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The birth of terror: how the first ever suicide bomber emerged in Russia

The 1st of March 1881 was a Sunday. Snow lay heaped upon St Petersburg’s roofs and along the city’s streets, muffling the sound of the carriages. Tsar Alexander II – the Emperor of Russia, King of Poland and Grand Duke of Finland – was on his way back from reviewing his Imperial Horse Guards on St Isaac’s Square. The mounted troops had been on fine form.

He was in a beautifully decorated, closed, iron-clad carriage – the height of fashion, a gift from Napoleon II. But one thing stood out about this particular fairy-tale transport: it was bulletproof. This was for good reason. In 1870, a revolutionary group called the People’s Will (Narodnaya Volya) had ordered their monarch’s assassination. By that first day in March, the Tsar had already survived seven assassination
bids, but on that morning, as he rode under Russia’s pewter clouds, the Tsar was confident the threat against his life was on the wane: a leading figure of the People’s Will had been arrested the previous afternoon; he was in a secure coach; and beside him rode six Cossacks, with a seventh sitting beside the coachman. Instead of fear, the sixty-three-year-old Tsar felt only life – he had said to his friends just the day before that he was filled with an energy that surprised even him.

To some degree, he was right to feel luck’s hand upon him. The revolutionaries had sought to kill him that day with a massive bomb, hiring out a cheese shop to tunnel their way deep beneath a St Petersburg street, and had filled their excavation with dynamite, designed to blow up the Tsar as he took his usual route home. But Alexander had spontaneously decided to pay his cousin a visit, and his change of plans meant he avoided the seventh attempt on his life. But, as luck has a habit of doing, his was fast running out. As he was exchanging family gossip, three members of the People’s Will were busy preparing their next attempt on the Tsar’s life. Altering their plans in line with the Tsar’s new route, they arrived at a spot now filled with onlookers and joined the expectant throng lining the pavement. One of the rebels was Nikolai Ivanovich Rysakov, a swarthy twenty-year-old with thick features and dark, deep-set eyes. Under his arm he carried a small white package wrapped in a handkerchief – a home-made bomb. And, as the Tsar’s carriage came around the corner, he took a decision that set in motion a chain of events that was to leave five people dead that day.

‘After a moment’s hesitation,’ Rysakov said later, ‘I threw the bomb. I sent it under the horses’ hooves . . . The explosion knocked me into the fence.’ A spray of snow, earth and metal splinters fanned out from where the bomb landed, and blue smoke filled the air. The blast tore into a young boy and one of the Cossacks, fatally wounding them and severely harming the carriage driver and several others.

The floor and rear end of the royal carriage were shattered, the windowpanes reduced to jagged glass, but – incredibly – the Emperor was alive. Eight times lucky, he had suffered just a slight cut on one of his hands. Getting down from the vehicle, he crossed himself and asked if his would-be assassin had been captured. Rysakov was already under arrest, and the Tsar saw one of the soldiers smacking the captive hard across the face. Another officer urged his emperor to leave the area at once, but Alexander, a man whose territories ran from the Arctic Ocean in the north to the Black Sea in the south, from the Baltic Sea to the west to the Pacific Ocean to the east, was not used to being given orders, and chose instead to check on the health of the injured and inspect his carriage. An eyewitness later recalled seeing his Tsar wag a threatening finger at his assailant.

Such dallying was to prove fatal. A second member of the group, Ignaty Grinevitsky, had manoeuvred into place. Seeing the Tsar standing among the smoking ruins, he acted. ‘It is too early to thank God,’ he shouted and threw a second bomb at the Tsar’s feet.

‘I was deafened by the new explosion, burned, wounded and thrown to the ground . . .’ the Chief of Police, Dvorzhitsky, was to write, ‘His Majesty was half-lying, half-sitting, leaning on his right arm. I tried to lift him but the Tsar’s legs were shattered, and the blood poured out of them.’

The smoke cleared and there, upon the dirty snow, lay the Tsar; his legs were splintered below the knee, his stomach ripped open, his face mutilated. A loyal subject lay to one side, dying, and on the other side lay Grinevitsky, gravely wounded and unconscious. In a blur of action, Alexander was carried by sleigh to the Winter Palace to his study where, twenty years before almost to the day, he had signed the Emancipation Edict that gave Russia’s serfs their freedom. As his family hurried to his side, the dying Tsar was given the last rites. When the attending physician was asked how much time the Emperor had left, his reply was a cold ‘fifteen minutes’. At 3.30 in the afternoon, the standard of Alexander II was lowered for the last time.

His murderer, Grinevitsky, who had been carried to the infirmary attached to the Palace, regained consciousness a few hours later. However, he did not live to see midnight, having refused to disclose even his name.

The world’s first suicide bomber, and his victim – the most powerful man in all of Russia – were both dead. Terror had taken on a new and deadly form; the suicide bomber was to be born and to die in the same moment and the world, in a sense, was to change for ever.


I had been walking for miles.

My journey to St Petersburg was with purpose – to visit the spot where Alexander II was blown up. Why, I wanted to know, had the world’s first suicide bomb assassination emerged here? What was it about the Russian spirit of the age that led to that particular form of murder?

As I walked, the city slowly revealed itself. In a sense, this city’s skyline helped me comprehend a little bit more Russia’s violent past, explaining why such brutality was to visit these streets. Here, in St Petersburg, the stamp of Mother Russia was not on grand display.

If anything, I saw the architecture of France on steroids. Peter the Great’s fervour to raise a city that would rival Paris was clearly evident, but in her endless streets grace had been replaced with size, as if through magnitude alone the Emperor’s point about civilisation could be made. The neoclassical colonnades of this huge palace, the grand arch of that heavy monument – these forms revealed hidden battles of identity and culture. The buildings that were built here were exclamation marks about Russian progress, rendered in stone.

But Russia’s monarch did more than just import French architecture to their most European city. The thousands of French perfumers, tailors, hairdressers, actors and restaurateurs who came to live here brought their way of life with them. Traces of these remain; St Petersburg’s State Hermitage holds the most extensive collection of French art outside France, while the Russian National Library stores two French collections: the archive of the Bastille, rescued during the French revolution, and Voltaire’s library of over 7,000 books.

These buildings and these books, these expats and their expectations, all had impact. The influence of France turned the theories of the French Enlightenment into something more than just ideas in Russia – they became physical. They became revolution. And at the heart of that revolution lay philosophies about the freedom of the individual, one where the imperial shackles of social, political and religious dogma were seen clearly, and where the call for them to be shaken off was heard loudly. In those books were found ideas that set some on a path to that first suicide attack.

When, in 1789, the French Revolution abolished feudalism, established a republic and executed their king, they showed the world the merits, and the horrors, of a Reign of Terror, alongside that of a Reign of Virtue. France became a country where anyone opposing her bright new principles was executed in an ‘attempt to close, once and for all, the gap between human nature and human aspirations.’

And what was born in the murder of some 40,000 citizens was the notion that a fair society could only be achieved through a brutal shaping of human behaviour.

It was proof to many, including the Russians who set out to kill their Tsar here in 1881, that revolutions demand sacrifice and death. Over time, terrorism began to be seen by groups such as the People’s Will as a ‘cost-effective’ form of struggle – it was even an ethical choice, given the alternative. Those nineteenth-century Russian revolutionaries had read their history: they knew the terrible depths the French Revolution had sunk to, killing even those that had kindled the flame of revolt. To the People’s Will, decapitating the Russian Bear by killing their Tsar was far better than the carnage of mass insurrection, or the repeated swish of the guillotine. Assassination was, in this sense, limited. Even humane.

Today, the canal-way leading to where that assassination took place is lined with black-sided stalls, where merchants sell their goods to slow-moving lines of tourists. Here are the icons of Russia’s heart and soul ready for sale, and they pointed to themes that, to me, clarified why the Tsar had been murdered here over a century ago.

The most popular items were, by far, brightly painted matryoshka dolls – row upon row of them. I stopped and picked one up: it was that typical peasant figurine that separated, top from bottom, revealing a smaller figure of the same sort inside. This gauche doll spoke of the continuity of the Russian peasantry, a nineteenth century design that seemed to romanticise the rural poor in an unsubtle way. The truth was that those peasants – the muzhiks – were far from smiling and polished. Making up over 85 per cent of the population, under Alexander II they were forced to eke out basic, hard lives in one-room wooden huts with earthen floors. They slept next to pigs and goats, ate bread and cabbage soup, and drank vodka. Theirs was not the easy life suggested by the dolls’ benign smile. Overpopulation and economic stagnation, along with ancient farming methods, meant the typical peasant at the time of the Tsar’s death was worked hard unto death – forced to supplement their farming work as hired hands, or by selling home-made nails, sacking or cutlery, to whomever they could.

Change, though, was in the wind. Poor, but not poor enough to starve, downtrodden, but not so downtrodden they lacked a voice, these peasants were, by the 1880s, increasingly exposed to the rush of the modern. Railways meant Russia’s provinces were opening up to trade and, inevitably, modern political ideas followed in the wake of train engines’ vapour. Discontent came close behind. The wretched condition of the Russian peasantry was matched only by the lives of the growing number of industrial workers. While their parents were born into serfdom, these men and women found themselves uprooted from villages and crowded into squalid factory dormitories. They were to suffer the most from modernity’s progress: brutalised by martinet factory foremen, impoverished by pittance wages, their sense of injustice suffocated by the absence of legal redress, theirs was, ultimately, the tinderbox of revolution.

The stage was set. The spark for revolt, though, came from the educated poor. University students whose lives were marked by dreary lodgings and debt were the ones most embittered by the injustices of the Russian Tsar’s regime, and most disheartened by the prospect of a minor post in the bureaucratic machine. The People’s Will, then, were neither peasants nor workers, rather a group of middle-class children, often young students who no longer had the assurance of an income and whose heads were filled with ideas from Europe and America.

Those intellectuals’ call to overthrow the state was on behalf of those peasants, whose icons now line the tourist shelves. As with so many revolutions, it was the educated elite that had taken it upon themselves to burn down a despotic regime for the benefit, as they saw it, of ‘a vast and inert mass of the ignorant and misled common people’.

It would be too much to say I saw all this in such sentimental dolls, but the living history that revealed the cultural foundations of the People’s Will seemed present in these stalls. The stand next door mainly sold paintings and photographs, but above a picture of Pushkin doffing his cap to a cat stood a small row of books. There was a copy of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital – another marker from history. This book had been published in Russia in 1868, and had a far greater influence here ‘than in any other country’. It affected radicals enormously in St Petersburg, causing them to embrace Marx’s call ‘to carry out their terroristic phrases.’

Beside it stood a red-backed copy of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, a book that explored the idea Russian society had allowed certain crimes to be admissible, while letting corrupt materialism run rampant.

These books spoke of how the spread of ideas in nineteenth century Russia was potently impacted by rising levels of literacy. In the middle of the century, about one in five Russian men could read
and write; by the turn of the century almost half could. Such literacy was sufficient to fill the heads of young, angry men and women with powerful ideas, but – crucially – was not enough to start a mass insurrection. The realisation that words alone were never going to transform their world led a French anti-parliamentarian, Paul Brousse, to argue that newspapers or pamphlets were of limited use.

The ideas in them would be countered by the ‘lies’ of the bourgeois press and the political classes. The downtrodden masses, he thought, had little time for such intellectual debates. What was required was a thing that could not be ignored, but would awaken the consciousness of the masses. Brousse called it ‘propaganda by deed’, to others it became just ‘terrorism’. Peter Kropotkin, a leading Russian anarchist in the 1870s, took Brousse’s theory and ran with it. He argued that ‘propaganda by deed’ had to take the form of constant agitation by any means, including guns and bombs. Individual terror, he thought, would rouse the spirit of revolt.

In all of this, political assassination was the best weapon of all: the future might be for the revolt of the masses, but individual acts of terror had to light the way. It led some of the ‘intelligentsia’ to believe in terror ‘like in God.’ One of them was Mikhail Bakunin, the co-author of a book that was to deeply influence the People’s Will called The Revolutionary Catechism. Published in 1869, it was an angry call for sacrifice and change, stressing the need for revolutionaries to harden their hearts.

‘Tyrannical toward himself, [the Revolutionary] must be tyrannical toward others,’ Bakunin entreated, ‘Night and day he must have but one thought, one aim – merciless destruction . . .’ The hero of the book was a nameless soldier sacrificed at the altar of the political ideal.

Bakunin certainly lived up to the revolutionary clich . He was a brooding, glass-eyed man, but with a thick beard and even thicker waist. A headstrong revolutionary orator – sepia photographs show
him with undone waistcoats, stained jackets and bloated features – he resembled a dishevelled Karl Marx. In Russia, Bakunin said, only a ‘revolutionary abyss’ could provide ‘the liberation and deliverance of our poor martyred people’.

He provided a clarion call for the spirit of the age and, soon enough, Russian terror organisations began sprouting up. One, pre-dating the People’s Will, called itself ‘Hell’. Its members were committed to assassinating the Tsar and discussed how they would draw lots to choose the martyr who would do the job. That person would forgo partners or friends, take on an assumed name, and, on the morning of the murder, would stand and pour chemicals onto their face to stop people recognising them. Then, once the assassination had been carried out, they would swallow poison.

While ‘Hell’ never carried out their plans, the notion of suicidal terrorism had been established. In 1876, a group called Land and Liberty was formed. Many of its members shared both Bakunin’s and ‘Hell’s’ views and, meeting in private, they formed committees and wrote manifestos demanding that Russia’s land be handed over to the peasants and that the state be destroyed. How they were to go about securing such requests though – through violence or peaceful political means – was, ultimately, to split them. By 1879, the majority group, favouring a policy of terrorism, broke away and established the People’s Will.

This new group upped the ante. They began to demand universal suffrage and political liberties. They threatened to kill anyone who informed on them. Ostensibly led by Andrei Zhelyabov, a man with a magnetic personality, the People’s Will grew bolder, their focus intensified on the assassination of the Tsar, a singular passion that ultimately led to their treacherous attack on Alexander II in 1881.

Passing more stalls, more dolls, more radical books, I reached the spot where the People’s Will eventually carried out their strike, and stopped to photograph the scene. Here, on the wet cobblestones where the Tsar had lain dying, now stood a soaring monument to the fallen Emperor. The Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood is St Petersburg’s most elaborate and nationalistic building. It rises high above the milling crowds and fills the space between the austere five-floored apartment blocks to its left and the Mikhailovsky Gardens to the right. Officially called the Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ, it took over two decades to build, and went over budget by one million roubles – a fortune at the time.

It is as Russian as they come: an explicit rejection of French styles with an elaborate exterior, topped by nine onion domes and kokoshnik peasant-hat gables in gold and emerald and cerulean, it is a riot of gilding and enamelling. Coats of arms, each representing the provinces, regions and towns of Alexander II’s empire, circle the building. Along its front runs a line of red granite plaques that record the main events of Alexander’s reign. They were an attempt to portray the Tsar as a forward-thinking, modern monarch, but, walking counter- clockwise, they revealed more the efforts of the Tsar to hold on to his power than a philosophy born from the brotherhood of man.

This was a dictated history lesson in stone. Russia’s humiliating defeat in 1851 in the Crimean War had been an immense shock to the royal family; without a strong army they feared that the winds of revolution that had swept Europe in 1848 could easily blow north. Faced with this, and aware that theft and corruption had corroded the seat of empire, Alexander II acted out of self-preservation. The eighth plaque along showed how, in 1861, he had agreed upon the emancipation of Russia’s serfs, a ruling that was to change the basic system of property ownership in the country. Other reforms followed – a shakeup of the judiciary, the abolition of branding soldiers as a form of punishment in the military, the relaxation of censorship, the ending of some noble privileges, the funding of university education – all designed to appease those who would seek a more brutal alternative. Walking the steps towards the main entrance, you sensed in each plaque the Tsar’s desperation to halt a rising tide.

These reforms culminated on 25 February 1880, when the Tsar announced he was considering granting the Russian people their own constitution. Magnanimously, he released a handful of political prisoners, but, true to form, just as one hand gave, the other took. He established a special section in the Russian police department to deal with internal security, a unit that was to become known as the Okhrana and whose undercover agents infiltrated political organisations campaigning for social reform. It was a secretive force that was, over time, to mutate and harden into the Soviet’s Cheka, the NKVD, the KGB and, ultimately, the FSB of today – the state’s iron fist. With such a fist, Alexander crushed dissent in Poland, executing hundreds and deporting thousands more to Siberia. He imposed martial law in Lithuania that lasted four decades. He banned numerous regional languages, only letting Polish be spoken in private. None of these acts was inscribed in stone outside this church, but Alexander II’s despotic power, alongside the fact he showed that he could, indeed, transform the system virtually overnight with one stroke of his pen, meant the People’s Will’s anger and hope for reform were roused simultaneously. Reform, for them, simply could not come fast enough – and that meant ending the life of their head of state.

The Tsar narrowly missed death in 1866, 1867 and 1870. His would-be murderers were not experts in the art of killing – one bomb maker lost three fingers making a device. When some of them attempted to blow up his train with nitroglycerine, they miscalculated and destroyed another locomotive instead. Others tried to obliterate a bridge the Tsar was due to cross, but the explosive charge was not up to the job. One radical, finding work as a carpenter in the Winter Palace, smuggled in over a hundred pounds of dynamite that he hid under his bedding, until one freezing day in February he detonated the lot using a timed device – fixing the bomb so that it went off at the precise moment he planned, killing eleven and wounding thirty others. But the Tsar was not one of them; he had been delayed.

With each attempt, and each failure, you can see how Grinevitsky could have looked on and, realising just how hard it was to kill the Tsar, understood what drastic measures were needed to do the job. How something more controlled, more directed was required: a human bomb. After all, the grand, open boulevards of St Petersburg offered no easy way for revolutionaries to win the day by manning barricades. Modern, rapid cannon fire and musket drills would have decimated the People’s Will’s ranks. Their attack had to be up close and personal, and a new weapon technology offered a potent new opportunity just for that.

The invention by Alfred Nobel of dynamite, then, comes at a crucial point in this story. Today, Alfred Nobel is better known for having his name on annual awards for the great and the good. But when
Alfred, trying to treat a cut finger, had his eureka moment in 1864, combining nitroglycerine with silicon, he took the highly volatile and turned it into something stable and predictable. He was to name the substance he created after the Greek word dynamis, meaning power, and dynamite was to prove to be about twenty times more powerful than traditional ‘black powder’. As a tool to challenge the structures of power, it was a chrysalis of destruction, for not only did it blast the way for railroad tunnels and canals, but it also put into the hands of terrorists a source almost unimaginable in its potential. The balance seemed to swing overnight; the state’s monopoly of power, once maintained through lines of men on horseback and rows of field artillery, was challenged to its core over a carefully placed stick of dynamite. Revolutionaries became infatuated with the idea that an explosion could change the tide of history. One so-called ‘apostle of dynamite’, the radical Johann Most, said in 1880 that dynamite could ‘destroy
the capitalist regime.’ And to some of the members of the People’s Will, the very spectacular nature of the bomb became intrinsic to the drama of the act. Ending the Tsar’s life in a hail of bullets, one said, would ‘have been seen as an ordinary murder’, not ‘a new stage in the revolutionary movement.’

In the end, the bomb that killed Alexander weighed only five pounds and had a blast range of one metre. This restricted range was a case of reality not quite living up to the hype. The limitations of the bomb meant that the Tsar’s would-be assassins had a choice: either to lob their device from a distance and risk missing, or to detonate it so close it would kill both killer and target. In the case of the suicide bomb, necessity was not the mother of invention, but the invention of dynamite created a new design. Because while dynamite promised a grisly death, it needed a controlled system that could decide the time and the place of the explosion. The assassin’s death had to be the price of success.

In this respect, the suicide bomber was an evolution of a phenomenon with a long and painful history: the assassin who accepts death as part of their mission. The most famous practitioners of this – the al-Ḥashāshīn’s or Assassins – were extremist members of a sect of Shiite Muslims in the eleventh and twelfth centuries known as the Ismailis, men who operated in the craggy mountains of what is now Iran. These pious devotees saw those that controlled their homelands, the Sunni Seljuk Turks, as being unbelievers, and thought they had a religious duty to resist their heretical masters – even by violence.

Reflecting the purity of their ideals, they were scrupulous in their choice of weapon: the dagger alone was their weapon of choice. Eschewing the arrow or poison – either promising death from a distance – meant they would almost certainly be unable to escape, and a tortured death would follow capture, a fate many of their ranks accepted.

The difference between these ancient assassins and Grinevitsky, though, was that the suicide bomber’s death was integral to the deed. The Assassin usually had the option, however remote, of escape, and if they were killed, they would not die by their own hand. The suicide bomber, however, made their death and the death of their victim a singular event; strangers up to their final moments, they would share their deaths equally. The church that rose above me, then, may well have marked the spot of a Tsar’s assassination, but it also was the place where the social tensions of modern Russia, the evolution of terrorism and the violent logic of dynamite were to coalesce; where, in the end, the world’s first suicide bomber was to be mortally wounded. Inseparable truths, no matter how much you covered them in gold and marble.

It is hard to know the inner workings of anyone’s heart, let alone a terrorist’s, but those facing death sometimes leave clues that show us something of their thoughts. A few days after Grinevitsky’s death, the authorities were to discover a letter he had written; the first suicide bomber had left the first suicide bomb note, and in it I think we can find a further explanation as to why it was St Petersburg, not Paris or Berlin or London, that saw the first suicide bomb emerge.

‘Alexander II must die,’ Grinevitsky had penned. ‘He will die, and with him, we, his enemies, his executioners, shall die too . . . I shall not see our victory, I shall not live one day, one hour in the bright season of our triumph, but I believe that with my death I shall do all that it is my duty to do, and no one in the world can demand more of me.’

At the centre of that note lies that hyperbolic phrase: ‘the bright season of our triumph’. It is a literary flourish that is also at the heart of this book: a twenty-five-year-old’s fervent belief that, in death, he could usher in a future infused with hope, a utopia of light. It is, indeed, a vision central to almost all suicide bombers – that their violent act will leave the world a better place, albeit one that they will never inhabit. But what compelled Grinevitsky to write such words, to choose to die in such a way?

We know far more about the way that Grinevitsky died than the way he lived. He was born in 1856, in a rough-road village that lies in present-day Belarus. He came from nobility and, true to revolutionary cliché, he was a former student – enrolled in mathematics at the St Petersburg Polytechnic. In short, he fitted the stereotype of the members of the People’s Will, but this does not explain why he was so prepared to die for their cause.

Some historians say that he was not that willing, that the existence of other bomb plots meant that Grinevitsky was just a backup plan. Perhaps this is so. Some say that he might have been suicidal, that the devotion to a violent revolution coincided with a fascination in Russian society with suicide. But such arguments only go so far. Grinevitsky was not alone in his willingness to die: the executive committee of the People’s Will had called for volunteers, and forty-seven men had signified their ‘willingness to sacrifice themselves’ in response. It’s unlikely they all just wanted to commit suicide.

Some also say that Grinevitsky knew that the long arm of the Russian law – which for him meant torture and death – was just seconds away from grabbing him by the collar: Rysakov had just been arrested in front of him. In this case, he had nothing to lose. Perhaps this is true, too.

But had Grinevitsky not been resigned to dying the way he did, he would not have written about it beforehand. Seeing the plot fail before his eyes, he could have just turned and walked away. He did not; he chose, at that moment, to end the Tsar’s life and his with it, and that is a fact. It was also an act of murder entirely in keeping with the creation of that which he wrote about in his final letter: the bright season of triumph.

A bright season. This is the utopian vision of many a revolutionary: one who sees, in the wrecking of empire and the destruction of faiths, arise the ‘glittering towers’ of their ideal world (as George Woodcock, one of anarchism’s leading interpreters, would have it). It is a deeply religious framing. Some historians call the People’s Will atheists. But, in reality, they were a group remarkably infused with religious sentiment. For all their claims that they had rejected God, we know the revolutionaries kissed the cross before their deaths on the scaffold; that they took part in séances at their New Year parties, calling up the ghost of Nicholas I; and that they framed the killing of the Tsar in deeply Christian terms. ‘Let our blood be shed and flow to redeem humanity,’ said one.

In this sense, the first suicide bombing was a continuation of religion by other means: after all, the destruction of one world to create another is a marked hallmark of faith. For the People’s Will, they
saw their mission as eradicating evil and cleansing the Russian soil, and by focusing on the season of triumph, Grinevitsky articulated a clear timeline. One where the People’s Will, like the Marxists that followed them, and the Christian zealots that pre-dated them, saw history as something that had the potential to flow ‘forwards’ to a universal paradise. Grinevitsky was, in this way, the heir to a Russian mainstream millenarian tradition that continues to this day.

Such a tradition was undoubtedly present in this church, built in memory of the attack. For, if the People’s Will had used utopian violence to paint their propaganda, the royal family of Russia had responded here with a palette of sacrifice and selfless suffering. On the outside of the church stood plaques to the life of the Tsar and on the inside murals represented the life of Christ, mirroring the Tsar in virtue. On the exterior, above the spot where the Tsar was mortally wounded, was a mosaic of the crucifixion of Christ. All these spoke towards the purposeful allegory of depicting the Tsar’s death as martyrdom.

When I walked inside, the messaging was even starker. Here, Russian babushkas wiped down and kissed tortured icons that lined the crowded church, fervent in their piety, and it was clear the Christian belief in sorrow and salvation was alive and well. But this sense of sacrifice and redemption was apparent to me in two different ways: both here, in the commemoration of the Tsar, and also in the motivations of the suicide bomber who killed him. It is true that many Russians, then and now, framed their world view as having both a catastrophic past and future, and the solemn lamentations heard in this church recalled to me that Christian lament: ‘blessed are they that mourn’.

Yet, even if Grinevitsky did believe in this Russian link between suffering and redemption, why would he be willing to go so far as to lay down his own life? The answer to that lies in another thread that runs through nearly all suicide bombers’ justifications: that for others to live in this better world to come, a sacrifice is required.

This idea that paradise requires sacrifice is a deep-rooted one indeed. Lyman Tower Sargent’s bibliography on Utopian Literature has over 3,000 entries, and central to many of them runs the idea that utopia demands a loss. Plato’s Republic forced its philosopher princes to renounce private property and family. Thomas More’s Utopia made everyone wear a plain uniform, need a permit to travel, and ordained marriage as ‘strict and unsentimental’. Tommaso Campanella’s Solarians only flourished through eugenics and enforced sexual union, where large men were encouraged to have sex with slim women. Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World was a utopia only made possible by the widespread castration of males. These visions hold universal truths about the price of paradise. For, whatever our culture, whatever our genetic make-up, we all know that if we overeat, we will become obese. Taking too many drugs can drag us to a personal hell, despite the promise of a transient heaven.

No pain, so the bodybuilder’s T-shirt tells us, no gain (and the popularity of weightlifting among jihadists today is no coincidence). It is rooted in our psychologies and physiologies that to reap the rewards requires sacrifice, in the forms of work or self-discipline (or just dumb luck).

This must have framed Grinevitsky’s beliefs: that for heaven to be reached, a moment of hell had to be realised, and the price – for him at least – of that paradise was his death. As Friedrich Nietzsche had it: ‘everyone who has ever built anywhere a new heaven – first found the power thereto in his own hell.’

So it was perhaps apt, then, that here, on the spot of Grinevitsky’s and Alexander’s own hell, they were to build a church. But in so doing, they had also omitted to state anywhere that this was a site of a suicide bombing. Whereas the cross was evident everywhere as a contemplation of the tortured Christ, a visitor could easily come and go unaware this was the site of the world’s first suicide attack.

And with that thought, I walked over to a machine that produced coins imprinted with the head of Alexander II on one side, and an image of the church on the other. For 100 roubles I had one stamped for me and slid it into my pocket, and walked away from this memorial of simultaneous birth and death.

The murder of the Tsar led, swiftly, to the abuse of human rights. One of the bombers arrested, Nikolai Rysakov, was so severely tortured by the Okhrana secret police that he spilt the beans and let his interrogators know where his co-conspirators were hiding. The military was called in; thousands of Cossacks descended on St Petersburg, roadblocks were set up and routes out of the city barred. But when the police raided one of the People’s Will’s hideouts it was empty, save for a single rouble left to pay the butcher for the meat they had bought for the cat. They hadn’t managed to get far enough though, and were soon shackled. Some of the radicals managed to escape, but arrests soon followed for most. One even chose to end his life with a single shot when the police came knocking at the door, but most of his accomplices were led away in chains.

The trials that followed were transparent and public, yet the conclusions were foregone. Count Leo Tolstoy asked Alexander III to spare the murderers, to offer them ‘another ideal, higher than theirs, greater and more generous’, but for some it was not to be. Death sentences were handed down, and on 3 April 1881, the sleepless night of five of the prisoners ended with the arrival of cups of strong tea and the provision of black execution clothes. Placards were hung round their necks, ‘Tsaricide’ scrawled upon them. A pale spring sun shone down as the condemned moved through the streets. Despite the early hour, the route was already crowded, onlookers waving and shouting.

Twelve thousand troops were said to have lined the execution square, the crowd estimated at a hundred thousand strong. Russia’s only executioner, a drunk called Frolov, was at the end of the journey, there seen fiddling with the nooses. The condemned – four men and one woman – were not granted the quick death of the trapdoor, but faced the slower one of strangulation. They were, in a sense, lucky: previous Russian state executions had involved pouring molten metal down the prisoner’s throat. Three of the men kissed the woman, Sophia Perovskaya. The hangman took off his blue peasant coat, revealing a red shirt beneath, and the time had come.

One by one the prisoners were led to the gallows. Twice the rope broke under the weight of one of them and some in the crowd began to call out that this was a sign from heaven, but the staggering executioner tied another noose and this time it worked. Then it was Perovskaya’s turn. She turned to her executioner and complained the rope was too tight. Perhaps she was lucky in this: she died quickly. Zhelyabov, following her, had a knot that was too loose: he died in agony. Since the first bomb that had been thrown on 1 March, eleven people were now dead.

Those not condemned to death – partly down to protests led by the author of Les Mis rables, Victor Hugo – faced lengthy sentences in Russia’s infamous prisons. Few were to survive: rape and torture were commonplace, deep in the dark of soundproofed dungeons. They died one by one; childbirth took one, dysentery another. Two conspirators were forced to travel to the Kara Prison Mines – a twoyear
journey on foot to the north – a virtual death sentence. One had to give her baby away, knowing that to bring it along would have been a slow murder in itself, and by the time those two reached the frozen mines, their health was so broken that death would soon follow anyway.

Their victory was a false one: all it produced was a more determined repression. Confronted by the murder of their Tsar, the authorities launched massive crackdowns. Alexander II’s son and grandson were haunted by the assassins’ threat, and the Okhrana became the violent expression of their fears. From 1883, the country descended into a ‘state of reinforced security’; thousands of suspects were arrested, hundreds tortured. Repressive legislation limiting the freedoms of the press, of association, of assembly was passed, the justification given being to stop anarchist propaganda from spreading.

In the short term, the assassination also caused a significant setback for the reform movement. One of Alexander II’s final ambitions was for an elected parliament, or Duma; these plans were completed the day before he died but had not yet been announced to the Russian people. The first action his son, Alexander III, took after his unexpected coronation was to tear them up.

As has so often happened when public anger has flared up in European countries facing the tumult of change, anti-Semitism followed. In the months following the Tsar’s death, an ugly rash of attacks on Jewish communities spread to over one hundred districts in the south-western provinces. The authorities looked the other way and, in some cases, even encouraged the persecution. Jewish doctors and lawyers suddenly found getting work harder. At the bottom of his 1887 order to restrict the number of Jews at universities, Alexander III wrote: ‘Let us never forget that it was the Jews who crucified Jesus.’ Other erosions of civil liberties followed. New property requirements for voting were introduced, causing the numbers of permitted voters in St Petersburg to drop from 21,000 to 8,000, and in Moscow from 20,000 to 7,000.43 Women found access to higher education harder and harder. Universities lost all autonomy.

The invention of suicide bomb terrorism in this way led to counterterrorism techniques that, once created, spread into everyday use – and abuse. For just as the 1860s and 1870s brought technical
innovations that strengthened underground movements, the 1880s and 1890s saw technology aid police counter-surveillance operations.

The tsarist secret police became pioneers in the use of fingerprinting, photofits, codebreaking, bugging and phone tapping. They began using bulletproof vests, tear gas and ‘tranquilising guns’. From the revolutionaries’ point of view, though, this heavy handedness served only to embolden their resolve. Repression led to further revolt. In 1886, a new group that followed the tradition of the People’s Will was created in Russia. A year later, after an unsuccessful attempt on Alexander III’s life, the group’s leaders were – perhaps inevitably – rounded up and executed. There were only three gallows, so the authorities had to hang them in batches. A sack was thrown over their heads and stools kicked from under them. When the St Petersburg newspaper report on the execution reached the family members of one of the executed, his seventeen-year-old brother was reported as saying: ‘I’ll make them pay for this! I swear it.’

His name was Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known by the alias Lenin. And in this tale of attack and counter-attack, it is hard not to see how the murders by the People’s Will led, in some way, straight to the Russian Revolution itself.

Crucially, suicide bombers helped further pave the way, too. By 1902, a new group – the Party of Socialist Revolutionaries – had set up a terror cell. The ghost of Grinevitsky was very present in their midst. When they discussed the murder of the incoming minister of internal affairs, one of the band – Russian poet Ivan Kalyayev – suggested he throw himself under the minister’s carriage and detonate a bomb to halt the entourage and allow the others to murder the politician. This plan never went ahead, but in 1905, Kalyayev was recruited in another assassination attempt: the murder of Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich. It was a risky operation, and the only reason it was considered at all was because Kalyayev said he’d gladly die in the process.

Kalyayev became the world’s first failed suicide bomber. He threw the bomb at the Grand Duke from about four paces away and succeeded in killing Alexander II’s fifth son. But Kalyayev himself survived, something that, before his execution, he said diminished the mission’s impact. ‘To die for one’s convictions,’ he wrote, is ‘but a summons to battle.’ Unlike today’s suicide-belt bombs, the Russians’ bombs were not strapped to the attackers, still allowing for the possibility of the attackers’ survival.

Other Russian suicide attacks followed. In 1906, in an attempt to kill Vice Admiral Dubasov, Boris Vnorovsky blew himself up, along with one of the Vice Admiral’s aides. The same year, three members of the Maximalists, an extreme revolutionary group, tried to kill the Russian Prime Minister in his villa. Guards stopped them and, instead of being taken alive, the assassins screamed out ‘Long Live
freedom! Long live anarchy!’ and triggered the sixteen-pound bombs they were carrying, killing themselves and twenty-eight others. By now, thirty-five people – four attackers and thirty-one victims – had died as a direct consequence of suicide bombing in Russia: far more than many historians allow. The indirect toll, in arrests and executions, was far higher.

It would have continued, too, had the momentum of the 1917 Russian Revolution not taken hold and men and women sought to create their utopia through mass uprisings. But the origins of such a terror had been firmly laid down in the snow of a Russian winter thirty-six years before.


One postscript: the curious case of Nikolai Ivanovich Kibalchich. Kibalchich’s involvement in the plot on Alexander II’s life was fundamental. The son of an Orthodox priest, the twenty-eight-year-old Ukrainian had a long history of clashing with the authorities. In 1875, he spent three years in prison after giving a peasant a banned book.

He was also highly educated, a seminarian who went to college to study medicine and engineering. This mix of religious fervour, scientific logic and revolutionary sentiment led Kibalchich to become the chief explosive expert for the People’s Will. It was he who, carefully mixing the right amount of chlorate of potash, oil of vitriol and fulminate of silver, was to make the first bomb to be used in a suicide attack.

Like many of his co-conspirators, Kibalchich was seized by the authorities after the Tsar’s murder. His sentence was the same as theirs: death by hanging. While in his prison cell, the condemned man began to sketch. Perhaps knowing that his time on earth was ending, the imagination of this ‘dead man walking’ reached for the stars. A design for a solid-fuel rocket engine began to emerge: a primitive version of the ‘gimballed engine’ that is a mainstay of modern rocketry. One prosecutor was to note his surprise that the prisoner’s mind was not upon his own imminent death, but instead he seemed ‘to be immersed in research on some aeronautic missile’.

In a letter to the Minister of Internal Affairs, Kibalchich sketched out an early jet engine, a powder rocket engine that controlled the flight by changing the engine’s angle. He requested a meeting with government officials to discuss his ideas. Such a meeting was agreed upon, but only on 26 March 1882, a year after the inventor had been executed.

Kibalchich’s proposals would have gone to the grave with him had Bolshevik researchers not unearthed them in August 1917 from a dusty governmental archive. And although his gunpowder-filled engine would have likely killed all those on board, the basis of his idea was to fuel the imagination of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the leading Soviet rocket scientist. Such death-row proposals helped illuminate the way to the exploration of the stars.

So great was his influence, that – despite it being among the coldest years of the Cold War – this Russian terrorist was inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame in 1976. On a clear night, if you look upwards, you can imagine the memory of Nikolai Ivanovich Kibalchich, and his ingenious use and abuse of explosives, etched into the heavens for eternity. Because there, on the far side of the moon, a crater has been named after the inventor of that weapon used by Grinevitsky: the world’s first suicide bomb.-


This is an extract from The Price of Paradise by AOAV’s Executive Director, Iain Overton. It is available here.