In 1906, a young Russian woman shoots a French businessman in a hotel in the Swiss mountain village of Interlaken. Peasants from the Bernese Oberland act as judges and show leniency to the anarchist.
Apron-clad waiters hurry through the dining room of the Grandhotel Jungfrau in Interlaken as a young lady gets up, pulls a pistol from her handbag and fires three shots at the gentleman at the next table.
All hell breaks loose. Guests scream and run for cover; several women faint and fall to the floor. The assassin fires another four shots at her victim, then walks through the restaurant with her head held high.
One waiter grabs her by the wrist, another one snatches the gun from her hand. “You don’t need to use force,” she snaps at them. “As you see, I’m not resisting and I’m not planning to run away.”
When questioned, she explains that her act was one of political justice. She says she had merely carried out the death sentence which Russia’s revolutionary socialist party had placed on the former interior minister Durnovo. But the hotel guest – who dies shortly after the shooting – is neither Russian, nor a politician.
His name is Charles Müller, a French entrepreneur and the victim of a deadly mix-up.
Who is the killer?
The woman refuses to reveal her identity to the police. Even though she checked in to the hotel as Ms Stafford from Stockholm, her accent suggests she is of Russian origin.
There is not a single piece of paper – let alone an identification document – to be found in her room. All labels have been carefully removed from her clothes. The man who had pretended to be her husband has disappeared without a trace.
The murder at the Grand Hotel and the mysterious killer have what it takes to become an international media event.
“The drama of Interlaken. The nihilist was wrong,” reports the Petit Parisien, the biggest Paris tabloid, who immediately sends a special correspondent to Interlaken. The following day, he writes that one can hardly imagine that the revolutionary frenzy had spread to this beautiful part of Switzerland, let alone that the assassin was a woman.
In the days to follow, he interviews waiters, hotel guests and a prison warden and even manages to catch a glimpse of the assassin in her prison cell. “The silence, the sickly appearance, the faded expression of a resigned creature in prison – all this was strangely touching,” he writes.
Meanwhile, the investigating magistrate orders the still-unknown murderer to be photographed in their restrooms wearing different outfits: dark blue under a coat with a fake fur collar; white with a laced bolero and straw hat; an Amazonian costume with a bowler hat.
But when the young woman is asked to change her outfit for the fourth time, she refuses. The investigating magistrate, obviously under pressure to succeed, flies into a rage. He threatens to have her clothes forcibly removed.
The warning does not work, and the policemen rip off her clothes down to her undershirt. She picks up a stool to defend herself. “Is this how you do it in Switzerland?” she shouts. “A country where people should be more humane than in a monarchy!“ Then, the investigating magistrate loses his temper completely. He grabs the prisoner and forces her against the wall. She spits in his face and refuses to eat for two days.
The police send out 2,500 mugshots and ask their European colleagues for help.
Soon, the first clues arrive. Entrepreneurs in Lausanne have identified the woman in the pictures as the medical student Tatjana Leontieff, while Geneva police report that she is the daughter of a high-ranking Russian official, who lives with her mother in the suburbs of Geneva. Records show that she has been in contact with Russian revolutionaries.
Tatjana Leontieff is no dark horse. She was radicalised when she witnessed how a group of unarmed demonstrators were brutally clubbed down in front of the winter palace in St Petersburg in 1905.
Three months later, she was suspected to be involved in a coup against the government. The police found explosives in her sewing basket and locked her up in the notorious Peter and Paul Fortress.
Her uncle, one of the Czar’s chamberlains, used his influence to transfer her to a psychiatric clinic. A few months later, she was released and moved to Switzerland with her mother.
Here, she stood out because of her intelligence and her revolutionary pathos. When a professor suggested that she was jeopardising her father’s career, she explained: “130 million Russians on one side, and my father on the other side. I can’t help it.”
Journalists are desperate to find an explanation for the heinous crime. Some blame the woman’s mysterious companion, who disappeared on the eve of the attack. Others say it was an act of a “revolutionary hyena”, a female version of “political madness” – an illness the Austrian psychiatrist Krafft-Ebing saw in some people, who had “original but impossible ideas to save the world” and who are “unable to realise them or come up with something practical”. Due to this inability, they resort to violence, the theory went.
This adds grist to Tatjana’s father’s mill. On the basis of a psychiatric assessment, he tries to convince the investigating magistrate that his daughter was not of fully sound mind, and that she should go to a psychiatric clinic.
In mid-October 1906, Tatjana Leontieff is duly admitted to the mental institution in Münsingen for a medical check-up. She willingly explains to the doctors that she was fighting to abolish owning private property and the establishment of marriage. She thought “physical love was purely a personal matter and none of the business of any priest or state.”
The examining doctors diagnose her neither with “intellectual impairment” nor “mental disorder”. They do say, however, that like many other young Russians she has had a “mental crisis” that has inspired her to fight “passionately against the politically sick situation in her country”.
“No huge regrets”
On 25 March 1907, the highly anticipated trial begins in Thun.
Tatjana Leontieff is the sole defendant, as her companion remained untraceable, despite the police’s large-scale search. The courtroom is packed with journalists from all over the continent, as well as generally curious folk, Russian expatriates, and Swiss socialists, who admire this “loving and hating virgin” for her energy.
Tatjana Leontieff looks pale and emaciated, but remains indomitable. “I will not answer any questions regarding my private life,” she says at the beginning of the hearings.
She eagerly explains the tyranny of interior minister Durovno. “Miss Leontieff displays incredible energy, a remarkable cold-bloodedness and an uninterrupted presence of mind in her answers,” one journalist reports with astonishment. “However, the modest and almost frightened tone of her lovely voice is in contrast with the relentlessness of her answers.”
She is relentless, indeed. In response to the question of whether she regretted the fatal mix-up, she explains that as a socialist she did not regret too much having wiped out a member of the bourgeois society.
She is also irreconcilable towards the investigating magistrate, whom she accuses of being “extremely brutal”, the New York Times reports. The magistrate tries to tone down the accusations, but admits that “he may have been a bit harsh with her.”
When he denies that she spat on him, Tatjana Leontieff demands a replay of the scene “for the gentleman to remember”. The audience applauds, the atmosphere is heated. The president of the court restores calmness by promising a disciplinary investigation of the case.
Peasants show leniency
The socialist Federal Councillor Alfred Brüstlein speaks on behalf of the defendant. In order to help the jurors, who are mainly peasants from the region, understand him better, he delivers his speech in Bernese dialect.
His strategy is two-sided: on the one hand, he highlights Leontieff’s sensitivity, her “heart of gold” and her “compassionate soul”; on the other hand, he accuses Russia of cruelty and tyranny. His plea lasts a full four hours. One journalist, praising it as a “true historical monument”, wonders: “will the peasants from the Bernese Oberland have no pity and sentence a woman who has sacrificed all her relationships in order to open a breach in the enemy’s iron wall?”
But the peasants show leniency. Tatjana Leontieff is found guilty of murder. Her sentence, however, is reduced to four years in prison because of her limited mental faculties as well as mitigating circumstances.
Two months after the verdict, the press reports that she has gone crazy and has been transferred to the Münsingen sanatorium and nursing home.
Tatjana Leontieff, the only woman to ever commit a political murder on Swiss soil, remained in this sanatorium until the end of her days. She died of tuberculosis in 1922 at the age of 39. The motives for her crime have never been clarified.
Terrorist violence in Switzerland
A look at Swiss history shows that politically motivated violence was more frequent in the past than we might imagine today.
The first terrorist attack in this country was the assassination of the Austrian Empress Elisabeth, who was stabbed to death in 1898 by an anarchist named Luigi Luccheni. “Sisi”, as she was called, was the first victim of anarchist terror in Switzerland, but she was certainly not the last.
In the early 20th century Switzerland experienced a wave of terrorist attacks. Anarchists raided banks and even a police building in Zurich, tried to blow up trains, blackmailed industrialists, carried out bomb attacks and assassinated political opponents. Most of the attackers were foreign: Russians, Italians, Germans and Austrians who had sought political asylum in Switzerland.
The Swiss government reacted by deporting undesirables and making laws more severe. In 1894, in what became known as the “Anarchists Law”, penalties for crimes using explosives were increased, and preparing for them was made a criminal offence. But Switzerland refrained from tightening its asylum legislation, which ensured ongoing protection for people wanted by police elsewhere.end of infobox
Translated from German by Billi Bierling, swissinfo.ch