On 4 April 1866, Alexander II became the target of the first assassination attempt on a Russian Tsar. The Emperor had dedicated his reign to a string of domestic reforms in response to the outcome of the Crimean War in 1856, where it became evident that Russia was unable to compete with other European powers.
What is seen as Alexander’s most notable reform, earning him the title of Alexander the Liberator, was serf emancipation in 1861. Other attempts at modernisation included the addition of 13,400 miles of railway track and the reform of the government’s administrative system.
The westernisation that these reforms imposed on Russian life inspired public reaction. In 1863, insurrection in Poland marked the beginning of the rise of anarchy and revolution across the empire. The 1863-1864 January Uprising resulted in the mass execution and deportation of the Polish population, which is often only mildly referred to as the incorporation of Poland into Russia.
Conflict between the nihilism of the Russian youth, the lack of support from nobility and the repression of Alexander’s secret police, the Third Section, climaxed in the first attempt on the Tsar’s life in 1866. The 26 year old revolutionary responsible, Dmitry Karakozov, had encouraged the public in St Petersburg to revolt against Alexander, holding him to account for the poverty and suffering of peasants. The Tsar escaped only due to an apprentice supposedly pushing him out of the line of fire, although whether this was intentional is disputed. Karakozov was executed and from then on Alexander adopted a more conservative and repressive domestic policy.
After three more attempts on the Tsar’s life in 1867, 1879 and 1880, all of which failed due to poor planning or bad luck, Alexander was assassinated on 13th March 1881 by Nikolai Rysakov, a member of the People’s Will movement. The organisation was led by young revolutionaries with the belief that terrorism could inspire revolt in order to abolish Tsarism. Alexander’s reforms following the Crimean War, and the reactions they inspired, are believed to have set Russia on a revolutionary path at the end of the 19th century.
Image: Sergey Lvovich Levitsky