Ana Siljak


On her book Angel of Vengeance: The Girl Who Shot the Governor of St. Petersburg and Sparked the Age of Assassination

Cover Interview of February 28, 2010

In a nutshell

In the simplest terms, this book is about Russia’s first female terrorist.  On January 24, 1878, a young woman named Vera Zasulich posed as an ordinary petitioner to gain admission to the office of the governor of St. Petersburg, Fedor Trepov.  Then she pulled a gun out of her large grey shawl and shot the governor point blank. 

This one act propelled Vera from obscurity into worldwide fame, especially after her celebrity trial was covered by all of the major newspapers in Russia and abroad.  By the end of 1878, Vera was one of the best-known women in the western world.  European journalists and authors rushed to write about a peculiar brand of Russian “nihilism” that was intoxicating the young men and women whose radical violence threatened to undermine the Tsarist state.  Oscar Wilde was inspired to write his first play on Vera, and Fyodor Dostoevsky and Karl Marx felt compelled to comment on her case.  Even the celebrated Sherlock Holmes encountered a female “nihilist” in one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s mysteries.  In Russia, imitators of Vera sparked a “turn to terror” that cost the lives of several government officials and culminated with the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881.

My book tells Vera’s story—and, in the process, the story of nineteenth century Russia.  From Vera’s young life on a genteel country estate, to her years in a dank Tsarist prison, to her months spent dressed as a peasant preaching socialism in a Russian village, the book details the contradictions of a rapidly modernizing, superficially European, but still impoverished and traditional Imperial Russia. Angel of Vengeance reveals the roots of Russian terrorism in a quasi-religious radical socialism, whose atheist proponents perpetually dreamt of martyrdom for the cause.