Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time

By Joseph Frank; Mary Petrusewicz | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 55

Terror and Martial Law

The new year 1880 began auspiciously for the Dostoevskys. On February 3, the members of the Slavic Benevolent Society selected him to write a congratulatory address to be presented to Alexander II on February 19, the twenty-fifth anniversary of his accession to the throne. Two weeks before the festivities, however, Russia was shaken by an event that cast a gloomy pall over the prospective festivities.

On February 5, at twenty-two minutes past six in the evening, a bomb exploded in the Winter Palace just under the dining room of the tsar. A diplomatic dinner had been scheduled for that hour in honor of Prince Alexander von Battenburg, the newly elected ruler of Bulgaria, and the party was just about to enter the banquet chamber when the explosion occurred. Neither the tsar nor his guests were injured, but the blast killed ten soldiers on guard duty and wounded fifty-six others. Responsible for the carnage was the People's Will (Narodnaya Volya), a group of formerly Populist radicals who had decided that the assassination of Alexander II was an indispensable first step toward any social-economic improvement. One of their members, Stepan Khalturin, a skilled cabinetmaker and carpenter, had obtained employment in the palace under a pseudonym and lived in a room in the basement. He smuggled in small quantities of dynamite, storing it at his bedside until he believed he had enough to accomplish his purpose, but the explosion, though powerful, had not been strong enough to collapse the dining room floor.

This was the fourth unsuccessful attempt by the People's Will to kill the tsar. Previously they had made elaborate plans to blow up the railroad carriage on which he traveled but were thwarted by a series of accidents, although in one case a baggage car was blown to smithereens. Despite this new failure, Khalturin's defiant invasion of the tsar's own residence succeeded in creating an awesome image of the power of the hidden revolutionaries, who were apparently able to penetrate anywhere they pleased. The authorities were impotent to cope with their activities, and the terrified state of mind overwhelming the ruling circles can be caught in the diary of Dostoevsky's admirer, Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich. “We are living through a time of terror,” he wrote on February 7, “with this one difference. The Parisians during the revolution saw their enemies face

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