(RUSSIA, 1856-1900 – continued)

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Student Rebellion and Assassination of Alexander II, 1862-81


Ivan Turgenev, receiving an honorary doctorate from Oxford University in 1879

Saint or Fool? (a few dramatic lines by Turgenev)

In the early 1860s, Russia had fewer university students than did France or Britain. Many of Russia's students believed that governmental reforms were inadequate, and they were hostile toward Alexander's authoritarianism regarding the universities. Disturbances erupted on university campuses in 1861 and '62, coinciding with discontent over dissatisfaction with the emancipation of serfs.

Numerous fires were set in St. Petersburg in 1862 and in cities along the Volga River. Leaflets urging revolution were distributed. The government filled the jail cells at St. Petersburg's Peter and Paul fortress and nearby Kronstadt naval base with university students. The authorities closed the universities, but then reopened them again in August 1863, under a new minister of education, bent on placating the students with a more liberal policy and a freer university.

Political activism was prestigious among the students, and the activist's way of looking at the world was attractive. The activists were interested in the utilitarianism positivism and materialism that had been more common in Britain. They extolled science in what they believed was a new age of science. They were in rebellion against the metaphysics, religion and romantic poetry of their parent's generation. They were hostile toward family control and school discipline. Because of their rejection of authority and old values they were described by the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev as nihilists, and the label stuck.

In 1866, in an individual action, a student tried to assassinate Tsar Alexander. His government became more hostile to students. A new minister of education took charge of the universities and applied stricter controls.

In 1873, students studying in Switzerland were ordered to return to Russia, and these angered returning students launched what was called the "To the People" movement, which they hoped would revolutionize Russia.

The "To the People" movement wanted to change Russia by mixing with and passing along their ideas to the common people in rural areas – Russia being predominately rural – and to serve the common people in various ways, as teachers, doctors or scribes. The movement grew to a couple of thousand people in a sea of around 100 million or so peasants. Some peasants looked with hostility upon the "nihilist" views of the movement activists. Peasants saw them as outsiders and as troublemakers and reported them to the police. Arrests and trials of nearly 250 marked the end of the To the People movement, and it was followed by something more radical. 

Vera Zasulich

Vera Zasulich, from teaching literacy classes for factory workers she turned to terrorism. Then she fled to Switzerland, where she converted to Marxism, opposed terror tactics and in 1883 co-founded "Emancipation of Labour" with Georgi Plekhanov and Pavel Axelrod.

In 1876 a group called "Land and Liberty" was founded. It was a secret organization trying to avoid the police while distributing propaganda among "the people" and political organizing. In early 1878, a non-student worker-activist but member of "Land and Liberty," Vera Zasulich, sought revenge for the beating that one of her activist friends received in prison. She shot and wounded the military governor of St. Petersburg and was tried by a jury, which failed to convict her. The government responded by ending jury trials for people charged with politically motivated crimes. The government also stepped up its arrest and exile of persons suspected of sedition.

In 1879, St. Petersburg had its first significant strike by industrial workers. And that year, from the "Land and Liberty" activists emerged an impatient group that advocated terrorism to accomplish their goals, a group that called itself the "Will of the People." Their goals were democracy, worker ownership of mines and factories, lands to peasants, complete freedom of speech and association, a classless society and people's militias replacing the army. Some believed that if Tsar Alexander II were assassinated he might be replaced with a new ruler who would create a liberal constitution – which they saw as an improvement although of more benefit to the bourgeoisie than to the masses. Some others believed that the assassination of prominent officials and Alexander II could spark a popular uprising.

In 1879 several attempts were made to kill Alexander. In 1880 they blew up the dining room at the tsar's Winter Palace, killing eleven and injuring fifty-six but missing the tsar, who had been late to dine. The police were able to track down and arrest many members of the "Will of the People," almost destroying the organization.

In March 1881, the police were aware that another attempt was afoot to assassinate the tsar. The police warned Alexander to remain secluded, but Alexander ignored the warning, and, on March 13, a bomb was thrown beneath his carriage, wounding some in his entourage. The entourage stopped – as the assassins had planned. Alexander emerged from his carriage, feeling obliged to be with the wounded. A 26-year-old member of the conspiracy, Ignacy Hryniewiecki, approached within a few steps of Alexander and tossed a package that landed at the feet of Alexander. The package exploded and ripping apart Alexander's legs. Alexander's entourage fled in panic, leaving the tsar to bleed alone on the icy ground. Passers-by found Alexander, but he died a few hours later.

One of those sentenced to die for the Tsar's assassination was Vera Figner. A respected writer Niko Nikoladze negotiated with the government and save Figner from the gallows. She was sentenced instead to perpetual penal servitude in Siberia. Figner was to write a wrote a book, Memoirs of a Revolutionist, that would be published in Russia after the Bolshevik revolution in November 1917. Her book describes her background and the peasants she served as a paramedic.

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