March 13, 2023

The Assassination of Czar Alexander II

The Assassination of Czar Alexander II

March 13, 1881. Czar Alexander II of Russia is assassinated by members of the terror group People’s Will in St Petersburg.


Cold Open

It’s the afternoon of September 8th, 1855 on the Crimean Peninsula where a war is raging between Russia and a French-led European alliance.

For almost a year, the Allied forces have unsuccessfully tried to capture the Peninsula’s largest city, Sevastopol. Now, they are in the middle of their biggest assault yet.

French soldier Eugene Libaut makes his way along a hilltop, a French flag in his hand. Eugene has his eye on a mound ahead. He wants to plant the French flag on the highest point he can find hoping that the sight of the French Tricolore will be enough to rally his troops for what he hopes will be the final push to take over Sevastopol.

But a burst of gunfire stops Eugene short of the mound. He dives behind a nearby wall to avoid being shot. And when he peers around the side, he spots the enemy ahead well positioned and heavily armed. It seems too risky to carry on but just as Eugene resigns himself to creeping back to the French line... a shell lands nearby, showering him with mud.

Eugene brushes himself off and then takes another look around the wall. The enemy fortification has been obliterated, now just a mess of wood, debris, and body parts. With his path now cleared, Eugene resumes his course toward the hilltop. He scales to the highest point of the hill, and cheers erupt from below as he lifts the French flag. 

The French assault will end in victory, becoming the final battle in the Siege of Sevastopol, and a turning point in the Crimean War. By morning, the Russians will have withdrawn from the city, and six months later, the Allies will win the war.

This is a problem for Russia’s beleaguered leader Czar Alexander II, who only recently inherited the throne from his father. The Crimean War will humiliate the Czar, and he will vow to rebuild and modernize his defeated nation, an effort cut short when Czar Alexander II is assassinated by radical populists on March 13th, 1881. 


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is March 13th, 1881: The Assassination of Czar Alexander II.

Act One

It’s early April 1861 in a village in southwest Russia, four years after the end of the Crimean War.

Local resident Anton Petrov joins a crowd of his neighbors in a clearing. Like the other villagers gathered around him, Anton is a serf, a peasant in feudal servitude, legally bound to live and work on his lord’s land for life. Today, they have all gathered at the request of their landowner who, unbeknownst to the peasants, has an announcement that is about to change their lives.

In the wake of Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War, Czar Alexander II recognized that the once-mighty Russian Empire was falling behind its European counterparts. So, he decided to embark on a program of modernization.

The Czar quickly identified serfdom as the biggest handicap holding back Russia. He argued that serfdom tied the Russian Empire to an archaic agricultural system, which in turn prevented it from industrializing like the other great powers of Europe. So, a month ago, Alexander issued a proclamation freeing the serfs, allowing them to move to different villages and own property themselves. Now finally, the news has reached Anton’s village.

An excited murmur runs through the crowd as their landowner informs them that they all now have the rights of free citizens. Anton leads the peasantry in an enthusiastic cheer for the Czar, and the crowd breaks into jubilant celebration. But the mood sours when they hear the rest of Alexander’s proclamation.

Their landowner explains that the peasants now have the freedom to own property, but they still must pay for the land. They can do this by paying the state costly redemption payments for 49 years or continuing to work for the landowner for free until they pay off the cost of the property. Either way, it will take the serfs decades before they can actually own any land. Anton shakes his head in disgust. This is just serfdom by another name.

As the crowd grows agitated, somebody shouts that the landowner is lying to them. They’re sure the Czar intends them to be fully free without obligation. Anton is one of the few peasants in the village who can read and write, so he volunteers to look over the proclamation to ensure the landowner is being truthful.

The landlord hands over the paper and Anton furrows his brow in concentration. The language is far more complex than he'd expected and his literacy is limited. He finds it hard to decipher the writing or derive its meaning. But he thinks he understands enough to be sure that Alexander has given them unrestricted freedom. He turns and tells this to the crowd who cheers even as the landowner's face reddens in fury. He knows he read Alexander’s proclamation word for word; Anton’s interpretation is incorrect.

But the angry peasants refuse to believe otherwise. Anton’s village soon becomes the epicenter of a peasant revolt. Newly freed serfs refuse to work. Messages are dispatched to surrounding villages warning other peasants not to believe their landowners if they set conditions on their freedom. And when the landowners do demand payment, more and more disgruntled peasants join the uprising.

But a week later, 200 Russian soldiers march into the village. They demand that the peasants return to work and that Anton, as the figurehead of the revolt, give himself up. But 4,000 peasants flock to Anton’s house to prevent the soldiers from arresting him. The Russian officer threatens to open fire if the peasants don't not move but Anton urges that they hold the line. He’s sure that the soldiers are bluffing and wouldn't attack the very people the Czar just liberated. 

But Anton is wrong. The soldiers raise their weapons and open fire. Soon, Anton is one of the only men left standing. Many of the peasants have run away—but hundreds of others lie on the ground, dead or wounded.

Anton is then arrested and taken to prison. The peasants who fled are forced back to work at gunpoint. And a week later, Anton is executed for sedition—but before he is killed, clerks read Alexander’s with him. And to Anton’s chagrin, they explain that the Czar did indeed want the peasants to continue to work and to pay for the land they might own. 

This peasant uprising, and others like it, is not the reaction Alexander II expected when he launched his program of reforms. In addition to freeing the serfs, Alexander also created local councils to give people more say in the running of towns and villages, reduced censorship, and improved access to education. The Czar expected these changes to be met with gratitude. But instead, the people respond with demands that Alexander do even more.

Eventually, the Czar will accept that his liberal reforms have backfired. But the taste of freedom he gave his people will continue spurring the public to agitate for more. And when the people of Russia call for greater political representation, Alexander will draw a line refusing to cede any political power. And instead, the Czar will launch a ruthless crackdown on dissent. 

Act Two

It’s January 1874 in St. Petersburg, the capital of Russia, thirteen years after the emancipation of the serfs.

19-year-old Sophia Perovskaya sings to herself as she mops the floor of an apartment. As she carries on with her cleaning, Sophia appears like an ordinary housewife. But she has a secret; she’s a member of an underground revolutionary group—and right now, she’s preparing one of the secret apartments used for clandestine meetings of anti-Czarist conspirators. But Sophia’s cleaning is halted by the sound of footsteps approaching. 

Sophia stops her singing and glances at the clock. Her fellow revolutionaries are not due to arrive for another hour, and it’s not like them to come early. Banging begins on her door, and Sophia is filled with dread by the thought of who must be on the other side. 

For the last few years, Czar Alexander II has faced an increasing number of demonstrations, uprisings, and even assassination attempts. But opposing his authority is becoming more dangerous. Recently, Alexander decided it was time to crush his critics. So, he ordered troops and police to begin mass arrests of political radicals. Sophia worries that now she might be the next to be taken into custody.

Slowly, Sophia sets down her mop and searches the room for a place to hide. Before she can find one, the door bursts open, and soldiers rush in. Sophia shrieks as they pull her hands behind her back and march her out of the apartment where she will be joined in captivity by many of the rest of her underground group.

Sophia becomes one of the thousands of suspected revolutionaries detained and held in prison. But as a suspected ringleader, she is forced to go before the courts in a joint trial of 193 revolutionary leaders that will become known as the Trial of the 193.

In October 1877, more than three years after her arrest, Sophia and her fellow co-defendants appear before a special court. She doesn’t recognize many of her peers. The defendants come from various revolutionary organizations and many have never interacted with each other. But the prosecution lumped them together and accuse them all of being part of one large criminal conspiracy intent of bringing down the Czar.

In court, when it's Sophia’s turn comes to defend herself, she explains to the judges that she has never engaged in revolutionary behavior. She accepts that her group created and distributed propaganda that criticized the Czar—but she never demanded that he be overthrown.

Other defenders use a similar defense. But some of the revolutionaries on trial are more combative. They use the occasion to air grievances against the czar knowing that reporters are writing down every word. Many of the defendants deliver well-rehearsed speeches designed to win over public opinion rather than win over the judges.

And these efforts pay off. As the defendants’ speeches are published, many ordinary Russians begin to question whether their autocratic political system should be reformed. And without sufficient evidence for convictions, almost half of all the defendants are acquitted of the charges against them, including Sophia.

After three and a half years in prison, she is able to walk free. And back on the outside, she resumes her activism but with a new vigor. Sophia's trial and imprisonment has had the opposite effect Alexander intended. Instead of subduing her, it has radicalized her.

The Czar’s effort at repression convinces Sophia that Alexander II doesn’t just need to be criticized, he needs to be overthrown. And to make that happen, Sophia reasons that the revolutionaries can no longer remain peaceful; if they want to enact change, it is time they turn to violence. 

Shortly after her release from prison, Sophia becomes part of a left-wing terror group called the People’s Will. Like her, the organization’s members believe that terrorist activities are the best way to force reform, and ultimately overthrow the Czar. Together, they plan and execute a jailbreak of political prisoners and arrange the assassinations of key government figures. But they hold one aim before all others: the death of the Czar.

Over the coming months, Sophia will help prepare two assassination attempts on Alexander II. Both will fail. And when a third opportunity to kill the Czar arises, it too will almost collapse after the plot’s organizer is arrested. But then Sophia will volunteer to take charge and ensure that the attempt on Alexander’s life is carried out. And just two years after her acquittal, she will be back in the apartment of an underground revolutionary organization. But she will not be mopping. Instead, she will be carefully and methodically assembling the bombs that will finally put an end to the Czar.

Act Three

It’s 2:15 PM on March 13th, 1881 on the streets of St. Petersburg, seven years after Czar Alexander II began crushing political dissent.

19-year-old Ivan Yemelyanov nervously looks down, hiding his face as soldiers on horseback ride past him. They’re security forces checking all is safe before the Czar’s carriage follows them down a road alongside the Catherine Canal. But all is not safe. Inside Ivan’s pocket is a bomb. And he is not the only bomber hoping to avoid detection. Ivan is only the third of four assassins lining the street, each ready to launch an attempt on Alexander’s life.

And just as the soldiers pass by him, the first bomb explodes near the Czar’s carriage. Ivan rises up on its tiptoes, peering over the heads of screaming onlookers to see the result. He can see the carriage is damaged, but he lets out a disappointed curse when Alexander emerges unharmed. The Czar pushes past the coachman and kneels next to a soldier who was thrown from his horse by the explosion. It's at that moment that Ivan spots the second assassin push his way through to Alexander’s side before another explosion rips through the air.

More screams fill the street. The second explosion leaves several bodies lying in the street, including the Czar. As the third bomber, it’s now Ivan’s turn. He walks toward the carnage. On the ground before him, the Czar coughs up blood. He’s conscious, but both his legs are shattered below the knees, and he’s bleeding from his stomach.

Ivan props the Czar up and grasps the bomb in his pocket, ready to detonate it. But he falters as the Czar looks up and weakly pleads to take him back to the palace so he can die in private. Looking out at the Czar's shattered and bleeding body, it’s clear a third bomb is not necessary. The assassination attempt has already succeeded; Alexander will not survive his wounds. So, Ivan grants the Czar his final wish. As people swarm to assist the ruler, Ivan buries his explosive deep in his pocket and melts back into the crowd.

An hour later, Czar Alexander II dies back at his palace. The conspirators who killed him are quickly rounded up, and Ivan will serve 20 years in prison with hard labor. But most, including plot leader Sophia Perovskaya, will be executed.

But the assassination of Alexander II will fail to spur the overthrow of the Czarist autocracy that the People’s Will hoped for. The regime will eventually fall, but not until the Russian Revolution of 1917. Instead, Alexander II will simply be succeeded by his son, Alexander III. The new Czar will respond to his father's assassination with a raft of reactionary policies that will reverse many of Alexander II’s reforms, and the pendulum will swing further toward oppression – the very opposite result revolutionaries hoped for when they assassinated Czar Alexander II on March 13th, 1881.


Next on History Daily. March 14th, 1757: British Admiral John Byng is controversially executed for “failing to do his utmost” in battle, making him the first and only British admiral to be killed for dereliction of duty.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Muhammad Shahzaib.

Sound design by Mollie Baack.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Scott Reeves.

Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.