Sofia Perovskaya: portrait of a regicide

Submitted by Anon on 22 January, 2004 - 4:28 Author: Vera Figner

Click here for the series on The Roots of Bolshevism of which this article is part
The author of the following memoir of Sofia Perovskaya, one of five populists hanged in 1881 for killing the Tsar, was Vera Figner, who survived 25 years in a Tsarist prison.

It is curious that this ascetic revolutionary was the great-granddaughter of Kyril Grigoryevich Razumovsky, the last hetman of Little Russia; the granddaughter of the governor of the Crimea during the reign of Alexander I, and the daughter of the governor of St Petersburg in the time of Alexander II.

The conditions of her childhood kindled in Sofia Perovskaya a sense of honour, and a radiant love for humanity, which never grew dim.

In the oppressive atmosphere of her family, Sofia Lvovna learned to love mankind, to love those who suffer, as she loved her mother who had suffered so long, and with whom she maintained tender relations up to the last tragic days of her life.

During my own trial, the matrons of the House of Preliminary Detention told me that while Perovskaya's trial was being held, Sofia Lvovna talked very little whenever her mother, who had been summoned from the Crimea, came to see her. Like a sick, tired child, motionless and speechless she would recline with her head on her mother's knee. The two gendarmes, who sat in her cell day and night, remained on duty during these visits.

Upon completing her studies for the position of assistant physician, she came in contact with these people in the village, in her capacity of propagandist from the Populist group.

[Once] both she and I had just left the village [where they had "gone to the people"] and were still bound to it with all our hearts. We were asked to take part in the political struggle, we were called to the city, but we felt that the village needed us, that without us it would be still darker there.

Reason told us that we must follow the course chosen by our comrades, the political terrorists, who were drunk with the spirit of strife and animated by success. But our hearts spoke otherwise, our mood was quite different. It drew us to the world of the dispossessed. After some hesitation we overcame our feeling, our mode, and having renounced that moral satisfaction which life among the people gave to us, we stood firmly side by side with our comrades, whose political sagacity was greater than our own.

From that time on, Perovskaya was first in all the terroristic projects of the Executive Committee of the Will of the People [Narodnaya Volya].

When on the first of March, 1881, the seventh attempt [on the life of the Tsar] was in preparation, Perovskaya, together with Zhelyabov, organised a group of persons who were to observe the Tsar's goings and comings in the capital, and who were to be the signalists at the climax of the drama.

She also directed the bomb-throwers, not only during the preparatory period, but also on 1st March, when she gave orders for a new disposition of forces, thanks to which the Emperor perished from the explosion of two bombs hurled by the terrorists.

It seems only just to state that had it not been for Sofia Perovskaya with her coolheadedness and incomparable good judgment and wise management, the assassination of the Tsar might not have taken place at all on that day.

It was she who saved the day, and paid for the victory with her life.

I became acquainted with Sofia Lvovna in 1877 in St Petersburg, when she was out on bail. Alexandra Kornilova brought her to my attention. In her country smock that served as a nightgown, she looked like a young peasant girl, with her short flaxen braid, her light grey eyes, and her childishly rounded cheeks. Only the high forehead was at variance with the general peasant cast of her features. In all her fair, pleasant little face there was much that was youthful and simple, much that recalled the child.

This childlike element in her face was preserved up to the very end, notwithstanding the tragic moments that she lived through during those March days.

The general expression of her face, with its soft contours, did not speak at all of her strong will and firm character.

Tender, tender as a mother with the working people, she was exacting and severe towards her comrades and fellow-workers, while towards her political enemies, the government she could be merciless.

[Before and after the assassination of the Tsar on 1 March 1881] I came to know all her fine sensitiveness and her disinterested solicitude for her comrades. After Zhelabov's arrest on 27th February 1881, Perovskaya abandoned the apartment that Zhelyabov and she had occupied and removed all illegal property. From that day until 19th March when she was arrested near the Anichkov Palace, she spent the night, now with one friend, now with another.

Perovskaya feared to endanger her comrades.

"Verochka, may I spend the night with you?" asked Perovskaya a day or two before her arrest. I looked at her with astonishment and reproach. "How can you ask that? Indeed, is such a question possible?" "I am asking" said Perovskaya, "because if they come to search the house and find me there, they will hang you." Embracing her, and pointing to the revolver which lay at the head of my bed, I said, "I shall shoot if they come, whether you are here or not."

Such was the soul of Perovskaya, or a part of her soul, because only a small part of it was revealed to me. In those hurried times, we took only a superficial interest in the psychology of one another; we acted, but did not observe.

When they led her out, clad in her black prison dress, to the tumbril waiting in the court of the House of Preliminary Detention, they first seated her with her back to the horse, hung a placard on her bosom with the inscription "The Regicide" and then bound her hands together so tightly that she said, "Loosen the cord a little, it hurts me."

"You'll feel worse than that later on," growled the rough gendarme who was supervising the train.

In a similar manner they brought to Semenovsky Square our four other comrades who were involved in the affair of 1st March: Zhelyabov, a peasant; Kibalchich, the son of a priest, and the inventor of the bombs; Timofey Mikhaylov, a workman; and Rysakov, a middle class citizen. Together with Perovskaya the noblewoman they represented symbolically all the classes in the Russian Empire.

On the scaffold Perovskaya was firm, with all her steel-like firmness. She embraced Zhelyabov in farewell, she embraced Kibalchich and Mikhaylov; but she did not embrace Rysakov, who in an effort to save himself had betrayed the apartment on Telezhnaya Street and had brought to their ruin Sablin who shot himself, Gesya Helfman who died in the House of Preliminary Detention, and Timofey Mikhaylov who died on the scaffold.

So died Perovskaya, true to herself both in life and in death.

Gesya Helfman was sentenced to death at the same time as Perovskaya and her comrades; pregnant, they waited until her child was born, and soon after that announced that she had died in prison.