FiLiA 2017 conference presentation: “Unanimous in Our Enthusiasms”: Female Friendship in the Russian Revolutionary Movement

Well, FiLiA feminism conference 2017 is officially over. I think I’ve only just now recovered. It was incredible to be in such a female-driven space, and to speak as a peer among women whose research and passion I’ve admired for years. I remember staying up well into the night reading Sheila Rowbotham’s Women, Resistance, and Revolution, writing down relevant quotes for my forthcoming project. I never imagined then that I would meet Sheila, or that it would be as a fellow panelist on Revolutionary Women at the largest feminism conference in Europe. Truly, I am humbled – and inspired. (If one can be both at once, then I definitely am!)

Revolutionary Women Panel
Revolutionary Women panel, l to r: Nadia Plungian, Leda Garina, Rahila Gupta, Angelina Lesniewski, Sheila Rowbotham, and chairwoman Anna Zobnina.                                                       Photo credit: Pamela Grąsiorowski, European Network of Migrant Women

The conference ran on a tight timing schedule, so I wasn’t able to cover fully or at all some of the subjects I’d originally intended. So I thought I would post here a “best of both worlds” version: the research at its fullest, the fiction excerpt as strong as I can make it. Enjoy!

“Unanimous in Our Enthusiasms”: Female Friendship in the Russian Revolutionary Movement

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Today I’m discussing sisterhood in the Russian revolutionary movement. Camaraderie, is, of course, a vital theme in revolutionary narratives, but typically in a masculine context. By not recognizing radical women and their support of one another, we not only misunderstand our history but lose out on models for our own personal relationships and public movements.

My research focuses on the often neglected women in the Russian revolution. For nearly 40 years, from the 1870s until 1917, women played important and varied roles for their parties and each other. Through political and personal turbulence, they were each other’s nurses, confidantes, theorists, and everything in between. I will discuss some of them today, before reading an extract from my novel which they inspired. But first, a quote.

“At meetings with men…women usually keep quiet; we feel shy, and so we don’t say anything. But maybe with practice we’ll learn to develop our thoughts logically, and then we won’t be afraid to speak in public. A woman’s circle would be a place where we could learn.”

bardina and figner
Sofia Bardina                                                                                         Vera Figner

Sofia Bardina mentioned a women’s study group to Vera Figner in 1872, highlighting the insecurity women can feel when speaking in front of men. Here, too, is the kernel, from the very beginning of the revolutionary era, of socialist feminism. Recognition that when women work, learn, and think together, they also nurture and inspire each other.

Sofia Perovskaya

From its inception as a study group to its final days as the organization responsible for assassinating Tsar Alexander II, Sofia Perovskaya was a member of Narodnaya Volya – and a leader.

Praskovia Ivanovskaia
Praskovia Ivanovskaya

Praskovia Ivanovskaya recalled meetings with her fondly, saying “Sofia always gave us a warm, friendly welcome; she acted as if we were the ones with stimulating ideas and news to share rather than the reverse.” Perovskaya understood the importance of boosting morale. When Lila Terenteva felt restricted by propaganda and asked for more dangerous assignments, “A shadow fell across Perovskaya’s weary face…then she tenderly stroked [Lila’s] ardent head [saying]: ‘Don’t think…that the press is any less necessary and valuable to the party’s work than throwing bombs.’” Perovskaya took on a dual role, political and pastoral, fostering both the emotional strength and the radical convictions of the women around her.

luibatovich gelfman
Olga Liubatovich                                                                                 Gesia Gelfman

This support went both ways. Olga Liubatovich shared a secret apartment with Mikhail Grachevsky and Gesia Gelfman. Soon after the failed attempt to blow up the Tsar’s train, Perovskaya appeared in their flat. “[She] was generally very reserved,” Liubatovich wrote, “but after Grachevsky left and she found herself alone with us women, the words began to spill out and she emotionally told us the story of the Moscow attempt…” To break down in front of a male comrade meant risking her authority. Only among the women did she feel sure of both respect and understanding. They happily gave both.

These are the foundations of the movement. Some even made these dynamics the lynchpin of their political platforms.

Alexandra Kollontai3
Alexandra Kollontai

Alexandra Kollontai became a socialist in the 1890s fighting what she deemed “bourgeois suffragettes” whose idea of enfranchisement extended only to women of their own privileged class. “For me,” Kollontai said, “‘what I am’ was always of less importance than ‘what I can’, that is to say, what I was in a position to accomplish. …I, too, had my ambition and it was…the abolition of the slavery of working women.” She took many roles in the movement: writer, strike organizer, speechmaker, stateswoman – championing the economic, social, and sexual rights of working women.

Global socialism also meant global feminism. During her near decade of self-exile, she collaborated with others in the socialist/feminist struggle around the world, even those with whom she often disagreed: Louise Bryant, Rosa Luxemburg, Emma Goldman. She credited these women – and a few men – with helping define her principles.

bryant luxemburg goldman armand
Louise Bryant              Rosa Luxemburg                      Emma Goldman                           Inessa Armand

After the revolution, she was the first woman in the Bolshevik Central Committee (having defected from the pro-war Mensheviks), and set up the Zhenotdel, or Women’s Department with Inessa Armand, building women’s needs into the new government – albeit temporarily. She organized the International Conference of Communist Women in 1920 with Clara Zetkin, Lyudmilla Stal, and Liliana Zinaida, and worked closely with the deputies.

kollontai womens conference
Kollontai with Clara Zetkin, Lyudmilla Stal, and Lilina Zinaida                    Kollontai with deputies.

She became the first female ambassador, to Norway, then Mexico, and Sweden; really it was administrative exile by Stalin for joining the Workers’ Opposition party against Lenin’s later policies – though it in no way diminishes her accomplishment. Her memoir, incredibly brief for such a rich life, depicts a revolutionary who felt that “women’s liberation could take place only as a result of the victory of a new social order and a different economic system.”

Kollontai 1st all Russian session of owrkers' and soldiers' deputies petrograd june 1917
Kollontai at the First All Russian session of workers’ and soldiers’ deputies. Petrograd, June 1917

We should not forget the words of Sofia Bardina a generation before. Kollontai had no qualms about being the sole female voice in a room full of men.

Spiridonova and the 6[2]
Maria Spiridonova, Maria Skholnik, Anastasia Bitsenko, Alexandra Izmailovich, Rebecca Fialka, Lydia Ezerskaya
Maria Spiridonova was 21 when she was arrested and imprisoned for assassinating the governor of Tambov in 1906. There is much speculation over her motives and even more about her brutal treatment from the Tsarist authorities. For now, I’d like to leave those salacious elements for their unexpected result: the friendship between her and other terrorist women of the Social Revolutionary party. These women: Maria Skholnik, Anastasia Bitsenko, Alexandra Izmailovich, Rebecca Fialka, Lydia Ezerskaya along with Spiridonova gained celebrity status during the 1905 revolution and were dubbed shesterka or “the six”.

The first contact between them were smuggled notes from their prison cells; the terrorist wing at that time featured many more attempted assassinations than successful ones, so Spiridonova was popular.

the six1

Their train to Siberia was constantly stopped so peasants could greet them with cheers and flowers. They won over guards and male comrades. But mostly they stuck together, from their arrival in 1906 until the amnesty in 1917, a commune of female political prisoners.

shesterka 1916-1917

Per Bardina’s now distant observations, it’s noteworthy that Bitsenko went on to represent the SRs at the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (then joined the Bolsheviks), while Spiridonova led the delegates at the Second Peasant Congress. Both took leadership roles in rooms of men.

bitsenko rep
Anastasia Bitsenko, SR representative at the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, 1918.
spiridonova rep
Maria Spiridonova, SR leader at Second Peasant Congress

While Spiridonova received letters from many fellow prisoners in 1906, Alexandra Izmailovich wrote most. Spiridonova, she said, “didn’t know us, but…indicated she already loved us as fellow [SRs]”. From this moment, we can trace a friendship which lasted the rest of their lives.

spiridonova and izmailovich2
Maria Spiridonova                                                         Alexandra Izmailovich

In the aftermath of 1917, the SR’s felt the Bolsheviks had betrayed the revolution and worked against them – none harder than Spiridonova,of whom Louise Bryant recalled, “I have not met her equal in any country.” When she was re-arrested and went on hunger strike the panicked Bolsheviks fetched Izmailovich from another prison; they wanted her consent for force-feeding. She was outraged.

Spiridonova, Ismailovich, Karpovich making tea in Akatuyev
Spiridonova and Izmailovich, Siberian exile under the Tsar.

“[H]ere were officials reading out her death sentence to me who stood closest to her, and asking me politely for my signature, in order to shift the responsibility of her death from themselves to me.”

She refused forcible feeding, saying it would bring back memories of Spridonova’s abuse from police in 1906, and added:

“There is no doubt whatever that the application of forcible feeding would precipitate a catastrophe because of the reawakening of memories of violence done to her in the past. I definitely refuse to be associated with forcible feeding…[and] I wish once more to place on record my conviction that the sole responsibility for Spiridonova’s death is borne by the present rulers of Russia.”

Izmailovich nursed her, while Emma Goldman and Clara Zetkin petitioned for their release. For ten years they were subjected to the caprices of the Bolshevik government, repeatedly released and re-arrested in a cat-and-mouse game. Finally, during a Stalin-era purge, they were exiled again, forming an SR family with Irina Kakhovskaya and Ilya Mayorov.

Spiridonova Izmailovich Kakhovskaya Mayorov
l to r: Ilya Mayorov, Maria Spiridonova, Alexandra Izmailovich, Irina Kakhovskaya

When the Germans invaded in 1941, Stalin would risk no opposition. Spiridonova, Izmailovich and countless others were executed.

The encouragement and empathy these women showed each other most informs the following scene, an extract from my novel Do Unto Others set in Russia leading up to the 1905 revolution.

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“I didn’t think I’d see you again,” said Katya, moving a stack of papers off a chair. Her flat was small and cluttered, and Marguerite had the impression she wasn’t home much.

“You’re in good company,” Marguerite said, sitting by the table. “I wasn’t sure I’d get out.”

“I couldn’t believe it when I heard they’d got you. I thought: we’re lost without a leader.”

Marguerite shook her head. “It’s Channer’s group, not mine.”

Katya turned from the samovar and scoffed. “He may have started it, but it’s yours. We all know it. That’s why I joined, and why do you think it started falling apart after you were arrested?”

Marguerite stared at her hands. All she wanted was to be part of the work; she’d never seen herself as a leader. But Katya had, and maybe others, too. What was this about it breaking up?

Before she could ask, Katya set a glass of tea in front of her and wrapped thin arms around her neck, pressing their faces cheek to cheek. “Was it very awful?”

Something small and frightened stirred in the pit of Marguerite’s stomach. It had been hard enough telling Varvara, her oldest, dearest friend; she hadn’t even told Channer the worst. Whenever her mind strayed back to her cell there was a flutter like wings in her chest, and the prospect of telling Katya made her throat tighten so she might never force words out. But from the start she’d recognized Katya’s clear, quick thinking, and she realized they could never truly be comrades if Marguerite withheld the facts. And, she thought, Stepan’s prison stories helped me…maybe my experience could help her someday.

Reliving it, sharing it, was exhausting, a physical as much as emotional task, but it was easier this time. Now there was a sense of narrative to the chaos. She explained the structure of her days, the method of the interrogations, and how they saw her as more woman than revolutionary. “That,” she said, “was their mistake.” Indignities were detailed with indifference. Though when she explained about Kira, that precious girl she’d borne, birthed, and loved and who they’d taken, who was lost, her body rioted, fighting to keep the memory of her daughter in. But her voice barely wavered. Katya’s eyes glittered and swam. Marguerite’s were dry. There, she thought, I’ve conquered it. It can’t hurt me now. But the empty glass clanked a little too hard when she set it on the table.

“Can’t you…can’t you get her back?”

“No. And I don’t want to.”

She met Katya’s eyes and braced for a storm of outrage and disappointment like Varvara had unleashed…but it didn’t come.

“I understand,” she said, looking at the dregs in her glass. “It’s not safe for a baby, not with us lot. Besides, mother and revolutionary are full-time jobs.”

It wasn’t the whole truth, but it was near enough. Gratitude, warm and soft, settled in her and she took Katya’s hand. “You don’t know what that means to me. It’s funny, you always made me feel so ashamed… But you understand.”


“You were so dedicated,” Marguerite said, “you did whatever was asked of you, and never let personal relationships interfere with work, while I…”

“I wasn’t brave enough!” Katya said. “You were. You didn’t just take notes and write their letters like they wanted. I looked up to you – I do, I mean.” Brazen, unflappable Katya actually blushed. “Anyway, if I loved someone, it’d be different. You and Channer love each other and the cause, too.”

Marguerite leaned back and sighed. “I don’t know what cause he loves. He seems content to just sit back and wait for change to come, he doesn’t realize he has to make it. You can call for change all your life, but revolutions aren’t wished for, they’re created. And me, I’m suffocating trying to make him see that, trapped in a group whose aims are muddled and whose methods I’ve lost faith in.”

Katya nodded. “Pamphlets are alright for consciousness raising but they don’t work on their own.”

Marguerite looked at her…and then the idea came, so clear and powerful it left her momentarily speechless. She leaned over, and as she studied Katya’s narrow, impish face, she felt a swoop of sure success. “Well then…why don’t we do it ourselves?”



Thanks again to the FiLiA organizers and to the European Network of Migrant Women for this incredible opportunity. I learned many fascinating things, and am always happy to share the stories of these incredible women.

Russian revolutionary women presentation


The Bright-Eyed Maid with Hero’s Soul

Sofia Lvovna Perovskaya (September 13, 1853-April 3, 1881) was always conspicuous by her difference. In a wealthy family, notable for gregarious, sparkling banter and luxurious gowns, a reserved young lady in demure dress is bound to stand out. She was determined to amass knowledge, and plagued by the urge which infected so many Russian youths in that generation: to live a useful life. Of course, in a society whose investment in women’s intellectual advancement was notoriously poor, these were lofty goals indeed. The situation was hardly helped by her tyrannical father, who spent much of his time terrorizing her timid, tender mother, turning on Sofia when this target wore out. He was Governor-General of St. Petersburg, product of a family descended from royalty whose members occupied some of the most prestigious positions in the Empire; conservative and reactionary, he despised Sofia’s urge to learn, keeping her out of school and without a tutor for much of her youth. But arguably it was he more than anyone, with his tempers, his repression, and disdain, who inspired her to pursue education and rights for women, the protection of society’s most vulnerable members, and, eventually, revolution and terrorism.


In light of her father’s edict on school and tutors, Sofia took the onus of her education onto herself. She gorged herself on books, taking in whatever information she could wherever she could get it.  At around this time there was a tremendous upsurge in the Russian women’s movements, and young ladies (typically of a respectable social standing) were opting to pursue education wherever it was available. Sofia was one of them; she joined the Alarchinsky University for Women in 1869, running away from home at just fifteen.


Her reading had convinced her, along with so many of the young intellectuals of her day, that socialism was the cure for the ailments of Russian autocracy; her urge for a useful life meant she now needed an outlet to put her beliefs into practice. Two years later, in the spring of 1871, she joined a book group, binding up libraries for radicals and peasants with Lyubov Kornilova, Olga Shleysner, Alexandra Obodovskaya, and several others – this became the Chaikovsky Circle, an early outlier of seditious revolutionary groups. As Sergei Kravchinky, fellow Russian radical and author of “Undeground Russia: Revolutionary Profiles and Sketches from Life” points out in his assessment of Sofia: “[I]n Russia, everything that is done for the welfare of the country, and not for that of the Emperor, has to be done in secret.”


Always, her target and aim was the improvement of the lives of the people. Whether it was propagandizing among the youth, or the factory workers, or the peasants, or going “to the people” with others of her generation who took up magnanimous positions such as farm laborers, educators, or in Sofia’s case, nurses. She worked as a smallpox inoculator, in factories, and set up a home to educate workers; in the end, she received diplomas as both a teacher and a medical assistant (assistant only, despite her capability, on the grounds of being a woman). Throughout 1873 she maintained several safehouses for the socialist movement, so much of which was directed against Tsar Alexander II.


Then, in 1874, she was arrested with Alexandra and Lyubov Kornilova for undercover propagandizing among the workers, and was held in the Petropavlovskaya Fortress – notorious for its poor conditions, the tomb of myriad revolutionaries before her. Her position as a young woman of influential family meant she was allowed to await trial on her parents’ estate in Crimea, though only because the authorities had no evidence to hold her with. Unable to devote herself to her work for fear of compromising her comrades, and never one for idleness, she spent the next three years working as a doctor’s apprentice in Simbirsk Province, then attending a doctor’s apprentice course in Simferopol.


Her privileged position worked in her favor before the jury, as well. At the Trial of the 193, where the defendants were an assemblage of students, youths, and radicals accused of causing unrest in the provinces and spreading propaganda against the Empire and Tsar, she was acquitted on January 23, 1878 (the day before another radical woman, Vera Zasulich, shot General Trepov as a reprisal for his order to flog a political prisoner). Sofia, knowing the authorities were outraged by her acquittal and Zasulich’s crime, went underground to escape re-arrest. She spent a year exhaustively organizing armed escapes of convicted comrades, going to Kharkov for money and materials, but her efforts were generally unsuccessful – this compulsion to liberate her imprisoned comrades would be a recurring strand of her political and revolutionary life until her death.


At this time, she joined Land and Liberty, the radical group calling for a revolt among the peasants. She was arrested at her mother’s home in Crimea but managed to catch a train and escape en route to exile. When the party split into two factions over whether or not terrorism was a viable political tool, Sofia was left with a choice: Black Repartition, favoring rights for the peasants by means of propaganda, agitation, and strikes, or Narodnaya Volya (the People’s Will), who aimed to attack Russian autocracy at its source, Tsar Alexander II. After some persuading, she tentatively chose Narodnaya Volya, along with Tatiana Lebedeva, Anna Korba, Gesia Gelfman, Anna Yakimova, and Vera Figner, as well as a number of others.


Her work in the group was hectic and intense, plotting constantly to kill the tyrant figurehead and free the people. The first plan was to blow up the Tsar’s train. She posed as wife of comrade Lev Gartman and moved into a house near the Moscow railway line, helping dig the tunnel from the house to the tracks where they would place the explosives. Sofia twice protected the tunnel from police discovery; in case they were raided, it would be her responsibility to shoot at a bottle of nitroglycerine, thus blowing up the police, comrades, house, and herself. She faced death unafraid, but thought it prudent to use charm and wit to distract the police in their search, and keep the evidence better hidden. The work was getting increasingly dangerous, but their determination only grew hotter with each passing day.


At last, they were ready to set their plan in motion. On the night of November 19, 1880, Sofia and her comrades journeyed to the prearranged spot, just outside Moscow, and hid among the bushes alongside the railroad line. She peered at the tracks under cover of darkness, waiting in tense but patient silence for the Imperial train. Traditionally the Tsar rode in the second coach, and so as the train approached she let the first go; however, the Tsar had been in the first coach after all, and the explosion wound up killing servants and soldiers of the Emperor.


Devastated by their failure, and miserable at having killed innocent civilians (of the proletariat no less), the group made their weary way back to the city. Now she now joined Narodnaya Volya in an official capacity, having proven herself invaluable with her cool head and searing conviction. She was the first woman on the Administrative Committee and Executive Committee, taking a leading role alongside Andrei Zhelyabov in the planning and executing of their schemes. They planned to try again, determined this time to do it differently, and do it right. But success was never guaranteed, and their second attempt, this time to blow up the Kamenny Bridge in the capital as the Tsar passed over it, was equally ill-fated. The mission in February 1880 to blow up the Tsar in his dining room, planting an agent in the Winter Palace and stocking his room with dynamite, only resulted in the death of a handful of servants. Narodnaya Volya, desperate in light of their failures, agreed to suspend their campaign if the Tsar would issue the Russian people with a constitution. But the constitution would never grant freedom to the Russian people, and this period witnessed the birth of the Okhrana, the Russian secret police responsible for “internal security”, i.e. tasked with targeting and suppressing seditious groups of any persuasion. Met with repeated failure and hunted on all sides, spirits in Narodnaya Volya were low that winter.


Somewhere, through the flurry of producing propaganda literature, avoiding the clutches of the local gendarmes, and plotting and attempting to assassinate the Tsar, Sofia Perovskaya fell in love with Andrei Zhelyabov, her closest comrade. With his great height and exceptional beard, he looked slightly mismatched beside the diminutive, childlike Sofia; yet the meeting of the minds between them was extreme and inevitable. They each understood one another, their ambitions, their reasons, their mission, the struggles of life as an underground radical and as a terrorist; these were circumstances few others of their acquaintance could truly grasp. While many in the early years of Russian revolutionary work regarded personal relationships (read: romantic and sexual relations) between party members as a selfish distraction from their work, others, such as their comrade Lev Tikhomirov, saw such unions as a positive.

“It meant a great deal to him. He valued her intelligence and character, and as a colleague in the cause she was incomparable. Of course one can’t talk of happiness. There was constant anxiety – not for themselves but for each other – continual preoccupations, an increasing flood of work which meant that they could scarcely ever be alone, the certainty that sooner or later there was bound to come a tragic ending. And yet there were times, when work was going well, when they were able to forget for a while, and then it was a joy to see them, especially her. Sophia’s feelings were so overwhelming that in any but her it would have crowded out all thoughts of her work.”

The strength and depth of her feelings for Zhelyabov were in harmony with her political work, not conflict; she had passion enough for both.



Sophia Perovskaya and Andrei Zhelyabov


On the wings of love, the work flew on. For the next mission, Sofia posed as the wife of their comrade Nikolay Sablin in Odessa; their plan was to blow up a street the Tsar often passed through en route to Crimea. The revolutionaries found a shop and dug tunnel for mines with the help of Vera Figner. Once again, they miscalculated, and he went by sooner than anticipated. The Committee instructed them to wind down efforts with the mines, so they changed their target to Count Totleben, representative of the governor-general system (which had been introduced in spring of 1879 in six special regional commands as a response to revolutionary activity). Before they could come up with a safe, concise means of killing him, he was transferred out of Odessa. Disheartened, but not beaten, Sofia and Sablin left Odessa.


Now, in the early months of 1881, the third plan to kill the Tsar was drawn up to take place on the first of March. Having observed his movements, particularly his Sunday trips to the barracks, they mapped out his potential routes through the capital and decided to spring at the most likely point. On Malaya Sadova Street they once again set up a shop façade, filled with explosives, which they would set off when the Tsar passed by. But the terrorists had been thwarted one time too many, and decided to prepare a backup plan. They asked the Executive Committee how to proceed on March 1 if the Tsar did not go down Malaya Sadova Street as planned; the response was “Act in any case” and a contingency plan was drafted. Rather than commit themselves to one location with mines, nitroglycerine, and dynamite, they began building projectile shells which could be carried and thrown from any location. This is one of the earliest instances of projectile explosives, and without any previous experience the work was all the more dangerous; indeed, their principal bomb builder was injured on the job, leaving Anna Yakimova to finish constructing them on her own. But what they lacked in experience they made up for in conviction, and the bombs were completed.


Sofia was perhaps more anxious than any of them in the days and hours preceding the assassination attempt. Zhelyabov had been arrested on the night of February 27, and her fear for his safety was not tempered by fear that he would give them away; she trusted him implicitly. But it did mean she was now the leader of Narodnaya Volya in his stead, responsible for their most ambitious undertaking. She spent the night of February 28 in Vera Figner’s flat, resting for the next day at Figner’s insistence; the women were up and ready at 7am.


On March 1, 1881, Sofia brought the bombs from Vera Figner’s flat to Gesia Gelfman’s, then delivered them to the bomb-throwers whom she positioned along the Ekaterinsky Canal before she crossed to the opposite side, ready to alert them in code with a white handkerchief. Anna Yakimova was keeping watch, and when the Tsar did not pass the shop on Malaya Sadova Street, it meant that Sofia and her band of assassins were the last chance. She waved her handkerchief, and Nikolay Rysakov threw the first bomb. The damage was restricted to the horse and a few guards; against the advice of his entourage, the Tsar emerged from his carriage to inspect the damage and offer comfort. Rysakov, already apprehended shouted something, and, worried there were more revolutionaries in the swarming crowd, again the entourage begged the Tsar to return to the carriage and leave the scene. But it was too late. Ignacy Hryniewiecki ran forward, throwing another bomb; Ivan Emelyanov stood by, ready to throw a third should this comrade be unsuccessful. But Hryniewiecki was too close to miss, or to survive. The street was in chaos, blood and debris and body parts decorating a black circle of scorched earth. The Tsar, maimed and bleeding, was rushed in a sleigh back to the palace, but was no use. Narodnaya Volya had assassinated Tsar Alexander II.


The Executive Committee, still with Sofia at the helm, published a letter the following evening, agreeing to negotiate with the wounded government. “The inevitable alternatives are revolution or a voluntary transfer of power to the people. We turn to you as a citizen and a man of honour, and we demand: (i) amnesty for all political prisoners, (ii) the summoning of a representative assembly of the whole nation.”


It took until March 10th for the authorities to track down Sofia Perovskaya, the mastermind with bloody hands who had hidden with the surviving terrorists in Vera Figner’s flat, arresting her on the street with her comrade Nikolay Kibalchich. At the trial, Prosecutor Muraviev made a special note of Sofia’s involvement with particular shock:

“We can imagine a political conspiracy; we can imagine that this conspiracy uses the most cruel, amazing means; we can imagine that a woman should be part of this conspiracy. But that a woman should lead a conspiracy, that she should take on herself all the details of the murder, that she should with cynical coldness place the bomb-throwers, draw a plan and show them where to stand; that a woman should have become the life and soul of this conspiracy, should stand a few steps away from the place of the crime and admire the work of her own hands – any normal feelings of morality can have no understanding of such a role for women.”


For her part, Sofia testified to Gesia Gelfman’s non-involvement with the assassination (though only Gelfman’s pregnancy spared her the gallows, albeit for a darker fate). But she admitted to her role in the Moscow train bombing and the assassination in the capital, asking to be treated equally to her fellow conspirators; death was inevitable, and she didn’t want to be spared just punishment on account of being a woman even if her position as a woman of noble family meant she could appeal. In a letter sent from prison to her mother, she wrote:

“[M]y fate does not afflict me in the least, and I shall meet it with complete tranquility, for I have long expected it, and known that sooner or later it must come. And I assure you, dear mamma, that my fate is not such a very mournful one. I have lived as my convictions dictated, and it would have been impossible for me to have acted otherwise. I await my fate, therefore, with a tranquil conscience, whatever it may be.”


Sofia Perovskaya was sentenced to death. She was the first woman hanged in Russia for a political crime, on April 3, 1881.



Sofia Perovskaya, hanged for Tsaricide April 3, 1881


The wisdom of assassinating an Emperor whose nickname was “Tsar Liberator” has been debated ever since. Arguably Alexander II was among the least authoritarian Tsars of the modern age; certainly he was more liberal than the son who followed him, whose conservative outlook was warped to fanaticism after the murder of his father by revolutionaries. The abolition of serfdom, Russia’s feudal slave system, had been long anticipated, but the application was not as smooth as the theory. The system as it was constructed created more financial difficulty for the peasants, creating massive dissatisfaction. No matter what liberal reforms Alexander instituted over his nearly 30 year reign, be they military, judicial, or political, they never quite went far enough for the liberals or the people. It was a pattern that would repeat itself with his even unluckier grandson, Nicholas II, who only relinquished the smallest power, conceded even the most minor rights, with greatest reluctance, and paid the ultimate price for it.


As for Sofia, who dangled on the gallows alongside her lover Zhelyabov (along with Kibalchich, Rysakov and Mikhailov) with placards reading “Tsaricide” hanging from their necks, she became something of an ideal, a martyr for the Russian people, a heroine for generations of Russian revolutionary women after her. To work alongside the men as their equal, striking blows against an unjust system, and to face the consequences with stoicism and pride which was almost pleasure, she inspired fanatic devotion for those who followed her, men and women alike. Kravchinsky, in his “Sketches”, recalled of her:

“[S]he said, with her earnest look, ‘Let us go.’ Who could reply to her, ‘Not I?’ She went willingly, ‘happy,’ as she used to say.”


Note: Perovskaya became something of a muse after death, inspiring ballads, poems, operas, and paintings. The title and the following stanzas are from one such tribute.


But souls like hers survive the fate

Which tyrants in their might decree,

And ever live to animate

The nations struggling to be free.


Purged of the dross of earth, the fir

Of one great spirit’s holocaust

Will thousands wake to patriot ire —

Will raise to life a patriot host!

~ “The Beauteous Terrorist” by Henry Parkes

A Woman’s Place is in the Revolution

The Firebird: mythical beast of Russian folklore, both a blessing and a curse, beautiful, elusive, a healer and protector of the peasant, and the omen of a great quest. It seemed the perfect symbol to unite the disparate group of passionate, dedicated, and courageous women whom I’ve been referring to privately throughout my research as “badass Russian lady revolutionaries”. Which doesn’t roll off the tongue as nicely as “the Firebirds”.

So what can you expect to find here? Mainly, a spotlight for women of the Russian revolutionary movement (late-1870s – 1917), regardless of specific party affiliation. Formats may vary. Some will be biographical sketches, some will be written around a theme, some will be articles I’ve written for other outlets which I’d like to expand upon. Where I can, I will include photographs of the women in question; it’s wonderful how much more tangible the past becomes with pictures.

The patriarchal, autocratic society of Imperial Russia was an obstacle for women who wanted the freedom to travel, to receive an education, and to be involved in the political and social fabric of their country. Many women found a solution to this problem in the fight for socialism, and a number of them argued specifically that the liberation of women was inherently bound with the liberation of the working class and neither could be achieved without the other. Women’s involvement in the Russian revolutionary movement in fact began to take shape in Zurich, Switzerland, in the 1870s; women were allowed onto university courses there, and those brave enough to leave home and family in pursuit of knowledge found kindred sisters in their fellow students. These women helped build the framework of the socialist movement in Russia which would culminate in the February and October revolutions of 1917. And over those forty years, women played pivotal roles at every step, participating in strikes, working as translators, secretaries, writing articles, organizing safe houses, operating printing presses, making speeches, and even acting as assassins. Opportunities for women were numerous and varied in socialist circles, and those who took up the cause quickly learned one of the most important lessons for radicals everywhere, in all periods: a woman’s place is in the revolution.

This blog has been percolating for some time. Working on my PhD (of which this is an immediate offshoot), presenting at conferences, moving house, and other “more pressing” issues kept getting in the way. But two weeks ago I realized how important it was to start this part of my project as soon as possible, whether I was ready or not. Millions of women – and men too – are more galvanized than ever, more eager and more determined to fight back against what at first glance seem like insurmountable odds. The women I’m researching managed precisely that. So I’d like to share them with you. They are an inspiration, a warning, but above all they are proof of the indomitable power of the human spirit and of womanhood in the face of unjust systems.

These women, who refused to stay silent or turn a blind eye to pain, inequality, and injustice, broke with social convention – for themselves, for factory workers, for the people, for other women; for love. Their love was a jumping-off point for action. To quote Fred Rogers: “Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun, like struggle.” Love and struggle are the two most prevalent themes in the lives of Russia’s revolutionary women, and the greatest legacies they have left behind. Let’s make use of them.