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