On the evening of January 23, 1878, a few close friends gathered spontaneously at Evtikhii Karpov’s small, three-room flat on Rizhkii Street in St. Petersburg. Though sparsely furnished in the typical nomadic revolutionary style, with mismatched creaking chairs and a few wooden-plank beds, Karpov’s apartment beckoned with its unending hospitality. On any given night, someone was visiting—taking tea, sharing news, or staying the night on the sitting room floor. The gas stove always had something cooking, and the samovar was always bubbling.
On that evening, however, gloom settled over the kitchen table. Gathered around their teacups, Karpov’s guests found they had little to say. Vera Zasulich was particularly silent and withdrawn. Only Masha Kolenkina, in her usual irrepressible manner, occasionally made a joke or a comment, though no one responded. Finally, to dispel the gloom, Nikolai Shevyrev poured beer for everyone and proposed a toast to Vera and Masha, wishing them the best of luck. Without a word, everyone clinked glasses.
To break the silence, Vera asked Nikolai to sing “High Mountain,” a mournful Ukrainian folk tune. Shevyrev obligingly began in his gentle tenor, “Yonder stands a mountain high . . . ,” and was soon accompanied by Sergei Chubarov’s melodious baritone. Vera laid her head on Masha’s shoulder and closed her eyes. Around the room, many an eye was filled with tears.
Masha alone refused to submit to the general melancholy. To lift the spirits of her comrades, she asked that they all join in singing “She Lives On, Our Ukraine,” the patriotic Ukrainian tune that, for the group, evoked memories of days spent on the southern steppe lands, preaching revolution to the peasants. Her ploy worked. The conversation turned to reminiscences of those headier times, when Russia seemed poised on the brink of revolt. Soon enough, many began to laugh as Sergei Chubarov regaled the gathering with comical anecdotes about village life in Ukraine.
Not one person yet dared to mention what awaited them the next day, though the thought weighed heavily on all of them. On January 24, 1878, Vera and Masha planned to kill two government officials. For that, most likely, they would pay the ultimate price.2
The plot had been months in the making. Vera Zasulich would appear in the office of the governor of St. Petersburg, General Fedor Trepov, during the morning hours when petitioners were granted an audience. This was the best time: While the governor was “receiving,” almost any person could walk in off the street and stand in line to present him with a request. And petitioners were invariably a timid, downtrodden lot. An anxious woman would arouse no suspicion in the midst of such company.
Her “petition” was simple. She would present herself as Elizaveta Kozlova, a prospective governess, and would carry a request for a certificate of conduct, a document required by those who sought to teach children. She bought a plain but respectable new dress and hat. In the seams of her clothes she carefully sewed the initials ek, so that they would be discovered during the police search. Most important, she purchased a voluminous gray shawl that was appropriate for the icy winter weather and large enough to conceal a gun. Through a comrade she obtained a six-chamber English Bulldog revolver—it was powerful, but easy to handle and small enough to be hidden in the folds of her clothing. She told her landlady that she was leaving for Moscow for good and gave instructions on where to send any remaining personal effects.3
Masha’s plan was even simpler. She was to visit the prosecutor Vladislav Zhelekhovskii on the same day. Weeks of surveillance revealed that the prosecutor did not have regular receiving hours, so Masha had to bribe one of his servants to let her into his offices at the appointed time. Like Vera, she planned to hide a revolver under her coat, but she decided not to carry a petition with her. She planned to shoot Zhelekhovskii on sight.4
Two simultaneous gunshots, aimed at two government officials, would be fired on the same day. The women had no doubt: January 24, 1878, would be remembered in Russian history.
On the evening of January 23, after the festivities, Vera and Masha returned to Vera’s tiny one-bedroom apartment and made their final arrangements in silence. Vera sat and carefully wrote her formal petition to the governor. Both women laid out their clothing for the next day. Then they went to bed.5
Up until the moment she laid her head on the pillow, Vera had been remarkably calm. This was no last-minute impulse but a long-deliberated decision, and she had no regrets. She was not afraid. She fully expected that the worst consequences would follow her act: imprisonment, exile, even death. Long before this night, she had mentally forsaken everything in her life. Her only desire was to pass through this “transitional state” so that she could embrace her fate.
But trepidation could not be delayed forever. Sleep eluded Vera that fateful night, as she struggled against a heavy spiritual weight that felt as if it were crushing her chest. Unbidden images flitted through her mind: The governor would approach her, perhaps look her right in the eyes. Mere feet would separate them. Then she would have to pull out the gun, point it at him, and pull the trigger. Despite her anger and hatred, despite her hard determination, that one act suddenly seemed “deathly difficult.” It was as if she realized for the first time that she was about to kill a human being.
When she finally drifted into sleep, she was swept into a recurrent nightmare. She dreamed that she was lying in her bed, as if awake, fully conscious of losing her mind. In the dream, something pulled at her, dragged her into a dark corridor and compelled her to scream with all of her might; the urge was so relentless, she ran out of the room and began to scream and scream. Masha woke her up: Vera had cried out in her sleep. She closed her eyes again, but the dream reappeared, enveloping her, dragging her back into the corridor.
Relief only came with the first gray light of dawn. The women quickly got up and began to dress. Vera’s thoughts and movements were now mechanical, as if previously rehearsed. She put on her old clothing, so that the new clothes would not arouse the curiosity of the landlady. The large gray shawl was particularly striking, and the landlady, who was up at all hours, would be sure to notice, and to remember when the newspaper accounts appeared. Masha accompanied Vera to the train station and helped her to change her clothes. The two women embraced briefly, and then Vera boarded the train to St. Petersburg. Masha would follow later. They did not know when they would see each other again, if ever.
Vera’s thoughts were now silenced, except for the single observation that the streets of the city seemed empty, cold, and dark on that January morning in 1878.
Nineteenth-century travelers to St. Petersburg found a curious mix of the ordinary and the exotic. The city was born in the imagination of Tsar Peter the Great in the very early years of the eighteenth century, when that indomitable ruler decided to take a swamp and transform it into nothing less than a “window to Western Europe.” Peter wanted his new city to be thoroughly European—he patterned its streets and canals on the city layout of Amsterdam—and the tsars that followed him remained faithful to his plan, importing architects and masons from Italy and other parts of Europe to design and build graceful mansions, palaces, and gardens. In 1712, when Peter unilaterally declared St. Petersburg the new capital of Russia and summarily ordered a thousand aristocrats to move there, it was widely considered a disease-ridden backwater. But by the end of the nineteenth century, visitors regularly compared St. Petersburg to Paris and London.6
By 1878, the city had become a first-rank European capital. Opportunity-seeking Russians and Europeans flocked to it in droves. The streets teemed with all classes and ethnic groups. Modest clerks mingled with aristocrats; high-ranking officials and destitute migrant workers often lived on different floors of the same building. From all over the growing Russian Empire, representatives from subject nationalities came to the capital to do business.7
Nevskii Prospekt, St. Petersburg’s main thoroughfare, was appropriately grand and opulent, running in a straight line from the Aleksandr Nevskii Monastery at one end to the Admiralty building on the other. Even the most sophisticated of Europeans remarked on the street’s “bejeweled” magnificence. Enormously wide, Nevskii was flanked on either side by rows of neatly constructed, pale stucco buildings. Gilded letters on azure or crimson backdrops adorned storefronts, and within the stores, discerning customers could find anything from costly jewels to Persian carpets, silver weapons from the Far East, leather boots, and European artwork. Food was imported from all over the world, and shops sought to tempt passersby with their exotic fruits and varieties of caviar heaped high in the windows.8
Nevskii was St. Petersburg’s main promenade, the center of the city’s social life. By noon on winter days it overflowed with humanity, as if everyone in the city had crowded onto one street. Elegant ladies rode in open carriages, their laps protected with piles of warm fur, while more modest sorts traveled in tiny one-horse cabs that recklessly careened through the crowds. Russian nannies in traditional red headdresses wheeled small carriages containing tightly wrapped babies. Boys in dusty street clothes sold rolls and pirogi from baskets on the sidewalks. Class, nationality, and rank were each marked by appropriate costume: gray coats for the guard officers, dark green for the civil servants, blue caftans for the merchants, glorious sable or black fox for the wealthy women, and plain cotton kerchiefs for the less well-born.9
But early on that January morning, when Vera ventured into the center of the city, Nevskii Prospekt was virtually deserted. In the heart of winter, when the nights were endless and bitter, the residents of St. Petersburg rose late. To compensate for the cold and dark, the city had a vibrant and colorful nightlife. Those who could afford it dined at restaurants and played cards at chandelier-lit clubs. Those who could not stayed outside to enjoy skating or sledding on enormous, man-made ice hills, accompanied by brass bands thumping out popular music. But since the winter sun did not rise until after 9:00 a.m., neither did the city. Foreigners complained that it was difficult to get so much as a newspaper before 11:00 in the morning.10
Dressed neatly in a new fur cap and thick gray cloak, Vera would have been an odd sight at that hour. Respectable women rarely ventured out so early, and they did not walk. But few were around to take notice. Yawning doormen swept snow off stoops, and muzhiks—servants wearing their characteristic high black boots and long shirts—carried pine baskets to the bakeries to fetch fresh bread for breakfast. In their tiny horse-drawn cabs, the izvoshchiks slumped over their reins, waiting for their first customers. Everyone else stayed sheltered behind frosted double-paned windows, sipping morning tea.11
The governor’s apartments were situated directly across from the tall golden Admiralty spire that stood at the top of Nevskii Prospekt and marked the center of St. Petersburg. He lived and worked in the center of Russian officialdom, in close proximity to the Senate Building, the various ministry buildings, and the tsar’s sprawling Winter Palace. This was a well-heeled neighborhood, home to the most elegant cafe;s and clubs. On sunny winter afternoons, the residents of the area strolled in all their finery—the men in gold-braided uniforms and the women in fox-trimmed velvet cloaks.12
When Vera appeared at the governor’s door, the people who hovered in the entryway were a very different sort. A motley group of petitioners had gathered, a few poor clerks in threadbare overcoats, soldiers in faded military uniforms, and women hunched beneath tattered shawls. They were careful to be extremely punctual—the governor’s receiving hours began precisely at 10:00 a.m.13
The plight of the petitioner in nineteenth-century Russia was almost medieval. Though bureaucratization had long ago introduced formal procedures for getting a document signed or a passport stamped, much was still done in the time-honored way: by personally presenting a request to an important person. Whether it was something relatively insignificant, like replacing a passport or finding an item of lost mail, or something of crucial importance, like resolving a property dispute or locating an imprisoned family member, formal bureaucratic channels were often useless. Thus did the routine of petitioning grind on as it had for centuries.
Receiving hours in an important official’s home often played out like an elaborate court ceremony. As a petitioner, you might be forced to wait for hours until the official appeared. While you waited, it was advisable to carefully craft the wording of your petition, especially if it was a complicated request. Russian officials were known to cut off petitioners as they spoke, or take offense at minor mistakes in wording. And it was wise to speak in tones of the greatest humility, with bowed head and downcast eyes, since any hint of arrogance could inspire an official to reduce a petitioner to tears.14 When later questioned by the police, the petitioners who waited in Trepov’s office on January 24 remembered nothing about Vera Zasulich. One clerk recalled that he had not even looked at the other people in the room, so intently was he rehearsing his petition.15
Vera, however, was utterly calm. Quietly standing with the rest of the petitioners in the specially reserved waiting room, she felt confident enough to assist a fellow petitioner, a weepy and poor old woman, who asked Vera to read over a tear-stained document. Testing her nerves, Vera escorted the woman to the guard on duty, asking him to confirm that everything was in order. Her voice did not waver, and she gave no sign of agitation. Her confidence rose.16
After what seemed like a long time, an adjutant appeared from behind a door and ushered the petitioners into the governor’s grand, wood-paneled reception room. The petitioners barely had time to line up against the back wall when the large, ornate double doors that led to Trepov’s private office were flung open, and the governor strode in with his retinue of military officers. He was regally attired in a deep blue general’s uniform. Among his array of medals was the Cross of St. Anne, hanging immediately under his chin. Trepov was known for a meticulously cultivated air of importance, constantly frowning as if in deep thought. Unfortunately, his portraits revealed a slightly comical appearance, with long, thick mustaches and a small round head perched on a thin neck.17
At that moment, a glitch nearly spoiled Vera’s plans. She had intended to fire the gun when the governor approached the person in front of her, but she found herself first in line. For a moment, she was paralyzed. The attention of the officers and the governor was immediately upon her, and her hands held the petition. She did not know how she could reach into her shawl without attracting notice. She almost lost her nerve.18
With a deep breath, Vera calmed herself and improvised. She decided to hand the petition to the governor first and then wait until he turned to the next person. As soon as she made this decision, the governor stood directly in front of her, impatiently demanding, “What is your petition?” She quietly murmured, “It’s about a certificate of conduct.” Without a word, the governor took her formal request, marked it with a pencil, and turned to the next petitioner.
When his back was turned, Vera pulled the revolver out of the folds of her thick cloak. She pulled the trigger twice, then dropped the gun to the floor. A silent pause enveloped the room as everyone froze for a few brief seconds. Then, as the governor screamed and began to collapse to the ground, the room began to whirl with feverish activity. Two guards rushed over to Trepov, catching him in their arms as a dark stain spread on his uniform. The other petitioners fled. A few of Trepov’s clerks ran to get the police and the doctor. One of the governor’s guards charged toward Vera, enraged, and knocked her to the ground with a tremendous blow to the face. He continued to kick her as she lay motionless on the floor. “The gun, the gun, where is the gun?” someone shouted. It was some time before others finally pulled the guard off Vera and lifted her up.
“Everything happened as I expected” was all that Vera remembered about the scene. “But what was completely unexpected was the fact that I did not feel any pain.”
Vera was led into a nearby room for interrogation. Witnesses were surprised at her extraordinary calm: She did not appear angry or deranged and did not attempt to flee or to justify her actions. She cooperated with the police and was invariably polite to the guards and the inspectors. She remained in constant command of herself, answering only the questions she wished to answer and otherwise maintaining an unyielding silence.
“And where did you learn to shoot like that?” one of the guards asked her.
“I just taught myself,” she answered coolly. “It’s not a great science.”
The inspector who first appeared on the scene was Alexander Kabat. Vera would later remember that he seemed nervous—he approached her hesitantly and spoke quietly, as if fearing to disturb her. Pale and small, he had just recovered from an illness, and she noticed that his hands shook. He told Vera apologetically that she had to undergo a thorough search.
“You’ll have to find a woman to do it,” Vera told him.
Perplexed, Kabat remained silent for a moment. Vera directed him to use an official midwife; one could usually be found at the local police station. But the young inspector was still unsure. What if she had another weapon on her? What if she shot someone else in the meantime?
“If you are that afraid,” Vera said dryly, “then perhaps you’d better tie me up.”
The insolence of the remark was lost on Kabat. Again, he was merely baffled. A comical moment ensued; he wondered what he could tie her with, and she suggested an ordinary handkerchief.
As he rummaged through his pockets for a handkerchief, he managed to state his first question. “Why did you shoot him?” he asked abruptly. Vera spoke the only words of explanation that she would offer before her trial: “For Bogoliubov.”
News of Vera’s crime spread rapidly down Nevskii Prospekt, which was by now at the peak of its daily commotion. In front of the governor’s residence a large crowd quickly gathered, necks craning to see past the guard each time the door opened. At the back of the building, a parade of elegant carriages rolled in as aristocrats and city officials arrived to pay their respects to the governor—and, of course, to get a glimpse of the young woman who had pulled a revolver out of a large gray shawl.
Military men and officials filled the reception hall of the residence. The public prosecutor and the minister of the interior arrived and could not resist peering, along with the others, into the adjacent room where Vera was being questioned. In the meantime, in Trepov’s bedroom, the top surgeons in the city consulted grimly about his wounds. One bullet was lodged in the front of his left hip and would prove difficult to remove.19
Suddenly there was a commotion in the foyer. With effort, the crowds parted, and into the hall moved the entourage of the sovereign of the Russian Empire. Regally attired in full military dress, Tsar Alexander II nonetheless looked like a weary old man. Nearly twenty years before, he had assumed the throne accompanied by optimism and the cheers of the best and most intellectual classes of society. He had been anointed the “tsar-reformer,” the man who had freed Russia’s serfs and the author of liberalizing reforms in the military, the judiciary, and the educational system. But in recent years, he had become the target of the Russian intelligentsia’s wrath. Revolutionary movements plagued his empire; uprisings had flared in Warsaw, Moscow, and St. Petersburg. He must have had a premonition that the shooting of Trepov was not a random crime. Observers recalled an empty, drained look in his eyes.20
Trepov, despite fearing for his life, could not resist the opportunity to curry favor with the sovereign. “This bullet might have been meant for you,” Trepov gasped weakly, “and I was happy to take it for you.” It is said that Alexander, greatly displeased with this melodrama, never visited Trepov again.21
Within a few days, every major Russian and European newspaper carried news of the shooting. In Moscow, St. Petersburg, New York, London, Berlin, and Paris, the story was followed with interest. Soon, the identity of the would-be assassin was revealed—she was the noblewoman Vera Zasulich, the daughter of the deceased Captain Ivan Zasulich. Her mysterious comment about her motive was also explained: Six months before the shooting, a cruel incident had taken place in the House of Preliminary Detention in St. Petersburg. General Trepov had ordered a young prisoner named Arkhip Bogoliubov to be flogged with birch rods for failing to doff his cap in the presence of the governor. Vera, it seemed, had sought to avenge Bogoliubov’s humiliation.22
Initially a wave of shock and confusion swept through Russia, and the repercussions were felt abroad. The incident pointed to an as yet undefined Russian crisis. The St. Petersburg Register declared that the city was agitated by “the unusual and horrifying incident,” which “emphasized domestic discontent.” The New York Times found St. Petersburg “greatly excited” by the news, and The Times of London reported that the act was met with a “profound and most painful sensation” in Russia. The French Le Temps proclaimed that the incident was “as extraordinary as it was deplorable.”23
Soon, however, decorous disapproval gave way to curiosity and fascination. The newspapers fueled an intense interest in the young woman who had gone to such great lengths to conceal her identity and had managed to hide a pistol under her shawl. And then there were the rumors that she had done it for another, unknown, man. In Russia, journalists spoke of Vera’s ostensible long revolutionary career, of troubling anonymous threats sent through the mail, and of the police’s intensive efforts to find all accomplices to the crime. Abroad, newspapers published speculations about this “young and educated woman” who was nonetheless an “emissary of a secret society” and, even more interesting, a “nihilist.”24
Newspaper accounts only stimulated further gossip. In Russia, within the highest social circles, even Trepov’s friends were morbidly intrigued by the young “villainess.” The assassination attempt became the topic of the winter season. Around town, in the wealthiest homes, at brilliant dinner parties and balls, society men and women gossiped about the story that seemed to have all of the elements of the first installment of a serialized Dostoyevsky novel. Bogoliubov had to be Vera’s lover, everyone assumed, and there had to be more to this tale of a prisoner’s flogging and an angry woman’s revenge. How did Vera come to this desperate act? Why was Bogoliubov imprisoned?
The Countess Palen, wife of Minister of Justice Konstantin Palen, took full advantage of her husband’s access to the case files, to great effect. In the Palens’ ballroom (recently renovated to the tune of eighteen thousand rubles), she caused a delicious stir by passing around copies of Vera’s official police photograph, taken while Vera was still draped in her notorious shawl. Vera looked every bit the mysterious assassin. The photograph made the ball a tremendous success, guests later admitted.25 At a dinner party held by the wealthy aristocrat Maria Shubina, conversation centered around Trepov and the rumors that he habitually tortured prisoners. To the shock and delight of the table, an old general declared that Vera Zasulich was nothing less than a model of feminine bravery and self-sacrifice.26
Among ordinary Russians, sympathy for Vera was still greater. Her youth and air of innocence charmed the Russian public. She became, in certain quarters, a heroine of the people. Her victim was nothing more than a government official, most likely a “thief” and a “bloodsucker.” As one Russian in Geneva wrote to his friend in St. Petersburg, the assassination attempt was, perhaps, a vain gesture. After all, he declared, “Kill one idiot, and two take his place.”27
As the story of Bogoliubov’s flogging spread, the details were wildly exaggerated: that Bogoliubov had been flogged unconscious, that it was done publicly, in the prison courtyard, and that Trepov had personally slammed the birch rods onto Bogoliubov’s back.28 There were even a few popular verses composed in Vera’s honor, one of which began:
The avenging shot was fired
God’s whip came cracking down29
On the outskirts of St. Petersburg, where the pavement ended and the wide boulevards became muddy roads, was a world very different from the glittering center of the capital. Here resided the swelling horde of workers in St. Petersburg’s mills and factories. Rows and rows of dilapidated wooden tenements recalled some of the most blighted slums of Dickensian England. Apartments and even single rooms were subdivided to accommodate several families, who often slept four or more to a bed. There was no running water; sewage ran through the courtyards and leaked into apartments on lower floors. Even amid such filth, rents were so expensive that twelve- to fifteen-hour workdays barely covered them. Some workers lived for weeks on nothing more than black bread, boiled cabbage soup, and whatever scraps of rotting meat they could find in the local markets.30
In late January, factory owners turned over to the Russian police leaflets they found on factory floors and in workers’ dormitories. Bearing only the stamp of the outlawed “Free Russian Press,” these anonymous tracts addressed the workers of the city, telling them of Vera Zasulich, who had fired the first shot in the battle for “human rights, and the establishment of peace and humanity on earth.” By avenging the flogging of a prisoner, Vera had shown that “tyrants are not almighty.” What other recourse did she have, the pamphlets asked, in a society “slavishly silent and oppressed?” Vera was not acting for one man; she was acting in the name of everyone who was poor and downtrodden. She was nothing less than a saint: “Your path will not be strewn with roses, oh fearless Russian heroine! Your path is one already sprinkled with the blood of martyrs.”31
On the day of the assassination attempt, Evtikhii Karpov arrived at his apartment to find Masha Kolenkina weeping inconsolably in the arms of one of her comrades. It appeared that her bribe had failed to do its work, and she had been refused entrance into Zhelekhovskii’s residence. When she arrived at precisely 11:00 a.m., the prosecutor’s maidservant told Masha that he was not at home. Her assassination attempt had failed.32
Vera must have been distressed by the lack of news about her friend. She was now alone in the spotlight, Russia’s first female assassin.
Copyright © 2008 by Ana Siljak. All rights reserved.