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The Regicide

 

By the late 1870s-early 1880s the assassination attempts against the Tsar were no longer connected with concrete events. The motivation behind them became more complex and not immediately obvious. The revolutionaries were increasingly worried about the growing signs that their cherished ideal of equality and justice, based on the free communal organization of the future life of the people, was under threat from some new phenomena and processes generated by the reforms of Alexander II. Despite the half-and-half nature of the reforms and the fact that the commune had been retained, new capitalist relations, the growing stratification of the peasantry into better-off and poor were undermining the commune, were eroding the traditional conditions of village life. But without the village commune the populist ideal did not exist, it simply fell to the ground. For these reasons, by the late 1870s, the revolutionaries had come to regard the outcome of the reforms not only as the deception of the popular masses, but as a much more serious crime - as an attempt to deprive the people of the very possibility of a radiant socialist future.   

 
The church in St Petersburg erected on the spot where Alexander II was murdered

In these circumstances any means of struggle were justified and permissible following the precept of ‘the ends justify the means’. Terror became for the Narodniks a matter of principle, a method to achieve political and social transformation. The direct, uncompromising confrontation between the revolutionaries and the Winter Palace resembled a duel (at that time duels were an accepted norm of settling quarrels among the gentry). In the end it led to a tragic situation in which Alexander turned into the executioner of revolutionaries, while the revolutionaries ended up as the executioners of the Tsar Liberator.

The terrorists were firmly convinced that they were acting in the name and best interests of the Russian people, and, indeed, they enjoyed certain sympathy among Russian educated and well-to-do classes. However, the toiling masses, with the exception of a very small number of worker-revolutionaries, never showed any signs of sympathy for  the men and women who were staking their lives, as they believed, on the people’s behalf. Popular reactions to terrorism ranged from violent condemnation to irritation or, at best, indifference. The Emperor remained sacrosanct as the ‘Tsar Liberator’, while the educated revolutionaries represented, in the eyes of the peasants, the very people who were hoping to enslave them again. The peasants believed that the assassination attempts were the wicked deeds of the landowners, seeking to avenge themselves for the loss of their slaves.

After several unsuccessful attempts the Tsar Liberator was finally blown to pieces on 1 March 1881 by a terrorist bomb. Five leaders of the conspiracy - members of the ‘People’s Will’ -  were arrested, tried and publicly hanged.  The rest of  the radical intelligentsia was decimated by imprisonment, exile and emigration. The ‘People’s Will’ had rocked the country’s political system to its foundation. However, it failed in its expectations to achieve the overthrow of tsarism.     

Regicide on 1 March 1881    

The struggle of the ‘People’s Will’ played an important role in the Russian revolutionary movement. Its greatest contributions were the principle of taking direct action against the tsarist regime and its emphasis on the political struggle. The important lesson of the revolutionary crisis of the late 1870-early 1880s was that the peculiar conditions in Russia did make it possible for a tiny group of revolutionary  intellectuals-conspirators to create a deep-seated political crisis, to throw the whole, machinery of government into disarray  and nearly bring the government to its knees in the absence of a mass movement or even of mass support.  The lesson was not lost on a later generation of revolutionaries.

Following the assassination of Alexander II, revolutionary Narodnichestvo entered a period of decline. Its followers deeply felt the acute ideological crisis of the movement and the gulf that still separated them from the ‘people’. Yet, the decades of theoretical inquiries and practical work of agitation and political action had not been in vain. The generation of the raznochintsy had formulated the goals of overthrowing autocracy and stirring up the masses to revolution. It had begun to lay down the principles for the creation of a political party. It had set up a whole network of secret organizations. Finally, it had produced the type of intrepid Russian revolutionary, whose revolutionary energy and fanatical devotion to the cause were combined with highly developed conspiratorial skills.

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