Chapter XXXIX - The Present Situation
Is history about to repeat itself, or are we on the eve of a cataclysm? Is the reign of Nicholas II. to be, in its main lines, a repetition of the reign of Alexander II., or is Russia about to enter on an entirely new phase of her political development?
To this momentous question I do not profess to give a categorical answer. If it be true, even in ordinary times, that "of all forms of human folly, prediction is the most gratuitous," it is especially true at a moment like the present, when we are constantly reminded of the French proverb that there is nothing certain but the unforeseen. All I can hope to do is to throw a little light on the elements of the problem, and allow the reader to draw his own conclusions.
Between the present situation and the early part of Alexander II.'s reign there is undoubtedly a certain analogy. In both cases we find in the educated classes a passionate desire for political liberty, generated by long years of a stern, autocratic regime, and stimulated by military disasters for which autocracy is held responsible; and in both cases we find the throne occupied by a Sovereign of less accentuated political convictions and less energetic character than his immediate predecessor. In the earlier case, the autocrat, showing more perspicacity and energy than were expected of him, guides and controls the popular enthusiasm, and postpones the threatened political crisis by effecting a series of far reaching and beneficent reforms. In the present case . . . the description of the result must be left to future historians. For the moment, all we can say is that between the two situations there are as many points of difference as of analogy. After the Crimean War the enthusiasm was of a vague, eclectic kind, and consequently it could find satisfaction in practical administrative reforms not affecting the essence of the Autocratic Power, the main pivot round which the Empire has revolved for centuries. Now, on the contrary, it is precisely on this pivot that the reform enthusiasm is concentrated. Mere bureaucratic reforms can no longer give satisfaction. All sections of the educated classes, with the exception of a small group of Conservative doctrinaires, insist on obtaining a controlling influence in the government of the country, and demand that the Autocratic Power, if not abolished, shall be limited by parliamentary institutions of a democratic type.
Another difference between the present and the past, is that those who now clamour for radical changes are more numerous, more courageous, and better organised than their predecessors, and they are consequently better able to bring pressure to bear on the Government. Formerly the would-be reformers were of two categories; on the one hand, the Constitutionalists, who remained within the bounds of legality, and confined themselves to inserting vague hints in loyal addresses to the Tsar and making mild political demonstrations; and on the other hand, the so-called Nihilists, who talked about organising society on Socialistic principles, and who hoped to attain their object by means of secret associations. With both of these groups, as soon as they became aggressive, the Government had no difficulty in dealing effectually. The leading Constitutionalists were simply reprimanded or ordered to remain for a time in their country houses, while the more active revolutionaries were exiled, imprisoned, or compelled to take refuge abroad. All this gave the police a good deal of trouble, especially when the Nihilists took to Socialist propaganda among the common people, and to acts of terrorism against the officials; but the existence of the Autocratic Power was never seriously endangered. Nowadays the Liberals have no fear of official reprimands, and openly disregard the orders of the authorities about holding meetings and making speeches, while a large section of the Socialists proclaim themselves a Social Democratic party, enrol large numbers of working men, organise formidable strikes, and make monster demonstrations leading to bloodshed.
Let us now examine this new Opposition a little more closely. We can perceive at a glance that it is composed of two sections, differing widely from each other in character and aims. On the one hand, there are the Liberals, who desire merely political reforms of a more or less democratic type; on the other, there are the Socialists, who aim at transforming thoroughly the existing economic organisation of Society, and who, if they desire parliamentary institutions at all, desire them simply as a stepping stone to the realisation of the Socialist ideal. Behind the Socialists, and to some extent mingling with them, stand a number of men belonging to the various subject-nationalities, who have placed themselves under the Socialist banner, but who hold, more or less concealed, their little national flags, ready to be unfurled at the proper moment.
Of these three sections of the Opposition, the most numerous and the best prepared to undertake the functions and responsibilities of government is that of the Liberals. The movement which they represent began immediately after the Crimean War, when the upper ranks of society, smarting under defeat and looking about for the cause of the military disasters, came to the conclusion that Autocracy had been put to a crucial test, and found wanting. The outburst of patriotic indignation at that time and the eager desire for a more liberal regime have been described in previous chapters. For a moment the more sanguine critics of the Government imagined that the Autocratic Power, persuaded of its own inefficiency, would gladly accept the assistance of the educated classes, and would spontaneously transform itself into a Constitutional Monarchy. In reality Alexander II. had no such intentions. He was resolved to purify the administration and to reform as far as possible all existing abuses, and he seemed ready at first to listen to the advice and accept the co-operation of his faithful subjects; but he had not the slightest intention of limiting his supreme authority, which he regarded as essential to the existence of the Empire. As soon as the landed proprietors began to complain that the great question of serf emancipation was being taken out of their hands by the bureaucracy, he reminded them that "in Russia laws are made by the Autocratic Power," and when the more courageous Marshals of Noblesse ventured to protest against the unceremonious manner in which the nobles were being treated by the tchinovniks, some of them were officially reprimanded and others were deposed.
The indignation produced by this procedure, in which the Tsar identified himself with the bureaucracy, was momentarily appeased by the decision of the Government to entrust to the landed proprietors the carrying out of the Emancipation law, and by the confident hope that political rights would be granted them as compensation for the material sacrifices they had made for the good of the State; but when they found that this confident hope was an illusion, the indignation and discontent reappeared.
There was still, however, a ray of hope. Though the Autocratic Power was evidently determined not to transform itself at once into a limited Constitutional Monarchy, it might make concessions in the sphere of local self-government. At that moment it was creating the Zemstvo, and the Constitutionalists hoped that these new institutions, though restricted legally to the sphere of purely economic wants, might gradually acquire a considerable political influence. Learned Germans had proved that in England, "the mother of modern Constitutionalism," it was on local self-government that the political liberties were founded, and the Slavophils now suggested that by means of an ancient institution called the Zemski Sobor, the Zemstvo might gradually and naturally acquire a political character in accordance with Russian historic development. As this idea has often been referred to in recent discussions, I may explain briefly what the ancient institution in question was.
In the Tsardom of Muscovy during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries representative assemblies were occasionally called together to deal with matters of exceptional importance, such as the election of a Tsar when the throne became vacant, a declaration of war, the conclusion of a peace, or the preparation of a new code of laws. Some fifteen assemblies of the kind were convoked in the space of about a century (1550-1653). They were composed largely of officials named by the Government, but they contained also some representatives of the unofficial classes. Their procedure was peculiar. When a speech from the throne had been read by the Tsar or his representative, explaining the question to be decided, the assembly transformed itself into a large number of commissions, and each commission had to give in writing its opinion regarding the questions submitted to it. The opinions thus elicited were codified by the officials and submitted to the Tsar, and he was free to adopt or reject them, as he thought fit. We may say, therefore, that the Zemski Sobor was merely consultative and had no legislative power; but we must add that it was allowed a certain initiative, because it was permitted to submit to the Tsar humble petitions regarding anything which it considered worthy of attention.
Alexander II. might have adopted this Slavophil idea and used the Zemski Sobor as a means of transition from pure autocracy to a more modern system of government, but he had no sooner created the Zemstvo than he thought it necessary, as we have seen, to clip its wings, and dispel its political ambition. By this repressive policy the frondeur spirit of the Noblesse was revived, and it has continued to exist down to the present time. On each occasion when I revisited Russia and had an opportunity of feeling the pulse of public opinion, between 1876 and 1903, I noticed that the dissatisfaction with the traditional methods of government, and the desire of the educated classes to obtain a share of the political power, notwithstanding short periods of apparent apathy, were steadily spreading in area and increasing in intensity, and I often heard predictions that a disastrous foreign war like the Crimean campaign would probably bring about the desired changes. Of those who made such predictions not a few showed clearly that, though patriotic enough in a certain sense, they would not regret any military disaster which would have the effect they anticipated. Progress in the direction of political emancipation, accompanied by radical improvements in the administration, was evidently regarded as much more important and desirable than military prestige or extension of territory.
During the first part of the Turkish campaign of 1877-78, when the Russian armies were repulsed in Bulgaria and Asia Minor, the hostility to autocracy was very strong, and the famous acquittal of Vera Zasulitch, who had attempted to assassinate General Trepof, caused widespread satisfaction among people who were not themselves revolutionaries and who did not approve of such violent methods of political struggle. Towards the end of the war, when the tide of fortune had turned both in Europe and in Asia, and the Russian army was encamped under the walls of Constantinople, within sight of St. Sophia, the Chauvinist feelings gained the upper hand, and they were greatly intensified by the Congress of Berlin, which deprived Russia of some fruits of her victories.
This change in public feeling and the horror excited by the assassination of Alexander II. prepared the way for Alexander III.'s reign (1881-94), which was a period of political stagnation. He was a man of strong character, and a vigorous ruler who believed in Autocracy as he did in the dogmas of his Church; and very soon after his accession he gave it clearly to be understood that he would permit no limitations of the Autocratic Power. The men with Liberal aspirations knew that nothing would make him change his mind on that subject, and that any Liberal demonstrations would merely confirm him in his reactionary tendencies. They accordingly remained quiet and prudently waited for better times.
The better times were supposed to have come when Nicholas II. ascended the throne in November, 1894, because it was generally assumed that the young Tsar, who was known to be humane and well- intentioned, would inaugurate a more liberal policy. Before he had been three months on the throne he summarily destroyed these illusions. On 17th (29th) January, 1895, when receiving deputies from the Noblesse, the Zemstvo, and the municipalities, who had come to St. Petersburg to congratulate him on his marriage, he declared his confidence in the sincerity of the loyal feelings which the delegates expressed; and then, to the astonishment of all present, he added: "It is known to me that recently, in some Zemstvo assemblies, were heard the voices of people who had let themselves be carried away by absurd dreams of the Zemstvo representatives taking part in the affairs of internal administration; let them know that I, devoting all my efforts to the prosperity of the nation, will preserve the principles of autocracy as firmly and unswervingly as my late father of imperishable memory."
These words, pronounced by the young ruler at the commencement of his reign, produced profound disappointment and dissatisfaction in all sections of the educated classes, and from that moment the frondeur spirit began to show itself more openly than at any previous period. In the case of some people of good social position it took the unusual form of speaking disrespectfully of his Majesty. Others supposed that the Emperor had simply repeated words prepared for him by the Minister of the Interior, and this idea spread rapidly, till hostility to the bureaucracy became universal.
This feeling reached its climax when the Ministry of the Interior was confided to M. Plehve. His immediate predecessors, though sincere believers in autocracy and very hostile to Liberalism of all kinds, considered that the Liberal ideas might be rendered harmless by firm passive resistance and mild reactionary measures. He, on the contrary, took a more alarmist view of the situation. His appointment coincided with the revival of terrorism, and he believed that autocracy was in danger. To save it, the only means was, in his opinion, a vigorous, repressive police administration, and as he was a man of strong convictions and exceptional energy, he screwed up his system of police supervision to the sticking- point and applied it to the Liberals as well as to the terrorists. In the year 1903, if we may credit information which comes from an apparently trustworthy source, no less than 1,988 political affairs were initiated by the police, and 4,867 persons were condemned inquisitorially to various punishments without any regular trial.
Whilst this unpopular rigorism was in full force the war unexpectedly broke out, and added greatly to the existing discontent.
Very few people in Russia had been following closely the recent developments of the Far Eastern Question, and still fewer understood their importance. There seemed to be nothing abnormal in what was taking place. Russia was expanding, and would continue to expand indefinitely, in that direction, without any strenuous effort on her part. Of course the English would try to arrest her progress as usual by diplomatic notes, but their efforts would be as futile as they had been on all previous occasions. They might incite the Japanese to active resistance, but Japan would not commit the insane folly of challenging her giant rival to mortal combat. The whole question could be settled in accordance with Russian interests, as so many similar questions had been settled in the past, by a little skilful diplomacy; and Manchuria could be absorbed, as the contiguous Chinese provinces had been forty years ago, without the necessity of going to war.
When these comforting illusions were suddenly destroyed by the rupture of diplomatic relations and the naval attack on Port Arthur, there was an outburst of indignant astonishment. At first the indignation was directed against Japan and England, but it soon turned against the home Government, which had made no adequate preparations for the struggle, and it was intensified by current rumours that the crisis had been wantonly provoked by certain influential personages for purely personal reasons.
How far the accounts of the disorders in the military organisation and the rumours about pilfering in high quarters were true, we need not inquire. True or false, they helped greatly to make the war unpopular, and to stimulate the desire for political changes. Under a more liberal and enlightened regime such things were supposed to be impossible, and, as at the time of the Crimean War, public opinion decided that autocracy was being tried, and found wanting.
So long as the stern, uncompromising Plehve was at the Ministry of the Interior, enjoying the Emperor's confidence and directing the police administration, public opinion was prudent and reserved in its utterances, but when he was assassinated by a terrorist (July 28th, 1904), and was succeeded by Prince Sviatopolk Mirski, a humane man of Liberal views, the Constitutionalists thought that the time had come for making known their grievances and demands, and for bringing pressure to bear on the Emperor. First came forward the leading members of the Zemstvos. After some preliminary consultation they assembled in St. Petersburg, with the consent of the authorities, in the hope that they would be allowed to discuss publicly the political wants of the country, and prepare the draft of a Constitution. Their wishes were only partially acceded to. They were informed semi-officially that their meetings must be private, but that they might send their resolutions to the Minister of the Interior for transmission to his Majesty. A memorandum was accordingly drawn up and signed on November 21st by 102 out of the 104 representatives present.
This hesitating attitude on the part of the Government encouraged other sections of the educated classes to give expression to their long pent-up political aspirations. On the heels of the Zemstvo delegates appeared the barristers, who discussed the existing evils from the juridical point of view, and prescribed what they considered the necessary remedies. Then came municipalities of the large towns, corporations of various kinds, academic leagues, medical faculties, learned societies, and miscellaneous gatherings, all demanding reforms. Great banquets were organised, and very strong speeches, which would have led in Plehve's time to the immediate arrest of the orators, were delivered and published without provoking police intervention.
In the memorandum presented to the Minister of the Interior by the Zemstvo Congress, and in the resolutions passed by the other corporate bodies, we see reflected the grievances and aspirations of the great majority of the educated classes.
The theory propounded in these documents is that a lawless, arbitrary bureaucracy, which seeks to exclude the people from all participation in the management of public affairs, has come between the nation and the Supreme Power, and that it is necessary to eliminate at once this baneful intermediary and inaugurate the so- called "reign of law." For this purpose the petitioners and orators demanded:
(1) Inviolability of person and domicile, so that no one should be troubled by the police without a warrant from an independent magistrate, and no one punished without a regular trial;
(2) Freedom of conscience, of speech, and of the Press, together with the right of holding public meetings and forming associations;
(3) Greater freedom and increased activity of the local self- government, rural and municipal;
(4) An assembly of freely elected representatives, who should participate in the legislative activity and control the administration in all its branches;
(5) The immediate convocation of a constituent assembly, which should frame a Constitution on these lines.
Of these requirements the last two are considered by far the most important. The truth is that the educated classes have come to be possessed of an ardent desire for genuine parliamentary institutions on a broad, democratic basis, and neither improvements in the bureaucratic organisation, nor even a Zemski Sobor in the sense of a Consultative Assembly, would satisfy them. They imagine that with a full-fledged constitution they would be guaranteed, not only against administrative oppression, but even against military reverses such as they have recently experienced in the Far East--an opinion in which those who know by experience how military unreadiness and inefficiency can be combined with parliamentary institutions will hardly feel inclined to concur.
It may surprise English readers to learn that the corruption and venality of the civil and military administration, of which we have recently heard so much, are nowhere mentioned in the complaints and remonstrances; but the fact is easily accounted for. Though corrupt practices undoubtedly exist in some branches of the public service, they are not so universal as is commonly supposed in Western Europe; and the Russian reformers evidently consider that the purifying of the administration is less urgent than the acquisition of political liberties, or that under an enlightened democratic regime the existing abuses would spontaneously disappear.
The demands put forward in St. Petersburg did not meet with universal approval in Moscow. There they seemed excessive and un- Russian, and an attempt was made to form a more moderate party. In the ancient Capital of the Tsars even among the Liberals there are not a few who have a sentimental tenderness for the Autocratic Power, and they argue that parliamentary government would be very dangerous in a country which is still far from being homogeneous or compact. To maintain the integrity of the Empire, and to hold the balance equally between the various races and social classes of which the population is composed, it is necessary, they think, to have some permanent authority above the sphere of party spirit and electioneering strife. While admitting that the Government in its present bureaucratic form is unsatisfactory and stands in need of being enlightened by the unofficial classes, they think that a Consultative Assembly on the model of the old Zemski Sobors would be infinitely better suited to Russian wants than a Parliament such as that which sits at Westminster.
For a whole month the Government took little notice of the unprecedented excitement and demonstrations. It was not till December 25th that a reply was given to the public demands. On that day the Emperor signed an ukaz in which he enumerated the reforms which he considered most urgent, and instructed the Committee of Ministers to prepare the requisite legislation. The list of reforms coincided to a certain extent with the demands formulated by the Zemstvos, but the document as a whole produced profound disappointment, because it contained no mention of a National Assembly. To those who could read between the lines the attitude of the Emperor seemed perfectly clear. He was evidently desirous of introducing very considerable reforms, but he was resolved that they must be effected by the unimpaired Autocratic Power in the old bureaucratic fashion, without any participation of the unofficial world.
To obviate any misconception on this point, the Government published, simultaneously with the ukaz, an official communication in which it condemned the agitation and excitement, and warned the Zemstvos, municipalities, and other corporate bodies that in discussing political questions they were overstepping the limits of their legally-defined functions and exposing themselves to the rigours of the law.
As might have been foreseen, the ukaz and the circular had not at all the desired effect of "introducing the necessary tranquillity into public life, which has lately been diverted from its normal course." On the contrary, they increased the excitement, and evoked a new series of public demonstrations. On December 27th, the very day on which the two official documents were published-- the Provincial Zemstvo of Moscow, openly disregarding the ministerial warnings, expressed the conviction that the day was near when the bureaucratic regime, which had so long estranged the Supreme Power from the people, would be changed, and when freely- elected representatives of the people would take part in legislation. The same evening, at St. Petersburg, a great Liberal banquet was held, at which a resolution was voted condemning the war, and declaring that Russia could be extricated from her difficulties only by the representatives of the nation, freely elected by secret ballot. As an encouragement to the organs of local administration to persevere in their disregard of ministerial instructions, the St. Petersburg Medical Society, after adopting the programme of the Zemstvo Congress, sent telegrams of congratulation to the Mayor of Moscow and the President of the Tchernigof Zemstvo bureau, both of whom had incurred the displeasure of the Government. A similar telegram was sent by a Congress of 496 engineers to the Moscow Town Council, in which the burning political questions had been freely discussed. In other large towns, when the mayor prevented such discussions, a considerable number of the town councillors resigned.
From the Zemstvos and municipalities the spirit of opposition spread to the provincial assemblies of the Noblesse. The nobles of the province of St. Petersburg, for example, voted by a large majority an address to the Tsar recommending the convocation of a freely-elected National Assembly; and in Moscow, usually regarded as the fortress of Conservatism, eighty members of the Assembly entered a formal protest against a patriotic Conservative address which had been voted two days before. Even the fair sex considered it necessary to support the opposition movement. The matrons of Moscow, in a humble petition to the Empress, declared that they could not continue to bring up their children properly in the existing state of unconstitutional lawlessness, and their view was endorsed in several provincial towns by the schoolboys, who marched through the streets in procession, and refused to learn their lessons until popular liberties had been granted!
Again, for more than a month the Government remained silent on the fundamental questions which were exercising the public mind. At last, on the morning of March 3d, appeared an Imperial manifesto of a very unexpected kind. In it the Emperor deplored the outbreak of internal disturbances at a moment when the glorious sons of Russia were fighting with self-sacrificing bravery and offering their lives for the Faith, the Tsar, and the Fatherland; but he drew consolation and hope from remembering that, with the help of the prayers of the Holy Orthodox Church, under the banner of the Tsar's autocratic might, Russia had frequently passed through great wars and internal troubles, and had always issued from them with fresh strength. He appealed, therefore, to all right-minded subjects, to whatever class they might belong, to join him in the great and sacred task of overcoming the stubborn foreign foe, and eradicating revolt at home. As for the manner in which he hoped this might be accomplished, he gave a pretty clear indication, at the end of the document, by praying to God, not only for the welfare of his subjects, but also for "the consolidation of autocracy."
This extraordinary pronouncement, couched in semi-ecclesiastical language, produced in the Liberal world feelings of surprise, disappointment, and dismay. No one was more astonished and dismayed than the Ministers, who had known nothing of the manifesto until they saw it in the official Gazette. In the course of the forenoon they paid their usual weekly visit to Tsarskoe Selo, and respectfully submitted to the Emperor that such a document must have a deplorable effect on public opinion. In consequence of their representations his Majesty consented to supplement the manifesto by a rescript to the Minister of the Interior, in which he explained that in carrying out his intentions for the welfare of his people the Government was to have the co-operation of "the experienced elements of the community." Then followed the memorable words: "I am resolved henceforth, with the help of God, to convene the most worthy men, possessing the confidence of the people and elected by them, in order that they may participate in the preparation and consideration of legislative measures." For the carrying out of this resolution a commission, or "special conference," was to be at once convened, under the presidency of M. Bulyghin, the Minister of the Interior.
The rescript softened the impression produced by the manifesto, but it did not give general satisfaction, because it contained significant indications that the Emperor, while promising to create an assembly of some kind, was still determined to maintain the Autocratic Power. So at least the public interpreted a vague phase about the difficulty of introducing reforms "while preserving absolutely the immutability of the fundamental laws of the Empire." And this impression seemed to be confirmed by the fact that the task of preparing the future representative institutions was confided, not to a constituent assembly, but to a small commission composed chiefly or entirely of officials.
In these circumstances the Liberals determined to continue the agitation. The Bulyghin Commission was accordingly inundated with petitions and addresses explaining the wants of the nation in general, and of various sections of it in particular; and when the Minister declined to receive deputations and discuss with them the aforesaid wants, the reform question was taken up by a new series of congresses, composed of doctors, lawyers, professors, journalists, etc. Even the higher ecclesiastical dignitaries woke up for a moment from their accustomed lethargy, remembered how they had lived for so many years under the rod of M. Pobedonostsef, recognised as uncanonical such subordination to a layman, and petitioned for the resurrection of the Patriarchate, which had been abolished by Peter the Great.
On May 9th a new Zemstvo Congress was held in Moscow, and it at once showed that since their November session in St. Petersburg the delegates had made a decided movement to the Left. Those of them who had then led the movement were now regarded as too Conservative. The idea of a Zemski Sobor was discarded as insufficient for the necessities of the situation, and strong speeches were made in support of a much more democratic constitution.
It was thus becoming clearer every day that between the Liberals and the Government there was an essential difference which could not be removed by ordinary concessions. The Emperor proved that he was in favour of reform by granting a very large measure of religious toleration, by removing some of the disabilities imposed on the Poles, and allowing the Polish language to be used in schools, and by confirming the proposals of the Committee of Ministers to place the Press censure on a legal basis. But these concessions to public opinion did not gain for him the sympathy and support of his Liberal subjects. What they insisted on was a considerable limitation of the Autocratic Power; and on that point the Emperor has hitherto shown himself inexorable. His firmness proceeds not from any wayward desire to be able to do as he pleases, but from a hereditary respect for a principle. From his boyhood he has been taught that Russia owes her greatness and her security to her autocratic form of government, and that it is the sacred duty of the Tsar to hand down intact to his successors the power which he holds in trust for them.
While the Liberals were thus striving to attain their object without popular disorders, and without any very serious infraction of the law, Revolutionaries were likewise busy, working on different but parallel lines.
In the chapter on the present phase of the revolutionary movement I have sketched briefly the origin and character of the two main Socialist groups, and I have now merely to convey a general idea of their attitude during recent events. And first, of the Social Democrats.
At the end of 1894 the Social Democrats were in what may be called their normal condition--that is to say, they were occupied in organising and developing the Labour Movement. The removal of Plehve, who had greatly hampered them by his energetic police administration, enabled them to work more freely, and they looked with a friendly eye on the efforts of the Liberal Zemstvo-ists; but they took no part in the agitation, because the Zemstvo world lay outside their sphere of action. In the labour world, to which they confined their attention, they must have foreseen that a crisis would sooner or later be produced by the war, and that they would then have an excellent opportunity of preaching their doctrine that for all the sufferings of the working classes the Government is responsible. What they did not foresee was that serious labour troubles were so near at hand, and that the conflict with the authorities would be accelerated by Father Gapon. Accustomed to regard him as a persistent opponent, they did not expect him to become suddenly an energetic, self-willed ally. Hence they were taken unawares, and at first the direction of the movement was by no means entirely in their hands. Very soon, however, they grasped the situation, and utilised it for their own ends. It was in great measure due to their secret organisation and activity that the strike in the Putilof Ironworks, which might easily have been terminated amicably, spread rapidly not only to the other works and factories in St. Petersburg, but also to those of Moscow, Riga, Warsaw, Lodz, and other industrial centres. Though they did not approve of Father Gapon's idea of presenting a petition to the Tsar, the loss of life which his demonstration occasioned was very useful to them in their efforts to propagate the belief that the Autocratic Power is the ally of the capitalists and hostile to the claims and aspirations of the working classes.
The other great Socialist group contributed much more largely towards bringing about the present state of things. It was their Militant Organisation that assassinated Plehve, and thereby roused the Liberals to action. To them, likewise, is due the subsequent assassination of the Grand Duke Serge, and it is an open secret that they are preparing other acts of terrorism of a similar kind. At the same time they have been very active in creating provincial revolutionary committees, in printing and distributing revolutionary literature, and, above all, in organising agrarian disturbances, which they intend to make a very important factor in the development of events. Indeed, it is chiefly by agrarian disturbances that they hope to overthrow the Autocratic Power and bring about the great economic and social revolution to which the political revolution would be merely the prologue.
Therein lies a serious danger.
After the failure of the propaganda and the insurrectionary agitation in the seventies, it became customary in revolutionary circles to regard the muzhik as impervious to Socialist ideas and insurrectionary excitement, but the hope of eventually employing him in the cause never quite died out, and in recent times, when his economic condition in many districts has become critical, attempts have occasionally been made to embarrass the Government by agrarian disturbances. The method usually employed is to disseminate among the peasantry by oral propaganda, by printed or hectographed leaflets, and by forged Imperial manifestoes, the belief that the Tsar has ordered the land of the proprietors to be given to the rural Communes, and that his benevolent wishes are being frustrated by the land-owners and the officials. The forged manifesto is sometimes written in letters of gold as a proof of its being genuine, and in one case which I heard of in the province of Poltava, the revolutionary agent, wearing the uniform of an aide- de-camp of the Emperor, induced the village priest to read the document in the parish church.
The danger lies in the fact that, quite independent of revolutionary activity, there has always been, since the time of the Emancipation, a widespread belief among the peasantry that they would sooner or later receive the whole of the land. Successive Tsars have tried personally to destroy this illusion, but their efforts have not been successful. Alexander II., when passing through a province where the idea was very prevalent, caused a number of village elders to be brought before him, and told them in a threatening tone that they must remain satisfied with their allotments and pay their taxes regularly; but the wily peasants could not be convinced that the "General" who had talked to them in this sense was really the Tsar. Alexander III. made a similar attempt at the time of his accession. To the Volost elders collected together from all parts of the Empire, he said: "Do not believe the foolish rumours and absurd reports about a redistribution of the land, and addition to your allotments, and such like things. These reports are disseminated by your enemies. Every kind of property, your own included, must be inviolable." Recalling these words, Nicholas II. confirmed them at his accession, and warned the peasants not to be led astray by evil- disposed persons.
Notwithstanding these repeated warnings, the peasants still cling to the idea that all the land belongs to them; and the Socialist- Revolutionaries now announce publicly that they intend to use this belief for the purpose of carrying out their revolutionary designs. In a pamphlet entitled "Concerning Liberty and the Means of Obtaining it," they explain their plan of campaign. Under the guidance of the revolutionary agents the peasants of each district all over the Empire are to make it impossible for the proprietors to work their estates, and then, after driving away the local authorities and rural police, they are to take possession of the estates for their own use. The Government, in its vain attempts to dislodge them, will have to employ all the troops at its disposal, and this will give the working classes of the towns, led by the revolutionists, an opportunity of destroying the most essential parts of the administrative mechanism. Thus a great social revolution can be successfully accomplished, and any Zemski Sobor or Parliament which may be convoked will merely have to give a legislative sanction to accomplished facts.
These three groups--the Liberals, the Social Democrats, and the Socialist Revolutionaries--constitute what may be called the purely Russian Opposition. They found their claims and justify their action on utilitarian and philosophic grounds, and demand liberty (in various senses) for themselves and others, independently of race and creed. This distinguishes them from the fourth group, who claim to represent the subject-nationalities, and who mingle nationalist feelings and aspirations with enthusiasm for liberty and justice in the abstract.
The policy of Russifying these subject-nationalities, which was inaugurated by Alexander III. and maintained by his successor, has failed in its object. It has increased the use of the Russian language in official procedure, modified the system of instruction in the schools and universities, and brought, nominally, a few schismatic and heretical sheep into the Eastern Orthodox fold, but it has entirely failed to inspire the subject-populations with Russian feeling and national patriotism; on the contrary, it has aroused in them a bitter hostility to Russian nationality, and to the Central Government. In such of them as have retained their old aspirations of political independence--notably the Poles--the semi- latent disaffection has been stimulated; and in those of them which, like the Finlanders and the Armenians, desire merely to preserve the limited autonomy they formerly enjoyed, a sentiment of disaffection has been created. All of them know very well that in an armed struggle with the dominant Russian nationality they would speedily be crushed, as the Poles were in 1863. Their disaffection shows itself, therefore, merely in resistance to the obligatory military service, and in an undisguised or thinly veiled attitude of systematic hostility, which causes the Government some anxiety and prevents it from sending to the Far East a large number of troops which would otherwise be available. They hail, however, with delight the Liberal and revolutionary movements in the hope that the Russians themselves may undermine, and possibly overthrow, the tyrannical Autocratic Power. Towards this end they would gladly co-operate, and they are endeavouring, therefore, to get into touch with each other; but they have so little in common, and so many mutually antagonistic interests, that they are not likely to succeed in forming a solid coalition.
While sympathising with every form of opposition to the Government, the men of the subject-nationalities reserve their special affection for the Socialists, because these not only proclaim, like the Liberals, the principles of extensive local self-government and universal equality before the law, but they also speak of replacing the existing system of coercive centralisation by a voluntary confederation of heterogeneous units. This explains why so many Poles, Armenians and Georgians are to be found in the ranks of the Social Democrats and the Socialist-Revolutionaries.
Of the recruits from oppressed nationalities the great majority come from the Jews, who, though they have never dreamed of political independence, or even of local autonomy, have most reason to complain of the existing order of things. At all times they have furnished a goodly contingent to the revolutionary movement, and many of them have belied their traditional reputation of timidity and cowardice by taking part in very dangerous terrorist enterprises--in some cases ending their career on the scaffold. In 1897 they created a Social-Democratic organisation of their own, commonly known as the Bund, which joined, in 1898, the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party, on the understanding that it should retain its independence on all matters affecting exclusively the Jewish population.* It now possesses a very ably-conducted weekly organ, and of all sections of the Social-Democratic group it is unquestionably the best organised. This is not surprising, because the Jews have more business capacity than the Russians, and centuries of oppression have developed in the race a wonderful talent for secret illegal activity, and for eluding the vigilance of the police.
* The official title of this Bund is the "Universal Jewish Labour Union in Russia and Poland." Its organ is called Sovremenniya Izvestiya (Contemporary News).
It would be very interesting to know the numerical strength of these groups, but we have no materials for forming even an approximate estimate. The Liberals are certainly the most numerous. They include the great majority of the educated classes, but they are less persistently energetic than their rivals, and their methods of action make less impression on the Government. The two Socialist groups, though communicative enough with regard to their doctrines and aims, are very reticent with regard to the number of their adherents, and this naturally awakens a suspicion that an authoritative statement on the subject would tend to diminish rather than enhance their importance in the eyes of the public. If statistics of the Social Democrats could be obtained, it would be necessary to distinguish between the three categories of which the group is composed: (1) The educated active members, who form the directing, controlling element; (2) the fully indoctrinated recruits from the working classes; and (3) workmen who desire merely to better their material condition, but who take part in political demonstrations in the hope of bringing pressure to bear on their employers, and inducing the Government to intervene on their behalf.
The two Socialist groups are not only increasing the number of their adherents; they are also extending and improving their organisation, as is proved by the recent strikes, which are the work of the Social Democrats, and by the increasing rural disturbances and acts of terrorism, which are the work of the Socialist-Revolutionaries.
With regard to the unorganised Nationalist group, all I can do towards conveying a vague, general idea of its numerical strength is to give the numbers of the populations--men, women, and children--of which the Nationalist agitators are the self- constituted representatives, without attempting to estimate the percentage of the actively disaffected. The populations in question are:
Poles 7,900,000 Jews 5,190,000 Finlanders 2,592,000 Armenians 1,200,000 Georgians 408,000 ---------- 16,495,000
If a National Assembly were created, in which all the nationalities were represented according to the numbers of the population, the Poles, roughly speaking, would have 38 members, the Jews 24, the Finlanders 12, the Armenians 6, and the Georgians 2: whereas the Russians would have about 400. The other subject-nationalities in which symptoms of revolutionary fermentation have appeared are too insignificant to require special mention.
As the representatives of the various subject-nationalities are endeavouring to combine, so likewise are the Liberals and the two Socialist groups trying to form a coalition, and for this purpose they have already held several conferences. How far they will succeed it is impossible to say. On one point--the necessity of limiting or abolishing the Autocratic Power--they are unanimous, and there seems to be a tacit understanding that for the present they shall work together amicably on parallel lines, each group reserving its freedom of action for the future, and using meanwhile its own customary means of putting pressure on the Government. We may expect, therefore, that for a time the Liberals will go on holding conferences and congresses in defiance of the police authorities, delivering eloquent speeches, discussing thorny political questions, drafting elaborate constitutions, and making gentle efforts to clog the wheels of the Administration,* while the Social Democrats will continue to organise strikes and semi-pacific demonstrations,** and the Socialist-Revolutionaries will seek to accelerate the march of events by agrarian disturbances and acts of terrorism.
* As an illustration of this I may cite the fact that several Zemstvos have declared themselves unable, under present conditions, to support the indigent families of soldiers at the front.
** I call them semi-pacific, because on such occasions the demonstrators are instructed to refrain from violence only so long as the police do not attempt to stop the proceedings by force.
It is certain, however, that the parting of the ways will be reached sooner or later, and already there are indications that it is not very far off. Liberals and Social Democrats may perhaps work together for a considerable time, because the latter, though publicly committed to socialistic schemes which the Liberals must regard with the strongest antipathy, are willing to accept a Constitutional regime during the period of transition. It is difficult, however, to imagine that the Liberals, of whom a large proportion are landed proprietors, can long go hand in hand with the Socialist-Revolutionaries, who propose to bring about the revolution by inciting the peasants to seize unceremoniously the estates, live stock, and agricultural implements of the landlords.
Already the Socialist-Revolutionaries have begun to speak publicly of the inevitable rupture in terms by no means flattering to their temporary allies. In a brochure recently issued by their central committee the following passage occurs:
"If we consider the matter seriously and attentively, it becomes evident that all the strength of the bourgeoisie lies in its greater or less capacity for frightening and intimidating the Government by the fear of a popular rising; but as the bourgeoisie itself stands in mortal terror of the thing with which it frightens the Government, its position at the moment of insurrection will be rather ridiculous and pitiable."
To understand the significance of this passage, the reader must know that, in the language of the Socialists, bourgeoisie and Liberals are convertible terms.
The truth is that the Liberals find themselves in an awkward strategical position. As quiet, respectable members of society they dislike violence of every kind, and occasionally in moments of excitement they believe that they may attain their ends by mere moral pressure, but when they find that academic protests and pacific demonstrations make no perceptible impression on the Government, they become impatient and feel tempted to approve, at least tacitly, of stronger measures. Many of them do not profess to regard with horror and indignation the acts of the terrorists, and some of them, if I am correctly informed, go so far as to subscribe to the funds of the Socialist-Revolutionaries without taking very stringent precautions against the danger of the money being employed for the preparation of dynamite and hand grenades.
This extraordinary conduct on the part of moderate Liberals may well surprise Englishmen, but it is easily explained. The Russians have a strong vein of recklessness in their character, and many of them are at present imbued with an unquestioning faith in the miracle-working power of Constitutionalism. These seem to imagine that as soon as the Autocratic Power is limited by parliamentary institutions the discontented will cease from troubling and the country will be at rest.
It is hardly necessary to say that such expectations are not likely to be realised. All sections of the educated classes may be agreed in desiring "liberty," but the word has many meanings, and nowhere more than in Russia at the present day. For the Liberals it means simply democratic parliamentary government; for the Social Democrat it means the undisputed predominance of the Proletariat; for the Socialist-Revolutionary it means the opportunity of realising immediately the Socialist ideal; for the representative of a subject-nationality it means the abolition of racial and religious disabilities and the attainment of local autonomy or political independence. There is no doubt, therefore, that in Russia, as in other countries, a parliament would develop political parties bitterly hostile to each other, and its early history might contain some startling surprises for those who had helped to create it. If the Constitution, for example, were made as democratic as the Liberals and Socialists demand, the elections might possibly result in an overwhelming Conservative majority ready to re-establish the Autocratic Power! This is not at all so absurd as it sounds, for the peasants, apart from the land question, are thoroughly Conservative. The ordinary muzhik can hardly conceive that the Emperor's power can be limited by a law or an Assembly, and if the idea were suggested to him, he would certainly not approve. In his opinion the Tsar should be omnipotent. If everything is not satisfactory in Russia, it is because the Tsar does not know of the evil, or is prevented from curing it by the tchinovniks and the landed proprietors. "More power, therefore, to his elbow!" as an Irishman might say. Such is the simple political creed of the "undeveloped" muzhik, and all the efforts of the revolutionary groups to develop him have not yet been attended with much success.
How, then, the reader may ask, is an issue to be found out of the present imbroglio? I cannot pretend to speak with authority, but it seems to me that there are only two methods of dealing with the situation: prompt, energetic repression, or timely, judicious concessions to popular feeling. Either of these methods might, perhaps, have been successful, but the Government adopted neither, and has halted between the two. By this policy of drift it has encouraged the hopes of all, has satisfied nobody, and has diminished its own prestige.
In defence or extenuation of this attitude it may be said that there is considerable danger in the adoption of either course. Vigorous repression means staking all on a single card, and if it were successful it could not do more than postpone the evil day, because the present antiquated form of government--suitable enough, perhaps, for a simply organised peasant-empire vegetating in an atmosphere of "eternal stillness"--cannot permanently resist the rising tide of modern ideas and aspirations, and is incapable of grappling successfully with the complicated problems of economic and social progress which are already awaiting solution. Sooner or later the bureaucratic machine, driven solely by the Autocratic Power in the teeth of popular apathy or opposition, must inevitably break down, and the longer the collapse is postponed the more violent is it likely to be. On the other hand, it is impossible to foresee the effects of concessions. Mere bureaucratic reforms will satisfy no one; they are indeed not wanted except as a result of more radical changes. What all sections of the Opposition demand is that the people should at least take part in the government of the country by means of freely elected representatives in Parliament assembled. It is useless to argue with them that Constitutionalism will certainly not work the miracles that are expected of it, and that in the struggles of political parties which it is sure to produce the unity and integrity of the Empire may be endangered. Lessons of that kind can only be learned by experience. Other countries, it is said, have existed and thriven under free political institutions, and why not Russia? Why should she be a pariah among the nations? She gave parliamentary institutions to the young nationalities of the Balkan Peninsula as soon as they were liberated from Turkish bondage, and she has not yet been allowed such privileges herself!
Let us suppose now that the Autocratic Power has come to feel the impossibility of remaining isolated as it is at present, and that it has decided to seek solid support in some section of the population, what section should it choose? Practically it has no choice. The only way of relieving the pressure is to make concessions to the Constitutionalists. That course would conciliate, not merely the section of the Opposition which calls itself by that name and represents the majority of the educated classes, but also, in a lesser degree, all the other sections. No doubt these latter would accept the concession only as part payment of their demands and a means of attaining ulterior aims. Again and again the Social Democrats have proclaimed publicly that they desire parliamentary government, not as an end in itself, but as a stepping stone towards the realisation of the Socialist ideal. It is evident, however, that they would have to remain on this stepping stone for a long series of years--until the representatives of the Proletariat obtained an overwhelming majority in the Chamber. In like manner the subject-nationalities would regard a parliamentary regime as a mere temporary expedient-- a means of attaining greater local and national autonomy--and they would probably show themselves more impatient than the Social Democrats. Any inordinate claims, however, which they might put forward would encounter resistance, as the Poles found in 1863, not merely from the Autocratic Power, but from the great majority of the Russian people, who have no sympathy with any efforts tending to bring about the disruption of the Empire. In short, as soon as the Assembly set to work, the delegates would be sobered by a consciousness of responsibility, differences of opinion and aims would inevitably appear, and the various groups transformed into political parties, instead of all endeavouring as at present to pull down the Autocratic Power, would expend a great part of their energy in pulling against each other.
In order to reach this haven of safety it is necessary to pass through a period of transition, in which there are some formidable difficulties. One of these I may mention by way of illustration.
In creating parliamentary institutions of any kind the Government could hardly leave intact the present system of allowing the police to arrest without a proper warrant, and send into exile without trial, any one suspected of revolutionary designs. On this point all the Opposition groups are agreed, and all consequently put forward prominently the demand for the inviolability of person and domicile. To grant such a concession seems a very simple and easy matter, but any responsible minister might hesitate to accept such a restriction of his authority. We know, he would argue, that the terrorist section of the Socialist-Revolutionary group, the so- called Militant Organisation, are very busy preparing bombs, and the police, even with the extensive, ill-defined powers which they at present possess, have the greatest difficulty in preventing the use of such objectionable instruments of political warfare. Would not the dynamiters and throwers of hand-grenades utilise a relaxation of police supervision, as they did in the time of Louis Melikof,* for carrying out their nefarious designs?
* Vide supra, p. 569.
I have no desire to conceal or minimise such dangers, but I believe they are temporary and by no means so great as the dangers of the only other alternatives--energetic repression and listless inactivity. Terrorism and similar objectionable methods of political warfare are symptoms of an abnormal, unhealthy state of society, and would doubtless disappear in Russia, as they have disappeared in other countries, with the conditions which produced them. If the terrorists continued to exist under a more liberal regime, they would be much less formidable, because they would lose the half-concealed sympathy which they at present enjoy.
Political assassinations may occasionally take place under the most democratic governments, as the history of the United States proves, but terrorism as a system is to be found only in countries where the political power is concentrated in the hands of a few individuals; and it sometimes happens that irresponsible persons are exposed to terrorist attacks. We have an instance of this at present in St. Petersburg. The reluctance of the Emperor to adopt at once a Liberal programme is commonly attributed to the influence of two members of the Imperial family, the Empress Dowager and the Grand Duke Vladimir. This is a mistake. Neither of these personages is so reactionary as is generally supposed, and their political views, whatever they may be, have no appreciable influence on the course of affairs. If the Empress Dowager had possessed the influence so often ascribed to her, M. Plehve would not have remained so long in power. As for the Grand Duke Vladimir, he is not in favour, and for nearly two years he has never been consulted on political matters. The so-called Grand Ducal party of which he is supposed to be the leader, is a recently invented fiction. When in difficulties the Emperor may consult individually some of his near relatives, but there is no coherent group to which the term party could properly be applied.
As soon as the Autocratic Power has decided on a definite line of action, it is to be hoped that a strong man will be found to take the direction of affairs. In Russia, as in other autocratically governed countries, strong men in the political sense of the term are extremely rare, and when they do appear as a lusus naturae they generally take their colour from their surroundings, and are of the authoritative, dictatorial type. During recent years only two strong men have come to the front in the Russian official world. The one was M. Plehve, who was nothing if not authoritative and dictatorial, and who is no longer available for experiments in repression or constitutionalism. The other is M. Witte. As an administrator under an autocratic regime he has displayed immense ability and energy, but it does not follow that he is a statesman capable of piloting the ship into calm waters, and he is not likely to have an opportunity of making the attempt, for he does not--to state the case mildly--possess the full confidence of his august master.
Even if a strong man, enjoying fully the Imperial confidence, could be found, the problem would not be thereby completely and satisfactorily solved, because an autocrat, who is the Lord's Anointed, cannot delegate his authority to a simple mortal without losing something of the semi-religious halo and the prestige on which his authority rests. While a roi faineant may fulfil effectively all the essential duties of sovereignty, an autocrate faineant is an absurdity.
In these circumstances, it is idle to speculate as to the future. All we can do is to await patiently the development of events, and in all probability it is the unexpected that will happen.
The reader doubtless feels that I am offering a very lame and impotent conclusion, and I must confess that I am conscious of this feeling myself, but I think I may fairly plead extenuating circumstances. Happily for my peace of mind I am a mere observer who is not called upon to invent a means of extricating Russia from her difficult position. For that arduous task there are already brave volunteers enough in the field. All I have to do is to explain as clearly as I can the complicated problem to be solved. Nor do I feel it any part of my duty to make predictions. I believe I am pretty well acquainted with the situation at the present moment, but what it may be a few weeks hence, when the words I am now writing issue from the press, I do not profess to foresee.