duke Michael, to inspect his body-guard. Sophia Perovskya had been apprised of these intended movements, and informed the chief conspirators, who at once determined that the deed should be done that day. The lover of Hesse Helfman had been arrested and had at once shot himself. Papers of an incriminating character had been found in her house, and it was feared that further delay might frustrate the plot, so that the purpose of waiting until the czar and his son might be slain together was abandoned. It was not known which street the czar would take. If he took the one, the mine was to be exploded; if the other, the bombs were to be thrown.
Two men, Resikoff and Elnikoff, the latter a young man completely under Sophia's influence, were to throw the bombs. She took a position from which she might signal the approach of the carriage. As it proved, the Catharine Canal route was taken. The carriage approached. Everything wore its usual aspect. There was nothing to excite suspicion. Suddenly a dark object was hurled from the sidewalk through the air and a tremendous report was heard. Resikoff had flung his bomb. A baker's boy and the Cossack footman of the czar were instantly killed, but the intended victim was unhurt and the horses were only slightly wounded. The coachman, who had escaped injury, wished to drive onward at speed out of the quickly gathering crowd, but Alexander, who had seen his footman fall, insisted on getting out of the carriage to assist him. It was a fatal resolve. As his feet touched the ground, Elnikoff flung his bomb. It exploded at the feet of the czar with such force as to throw men many yards distant to the ground, but proved fatal to only two, Elnikoff, who was instantly killed, and Alexander, who was mortally wounded, his lower limbs and the lower part of his body being frightfully shattered. He survived for a few hours in dreadful pain.
Terrible as was the crime, it was worse than useless. The proposed rising did not take place. A new czar immediately succeeded the dead one. The hoped-for constitution perished with him upon whom it depended. The Nihilists, instead of gaining liberal institutions, had set back the clock of reform for a generation, and perhaps much longer. Of the conspirators, one of the men was killed, one shot himself, and two escaped; the other four were executed. Of the women, Sophia was executed. She knew too much, and those who had betrayed to her the secrets of the court, fearing that she might implicate them, privately urged the new czar to sign her death-warrant. She held her peace, and died without a word.