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The Assassination of Tsar Alexander II Is a Major Turning Point in Russian History

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On 1st March 1881 Tsar Alexander II was travelling through a blanket of snow to the Winter Palace in St Petersburg. He was accompanied by a multitude of Cossacks; whose sole job was to make sure that the Tsar did not get assassinated. An armed Cossack sat with the coach driver, another six Cossacks followed on horseback and behind them came a group of police officers in sledges (M. Bragg, Our Time). His daily excursion was being watched by a group of radicals called the ‘People’s Will’. Once the Tsar turned the street corner, they hurled the first set of their bombs at him and his entourage, wounding several men. When Alexander ignored the advice of the Cossacks and ventured out onto the snow to comfort his dying Cossacks, he was killed by another bomber.

The assassination sent a shockwave through Russia and changed the course of history. Because of his untimely and violent death, the sentiment towards the group responsible, and the deed itself, was not gratification. The Assassination of Alexander II catalyzed anti-Semitism in Russia because major members of the terrorist group responsible for his death were Jewish which then provoked the legislation of anti-Semitic laws by his successor and son, Alexander III.

Alexander II began his reign in 1855, during the Crimean War, following his father Nicholas I (Czar, 2018). Alexander was more liberal-minded than his father. He relaxed some of the restrictions placed against the Jews including abolishing the Cantonist system of Russification. The Cantonist system forced Jewish young males away from their families into a program of Russian and Christian education in preparation for a 25-year military conscription (Penfound, 2015). Jewish leaders had to reach a quota each year and even hired kidnappers to help meet the demands. Alexander II also allowed some Jews to live outside of the area known as the Pale of Settlement which Jews had been previously been confined to living in (Penfound, 2015).

Moving outside the encampment resulted in the formation of Jewish communities in major cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg. As a result of these policies, many Jews became more involved in Russian society. Alexander II unpopularity stemmed from the hand of fate, for it was his own reforms that ended up causing his downfall. A substantial reason the nobility and working class despised him was his refusal to give up his autocratic power. Had done this, some of the reforms would have been thoroughly executed out, such as providing a livelihood for the serfs. Any government that tries to change the basic foundation of property ownership throughout an entire country risks unpopularity with the people whose property they’re seizing.

After the Emancipation in 1861, there was no other goal. When allocating 90 percent of the population freedom, there needs to be somewhere for them to go and something for them to do. The division of property between the serfs, many of them worked land they did not own, therefore, once freed they were forced to vacate the area because the Tsar only had half of the emancipation planned (Penfound, 2015). The students that were now meeting regularly in the universities with less censorship, courtesy of the Tsar, led to new revolutionary ideas being formed. He had irritated the more conservative members of the nobility by issuing reforms in the first place.

In 1869, the book Catechism of a Revolutionist was published (Nechaev, 1869). The book influence on the Russian youth. In fact, the book had so much an impact that in 1876, an anarchist group called Land and Liberty was founded. The group was formed on the shared anarchist views and demanded that Russia’s land should be handed over to the newly freed serfs and the State should be destroyed (Simkin, 2017). A fair share of members did not approve of the inevitable violence that would come from the majority of the group. In October 1879, the Land and Liberty split up into two separate groups. The minority of members formed Black Repartition, a group that rejected terrorism and supported a socialist propaganda campaign among workers and peasants. The majority of members, who favored a policy of terrorism, established the People’s Will, including a Jewish woman named Gesia Gelfman (Simkin 2016). Gesia Gelfman was born in Mazyr, Russia, in 1855. At 17, her father decided to marry her off to a family friend without her consent. Gelfman rebelled by running away and joining the Pan-Russian Social Revolutionary where in 1875 she was arrested and convicted of distributing illegal literature (Simkin 2016). She was imprisoned in the St. Petersburg Workhouse. In 1879 Gesia was sent from St. Petersburg to finish her sentence in Siberia. She was able to escape a few months later and when she returned, she joined the People’s Will.

Sergei Stepniak- Kravchinsky, a fellow member of People’s Will recalled in his autobiography, ‘She did everything, letter-carrier, messenger, sentinel; and often her work was so heavy that it exhausted even her strength, although she was a woman belonging to the working classes… There are unknown heroines, obscure toilers, who offer up everything upon the altar of their cause, without asking anything for themselves. They assume the most ungrateful parts, sacrifice themselves for the merest trifles; for lending their names to the correspondence of others; for sheltering a man, often unknown to them; for delivering a parcel without knowing what it contains … such precisely is the story of Gesia Gelfman,’ (Stepniak- Kravchinsky, 1883).

In January 1881 the People’s Will began to make plans for assassination attempt. They had unsuccessfully executed two attempts prior. It was discovered that every Sunday the Tsar took a drive along Malaya Sadovaya Street (Simkin, 2017). It was decided that this was the best option for an attack. The conspirators decided to make their attack on 1st March 1881 (Simkin, 2017). Gesia had an apartment near that street thus her home became the assassin’s headquarters. Eventually it was decided that the Tsar’s carriage should be mined, with hand grenades at the ready as a second strategy. If all else failed, one of the members of the assassination team should step forward and stab the Tsar with a dagger (Simkin, 2017). The big day finally came, and the terrorists were waiting in hiding, looking for the signal from the lookout posted farther up the road. The signal was given, and the two bombers let loose, however they miscalculated. The bombs missed the carriage and hit some of the Cossacks. The Tsar was unharmed, and despite being advised to stay away from the people throwing bombs, he got out of the carriage to check on his injured men. While he was standing with the wounded Cossacks another terrorist, threw his bomb (Simkin, 2017).

Alexander was killed instantly, and the explosion was so great that the man who threw the bomb also died from the blast. One of the bombers was arrested at the scene of the crime, Gesia was arrested the next day as the police raided her apartment (Simkin, 2016). Many members of People’s Will escaped prosecution. Those who were on trial were all sentenced to death. Gelfman was four months pregnant so her execution was postponed. According to her friend, Olga Liubatovich, ‘Just before she was to deliver, the terrible act of childbirth became a case of torture unprecedented in human history. For the delivery, they transferred her to the House of Detention. The torments suffered by poor Gesia exceeded those dreamed up by the executioners of the Middle Ages. The child was born live, and she was even able to nurse it,’ (Simkin 2016). Soon after she gave birth her daughter, she was taken from her. On October 12, 1882, over a year and a half after the assassination, Gesia Gelfman died from peritonitis.

The assassination of Tsar Alexander II was a major turning point in Russian and Jewish history. A month later, a wave of pogroms, attacks against Jewish homes, businesses, and synagogues spread throughout the Russian Empire and affected hundreds of Jewish communities (Czar, 2018). Alexander II’s successor, his son, Alexander III, blamed his father’s liberal policies for his assassination and moved to consolidate his power into an absolute autocracy. In May 1882, a series of laws, known as the May Laws, were passed which further restricted Jews to living in the Pale of Settlement and prohibited Jews from living outside of larger cities and towns, owning real estate, leasing land, and operating their businesses on Sundays or other Christian holidays (Czar, 2018). A dark period for Jews in Russia began. The result of the pogroms and policy shift led to a reexamination of Jewish life in Eastern Europe and the future for Jews in Russia. This anti-Semitic wave created a large amount of unrest within the communities.

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