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A shot from a black Browning

Towards the 100th anniversary of Pyotr Stolypin’s assassination
06 сентября, 00:00

Never before in decades had the Kyiv Opera House seen as brilliant an assembly as it did on September 1, 1911. You could see all the high society there, including those who resided in the capital, Saint Petersburg, (ministers, State Duma members, courtiers, the top military brass and, finally, Emperor Nicholas II himself with his daughters, and Chairman of the Council of Ministers Pyotr Stolypin) and those who governed the South-Western Territory – the name applied in the Russian Empire’s official documents to Ukrainian regions under its jurisdiction. It was the so-called tsarist celebration of the 50th anniversary of the “emancipation of peasants” by Alexander II, in which connection Emperor Nicholas was to take a personal part in the ceremonious unveiling of a monument to the “Tsar the Liberator.” It was also planned to bless the monument to Princess Olha, “the first Christian ruler of Rus’.” The monarch was accompanied by, among others, the head of government, Stolypin. (Word had it, and with reason, that relations between them were far from the best.)

Unheard-of safety measures were taken. In Kyiv, the police would approach even very respectfully-looking people in the streets and ask them to produce documents. “Security risks” were temporarily banished from the city. Among them were those suspected of belonging to the Socialist Revolutionary, Anarchist, and Social Democratic parties, as well as, members of the Ukrainian national parties – which in fact only strengthened the long-established opinion of the latter that the tsar and especially Stolypin strove to finally get a political foothold in Kyiv and make it the bulwark of Russian nationalism. Apartments, attics, and cellars were thoroughly examined on the streets down which His Majesty’s cortege was to pass. Mass-scale searches were conducted, with gendarmes galore.

On September 1 the Kyiv Opera House showed The Tale of Tsar Saltan. The festivities were in full swing. Fundukley (now Bohdan Khmelnytsky) Street, Volodymyr Street, and Theater Square were overcrowded. Automobiles and horse-drawn carriages with high-society people are pulling in without a letup. The house had been full an hour before the show began. The tsar and his two daughters took seats in the governor-general’s box, to the left over the orchestra pit. Stolypin sat in the first parquet row next to some of his ministers.

Unprecedented precautions can be explained by the fact that Kyiv’s law-enforcement bodies (secret services and police) had received a warning (the reader will soon know who from, which is very interesting) about ten days before the arrival of the tsar and his premier in Kyiv that an attempt on the life of Pyotr Stolypin, the head of the imperial government, was being masterminded and that urgent measures must be taken to thwart this plan. The show was drawing to a close. There was a third, final, intermission, and nothing unusual seemed to be happening. Waiting for the end of the third intermission, Premier Stolypin, dressed in a white frock-coat with a star medal on the breast, stood at the left aisle’s end, leaning his back on the orchestra barrier, and spoke to a tsar’s chamberlain. In spite of an explicit warning that had come shortly before, there were no guards next to Stolypin. Why it was so is still a matter of dispute among historians: was it considered that tight security measures and admission control at the opera entrance was in itself a firm guarantee, or were there people in the monarch’s inner circle, who wanted the attempt to succeed? There are other versions, too. It is still a fact that, although there were a lot of military and police officers at the theater, nobody stood by and kept a close watch on Stolypin. The theater, as well as the entire city, was cordoned off, but it is beyond comprehension why nobody stood by Stolypin, while there were not many spectators in the house at the moment.

As the intermission-end chime was to be sounded, a young oval-faced refined man with a half-open appeared in the aisle. Wearing a black tailcoat and a pince-nez, he might have been taken for a lawyer, a bank employee, or any other professional. Striding towards the premier, the stranger suddenly stopped a few meters away of him, threw aside a large sheet of paper (a playbill) that covered his trouser pocket, whipped out a black Browning pistol and fired it twice, almost pointblank, at Stolypin, fatally wounding him. The Russian Empire’s most influential and strong-willed politician died a few days later, on September 5, 1911, and was buried on the territory of the Kyiv Cave Monastery.

The attempter was immediately apprehended. He was Mordko (Mordechai) Bogrov, 24, the son of an influential Kyiv barrister Gersh Bogrov who had a million-worth fortune (some sources say he once donated a lump sum of 85,000 rubles for “charitable purposes”), owned a multistory rented apartment house on Bibikov Boilevard, and was one of the prominent members of the Kyiv Nobility Club (a curious detail: the overwhelming majority of the early-20th-century terrorist bombers were by no means of worker’s or peasant’s origin). The Bogrovs quite often went abroad and were considered a wealthy family: Mordechai and his brother had personal governesses and spoke foreign languages. He went to Kyiv’s Gymnasium No. 1 (also on Bibikov Blvd) and, like many gymnasium students at the time, took a liking to liberal and revolutionary doctrines. In his view, the Social Democrats, including those in Kyiv, were shamefully irresolute and confined themselves to mere words and propaganda, while the Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs), who had been systematically committing terrorist acts, aroused passionate sympathy in the young man. But he also liked anarchists and maximalists and had not yet made his final choice. All the young man is convinced in is that the fundamentals of the entire political system must be fully destroyed.

In the revolutionary 1905 Mordechai Bogrov graduates with distinctions from the gymnasium and enters Kyiv University’s School of Law. But the young student leads a “free” and “unnatural” way of life: he spends a lot of time with parents abroad – in Geneva, Paris, and Munich, – where he reads Bakunin and Kropotkin and joins the ranks of “anarcho-communists” who reject the state, property, and church, as well as public morals, traditions, and customs. Shameful of his weakness (you may not eschew bitter struggle at a time like this!), the young Bogrov comes back to Kyiv in late 1906.

From then on, two insuperable feelings fight, interact and coexist in the heart of a young rich-born rebel: intense hatred for all collective forms of activity (protests, parties, crowds, rallies) and a deep conviction that there is only one way to fight this hated government – individual terror or, to be more exact, “central terror,” when the bullet or the bomb kills the highest-ranking officials, the top of the “despotic regime of violence and arbitrary rule,” rather than some obscure local bureaucrats.

Who are these people, Bogrov muses? Blended in his brain are an acute desire of glory, even at any price, a hurt personal and ethnic ambition (although he comes from a rich family, he wishes to achieve more), and, finally, the influence of voguish ultra-radical idea based on hatred towards the government of a “tyrant tsar.” It is, first of all, the monarch Nicholas II himself and his premier Pyotr Stolypin on whom he should focus his terrorist efforts. But our hero believes that the tsar is in fact a pawn: he does not matter much, he is just the “facade” of the regime, and the removal of him will not change the foundations of the political systems, with was proved by the assassination of Alexander II. The clever, wicked and strong enemy is Chairman of the Council of Ministers Pyotr Stolypin who is striving to support and strengthen the peasant, the land owner, thus making the latter a reliable stronghold of the throne and the system of government. And this, Bogrov concluded, was in fact the only way to forestall a revolution and save the foundation of monarchy, for the 1905 revolution suffered a defeat, first of all, owing to Stolypin. Besides, the young student and a would-be barrister hated the premier for the persecution of Jews which he had authorized. Bogrov also took into account that the assassination of Stolypin would be unlikely to stir up Jewish pogroms in Kyiv and other cities of the empire, whereas an attempt on the emperor’s life would be a terrible detonator for this kind of riots.

So the young terrorist made a choice and targeted a victim. He decided this would be a veritable “crown of revolutionary terror.” But how can he put this plan into practice? A reclusive, reserved and very rationally-minded (in his opinion) “unrecognized genius,” Bogrov thinks up a grandiose scheme: to use the police as an instrument for committing the attempt. Far from all historians share the following version of events, but if we assume that Bogrov was not an agent provocateur at all but a brilliant terrorist gambler who forced even the police to work for himself, the events unfolded as follows.

In 1908 or so Bogrov, who “was disappointed with all the parties,” including the ones that preach revolution and anarchism, begins his “game” (or was it a provocation, collaboration, or an effort to gather intelligence data on the people who serve there?) with the police. He shows up to the Kyiv secret police chief Kuliabko and offers him his services. Indeed, as a former active member of the anarchist movement and a person close to the Socialist Revolutionaries, he supplies Kuliabko (a personality of no illustrious intellect, to put it mildly) with some information (as Bogrov later tried to assure himself and others, it was non-essential and obsolete information that posed no danger for revolutionaries: “I swear I really betrayed nobody!”) in order to win the trust of the secret services and then be “promoted” to Petersburg, become a high-ranking agent there, find an opportunity to contact Stolypin, for example, under the following pretext: “I have information of paramount importance, which I can only disclose to you personally, without any witnesses,” and then shoot him dead. Taking into account a host of attempts on the premier’s life, explosions, gun shots, surreptitious assaults (even at the State Duma), it was an extremely difficult, almost impossible, thing to do. Why shoot him dead? Why not hurl a bomb? A hard-to-believe fact: the future assassin of Stolypin, who decided to act single-handed, had been exempt from military service… because of very poor eyesight – “How can he fire a gun if he is shortsighted?”

A fantastic scheme? At first sight, yes. Bogrov is unlucky in Petersburg: he is not much trusted as an agent, and he fails to come into contact with the needed people. For more than two and a half years, our hero rushes about between Kyiv, Europe, and Petersburg. In 1911 he finally graduates from Kyiv University as barrister assistant – a job he would never do. This causes apathy and depression. Then the news came like a bolt from the blue: the tsar and Stolypin will be visiting Kyiv on August 29 to September 6, 1911!

It is his chance. Bogrov shows diabolical inventiveness. He reports personally (!) to the abovementioned Kuliabko and says: “I have information from my former SR friends that an attempt will be made on the life..., no, thank God, not the Sovereign, but Premier Stolypin. My friends demand that I take part in this affair. They trust me.” Another piece of information three days later: “Some terrorists have settled in my apartment (it is vacant, as my parents are in Europe) and others in a neighboring house. They demand that I spy on Stolypin and describe in detail his distinctive marks [the secret police swallowed these lies, even though newspapers carried the premier’s photo every day. What distinctive marks? –Author]. I must make them believe that I’m obeying their orders and not lose their trust. It will be thus easier to capture them afterwards [needless to say, the “terrorists” are Bogrov’s hoax, for he acted on his own. – Author]. So, Mr. Kuliabko, to ‘pull the wool over their eyes; (I will pretend to supply them with distinctive marks), please give your loyal agent a ticket to the Opera House for September 1.”

He got a ticket. The reader knows the rest. Bogrov managed to carry a Browning inside the theater. But there is also an entirely different of the events, which deserves to be told here: Bogrov himself was used a blind instrument by Petersburg’s “top echelons,” the enemies of Stolypin, who hated him for being an “upstart,” a strong-willed person who exerted too much influence on the weak-willed tsar. Those enemies may have included, for example, Pavel Kurlov, a top official at the empire’s Ministry of the Interior. Those people knew only too well about Bogrov’s intentions and did not hinder him on purpose.

Historians are still to unravel the mysteries of Bogrov’s shot from a black Browning pistol (tellingly, he was summarily convicted and hanged in the same September 1911. They were in a hurry!). It is only clear that the Kyiv assassination became (it is about the role of the personality in history) of the early 20th-century turning points, which had a direct effect on the future of a tumbling empire and that of Ukraine – the Ukraine which the monarchist Stolypin, a rabid advocate of “Russian national monarchy,” stubbornly ignored. Do his present-day followers, including the Minister of Education and Science Dmytro Tabachnyk who has written an eulogy book on him, remember this? But Ukraine is and will always be here!

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