The People's Will - By Jasper Kent



Much of the Russian Imperial measurement system was based by Tsar Peter the Great on the British system. Thus a diuym is exactly equal to an inch (the English word is used in the text) and a foot is both the same word and measurement in English and Russian. A funt is translated as a pound, though weighs only about nine-tenths of a British pound. A verst is a unit of distance slightly greater than a kilometre.


During the nineteenth century, Russians based their dates on the old Julian Calendar, which in the 1880s was twelve days behind the Gregorian Calendar used in West Europe.

In the text dates are given in the Russian form and so, for example, the death of Dostoyevsky is placed on 28 January 1881, where Western history books have it on 9 February.

With thanks to John Dunne for his knowledge of Saint George’s Church in Esher, Stéphane Marsan for help with the French language and Seçkin Selvi for advice on Ottoman Istanbul.

Selected Romanov and Danilov Family Tree

Reigning tsars and tsaritsas shown in bold.

Fictional characters shown in italic

‘#’ indicates unmarried parentage.

Dates are birth-[start of reign]-[end of reign]-death

Only the scoundrels have forgotten that strength is with those whose blood flows, not with those who cause blood to be shed. There it is – the law of blood on earth.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, writing shortly before his death in 1881


The verdict was unanimous. The sentence was death.

In the summer of 1879 the Executive Committee of Zemlya ee Volya – Land and Liberty – held a congress in the central Russian town of Lipetsk. There were eleven of them. It required twelve to constitute a jury, but they would be enough. The very idea of a jury was an innovation in Russia – one that had been instigated by the accused himself, a particularly august Russian. They came from all parts of the motherland – from Petersburg and Moscow, of course, but also from the south; from Gelendzhik and Odessa and Kiev. It was those from the south who argued most keenly for a death sentence. They knew poverty better, or had at least witnessed it more closely. None of the Executive Committee was truly poor, though some had parents who had been serfs – until emancipation, eighteen years before. Some might catch a hint of irony that the condemned man was also the emancipator, but sentimentality was a weakness. He would not be sentimental when it came to dealing with them.

Lipetsk was a spa town and the eleven of them – ten men and one woman – arrived in ones and twos, under the guise of patients. They drank the waters, bathed in the mud and rowed on the lake, gazing into its clear, fishless waters. Shiryaev suggested that the minerals which made the waters so healthy for men meant also that fish could not live in them. Shiryaev was a scientist. That would prove useful.

The lake was known to locals as the Antichrist Pond. It was Frolenko who asked how the name arose. The antichrist in question, so they were told, was none other than Tsar Pyotr I – Peter the Great. The Executive Committee hid their smiles. Pyotr was the great-great-great-grandfather of the man they had come here to judge. When he had begun to reform Russian society at the beginning of the eighteenth century, many believed him to be the false prophet that the Bible foretold. Today the members of Land and Liberty held Aleksandr II in similar regard, though they cared little for Christian mythology.

On 15 June the Executive Committee made their way to a forest outside the town; though a popular spot for picnics, they managed to find a secluded glade. It was not their main purpose, but they too had brought food, wine and vodka. They were in a merry mood. On the way there Zhelyabov showed off his enormous strength, lifting a passing droshky by its rear axle and stopping the horse in its tracks. They did not mind drawing attention to themselves; no one would guess their true purpose.

After they had eaten, Aleksandr Dmitrievich Mihailov read out the charges against his namesake, Aleksandr Nikolayevich Romanov. The tsar, though not present to face his accusers, had but one defence. Mihailov dismissed it. ‘The emperor has destroyed in the second half of his reign almost all the good he permitted to be done by the progressive figures of the sixties,’ he explained to the others. Each of them was asked in turn whether the reforms of