Crises: Terror Crisis under Czar Alexander II. (1855-1881)
You think terrorism is an invention of the 21st century? Far from it. 19th-century Russia suffered no less from attacks than we do today. And if you consider the circumstances at the time you will recognise many a thing which promotes terrorism now and then: A desperate situation which no democratic means can change, a heroization of the terrorists, and a government which tries to solve all problems with police measures and oppression.
So let’s take a look at Russia at the time of Tsar Alexander II. He set a great deal of things in motion. He wanted to turn Russia into a modern nation able to hold its ground in the international competition. With this goal in mind he initiated many reforms. He renewed the school system, the military, and the judiciary system; he set free the peasants in bondage and gave them some land; and he probably would have done a lot more than that had he not been bound to respect the wishes of the aristocracy.
Because many influential aristocrats were opposed to the reforms. They didn’t want to give up their old privileges and thus delayed and undermined the commands issued by St Petersburg. Russia was a large country even then and the tsar was far, far away. The people were outraged that many aristocrats remained as high-handed as they’d always been. But who was there to listen to their complaints?
The straw that broke the camel’s back was a minor incident. One day late in the year 1877 a young prisoner in a St Petersburg prison refused to take off his hat to salute the governor who was visiting the institution. The latter punished the man harshly. He sentenced him to 100 whiplashes and that in spite of the fact that the tsar had issued a law forbidding the corporal punishment of political prisoners.
The event was of course made public. Many newspapers published reports. Many were outraged and a young woman named Vera Zasulich took to the streets, got herself a pistol, shot at the governor and hurt him severely. She was tried as a terrorist in a court trial. And that was the perfect stage. Suddenly it wasn’t about the act of terrorism anymore but about the victim and the question of the rightfulness of his acts. The civilians celebrated the woman and her courage. The jury spoke her not guilty, silently condemning a form of government that necessitated such acts of terrorism.
Many of those who had already been sympathetic to the underground movement before joined it in the wake of this event. Soon not a week would pass without a news release about an attack on a public officer. Those who could ended their employment with the government. And those living next door to an officer moved away. Good conduct at work was useless. The terrorists didn’t distinguish between a good and a bad man. They also weren’t considerate of anyone else who might get hurt in the process. What did they care about a few deaths? It was the price that had to be paid! They felt morally superior to the representatives of the tsarist regime.
They also did not care that Alexander II was a reformer. He had to die. They shot at him, threw bombs, bombed a wing of his winter palace. Only the fifth attack of the terrorists was finally crowned with success. On 1 March 1881 Alexander II died because he ran back to the scene of a first attack to help the wounded.
But the terrorists had gone too far. Public opinion turned. Suddenly the progressive Russians no longer saw the terrorists as heroes fighting for the same ideals only with different means, but as murderers.
Alexander III and his police force had a walk-over. They detained extremists, executed or exiled them.
And yet, this did not solve a single problem. Still many educated Russians longed for a just government. Still there were no democratic means to realise such a longing. During the reign of Alexander III and his successor Nicholas II there were no reforms. But then came the revolution.