Chapter XXIV - The Imperial Administration And The Officials
My administrative studies were begun in Novgorod. One of my reasons for spending a winter in that provincial capital was that I might study the provincial administration, and as soon as I had made the acquaintance of the leading officials I explained to them the object I had in view. With the kindly bonhomie which distinguishes the Russian educated classes, they all volunteered to give me every assistance in their power, but some of them, on mature reflection, evidently saw reason to check their first generous impulse. Among these was the Vice-Governor, a gentleman of German origin, and therefore more inclined to be pedantic than a genuine Russian. When I called on him one evening and reminded him of his friendly offer, I found to my surprise that he had in the meantime changed his mind. Instead of answering my first simple inquiry, he stared at me fixedly, as if for the purpose of detecting some covert, malicious design, and then, putting on an air of official dignity, informed me that as I had not been authorised by the Minister to make these investigations, he could not assist me, and would certainly not allow me to examine the archives.
This was not encouraging, but it did not prevent me from applying to the Governor, and I found him a man of a very different stamp. Delighted to meet a foreigner who seemed anxious to study seriously in an unbiassed frame of mind the institutions of his much-maligned native country, he willingly explained to me the mechanism of the administration which he directed and controlled, and kindly placed at my disposal the books and documents in which I could find the historical and practical information which I required.
This friendly attitude of his Excellency towards me soon became generally known in the town, and from that moment my difficulties were at an end. The minor officials no longer hesitated to initiate me into the mysteries of their respective departments, and at last even the Vice-Governor threw off his reserve and followed the example of his colleagues. The elementary information thus acquired I had afterwards abundant opportunities of completing by observation and study in other parts of the Empire, and I now propose to communicate to the reader a few of the more general results.
The gigantic administrative machine which holds together all the various parts of the vast Empire has been gradually created by successive generations, but we may say roughly that it was first designed and constructed by Peter the Great. Before his time the country was governed in a rude, primitive fashion. The Grand Princes of Moscow, in subduing their rivals and annexing the surrounding principalities, merely cleared the ground for a great homogeneous State. Wily, practical politicians, rather than statesmen of the doctrinaire type, they never dreamed of introducing uniformity and symmetry into the administration as a whole. They developed the ancient institutions so far as these were useful and consistent with the exercise of autocratic power, and made only such alterations as practical necessity demanded. And these necessary alterations were more frequently local than general. Special decisions, instruction to particular officials, and charters for particular communes of proprietors were much more common than general legislative measures.
In short, the old Muscovite Tsars practised a hand-to-mouth policy, destroying whatever caused temporary inconvenience, and giving little heed to what did not force itself upon their attention. Hence, under their rule the administration presented not only territorial peculiarities, but also an ill-assorted combination of different systems in the same district--a conglomeration of institutions belonging to different epochs, like a fleet composed of triremes, three-deckers, and iron-clads.
This irregular system, or rather want of system, seemed highly unsatisfactory to the logical mind of Peter the Great, and he conceived the grand design of sweeping it away, and putting in its place a symmetrical bureaucratic machine. It is scarcely necessary to say that this magnificent project, so foreign to the traditional ideas and customs of the people, was not easily realised. Imagine a man, without technical knowledge, without skilled workmen, without good tools, and with no better material than soft, crumbling sandstone, endeavouring to build a palace on a marsh! The undertaking would seem to reasonable minds utterly absurd, and yet it must be admitted that Peter's project was scarcely more feasible. He had neither technical knowledge, nor the requisite materials, nor a firm foundation to build on. With his usual Titanic energy he demolished the old structure, but his attempts to construct were little more than a series of failures. In his numerous ukazes he has left us a graphic description of his efforts, and it is at once instructive and pathetic to watch the great worker toiling indefatigably at his self-imposed task. His instruments are constantly breaking in his hands. The foundations of the building are continually giving way, and the lower tiers crumbling under the superincumbent weight. Now and then a whole section is found to be unsuitable, and is ruthlessly pulled down, or falls of its own accord. And yet the builder toils on, with a perseverance and an energy of purpose that compel admiration, frankly confessing his mistakes and failures, and patiently seeking the means of remedying them, never allowing a word of despondency to escape him, and never despairing of ultimate success. And at length death comes, and the mighty builder is snatched away suddenly in the midst of his unfinished labours, bequeathing to his successors the task of carrying on the great work.
None of these successors possessed Peter's genius and energy--with the exception perhaps of Catherine II.--but they were all compelled by the force of circumstances to adopt his plans. A return to the old rough-and-ready rule of time local Voyevods was impossible. As the Autocratic Power became more and more imbued with Western ideas, it felt more and more the need of new means for carrying them out, and accordingly it strove to systematise and centralise the administration.
In this change we may perceive a certain analogy with the history of the French administration from the reign of Philippe le Bel to that of Louis XIV. In both countries we see the central power bringing the local administrative organs more and more under its control, till at last it succeeds in creating a thoroughly centralised bureaucratic organisation. But under this superficial resemblance lie profound differences. The French kings had to struggle with provincial sovereignties and feudal rights, and when they had annihilated this opposition they easily found materials with which to build up the bureaucratic structure. The Russian sovereigns, on the contrary, met with no such opposition, but they had great difficulty in finding bureaucratic material amongst their uneducated, undisciplined subjects, notwithstanding the numerous schools and colleges which were founded and maintained simply for the purpose of preparing men for the public service.
The administration was thus brought much nearer to the West- European ideal, but some people have grave doubts as to whether it became thereby better adapted to the practical wants of the people for whom it was created. On this point a well-known Slavophil once made to me some remarks which are worthy of being recorded. "You have observed," he said, "that till very recently there was in Russia an enormous amount of official peculation, extortion, and misgovernment of every kind, that the courts of law were dens of iniquity, that the people often committed perjury, and much more of the same sort, and it must be admitted that all this has not yet entirely disappeared. But what does it prove? That the Russian people are morally inferior to the German? Not at all. It simply proves that the German system of administration, which was forced upon them without their consent, was utterly unsuited to their nature. If a young growing boy be compelled to wear very tight boots, he will probably burst them, and the ugly rents will doubtless produce an unfavourable impression on the passers-by; but surely it is better that the boots should burst than that the feet should be deformed. Now, the Russian people was compelled to put on not only tight boots, but also a tight jacket, and, being young and vigorous, it burst them. Narrow-minded, pedantic Germans can neither understand nor provide for the wants of the broad Slavonic nature."
In its present form the Russian administration seems at first sight a very imposing edifice. At the top of the pyramid stands the Emperor, "the autocratic monarch," as Peter the Great described him, "who has to give an account of his acts to no one on earth, but has power and authority to rule his States and lands as a Christian sovereign according to his own will and judgment." Immediately below the Emperor we see the Council of State, the Committee of Ministers, and the Senate, which represent respectively the legislative, the administrative, and the judicial power. An Englishman glancing over the first volume of the great Code of Laws might imagine that the Council of State is a kind of Parliament, and the Committee of Ministers a cabinet in our sense of the term, but in reality both institutions are simply incarnations of the Autocratic Power. Though the Council is entrusted by law with many important functions--such as discussing Bills, criticising the annual budget, declaring war and concluding peace--it has merely a consultative character, and the Emperor is not in any way bound by its decisions. The Committee is not at all a cabinet as we understand the word. The Ministers are directly and individually responsible to the Emperor, and therefore the Committee has no common responsibility or other cohesive force. As to the Senate, it has descended from its high estate. It was originally entrusted with the supreme power during the absence or minority of the monarch, and was intended to exercise a controlling influence in all sections of the administration, but now its activity is restricted to judicial matters, and it is little more than a supreme court of appeal.
Immediately below these three institutions stand the Ministries, ten in number. They are the central points in which converge the various kinds of territorial administration, and from which radiates the Imperial will all over the Empire.
For the purpose of territorial administration Russia proper--that is to say, European Russia, exclusive of Poland, the Baltic Provinces, Finland and the Caucasus--is divided into forty-nine provinces or "Governments" (gubernii), and each Government is subdivided into Districts (uyezdi). The average area of a province is about the size of Portugal, but some are as small as Belgium, whilst one at least is twenty-five times as big. The population, however, does not correspond to the amount of territory. In the largest province, that of Archangel, there are only about 350,000 inhabitants, whilst in two of the smaller ones there are over three millions. The districts likewise vary greatly in size. Some are smaller than Oxfordshire or Buckingham, and others are bigger than the whole of the United Kingdom.
Over each province is placed a Governor, who is assisted in his duties by a Vice-Governor and a small council. According to the legislation of Catherine II., which still appears in the Code and has only been partially repealed, the Governor is termed "the steward of the province," and is entrusted with so many and such delicate duties, that in order to obtain qualified men for the post it would be necessary to realise the great Empress's design of creating, by education, "a new race of people." Down to the time of the Crimean War the Governors understood the term "stewards" in a very literal sense, and ruled in a most arbitrary, high-handed style, often exercising an important influence on the civil and criminal tribunals. These extensive and vaguely defined powers have now been very much curtailed, partly by positive legislation, and partly by increased publicity and improved means of communication. All judicial matters have been placed theoretically beyond the Governor's control, and many of his former functions are now fulfilled by the Zemstvo--the new organ of local self- government. Besides this, all ordinary current affairs are regulated by an already big and ever-growing body of instructions, in the form of Imperial orders and ministerial circulars, and as soon as anything not provided for by the instructions happens to occur, the minister is consulted through the post-office or by telegraph.
Even within the sphere of their lawful authority the Governors have now a certain respect for public opinion and occasionally a very wholesome dread of casual newspaper correspondents. Thus the men who were formerly described by the satirists as "little satraps" have sunk to the level of subordinate officials. I can confidently say that many (I believe the majority) of them are honest, upright men, who are perhaps not endowed with any unusual administrative capacities, but who perform their duties faithfully according to their lights. If any representatives of the old "satraps" still exist, they must be sought for in the outlying Asiatic provinces.
Independent of the Governor, who is the local representative of the Ministry of the Interior, are a number of resident officials, who represent the other ministries, and each of them has a bureau, with the requisite number of assistants, secretaries, and scribes.
To keep this vast and complex bureaucratic machine in motion it is necessary to have a large and well-drilled army of officials. These are drawn chiefly from the ranks of the Noblesse and the clergy, and form a peculiar social class called Tchinovniks, or men with Tchins. As the Tchin plays an important part in Russia, not only in the official world, but also to some extent in social life, it may be well to explain its significance.
All offices, civil and military, are, according to a scheme invented by Peter the Great, arranged in fourteen classes or ranks, and to each class or rank a particular name is attached. As promotion is supposed to be given according to personal merit, a man who enters the public service for the first time must, whatever be his social position, begin in the lower ranks, and work his way upwards. Educational certificates may exempt him from the necessity of passing through the lowest classes, and the Imperial will may disregard the restrictions laid down by law; but as general rule a man must begin at or near the bottom of the official ladder, and he must remain on each step a certain specified time. The step on which he is for the moment standing, or, in other words, the official rank or tchin which he possesses determines what offices he is competent to hold. Thus rank or tchin is a necessary condition for receiving an appointment, but it does not designate any actual office, and the names of the different ranks are extremely apt to mislead a foreigner.
We must always bear this in mind when we meet with those imposing titles which Russian tourists sometimes put on their visiting cards, such as "Conseiller de Cour," "Conseiller d'Etat," "Conseiller prive de S. M. l'Empereur de toutes les Russies." It would be uncharitable to suppose that these titles are used with the intention of misleading, but that they do sometimes mislead there cannot be the least doubt. I shall never forget the look of intense disgust which I once saw on the face of an American who had invited to dinner a "Conseiller de Cour," on the assumption that he would have a Court dignitary as his guest, and who casually discovered that the personage in question was simply an insignificant official in one of the public offices. No doubt other people have bad similar experiences. The unwary foreigner who has heard that there is in Russia a very important institution called the Conseil d'Etat," naturally supposes that a " Conseiller d'Etat" is a member of that venerable body; and if he meets "Son Excellence le Conseiller prive," he is pretty sure to assume-- especially if the word "actuel" has been affixed--that he sees before him a real living member of the Russian Privy Council. When to the title is added, "de S. M. l'Empereur de toutes les Russies," a boundless field is opened up to the non-Russian imagination. In reality these titles are not nearly so important as they seem. The soi-disant "Conseiller de Cour" has probably nothing to do with the Court. The Conseiller d'Etat is so far from being a member of the Conseil d'Etat that he cannot possibly become a member till he receives a higher tchin.* As to the Privy Councillor, it is sufficient to say that the Privy Council, which had a very odious reputation in its lifetime, died more than a century ago, and has not since been resuscitated. The explanation of these anomalies is to be found in the fact that the Russian tchins, like the German honorary titles--Hofrath, Staatsrath, Geheimrath--of which they are a literal translation, indicate not actual office, but simply official rank. Formerly the appointment to an office generally depended on the tchin; now there is a tendency to reverse the old order of things and make the tchin depend upon the office actually held.
* In Russian the two words are quite different; the Council is called Gosudarstvenny sovet, and the title Statski sovetnik.
The reader of practical mind who is in the habit of considering results rather than forms and formalities desires probably no further description of the Russian bureaucracy, but wishes to know simply how it works in practice. What has it done for Russia in the past, and what is it doing in the present?
At the present day, when faith in despotic civilisers and paternal government has been rudely shaken, and the advantages of a free, spontaneous national development are fully recognised, centralised bureaucracies have everywhere fallen into bad odour. In Russia the dislike to them is particularly strong, because it has there something more than a purely theoretical basis. The recollection of the reign of Nicholas I., with its stern military regime, and minute, pedantic formalism, makes many Russians condemn in no measured terms the administration under which they live, and most Englishmen will feel inclined to endorse this condemnation. Before passing sentence, however, we ought to know that the system has at least an historical justification, and we must not allow our love of constitutional liberty and local self-government to blind us to the distinction between theoretical and historical possibility. What seems to political philosophers abstractly the best possible government may be utterly inapplicable in certain concrete cases. We need not attempt to decide whether it is better for humanity that Russia should exist as a nation, but we may boldly assert that without a strongly centralised administration Russia would never have become one of the great European Powers. Until comparatively recent times the part of the world which is known as the Russian Empire was a conglomeration of independent or semi-independent political units, animated with centrifugal as well as centripetal forces; and even at the present day it is far from being a compact homogeneous State. It was the autocratic power, with the centralised administration as its necessary complement, that first created Russia, then saved her from dismemberment and political annihilation, and ultimately secured for her a place among European nations by introducing Western civilisation.
Whilst thus recognising clearly that autocracy and a strongly centralised administration were necessary first for the creation and afterwards for the preservation of national independence, we must not shut our eyes to the evil consequences which resulted from this unfortunate necessity. It was in the nature of things that the Government, aiming at the realisation of designs which its subjects neither sympathised with nor clearly understood, should have become separated from the nation; and the reckless haste and violence with which it attempted to carry out its schemes aroused a spirit of positive opposition among the masses. A considerable section of the people long looked on the reforming Tsars as incarnations of the spirit of evil, and the Tsars in their turn looked upon the people as raw material for the realisation of their political designs. This peculiar relation between the nation and the Government has given the key-note to the whole system of administration. The Government has always treated the people as minors, incapable of understanding its political aims, and only very partially competent to look after their own local affairs. The officials have naturally acted in the same spirit. Looking for direction and approbation merely to their superiors, they have systematically treated those over whom they were placed as a conquered or inferior race. The State has thus come to be regarded as an abstract entity, with interests entirely different from those of the human beings composing it; and in all matters in which State interests are supposed to be involved, the rights of individuals are ruthlessly sacrificed.
If we remember that the difficulties of centralised administration must be in direct proportion to the extent and territorial variety of the country to be governed, we may readily understand how slowly and imperfectly the administrative machine necessarily works in Russia. The whole of the vast region stretching from the Polar Ocean to the Caspian, and from the shores of the Baltic to the confines of the Celestial Empire, is administered from St. Petersburg. The genuine bureaucrat has a wholesome dread of formal responsibility, and generally tries to avoid it by taking all matters out of the hands of his subordinates, and passing them on to the higher authorities. As soon, therefore, as affairs are caught up by the administrative machine they begin to ascend, and probably arrive some day at the cabinet of the minister. Thus the ministries are flooded with papers--many of the most trivial import--from all parts of the Empire; and the higher officials, even if they had the eyes of an Argus and the hands of a Briareus, could not possibly fulfil conscientiously the duties imposed on them. In reality the Russian administrators of the higher ranks recall neither Argus nor Briareus. They commonly show neither an extensive nor a profound knowledge of the country which they are supposed to govern, and seem always to have a fair amount of leisure time at their disposal.
Besides the unavoidable evils of excessive centralisation, Russia has had to suffer much from the jobbery, venality, and extortion of the officials. When Peter the Great one day proposed to hang every man who should steal as much as would buy a rope, his Procurator- General frankly replied that if his Majesty put his project into execution there would be no officials left. "We all steal," added the worthy official; "the only difference is that some of us steal larger amounts and more openly than others." Since these words were spoken nearly two centuries have passed, and during all that time Russia has been steadily making progress, but until the accession of Alexander II. in 1855 little change took place in the moral character of the administration. Some people still living can remember the time when they could have repeated, without much exaggeration, the confession of Peter's Procurator-General.
To appreciate aright this ugly phenomenon we must distinguish two kinds of venality. On the one hand there was the habit of exacting what are vulgarly termed "tips" for services performed, and on the other there were the various kinds of positive dishonesty. Though it might not be always easy to draw a clear line between the two categories, the distinction was fully recognised in the moral consciousness of the time, and many an official who regularly received "sinless revenues" (bezgreshniye dokhodi), as the tips were sometimes called, would have been very indignant had he been stigmatised as a dishonest man. The practice was, in fact, universal, and could be, to a certain extent, justified by the smallness of the official salaries. In some departments there was a recognised tariff. The "brandy farmers," for example, who worked the State Monopoly for the manufacture and sale of alcoholic liquors, paid regularly a fixed sum to every official, from the Governor to the policeman, according to his rank. I knew of one case where an official, on receiving a larger sum than was customary, conscientiously handed back the change! The other and more heinous offences were by no means so common, but were still fearfully frequent. Many high officials and important dignitaries were known to receive large revenues, to which the term "sinless" could not by any means be applied, and yet they retained their position, and were received in society with respectful deference.
The Sovereigns were well aware of the abuses, and strove more or less to root them out, but the success which attended their efforts does not give us a very exalted idea of the practical omnipotence of autocracy. In a centralised bureaucratic administration, in which each official is to a certain extent responsible for the sins of his subordinates, it is always extremely difficult to bring an official culprit to justice, for he is sure to be protected by his superiors; and when the superiors are themselves habitually guilty of malpractices, the culprit is quite safe from exposure and punishment. The Tsar, indeed, might do much towards exposing and punishing offenders if he could venture to call in public opinion to his assistance, but in reality he is very apt to become a party to the system of hushing up official delinquencies. He is himself the first official in the realm, and he knows that the abuse of power by a subordinate has a tendency to produce hostility towards the fountain of all official power. Frequent punishment of officials might, it is thought, diminish public respect for the Government, and undermine that social discipline which is necessary for the public tranquillity. It is therefore considered expedient to give to official delinquencies as little publicity as possible.
Besides this, strange as it may seem, a Government which rests on the arbitrary will of a single individual is, notwithstanding occasional outbursts of severity, much less systematically severe than authority founded on free public opinion. When delinquencies occur in very high places the Tsar is almost sure to display a leniency approaching to tenderness. If it be necessary to make a sacrifice to justice, the sacrificial operation is made as painless as may be, and illustrious scapegoats are not allowed to die of starvation in the wilderness--the wilderness being generally Paris or the Riviera. This fact may seem strange to those who are in the habit of associating autocracy with Neapolitan dungeons and the mines of Siberia, but it is not difficult to explain. No individual, even though he be the Autocrat of all the Russias, can so case himself in the armour of official dignity as to be completely proof against personal influences. The severity of autocrats is reserved for political offenders, against whom they naturally harbour a feeling of personal resentment. It is so much easier for us to be lenient and charitable towards a man who sins against public morality than towards one who sins against ourselves!
In justice to the bureaucratic reformers in Russia, it must be said that they have preferred prevention to cure. Refraining from all Draconian legislation, they have put their faith in a system of ingenious checks and a complicated formal procedure. When we examine the complicated formalities and labyrinthine procedure by which the administration is controlled, our first impression is that administrative abuses must be almost impossible. Every possible act of every official seems to have been foreseen, and every possible outlet from the narrow path of honesty seems to have been carefully walled up. As the English reader has probably no conception of formal procedure in a highly centralised bureaucracy, let me give, by way of illustration, an instance which accidentally came to my knowledge.
In the residence of a Governor-General one of the stoves is in need of repairs. An ordinary mortal may assume that a man with the rank of Governor-General may be trusted to expend a few shillings conscientiously, and that consequently his Excellency will at once order the repairs to be made and the payment to be put down among the petty expenses. To the bureaucratic mind the case appears in a very different light. All possible contingencies must be carefully provided for. As a Governor-General may possibly be possessed with a mania for making useless alterations, the necessity for the repairs ought to be verified; and as wisdom and honesty are more likely to reside in an assembly than in an individual, it is well to entrust the verification to a council. A council of three or four members accordingly certifies that the repairs are necessary. This is pretty strong authority, but it is not enough. Councils are composed of mere human beings, liable to error and subject to be intimidated by a Governor-General. It is prudent, therefore, to demand that the decision of the council be confirmed by the Procureur, who is directly subordinated to the Minister of Justice. When this double confirmation has been obtained, an architect examines the stove, and makes an estimate. But it would be dangerous to give carte blanche to an architect, and therefore the estimate has to be confirmed, first by the aforesaid council and afterwards by the Procureur. When all these formalities--which require sixteen days and ten sheets of paper--have been duly observed, his Excellency is informed that the contemplated repairs will cost two roubles and forty kopecks, or about five shillings of our money. Even here the formalities do not stop, for the Government must have the assurance that the architect who made the estimate and superintended the repairs has not been guilty of negligence. A second architect is therefore sent to examine the work, and his report, like the estimate, requires to be confirmed by the council and the Procureur. The whole correspondence lasts thirty days, and requires no less than thirty sheets of paper! Had the person who desired the repairs been not a Governor-General, but an ordinary mortal, it is impossible to say how long the procedure might have lasted.*
* In fairness I feel constrained to add that incidents of this kind occasionally occur--or at least occurred as late as 1886--in our Indian Administration. I remember an instance of a pane of glass being broken in the Viceroy's bedroom in the Viceregal Lodge at Simla, and it would have required nearly a week, if the official procedure had been scrupulously observed, to have it replaced by the Public Works Department.
It might naturally be supposed that this circuitous and complicated method, with its registers, ledgers, and minutes of proceedings, must at least prevent pilfering; but this a priori conclusion has been emphatically belied by experience. Every new ingenious device had merely the effect of producing a still more ingenious means of avoiding it. The system did not restrain those who wished to pilfer, and it had a deleterious effect on honest officials by making them feel that the Government reposed no confidence in them. Besides this, it produced among all officials, honest and dishonest alike, the habit of systematic falsification. As it was impossible for even the most pedantic of men--and pedantry, be it remarked, is a rare quality among Russians--to fulfil conscientiously all the prescribed formalities, it became customary to observe the forms merely on paper. Officials certified facts which they never dreamed of examining, and secretaries gravely wrote the minutes of meetings that had never been held! Thus, in the case above cited, the repairs were in reality begun and ended long before the architect was officially authorised to begin the work. The comedy was nevertheless gravely played out to the end, so that any one afterwards revising the documents would have found that everything had been done in perfect order.
Perhaps the most ingenious means for preventing administrative abuses was devised by the Emperor Nicholas I. Fully aware that he was regularly and systematically deceived by the ordinary officials, he formed a body of well-paid officers, called the gendarmerie, who were scattered over the country, and ordered to report directly to his Majesty whatever seemed to them worthy of attention. Bureaucratic minds considered this an admirable expedient; and the Tsar confidently expected that he would, by means of these official observers who had no interest in concealing the truth, be able to know everything, and to correct all official abuses. In reality the institution produced few good results, and in some respects had a very pernicious influence. Though picked men and provided with good salaries, these officers were all more or less permeated with the prevailing spirit. They could not but feel that they were regarded as spies and informers--a humiliating conviction, little calculated to develop that feeling of self- respect which is the main foundation of uprightness--and that all their efforts could do but little good. They were, in fact, in pretty much the same position as Peter's Procurator-General, and, with true Russian bonhomie, they disliked ruining individuals who were no worse than the majority of their fellows. Besides this, according to the received code of official morality insubordination was a more heinous sin than dishonesty, and political offences were regarded as the blackest of all. The gendarmerie officers shut their eyes, therefore, to the prevailing abuses, which were believed to be incurable, and directed their attention to real or imaginary political delinquencies. Oppression and extortion remained unnoticed, whilst an incautious word or a foolish joke at the expense of the Government was too often magnified into an act of high treason.
This force still exists under a slightly modified form. Towards the close of the reign of Alexander II. (1880), when Count Loris Melikof, with the sanction and approval of his august master, was preparing to introduce a system of liberal political reforms, it was intended to abolish the gendarmerie as an organ of political espionage, and accordingly the direction of it was transferred from the so-called Third Section of his Imperial Majesty's Chancery to the Ministry of the Interior; but when the benevolent monarch was a few months afterwards assassinated by revolutionists, the project was naturally abandoned, and the Corps of Gendarmes, while remaining nominally under the Minister of the Interior, was practically reinstated in its former position. Now, as then, it serves as a kind of supplement to the ordinary police, and is generally employed for matters in which secrecy is required. Unfortunately it is not bound by those legal restrictions which protect the public against the arbitrary will of the ordinary authorities. In addition to its regular duties it has a vaguely defined roving commission to watch and arrest all persons who seem to it in any way dangerous or suspectes, and it may keep such in confinement for an indefinite time, or remove them to some distant and inhospitable part of the Empire, without making them undergo a regular trial. It is, in short, the ordinary instrument for punishing political dreamers, suppressing secret societies, counteracting political agitations, and in general executing the extra-legal orders of the Government.
My relations with this anomalous branch of the administration were somewhat peculiar. After my experience with the Vice-Governor of Novgorod I determined to place myself above suspicion, and accordingly applied to the "Chef des Gendarmes" for some kind of official document which would prove to all officials with whom I might come in contact that I had no illicit designs. My request was granted, and I was furnished with the necessary documents; but I soon found that in seeking to avoid Scylla I had fallen into Charybdis. In calming official suspicions, I inadvertently aroused suspicions of another kind. The documents proving that I enjoyed the protection of the Government made many people suspect that I was an emissary of the gendarmerie, and greatly impeded me in my efforts to collect information from private sources. As the private were for me more important than the official sources of information, I refrained from asking for a renewal of the protection, and wandered about the country as an ordinary unprotected traveller. For some time I had no cause to regret this decision. I knew that I was pretty closely watched, and that my letters were occasionally opened in the post-office, but I was subjected to no further inconvenience. At last, when I had nearly forgotten all about Scylla and Charybdis, I one night unexpectedly ran upon the former, and, to my astonishment, found myself formally arrested! The incident happened in this wise.
I had been visiting Austria and Servia, and after a short absence returned to Russia through Moldavia. On arriving at the Pruth, which there forms the frontier, I found an officer of gendarmerie, whose duty it was to examine the passports of all passers-by. Though my passport was completely en regle, having been duly vise by the British and Russian Consuls at Galatz, this gentleman subjected me to a searching examination regarding my past life, actual occupation, and intentions for the future. On learning that I had been for more than two years travelling in Russia at my own expense, for the simple purpose of collecting miscellaneous information, he looked incredulous, and seemed to have some doubts as to my being a genuine British subject; but when my statements were confirmed by my travelling companion, a Russian friend who carried awe-inspiring credentials, he countersigned my passport, and allowed us to depart. The inspection of our luggage by the custom-house officers was soon got over; and as we drove off to the neighbouring village where we were to spend the night we congratulated ourselves on having escaped for some time from all contact with the official world. In this we were "reckoning without the host." As the clock struck twelve that night I was roused by a loud knocking at my door, and after a good deal of parley, during which some one proposed to effect an entrance by force, I drew the bolt. The officer who had signed my passport entered, and said, in a stiff, official tone, "I must request you to remain here for twenty-four hours."
Not a little astonished by this announcement, I ventured to inquire the reason for this strange request.
"That is my business," was the laconic reply.
"Perhaps it is; still you must, on mature consideration, admit that I too have some interest in the matter. To my extreme regret I cannot comply with your request, and must leave at sunrise."
"You shall not leave. Give me your passport."
"Unless detained by force, I shall start at four o'clock; and as I wish to get some sleep before that time, I must request you instantly to retire. You had the right to stop me at the frontier, but you have no right to come and disturb me in this fashion, and I shall certainly report you. My passport I shall give to none but a regular officer of police."
Here followed a long discussion on the rights, privileges, and general character of the gendarmerie, during which my opponent gradually laid aside his dictatorial tone, and endeavoured to convince me that the honourable body to which he belonged was merely an ordinary branch of the administration. Though evidently irritated, he never, I must say, overstepped the bounds of politeness, and seemed only half convinced that he was justified in interfering with my movements. When he found that he could not induce me to give up my passport, he withdrew, and I again lay down to rest; but in about half an hour I was again disturbed. This time an officer of regular police entered, and demanded my "papers." To my inquiries as to the reason of all this disturbance, he replied, in a very polite, apologetic way, that he knew nothing about the reason, but he had received orders to arrest me, and must obey. To him I delivered my passport, on condition that I should receive a written receipt, and should be allowed to telegraph to the British ambassador in St. Petersburg.
Early next morning I telegraphed to the ambassador, and waited impatiently all day for a reply. I was allowed to walk about the village and the immediate vicinity, but of this permission I did not make much use. The village population was entirely Jewish, and Jews in that part of the world have a wonderful capacity for spreading intelligence. By the early morning there was probably not a man, woman, or child in the place who had not heard of my arrest, and many of them felt a not unnatural curiosity to see the malefactor who had been caught by the police. To be stared at as a malefactor is not very agreeable, so I preferred to remain in my room, where, in the company of my friend, who kindly remained with me and made small jokes about the boasted liberty of British subjects, I spent the time pleasantly enough. The most disagreeable part of the affair was the uncertainty as to how many days, weeks, or months I might be detained, and on this point the police-officer would not even hazard a conjecture.
The detention came to an end sooner than I expected. On the following day--that is to say, about thirty-six hours after the nocturnal visit--the police-officer brought me my passport, and at the same time a telegram from the British Embassy informed me that the central authorities had ordered my release. On my afterwards pertinaciously requesting an explanation of the unceremonious treatment to which I had been subjected, the Minister for Foreign Affairs declared that the authorities expected a person of my name to cross the frontier about that time with a quantity of false bank-notes, and that I had been arrested by mistake. I must confess that this explanation, though official, seemed to me more ingenious than satisfactory, but I was obliged to accept it for what it was worth. At a later period I had again the misfortune to attract the attention of the secret police, but I reserve the incident till I come to speak of my relations with the revolutionists.
From all I have seen and heard of the gendarmerie I am disposed to believe that the officers are for the most part polite, well- educated men, who seek to fulfil their disagreeable duties in as inoffensive a way as possible. It must, however, be admitted that they are generally regarded with suspicion and dislike, even by those people who fear the attempts at revolutionary propaganda which it is the special duty of the gendarmerie to discover and suppress. Nor need this surprise us. Though very many people believe in the necessity of capital punishment, there are few who do not feel a decided aversion to the public executioner.
The only effectual remedy for administrative abuses lies in placing the administration under public control. This has been abundantly proved in Russia. All the efforts of the Tsars during many generations to check the evil by means of ingenious bureaucratic devices proved utterly fruitless. Even the iron will and gigantic energy of Nicholas I. were insufficient for the task. But when, after the Crimean War, there was a great moral awakening, and the Tsar called the people to his assistance, the stubborn, deep-rooted evils immediately disappeared. For a time venality and extortion were unknown, and since that period they have never been able to regain their old force.
At the present moment it cannot be said that the administration is immaculate, but it is incomparably purer than it was in old times. Though public opinion is no longer so powerful as it was in the early sixties, it is still strong enough to repress many malpractices which in the time of Nicholas I. and his predecessors were too frequent to attract attention. On this subject I shall have more to say hereafter.
If administrative abuses are rife in the Empire of the Tsars, it is not from any want of carefully prepared laws. In no country in the world, perhaps, is the legislation more voluminous, and in theory, not only the officials, but even the Tsar himself, must obey the laws he has sanctioned, like the meanest of his subjects. This is one of those cases, not infrequent in Russia, in which theory differs somewhat from practice. In real life the Emperor may at any moment override the law by means of what is called a Supreme Command (vysotchaishiye povelenie), and a minister may "interpret" a law in any way he pleases by means of a circular. This is a frequent cause of complaint even among those who wish to uphold the Autocratic Power. In their opinion law-respecting autocracy wielded by a strong Tsar is an excellent institution for Russia; it is arbitrary autocracy wielded by irresponsible ministers that they object to.
As Englishmen may have some difficulty in imagining how laws can come into being without a Parliament or Legislative Chamber of some sort, I shall explain briefly how they are manufactured by the Russian bureaucratic machine without the assistance of representative institutions.
When a minister considers that some institution in his branch of the service requires to be reformed, he begins by submitting to the Emperor a formal report on the matter. If the Emperor agrees with his minister as to the necessity for reform, he orders a Commission to be appointed for the purpose of considering the subject and preparing a definite legislative project. The Commission meets and sets to work in what seems a very thorough way. It first studies the history of the institution in Russia from the earliest times downwards--or rather, it listens to an essay on the subject, especially prepared for the occasion by some official who has a taste for historical studies, and can write in a pleasant style. The next step--to use a phrase which often occurs in the minutes of such commissions--consists in "shedding the light of science on the question" (prolit' na dyelo svet nauki). This important operation is performed by preparing a memorial containing the history of similar institutions in foreign countries, and an elaborate exposition of numerous theories held by French and German philosophical jurists. In these memorials it is often considered necessary to include every European country except Turkey, and sometimes the small German States and principal Swiss cantons are treated separately.
To illustrate the character of these wonderful productions, let me give an example. From a pile of such papers lying before me I take one almost at random. It is a memorial relating to a proposed reform of benevolent institutions. First I find a philosophical disquisition on benevolence in general; next, some remarks on the Talmud and the Koran; then a reference to the treatment of paupers in Athens after the Peloponnesian War, and in Rome under the emperors: then some vague observations on the Middle Ages, with a quotation that was evidently intended to be Latin; lastly, comes an account of the poor-laws of modern times, in which I meet with "the Anglo-Saxon domination," King Egbert, King Ethelred, "a remarkable book of Icelandic laws, called Hragas"; Sweden and Norway, France, Holland, Belgium, Prussia, and nearly all the minor German States. The most wonderful thing is that all this mass of historical information, extending from the Talmud to the most recent legislation of Hesse-Darmstadt, is compressed into twenty-one octavo pages! The doctrinal part of the memorandum is not less rich. Many respected names from the literature of Germany, France, and England are forcibly dragged in; and the general conclusion drawn from this mass of raw, undigested materials is believed to be "the latest results of science."
Does the reader suspect that I have here chosen an extremely exceptional case? If so, let us take the next paper in the file. It refers to a project of law regarding imprisonment for debt. On the first page I find references to "the Salic laws of the fifth century," and the "Assises de Jerusalem, A.D 1099." That, I think, will suffice. Let us pass, then, to the next step.
When the quintessence of human wisdom and experience has thus been extracted, the commission considers how the valuable product may be applied to Russia, so as to harmonise with the existing general conditions and local peculiarities. For a man of practical mind this is, of course, the most interesting and most important part of the operation, but from Russian legislators it receives comparatively little attention. Very often have I turned to this section of official papers in order to obtain information regarding the actual state of the country, and in every case I have been grievously disappointed. Vague general phrases, founded on a priori reasoning rather than on observation, together with a few statistical tables--which the cautious investigator should avoid as he would an ambuscade--are too often all that is to be found. Through the thin veil of pseudo-erudition the real facts are clear enough. These philosophical legislators, who have spent their lives in the official atmosphere of St. Petersburg, know as much about Russia as the genuine cockney knows about Great Britain, and in this part of their work they derive no assistance from the learned German treatises which supply an unlimited amount of historical facts and philosophical speculation.
From the commission the project passes to the Council of State, where it is certainly examined and criticised, and perhaps modified, but it is not likely to be improved from the practical point of view, because the members of the Council are merely ci- devant members of similar commissions, hardened by a few additional years of official routine. The Council is, in fact, an assembly of tchinovniks who know little of the practical, everyday wants of the unofficial classes. No merchant, manufacturer, or farmer ever enters its sacred precincts, so that its bureaucratic serenity is rarely disturbed by practical objections. It is not surprising, therefore, that it has been known to pass laws which were found at once to be absolutely unworkable.
From the Council of State the Bill is taken to the Emperor, and he generally begins by examining the signatures. The "Ayes" are in one column and the "Noes" in another. If his Majesty is not specially acquainted with the matter--and he cannot possibly be acquainted with all the matters submitted to him--he usually signs with the majority, or on the side where he sees the names of officials in whose judgment he has special confidence; but if he has strong views of his own, he places his signature in whichever column he thinks fit, and it outweighs the signatures of any number of Councillors. Whatever side he supports, that side "has it," and in this way a small minority may be transformed into a majority. When the important question, for example, as to how far classics should be taught in the ordinary schools was considered by the Council, it is said that only two members signed in favour of classical education, which was excessively unpopular at the moment, but the Emperor Alexander III., disregarding public opinion and the advice of his Councillors, threw his signature into the lighter scale, and the classicists were victorious.