As has been stated, during the first months of Loris-Melikov's ascendancy there were two additional equally abortive attempts on the life of Alexander II. One occurred in Odessa. Rumour had it that he would pass through the city in the spring on his way to Livadia. Accordingly a couple, consisting of Sofya Perovskaya and a nominal husband of hers, opened a grocery on the street along which the Czar was bound to be driven on his way from the railway station to the harbour. The plan was to dig a tunnel from the store and lay a mine under the roadway. The work was actually begun, with the help of half a dozen men and women, including Vera Figner. In the latter part of May, however, it became known that the Emperor was not likely to go south just then, since the empress lay on her deathbed (she died on 22 May). As a result, the operations were discontinued.
The conspirators then proposed that the work be completed to the end of doing away with Todleben, Governor General of the Odessa region. He had earned the hatred of the revolutionaries by his ruthlessness, and in any case there was a plan afoot to force the authorities to abolish the office of Governor General by systematically obliterating its incumbents. The Executive Committee decided, however, that the mine, as a method of assassination, should be reserved for the Czar. And so, traces of excavation having been removed, the grocery was abandoned. According to Vera Figner, Todleben escaped alive because he soon left the city for a post in Vilna.
The other attempt on the Czar's life was made that summer in the capital. It involved blowing up the Kamenny Bridge, as he crossed it on his way from the Tsarskoe Selo railway station to the Winter Palace. A team of activists, headed by Zhelyabov, managed to place in the water under the bridge four rubber sacks containing some two hundred and fifty pounds of dynamite and provided with detonators and wires. They fastened the loose ends of these to a float anchored nearby, on which women did their laundry. Acting on the intelligence that the Czar was expected to arrive in the capital from Tsarskoe Selo on 17 August, Zhelyabov arranged to meet Vasily Teterka. a labourer he had won over to the cause, at the bridge on that day. The latter was to bring with him a basket of potatoes, and Zhelyabov an electric battery. The two were to row out to the float, where Teterka was to go through the motions of washing the potatoes while Zhelyabov connected the wires with the battery. When the Czar's carriage was on the bridge, Zhelyabov was to detonate the charges.
It is not clear why the scheme fell through. One explanation is that Teterka, having no watch, was late for the appointment. The same day the Emperor left for the Crimea. He was accompanied by Princess Yuryevskaya, who, having been his mistress for fifteen years and having borne him three children, became his morganatic wife six weeks after the Empress's death -- to the scandal of the court circles.
There was something half-hearted about this last effort, and it was followed by a lull in terrorist activities. But this was not because Goldenberg's comrades shared his faith in 'the dictatorship of the heart.' In Narodnaya volya Loris-Melikov was described as a cross between a wolf and a fox. Nevertheless, it is possible that the People's Will deliberately refrained from action, waiting to see if the Government would at last take the road of democratic reforms.
The unacknowledged truce was short-lived. As winter approached, it was increasingly evident that nothing was to be expected from Loris-Melikov's 'bobtailed constitution' as, in a quatrain that was on everybody's lips, a humorist dubbed the plan for a General Commission. Long terms of hard labour were meted out to political offenders, and the treatment of the convicts was such that one of them committed suicide. In all, 127 politicals were tried in 1880, and at the end of the year 1,770 persons were under police surveillance. In October sixteen terrorists who had been arrested at various times during the preceding twelve months faced a Petersburg military court. Many of the charges against them were based on Goldenberg's disclosures. Two of the defendants were hanged on 4 November. As long as there had been some hope that the sentence would be commuted, the hands of the Executive Committee were tied. Now it was free to act again. Zhelyabov testified that the hangings 'were hailed with joy, in spite of the fact that the death of the two men tore out the very nerves, as it were, of the Party, while the commutation of Adrian Mikhailov's death sentence was met with undisguised chagrin.' [Adrian Mikhailov, who had driven the carriage in which Kravchinsky escaped after killing Mezentzev, was condemned to hang, but the sentence was changed to a term of hard labour because he had turned informer, a fact that was not known to his comrades at the time.]
The proclamation issued by the People's Will on the occasion of the double execution urged its members to store up their strength, for 'the hour of judgment is not far.' The phrase had a clear meaning: the assassination of the Czar. All other tasks were pushed into the background. The enterprise had now become an obsession with most of the members of the Committee. They were no longer able to reason about it. Zhelyabov, for one, behaved like a man in a trance, as though under the urgency of an outside force. Yet they were by no means free from a gnawing sense of the futility of their undertaking.
In the early winter it was resolved to make one more attempt, the seventh since the Odessa project the previous year, to explode a mine in the Czar's path. A team of observers, reporting to Sofya Perovskaya, ascertained that on Sundays he usually attended the trooping of the colours in the Mikhailovsky Manege, a score of blocks from the palace, and that he was driven there up the Nevsky and along Malaya Sadovaya. Work was started on a plan to mine this side street.
In the midst of these preparations the organization suffered a crushing blow: at the end of November the invaluable Alexander Mikhailov was arrested. He had ordered a number of photographs of the two men who were hanged from a commercial studio, the owner of which was a secret service agent, and was seized when he called for the pictures. Although he had sensed that there was something suspicious about the place, he failed to live up to his own precept of unremitting caution and walked into a police trap like the merest tyro.
Shortly before he faced the court, with nineteen other defendants, over a year later, he admonished his comrades in letters not to be tempted by thoughts of vengeance or by beautiful theories. 'In Russia,' he wrote, 'there is only one theory: to win liberty in order to get land.' The only way to do it, he asserted, was 'to strike at the centre,' i.e., at the occupant of the throne. He and nine of his comrades were condemned to die. He had long been used to the thought of death, and during the fifteen months of solitary confinement he had succeeded in overcoming the last vestiges of aversion to it. The trial itself was a happy experience, for it gave him a chance to profess his deepest convictions freely. On the eve of the day when he expected to be executed he tasted intense exaltation. He pictured himself on the scaffold among comrades all calmly facing the end, and saw his own state in 'a most iridescent light.' It seemed to him that if he had been a composer, he would have produced immortal music that night. 'Involuntarily,' he wrote to his sister, 'you come to believe in the presence within man of that heavenly fire which, at such cost to himself, Prometheus ravished and gave to humanity.' Then euphoria yielded to serenity. An hour after midnight he went peacefully to sleep.
He woke up in the morning in the same placid mood. The news that in his case the Emperor had substituted a life term of penal servitude for the death penalty left him indifferent. But as the days went by and he remained in the dark as to the fate of his comrades, he was seized with anguish. He could not bear the thought that he alone had been spared. As a matter of fact, all the death sentences, except one, had been commuted. Instead of being shipped to Siberia, Mikhailov was incarcerated in the Alexis Ravelin of the Fortress of Peter and Paul. Less than two years later he sickened and died there.
On 2 December, a three-room front basement on Malaya Sadovaya Street was rented by Yevdokim Kobozev, tradesman, in reality Yury Bogdanovich, member of the Executive Committee. A dynamite charge under the roadway was again to be tried, but it was to be combined with a new form of attack: several bombs were to be tossed at the Czar's carriage, should he survive the explosion. Kibalchich and Isayev, another Party technician, had succeeded in producing such a missile. Finally, if both methods failed, Zhelyabov was to assail Alexander with dagger and pistol. The combination of mine, bomb, pistol, and dagger gave the conspirators the feeling that this time Alexander could not escape alive.
On New Year's Eve some of the activists who were in the capital got together to celebrate. Gleb Uspensky, the writer, was the host. The gathering was meagrely but genuinely gay. The life of the party was Zhelyabov. Sablin, who had acted the part of a grocer in Odessa, told anecdotes from the life of the clergy. Gesya Helfman made music on a comb. She was a homely girl with a high-pitched voice and a constant smile, who had run away from an Orthodox Jewish home at sixteen to avoid marriage to a groom chosen by her parents. There was singing and dancing: quadrilles, lancers, and the native trepak, a gallopade with plenty of stamping. Isayev made so much noise that the neighbours protested. He took off his shoes and kept it up. One guest did not join in the fun: she had witnessed the execution of Lizogub, and her imagination was fitting the shroud now to one, now to another dancer. A similar gathering had greeted the coming of the previous year. On that occasion the ghost of Nicholas I had informed the company through the instrumentality of an improvised ouijah board that his son would die by poison.
On 8 January, 1881, Bogdanovich and his 'wife,' the Anna Yakimova who had played the part of Zhelyabov's spouse at Alexandrovsk, moved into the basement on Malaya Sadovaya. The couple opened a cheese store in one room and used another as living quarters. It was from there that the digging was started. Ten men, including Zhelyabov, lent a hand at various times. Operations went on smoothly until a wooden sewer was cut into, and the tunnel was filled with an over-powering stench. Nevertheless the work went on and late in February a passage of some fifteen feet extending to the middle of the street was completed.
While preparations for the dynamiting were in progress, experimentation with a hand bomb was also going forward. It was conducted by Kibalchich and Isayev, the Party's best technical brains. Who was to throw the missiles? Four men were selected: Ignaty Grinevitzky (Party name: 'Pussy'), twenty-six years old, a former engineering student, stocky, good-natured, taciturn; Timofey Mikhailov, a boiler maker, twenty-one years old; Ivan Yemelyanov, a boy of twenty, who after graduating from a trade school, had studied abroad on a grant from Baron Ginzburg, and was now a cabinetmaker; Nikolay Rysakov, a nineteen-year-old student. All were members of a 'fighting squad' formed as an adjunct to a workers' group primarily to carry on 'economic terror': to use strong-arm methods on informers and unpopular foremen. Zhelyabov was to testify in court that the Executive Committee had called for volunteers from the several 'squads' in existence and that forty-seven men had signified their 'willingness to sacrifice themselves.' He was generally candid in his testimony, but in this case he must have deviated from the truth. If he had all those volunteers to choose from, it seems odd that he should have selected Rysakov, a mere boy who had recently fallen under his influence. The People's Will was to pay dearly for having entrusted so dangerous a task to this raw youth.
One evening in mid-February the four bomb-throwers gathered in a newly rented kvartira on Telezhnaya Street, tenanted by Sablin and Gesya Helfman. Zhelyabov outlined the plan of attack, and Kibalchich lectured on the bomb -- there was something professorial about this quiet man, with his lean, bloodless, sharp-nosed face and his habit of screwing up his eyes, which often had a faraway look. He demonstrated parts of the mechanism for the class, drew diagrams, described how the bomb worked and how it should be handled. The missile was a cylindrical affair weighing five to six pounds, the outer shell fashioned out of an empty kerosene can, and the explosive a combination of nitroglycerin and pyroxilin. Shortly after the meeting the bombs were tested in a suburban park. Two missiles were pitched, and one of them exploded.
Meanwhile, the affairs of the Party were going from bad to worse. It was using up its principal, as Zhelyabov put it. In addition to intelligence obtained from Goldenberg the previous year, the police now had the services of another informer: the young carpenter, Okladsky, who had taken part in the attempt at Alexandrovsk. Arrest followed upon arrest. Early in February Kletochnikov was trapped by gendarmes. The conspirators felt surrounded. Nerves were on edge. Then came the heaviest blow of all: in the evening of 27 February Zhelyabov was arrested in the lodging of an incautious comrade.
The shattering news reached Vera Figner the next morning. With Isayev as her 'husband' she was occupying a flat, which was the headquarters of the conspiracy. Later in the day word came that the cheese store had been visited by the police. It was a house search in the guise of a sanitary inspection. For some time the establishment had been under suspicion. The owners looked the part of petty tradespeople, he with his massive beard and his face the colour of a brass samovar, she with the manner and speech of a country wife, but they acted queerly, and there were too many young men coming to the basement at night. As it happened, luck was with the plotters: the examination of the premises was so perfunctory that the excavation was not discovered. This in spite of the fact that a barrel and a tub in the store were filled with earth from the tunnel; that in the storeroom, too, there were sacks and boxes packed with earth, as well as heaps of it barely covered with straw or coke and mats; and that there was earth under the sofa in the living-room. For the moment the situation was saved, but it was obvious that the police had an eye on the place.
That afternoon all the members of the Executive Committee who could be reached met at headquarters. The situation that confronted them was a dismal one. Kletochnikov, the Party's shield, was gone. Zhelyabov, the heart of the conspiracy, was behind bars. The police were clearly closing in on them. True, the Malaya Sadovaya excavation was completed, but the explosive had not yet been placed in it. And not a single bomb was ready. Kibalchich, phlegmatic and absent-minded as usual, had been dilatory, perhaps not quite trusting the child of his brain. The culmination of the long effort, on which so many hopes were centred, hung by the thinnest of threads. A slight mishap might mean the final collapse of the enterprise for which so much had been risked and for which men had gone to the gallows.
In these desperate circumstances the Committee decided to act. Isayev was instructed to lay and wire the mine on Malaya Sadovaya. The meeting adjourned at three p.m. and two hours later in the same quarters work began on the bombs. The task was entrusted to Kibalchich, who had just returned with the prospective bomb-throwers from testing a half-loaded missile in an unfrequented spot beyond the Neva. Vera Figner and Sofya Perovskaya also made themselves useful. The four bombers were told to report the following morning, 1 March, at the Telezhnaya Street flat. It was expected that on that day, as on two previous Sundays, the Emperor would be driven to the Manege to witness the trooping of the colours.
That night Grinevitzky set down what was in effect a letter to posterity. Only a fragment of it has been preserved. 'Alexander II must die,' he wrote. '. . . He will die, and with him, we, his enemies, his executioners, shall die too. . . . How many more sacrifices will our unhappy country ask of its sons before it is liberated? . . . It is my lot to die young, I shall not see our victory, I shall not live one day, one hour in the bright season of our triumph, but I believe that with my death I shall do all that it is my duty to do, and no one in the world can demand more of me. . . .'
Next day, by eight a.m., after fifteen hours of feverish, uninterrupted work, four bombs were ready. There was no explosive for any more, nor would there have been time to manufacture them. The men would have one apiece. Perovskaya took two missiles to the Telezhnaya Street quarters, and later Kibalchich carried the other two there. Grinevitzky, Mikhailov, Yemelyanov, Rysakov were there, waiting. They were dismayed to hear that Zhelyabov had been arrested. Perovskaya was now in command. She outlined the plan of action and drew on an envelope a rough chart of the streets adjacent to the Manege, marking with circles the spots where the bomb-throwers were to be stationed. It was believed that the Emperor would be driven up the Nevsky and along the mined block, which opened onto a small square in front of the Manege. Two men were to loiter at the corner of the Nevsky and Malaya Sadovaya Street, and two were to stand at the other end of the block, near the square. At the sound of the explosion all of them were to close in on the Czar's carriage from opposite directions and use their bombs if he was still alive.
Of course, he could take a different route, turning into Bolshaya Italyanskaya (now Rakov Street) which runs parallel to the Nevsky, thus avoiding the mined block. In that case no attack was to be made in the Manege Square, since it would be full of people. Instead, Perovskaya would walk past the men and by taking out a handkerchief and blowing her nose signal to them that they should abandon their posts and proceed to the Yekaterininsky (now Griboyedov) Canal, in the hope of attacking the Czar on his way back.
About an hour before noon all the conspirators filed out of the flat, each of the chosen four carrying a bomb wrapped in a handkerchief or a newspaper. There was little time to lose. The Emperor usually left the Palace in the early afternoon.
Since the previous night the mine on Malaya Sadovaya had been in place. On completing the work, Isayev had withdrawn. Sunday morning Bogdanovich too left the store, Yakimova alone remaining behind. Later in the morning she was joined by Frolenko. The imperturbable Ukrainian had been selected to turn on the current that would detonate the mine. The hope was that, being a stranger to the place, he might be able to get away in the confusion following the explosion. Yakimova, for her part, was to warn him of the approach of the imperial party and then leave without waiting for the mine to go off.
On Sunday morning, 1 March, the Emperor was in excellent spirits. Count Valuyev, who had an audience with him in the forenoon, noted in his diary that he hadn't seen the sovereign looking so well in a long time. The previous day, after the imperial family had attended Lenten service and taken communion, word had come that the redoubtable Zhelyabov had been arrested. This was glorious news. The cloud of fear under which the Czar and his wife had been living was at last lifting. Soon the rest of the terrorists would be rounded up. He felt a sense of well-being so keen that it frightened him. Nevertheless, Loris-Melikov, arriving about noon, pleaded with him not to leave the palace that day. The Minister spoke of rumours of another attack. After some hesitation, the Czar decided to attend the parade at the Manege. Their leader gone, he argued, the terrorists must have abandoned their plans. As a matter of fact, this view was shared by the security forces. That very morning the chief of police told his men that all was going well and that it was only necessary to seize two or three more conspirators to put an end to sedition for good and all. Thus Zhelyabov's arrest indirectly contributed to the success of the enterprise he had captained.
The Czar left the Palace in his two-seater drawn by a pair of horses a few minutes before one o'clock. It was a raw day; snow lay on the ground and was heaped up along the sidewalks; low clouds blanketed the sky. He had promised his wife that he would avoid Nevsky Prospect and the Malaya Sadovaya block with that peculiar cheese store. It filled her with apprehension, in spite of the fact that, as Loris-Melikov had assured her, the police found nothing suspicious there. Accordingly, the Emperor ordered his coachman to drive along Yekaterininsky Canal and up Bolshaya Italyanskaya. He was in the habit of naming the route at the last moment, so that no one knew it beforehand. Perovskaya was hanging about the Manege Square and two men with bombs were stationed nearby. They made no move to attack the Czar: there was still the possibility that on his way back he might drive past the cheese store.
At the Manege, Alexander watched the manoeuvres of two Guard battalions with obvious pleasure. He had a smile and a gracious word for his brother, Constantine, and the other dignitaries in his entourage. The brilliant ceremony lasted no more than thirty or forty minutes.
What route would he take on his way back? The terrorists waited feverishly for the answer. His carriage rolled down Bolshaya Italyanskaya, rendering the mine useless. This was Perovskaya's clue to give the signal that was to send the men with the bombs to the Yekaterininsky Canal. As she passed Grinevitzky, he gave her a barely perceptible wink.
Had the Czar driven home directly, he would have passed the quay before the bombers had time to reach it on foot. But he didn't. He paid a brief visit to his cousin, the Grand Duchess Catherine, and this enabled the men with the bombs to take up their new positions. Only three of them did so: Timofey Mikhailov lost his nerve, took his missile back to Headquarters and went home. Astonishingly enough, none of the plotters, each carrying a queer parcel, attracted the attention of the police stationed along the Sovereign's route.
Emerging from the gates of the Duchess's palace, the Emperor's carriage proceeded at a clip down Inzhenernaya Street. On the box next to the coachman sat an orderly, and the vehicle was guarded by six mounted Cossacks. The rear was brought up by three sleighs, carrying Colonel Dvorzhitzky, district chief of police, and two officers of the Gendarmerie, charged with the security of the Emperor.
At the end of the block the two-seater turned right, on to the quay. It had gone little more than a hundred and fifty yards when it encountered a thick-set youth in a fur cap. This was Rysakov. He moved closer to the roadway and threw his bomb -- it looked like a large snowball -- between the horse's legs. It was then two-fifteen p.m.
There was a loud explosion, a spray of snow, earth and splinters fanned out from a spot on the pavement, and the scene was filled with bluish smoke. One of the Cossack escorts lay motionless on the ground, and nearby a butcher's boy, who had been on his way to deliver an order, was writhing and groaning. Both of them had been severely wounded and soon died. When the bomb went off, Colonel Dvorzhitzky's team reared and came to a sudden stop. He jumped out and hurried over to the Czar's carriage which had halted not many yards away. He was in time to help his Sovereign step out. The Colonel took in the situation at a glance: the floor and back of the carriage were shattered, the window panes broken, the orderly wounded, the Emperor himself, somewhat dazed, had suffered a slight cut on one of his hands, but was otherwise unharmed. He crossed himself and inquired if the criminal had been seized. The Colonel satisfied him on that score. Glancing back, he had noticed that several policemen and soldiers were holding a man pinned against the iron railing along the edge of the quay. This was indeed Rysakov. An eyewitness reported that on leaving his carriage, the Czar bent over one of the wounded. The coachman begged his master to get back into the carriage, but as it did not look safe, Dvorzhitzky took the liberty of offering to drive the Czar to the Palace in his sleigh. The Emperor consented, but said he wished first to have a look at his assailant.
By now not only policemen, but soldiers, sailors, cadets, and civilians were milling around on the quay. The Czar, flanked by Dvorzhitzky and the Cossack guards leading their horses, walked up to Rysakov. According to Dvorzhitzky, Alexander merely inquired about the youth's identity and turned away without a word. Another eye-witness thought he saw the Sovereign wag a threatening finger at his assailant.
The Colonel again urged the Czar to get into his sleigh and drive on to the palace. Alexander reflected a moment and said he wanted to have a look at the spot where the explosion had occurred. He walked over to the funnel-shaped pit formed by the bomb. The Cossack and the boy were still lying where they had fallen. He expressed solicitude for them.
His curiosity satisfied, he was ready to drive away. The delay amounted to five or six minutes. He had taken only a few steps when he came within two or three paces of a man leaning against the railing with a parcel in his hands. The man turned to face the Emperor and made a sudden movement. There was a second deafening explosion.
When the smoke cleared, on the dirty, blood-stained snow, pocked with splinters and littered with shreds of clothing, shoe leather, and other debris, lay nearly a score of wounded, moaning, crawling, trying to rise. Because people had crowded close to the Czar, the second bomb claimed many more victims than the first. On the shattered flagstones of the sidewalk near the railing the Czar crouched in a pool of blood. He was bare-headed, his fur-trimmed cloak and the uniform of the sappers of the Guard that he was wearing were in rags. His legs were splintered below the knee and blood was gushing from the wounds. Beside him lay his attacker, Grinevitzky, also gravely wounded and unconscious. Dvorzhitzky was in the same state but soon recovering consciousness, heard the Czar call weakly for help. The Colonel managed to lift him and with assistance place him in his own sleigh, but no one had sufficient presence of mind to see that he got first aid.
Alexander continued to bleed so profusely that the sleigh left a bloody trail as it made its way toward the Palace. When he was finally placed on a couch in his study and a physician summoned, his condition was hopeless because of loss of blood. He seemed to rally and received Holy Communion. At three-forty p.m. the flag flying over the Winter Palace was lowered to half mast.
At nine o'clock Grinevitzky, who had been carried to the infirmary attached to the Palace, regained consciousness. Determined to give no information to the police, he refused to disclose his name. An hour and a half later he was dead. His identity was established only posthumously. Of the innocent bystanders injured by the second bomb only one was wounded fatally. The affair of 1 March cost fewer lives than the Winter Palace explosion.
When Rysakov saw that the Czar was hurt, he expressed satisfaction, which earned him a punch in the head from one of the soldiers holding him. But he was turned over to the authorities unharmed.
The moment the second bomb went off, Yemelyanov, who was stationed some twenty paces down the quay, rushed to the scene of the explosion to see if Grinevitzky was alive and could be spirited away in the confusion. He realized at once that nothing could be done. Then, on impulse, he approached the Czar -- he claimed to have been the first at his side -- and helped prop him up in the sleigh. He did this with the bomb wrapped up in a newspaper under his arm. Then he made his way unmolested to the flat on Telezhnaya Street and turned in the missile.
When Kibalchich and Isayev, who had been loitering near the Manege, found that the Emperor had not driven past the cheese store, they decided that the affair was a fiasco. Aloof and abstracted as ever, Kibalchich went to his furnished room and it was only in the evening that he learned of the event he had done so much to bring about. Isayev made his way to headquarters and reported failure. Vera Figner then went out to pay a visit, and while at her friend's learned of the Czar's death. She hurried back to the flat, where several comrades were gathered. Tears were in the eyes of all those present. Of that incredible moment she wrote later: 'The nightmare that had weighed down on Young Russia for ten years had vanished. . . . The Czar's blood shed by us had redeemed all the horrors of prison and exile, all the brutality and cruelty inflicted on hundreds and thousands of our comrades, all the blood of our martyrs, everything.'
Sofya Perovskaya was not at headquarters. Aside from the members of the bombing squad, she was the only conspirator to witness the attack. Standing on the other shore of the narrow canal, she had seen all that had happened on the quay. Straight from that scene she went to keep an appointment with two students. As she quietly entered the cafe where they were waiting, her bloodless face betrayed no emotion, and there was the usual concentrated look in her eyes. As yet she was unaware of the fatal outcome of the bombing. When she learned of Alexander's death, her exultation was crossed by deep anguish: Zhelyabov was in the hands of the enemy. The immense pressure under which she lived in the hours immediately following his arrest had riveted her mind to the tasks at hand. But now her thoughts turned to him. She was not unaware that the police dossier contained much against him, but it was possible that the authorities had no evidence of his connexion with the assassination. And, of course, he hadn't actually taken part in it.
Then came the news that he had confessed to having been responsible for the act. She read about it in an extra she bought as she walked along the Nevsky with a comrade. Clearly the fate of her beloved was sealed. Even at that terrible moment she did not lose hold of herself. She only lowered her head and slowed her pace, mechanically clutching the narrow sheet. 'Why did he do it?' asked her companion. 'I suppose it was necessary,' she replied.
Was it necessary? Interrogated immediately after his arrest, Zhelyabov answered the question about his occupation by declaring: 'I am employed in liberating my country.' He admitted membership in the People's Will -- in subsequent statements he described himself as an agent of the Executive Committee -- and he confessed to having organized the attempt at Alexandrovsk. He must have believed that Goldenberg had disclosed the fact to the police.
On Sunday afternoon, on his obligatory walk in the prison yard, he listened for the sound of an explosion. He did not hear it, and went to bed unaware of what had happened. At two a.m. he was aroused from sleep and brought face to face with Rysakov. They made no attempt to conceal that they knew each other. Zhelyabov was then told of the assassination and presumably of Rysakov's part in it. So this lad, a raw recruit whom he had only recently brought into the ranks, was the only one of those directly implicated in the affair to have been seized. Could he possibly let him take his punishment alone? Rysakov may have already worn the crestfallen look that presaged his breakdown.
Zhelyabov did not try to hide his joy at the momentous news from his captors. A giant step, he said, had been taken toward the liberation of the people. If he had not actually been involved in the attack, he declared, it was only because he was behind bars, but morally his participation was beyond question. And he added a threat: 'If, with the ascension of Alexander III to the throne, the Party's expectations are not fulfilled and if it meets with the same treatment as before, it will not hesitate to attempt his life, too.' The gist of these remarks he incorporated in a formal deposition. In another statement, dated 2 March, he explained that he had sponsored Rysakov as a regicide because he believed the youth to have 'the makings of a calm, manly terrorist and to be a person of rare moral strength.'
On the same day he addressed this communication to the public prosecutor:
'If the new sovereign, having received the sceptre from the hands of the revolution, means to follow the old system of treating regicides, if the intention is to execute Rysakov, it would be a crying injustice to spare my life, since I have made repeated attempts on Alexander II and since I did not actually take part in assassinating him merely because of a stupid accident. I demand to be included among those indicted in connexion with the affair of 1 March, and, if necessary, I will make such disclosures as shall convict me. I request that this statement be given appropriate consideration.' He added the following postscript: 'I am troubled by the fear that the Government, putting legality above justice, will adorn the new monarch's crown solely with the corpse of the young hero for lack of formal evidence against me, a veteran of the revolution. I protest against such an eventuality with all the strength of my soul and demand justice for myself. Alone, the cowardice of the Government will account for one gallows, not two.'
That very day Rysakov began to inform against his erstwhile comrades. What he said enabled the police to raid the Telezhnaya quarters the next night. Gesya Helfman alone was arrested, as Sablin killed himself after firing several shots at the gendarmes. The following morning Timofey Mikhailov was seized after he had wounded three police officers. Rysakov identified both prisoners.
In the weeks that followed, the frightened, bewildered boy continued to tell everything he could recall about his comrades. His experiences on the quay had had a shattering effect on him. He had envisaged the assassination of the Czar as a radiant event certain to work a magic transformation of life. Instead, he saw blood flow and heard the death rattle of innocent victims. He also discovered that his political convictions were rather shaky. And his questioner, the same astute detective who had handled Goldenberg, persuaded him that complete frankness would save mm trom the noose. He did try to justify his behaviour. He hinted that while he was still at liberty he had lost faith in terror. He argued lamely that he had joined the group in the hope of putting an end to terror, both red and white, and of preventing the horrors of a popular rising. And he blamed Zhelyabov for having misled him. Alleging sincere repentance, he said that he had turned against his former comrades in order to atone for his crime.
The Executive Committee had intended to maintain the cheese store with a view to using the mine eventually against the new Czar. The idea was given up after the Telezhnaya quarters had been discovered. On 3 March the couple who ran the establishment abandoned it, and the next morning the police searched the premises. On the counter they found one rouble left to pay the butcher for meat that had been bought for the cat. They also discovered the mine. This heightened the tension in the city. There were wild rumours of new plots. Cossack troops patrolled the streets. Railway stations and trains were watched, and so were roads. Wholesale house searches were conducted and arrests made under the slightest pretext.
Meanwhile a change had come over Sofya Perovskaya. Her composure and self-control were gone. She alternated between hope and despair, between apathy and furious activity. She was no longer the professional revolutionary for whom the cause was the be-all and end-all. She was possessed by the idea of arranging for Zhelyabov's escape. She made plan after plan, one more reckless and fantastic than the last. She had lost her head. She would not hear of leaving town, as her friends urged her to do. She grew neglectful of the most elementary rules of precaution. It was as though she craved to share the fate of her beloved.
Before long her unconscious wish was granted. On 10 March she was seized as she was being driven along the Nevsky. She had been spotted by the proprietress of a dairy who had known her as a customer. Rysakov established her identity and described the role she had played. She made no attempt to contradict him and readily signed a full confession. Rysakov also identified Kibalchich, who was arrested a week later. Speaking with perfect detachment, the latter calmly admitted his guilt. As a matter of fact, his mind was not on the subject. He was at this time deeply absorbed in designing a flying machine. As soon as he was installed in jail, he went on with his diagrams and calculations, using the walls of his cell until paper was brought to him. In the wake of his arrest came the capture of Frolenko.
At first the authorities had intended to try Rysakov alone. But as they gained a fuller insight into the plot that had resulted in the Emperor's death, it was decided to have a group trial. Four men: Zhelyabov, Rysakov, Timofey Mikhailov, Kibalchich, and two women: Sofya Perovskaya and Gesya Helfman, were to be arraigned before a tribunal made up of senators and representatives of the estates of the Empire. The case was to be heard in public.
In a communication addressed to the presiding Senator, Zhelyabov denied the competence of the court on the ground that it was an interested party. He demanded a trial by jury. The jurors, he concluded, were certain not only to acquit him and his comrades, but to offer them the gratitude of the fatherland. After due consideration, the court overruled this objection, and Zhelyabov accepted the ruling.
On 26 March the defendants faced their judges. The trial was conducted in strict accordance with legal procedure. The accused were provided with counsel, except for Zhelyabov, who chose to conduct his own defence. When the defendants were asked about their occupation, Perovskaya and Helfman replied: 'Revolutionary affairs,' while Zhelyabov said: 'I served the cause of the people's liberation. For many years this was my sole occupation, to which I am devoted with my whole being.' Concerning his religion he stated that he adhered to the essence of Christ's teaching, and believed that it was the duty of every true Christian to fight for justice, for the rights of the oppressed and the weak, and, if necessary, to suffer for it.
After the bill of indictment was read, the prisoners were given a chance to explain their motives and state their views, as well as to confirm or modify their pre-trial testimony. All admitted membership in 'The Russian Social-Revolutionary Party' and, except for Mikhailov and Helfman, pleaded guilty of participating in the assassination of the Emperor. They made no effort to withhold damaging evidence. It is certain that these confessions were not extorted by means that in our day have been brought to such perfection by totalitarian regimes. They were made freely in proud defiance of the enemy. Foreign observers of the trial were amazed at the readiness with which the accused acknowledged their guilt and detailed their clandestine activities. An editorial writer of the New York Herald, in commenting on 10 April, 1881, on this disposition of 'the nihilist' to gratify 'the excusable curiosity of justice in regard to all he has done,' concluded that there existed 'some profound and radical difference between Russian nature and human nature generally as known in our part of the world.'
Although the accused made it easy for the prosecutor to ascertain the facts of the case, the State produced over sixty witnesses. The prosecutor's oration, which lasted for hours, rose to its rhetorical peak when he voiced his horror at the crime of 1 March. In dealing with the case of Gesya Helfman he made no attempt to turn anti-Jewish prejudice to account. He found all the defendants guilty as charged and deserving the supreme punishment. Then the lawyers for the defence spoke. Mikailov's counsel offered the curious argument that since his client did not seem to prize his life, he should not be deprived of it. Zhelyabov, speaking as his own counsel, was at pains to lay bare the conditions that turned peaceful propagandists into terrorists. Necessity alone, he repeated, had forced him to use violence.
The prisoners were entitled to a last word before judgment was pronounced. Rysakov was incoherent. All through the trial he looked like an ill-prepared schoolboy at an examination. Kibalchich, composed as ever, took advantage of the opportunity to mention his flying ship.
The trial reached its expected denouement at three a.m., 29 March, when all the defendants were found guilty, and at six-thirty a.m. they were sentenced to be hanged.
They did not exercise their right of appeal. Kibalchich was refused permission to consult a member of the committee that was studying his paper on a flying machine. He had handed it to the authorities and was told that it had been turned over to experts for examination. As a matter of fact, it was sealed up in an envelope, which lay in the police archives unopened for thirty-six years. Published in 1918, it proved to contain a suggestion for the application of the rocket principle to aviation -- hardly a contribution to aeronautics, since it did not even attempt to solve the engineering problems connected with the construction of a rocket plane.
As the trial was drawing to an end, Vladimir Solovyov, a young instructor at the University of Petersburg who was to become Russia's greatest systematic philosopher, suggested in a public lecture that the Czar, as a Christian and ruler of a Christian nation, ought to forgive his father's assassins. He was wildly cheered by some of his hearers. An appeal to the same effect was made by Tolstoy. He anticipated the outcome of the trial with dread. One afternoon he dozed off and dreamed that he was at once executioner and executed. Waking from his nightmare, he wrote to Alexander III, urging him to summon the regicides, give them money and send them away somewhere, say to America. Whether or not the letter reached the addressee, he was not likely to have heeded it. In reply to Pobedonestzev, Procurator of the Holy Synod, who had warned him no! to yield to counsels of Christian extremism, Alexander III wrote: 'I give you my word that all six will hang.'
One of the six did not hang. The day after the end of the trial Gesya Helfman informed the authorities that she was with child. The court postponed her execution until forty days after her delivery, and in July the Emperor, chiefly to placate foreign public opinion, commuted her sentence to hard labour for life. She gave birth to a girl in a prison hospital, and it is alleged that the baby was provided with a luxurious layette by an anonymous American donor. Gesya died a few months later, under circumstances suggesting malpractice by the Court accoucheur who had delivered her, and the infant did not long survive her. It was never seen by the father, a member of the Executive Committee, who was also to die in prison.
The execution of the other five was set for 3 April. The previous day Rysakov offered his services to the police in a last desperate effort to save his neck. His plea was ignored. Kibalchich composed a long communication to the Czar in an effort to suggest 'a peaceful way out of the present impossible situation.' Sofya Perovskaya's last extant letter is addressed to her mother. 'Believe me, dearest Mummy,' she wrote, 'my lot is not at all such a dark one. I have lived as my convictions have prompted me; I could not do otherwise; therefore I await what is in store for me with a clear conscience.'
In the evening the Church offered its ministrations. Both Zhelyabov and Perovskaya refused to see a priest. Kibalchich engaged the Father in a dispute and would not be shriven. Mikhailov made his confession. Rysakov confessed and received the Eucharist.
The next morning the hangman and his assistant placed the condemned in two tumbrils and strapped them to their seats with their backs to the horses. On the chest of each hung a placard with the single word: 'Regicide.' By eight o'clock the carts were jolting over the cobblestones, on their way to Semenovsky Square, where the execution was to take place. Rysakov^ head was bent, the others appeared self-possessed. A disdainful smile contorted Perovskaya's pinched, slightly flushed face. Mikhailov, his massive form bulking large, kept bowing to the people, as was customary for those on their way to the scaffold. He shouted to them, but his words were drowned out by the drummers who formed part of the military convoy. To at least one sympathetic eye-witness the condemned looked like victors riding in triumph. Carriages occupied by five priests brought up the rear of the procession. The mood of the crowd that lined the route of the cortege was far from friendly. Indeed, two young women who waved handkerchiefs at the condemned would have been torn to pieces by the mob, if not for the intervention of the police.
At eight-fifty the tumbrils reached the square, a vast un-paved plaza, and a muffled murmur rose from the crowd, estimated at a hundred thousand by the correspondent of the London Times. Lumbering down an aisle flanked by Cossacks, the cart? drew up in front of a scaffold surmounted by gallows, which loomed black against a clear, pale sky. The wooden structure was surrounded by troops. The hangman, with four helpers, unstrapped the prisoners and led them to the pillories in the rear of the scaffold. Zhelyabov kept turning his head to Perovskaya, who stood next to him. The air of detachment and imperturbable calm did not abandon Kibalchich. Rysakov was deathly pale. Big Mikhailov wore a petrified look.
An official read the verdict from a low platform nearby, the paper shaking in his hand. The priests mounted the scaffold. All the condemned kissed the crucifix, and the priests, having signed them with the cross, withdrew. Then they kissed each other good-bye, but Perovskaya turned away from Rysakov. The hangman and his helpers slipped over each of the condemned a loose garment which covered the head and face. Rysakov's knees gave way. All the while the drums kept up a steady rumble. The hangman took off his blue peasant coat, revealing his red shirt. He was ready for business.
The first to be hanged was Kibalchich. Mikhailov was second. Twice the rope broke under the weight of his big body and he crashed to the floor of the scaffold with a thud. In the half century and more that had elapsed since the execution of the Decembrists the efficiency of the executioners had not noticeably increased. The crowd that had been so hostile to the regicides a few minutes earlier was now buzzing with indignation and saying that it was a sign from heaven that the man should be pardoned. As the rope was about to break the third time, the executioner hastily reinforced it with another noose. It worked. The hanging of the remaining three prisoners went off without a hitch. Rysakov had to witness the execution of all his companions before being dispatched to his own death.
At nine-fifty the bodies were cut down from the gallows and placed in the black wooden coffins that had been waiting for them. They were buried in a nameless common grave.