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What events led up to the world’s first suicide bombing?

On 13 March 1881, Ignaty Grinevitsky watched as his accomplice threw a small bomb at the convoy of Tsar Alexander II outside the Winter Palace in St Petersburg. Safely enclosed in a carriage made from bullet-proof material as a gift from Napoleon III, the Tsar stepped out, dazed but unhurt. Grinevitsky saw his chance.

The young man, a member of ‘The People’s Will’, a left-wing terrorist group, rushed towards his target, dropping a bomb at the Tsar’s feet killing them both. The night before the attack Grinevitsky had written: ‘I shall not live one day, one hour in the bright season of our triumphs, but I believe that with my death I shall do all that it is my duty to do.’ And in that deadly act, Grinevitsky was to make his mark on history: the first recorded suicide bomber.

In this episode of the BBC’s ‘In Our Time’ Orlando Figes (Professor of History at Birkbeck College, University of London), Dominic Lieven (Professor of Russian Government) London School of Economics, and Catriona Kelly (Professor of Russian, Oxford University) met with Melvyn Bragg to discuss the events leading up to Tsar Alexander II’s assassination. The conversation is summed up below and, AOAV hopes, will help provide an insight into the cultural, social, economic and political circumstances that helped lead to the first use of suicide bomb terror, and, in so doing, help understand what drives terrorism and extremism leading to violence.

Listen to the podcast here:

Discussing the events leading up to the assassination, it was clear from the discussion that there were many tensions existing for the Russian people in the years preceding the attack. For a start, they had relatively recently lost a major war. Professor Figes describes their defeat in the Crimean war as a ‘huge shock for Russia’. And such a defeat was to send reverberations through society. After their defeat in 1851, the feeling that a modern state was needed to address some of the gross iniquities in Russian society grew.

Russia had once seen itself as a great Imperial power – one that was able to defeat Napoleon. Now, however, this was a Russia defeated by a small army – and a country that had produced an army that managed to reach Crimea at a slower pace from Moscow than even the British or French troops from their home countries. This was partly because, as the rest of Europe was industrialising, Russia had remained locked within a largely pre-industrial system. Professor Lieven argued, in particular, that the legacy of Alexander II’s father, Nicholas, was greatly damaged by his defeat in Crimea.

Faced with the memory of his father’s humiliation, Alexander II set off on a series of reforms. One of the most dramatic of these was the emancipation of Russia’s serfs in 1861 – a ruling that was to change the basic system of property ownership in the country. Professor Lieven describes the Russian administration at this time as being ‘desperate’, feverishly seeking new ways to modernise Russia and quickly. As such, in addition to the emancipation of effective slavery, there were many other reforms introduce to modernise even the most basic systems of Russian society, including reforms of both the judiciary and the military. Indeed, the reform of the judiciary in 1864 was ‘perhaps the most radical of all the reforms’ (Professor Lieven). Another one of the Tsar’s reforms was the relaxation of censorship.

Effects of these changes on society
Interestingly, however, Professor Kelly explains that there were many writers and intellectuals during this time that were worried about such changes. Well-known books, such as Crime and Punishment, explore the idea that this new society would allow crimes to be admissible and materialism to grow.

As with so much, such actions produce a counter-reaction. One group emerged that looked back to the reign of Peter the Great and thought that this was the path that Russia should have followed.

Despite such protestations, the genie was, effectively, out of the bottle and the notion of reform took hold. The Russian feminist movement was to grow during this period, lead by some women who had gone to university outside of Russia. And, over time, as more and more people gained access to education, the debate as to how to reform Russia grew, and one of the main challenges confronting society at this time was how to integrate peasants as citizens into the local government.

According to Professor Figes, the year 1861 marked the emergence of what became known as the ‘new Russia’. Literature at this time began to explore the idea of what constituted ‘the soul of Russia’, with intellectuals finding a common nationhood with Russia’s newly freed peasants. With growing education there emerged, too, a new intellectual current, linked in part to the expectations raised, but not met, by the emancipation of the serfs. Meanwhile, similar waves of thoughts passing through Europe at the time contributed to this new school of thought.

Others, particularly Russian youth, began exploring what the idea of the Russian “nation” really meant. Some became attracted, in particular, to radical ideas such as nihilism, while others began to evolve western ideas of equality and justice into radical tools for political dissent. Although previous generations had fought hard for change within the state system, now there emerged a growing belief in the need for reform outside that of traditional structures. Such young radicals began to cut themselves off from what they saw as ‘traditional society’, and by so doing forced them to find new ways to replace the older ideas, such as religion.

Touching on perhaps the greatest writer of his time, the scholars in this podcast had differing opinions on whether Dostoyevsky had any sympathy for these new movements. Professor Kelly argued that there was a general “messianic feeling” at this time in Russia society; a belief that things needed to change somehow, and that, to some Russians at least, this meant revolution. Writers like Dostoyevsky, she said, believed that there should be Christian reform and dedicated their time to writing about utopia and the dangers of liberal reform.

People’s Will
Despite such great men urging caution in the face of reform, at this time one group emerged – The People’s Will. It was a group of almost solely middle-class children of the older gentry class, young men and women who no longer had the assurance of an income. Such young men and women, their heads filled with ideas from Europe and beyond, began creating links with the peasantry, partly in order to mobilise them.

Meanwhile, Karl Marx’s Das Capital was allowed in the country – a book that had an enormous impact on many radicals at the time. In particular, Professor Lieven believes, such thoughts impacted not only on the Marxists, but also populist groups such as the People’s Will.

The People’s Will stood out owing to their commitment to social revolution. They thought the way to reform was to educate people through propaganda. They were inspired by earlier Jacobite leaders who had argued for a coup d’état in Russia and believed that they needed to overthrow the state for a revolution. Assassinating the Tsar was the first thing on their agenda. Indeed, prior to the success of the first suicide bomber, they had previously tried to assassinate Alexander II some eight times.

Professor Kelly maintains that the People’s Will were not satisfied with the Tsar’s reforms – mainly because they came from the top-down. The dissidents wanted a broader land reform and fundamental change from the bottom up. But they, along with many other reactionaries and radicals, felt alienated by Alexander II, and not listened to. Reform, for them, couldn’t come fast enough.

The People’s Will internal philosophical struggle between social and political revolutions became the prototype for the Bolshevik revolution. The assassination accentuated the dilemma of whether they should be fighting for a social revolution or a political revolution. They believed that the system was so oppressive that no social revolution would be able to occur under it.

After the assassination, the Russian state responded with a heavy fist. Autocratic government was strengthened and censorship grew. Arguably, the assassination gave the Bolsheviks an example. They also chose political revolution over social revolution – as they believed there was no way any change could occur within the oppressive system of governance they were living in.

In such a way, it could be seen that the first suicide bombing paved the way not only for the Russian Revolution, but also provided a form of inspiration for other revolutionaries the world over.