The Russian Terrorist Plot That Backfired Horribly

“Terror consists mostly of useless cruelties perpetrated by frightened people in order to reassure themselves.” —Friedrich Engels, Letter to Marx

In A Nutshell

Narodnaya Volya was a Russian left-wing revolutionary terrorist group. Formed in 1879, Narodnaya Volya was passionate about political reform for the lower classes in a radical way. Frustrated by a lack of attention, the group decided to assassinate the czar (who was ironically also sympathetic to the lower classes) in 1881. After they did so, antiterrorist sentiment skyrocketed and the group was completely eliminated within a year.

The Whole Bushel

Zemlya i Volya (“Land and Freedom,” in English) was a radical political party in 19th-century Russia. Despite being a Populist party, Zemlya i Volya simply could not accomplish its populist goal: agitate the peasantry enough to start a social revolution favoring the lower classes.

Some members of the party felt the need to change tactics. Frustrated and disillusioned, the most radical members of Zemlya i Volya (including Andrey I, Zhelyabov, and Sofya L. Perovskaya) decided to just go ahead and become terrorists. They formed Narodnaya Volya (“People’s Freedom”) and decided that if the populace wasn’t going to attack the state, then they would do it themselves.

Narodnaya Volya’s chief targets included Russian political leaders. By assassinating them, Narodnaya Volya hoped to spur nationwide revolutionary action and gain attention for its cause.

Alexander II, the czar of Russia, was among Narodnaya Volya’s selected targets. Somehow, some way, Narodnaya Volya actually did manage to kill him. After killing a few other political figures and unsuccessfully attempting to kill the czar a few times, Alexander II was killed by a bomb in the streets of St. Petersburg on March 13, 1881. He had been the ruler of Russia since 1855.

Narodnaya Volya’s assassination of Alexander II could not have backfired more horribly. Alexander’s death was supposed to be the impetus necessary for a popular revolution, but things didn’t pan out as planned. Furious at the death of their czar, the people of Russia suddenly found little tolerance for terrorism, and the leaders of Narodnaya Volya were arrested and hanged. Only around a year later, the group collapsed entirely.

Perhaps the greatest irony is the fact that Alexander II was famous for his sympathy to the lower classes. On February 19, 1861, he even abolished serfdom. But he wasn’t the perfect egalitarian: He was committed to maintaining an autocratic system of government, and on the day he was killed he had proclaimed the creation of two legislative commissions composed of indirectly elected representatives, reducing the voice of the people.

Alexander II was succeeded by his son, Alexander III, who opposed representative government and strictly enforced Russian nationalism.

Show Me The Proof

History Channel: This day in history: Czar Alexander II Assassinated
Encyclopaedia Britannica: Narodnaya Volya
Encyclopaedia Britannica: Alexander II
Encyclopaedia Britannica: Alexander III