The Assassination of the Czar: A Course Project Examining US Newspaper Editorials, March 1881

By E. Thomas Ewing, Stratis Bohle, Justin Noel, Tim Pfeifer, Chris Porter, and Taylor Wentzel

On March 1, 1881, assassins killed Emperor Alexander II of Russia in St. Petersburg. On the following day, March 14, 1881 (in the Western calendar), newspapers across the United States reported on this remarkable act of political violence. These initial reports described the emperor’s death while also discussing the motivations of the assassins and potential repercussions for Russia’s political future. While the first reports were primarily descriptive, and based mostly on wire services, editorials provided a more critical perspective on assassination as a political strategy in the context of a despotic regime that did not provide any path to peaceful political reform.

The assassination of Alexander II in 1881 was a major milestone in Russia’s road to revolution in 1917. Soon after ascending to the imperial throne in 1856, Alexander II began implementing substantial reforms that he hoped would stave off a revolutionary upheaval. The emancipation of serfs in 1861 was followed by major military, legal, educational, and cultural reforms. Although these reforms were initially welcomed by Russia’s critical intellectuals, this early enthusiasm soon yielded to despair as entrenched bureaucrats and obstinate reactionaries obstructed, restricted, and delayed measures intended to modernize Russia’s social structures and political institutions. An unsuccessful effort to inspire popular revolution by the “To the People” movement led to the formation of radical, conspiratorial organizations determined to use assassination to eliminate the emperor, decapitate the regime, and provoke a revolutionary transformation. The assassination of Alexander II in 1881 failed to prompt a revolutionary transformation of Russia. In fact, three decades of reaction followed, until the successive shocks of military defeat by Japan in 1905, a widespread but defeated revolution in 1905-1907, stalemate in the First World War, and the February 1917 revolution finally brought the end of the autocracy. Understanding the events that unfolded over several hours during a Sunday afternoon in March 1881 provide insights into long-term trajectories in the history of pre-revolutionary Russia, as well as the global spread of information in the nineteenth century. 

“Assassination of Alexander II: Sketch Showing Exactly How the Emperor was Attacked,” published in Illustrated London News, April 2, 1881.

Students enrolled in a course on Imperial Russia in spring 2022 taught at Virginia Tech completed research projects examining this moment in Russian history. Each collaborative team examined a newspaper available from Chronicling America (US Library of Congress). Students searched for articles using key words such as assassination, emperor, czar, and nihilism, built a timeline of reporting, and developed a research question that could be addressed using these articles. Each group made a presentation on their research projects for Professor Daniel Beer of the University of London, an expert on the assassination of Alexander II.

While the reporting on the assassination was broadly similar across newspapers, editorials allow for more analysis of the range of responses to common themes, including the shock of the assassination, the power of the Russian autocrat, the motivations of the assassins, and the implications for Russia’s future. Editorials in these six newspapers proclaimed their common subject in similar titles: “The Assassination of the Czar” in the National Republican,[1] New York Tribune,[2]Sacramento Daily Record-Union,[3] and Daily Globe.[4] The title in the Chicago Daily-Tribune, “The Assasination [sic] of the Russian Emperor,” included a common spelling variation in the nineteenth century.[5] The Salt Lake Herald provided a more provocative headline: “King-Killing.”[6]

Shock was a common theme expressed across these editorials. The assassination would “shock the sensibilities of civilized people” (Chicago Daily Tribune) and the “whole civilized world will feel a shock of horror” (National Republican). Most editorials condemned assassination as a political act.  Assassination is “a very vulgar and brutish business” (Daily Record Union), a “great crime” that can “excite no sympathy in this enlightened age” (Daily Globe), “cowardly, brutal, and unjustifiable” (Chicago Daily Tribune), “a horrible event for this civilized age to contemplate” (National Republican), and a cause for “utter abhorrence and detestation” (New York Tribune). 

Denunciations of the assassination were often accompanied by critical statements about the character of the Russian regime. Alexander II was “an absolute despot,” who shared power “with no one,” whose will was “supreme law,” ruling over “one vast military prison,” where “suspicion was promptly followed by arrest” (Chicago Daily Tribune). The National Republican denounced a “vicious system of government” and the Salt Lake Herald condemned Alexander II as “a harsh ruler” and an “autocrat in the highest sense.” 

These condemnations were often accompanied by recognition that Alexander II had attempted meaningful reforms. The New York Tribune declared that the Russian emperor, who had been “shot down like a cur in the streets of his own capital,” was a “thoroughly progressive monarch,” implementing judicial, social, and agrarian reforms, including the emancipation of the serfs. Yet, his reforms had not gone far enough, leading to this assessment: “He did not break up his father’s infamous system of police surveillance and arbitrary arrests, but he did enough—more than enough—to entitle him to the respect and compassion of the world.” The Daily Record-Union also praised Alexander II for giving “virtual freedom to ten million of serfs,” lifting restrictions on literature and the press, reforming universities, and opening “the door to progress and a higher civilization.” 

The editorials also offered contrasting impressions of the conspirators who executed the assassination. The nihilists were denounced as “more intolerant, more cruel, more despotic than the worst autocracy” (Daily Globe), “visionaries, who were not capable of anything but destructive efforts” (Daily Record-Union), and “depraved and degraded specimens of humanity, cowards at heart and craven in instinct” (Salt Lake Herald). The Chicago Daily Tribune, by contrast, suggested some level of moral equivalency with the statement that the assassination was “the inevitable outcome of the work of annihilation so deliberately carried on” by both the autocracy and the nihilists.

Whereas the nihilists hoped to inspire a revolution, the editorials predicted that the assassination would delay or defeat, rather than advance, the cause of freedom. The Daily Record-Union declared: “The dynasty survives, and remains as powerful as before,” with “little probability” that Alexander III would “lean towards democracy in any form.” The Daily Globe stated that a “great crime” such as assassination brings doom upon its perpetrators, “for a cause nurtured in crime and disregard for the law can excite no sympathy in this enlightened age.” The sympathy of the “whole civilized world” will be directed towards the regime, and “revolutionists not only in Russia, but throughout the whole world, will find themselves hoist by their own petard.” The Chicago Daily Tribune suggested that the assassination might lead to “political emancipation” and “a thorough overthrow of the existing despotism.” The Daily Globe, by contrast, predicted that the assassination of Alexander II will “drive his successor into a reactionary policy that cannot but retard the progress of the nation.” The Salt Lake Herald declared more ambitiously that an “immediate and lasting effect” of the assassination “will be the liberalizing of every autocratic government on the globe, from that of Russia to the liberal monarchy of Great Britain,” as even monarchs understand that “happiness and general welfare of their subjects must be taken into consideration, and oppression and harshness be superseded by fairness and leniency.” 

In self-evaluation comments submitted after completing the project, students commented on the value of studying the flow of information in this earlier age, when news traveled by telegraph and appeared in newspapers in a matter of hours and days, rather than being instantly and universally available through media platforms. The critical perspective on Russian despotism also struck students as an important continuity across historical periods, as this attitude persisted into the Cold War and has returned in perceptions of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Most importantly, students commented on the value of developing skills needed to think critically about the primary sources used for writing history, as well as the media we now consume incessantly across platforms and devices.

A close reading of these editorials illustrates the importance of using primary sources to understand contemporary responses to international political events. The variety of opinions expressed in these editorials makes visible the processes of interpreting distant events, making sense of contextual factors, and anticipating future developments. Connecting this historical example to our recent experiences with dramatic events—including the onset of a pandemic, an attempted disruption of an election, or the sudden outbreak of war—demonstrates the importance of thinking critically about how news is circulated, interpreted, and understood.


E. Thomas Ewing is a professor of history at Virginia Tech, teaching courses on Russian history, modern world history, and data in social context. Stratis Bohle is a Political Science & History major, planning to graduate in Spring 2024. Justin Noel is Political Science major, planning to graduate in Spring 2023. Tim Pfeifer is a Political Science & History major, who will graduate in Spring 2022. Christopher Porter is History major, planning to graduate in Spring 2023. Taylor Wentzel is a Political Science major, who will graduate in Spring 2022.

Title Image: “Attempt on the life of His Imperial Majesty Alexander II, Explosion of the Second Bomb, March 1, 1881,” published in Vsemirnaia illustratsiia (Illustrated World), St. Petersburg, No. 636, March 14, 1881.

Further Reading:

Beer, Daniel. “‘To a Dog, a Dog’s Death’: Naive Monarchism and Regicide in Imperial Russia, 1878-1884.” Slavic Review, Vol. 80, No. 1 (May 2021): 112-32. (link)

Mosse, Walter E. Alexander II and the Modernization of Russia. New York: Macmillan, 1958. (link)

Yarmolinsky, Avrahm. Road to Revolution. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986. (link)

Engel, Barbara Alpern and Clifford Rosenthal, eds. Five Sisters: Women against the Tsar. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013. (link)

“The Late Emperor of Russia,” Illustrated London News, Vol. 78, No. 2185 (April 2, 1881): 330-31. (link)

Endnotes:

[1] National Republican (Washington, DC), March 14, 1881, p. 2. The National Republican began publication in 1860, with an editorial position in support of Abraham Lincoln and the Republican party. The newspaper provided detailed coverage of political affairs in the nation’s capital until it ceased publication in 1888. “About National Republican,” Chronicling America: https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86053573/.

[2] New York Tribune, March 14, 1881, p. 4. The New York Tribune was founded by Horace Greeley in 1840 and remained a nationally prominent publication until it merged with the New York Herald in 1924. The New York Tribune appealed to a broad public audience with a reputation for quality reporting by comparison to more sensationalist competitors for market share. “About the New York Tribune,” Chronicling America: https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030214/.

[3] Sacramento Daily-Record Union, March 15, 1881, p. 2. The Daily Record Union began publication in 1851, with service to the growing mining and agricultural communities of central California. The newspaper continued publication under changing titles for most of the twentieth century. “About Sacramento Daily Record-Union,”

[4] Daily Globe (St. Paul, MN), March 15, 1881, p. 2. The Daily Globe was founded in 1878 as a Democratic newspaper, while also serving as the official publication of the St Paul city government. The Globe disseminated national and international news along with regional coverage until it ceased publication in 1905. “About Daily Globe,” Chronicling America: https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83025287/.

[5] Chicago Daily Tribune, March 14, 1881, p. 4. The Chicago Daily Tribune as founded in 1847, and became a leading national voice for the Republican party. Facing competition from other papers following the Civil War, the Chicago Daily Tribune added more illustrations and reduced its prince to one penny. “Chicago Tribune,” Encyclopedia of Chicago: http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/275.html.

[6] Salt Lake Herald, March 15, 1881, p. 2. The Salt Lake Herald began publication in 1870, with an editorial position formally independent from, but generally in agreement, with the Mormon Church. The newspaper provided extensive coverage of the western region of the United States, until a change in ownership brought an end to publication in 1920. “About the Salt Lake Herald,” Chronicling America: https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85058130/

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