In the autumn of 1880 Esper became a member of Narodnaya Volya, a revolutionary organisation that was seeking the violent overthrow of the Tsarist regime. Narodnaya Volya or “People’s Will” had split from “Zemlia i volia”, “Land and Liberty” to take a more violent revolutionary path which included terrorism.
Esper became heavily involved with the group that had formed around naval officers on the island of Kronstadt, near St Petersburg. He took part in the writing of the constitution of Narodnaya Volya. He met with leading figures in the group, Andrei Zhelyabov, Nikolai Sukhanov, Lev Tikomirov who were members of the executive committee. His job on Kronstadt was taking part in propaganda activities, moving weapons and the printing of illegal leaflets and pamphlets.
Esper writes about this period in a book published in 1894 in Geneva, “History of the socialist movement in Russia”. He was strongly against using terror; his motivation was to help the ordinary people of Russia and as a young man was thinking about changes to both the navy and the country that would improve the conditions of ordinary people.
In March 1881 a small group of Narodnaya Volya members plotted to kill Tsar Alexander II. This group had led a series of failed attempts to assassinate the Tsar, the last one being in February of 1880. This time the group had backup plans if the primary plan failed.
It was known that the Tsar went every Sunday to review the troops at the Mikhailovskii Riding School. The plan was to set a mine under the road and blow up the Tsar’s carriage. The group rented a cheese shop on the route the Tsar would take and spent months undermining the road while operating the cheese shop as a front.
On the 27th of February 1881, one of the leaders of the Narodnaya Volya, Andrei Zheliabov was arrested. This caused the Tsar and his people to relax, to think that the leader of the group that had caused so much trouble to the Tsar had now been detained. To the conspirators however it was a spur to action. They feared that their plot would be discovered and they would be arrested. So they brought forward their plans. The plan would be implemented on the 13th of March.
While some of the conspirators completed the arrangements at the cheese shop others gathered at the apartment of Vera Figner, preparing bombs that could be thrown to act as a backup plan, if the principle plan of the mine failed.
That Sunday 13th March 1881, the Tsar chose to travel to the riding school by the Ekaterinskii Canal and Italianskaia Street avoiding crowds on the Nevski Prospect. This route did not pass the prepared mine. The conspirator’s plans had anticipated this and 4 people lay in wait on the alternative route. There had been a lot of preparations and all the alternative routes had been noted.
After the Tsar had attended the review at the riding school, his party returned by the route they had taken. As the troops and carriage turned onto the Ekaterinskii Canal one of the conspirators gave a signal to the bombers to prepare. As the carriage approached a bomb was thrown and exploded under the horses pulling the carriage. The explosion killed one of the Cossack guards in the group of escorts, injured the driver and people on the pavement. The carriage, a bullet proof carriage given by Napoleon III, was only slightly damaged.
The bomb thrower, Nikolai Rysakov, was arrested immediately. The Tsar got out of his carriage to inspect the injured Cossacks and horses, and then another of the conspirators, Ignace Hryniewiecki, threw another bomb which landed at the tsar’s feet. That explosion fatally injured the Tsar. He was put on a sleigh and taken to the winter palace where he died later in the afternoon.
Narodnaya Volya’s plan was based on the people rising up after the Tsar’s death to seize power aided by groups of officers in the navy and army. However that did not happen. Instead the people seem to have been greatly shaken by the death of their beloved Tsar.
Vera Figner had been waiting in her apartment ready to provide assistance to plotters fleeing the police. But as time passed she became increasingly impatient for news. She left her apartment and found that everything was calm with no excitement in the streets. She assumed that the latest plot had been a failure.
In the days after the assassination she resisted all encouragements to leave her apartment. She was concerned that the apartment held printing presses and bomb making materials that belonged to the movement.
Eventually after nearly a week, a group of officers from Kronstadt, came to her apartment and moved the incriminating equipment out. They returned later to mover her away. One report has it that as the naval officers from Kronsdstat were leaving the apartment block by one door the police were entering by another.
Vera Figner was taken by the officers back to Krondstat and hidden there. Esper was one of those officers looking after her, and he is quoted as saying of her ” she brought a ray of sunshine to our gatherings”. After a few weeks she managed to escape to Odessa. She was eventually betrayed by a double agent, Sergey Degayev, who will feature again in this story. She was arrested and put on trial and sentenced to death. But that sentence was commuted to 20 years imprisonment. She died in 1942. Esper wrote about this time in a book called “Revolutionaries in the Fleet”.
Background, Narodnaya Volya
Narodnaya Volya was formed in the autumn of 1879 after a split of the members of an organisation called Zemlya i Volya (Land and Liberty). The aim of the group was to promote a mass revolt against the Tsar using acts of violence. The split had been prompted after a failed attempt on the Tsars life carried out by Alexander Konstantinovitch Soloviev. Soloviev was executed and there were many arrests. The cause of the split was a division over methods to achieve a revolution. The early Marxists favoured non terrorist methods using study circles and propaganda, building a movement from the ground up, they formed Chërnyi Peredel (Black Repartition).
The other group formed Narodnaya Volya; they favoured terrorism which they hoped would achieve rapid change in society. One of their first acts in August 1879, was to pass a death sentence on the Tsar, Alexander II, for crimes against the Russian people. They started by building workers study circles in the principle Russian cities and created cells within military bases in St Petersburg and the naval base at Kronstadt.
The group was run by a self-selected executive committee. Some of the early committee members crop up in our story again, Lev Tikhomirov, Vera Figner and Sergei Kravchinskii. The organisation was always quite small though they always hinted that they were just part of a much bigger organisation.
As a foot note, in 1887 Alexander Ulyanov, a student at St Petersburg university and a member of a successive organisation from Narodnaya Volya, plotted to kill Tsar Alexander III on the anniversary of the previous Tsars assassination. However his efforts were well known to the secret police and he and his fellow conspirators were arrested. At his trial Ulyanov was sentenced to death. Alexander’s brother was Vladimir Ilych Ulyanov, better known as Lenin.