Assassination of Alexander II of Russia

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The assassination of Alexander II (1881), a drawing by Gustaf Broling [sv]

The assassination of Tsar Alexander II of Russia took place on March 13, 1881 (Old Style: March 1, 1881), in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Alexander was killed while traveling to Mikhailovsky Manège in a closed carriage after one assassin threw a bomb which damaged the carriage, prompting Alexander to dismount, at which point a second assassin threw a bomb that landed at the Tsar's feet.

Alexander II had previously survived several attempts on his life.[1] The assassination is popularly considered to be one of the most successful actions by the Russian Nihilist movement of the 19th century.

The conspirators[edit]

The assassination was planned by the Executive Committee of Narodnaya Volya ("The People's Will"), a terrorist revolutionary organization formed in 1879. Andrei Zhelyabov was the chief organizer. When Zhelyabov was arrested a few days prior to the attack, his wife Sophia Perovskaya took the reins.

The assassination[edit]

The explosion killed one of the Cossacks and wounded the driver.

As he was known to do every Sunday for many years, the emperor went to the Mikhailovsky Manège for the military roll call. He travelled both to and from the Manège in a closed carriage accompanied by five Cossacks and Frank (Franciszek) Joseph Jackowski, a Polish noble, with a sixth Cossack[2] sitting on the coachman's left. The emperor's carriage was followed by two sleighs carrying, among others, the chief of police and the chief of the emperor's guards. The route, as always, was via the Catherine Canal and over the Pevchesky Bridge.

The street was flanked by narrow pavements for the public. Rysakov was there, carrying a small white package wrapped in a handkerchief.[3] He later said of his attempt to kill the Tsar:

After a moment's hesitation I threw the bomb. I sent it under the horses' hooves in the supposition that it would blow up under the carriage... The explosion knocked me into the fence.[4]

The explosion, while killing one of the Cossacks and seriously wounding the driver and people on the sidewalk,[3] had only damaged the bulletproof carriage. The emperor emerged shaken but unhurt.[3] Rysakov was captured almost immediately. Police Chief Dvorzhitsky heard Rysakov shout out to someone else in the gathering crowd. The surrounding guards and the Cossacks urged the emperor to leave the area at once rather than being shown the site of the explosion.

To the anxious inquires of his entourage, Alexander replied, "Thank God, I'm untouched."[5]

Nevertheless, a second young member of the Narodnaya Volya, Ignacy Hryniewiecki,[3] standing by the canal fence, raised both arms and threw something at the emperor's feet. He was alleged to have shouted, "It is too early to thank God!"[5] Dvorzhitsky was later to write:

I was deafened by the new explosion, burned, wounded and thrown to the ground. Suddenly, amid the smoke and snowy fog, I heard His Majesty's weak voice cry, 'Help!' Gathering what strength I had, I jumped up and rushed to the emperor. His Majesty was half-lying, half-sitting, leaning on his right arm. Thinking he was merely wounded heavily, I tried to lift him but the czar's legs were shattered, and the blood poured out of them. Twenty people, with wounds of varying degree, lay on the sidewalk and on the street. Some managed to stand, others to crawl, still others tried to get out from beneath bodies that had fallen on them. Through the snow, debris, and blood you could see fragments of clothing, epaulets, sabres, and bloody chunks of human flesh.[6]

Nearby, Hryniewiecki himself lay unconscious from the blast.[7]

Later, it was learned there was a third bomber in the crowd. Ivan Yemelyanov stood ready, clutching a briefcase containing a bomb that would be used if the other two bombers failed.

Alexander was carried by sleigh to the Winter Palace[3] to his study where almost the same day twenty years earlier, he had signed the Emancipation Edict freeing the serfs. Alexander was bleeding to death, with his legs torn away, his stomach ripped open, and his face mutilated.[8] Members of the Romanov family came rushing to the scene.

The dying emperor was given Communion and Last Rites. When the attending physician, Sergey Botkin, was asked how long it would be, he replied, "Up to fifteen minutes."[9] At 3:30 that day, the personal flag of Alexander II (his personal flag) was lowered for the last time.[7]

Arrests, trials, and executions[edit]

The execution of the conspirators on the parade grounds of the Semyonovsky Regiment.

The first bomb-thrower, Nikolai Rysakov, had been captured at the scene.

The thrower of the fatal second bomb, Ignacy Hryniewiecki, had wounded himself fatally during the assassination. He was carried to the infirmary, where he regained consciousness around 9:00 that night, but refused to cooperate with the authorities or even to give his name. He died that night.[7]

Sophia Perovskaya was arrested on March 22 (Old Style: March 10) Nikolai Kibalchich on March 29 (Old Style: March 17). On March 15 (Old Style: March 3), two days after the assassination, the police came for Hesya Helfman and Nikolai Sablin; Sablin shot himself rather than be captured.

Zhelyabov, Perovskaya, Kibalchich, Helfman, Mikhailov, and Rysakov were tried by the Special Tribunal of the Ruling Senate on March 26–29 and sentenced to death by hanging. During the trial, in an attempt to save his own life, Rysakov cooperated with the investigators by giving them valuable information about his accomplices.[10]

On April 15, 1881 (Old Style: April 3, 1881),[11] all but Helfman were hanged. Kibalchich was hanged first; Mikhailov was second. Rysakov, the cooperator, was hanged last.

Helfman's execution was postponed due to her pregnancy. Her sentence of death was later replaced with katorga (forced labor) for an indefinite period of time. She died of a post-natal complication in January 1882.[citation needed]


The Church of the Savior on Blood was erected on the site of the assassination.

A temporary shrine was erected on the site of the attack while plans and fundraising for a more permanent memorial were undertaken. In order to build a permanent shrine on the exact spot where the assassination took place, it was decided to narrow the canal so that the section of road on which the tsar had been driving could be included within the walls of the church.

The permanent memorial took the form of the Church of the Savior on Blood. Construction began in 1883 under Alexander III, and was completed in 1907 under Nicholas II.

An elaborate shrine, in the form of a ciborium, was constructed at the end of the church opposite the altar, on the exact place of Alexander's assassination. It is embellished with topaz, lazurite, and other semi-precious stones,[12] making a striking contrast with the simple cobblestones of the old road, which are exposed in the floor of the shrine.


  1. ^ "6 facts about Alexander II: The tsar-liberator killed by revolutionaries". Russia Beyond. September 7, 2016.
  2. ^ Harris, Richard. Mother's recounting of her father's experience.
  3. ^ a b c d e Alison Rowley (Summer 2017). "Dark Tourism and the Death of Russian Emperor Alexander II, 1881–1891". Historian. 79 (2): 229–55. doi:10.1111/hisn.12503.
  4. ^ Edvard Radzinsky (2005). Alexander II: The Last Great Czar. Freepress. p. 413.
  5. ^ a b Robert K. Massie. Nicholas and Alexandra. New York: Dell Publishing Company. p. 16.
  6. ^ Edvard Radzinsky (2005). Alexander II: The Last Great Czar. Freepress. p. 415.
  7. ^ a b c Avrahm Yarmolinsky. Road to Revolution: A Century of Russian Radicalism.
  8. ^ Massie, p. 16
  9. ^ Edvard Radzinsky (2005). Alexander II: The Last Great Czar. Freepress. p. 419.
  10. ^ Edward Crankshaw (1976). The Shadow of the Winter Palace. New York: Viking Press. p. 270.
  11. ^ "1881: The assassins of Tsar Alexander II". Executed Today. 2009-04-15. Retrieved 2018-12-26. April 15 was the date on the Gregorian calendar; per the Julian calendar still in use in Russia at the time, the date was April 3.
  12. ^ "Church of the Savior on Blood, St. Petersburg". Sacred Destinations. Retrieved 2018-12-20.