The Beautiful Nihilist (Sophie Perovskaya, 1889)


“She was beautiful.” Those are the three words with which a Russian writer, who was intimately acquainted with her, commences his personal description of Sophie Perovsky. “Hers was not,” he continues, “the beauty which dazzles at first sight, but that which fascinates the more it is regarded. A blonde, with a pair of blue eyes, serious and penetrating, under a broad and spacious forehead. A delicate little nose, a charming mouth,. which showed, when she smiled, two rows of very fine white teeth. It was, however, her countenance as a whole which was the attraction. There was something brisk, vivacious, and at the same time ingenuous, in her rounded face. She was girlhood personified. Notwithstanding her twenty-six years, she seemed scarcely eighteen. A small, slender, and very graceful figure, and a voice as charming, silvery, and sympathetic as could be, heightened this illusion. It became almost a certainty when she began to laugh, which very often happened. She had the ready laugh of a girl, and laughed with so much heartiness, and so unaffectedly, that she really seemed a young lass of sixteen.”

Who, it is likely to be asked, was this fascinating Russian girl? Surely, it will be thought, she could not be a very terrible revolutionist. We shall see.

Sophie Perovsky was a member of the highest aristocracy of Russia, her ancestors having been connected by marriage with the imperial family of Romanoff. Her father was Governor-General of St. Petersburg, in which city she was born in 1554. Count Perovsky was a domestic tyrant, before whom his wife and daughters were taught to quail; and to this circumstance may be ascribed Sophie’s early development of a hatred of oppression and sympathy with the downtrodden which she retained throughout her brief and stormy life. Always tender and affectionate in her disposition, she possessed a strong mind, an iron will, and a temperament full of enthusiasm.

She had just entered her fifteenth year when she caught the contagion of the desire for higher education which was then passing like a wave over the young womanhood of Russia. Many ladies of the highest families, finding no colleges open to them in their own country, proceeded to Zurich to study there, in free Switzerland. Sophie wished to join them, but her father refused his consent. Following the example of many others, she left her home, and repaired secretly to the house of a friend, from which she negotiated with her father, who, after vain endeavours during several weeks to discover her retreat by means of the police, gave a reluctant; consent to the course she wished to pursue, and sent her a passport. Her mother provided her with a small sum of money, and she found herself free to study.

There were other things to be learned in Zurich besides medicine, to which most of the girl student’s from Russia at first devoted themselves. That little Swiss town was at that time one of the chief centres of the Socialist refugees of Germany. Gradually Sophie Perovsky and her young friends forsook the study of medicine for that of political economy, which they read in the works of Marx and Proudhon. These studies were interrupted, however, by the imperial decree of 1871, ordering all subjects of the Czar to leave Zurich and return home, under the penalty of outlawry. The result, was the return of some scores of j young persons of both sexes, with their heads full of Socialism and Democracy, to disseminate among all with whom they came in contact the ideas they had imbibed in the free West.

Unfortunately, everything which is done in Russia, if at variance with the absolute system of the Czar, has to be done in secret. Sophie Perovsky, with some other students of both sexes, formed the nucleus of a propagandist circle, which was gradually enlarged by the adhesion of others until it became strong enough to send out lecturers to spread their principles among the working classes of St. Petersburg. This movement was mainly due to the initiative of Sophie Perovsky, who was always endeavouring to find new means of activity and to open new channels for the diffusion of the political and social opinions which she had embraced so ardently.

In the autumn of 1873, while engaged in the work of propagandism in the great industrial quarter of the Alexander Nevsky, in conjunction with Prince Peter Krapotkine, our young lady was arrested and lodged in prison, where, though there was no evidence upon which she could be convicted of treason, or even sedition, and though she was not placed on trial, she was detained for a year. She was then released on her father becoming bail for her, but was obliged to leave the capital and reside in the Crimea, where the family possessed an estate. There she remained for three years, under strict surveillance, and was then ordered to go up for trial with 192 other members of the propagandist circle which she had assisted to form on her return from Zurich. She was acquitted, but not released, the Czar’s method of dealing with political offenders being, when they cannot be convicted, to have them removed by the police to some distant town, which they are not allowed to leave without permission.

From this time, however, Sophie Perovsky resolved to set the will of the Czar at defiance. In 1878, after four years’ enforced sojourn in a northern town, she succeeded in evading the (surveillance of the police, without any assistance, or even communication with her friends, and returned to St. Petersburg. The Terrorist phase of the Nihilist movement had then commenced, consequent upon the severities of the Government. General Trepoff had a political prisoner severely flogged, and he was shot by Vera Zassulitch, whom the Czar strove to arrest a second time, after she had been tried and acquitted. This startling event was followed, a few months afterwards, by another—General Mezentsoff was shot dead in the street. Sophie Perovsky threw herself, with all her energy, her iron will, and her fertility in resources, into this new and terrible phase of the movement to which she had devoted herself. She again took up the work of propagandism among the working classes of the capital, and was one of the founders of the society to which Professor Michailoff belonged, implicated in the plot for the assassination of Alexander II.

Once embarked on this dangerous course, all who knew Sophie Perovsky knew that she was not one who would turn back from it. Henceforth she played a prominent part in all the most desperate undertakings of the revolutionists. The first of these in which she participated was the attempt to rescue Voinaralsky, which failed. In the plot to blow up the imperial train at Moscow the duty was assigned to her by the Revolutionary Committee of exploding the deposit of nitro-glycerine, so as to destroy the house and everyone in it in the event of the police coming to arrest the conspirators. This will be remembered as the plot with which Hartmann was connected. Plots against the life of the Czar followed each other rapidly about this time. The blowing up of the stone bridge over the Neva was not accomplished, owing to one of the conspirators failing to keep his appointment, and the plot to blow up the imperial steamer was discovered by the police, the only Nihilist plot they ever succeeded in discovering.

Then came the fearful tragedy of the 13th March, 1881, when a grenade charged with nitro-glycerine was thrown at the Czar, and, exploding at his feet, inflicted such dreadful injuries that he died shortly afterwards. On this dreadful occasion it was Sophie Perovsky who directed the arrangements and had charge of the signals. Geliaboff, who had been concerned in the Moscow attempt, with Michailoff and others, were under her direction. No arrests were made on the spot. The authorities seemed paralysed by mingled fear and horror.

Four days after the tragedy a lady waited upon the Russian writer whose nom de plume is “Stepniak,” with a request that he would go to Sophie Perovsky. He was unaware that she had participated in the crime of the 13th, but he knew the part she had played in the Moscow conspiracy, and concluded that she wished for his assistance in getting out of the country. He found her pale and excited, but without any intention of leaving the city. Full of hope and enthusiasm, she said it was impossible to leave at such a crisis; there was so much to do, so many persons to be seen. She wanted information of “the enemy.” Several arrests had been made, and one of the suspected had committed suicide. The man she loved, too, was compromised, though he had not directly participated in the Killing of Alexander.

There was a police official of high rank with whom “Stepniak” had been acquainted for some years previously, and upon whom he waited at once, after making an appointment with Sophie for the evening. From him he learned that the fate of all the accused was sealed; there would be a trial, but it would only be a form. On meeting Sophie in the evening, he again entreated her to escape from the country; but. she was on that point immovable. She appears, however, to have been much less hopeful of the future than she had been in the morning. They parted a little before midnight, with the intention of meeting again on the following afternoon; but Sophie arrived first at the appointed place, and hurried away again without waiting for her friend’s arrival. Two days afterwards she was arrested. The Countess Perovsky, who travelled in haste from the Crimea on hearing of her arrest, was not allowed to see her until the day on which the trial terminated with a sentence of death upon all the accused. Six days elapsed between the sentence and the execution, and on each day the Countess Perovsky presented herself at the portals of her daughter’s prison, begging to be permitted to see her again, and on the fifth day was told she should see her on the morrow. The unhappy lady went, but only to see Sophie in the fatal cart on the way to execution.

“Sophie Perovsky,” said the St. Petersburg correspondent of the Kolnische Zeitung, in narrating the execution of the conspirators, “displayed extraordinary moral strength. Her cheeks oven preserved their rose colour, while her face, always serious, without the slightest trace of parade, was full of true courage and endless abnegation. Her look was calm and peaceful; not the slightest sign of ostentation could be discerned in it.”

“The Beautiful Nihilist,” New Zealand Herald 30 no. 9416 (July 13, 1889): 2.