Academic journal article The Historian

Dark Tourism and the Death of Russian Emperor Alexander II, 1881-1891

Academic journal article The Historian

Dark Tourism and the Death of Russian Emperor Alexander II, 1881-1891

Article excerpt

On the morning of 1 March 1881, Russian Emperor Alexander II went to church in St. Petersburg, as he had done most Sundays during his life. (1) At 12:45, after hugging his young second wife and their children goodbye, he left for the Mikhailovsky Riding School where he was due to watch the Imperial Cavalry exercise. Forty minutes later, the emperor stopped in to pay a call on his cousin Grand Duchess Ekaterina Mikhailovna (1827-94), who lived nearby. After their chat, he stepped into his carriage for the ride back to the Winter Palace; he did not know that his route was lined with a handful of people--members of a group called People's Will (Narodnaia Volia)--intent on killing him. It was Nikolai Rysakov (1861-81) who threw the first bomb under the wheels of his carriage. While the ensuing explosion damaged the vehicle, Alexander II emerged dazed but unscathed. People standing on the street as he passed by, as well as some of his Cossack guards, did not fare so well, and the Emperor stopped to offer comfort to the victims and to survey for himself the devastation wrought by the bomber. As he stood on the street, Ignaty Grinevitsky (1856-81) approached and detonated a second bomb at his feet. When the smoke cleared, Grinevitsky was dead and the emperor lay gravely wounded in the snow with his legs shattered. The men charged with ensuring his security did not know what to do. As one historian notes, if "they had taken him to the military hospital nearby, they might have stopped the bleeding and saved his life." (2) Instead, they followed the Emperor's wishes and, without trying to apply tourniquets to his legs, took him home to the Winter Palace. Roughly 45 minutes later, Alexander II was dead.

Alexander's life had been threatened before that fateful day. First in 1866, when disgruntled student Dimitry Karakozov shot at him as he stepped out of St. Petersburg's Summer Garden. (3) The next attempt occurred in France. In June 1867, Alexander II arrived in Paris with his sons Alexander and Vladimir. They had been invited by Emperor Napoleon III (1808-73) to attend the universal exposition of art and industry. While riding in an open carriage, the Russian monarch was shot at by a Polish refugee named Antoni Berezowski (1847-1916), but the two bullets he fired missed their target. (4) Then, starting in the late 1870s, the emperor started a dangerous game of cat and mouse with the People's Will, a domestic group of terrorists formed in Lipetsk in 1879.

The People's Will's members believed that acts of terror against government officials would either force the government into reform or trigger a popular uprising once it had been demonstrated to the people that their divine-right monarch was, in fact, a mere mortal. (5) On 26 August 1879, the 22 members of the organization's executive committee sentenced Alexander II to death. Prior to his murder, the most serious of their attempts to kill the tsar came in February 1880. At 6:20 pm, an explosion rocked the Winter Palace, destroying the room where members of the Imperial family were due to dine with Prince Alexander of Battenberg (1857-93), the newly proclaimed chief of autonomous Bulgaria. The prince was late; hence, the room was still empty when the dynamite went off. The explosion still killed II and wounded another 56 people. The dynamite used in the attack had been smuggled into the palace in small batches by Stepan Khalturin (1857-82), a member of the People's Will who posed as a carpenter and was hired as part of a construction crew working on the palace. (6) All told, as Richard Wortman notes, Alexander II "escaped death seven times, and many regarded the news of an additional attempt with some indifference, assuming he would escape once more." (7) The events of 1 March 1881, when the People's Will was finally successful, showed just how misplaced that assumption, and the complacency it revealed, was.

Lindsey Hughes (1949-2007), one of the most distinguished scholars of the Russian monarchy, described the impact of the assassination of Alexander II on his heir and the rest of society this way: "The unavoidable fact of his father's shattered body brought home even to the most unimaginative observer the wound to the body politic and to Russia itself, arousing horror in ruling circles and hopes among extremists that the Romanov regime was literally and figuratively on its last legs. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.