Narodnaya Volya – People’s Will
Narodnaya Volya, or “People’s Will”, was an underground 19th-century revolutionary organization that sought to overthrow the Tsarist autocracy of the Russian Empire by acts of violent propaganda calculated to spark a mass revolt. They are best known for their assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, and for being the forerunners of even bigger and more effective anarchist and socialist organizations in the following decades.
People’s Will had its genesis in radical student study circles in the 1870s, which openly sought to spread socialist ideas to peasants and industrial workers. They were quickly repressed by the Tsarist secret police, the Okhrana, who swiftly arrested and jailed the agitators. That led to a rethink, a growing consensus that only revolutionary violence could overthrow Tsarism, and the adoption of more clandestine and aggressive tactics – specifically, “propaganda of the deed”, or terrorism.
The result was Zemlya I Volya (Land and Liberty), a radical organization which advocated political assassinations as self-defense and justified revenge against oppressive officials but stopped short of viewing terror as a means of political struggle against the government. People’s Will, which splintered off from Zemlya I Volya in 1879 after the latter was nearly wiped out by the secret police following a failed assassination attempt on the Tsar, was more radical and viewed terror as a proactive tool for overthrowing the regime, and not simply as a reactive means of retaliation.
From the outset, People’s Will called for violence, announced an ambitious program of terrorism and assassination to break the government, and issued a proclamation declaring a death sentence against the Tsar, 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 attempted to kill the Tsar in December of 1879 with explosives on a railway, but missed his train. They tried again two months later, planting a bomb in his palace, but he was not in the room when the explosives went off. A frightened Tsar 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. Amid mounting repression, including the hanging of People’s Will activists caught distributing illegal leaflets, the group doggedly persisted with its relentless efforts to assassinate the Tsar.
On March 1st, 1881, they finally succeeded. Waiting in ambush along a route taken by the Tsar every week, a People’s Will assassin threw a bomb under his carriage. The explosion killed a guard and wounded others, but the carriage was armored, the Tsar was unhurt, and the bomb thrower was captured. A shaken Tsar emerged from the carriage, and a second assassin concealed in the gathering crowd spotted him crossing himself as he surveyed the damage. Shouting “it is too early to thank God!“, the assassin threw another bomb, this one landing and going off directly beneath the Tsar’s feet. A third assassin in the crowd, ready with yet another bomb if the first two had failed, but his explosives were unnecessary.
The assassins were arrested and hanged, and in the aftermath intensified repression effectively crippled People’s Will as its members were rounded up and executed or jailed. Terrorism was kept in check for years, but the repression created even more enemies for the regime, drove more opponents into underground clandestine resistance, and transformed the Russian Empire into a pressure cooker that finally erupted into revolution in 1905, and into an even greater revolution that finally did away with Tsardom in 1917. Surviving veterans of People’s Will, who began emerging from prisons at the turn of the century as their sentences expired, played important roles in both revolutions.