On March 13, 1881, Tsar Alexander II of Russia was assassinated in a terrorist attack in Saint Petersburg while he was on his way to the Winter Palace. The assassination is considered to be the most successful action by the Russian nihilist movement of the 19th century.
Alexander II was crowned Emperor of Russia, King of Poland and Grand Duke of Finland in 1855, following the death of his father Nicholas I. At that moment, Russia was in crisis, with a failing economy, a vast and discontented peasantry, and a military that had been humiliated by the Crimean War. In an effort to modernize and reform the country, Alexander II embarked on a series of sweeping reforms. One of his most significant acts was the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, which abolished the system of serfdom that had bound millions of peasants to the landowners. He also implemented judicial and educational reforms, encouraged industrialization, and relaxed censorship laws.
However, the government was slow to adapt to the rapid change that Russian society was undergoing and remained highly autocratic, with the Tsar as an absolute ruler. This led to growing discontent among several groups in Russian society, such as the liberals, radicals and nationalists. These groups, who were heavily influenced by the ideas of German philosopher Karl Marx, advocated for political reforms, civil liberties, and greater democracy, but their demands were met with repression and censorship. As a result, some turned to more radical forms of protest and resistance, including terrorism.
In the 1870s, a wave of terrorist attacks swept through Russia, targeting government officials, police officers, and other representatives of the state. Eventually, on 25-26 August 1879, the Executive Committee of Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will) resolved that the best way to precipitate a revolution was to assassinate the Tsar. Thus, during the following year and a half, several attempts were made to end Alexander’s life, but all failed. The Committee then decided to assassinate him on his way back to the Winter Palace following his usual Sunday visit to the Mikhailovsky Manège. Andrei Zhelyabov was the chief organizer of the plot.
On the morning of March 13, 1881, Alexander II was travelling through the streets of Saint Petersburg in an open carriage, escorted by a small escort of soldiers and police. Several members of the People’s Will had positioned themselves along the route of the Tsar's carriage and, as it approached, one of them threw a bomb at it. The bomb exploded inside the carriage, killing several members of the escort and injuring the Tsar. The bomber was captured almost immediately. When the Tsar was about to be taken to a safe place another attacker came close to him and threw a second bomb at his feet. Both the Emperor and the assassin were mortally injured.
The dying Emperor was carried by sleigh to his study in the Winter Palace and members of the Romanov family were summoned to say their last goodbye to him. At 3:30 that day, the Tsar passed away and his personal flag was lowered for the last time. The following month his son Alexander III ascended the Russian throne.
The assassination of Tsar Alexander II was a turning point in Russian and European history. It marked the beginning of a period of increased repression and censorship in Russia and served as a symbol of the growing tensions between traditional monarchies and the emerging socialist movement. The response of the government to the assassination was bloody and chaotic since hundreds of suspected revolutionaries were executed and arrested. Even though the leaders of the People's Will movement were eventually caught and executed, their actions set off a chain reaction of violence and terrorism.
During the following years, Alexander’s successor, Alexander III, rejected his father’s reforms and sought to reassert the autocratic power of the Tsarist regime. However, this led to political stagnation and repression, as the government cracked down on dissent and sought to maintain control at all costs. This period of political violence and unrest would ultimately lead to the downfall of the Romanov dynasty and the rise of communism.
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