The Perovskaia Paradox or the Scandal of Female Terrorism in Nineteenth Century Russia
Female terrorism played a decisive role in the making of modern terrorism in the Russian Empire in the late 19th century. Vera Zasulich pulled the trigger on Russian terrorism by shooting at the General governor Fedor Trepov in 1878 and Sofia Perovskaia was the mastermind behind the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, on the 1st of March 1881. This article explores how tsarist authorities and radicals were trying to make sense of the seemingly paradox of violent women. Both were stripping the violent deeds of women of their political content. Moreover the Perovskaia case can show how both sides were using the same set of gender ideals in order to either condemn or to worship the female terrorist.
Research Fields :History
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- 1 D. Dahlmann, Sibirien. Vom 16. Jahrhundert bis in die Gegenwart, Schöningh, Paderborn, 2009, p. 162
1Women were important in the history of the revolutionary movement in the Russian Empire from its very beginning, during the Decembrist revolt in 1825. Some of the Decembrists sentenced to exile in Siberia were followed there by their wives1. These “Decembrist wives” became symbols of the revolution, but also of the devotion of a wife to her husband. Thus, these women were recognized in a revolutionary context, but instead of representing women in arms, their perception strengthened a specific female gender ideal symbolized by sacrifice. Yet the notion of revolution was also, usually, a notion of violence, of armed rebellion, and the idea of the revolutionary woman could also therefore embrace the image of an active woman, and even a violent woman. But unlike female sacrifice, female violence was irritating for sympathizers and opponents of the revolutionary cause alike.
2This was true even though the revolutionary movement was indeed spearheaded by committed women, who resorted to violent means. It was a woman who pulled the trigger on terrorism. Vera Zasulich’s attempt to assassinate General Trepov, her trial, and her acquittal lit the torch on the first social-revolutionary terrorist campaign, and thus set the tone for contemporary – and subsequent historiographical – representations of female terrorism in the Russian Empire and abroad. In this paper I will examine the perceptions of female terrorism from within the revolutionary perspective as well as from the point of view of the authorities. These perceptions are shaped by conflicts between social expectations with regard to gender roles and female acts of terrorism. Thus they not only reveal much about how state and opposition in the nineteenth century were trying to make sense of female violence, but reach beyond that classical dichotomy.
- 2 See for the “feminine paradox” in terrorism: B. Nacos, “The Portrayal of Female Terrorists in the M (...)
- 3 See for a similar practice with regard to an opposite interpretation of identical gender ideals: D. (...)
3Zasulich is not only an example of a female terrorist, but also became the omnipresent point of reference for all subsequent Russian female terrorists, so inevitably I will devote some space in this paper to her. But my main interest is in Sofia Perovskaia, who led an attempt on the life of Alexander II on the 1st of March 1881. The contemporary perceptions of Perovskaia are rich examples of the ambivalent ways female violence is understood and dealt with. Confronted with the seeming paradox2 of a violent woman authorities and radicals reflected on the same set of gender ideals, but draw very different conclusions3.
4On the 24th of January 1878, Vera Zasulich shot at the governor of St. Petersburg Fedor Trepov. She wounded him seriously and was arrested on the spot. The reactionary General Trepov was perceived as a symbol of a violent, repressive, and illegitimate regime. Public resentment was especially fuelled by his order to flog the political prisoner Arkhip Bogoliubov. The flogging provoked a serious 24 hours riot in the preliminary detention prison in St. Petersburg, and rumours about the flogging and the riots spread quickly in St. Petersburg. On the one hand, repugnance of Trepov reached far beyond oppositional circles. On the other hand, it merged into the willingness of the radical opposition to act violently. It was this atmosphere that encouraged a woman like Zasulich to attempt assassination, but also allowed her actions to be received positively even outside radical circles. Yet Zasulich’s transformation into a general symbol of revolution was partly a function of her being a woman and the transmutation of her complex motives into a single emotion, the need for (justified) vengeance.
- 4 Richard Pipes devoted a special issue of Russian History (2010) to the trial.
5The information available to the police suggested that Zasulich’s assassination attempt was the product of revolutionary conspiracy. But the Minister of Justice, Konstantin von Pahlen, chose to hold back this information. Thus, the prosecution of Zasulich’s trial was not constructed around a political crime, but rather around the emotional action of a young woman taking revenge for the unlawful punishment of a political prisoner4.
- 5 P. A. Aleksandrov, “Iz rechi prisiazhnogo poverennogo P. A. Aleksandrova v zashchitu V. I. Zasulich (...)
6In his defence of Zasulich, attorney Petr Aleksandrov focussed on the disastrous situation borne by political inmates in Russian prisons. He convinced the jury of the following argument: as long as basic human rights were denied to the political prisoners by the regime, an empathic individual such as Zasulich was effectively forced to take justice in her own hands. Therefore he pleaded for acquittal5. Aleksandrov’s strategy was successful and, to the surprise of spectators all over the world and to the joy of the St. Petersburg public and of sympathisers all over the Empire, Zasulich was acquitted on the 31st of March 1878.
- 6 See for example: A. Siljak, Angel of Vengeance. The Girl Assassin, the Governor of St. Petersburg a (...)
7This successful narrative of the “angel of vengeance” was most likely fuelled by the gender of the assassin6. The objective calculation of political thought was unlikely in a female mind, whereas deep sympathies and emotions were properly feminine. Accordingly, Zasulich motives were not seen as political; rather, her violent deed was interpreted within an emotional framework.
8The empathic reaction of the public to this certain kind of female behaviour transformed the revolutionary movement. Zasulich’s assassination attempt achieved with one bullet everything the whole movement had struggled to do for so long. The public was stirred to sympathy with the radicals. Vera Zasulich, the “girl assassin”, fired a shot that was heard around the world, and initiated the first Russian terrorist campaign.
- 7 See some of the gender theory inspired texts such as S. Boniece, “The Spiridonova Case, 1906. Terro (...)
- 8 See Engel, Sisters, pp. xix–xxiv; A. Kappeler, "Zur Charakteristik russischer Terroristen“, Jahrbüc (...)
9The topic, women and terrorism in Russia, drew – and continued to draw – a lot of attention, at least partly due to Zasulich’s dramatic case7. The fact that 15% of the terrorists were women was not perhaps itself surprising8, but a small number of prominent female radicals, such as Vera Zasulich or Sofia Perovskaia, provoked the interest of contemporaries and of historians alike.
- 9 V. Figner, Nacht über Russland. Lebenserinnerungen, Malik, Berlin 1928; S. Perovskaia, “Pokazaniia (...)
10The Russian Emperor Alexander II was killed by terrorists on the 1st of March 1881. Preparations for the assassination were already underway in late 1880, but the mastermind behind the plans, Andrei Zheliabov, was arrested on the 27th of February 1881. This was a serious blow to the terrorist executive committee of the narodnaia volia (People’s Will) terrorist group. However, according to the logic of their thinking, the loss of Zheliabov made it all the more important to move on with the assassination – on an accelerated schedule. Successfully assassinating the emperor would ensure that Zheliabov’s capture was not in vain. “Action, action!” decided the executive committee on the 28th of February 18819.
- 10 Stepniak [S.M. Kravchinskii], Underground Russia, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1883, pp. 115- (...)
- 11 Figner, Nacht, p. 153.
- 12 See for emotional communities: B. Rosenwein, “Worrying about Emotions in History”, The American His (...)
11In the midst of this crisis, Zheliabov’s place as leader of the assassins was taken by his girlfriend, Sofia Perovskaia. Her role in the story made her a legend, and the first female martyr of Russian revolutionary history10. Perovskaia had already played a considerable part in the plan, recruiting the assassins alongside Zheliabov, and gathered all the information necessary to pursue the attack. But now, in addition to these crucial executive roles, she assumed full leadership of the plan. That a woman should do this was unusual for, while there was a relatively high proportion of women on the executive committee of the narodnaia volia, most of them took on duties that fitted typical gender roles. But although Perovskaia’s central role in the successful killing of the Tsar seems to contradict such narrow gender constraints, the perception of her role fits these constraints more closely. Objectively speaking, Perovskaia’s leadership seems to have been crucial: she increased the flexibility of the assassination group’s planning and acting and was probably, therefore, most responsible for the terrorist success, especially as the success of the plan was actually to a great extent due to improvisation11. However, during the early stages of the plan, despite being in effect Zheliabov’s partner in running the preparations, he was seen as the head of the operation while she was merely his “girlfriend”. Then, after the assassination, the fact that she, a woman, had been so significant to the success of the terrorist plot changed how the terrorist message was perceived in the different emotional communities that formed in response to the murder of Alexander II12.
- 13 Arkhiv Partiia SR, International Institute for Social History, PSR No. 79, Obvinitel'nii akt', Bill (...)
- 14 Figner, op. cit. p. 155.
12On Sunday 1st March of 1881, at 10 o’clock in the morning, Sofia Perovskaia met the four assassins she had recruited with Zheliabov in a flat in Telezhnaia Street. Perovskaia told them to wait at the intersection of Nevskii Prospekt and Malaia Sadovaia13. The Tsar was scheduled to pass the cheese shop on Malaia Sadovaia later that morning and the plan was to detonate a mine the terrorists had dug in under the street during the previous weeks14. But on this Sunday, the Tsar did not pass along Malaia Sadovaia. Perovskaia reacted quickly to the Tsar’s change of plans, a flexibility later attributed to her cold blood. She had been observing the Tsar’s routines for a couple of months and was able to deduce the alternate intentions of the entourage. She realized that the Tsar was avoiding the Malaia Sadovaia and heading for home directly along Catherine Canal, she dispatched the assassins to the canal, where Alexander II was finally killed by two bombs they carried with them.
- 15 F. Venturi, Roots of revolution. A history of the populist and socialist movements in 19th century (...)
13In the days following the assassination many terrorists were arrested. Members of the narodnaia volia executive committee urged Perovskaia to leave the city, but she did not want to go. Her refusal was mostly due to her imprisoned lover Zheliabov, whom she wished to remain near to in order to try to rescue him. Eventually, after a couple of days, Perovskaia was arrested and, together with five of the other conspirators, was tried and sentenced to death. Perovskaia was executed with four of the other convicted conspirators on the 3rd April of 1881. (The sixth convict was Gesia Gelfman whose sentence was transmuted to life in prison because she was pregnant. She gave birth to her baby in prison, but it died on the 25th of January 1882 in an orphanage. Gesia Gelfman died a couple of days later)15.
14Sofia Perovskaia was the first woman to be executed for a political crime in the Russian Empire. Consequently, she is typically given the central focuses in sources about the executions of the conspirators. Often, she is portrayed as a martyr, and in many of the different interpretations of the event her story dominates – not only her role in the conspiracy itself, but the tale of her life: the female martyr of terrorism needs a life that matches her death.
- 16 See for example A. I. Kornilova-Moroz, Sof’ia L'vovna Perovskaia, Izdat. politkat., Moskva 1930; N. (...)
15The story of Sofia Perovskaia’s life and death has been passed down through a variety of narratives in a variety of media and with a broad spectrum of interests16. This became especially visible in the twentieth century: her importance as a revolutionary celebrity suitable for all branches of the revolutionary movement in Tsarist Russia is underlined by the Soviet film “Sofia Perovskaia” directed by Lev Arnshtam in 1967, just in time for the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution. Even though the Bolsheviks were Marxists who did not believe in revolutionary terrorism, Arnshtam’s historical epos augmented the perception of Perovskaia as an idealistic, brave martyr of the revolution and at the same time as a delicate beauty full of innocence. Dimitri Shostakovich composed the movie’s soundtrack, including a waltz with the title “Sofia Perovskaia” (op. 132) that proved especially popular within the Soviet Union and abroad.
- 17 Moreover her brother has also produced a biography: V.L. Perovskii, Vospominaniia o sestre Sof'e Pe (...)
- 18 L. E. Patyk, “Remembering ‘The Terrorism’. Sergei Stepniak-Kravchinskii's ‘Underground Russia’”, Sl (...)
- 19 Stepniak, Underground Russia, ibid. pp. 115-133.
- 20 Figner, Nacht, pp. 160–165.
16But Sofia Perovskaia was a celebrity already among her contemporaries. The source texts most important for the tradition of Perovskaia’s biography are the memoirs of Sergei Stepniak-Kravchinski, and of Vera Figner, a fellow female terrorist17. These sources are both sentimental narratives. Lynn Patyk observed that in his memoirs of his radical colleagues, which he called “Revolutionary profiles”, Stepniak-Kravchinski produced “celebrity icons” for the revolutionary youth18. This is especially true for his literary portrait of Perovskaia, which exceeds his other profiles not only in length, but also in empathy towards its subject19. Vera Figner’s recollections of Perovskaia are also clearly those of a close friend20. These emotionally overwhelming texts, written by two of the most skilful and committed writers from Russian terrorist circles, have touched readers since their publication. However, although Stepniak-Kravchinski and Figner write especially vivid in their accounts of Perovskaia’s life, the picture they paint of her is also reflected in many of the sources on the assassination of the 1st of March and the executions of the 3rd of April 1881.
- 21 Next to the movie, there is for example the novel: I. V. Trifonov, Neterpenie: roman, Sovet. pisate (...)
17Ironically, even though many revolutionary and terrorist women, such as Vera Zasulich or Maria Spiridonova, have inspired historiographical research, there is no modern biography of Perovskaia from the perspective of gender studies, even though she is one of the most important female terrorists. This gap is especially irritating because there is such a vast number of non-scholarly narratives about Perovskaia21, as her fate has caught the attention of audiences in all phases of the history of reception of Russia revolutionaries. Her story points out many of the peculiarities of the perception of women in the history of terrorism.
- 22 L. McReynolds, “Witnessing for the Defense. The Adversarial Court and Narratives of Criminal Behavi (...)
- 23 See for example B. Morrissey, When Women Kill. Questions of Agency and Subjectivity, Routlegde, Lon (...)
18In nineteenth century Russia, that women could be violent contradicted gender expectations. Women were likely victims of violence, but not the doers of violent deeds. In fact, however, women were not only victims of violence, although violent crimes committed by women were more or less exceptional. Yet, although a woman’s violence was shocking, the press discussed these scandals with a certain voyeurism, and the reading public was accordingly entertained and titillated. Both the press and public usually assigned emotional motives to violent women, such as love, jealousy or revenge22. Violence spurred by emotion was less shocking than if it were cooly calculated, and emotionality was also a feminine trait. Therefore, women who committed a crime not out of emotion, but for allegedly rational reasons, such as politics, represented a much greater breach of the norm23. Part of Perovskaia’s power as the image of female terrorism was that she seemed to occupy both sides of this divide: on the one hand, she was an emotional, irrational woman who, for the sake of her love of Zheliabov would not flee St. Petersburg; on the other hand, she was the cold-blooded assassin who capped intense, politically motivated planning with cruelly swift thinking to assure the death of Alexander II.
- 24 See for example: “Sudebnaia Khronika. Delo o sovershonnam' 1-go marta - zasedanie 28-go marta”, Gol (...)
19Neither a terrorist attempt itself, nor the planning or organization of one had ever been attributed to a woman or women before (as noted above, even Zasulich’s attempt on General Trepov was not considered a political or terrorist act). So Perovskaia was something new. Accordingly, the prosecutor in the trial against the regicides of Alexander II, Nikolai Muravev, addressed the court to utter his consternation about the fact that the Tsar was victim of a plan organized and executed by a woman. Muravev’s arguments to the court were printed in the newspapers throughout the Empire so his reconstruction of the events had a great impact on the public image of the terrorists, and particularly of Perovskaia24.
20In fact, in laying the foundation of his argumentation, Muravev presented Zheliabov as the mastermind behind the terrorist plan. As a result of the assassination, the executive committee of narodnaia volia had also gained a reputation of shadowy omnipotence that Muravev tried to contradict. After dwelling on Zheliabov’s decisive role in the plan, Muravev turned to deconstructing this image of the executive committee through his presentation of Sofia Perovskaia:
- 25 Ibid.
“I ask myself: Why did the executive committee not find a stronger hand, a sharper intellect, a more experienced revolutionary when Zheliabov was arrested? How could anybody trust such a task to the delicate hands of a woman, even if this woman lived with Zheliabov?”25
21Muravev dwells here on a paradox. Perovskaia, a woman, must be too delicate to be a terrorist, and the executive committee likewise weak for choosing a woman. But the “delicate” woman herself successfully and hard-headedly executed the plan. Muravev’s rhetorical questions express his bewilderment about the fact that a woman had the capability to cause such an unprecedented horror as the killing of the Tsar, a horror that was, according to Muravev, “unbearable for the human soul”. To make things worse, the defendant had not found herself in this situation by accident. Rather, she had planned to kill the Tsar all winter. Muravev’s argument created an image of Perovskaia torn between the contemporary ideal of womanhood on the one hand, and the horror of terrorist violence on the other. This ambivalent image of Perovskaia was on the one hand a reflection of contemporary gender ideals prevailing in society and on the other mediated via courtroom reporting to a broad audience.
22The very idea of the violent woman remained a continual paradox in Muravev’s argument. The prosecutor implied that even though there were women in the revolutionary movement, they were inferior to men in strength, intellect, and experience, as was to be expected as women were ideally characterized by delicacy. Since Sofia Perovskaia was contradicting this gender norm, Muravev characterized her behaviour as non-natural. The fact that delicate Perovskaia cold-bloodedly pursued the planning of the Tsar’s murder throughout the entire winter, represented a monstrous paradox, the delicacy of a woman and the ferocity of a terrorist united in one person. Muravev could only find such an unnatural paradox disgusting, and his view was transmitted by the papers to a vast public. The question remains, however, if the reading public really shared Muravev’s disgust, or if the Perovskaia paradox did not rather exert a certain fascination.
23Stepniak-Kravchinski’s description of Perovskaia points in the direction of fascination. Stepniak refers to Muravev explicitly and discusses the ambivalence between the ideal of the delicate woman and the image of the cold-blooded terrorist, symbolically combined in Perovskaia. First he turns his attention to her looks.
- 26 Stepniak, op. cit., p. 115.
- 27 L. Patyk, “Dressed to Kill and Die. Russian Revolutionary Terrorism, Gender and Dress“, Jahrbücher (...)
- 28 Stepniak, op. cit., p. 115.
- 29 Ibid., p. 127; Patyk, “Dressed to Kill and Die”, p. 200.
24Sofia Perovskaia, he emphasises was beautiful and, furthermore, her beauty was innocent and delicate: “She was girlhood personified. Notwithstanding her 26 years, she seemed scarcely eighteen”26. He describes her as small, slim, and graceful, her clothes modest and simple. (It is important to note that simplicity and modesty were Zasulich’s style and, after her acquittal, Zasulich had become the role model for female political defendants in the Russian Empire)27. Besides her modesty, Stepniak stressed that Perovskaia “had a passion for neatness” and thus resembled a “Swiss girl”28. But the innocence of the “Swiss girl” was accompanied by a strong will, by titanic strength, and by the calm of a priestess, “for under her cuirass of polished steel a women's heart was always beating”29.
25Where Muravev had found Perovskaia, the delicate terrorist, monstrous and disgusting, Stepniak suggests that the Perovskaia’s duality as an almost girlish woman with a warmly beating heart and as an armoured priestess lifted her – and by extension, all women involved in terrorism – from the ordinary into the sphere of the eternal:
- 30 Ibid., p. 127.
“Women, it must be confessed, are much more richly endowed with the divine flame than men. This is why the almost religious fervour of the Russian revolutionary movement must in great part be attributed to them; and while they take part in it, it will be invincible”.30
26This spiritually-inclined interpretation of Perovskaia also sees how her life had always pointed to her martyrdom. Whereas Muravev had fitted the Perovskaia paradox of delicacy and violence into the image of a monster, Stepniak combines these attributes into the symbol of the priestess. Of course, Muravev finds the killing of the Tsar reprehensible where Stepniak sees it as a moral act of justified revolution. But each man sees something extraordinary in the deed, and so also in Perovskaia. So, where Muravev declares Perovskaia so far out of the ordinary that she is hideously unnatural, Stepniak portrays her life as it moved towards martyrdom as an ascent out of the mundane to a higher sphere. Where Muravev sees something grotesque, a monster, Stepniak sees something sacred, a saint. Even though both accounts rely on the same gender ideals they draw very different conclusions.
27Vera Figner, unsurprisingly, also takes a positive view of Perovskaia. And she also stressed the paradoxes in Perovskaia’s life and death but, unlike Stepniak, her interpretations are less spiritually inclined, and more affirmative of existing gender stereotypes. She constructs a bipolar concept of male and female characteristics within her friend:
- 31 Figner, Nacht, p. 164.
“Her facial expression, with its soft child-like lines, did not speak of her firm character and the strong will she inherited from her father. It seems as if her nature was a combination of female delicacy and male rigour”.31
- 32 Ibid, p. 162.
- 33 Even in sentimental narratives of female Palestinian suicide bombers in the 21st century tales of m (...)
28But Figner added complexity to Perovskaia’s “female delicacy”. She represents Perovskaia’s femininity through the metaphor of motherhood. Motherly feelings had driven Perovskaia, according to Figner. For example, she had spent time among peasants, taking care of the sick and needy: “Eye witnesses claim she displayed gentleness and motherly care”32. Figner’s invocation of motherhood seems also to be a way to resolve the paradox pointed to by Muravev. Where Muravev saw a monster and Stepniak a saint, Figner saw a mother, affirming a standard gender role for women, but choosing where delicate female qualities of sensitivity and love could be combined with strength, for the compassion of a mother (or a nurse) makes her strong33. This “motherly care” for the people that Figner discerns may also reflect Perovskaia’s aristocratic legacy. Patrimonial care for his peasants was part of the ideal of the “good aristocratic landlord” that was still relevant in the Russian Empire at that time. Notably, again, the image of the good aristocrat allowed Figner portray Perovskaia as dually grounded yet extraordinary while remaining more within the frameworks of “normality” than Muravev or Stepniak.
- 34 See for example: Boniece, Spiridonova Case.
- 35 Figner, op. cit. p. 161.
29In fact, Perovskaia’s upbringing in an aristocratic family is a recurring topic in literature and memoirs about her life. This social background was quite typical for many revolutionary women in the first generation of Russian terrorists. In this story of Perovskaia, her father, Lev Perovski, a high-ranking Tsarist official, takes the role of the male violator who abuses his wife, Sofia’s beloved mother. In literature and propaganda of the time, depictions of the mistreatment of the Russian people by the Tsarist authorities was very often allegorized by a male threat to a young women, and Lev, a Russian aristocrat brutalizing his wife, was an actualization of that allegory34. The allegory functions because men, who should be caring fathers (or tsars) towards women, are too often abusers and violators, because of male guilt towards women who are victims of male violence, and failed fatherhood: according to Figner this guilt is a male inheritance, and she stresses that Perovski urged his son to mistreat his mother as well35. Sofia’s sympathy for the oppressed started with her mother, but she extended her empathy to all the oppressed people of Russia.
30In short, Vera Figner’s memoirs suggest that Sofia, the delicate aristocrat, became a terrorist because of her immediate family experience of unjust treatment and violent abuse. The trajectories of her political activity are thus rooted in her personal and family history. This interpretation allows Figner to transfer the female characteristics of emotion and subjectivity into the (male) political action of Sofia Perovskaia, the female martyr terrorist.
- 36 A. Thun, Geschichte der Revolutionären Bewegungen in Russland, Duncker & Humblot, Leipzig, 1883, p. (...)
- 37 See for the sentimental narratives of love and terrorists: McManus, Sentimental Terror Narratives, (...)
- 38 Thun, Geschichte, p. 260.
31Alphons Thun was another contemporary writer who empathized with the revolutionaries and with Perovskaia, and he too refers to the latter’s family history. According to Thun, Sofia’s violent father turned her into a feminist, and she not only objected to the corrupt authorities of Russia, but to the corruption of men in general: “She was a ‘female patriot’ and declared men to be inferior to women. She respected only very few male persons”36. If Thun portrays Perovskaia as a feminist – surely the most explicit transgressor of gender norms – he also stresses her feminine, emotional side. Here it is her love affair with Zheliabov that captures Thun’s attention, and in his sentimental narrative37 he observes how love caused her to change her attitudes: “Her last year alive […] was her first year of love. […] Scheljäbow [sic] was her equal intellectually; both of them were handsome”38.
- 39 See for example D. Footman, Red Prelude: The Life of the Russian Terrorist Zhelyabov, New York, Hyp (...)
32Last but not least, their appearance together during the trial made Perovskaia and Zheliabov the leading figures of narodnaia volia in the eyes of the public, and their relationship inevitably became a public love affair. And in this affair, the public saw a love that transcended the boundaries between different social strata that were still so important in the Russian Empire. Perovskaia was born of the highest aristocratic circles, while Zheliabov was but the son of a serf39. In the revolutionary movement social background did not matter, romance and friendship crossed those borders frequently. But within the broader public, while Perovskaia’s family background and her social mobility added to her allure, real scandal was caused by her cohabitation with Zheliabov.
- 40 McReynolds, Witnessing.
33Perovskaia’s breaching of assumed gender roles provoked narratives of sexual libertinage. This imagined sexual promiscuity seems to have been a typical element of discourses around women and violence in the Russian Empire and beyond. Louise McReynolds has recently presented studies of court cases from 1866, 1880 and 1895, all of which tried female capital crimes. In each of the cases, a woman of questionable reputation had been living “in sin” with her lover and then demanded marriage of him. Each woman had attempted to kill her lover when he would not fulfil that demand. It might seem that there was a relatively clear sequence of events in each of these cases: a woman reacted, albeit excessively, to what she perceived as an offense against her. But in court, as well as among the general public, this was not enough: the sanity of these dishonoured women was called into question. That is, no normal woman would ever be capable of killing, nor matter how provoked, but no normal woman would ever be capable of sexual libertinage either. Thus, something abnormal in each woman was the underlying cause of both her sexual and violent behaviour: a fundamental insanity that fuelled her sexual and violent incontinence. Female breaking of the prohibition of killing was in these cases seen as essentially accompanied by female sexual libertinage40. This sort of logic meant that, although these women’s stories were very different to Perovskaia’s, similar conclusions could be applied to the Russian terrorist: she was both sexually heterodox and violent, and both these traits must stem from her same underlying nature.
34If anything, Perovskaia broke the rules even more brazenly. She had participated in a conspiracy to kill the Tsar after all. But, in fact, she had led the conspiracy. Although a woman’s involvement in politics or revolution to some extent was imaginable, this imagination could only picture her acting according to traditional gender roles within that context, and a woman could only act as a subordinate to the men, the real political and revolutionary actors. So, Perovskaia crossed one line to become a revolutionary, and then another to become a leader, and this double crossing of lines evoked fantasies of a female life lived far beyond any moral constraints. A report in the London World about the trial provides rich examples of this kind of imagination. The article discussed the persona of Sofia Perovskaia in length. Especially juicy are the lines about her life under the circumstances of conspiracy:
- 41 Reprinted in the New York Times: “French Nihilists. From the London World”, New York Times, 27 Apri (...)
“The disciples of Nihilism professedly despise both the marriage tie and all those delicate sentiments which customarily characterize the relations between the sexes. Sophie Pioffsky [sic], though delicately nurtured and brought up in refined society, was living as Hartmann’s wife when she gave the signal for the attempt to blow up the Imperial train at Moscow. She returned but recently from abroad to take an active part in the late plot, and on arrival immediately joined Jeliaboff [sic], the chief conspirator, and lived with him as his wife till the moment of his arrest”.41
35Hartmann was a co-conspirator to a terrorist plot in 1879, when the narodnaia volia attempted to blow up the Imperial train in Moscow. The life of the Tsar was spared, but the plot became famous all over the world. Perovskaia was already a part of the terrorist group at that time. Her exemplification of a life beyond morals, living “as his wife” with not only Zheliabov but earlier on also with Hartmann, was further depicted as contagious to the morals of other young women as well:
- 42 Ibid.
“Many young ladies of position appear to have beguiled into more or less complicity with the Nihilist party”.42
36The writer of the World article makes it archly clear that he means complicit in every sense of the word: these women are beguiled by the Nihilists and go over to them politically, sexually and morally. A similarly spicy discussion of terrorist sexual libertinage can also be detected in the more modest and more censored public discourse in Russia. Recall Muravev’s agitation because Perovskaia became the mastermind of the conspiracy because she had first, in the niceties of Muravev’s language, “lived with Zheliabov”. Muravev did not invent the tar that he is here brushing on Perovskaia. Such a moral judgement of female radical life was commonly maintained by the Russian authorities. Already in the 1860s, a police report about the “typical revolutionary” reads:
- 43 Quoted in: Avrahm Yarmolinsky, Zaren und Terroristen. Der Weg zur Revolution, [S.l.], Verlag für Li (...)
“She wears short hair, blue glasses, and dresses carelessly, does not use brush or soap and lives in a common-law-marriage with one or even more individuals of the male sex who are as repugnant as she”.43
- 44 C. Gentry, L. Sjoberg, „Gendering Women’s Terrorism“ in C. Gentry, L. Sjoberg (Eds.), Women, Gender (...)
37It is clear then that the social norms and the public imagination of the nineteenth century saw the revolutionary lifestyle as one of sexual libertinage, for men, but especially for women. While her fellow revolutionary, the writer Stepniak, praised Perovskaia’s pureness and delicacy, raising her into the realm of priestliness and sainthood, her prosecutor was blaming her for moral depravity and promiscuity. It became the standard narrative framework for the defamation of female terrorists until well in the twentieth century, to cast them as sexually deviant monsters, unsatisfied women who were neglected by their fathers or by society as a whole44. The contemporary discourse thus encompassed two opposing poles, that of the saint and of the whore. This vivid painting of the Madonna-whore-complex onto Perovskaia probably did most to transform her into an enduring myth.
- 45 “Russia and the Nihilists. Sophie Pieoffsky as a Chief Mover in the Czar's Murder”, New York Times, (...)
- 46 “Assasins of the Czar. Scenes at the trials of the accused nihilists”, New York Times, 10 April 188 (...)
- 47 “Rech Zheliabova”, in 1 marta 1881 goda, pp. 310–318.
38The newspaper coverage of the trial of the regicides shows that public opinion concentrated on Sofia Perovskaia45. Zheliabov also gained a lot of attention, since he was perceived “the most intelligent” terrorist46. Zheliabov took on the role of spokesman for the terrorists during the trial and attempted to legitimize their deed in its political context. He was indeed a skilful spokesman and pulled on all the strings that had been used in the political trials before in order to convince the liberal public of the revolutionary cause and the justice of their actions47. At the conclusion of the trial, all the defendants were convicted and sentenced to death.
- 48 B. M Kirikov “Semenovskii plats”, in Tri veka Sankt-Peterburga. Entsiklopediia, P. E. Bukharkin Ed. (...)
- 49 E. Emeliantseva, “Sports Visions and Sports Places. The Social Topography of Sport in Late Imperial (...)
39Executions in St. Petersburg traditionally took place on Semenovski Square, which was an ideal place to stage a spectacle48. Spectator sport events, such as horse races, took place there from the late nineteenth century onwards49. The execution of the regicides on the 3rd of April 1881 was a spectator event as well. The authorities intended the executions to send a very clear message: violence and treachery such as that of the terrorists would meet a condign and terrible punishment.
- 50 See for example G. Köbler, Bilder aus der deutschen Rechtgeschichte. Von den Anfängen bis zur Gegen (...)
40By staging the executions on Semenovksi, the authorities were not only choosing an effective way to transmit or broadcast their message. They were also shaping the message transmitted. Medieval and early modern punishments often involved rituals of public humiliation such as the pillory, and ducking50. Nor is public humiliation confined to pre or early modern times. With Perovskaia the central figure in these executions, it is worth noting that in the modern period, and even today, public humiliation is especially used against female offenders and fornication and sexual misbehaviour (for example, sexual intercourse with an enemy) is often met with this type of punishment. One of the traditional humiliations was being paraded on a donkey, and the authorities clearly replicated this for Perovskaia and her companions. They were transported to Semenovski square on two open carts so that they could be seen by the public. Their hands were tied behind, and they were dressed in black robes and hoods, while around their neck hung black boards reading “regicide” – another traditional humiliation: badges of shame.
- 51 L. Planson, “Vospominanija. Kazn' zareubiits”, in 1 marta 1881 goda, pp. 357-367, especially pp. 36 (...)
- 52 See for the number of spectators: Footman, Red Prelude, p. 226.
- 53 “Iz ofitsial'nogo ocheta”, in 1 marta 1881 goda, p. 346.
41The passage of the carriages through the crowd was secured by a great number of soldiers and police. The two carriages passed along streets thronged with people. Huge numbers had come to watch the execution of the terrorists51. Hostility towards the convicts was noticeable on Semenovski square where 80 000 onlookers had gathered52. The size of the crowd was partly attributable to warm weather, but the authorities had also scheduled the event relatively late in the day to allow as many people as possible attend53. The bulk of the crowd were restrained behind barriers by Cossacks, but viewing platforms permitted high-ranking members of the military, court officials, foreign diplomats and the press to watch up close.
- 54 In the Russian press a censored script was published: See for example “Khronika”, Golos, 4 April 18 (...)
42Perovskaia, as the first women executed for a political crime in the Russian Empire, was at the centre of all this attention. Newspapers around the world reported the executions and her strength and calm was a recurring topic54. The reporter for the Kölnische Zeitung wrote that:
- 55 Stepniak, op. cit., p. 130.
“Sofia Perovskaia displayed extraordinary moral strength. Her cheeks even preserved their rosy colour, while her face, always serious, without the slightest trace of parade, was full of true courage, and endless abnegation. Her look was calm and peaceful; not the slightest sign of ostentation could be discerned in it”.55
- 56 See for the struggle for moral superiority also: L. Engelstein, “Weapon of the Weak (Apologies to J (...)
43In reports such as these, Stepniak’s saintly image of Perovskaia seems to predominate over Muravev’s monstrous one. The reporter from Cologne juxtaposes the brutality of the execution with the modest beauty and calm strength of Perovskaia and the female terrorist becomes, in this moment, the moral victor56. The humiliating public executions may have been intended by the authorities to send a message, but once again the paradoxes surrounding the construction of the female terrorist confound any clear message, for not only was Perovskaia’s personal courage transcendently admirable, but the execution of a woman was regarded by many as a crime itself.
44Sofia Perovskaia dominates the reception of the assassination of Alexander II and its aftermath. To a significant extent this is because the discourse structured by two supposedly opposed poles, the delicacy of women and violence, conveys a certain fascination to female terrorists such as Perovskaia or Vera Zasulich.
45The idea that women could be violent directly contradicted general expectations with regard to female behaviour in the nineteenth century throughout the Russian Empire and beyond. Presented with actual violent women, contemporaries chose different ways to make sense of the paradox.
46Emotionality was an accepted quality of femininity so that when it came to female terrorists, not only the prosecuting authorities, but also the radicals themselves often perceived these women as emotionally rather than rationally driven individuals. In the case of Zasulich, the public was convinced she was not acting politically, but rather seeking emotionally driven revenge for the unlawful flogging of a political prisoner which had outraged broad strata of society. Zasulich was celebrated as a “feeling individual” and an “angel of vengeance”, not as a politically motivated actor.
47Perovskaia, the mastermind of a carefully planned plot that killed the Tsar, could not be so easily packaged into an emotional bundle. So commentators looked to her life for the reasons for her political attitudes and terrorist activity, and most of all to her family history. This allowed her terrorist activity to be ultimately identified as emotionally motivated. But the seeming paradox of her female delicacy and her terrorist violence remains very prominent in descriptions of her life and death. Indeed, this conflict is the unique aspect of Perovskaia and of her reception. Sympathisers and adversaries make sense of this “Perovskaia paradox” quite differently: where Stepniak worships the saint, Muravev abominates the whore. Both of them were drawing their conclusions from the same set of gender ideals. Both of them de-politicised Perovskaia’s trajectories. Even though Muravev and Stepniak interpreted Perovskaia’s transgression of the gender norms quite differently both interpretations root within the same system of values. Therefore it does not come as a surprise, that for the public reception, Perovskaia’s fame probably results from a mixture of these extremes – saint and whore.
48On balance, perhaps Stepniak’s construction predominates, for the execution made a martyr out of Perovskaia. Her fate spoke not only to her fellow radicals, but united all critics of the Tsarist regime in oppugning it. From the authorities’ point of view, executing Perovskaia was counterproductive, because her death, readily transfigured into martyrdom, gained new sympathy for the terrorist movement. The authorities themselves understood this and for the next 25 years no woman was executed for a political crime in the Russian Empire.
1 D. Dahlmann, Sibirien. Vom 16. Jahrhundert bis in die Gegenwart, Schöningh, Paderborn, 2009, p. 162.
2 See for the “feminine paradox” in terrorism: B. Nacos, “The Portrayal of Female Terrorists in the Media. Similar Framing Patterns in the News Coverage of Women in Politics and Terrorism”, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, Vol. 28, # 5, 2005, pp. 435-451
3 See for a similar practice with regard to an opposite interpretation of identical gender ideals: D. LaCapra, Madame Bovary on Trial, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY, 1982.
4 Richard Pipes devoted a special issue of Russian History (2010) to the trial.
5 P. A. Aleksandrov, “Iz rechi prisiazhnogo poverennogo P. A. Aleksandrova v zashchitu V. I. Zasulich 31 marta 1878 g.” in O. Budnitskii (ed.), Istoriia terrorizma v Rossi v dokumentakh, biografiiakh, issledovaniiakh, Feniks, Rostov n. D., 1996, pp. 68–73.
6 See for example: A. Siljak, Angel of Vengeance. The Girl Assassin, the Governor of St. Petersburg and Russia’s Revolutionary World, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2008, p. 215-247.
7 See some of the gender theory inspired texts such as S. Boniece, “The Spiridonova Case, 1906. Terror, Myth and Martyrdom”, Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History, Vol. 4, # 3, 2003, pp. 571–606.; V. Broido, Apostles into terrorists. Women and the revolutionary movement in the Russia of Alexander II, Temple Smith, New York 1977; O. V. Budnitskii, Zhenshchiny-terroristki v Rossii, Feniks, Rostov n. D., 1996; B. Alpern Engel Hg., Mothers and daughters. Women of the intelligentsia in nineteenth century Russia, Cambridge/New York 1983; B. A. Engel et al (Eds), Five sisters. Women against the Tsar, Knopf, New York, 1975; A. Hillyar, J. McDermid, Revolutionary women in Russia. 1870 - 1917: a study in collective biography, Manchester University Press, Manchester [u.a.], 2000; A. Knight, “Female Terrorists in the Russian Socialist Revolutionary Party”, Russian Review, Vol. 38, # 2, 1979, pp. 139-159.
8 See Engel, Sisters, pp. xix–xxiv; A. Kappeler, "Zur Charakteristik russischer Terroristen“, Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas, Vol. 27, # 4, 1979, pp. 520–547.
9 V. Figner, Nacht über Russland. Lebenserinnerungen, Malik, Berlin 1928; S. Perovskaia, “Pokazaniia S.L. Perovskoi“, in V. E. Kel’ner (ed.), 1 marta 1881 goda, kazn' Imperatora Aleksandra II. Dokumenty i vospominaniia, Lenizdat, Leningrad 1991, pp. 256–262.
10 Stepniak [S.M. Kravchinskii], Underground Russia, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1883, pp. 115-133.
11 Figner, Nacht, p. 153.
12 See for emotional communities: B. Rosenwein, “Worrying about Emotions in History”, The American Historical Review, Vol. 107, 2002, pp. 821–845, especially p. 842.
13 Arkhiv Partiia SR, International Institute for Social History, PSR No. 79, Obvinitel'nii akt', Bill of indictment in the trial of the 20 (1882), p. 22.
14 Figner, op. cit. p. 155.
15 F. Venturi, Roots of revolution. A history of the populist and socialist movements in 19th century Russia, Phoenix Press, London 2001 (revised), p. 720.
16 See for example A. I. Kornilova-Moroz, Sof’ia L'vovna Perovskaia, Izdat. politkat., Moskva 1930; N. Asheshov, Sof’ia Perovskaia. Materialy dlia biografii i kharakteristiki, Gos. isd., Peterburg 1920; Z. Akhtyrskaya, Tsareubiitsa Sofia Perovskaia, Gosizdat, Moskva, 1930.
17 Moreover her brother has also produced a biography: V.L. Perovskii, Vospominaniia o sestre Sof'e Perovskoi, Gos. isd., Moskva, Leningrad, 1927.
18 L. E. Patyk, “Remembering ‘The Terrorism’. Sergei Stepniak-Kravchinskii's ‘Underground Russia’”, Slavic Review, Vol. 68, # 4, 2009, pp. 758-781.
19 Stepniak, Underground Russia, ibid. pp. 115-133.
20 Figner, Nacht, pp. 160–165.
21 Next to the movie, there is for example the novel: I. V. Trifonov, Neterpenie: roman, Sovet. pisatel., Moskva 1988. See also very recent: L. Kern, Die Zarenmörderin. Das Leben der russischen Terroristin Sofja Perowskaja, Osburg Verlag, Hamburg 2013.
22 L. McReynolds, “Witnessing for the Defense. The Adversarial Court and Narratives of Criminal Behaviour in Nineteenth-Century Russia”, Slavic Review, Vol. 69, # 3; 2010, pp. 620–644, especially p. 638.
23 See for example B. Morrissey, When Women Kill. Questions of Agency and Subjectivity, Routlegde, London, New York, 2003.
24 See for example: “Sudebnaia Khronika. Delo o sovershonnam' 1-go marta - zasedanie 28-go marta”, Golos, 4 april 1881, p. 2.
26 Stepniak, op. cit., p. 115.
27 L. Patyk, “Dressed to Kill and Die. Russian Revolutionary Terrorism, Gender and Dress“, Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas, Vol. 58, # 2, 2010, pp. 207-208.
28 Stepniak, op. cit., p. 115.
29 Ibid., p. 127; Patyk, “Dressed to Kill and Die”, p. 200.
30 Ibid., p. 127.
31 Figner, Nacht, p. 164.
32 Ibid, p. 162.
33 Even in sentimental narratives of female Palestinian suicide bombers in the 21st century tales of motherhood and love for the weak, for children, for the sick and for the needy is accounted for the specific female trajectories of violence. See: A.-M. McManus, “Sentimental Terror Narratives. Gendering Violence, Dividing Sympathy”, Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies, Vol. 9, # 2, 2013, pp. 80 – 107.
34 See for example: Boniece, Spiridonova Case.
35 Figner, op. cit. p. 161.
36 A. Thun, Geschichte der Revolutionären Bewegungen in Russland, Duncker & Humblot, Leipzig, 1883, p. 260.
37 See for the sentimental narratives of love and terrorists: McManus, Sentimental Terror Narratives, p. 92.
38 Thun, Geschichte, p. 260.
39 See for example D. Footman, Red Prelude: The Life of the Russian Terrorist Zhelyabov, New York, Hyperion, 1991
40 McReynolds, Witnessing.
41 Reprinted in the New York Times: “French Nihilists. From the London World”, New York Times, 27 April 1881, p. 5.
43 Quoted in: Avrahm Yarmolinsky, Zaren und Terroristen. Der Weg zur Revolution, [S.l.], Verlag für Literatur und Zeitgeschehen 1968, p. 152.
44 C. Gentry, L. Sjoberg, „Gendering Women’s Terrorism“ in C. Gentry, L. Sjoberg (Eds.), Women, Gender, and Terrorism, University of Georgia Press, Athens, London, 2011, pp. 57-82.
45 “Russia and the Nihilists. Sophie Pieoffsky as a Chief Mover in the Czar's Murder”, New York Times, 31 March 1881, p. 5.
46 “Assasins of the Czar. Scenes at the trials of the accused nihilists”, New York Times, 10 April 1881, p. 6.
47 “Rech Zheliabova”, in 1 marta 1881 goda, pp. 310–318.
48 B. M Kirikov “Semenovskii plats”, in Tri veka Sankt-Peterburga. Entsiklopediia, P. E. Bukharkin Ed., Vol. II, # 6, Univ., Sankt-Peterburg, Moskva 2003, pp. 178–182.
49 E. Emeliantseva, “Sports Visions and Sports Places. The Social Topography of Sport in Late Imperial St. Petersburg and its Representations in Contemporary Photography (1890-1914)”, in Euphoria and Exhaustion. Modern Sport in Soviet Culture and Society, Campus, Frankfurt/Main, 2010, pp. 19-40, pp. 31-32.
50 See for example G. Köbler, Bilder aus der deutschen Rechtgeschichte. Von den Anfängen bis zur Gegenwart, Beck, München 1988.
51 L. Planson, “Vospominanija. Kazn' zareubiits”, in 1 marta 1881 goda, pp. 357-367, especially pp. 360-361.
52 See for the number of spectators: Footman, Red Prelude, p. 226.
53 “Iz ofitsial'nogo ocheta”, in 1 marta 1881 goda, p. 346.
54 In the Russian press a censored script was published: See for example “Khronika”, Golos, 4 April 1881, p. 2.
55 Stepniak, op. cit., p. 130.
56 See for the struggle for moral superiority also: L. Engelstein, “Weapon of the Weak (Apologies to James Scott). Violence in Russian History”, Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History, Vol. 4, # 3, 2003, pp. 680–693.Top of page
Anke Hilbrenner, « The Perovskaia Paradox or the Scandal of Female Terrorism in Nineteenth Century Russia », The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies [Online], Issue 17 | 2016, Online since 04 May 2016, connection on 22 March 2017. URL : http://pipss.revues.org/4169Top of page
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