National News

Overlooked No More: The Soviet Icon Who Was Hanged for Killing a Czar

Posted May 30, 2018 11:12 p.m. EDT

The assassins hurled their first round of explosives as Czar Alexander II traveled in his carriage through the streets of St. Petersburg. The czar survived, thanks to the carriage’s armor. But Alexander made the fatal mistake of descending to the street and that’s when the next bomb was thrown. He bled to death in hours.

The attackers on that March 13 in 1881 were led by Sophia L. Perovskaya, herself an aristocrat and a descendant of Peter the Great. Perovskaya, 27, was soon arrested with four male co-conspirators from the radical organization called the People’s Will and condemned to death by hanging.

She became known as Russia’s first female terrorist, credited with pushing the empire down the road to revolution and later given the mantle of martyrdom. Tolstoy called her an “ideological Joan of Arc.”

Perovskaya’s execution matched the drama of the assassination. On April 15, she and her fellow militants were driven through the streets of St. Petersburg in tumbrels, dressed in black robes, with their hands tied behind them and black placards reading “Czaricide” hung around their necks. The cortège, under military escort, moved to the beat of drums through the throngs lining the streets.

More soldiers held back the mob gathered on a central St. Petersburg parade ground, where five coffins waited behind a black scaffold. Just before Perovskaya became the first woman in Russia executed for a political crime, she kissed her accomplices, including her lover Andrei Zhelyabov. She led the assassination plot after he had been arrested.

Perovskaya maintained her composure, according to various accounts. A last letter to her mother indicated that she had accepted her fate: “Believe me, dearest Mommy, it is not at all such a dark one. I have lived as my convictions have prompted me; I could not do otherwise; therefore I await what is in store for me with a clear conscience.”

Perovskaya, who had been swept up in revolutionary fervor as a girl, and her confederates viewed the czar as the main obstacle to constitutional reform. Once he was dead, they believed that the public would realize that the emperor was not the demigod depicted in the teachings of the Russian Orthodox Church and would rise up against the autocracy.

Alexander II was a liberal who had abolished serfdom and created a judicial system, although he ceded to reactionary forces in his latter years. His death brought his conservative son Alexander III to the throne. The new czar rolled back many of his father’s reforms and imposed even more repressive measures.

But ultimately, Perovskaya and her band of assassins took Russia further down the path toward the 1917 revolution, said Andrei B. Zubov, a historian and editor of the three-volume “History of Russia: The 20th Century” (2009).

“In some way — not immediately, but in some decades — her deeds and thoughts resulted in social revolution,” he said.

Perovskaya soon came to be revered for her self-sacrifice.

“In the 19th century, she was regarded a martyr to the struggle for social justice and constitutional reform among the liberal and radical intelligentsia,” said Barbara Evans Clements, emeritus professor at the University of Akron and author of “A History of Women in Russia: From Earliest Times to the Present” (2012).

In the 1920s, the Bolsheviks made Perovskaya an icon. Soviet biographies, novels and films — one with a popular score by composer Dmitri Shostakovich — further burnished her legacy. Monuments, squares, streets and even a minor planet discovered in 1968 were named after her.

Sophia Perovskaya was born on Sept. 13, 1853. Her father, Lev Nikolaevich Perovsky, was a general who once served as governor-general of St. Petersburg and a descendant of the czarist line. He looked down on her pious mother, Varvara Stepanovna Perovskaya, for being a merely a provincial aristocrat.

Early on, Perovskaya clashed with her despotic father. Tension only increased after Varvara encouraged her daughters to pursue higher education, which was still unconventional for young women at the time. Perovskaya attended the Alarchin Courses, a woman’s college, and organized a study circle.

Inspired by radical literature and repulsed by the brutal social injustices in Russian society — not to mention her father — Perovskaya left home while still a teenager.

She is said to have charmed many with her lively intelligence, silvery laugh, charisma and looks — blond with blue eyes and a childlike face. Lauding her selflessness, honor and sense of duty, her biographer Nikolai A. Troitsky called her “probably the most likable personality among thousands and thousands of fighters against czarist autocracy.”

As the revolutionary movement gained momentum, Perovskaya, seeking to be of service to the people, passed a public teacher’s exam and completed studies as a doctor’s assistant. She joined the Populist movement, one of the first attempts by educated Russians to form a bridge to the peasants in hopes of inciting a socialist uprising.

That prompted her arrest in 1874, after which she became a member of another revolutionary organization and eventually went underground. In 1879, she joined the People’s Will, the most infamous militant group of the era.

Perovskaya had participated in two failed attempts to kill Alexander II — one near Moscow and one in Odessa — before the third one succeeded. The site of the assassination was immortalized with the construction of the colorful city landmark, the Church of the Savior of the Spilled Blood.

In recent times, the memory of Perovskaya has fared less well, particularly amid a waxing reverence for the czarist past. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, streets bearing her name were renamed and monuments removed.

Nevertheless, her family home on their former vineyard in Crimea remains a museum. Perovskaya’s portrait holds pride of place in the main drawing room, a legacy of her Soviet hero status, and her family name has been given to a local sparkling wine, said Larissa P. Biryukova, a tour guide who led a recent swing through the museum.

However, with the Kremlin worried about the young flocking to anti-government, pro-democracy protests, there is less emphasis on her exploits. “We don’t tell the teenage groups so much about Sophia — more about making wine,” Biryukova said.