Review: Sofia Perovskaya Terrorist Princess: The Plot to Kill Tsar Alexander II and the Woman Who Led It

h

Order book here: https://www.amazon.com/Sofia-Perovskaya-Terrorist-Princess-Alexander/dp/0999155911

Over the President’s Day weekend, I attended my first San Francisco Writer’s Conference. During a short break on the second day, I perused the area where tables were set up in which vendors offered their services and some attending authors had their published books for sale.

Imagine my delight when I came across this book by fellow attendee Robert Riggs – especially since I’d just been working on the chapter of my own book involving Alexander II. I immediately plunked down my $20 and started reading it later that night in my room and finished it within a couple of days. I later encountered the author at a session for non-fiction writers. He signed my book and we had a short but interesting discussion on historical Russia.

This is actually the first published book in a series Riggs is doing on what terrorists have in common in terms of personality and background, so the emphasis is on how Sofia Perovskaya – who masterminded the assassination of the reformist tsar – fits a profile of a long list of terrorists. Future books planned for the series will cover other perpetrators of political violence such as John Brown, John Wilkes Booth, as well as more recent individuals.

Based upon the studies of Walter Lacquer, Riggs reiterates that terrorism is not a product of poverty, injustice or any particular religion, ethnicity, etc. Furthermore, terrorists themselves do not typically come from the aggrieved groups on whose behalf they claim to be acting. From the introduction, Riggs writes:

By no means poor and oppressed beings, they are generally children of wealth and privilege who go overboard in adopting the cause of others….There is an identifiable constellation of personality traits, what we call here a profile, that is strongly associated with persons who act out as terrorists, regardless of the particular cause or value structure that the terrorist happens to be supporting….Unfortunately, we see that under certain conditions terrorists can “grow” other terrorists by exploiting, cultivating and bringing out its inherent personality attributes, especially among young people. (pp. iii – iv).

While I certainly found this thesis fascinating, I was very interested in the historical background provided by Riggs of Russia during the 1860’s and 1870’s, including the revolutionary philosophy that was influential during this time.

Riggs gives a detailed outline of the 1863 novel What is to Be Done? by Nikolai Chernyshevsky, which captured the imagination of a segment of restless young revolutionaries. The book illustrated the ideals of a utopian future filled with socialist coops and equality between the sexes. However, it also was interpreted as having oblique references to the necessity of destruction and even suicide to achieve the utopian goal.

The novel greatly influenced other writers and revolutionary thinkers, including Mikhail Bakhunin, who in turn, influenced a segment of frustrated reformers and activists such as Perovskaya, a veteran of the largely unsuccessful “peasant movement” that was aimed at raising the consciousness of peasants toward rebellion.

Bakhunin and his fellow travelers preached the “necessity of violence for suppressing the privileged classes.” There was no more patience for gradual reforms, consciousness-raising, or non-violent forms of direct action such as strikes, blockades, etc.

Bakhunin eventually teamed up with Sergey Nechaev in Switzerland. Nechaev was known for being manipulative and stridently intolerant of those with differing viewpoints. He had fled Russia after engaging in violent activities that had earned him attention from the authorities, including the murder of an early follower who had turned against him.

Together, they wrote Catechism of a Revolutionary which outlined the requirements for revolutionaries to be successful. The requirements included: the forsaking of all other interests and attachments for the revolutionary project; the suppression of empathy and engagement in anti-social activity on behalf of opposing all established civil order, institutions, customs and morality; the only criteria for determining morality was whether something advanced the revolutionary project or not; the ends justified the means;  willingness to die and endure pain for the revolutionary project; and, in the service of expediting the revolution, it was permitted for conditions to actively be worsened for the future beneficiaries of the revolution. (pp. 95-98)

Within the original organization that Perovskaya had been active in, a split emerged between those who advocated terrorism and those who preferred other direct actions along with the continued education and propagandizing of workers and peasants.

Perovskaya and her supporters ultimately decided to focus solely on assassinating the tsar. They made several failed attempts that involved the tunneling of areas beneath routes Alexander was supposed to take in his travels around St. Petersburg.

They finally achieved their goal on March 1, 1881 with a series of assassins stationed at intervals on the tsar’s route, each armed with a homemade bomb to toss at the imperial carriage.

Ironically, word had gotten out shortly before that Alexander had decided on another round of reforms which would have laid the groundwork for a constitution. Some of Perovskaya’s colleagues had voiced misgivings at this point about continuing to pursue regicide, suggesting the possibility of giving the reforms a chance.

But Perovskaya’s mind was made up and enough of her colleagues agreed to participate in the plan.

After the assassination, police were able to get some of the revolutionaries to turn on others. This, along with surveillance and a sharp investigator, eventually led to the capture of all the perpetrators. After a sensationalist trial, they were all publicly hanged.

Although I approached this book primarily with an interest in Russian history of the period, I also found the psychological portrait of Perovskaya and her partners in crime to be compelling.

The Mongol Legacy in Russia

Fanghong [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], from Wikimedia Commons

An excerpt from Chapter 1 of my forthcoming book:

By the time the Mongols first invaded in 1223, the Kiev Russian territory had degenerated into rivalries between princes who lorded over around “a dozen or so” independent areas which resulted in disorganized rule (Szamuely 1974). 

Subsequently, the Mongols were able to burn, sack and massacre virtually all cities and towns of the territory in short order.  Around two thirds of the population perished and many survivors retreated into the forests, taking solace in their Orthodox faith (Massie 1980).  They eventually migrated further out to less vulnerable areas, closer to Moscow.  As Tibor Szamuely described in The Russian Tradition, these Russian refugees migrated to form:

…thousands of tiny, self-contained, scattered peasant communities existing largely in isolation, using their primitive implements to clear small patches of subsoil amidst the great forests, and, having exhausted them, moving on again along the banks of numerous rivers (Szamuely 1974).

The Mongols reigned over the land through the 13th and 14th centuries, forcing the surviving Russians into complete subjugation.  They were able to impose their centralized and absolutist rule on the scattered Russians who had lost their complex Slavic tribal bonds in the process (Szamuely 1974).  Massie describes an important aspect of this rupture of bonds among the Slavs who’d constituted Kiev Rus:

Earlier as the Slavs had expanded and absorbed the land, they had fallen into two natural divisions:  the Great Russians in the north and the Little Russians in the south.  After the Mongol invasion, the Little Russians were cut off from the Great Russians.  While the Great Russians became vassals of the Mongols, the Little Russians, who were later known as Ukrainians, were taken over by the Poles and the Lithuanians (Massie 1980).

The Mongols, for all of their viciousness, did have a socio-political ideology.  It required absolute submission to the power of the Khan, who embodied the state.  This Khan owned all of the land and had unqualified authority over his subjects.  Land might be temporarily given to others to be overseen at the pleasure of the Khan who could withdraw the privilege at any time.  The overall objective was to create an empire that, after quick and dirty wars of conquest, would be ruled over by the Khan as a “worldwide social order based on justice and equality,” living in eternal peace (Szamuely).  The price for this security and justice was perfect submission.  

The efficient rule of the Mongols, which lasted for almost 250 years, was achieved by re-establishing a form of national unity from the top, delegating responsibility at the local level for maintaining peace (with quarreling princes, no less), collecting tribute (taxes), and enforcing the law to those princes and those among their entourage who showed trustworthiness.  Faithfulness to the Khan/state was rewarded through a system of seniority among the princes (Szamuely 1974).  

The basic principles of Mongol rule – security and justice in exchange for submission to an absolute central authority – would influence Russian governance into the 20th century. 

The one city that was spared was Novgorod.  Due to a combination of fortuitously bad weather that prevented the invaders from penetrating the city and the continual payment of tribute by its ruler, Alexander, Novgorod remained intact.  Alexander also fought off a Swedish invasion instigated by an opportunistic pope who hoped to capture Novgorod and convert it to Catholicism (Massie 1980).

As Russians fled from Kiev and surrounding areas, Moscow – once considered a small and unimportant “trading post in the wilderness” (Massie 1980) – gradually developed into a prominent city that was influenced by the Mongols instead of the west and by a mystical rather than scholastic emphasis by the Orthodox Church (Billington 1970). 

The princes of Moscow collected tribute from their subjects which they, in turn, used to pay tribute to the Mongols.  In exchange, the Mongols gave the local princes liberty to administer their domain however they wished (Massie 1980).

The Moscow princes expanded the city mostly through annexation, increasing its power and wealth.  It’s location between major river routes, which enabled communication, travel and trade, contributed to its growing success (Szamuely 1974).  The leader of the Orthodox Church, called the metropolitan, moved from Vladimir to Moscow in 1326, adding to the city’s importance (Massie 1980).  Moscow developed in a series of concentric rings around the center as churches and villages sprang up on the periphery. 

The Moscow prince who founded the dynasty that would rule Russia after the Mongols and through the 16th century was Ivan I, also known as Kalita.  Ivan was ruthless when it suited him to get rid of rivals and in the service of his Mongol bosses who rewarded his subservience with increased power and prestige within his fiefdom.   In 1327, the Mongols conferred upon Ivan the title of “Great Prince” (Billington 1970).  He was granted exclusive judicial authority and right of tax collection over all the other princes after he brutally put down a rebellion initiated by another prince attempting to overthrow Mongol rule (Szamuely 1974). 

Wars were a major feature of the next three centuries, including wars of aggression and expansion as well as wars of defense and of internal conflict.  There were six wars with Sweden and twelve with Poland-Lithuania alone (Szamuely 1974).  Much of this martial conflict was driven, at least in part, by Russia’s geographic situation between Europe and Asia. 

When the Golden Horde’s dominance eventually faded, the Tartars based in the southwestern area of Crimea, terrorized Russia with constant raids on horseback that killed or captured Russians, selling the victims into slavery in surrounding territories.  This only ended when Catherine the Great annexed the area in the latter 18th century. 

Due to the Tartar aggression, Russian men were conscripted from Spring through late Autumn every year to defend against the violent incursions.  The situation also forced Russia to focus its colonization efforts on the harsher areas to its north and east. 

Szamuely asserts that, from a psychological standpoint, when it came to their long conflict with the Muslim Tartars, Russians believed that they’d invested their blood, sweat and tears not just in defending their own land and people, but in preventing Tartar expansion further into Europe, enabling the Europeans to develop more rapidly as a result of their relative period of peace and stability (Szamuely 1974).  

Ivan IV, also known as Ivan the Terrible (or “Ivan the Formidable” in Russian) finally defeated the last of the Mongol-controlled areas of Kazan, Astrakhan and Siberia in the 1550’s.

References:

Massie, Suzanne.  Land of the Firebird:  The Beauty of Old Russia.  HeartTree Press.  Blue Hill, ME.  1980.

Billington, James H. The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture. Vintage Books. 1970.

Szamuely, Tibor. The Russian Tradition. Fontana Press. 1974.

Sunday, March 31st in Albany, CA – Russia and the West: What’s True, Exaggerated and False?

East Bay Peace Action & Ecumenical Peace Institute present

Natylie Baldwin speaking on

Russia and the West:

What’s True, Exaggerated and False?

Natylie Baldwin is the author of Understanding Russia and U.S.-Russia Relations:  A Primer, forthcoming in Spring of 2019.  She is also co-author of Ukraine: Zbig’s Grand Chessboard & How the West Was Checkmated.  She has traveled to Russia twice, visiting 6 different cities and interviewing a cross-section of Russians on various issues, including their views of Putin, the economy, US-Russia relations, the Yeltsin era, and the Russian Revolution.  She writes for Consortium News and blogs at natyliesbaldwin.com.

“I’m not sure there’s been a better book published this year …. I’m confident there’s not been a more important one.” – Author and activist David Swanson, re Ukraine: Zbig’s Grand Chessboard. . .

Sunday March 31st 2:00 – 4:00

Edith Stone Room

Albany Community Center

1249 Marin Avenue (at Masonic), Albany

For more information call (510) 524-6071