Sofya Perovskaya

What follows is my translation of the Great Russian Encyclopedia article on Sofya Perovskaya. The original can be found at:

Alternatively, one could go to and click on the “translate” icon. From there, select the origin language (Russian) and the target language (English) and enter the above URL to get the software translation of the same article. As you will see, the software had a bit of trouble with it. One big problem was that the G.R.E. uses a lot of abbreviations and the software was a bit “at sea” when attempting to handle them. For example, in the body of the article, when a sentence began with “Perovskaya”, the article simple has “P.” You can imagine the trouble that caused.

For an excellent reference for the revolutionary movements in Russia of that time, see Franco Venturi’s “Roots of Revolution”. It was a fascinating era in Russian history generally, featuring such literary luminaries as Turgenev, Chernyshevsky, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy.

Sofya Lvovna Perovskaya (born September 1 (13), 1853 in St. Petersburg, died April 3 (15), 1881, same place) was a Russian revolutionary born into the Perovsky family of the Russian nobility. She received a home education and then, in 1869, in St. Petersburg, she enrolled in the Alarchinsky women’s school, where she became interested in revolutionary ideas.

Towards the end of 1870, she broke with her father and left home. She organized a self-study circle among the female students which strove to “develop a spirit of protest in young women” against “despotism” and which gradually acquired a national-revolutionary character.

In the Summer of 1871, Perovskaya’s circle united with the M.A. Natanson (1) group, which is thought to be the real beginning of the Petersburg group of general, widespread propaganda (the “Chaikovskists” (2)); Perovskaya became a member of its committee on illegal communications with foreigners, maintained safe houses, carried on dealings with political prisoners, and conducted propaganda among workers (among her recruits in this work was P.A. Alekseev (3)).

In 1872-73, she prepared to “go to the people” (4), disseminating Narodnik ideas among the peasants of Tversk and Samarsk provinces under cover of a medical worker and teacher. In January of 1874, she was arrested, but in June of that year, in the absence of evidence, she was released by the court on the guarantee of her father.

In 1874-77, she sought new ways of connecting with the people; she completed her medical courses and served as a sister of charity on the hospital council of Simferopol where she had overall charge of the care (“charge nurse” – ed) in two barracks of sick and wounded soldiers. In 1877, in St. Petersburg, she was brought before the court in the matter concerning the “going to the people”, where she was acquitted for lack of evidence.

In the Summer of 1878, she joined the underground organization “Zemlya i Volya” (5). In August, she was again arrested and banished to the town of Povensty in Olinetsky province, but she escaped en route and went into hiding.

In the Spring of 1879, she took part in the organization of a “Zemlya i Volya” circle in Kharkov. In the Summer of that same year, at the Voronezh Congress of “Zemlya i Volya”, she supported the “rural faction”, but after a split in the organization, in response to the execution of several Narodniks (13 members between April and August of 1879), she joined the “Narodnaya Volya” (6) party and, in the Autumn, was chosen to be a member of the first Executive Committee, and thereupon she was selected to be a member of the Management Commission.

In accordance with a decision of the Executive Committee, adopted August 26 (September 9), 1879, a death sentence was pronounced on the Emperor Alexander II; she took part in the preparations of two unsuccessful attempts against the Emperor – near Moscow-Kursk (1879) and in Odessa (1880). She was then promoted to one of the top positions in the party. She advocated for a broad front of all anti-government forces (including liberals) and for multi-faceted forms of political struggle. She took part in the creation of a Workers’ and Soldiers’ “Narodnya Volya” organization, in the publishing activities of the party, conducted propaganda among intellectuals, workers, and soldiers, and organized student circles.

She assumed control of the preparations for the Tsar’s assassination following the arrest of A.I. Zhelyabov (7), her closest comrade and common-law husband. She directed the attempt on March 1 (13), 1881, as a result of which Alexander II was mortally wounded. She refused the urgent pleadings of friends to go into hiding abroad. She took part in the discussions concerning the drafting of a letter of the “Narodnya Volya” Executive Committee to the new Emperor, Alexander III, which contained a demand for the calling of a Constituent Assembly.

On March 10 (22), 1881, she was arrested. At the “process (trial – ed) of the first of March defendants”, a special session of the State Senate, held March 26-29 (April 7-10), 1881, she conducted herself courageously, denied the charges of the prosecutor N.V. Muraviev (one of her childhood friends) regarding the immorality and cruelty of “Narodnya Volya”. The death sentence was carried out on her and Zhelyabov, N.I. Kibalchich, T.M. Mikhailov, and N.I. Risakov, in Semyenov Square.

Sofya Perovskaya was the first Russian female executed for political activity. In revolutionary circles, her name became legendary and was surrounded with an aura of martyrdom. Her extraordinary personality and the drama of her fate have the attention of writers and poets, artists, and directors.

(1) M.A. Natanson, (1851-1919), a participant in the Russian revolutionary movement.

(2) Chaikovskists: one of the first organizations of revolutionary Narodniks in Russia.

(3) P.A. Alexeev (1849-91): one of the first worker-revolutionaries in Russia.

(4) “Going to the People”: the adopted name of a mass movement of radical youth in the countryside aimed at preparing the peasantry for revolution in the Russian empire.

(5) “Zemlya I Volya” of the 1870s: underground revolutionary grouping in Russia, one of the large-scale organizations of Narodniks.

(6) “Narodnya Volya”: first illegal political party in Russia, a mass organization of revolutionary Narodniks.

5 thoughts on “Sofya Perovskaya”

  1. The present article is my contribution for “off topic Wednesday”. It is off topic because it is not from an Old Book. The Great Russian Encyclopedia began publication in 2003 and continued for several years thereafter. It is likely to be the last encyclopedia published in print form.

    The work is copyrighted and this article is presented under fair use guidelines as a review by excerpt of the GRE. At some time I may write to the publishers requesting permission to publish more extensive translations of articles related to 19th century Russian revolutionary history, but for now this is it.

    You all know that my chosen avatar is Sofya Perovskaya, right?

    1. Fascinating.

      This question isn’t as off-topic as it may sound. Following along with Zeugma’s PG daily posts, I became curious about the relative number of digitized books by language. You can search PG for these data. My simple hypothesis was that cultures which preserve their literary heritage were positioning themselves for a better future. But then I started looking at the numbers and there are all sorts of confounds. None of which I want to get into here.

      Suffice it to say I was astonished that there were so few digitized Russian books–fewer than 50, compared to e.g., Finnish (2526) and Tagalong (60).

      Why is this so? I can think of many possible reasons, mostly having to do with technology, and the process of going from OCR–>digitized books (the final layers of which involve human eyes) but I’m curious to hear what you think.

      What became of The Great Russian Encyclopedia?

      1. The Great Russian Encyclopedia is available on-line at (Russian only). It is also available in print for around $35 per volume.

        The GRE is the successor to the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 2nd edition. The GSE is available on-line (Russian only) at

        Following the Revolution (yes, that revolution), S.P. was considered a hero of Russian revolutionary history, but she soon fell out of favor. It is just barely (cough, cough) possible that Stalin did not think it a good idea to elevate to the status of hero a person who had assassinated the head of the Russian state. Following the death of Stalin, she was restored to her rightful place in history.

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