20 OCTOBER 1984, Page 14

Luckless terror

David Longley

Tri the aftermath of the Brighton bomb- ing, the IRA spoke of the 'lucky bomb' that would one day kill the Prime Minister and members of the British Cabinet, and provoke a constitutional crisis that could be to the IRA's advantage. But can there be a 'lucky bomb' of that kind? One historical precedent, at least, shows that terrorist bombs, even when they reach their target, are not lucky for anyone.

In the last few years of his reign, Tsar Alexander II of Russia suffered a number of attempts on his life, carried out by a terrorist orgainsation called the People's Will. For a long time, he was lucky, escaping even a bomb planted inside the Winter Palace itself. Finally, the People's Will were lucky, on 1 March 1881.

Alexander was being driven through the centre of St Petersburg when a bomb blew off the back of his carriage, injuring a member of his guard and a small boy who was watching the procession. The Tsar behaved with great dignity and courage. He refused to be driven immediately and at speed to the Palace, but insisted on getting out and walking over to speak with the injured and with his would-be assassin, now under arrest. While he was doing so, a second assassin threw a bomb at his feet, mortally wounding him.

Like all messianic political leaders, then as now, the executive committee of the People's Will believed that they were just that: an incarnation of the will of the people. No evidence would convince them otherwise. They expected an uprising to follow the assassination. When none came, they did not see this as rejection of their policies and methods by those they claimed to represent (and who were, in point of fact, shocked and repelled and hostile to the bombers) but as evidence that they had not been forceful enough. They even re- fused to listen to their own working class sections, the one area where they did have a following, who begged them to abandon terror and concentrate on social issues. The terror continued, unofficial overtures from government circles were rejected and for a short while the organisation appeared to thrive. Deprived, however, of all mass support, and rejected even by their own working class organisations, who severed all ties with them and began the slow drift that would ultimately bring them under Marxist leadership, the terror squads of the People's Will became easy targets for police penetration. Within three years, the police had completely smashed the organ- isation. The People's Will was no more.

Tragically, the government did not be- lieve in the completeness of its victory. The People's Will had received some support from student and intelligentsia circles. Small though this support was, as is often the case, it was very well publicised and the government mistook its claims for reality, thus becoming incapable of distinguishing loyal from disloyal criticism. They there- fore rejected the plea of men like Leo Tolstoy and Vladimir Solovev that the government should take advantage of its strong position to end the violence by pardoning the regicides. Five leaders of the People's Will were publicly hanged in so brutal and incompetent a manner as to disgust many of the 80,000 people who witnessed it. The government thereby lost

the moral advantage that the assassination had briefly given it. This was never re- gained. Even more tragically the government was unable to understand the completeness of its own and its police force's victory over the People's Will. Obsessed by the threat of terrorist action and by the support the terrorists supposedly had, the Tsar Alexan- der III and his ministers turned inwards. on themselves. Government attitudes became frozen, government itself more secretive and authoritarian. It could not have hap- pened at a worse time. Russia was then undergoing social and economic changes comparable in magnitude to those being experienced in Britain today. Alexander II had begun to adapt the political system to cope with the strains caused by those changes. On the day that he was killed, he was due to sign a decree inviting broader participation in government. The People's Will believed that the government would be forced to grant a constitution after the assassination, and wrote a letter to the new Tsar stipulating what it must contain. Instead the bomb prevented one. Alexan- der III scrapped the decree, thanking God that his father had not signed 'this criminal and hasty step towards a constitution', and announced his intention to rule as an autocrat. During his reign and that of Nicholas II the social and economic changes accelerated, yet all attempts to involve wider strata of the population were seen as seditious, even when these were initiated by genuine supporters of the Romanov dynasty. This led to the terrible disgrace of 9 January 1905 when troops fired on, and caused great loss of life to, a peaceful demonstration of workers coming to present a loyal petition to their Tsar. This was not the act of a wicked govern- ment but of one which, in the quarter of a century since 1881, had become so isolated that it knew no other way of dealing with mass movements, could not distinguish between loyal petitioners and violent revolutionaries.

In an attempt to rectify the blunder, Nicholas II granted a constitution. It was now too late. The inexperienced parlia- ment had to confront problems similar to those which now tax the resources of a far older and wiser body, but which in addition had been allowed to accumulate for 25 years. Twelve years later it and the Roma' nov dynasty was swept away in the holo- caust of 1917 and Russia returned to the autocratic rule of the new red Tsars.

The People's Will were jubilant at their luck on the 1 March 1881. But was the bomb lucky? Not for the People's Will, who were swept away within three years. Not for Russian democrats, as the prob- lems of democracy and arbitary rule re- main in Russia. Not for the Romanov 'dynasty, which was shocked into attitudes that perpetuated violence and led ultimate- ly to its downfall. Not for the Russian people, who were robbed of a chance to experience peaceful political change, and who still do not enjoy it.