This Week in History

Assassination of the Russian Constitution: March 13, 1881

This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations II: The Making of the Modern World. See sample chapters, here. For ordering information on Light to the Nations II and our other texts, please click here

Tsar Aleksandr II

As he had done every Sunday for many years, on the Sunday of March 13, 1881, Tsar Aleksandr II climbed into his bulletproof carriage. Then, accompanied by seven armed Cossacks, he rode along the Katerina Canal in St. Petersburg on his way to review the changing of his guards. It was a cold day, but people gathered on the sidewalks along the street to watch the passing of the tsar. One of these was a young man, Nikolai Rysakov; but he had not come simply to see the tsar. In his hands the youth held a small package. When the tsar’s carriage was before him, Rysakov threw the package. It exploded under the carriage, killing a Cossack guard and wounding the driver and several spectators on the street.

Tsar Aleksandr climbed out of the carriage, unhurt. The police captured Rysakov, who then shouted to someone in the crowd. Another young man, named Ignacy Hryiniewiecki, then threw an object at the tsar’s feet. It exploded, and Aleksandr, crying out, fell to the ground. His legs were shattered; blood was pulsing from them. He was hurried to the Winter Palace where, after receiving Communion and the last sacrament, he died.

The Attentat (political assassination) of Tsar Aleksandr II

It had been that same month, March, but 20 years earlier, that this same Tsar Aleksandr had issued an edict abolishing serfdom in Russia—a deed for which he became known as Tsar Liberator. Influenced by Liberal ideals, Aleksandr had carried out other reforms as well. In 1864, he established local elective governments, called zemstvos, for rural areas. Six years later he established assemblies, called dumas, for the cities. Aleksandr also carried out reforms in the courts and permitted a freer expression of ideas in Russian society.

Russian revolutionary anarchist, Mikhail Bakunin, about 1860

Yet, the tsar’s reforms were not radical enough for a group of Russian intellectuals who became known as Nihilists (from the Latin word, nihil, meaning “nothing.”) These people were so called because they held that there was nothing they should not question or doubt. Tradition and religion, custom and law—all had to be examined by reason before it could be accepted, they said. Among the Nihilists were young men called narodniki (“men of the people”) who went and lived among the peasants to convince them that they needed to adopt socialist ideas. The peasants, however, were not interested in socialism; and it was not long before the government began arresting, imprisoning, and exiling the narodniki.

Unable to achieve their goals by peaceful means, some narodniki, inspired by the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, turned to violence. Two attempts were made to assassinate Tsar Aleksandr, first in 1866 and again in 1873. An unpopular war Russia waged against the Ottoman Empire in 1877–1878, in which large amounts of money were spent and thousands of Russians died for very little benefit, made more people critical of the tsar. In response to this opposition, Aleksandr turned back many of his reforms and carried out repressive measures against his opponents; but this, of course, only encouraged the Nihilists to further violence. In 1880, they blew up a dining room in the tsar’s Winter Palace. If a guest the tsar was supposed to be entertaining there had not been a half hour late, Aleksandr would have been killed in the blast.

Following this attempt on his life, Tsar Aleksandr decided that the best way to battle his enemies was to give in to some of their demands. On the very day of his death, he had approved a plan to establish a popularly elected assembly to draw up laws for the empire. As it turned out, the bomb that killed Aleksandr II also destroyed the beginnings of constitutional government for Russia.


Death of a Russian Composer

Among the compositions the Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky is most famous for is the opera, Boris Godunov, about a man who gained the throne through the heinous murder of the child tsar. The excerpt of this opera, below, shows the famous coronation scene. Mussorgsky died two weeks after the assassination of Tsar Aleksandr II.