Why it Was OK to Assassinate the Tsar and not President Garfield, or the Morality of Russian Terrorists

September 19, 2021

On July 2, 1881, Charles Guiteau, a disgruntled and mentally unbalanced job-seeker, shot President James Garfield at a train station in Washington, D.C., just four months into his presidency. Garfield could have survived his wounds if his doctors had access to modern practices, but he died on September 19, 1881. He was of course not the first nor the last American president to die at the hands of an assassin. In a cruel irony of fate, among those at the station who witnessed his shooting was Robert Todd Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s son.

As might be expected, Garfield’s death made headlines around the world and elicited widespread expressions of shock and condemnation from government leaders.

But there was also an unexpected reaction that came from a most unlikely source — a Russian terrorist organization that called itself the “People’s Will.”

Despite the extensive reforms that Russian Emperor Alexander II carried out — most notably the liberation of the serfs in 1861, four years before the end of the American Civil War and the freeing of the slaves — Russian revolutionaries thought that everything he did was too little, too late. Starting in 1866, they began to pursue him with such single-minded ferocity that their efforts became known as the “emperor hunt.” On March 1, 1881, after two previous attempts, the People’s Will, which had constituted itself in 1879 in the belief that terrorism was the best path to radical political reform, finally succeeded in killing him in the middle of Saint Petersburg. The irony of their “success” was that he died while on his way to sign a document that would have been a first step toward introducing a representative form of government in Russia, something that was then delayed for another 25 years.

 Guiteau’s attack on Garfield came five months later, and detailed news of the president’s condition was reported regularly throughout Europe. When his end came, the People’s Will felt so strongly about it that three days later, on September 22, 1881, the party’s Central Committee decided to publish a proclamation.

The People’s Will drew no parallels between its bloody deed and Guiteau’s. Moreover, the Russian terrorists not only expressed sympathy for the American people but also condemned Guiteau’s assassination as a matter of principle. They then declared that in a country with free elections like the United States, one in which individual rights are protected and the people choose their leaders and determine their laws, a political assassination is a form of despotism. Indeed, it is “a manifestation of the same spirit of despotism that we seek to destroy in Russia. The despotism of the individual and the despotism of the party are equally reprehensible, and violence is justified only when it is directed against violence.”

This paradoxical (if not schizophrenic) “moral” Russian terrorism continued into the 20th century with the Russian Socialist Revolutionary Party (called SRs for short), which was founded in 1902 and was the direct heir of the People’s Will. The SRs became notorious for the practice of “central terror” carried out by its militant wing, the Combat Organization. By assassinating leading figures in the Russian imperial regime who were responsible for maintaining and defending tsarist autocracy, the SRs believed they would catalyze a popular revolution; this, in turn, would lead to the creation of a democratic, socialist republic, with self-determination for all the subject peoples of the Russian Empire.

Members of the Combat Organization had what Vladimir Zenzinov, a prominent SR, characterized as an “almost reverential attitude” toward terrorism. He recalled how a factory worker who wanted to take part in an assassination decided that he was “unworthy” because he had previously led a drunken, dissolute life, and “for this sort of thing you need to go in wearing a clean shirt.” The terrorists agonized about the morality of their actions and viewed their own possible deaths during the assassinations, or their executions if they were captured, as just punishments for their transgressions.

The Combat Organization extended its moral approach to terrorism by making it a cardinal rule to avoid innocent victims during their attacks. The most striking example is the attempt that a terrorist made in 1905 on Grand Duke Sergei, the tsar’s uncle and the reviled governor-general of Moscow. Holding a bomb weighing several pounds, the terrorist ran up to the grand duke’s carriage, but when he saw the grand duke’s wife and their two adopted children inside as well, he stayed his hand. The terrorist’s team members approved his action, even though he risked arrest for himself and them without having accomplished anything. Two days later, the terrorist tried again; this time, the grand duke was traveling alone and was blown to bits inside the Kremlin walls. As the SRs had hoped, his death shook the Russian Empire, which was already in the throes of the 1905 Revolution, and forced the imperial regime to initiate reforms.

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How the meanings of words change with time. Today, the phrase “Russian terrorism” evokes agents of the Russian secret police allegedly destroying a Czech arms depot in 2014, or attempting to poison Sergei and Yulia Skripal in England in 2018 and Alexey Navalny in Siberia in 2020. But over a century ago the phrase implied not a form of state terrorism (one that is all too widespread in the world), but the oxymoronic high moral ground that a handful of young Russian fanatics tried to occupy during their bloody campaigns.

And how different those Russians were from the terrorists of today, who do not even attempt to target the politicians and generals who are responsible for the terrorists’ grievances, and instead attack civilians, and with the more victims the better — be it office workers in New York, theater goers in Paris, parishioners in Charleston, or even schoolchildren. The sad list goes on and on.

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Vladimir Alexandrov is the author of To Break Russia’s Chains: Boris Savinkov and His Wars Against the Tsar and the Bolsheviks, published by Pegasus Books in September 2021.