12. Alexander II Celebrated His Escape From Assassination a Moment Too Soon
19th century Russia was marked by great discontent and political turmoil, as reformers ran into the oppressive instincts of Russia’s imperial government. Without political freedom, and with free expression severely restricted, many reformers grew disgusted with the system, and turned into revolutionaries dedicated to its overthrow. One such group formed a secret organization, Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will), which sought to overthrow the autocratic government by acts of violent propaganda calculated to spark a mass revolt. A terrorist organization, in short.
People’s Will saw terrorism as a proactive tool for overthrowing the regime. It called for violence, announced an ambitious program of terrorism and assassination to break the government, and decreed a death sentence against Emperor Alexander II, who was to be executed as an enemy of the people. They established clandestine cells in major cities and within the Russian military, and began publishing underground revolutionary newspapers and leaflets targeted at industrial workers.
People’s Will tried to kill the Emperor in December of 1879 with explosives on a railway, but missed his train. They tried again two months later, by planting a bomb in his palace. However, Alexander II was not in the room when the explosives went off. A frightened Emperor declared a state of emergency, and set up a commission to repress the terrorists. Within a week, a People’s Will assassin attempted to kill the commission’s head. The repression mounted, and People’s Will activists caught distributing illegal leaflets were hanged. Undaunted, the group doggedly persisted in its relentless efforts to kill Alexander.
They finally succeeded on March 1st, 1881. A People’s Will assassin waited in ambush along a route taken by the Emperor every week, and threw a bomb under his carriage when it passed by. The explosion killed a guard and wounded others, but the carriage was armored, and Alexander was unhurt. A shaken Emperor emerged from the carriage, and crossed himself as he surveyed the damage. His relief was premature, as there was a second assassin concealed in the gathering crowd. Shouting at Alexander “it is too early to thank God!“, the second assassin threw another bomb, which landed and went off directly beneath the Emperor’s feet. Mangled by the explosion, Alexander died soon thereafter.