Chapter XXVII - The Crimean War And Its Consequences
The Russians frankly admit that they were beaten in the Crimean War, but they regard the heroic defence of Sebastopol as one of the most glorious events in the military annals of their country. Nor do they altogether regret the result of the struggle. Often in a half-jocular, half-serious tone they say that they had reason to be grateful to the Allies. And there is much truth in this paradoxical statement. The Crimean War inaugurated a new epoch in the national history. It gave the death-blow to the repressive system of the Emperor Nicholas, and produced an intellectual movement and a moral revival which led to gigantic results.
"The affair of December," 1825--I mean the abortive attempt at a military insurrection in St. Petersburg, to which I have alluded in the foregoing chapter--gave the key-note to Nicholas's reign. The armed attempt to overthrow the Imperial power, ending in the execution or exile of many young members of the first families, struck terror into the Noblesse, and prepared the way for a period of repressive police administration. Nicholas had none of the moral limpness and vacillating character of his predecessor. His was one of those simple, vigorous, tenacious, straightforward natures--more frequently to be met with among the Teutonic than among the Slav races--whose conceptions are all founded on a few deep-rooted, semi-instinctive convictions, and who are utterly incapable of accommodating themselves with histrionic cleverness to the changes of external circumstances. From his early youth he had shown a strong liking for military discipline and a decided repugnance to the humanitarianism and liberal principles then in fashion. With "the rights of man," "the spirit of the age," and similar philosophical abstractions his strong, domineering nature had no sympathy; and for the vague, loud-sounding phrases of philosophic liberalism he had a most profound contempt. "Attend to your military duties," he was wont to say to his officers before his accession; "don't trouble your heads with philosophy. I cannot bear philosophers!" The tragic event which formed the prelude to his reign naturally confirmed and fortified his previous convictions. The representatives of liberalism, who could talk so eloquently about duty in the abstract, had, whilst wearing the uniform of the Imperial Guard, openly disobeyed the repeated orders of their superior officers and attempted to shake the allegiance of the troops for the purpose of overthrowing the Imperial power! A man who was at once soldier and autocrat, by nature as well as by position, could of course admit no extenuating circumstances. The incident stereotyped his character for life, and made him the sworn enemy of liberalism and the fanatical defender of autocracy, not only in his own country, but throughout Europe. In European politics he saw two forces struggling for mastery--monarchy and democracy, which were in his opinion identical with order and anarchy; and he was always ready to assist his brother sovereigns in putting down democratic movements. In his own Empire he endeavoured by every means in his power to prevent the introduction of the dangerous ideas. For this purpose a stringent intellectual quarantine was established on the western frontier. All foreign books and newspapers, except those of the most harmless kind, were rigorously excluded. Native writers were placed under strict supervision, and peremptorily silenced as soon as they departed from what was considered a "well-intentioned" tone. The number of university students was diminished, the chairs for political science were suppressed, and the military schools multiplied. Russians were prevented from travelling abroad, and foreigners who visited the country were closely watched by the police. By these and similar measures it was hoped that Russia would be preserved from the dangers of revolutionary agitation.
Nicholas has been called the Don Quixote of Autocracy, and the comparison which the term implies is true in many points. By character and aims he belonged to a time that had passed away; but failure and mishap could not shake his faith in his ideal, and made no change in his honest, stubborn nature, which was as loyal and chivalresque as that of the ill-fated Knight of La Mancha. In spite of all evidence to the contrary, he believed in the practical omnipotence of autocracy. He imagined that as his authority was theoretically unlimited, so his power could work miracles. By nature and training a soldier, he considered government a slightly modified form of military discipline, and looked on the nation as an army which might be made to perform any intellectual or economic evolutions that he might see fit to command. All social ills seemed to him the consequence of disobedience to his orders, and he knew only one remedy--more discipline. Any expression of doubt as to the wisdom of his policy, or any criticism of existing regulations, he treated as an act of insubordination which a wise sovereign ought not to tolerate. If he never said, "L'Etat--c'est moi!" it was because he considered the fact so self-evident that it did not need to be stated. Hence any attack on the administration, even in the person of the most insignificant official, was an attack on himself and on the monarchical principle which he represented. The people must believe--and faith, as we know, comes not by sight--that they lived under the best possible government. To doubt this was political heresy. An incautious word or a foolish joke against the Government was considered a serious crime, and might be punished by a long exile in some distant and inhospitable part of the Empire. Progress should by all means be made, but it must be made by word of command, and in the way ordered. Private initiative in any form was a thing on no account to be tolerated. Nicholas never suspected that a ruler, however well-intentioned, energetic, and legally autocratic he may be, can do but little without the co-operation of his people. Experience constantly showed him the fruitlessness of his efforts, but he paid no attention to its teachings. He had formed once for all his theory of government, and for thirty years he acted according to it with all the blindness and obstinacy of a reckless, fanatical doctrinaire. Even at the close of his reign, when the terrible logic of facts had proved his system to be a mistake--when his armies had been defeated, his best fleet destroyed, his ports blockaded, and his treasury well-nigh emptied--he could not recant. "My successor," he is reported to have said on his deathbed, "may do as he pleases, but I cannot change."
Had Nicholas lived in the old patriarchal times, when kings were the uncontrolled "shepherds of the people," he would perhaps have been an admirable ruler; but in the nineteenth century he was a flagrant anachronism. His system of administration completely broke down. In vain he multiplied formalities and inspectors, and punished severely the few delinquents who happened by some accident to be brought to justice; the officials continued to pilfer, extort, and misgovern in every possible way. Though the country was reduced to what would be called in Europe "a state of siege," the inhabitants might still have said--as they are reported to have declared a thousand years before--"Our land is great and fertile, but there is no order in it."
In a nation accustomed to political life and to a certain amount of self-government, any approach to the system of Nicholas would, of course, have produced wide-spread dissatisfaction and violent hatred against the ruling power. But in Russia at that time no such feelings were awakened. The educated classes--and a fortiori the uneducated--were profoundly indifferent not only to political questions, but also to ordinary public affairs, whether local or Imperial, and were quite content to leave them in the hands of those who were paid for attending to them. In common with the uneducated peasantry, the nobles had a boundless respect--one might almost say a superstitious reverence--not only for the person, but also for the will of the Tsar, and were ready to show unquestioning obedience to his commands, so long as these did not interfere with their accustomed mode of life. The Tsar desired them not to trouble their heads with political questions, and to leave all public matters to the care of the Administration; and in this respect the Imperial will coincided so well with their personal inclinations that they had no difficulty in complying with it.
When the Tsar ordered those of them who held office to refrain from extortion and peculation, his orders were not so punctiliously obeyed, but in this disobedience there was no open opposition--no assertion of a right to pilfer and extort. As the disobedience proceeded, not from a feeling of insubordination, but merely from the weakness that official flesh is heir to, it was not regarded as very heinous. In the aristocratic circles of St. Petersburg and Moscow there was the same indifference to political questions and public affairs. All strove to have the reputation of being "well- intentioned," which was the first requisite for those who desired Court favour or advancement in the public service; and those whose attention was not entirely occupied with official duties, card- playing, and the ordinary routine of everyday life, cultivated belles-lettres or the fine arts. In short, the educated classes in Russia at that time showed a complete indifference to political and social questions, an apathetic acquiescence in the system of administration adopted by the Government, and an unreasoning contentment with the existing state of things.
About the year 1845, when the reaction against Romanticism was awakening in the reading public an interest in the affairs of real life,* began to appear what may be called "the men with aspirations," a little band of generous enthusiasts, strongly resembling the youth in Longfellow's poem who carries a banner with the device "Excelsior," and strives ever to climb higher, without having any clear notion of where he was going or of what he is to do when he reaches the summit. At first they had little more than a sentimental enthusiasm for the true, the beautiful, and the good, and a certain Platonic love for free institutions, liberty, enlightenment, progress, and everything that was generally comprehended at that period under the term "liberal." Gradually, under the influence of current French literature, their ideas became a little clearer, and they began to look on reality around them with a critical eye. They could perceive, without much effort, the unrelenting tyranny of the Administration, the notorious venality of the tribunals, the reckless squandering of the public money, the miserable condition of the serfs, the systematic strangulation of all independent opinion or private initiative, and, above all, the profound apathy of the upper classes, who seemed quite content with things as they were.
* Vide supra, p. 377 et seq.
With such ugly facts staring them in the face, and with the habit of looking at things from the moral point of view, these men could understand how hollow and false were the soothing or triumphant phrases of official optimism. They did not, indeed, dare to express their indignation publicly, for the authorities would allow no public expression of dissatisfaction with the existing state of things, but they disseminated their ideas among their friends and acquaintances by means of conversation and manuscript literature, and some of them, as university professors and writers in the periodical Press, contrived to awaken in a certain section of the young generation an ardent enthusiasm for enlightenment and progress, and a vague hope that a brighter day was about to dawn.
Not a few sympathised with these new conceptions and aspirations, but the great majority of the nobles regarded them--especially after the French Revolution of 1848--as revolutionary and dangerous. Thus the educated classes became divided into two sections, which have sometimes been called the Liberals and the Conservatives, but which might be more properly designated the men with aspirations and the apathetically contented. These latter doubtless felt occasionally the irksomeness of the existing system, but they had always one consolation--if they were oppressed at home they were feared abroad. The Tsar was at least a thorough soldier, possessing an enormous and well-equipped army by which he might at any moment impose his will on Europe. Ever since the glorious days of 1812, when Napoleon was forced to make an ignominious retreat from the ruins of Moscow, the belief that the Russian soldiers were superior to all others, and that the Russian army was invincible, had become an article of the popular creed; and the respect which the voice of Nicholas commanded in Western Europe seemed to prove that the fact was admitted by foreign nations. In these and similar considerations the apathetically contented found a justification for their lethargy.
When it became evident that Russia was about to engage in a trial of strength with the Western Powers, this optimism became general. "The heavy burdens," it was said, "which the people have had to bear were necessary to make Russia the first military Power in Europe, and now the nation will reap the fruits of its long- suffering and patient resignation. The West will learn that her boasted liberty and liberal institutions are of little service in the hour of danger, and the Russians who admire such institutions will be constrained to admit that a strong, all-directing autocracy is the only means of preserving national greatness." As the patriotic fervour and military enthusiasm increased, nothing was heard but praises of Nicholas and his system. The war was regarded by many as a kind of crusade--even the Emperor spoke about the defence of "the native soil and the holy faith"--and the most exaggerated expectations were entertained of its results. The old Eastern Question was at last to be solved in accordance with Russian aspirations, and Nicholas was about to realise Catherine II.'s grand scheme of driving the Turks out of Europe. The date at which the troops would arrive at Constantinople was actively discussed, and a Slavophil poet called on the Emperor to lie down in Constantinople, and rise up as Tsar of a Panslavonic Empire. Some enthusiasts even expected the speedy liberation of Jerusalem from the power of the Infidel. To the enemy, who might possibly hinder the accomplishment of these schemes, very little attention was paid. "We have only to throw our hats at them!" (Shapkami zakidaem) became a favourite expression.
There were, however, a few men in whom the prospect of the coming struggle awoke very different thoughts and feelings. They could not share the sanguine expectations of those who were confident of success. "What preparations have we made," they asked, "for the struggle with civilisation, which now sends its forces against us? With all our vast territory and countless population we are incapable of coping with it. When we talk of the glorious campaign against Napoleon, we forget that since that time Europe has been steadily advancing on the road of progress while we have been standing still. We march not to victory, but to defeat, and the only grain of consolation which we have is that Russia will learn by experience a lesson that will be of use to her in the future."*
* These are the words of Granovski.
These prophets of evil found, of course, few disciples, and were generally regarded as unworthy sons of the Fatherland--almost as traitors to their country. But their predictions were confirmed by events. The Allies were victorious in the Crimea, and even the despised Turks made a successful stand on the line of the Danube. In spite of the efforts of the Government to suppress all unpleasant intelligence, it soon became known that the military organisation was little, if at all, better than the civil administration--that the individual bravery of soldiers and officers was neutralised by the incapacity of the generals, the venality of the officials, and the shameless peculation of the commissariat department. The Emperor, it was said, had drilled out of the officers all energy, individuality, and moral force. Almost the only men who showed judgment, decision, and energy were the officers of the Black Sea fleet, which had been less subjected to the prevailing system. As the struggle went on, it became evident how weak the country really was--how deficient in the resources necessary to sustain a prolonged conflict. "Another year of war," writes an eye-witness in 1855, "and the whole of Southern Russia will be ruined." To meet the extraordinary demands on the Treasury, recourse was had to an enormous issue of paper money; but the rapid depreciation of the currency showed that this resource would soon be exhausted. Militia regiments were everywhere raised throughout the country, and many proprietors spent large sums in equipping volunteer corps; but very soon this enthusiasm cooled when it was found that the patriotic efforts enriched the jobbers without inflicting any serious injury on the enemy.
Under the sting of the great national humiliation, the upper classes awoke from their optimistic resignation. They had borne patiently the oppression of a semi-military administration, and for this! The system of Nicholas had been put to a crucial test, and found wanting. The policy which had sacrificed all to increase the military power of the Empire was seen to be a fatal error, and the worthlessness of the drill-sergeant regime was proved by bitter experience. Those administrative fetters which had for more than a quarter of a century cramped every spontaneous movement had failed to fulfil even the narrow purpose for which they had been forged. They had, indeed, secured a certain external tranquillity during those troublous times when Europe was convulsed by revolutionary agitation; but this tranquillity was not that of healthy normal action, but of death--and underneath the surface lay secret and rapidly spreading corruption. The army still possessed that dashing gallantry which it had displayed in the campaigns of Suvorof, that dogged, stoical bravery which had checked the advance of Napoleon on the field of Borodino, and that wondrous power of endurance which had often redeemed the negligence of generals and the defects of the commissariat; but the result was now not victory, but defeat. How could this be explained except by the radical defects of that system which had been long practised with such inflexible perseverance? The Government had imagined that it could do everything by its own wisdom and energy, and in reality it had done nothing, or worse than nothing. The higher officers had learned only too well to be mere automata; the ameliorations in the military organisation, on which Nicholas had always bestowed special attention, were found to exist for the most part only in the official reports; the shameful exploits of the commissariat department were such as to excite the indignation of those who had long lived in an atmosphere of official jobbery and peculation; and the finances, which people had generally supposed to be in a highly satisfactory condition, had become seriously crippled by the first great national effort.
This deep and wide-spread dissatisfaction was not allowed to appear in the Press, but it found very free expression in the manuscript literature and in conversation. In almost every house--I mean, of course, among the educated classes--words were spoken which a few months before would have seemed treasonable, if not blasphemous. Philippics and satires in prose and verse were written by the dozen, and circulated in hundreds of copies. A pasquil on the Commander in Chief, or a tirade against the Government, was sure to be eagerly read and warmly approved of. As a specimen of this kind of literature, and an illustration of the public opinion of the time, I may translate here one of those metrical tirades. Though it was never printed, it obtained a wide circulation:
"'God has placed me over Russia,' said the Tsar to us, 'and you must bow down before me, for my throne is His altar. Trouble not yourselves with public affairs, for I think for you and watch over you every hour. My watchful eye detects internal evils and the machinations of foreign enemies; and I have no need of counsel, for God inspires me with wisdom. Be proud, therefore, of being my slaves, O Russians, and regard my will as your law.'
"We listened to these words with deep reverence, and gave a tacit consent; and what was the result? Under mountains of official papers real interests were forgotten. The letter of the law was observed, but negligence and crime were allowed to go unpunished. While grovelling in the dust before ministers and directors of departments in the hope of receiving tchins and decorations, the officials stole unblushingly; and theft became so common that he who stole the most was the most respected. The merits of officers were decided at reviews; and he who obtained the rank of General was supposed capable of becoming at once an able governor, an excellent engineer, or a most wise senator. Those who were appointed governors were for the most part genuine satraps, the scourges of the provinces entrusted to their care. The other offices were filled up with as little attention to the merits of the candidates. A stable-boy became Press censor! an Imperial fool became admiral! Kleinmichel became a count! In a word, the country was handed over to the tender mercies of a band of robbers.
"And what did we Russians do all this time?
"We Russians slept! With groans the peasant paid his yearly dues; with groans the proprietor mortgaged the second half of his estate; groaning, we all paid our heavy tribute to the officials. Occasionally, with a grave shaking of the head, we remarked in a whisper that it was a shame and a disgrace--that there was no justice in the courts--that millions were squandered on Imperial tours, kiosks, and pavilions--that everything was wrong; and then, with an easy conscience, we sat down to our rubber, praised the acting of Rachel, criticised the singing of Frezzolini, bowed low to venal magnates, and squabbled with each other for advancement in the very service which we so severely condemned. If we did not obtain the place we wished we retired to our ancestral estates, where we talked of the crops, fattened in indolence and gluttony, and lived a genuine animal life. If any one, amidst the general lethargy, suddenly called upon us to rise and fight for the truth and for Russia, how ridiculous did he appear! How cleverly the Pharisaical official ridiculed him, and how quickly the friends of yesterday showed him the cold shoulder! Under the anathema of public opinion, in some distant Siberian mine he recognised what a heinous sin it was to disturb the heavy sleep of apathetic slaves. Soon he was forgotten, or remembered as an unfortunate madman; and the few who said, 'Perhaps after all he was right,' hastened to add, 'but that is none of our business.'
"But amidst all this we had at least one consolation, one thing to be proud of--the might of Russia in the assembly of kings. 'What need we care,' we said, 'for the reproaches of foreign nations? We are stronger than those who reproach us.' And when at great reviews the stately regiments marched past with waving standards, glittering helmets, and sparkling bayonets, when we heard the loud hurrah with which the troops greeted the Emperor, then our hearts swelled with patriotic pride, and we were ready to repeat the words of the poet--
"Strong is our native country, and great the Russian Tsar."
Then British statesmen, in company with the crowned conspirator of France, and with treacherous Austria, raised Western Europe against us, but we laughed scornfully at the coming storm. 'Let the nations rave,' we said; 'we have no cause to be afraid. The Tsar doubtless foresaw all, and has long since made the necessary preparations.' Boldly we went forth to fight, and confidently awaited the moment of the struggle.
"And lo! after all our boasting we were taken by surprise, and caught unawares, as by a robber in the dark. The sleep of innate stupidity blinded our Ambassadors, and our Foreign Minister sold us to our enemies.* Where were our millions of soldiers? Where was the well-considered plan of defence? One courier brought the order to advance; another brought the order to retreat; and the army wandered about without definite aim or purpose. With loss and shame we retreated from the forts of Silistria, and the pride of Russia was humbled before the Hapsburg eagle. The soldiers fought well, but the parade-admiral (Menshikof)--the amphibious hero of lost battles--did not know the geography of his own country, and sent his troops to certain destruction.
* Many people at that time imagined that Count Nesselrode, who was then Minister for Foreign Affairs, was a traitor to his adopted country.
"Awake, O Russia! Devoured by foreign enemies, crushed by slavery, shamefully oppressed by stupid authorities and spies, awaken from your long sleep of ignorance and apathy! You have been long enough held in bondage by the successors of the Tartar Khan. Stand forward calmly before the throne of the despot, and demand from him an account of the national disaster. Say to him boldly that his throne is not the altar of God, and that God did not condemn us to be slaves. Russia entrusted to you, O Tsar, the supreme power, and you were as a God upon earth. And what have you done? Blinded by ignorance and passion, you have lusted after power and have forgotten Russia. You have spent your life in reviewing troops, in modifying uniforms, and in appending your signature to the legislative projects of ignorant charlatans. You created the despicable race of Press censors, in order to sleep in peace--in order not to know the wants and not to hear the groans of the people--in order not to listen to Truth. You buried Truth, rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, placed a strong guard over it, and said in the pride of your heart: For her there is no resurrection! But the third day has dawned, and Truth has arisen from the dead.
"Stand forward, O Tsar, before the judgment-seat of history and of God! You have mercilessly trampled Truth under foot, you have denied Freedom, you have been the slave of your own passions. By your pride and obstinacy you have exhausted Russia and raised the world in arms against us. Bow down before your brethren and humble yourself in the dust! Crave pardon and ask advice! Throw yourself into the arms of the people! There is now no other salvation!"
The innumerable tirades of which the above is a fair specimen were not very remarkable for literary merit or political wisdom. For the most part they were simply bits of bombastic rhetoric couched in doggerel rhyme, and they have consequently been long since consigned to well-merited oblivion--so completely that it is now difficult to obtain copies of them.* They have, however, an historical interest, because they express in a more or less exaggerated form the public opinion and prevalent ideas of the educated classes at that moment. In order to comprehend their real significance, we must remember that the writers and readers were not a band of conspirators, but ordinary, respectable, well- intentioned people, who never for a moment dreamed of embarking in revolutionary designs. It was the same society that had been a few months before so indifferent to all political questions, and even now there was no clear conception as to how the loud-sounding phrases could be translated into action. We can imagine the comical discomfiture of those who read and listened to these appeals, if the "despot" had obeyed their summons, and suddenly appeared before them.
* I am indebted for the copies which I possess to friends who copied and collected these pamphlets at the time.
Was the movement, then, merely an outburst of childish petulance? Certainly not. The public were really and seriously convinced that things were all wrong, and they were seriously and enthusiastically desirous that a new and better order of things should be introduced. It must be said to their honour that they did not content themselves with accusing and lampooning the individuals who were supposed to be the chief culprits. On the contrary, they looked reality boldly in the face, made a public confession of their past sins, sought conscientiously the causes which had produced the recent disasters, and endeavoured to find means by which such calamities might be prevented in the future. The public feeling and aspirations were not strong enough to conquer the traditional respect for the Imperial will and create an open opposition to the Autocratic Power, but they were strong enough to do great things by aiding the Government, if the Emperor voluntarily undertook a series of radical reforms.
What Nicholas would have done, had he lived, in face of this national awakening, it is difficult to say. He declared, indeed, that he could not change, and we can readily believe that his proud spirit would have scorned to make concessions to the principles which he had always condemned; but he gave decided indications in the last days of his life that his old faith in his system was somewhat shaken, and he did not exhort his son to persevere in the path along which he himself had forced his way with such obstinate consistency. It is useless, however, to speculate on possibilities. Whilst the Government had still to concentrate all its energies on the defence of the country, the Iron Tsar died, and was succeeded by his son, a man of a very different type.
Of a kind-hearted, humane disposition, sincerely desirous of maintaining the national honour, but singularly free from military ambition and imbued with no fanatical belief in the drill-sergeant system of government, Alexander II. was by no means insensible to the spirit of the time. He had, however, none of the sentimental enthusiasm for liberal institutions which had characterised his uncle, Alexander I. On the contrary, he had inherited from his father a strong dislike to sentimentalism and rhetoric of all kinds. This dislike, joined to a goodly portion of sober common- sense, a limited confidence in his own judgment, and a consciousness of enormous responsibility, prevented him from being carried away by the prevailing excitement. With all that was generous and humane in the movement he thoroughly sympathised, and he allowed the popular ideas and aspirations to find free utterance; but he did not at once commit himself to any definite policy, and carefully refrained from all exaggerated expressions of reforming zeal.
As soon, however, as peace had been concluded, there were unmistakable symptoms that the rigorously repressive system of Nicholas was about to be abandoned. In the manifesto announcing the termination of hostilities the Emperor expressed his conviction that by the combined efforts of the Government and the people, the public administration would be improved, and that justice and mercy would reign in the courts of law. Apparently as a preparation for this great work, to be undertaken by the Tsar and his people in common, the ministers began to take the public into their confidence, and submitted to public criticism many official data which had hitherto been regarded as State secrets. The Minister of the Interior, for instance, in his annual report, spoke almost in the tone of a penitent, and confessed openly that the morality of the officials under his orders left much to be desired. He declared that the Emperor now showed a paternal confidence in his people, and as a proof of this he mentioned the significant fact that 9,000 persons had been liberated from police supervision. The other branches of the Administration underwent a similar transformation. The haughty, dictatorial tone which had hitherto been used by superiors to their subordinates, and by all ranks of officials to the public, was replaced by one of considerate politeness. About the same time those of the Decembrists who were still alive were pardoned. The restrictions regarding the number of students in each university were abolished, the difficulty of obtaining foreign passports was removed, and the Press censors became singularly indulgent. Though no decided change had been made in the laws, it was universally felt that the spirit of Nicholas was no more.
The public, anxiously seeking after a sign, readily took these symptoms of change as a complete confirmation of their ardent hopes, and leaped at once to the conclusion that a vast, all- embracing system of radical reform was about to be undertaken--not secretly by the Administration, as had been the custom in the preceding reign when any little changes had to be made, but publicly, by the Government and the people in common. "The heart trembles with joy," said one of the leading organs of the Press, "in expectation of the great social reforms that are about to be effected--reforms that are thoroughly in accordance with the spirit, the wishes, and the expectations of the public." "The old harmony and community of feeling," said another, "which has always existed between the government and the people, save during short exceptional periods, has been fully re-established. The absence of all sentiment of caste, and the feeling of common origin and brotherhood which binds all classes of the Russian people into a homogeneous whole, will enable Russia to accomplish peacefully and without effort not only those great reforms which cost Europe centuries of struggle and bloodshed, but also many which the nations of the West are still unable to accomplish, in consequence of feudal traditions and caste prejudices." The past was depicted in the blackest colours, and the nation was called upon to begin a new and glorious epoch of its history. "We have to struggle," it was said, "in the name of the highest truth against egotism and the puny interests of the moment; and we ought to prepare our children from their infancy to take part in that struggle which awaits every honest man. We have to thank the war for opening our eyes to the dark sides of our political and social organisation, and it is now our duty to profit by the lesson. But it must not be supposed that the Government can, single-handed, remedy the defects. The destinies of Russia are, as it were, a stranded vessel which the captain and crew cannot move, and which nothing, indeed, but the rising tide of the national life can raise and float."
Hearts beat quicker at the sound of these calls to action. Many heard this new teaching, if we may believe a contemporary authority, "with tears in their eyes"; then, "raising boldly their heads, they made a solemn vow that they would act honourably, perseveringly, fearlessly." Some of those who had formerly yielded to the force of circumstances now confessed their misdemeanours with bitterness of heart. "Tears of repentance," said a popular poet, "give relief, and call us to new exploits." Russia was compared to a strong giant who awakes from sleep, stretches his brawny limbs, collects his thoughts, and prepares to atone for his long inactivity by feats of untold prowess. All believed, or at least assumed, that the recognition of defects would necessarily entail their removal. When an actor in one of the St. Petersburg theatres shouted from the stage, "Let us proclaim throughout all Russia that the time has come for tearing up evil by the roots!" the audience gave way to the most frantic enthusiasm. "Altogether a joyful time," says one who took part in the excitement, "as when, after the long winter, the genial breath of spring glides over the cold, petrified earth, and nature awakens from her deathlike sleep. Speech, long restrained by police and censorial regulations, now flows smoothly, majestically, like a mighty river that has just been freed from ice."
Under these influences a multitude of newspapers and periodicals were founded, and the current literature entirely changed its character. The purely literary and historical questions which had hitherto engaged the attention of the reading public were thrown aside and forgotten, unless they could be made to illustrate some principle of political or social science. Criticisms on style and diction, explanations of aesthetic principles, metaphysical discussions--all this seemed miserable trifling to men who wished to devote themselves to gigantic practical interests. "Science," it was said, "has now descended from the heights of philosophic abstraction into the arena of real life." The periodicals were accordingly filled with articles on railways, banks, free-trade, education, agriculture, communal institutions, local self- government, joint-stock companies, and with crushing philippics against personal and national vanity, inordinate luxury, administrative tyranny, and the habitual peculation of the officials. This last-named subject received special attention. During the preceding reign any attempt to criticise publicly the character or acts of an official was regarded as a very heinous offence; now there was a deluge of sketches, tales, comedies, and monologues, describing the corruption of the Administration, and explaining the ingenious devices by which the tchinovniks increased their scanty salaries. The public would read nothing that had not a direct or indirect bearing on the questions of the day, and whatever had such a bearing was read with interest. It did not seem at all strange that a drama should be written in defence of free-trade, or a poem in advocacy of some peculiar mode of taxation; that an author should expound his political ideas in a tale, and his antagonist reply by a comedy. A few men of the old school protested feebly against this "prostitution of art," but they received little attention, and the doctrine that art should be cultivated for its own sake was scouted as an invention of aristocratic indolence. Here is an ipsa pinxit of the literature of the time: "Literature has come to look at Russia with her own eyes, and sees that the idyllic romantic personages which the poets formerly loved to describe have no objective existence. Having taken off her French glove, she offers her hand to the rude, hard- working labourer, and observing lovingly Russian village life, she feels herself in her native land. The writers of the present have analysed the past, and, having separated themselves from aristocratic litterateurs and aristocratic society, have demolished their former idols."
By far the most influential periodical at the commencement of the movement was the Kolokol, or Bell, a fortnightly journal published in London by Herzen, who was at that time an important personage among the political refugees. Herzen was a man of education and culture, with ultra-radical opinions, and not averse to using revolutionary methods of reform when he considered them necessary. His intimate relations with many of the leading men in Russia enabled him to obtain secret information of the most important and varied kind, and his sparkling wit, biting satire, and clear, terse, brilliant style secured him a large number of readers. He seemed to know everything that was done in the ministries and even in the Cabinet of the Emperor,* and he exposed most mercilessly every abuse that came to his knowledge. We who are accustomed to free political discussion can hardly form a conception of the avidity with which his articles were read, and the effect which they produced. Though strictly prohibited by the Press censure, the Kolokol found its way across the frontier in thousands of copies, and was eagerly perused and commented on by all ranks of the educated classes. The Emperor himself received it regularly, and high-priced delinquents examined it with fear and trembling. In this way Herzen was for some years, though an exile, an important political personage, and did much to awaken and keep up the reform enthusiasm.
* As an illustration of this, the following anecdote is told: One number of the Kolokol contained a violent attack on an important personage of the court, and the accused, or some one of his friends, considered it advisable to have a copy specially printed for the Emperor without the objectionable article. The Emperor did not at first discover the trick, but shortly afterwards he received from London a polite note containing the article which had been omitted, and informing him how he had been deceived.
But where were the Conservatives all this time? How came it that for two or three years no voice was raised and no protest made even against the rhetorical exaggerations of the new-born liberalism? Where were the representatives of the old regime, who had been so thoroughly imbued with the spirit of Nicholas? Where were those ministers who had systematically extinguished the least indication of private initiative, those "satraps" who had stamped out the least symptom of insubordination or discontent, those Press censors who had diligently suppressed the mildest expression of liberal opinion, those thousands of well-intentioned proprietors who had regarded as dangerous free-thinkers and treasonable republicans all who ventured to express dissatisfaction with the existing state of things? A short time before, the Conservatives composed at least nine-tenths of the upper classes, and now they had suddenly and mysteriously disappeared.
It is scarcely necessary to say that in a country accustomed to political life, such a sudden, unopposed revolution in public opinion could not possibly take place. The key to the mystery lies in the fact that for centuries Russia had known nothing of political life or political parties. Those who were sometimes called Conservatives were in reality not at all Conservatives in our sense of the term. If we say that they had a certain amount of conservatism, we must add that it was of the latent, passive, unreasoned kind--the fruit of indolence and apathy. Their political creed had but one article: Thou shalt love the Tsar with all thy might, and carefully abstain from all resistance to his will--especially when it happens that the Tsar is a man of the Nicholas type. So long as Nicholas lived they had passively acquiesced in his system--active acquiescence had been neither demanded nor desired--but when he died, the system of which he was the soul died with him. What then could they seek to defend? They were told that the system which they had been taught to regard as the sheet-anchor of the State was in reality the chief cause of the national disasters; and to this they could make no reply, because they had no better explanation of their own to offer. They were convinced that the Russian soldier was the best soldier in the world, and they knew that in the recent war the army had not been victorious; the system, therefore, must be to blame. They were told that a series of gigantic reforms was necessary in order to restore Russia to her proper place among the nations; and to this they could make no answer, for they had never studied such abstract questions. And one thing they did know: that those who hesitated to admit the necessity of gigantic reforms were branded by the Press as ignorant, narrow-minded, prejudiced, and egotistical, and were held up to derision as men who did not know the most elementary principles of political and economic science. Freely expressed public opinion was such a new phenomenon in Russia that the Press was able for some time to exercise a "Liberal" tyranny scarcely less severe than the "Conservative" tyranny of the censors in the preceding reign. Men who would have stood fire gallantly on the field of battle quailed before the poisoned darts of Herzen in the Kolokol. Under such circumstances, even the few who possessed some vague Conservative convictions refrained from publicly expressing them.
The men who had played a more or less active part during the preceding reign, and who might therefore be expected to have clearer and deeper convictions, were specially incapable of offering opposition to the prevailing Liberal enthusiasm. Their Conservatism was of quite as limp a kind as that of the landed proprietors who were not in the public service, for under Nicholas the higher a man was placed the less likely was he to have political convictions of any kind outside the simple political creed above referred to. Besides this, they belonged to that class which was for the moment under the anathema of public opinion, and they had drawn direct personal advantage from the system which was now recognised as the chief cause of the national disasters.
For a time the name of tchinovnik became a term of reproach and derision, and the position of those who bore it was comically painful. They strove to prove that, though they held a post in the public service, they were entirely free from the tchinovnik spirit-- that there was nothing of the genuine tchinovnik about them. Those who had formerly paraded their tchin (official rank) on all occasions, in season and out of season, became half ashamed to admit that they had the rank of General; for the title no longer commanded respect, and had become associated with all that was antiquated, formal, and stupid. Among the young generation it was used most disrespectfully as equivalent to "pompous blockhead." Zealous officials who had lately regarded the acquisition of Stars and Orders as among the chief ends of man, were fain to conceal those hard-won trophies, lest some cynical "Liberal" might notice them and make them the butt of his satire. "Look at the depth of humiliation to which you have brought the country"--such was the chorus of reproach that was ever ringing in their ears--"with your red tape, your Chinese formalism, and your principle of lifeless, unreasoning, mechanical obedience! You asserted constantly that you were the only true patriots, and branded with the name of traitor those who warned you of the insane folly of your conduct. You see now what it has all come to. The men whom you helped to send to the mines turn out to have been the true patriots."*
* It was a common saying at that time that nearly all the best men in Russia had spent a part of their lives in Siberia, and it was proposed to publish a biographical dictionary of remarkable men, in which every article was to end thus: "Exiled to ---- in 18--." I am not aware how far the project was seriously entertained, but, of course, the book was never published.
And to these reproaches what could they reply? Like a child who has in his frolics inadvertently set the house on fire, they could only look contrite, and say they did not mean it. They had simply accepted without criticism the existing order of things, and ranged themselves among those who were officially recognised as "the well- intentioned." If they had always avoided the Liberals, and perhaps helped to persecute them, it was simply because all "well- intentioned" people said that Liberals were "restless" and dangerous to the State. Those who were not convinced of their errors simply kept silence, but the great majority passed over to the ranks of the Progressists, and many endeavoured to redeem their past by showing extreme zeal for the Liberal cause.
In explanation of this extraordinary outburst of reform enthusiasm, we must further remember that the Russian educated classes, in spite of the severe northern climate which is supposed to make the blood circulate slowly, are extremely impulsive. They are fettered by no venerable historical prejudices, and are wonderfully sensitive to the seductive influence of grandiose projects, especially when these excite the patriotic feelings. Then there was the simple force of reaction--the rebound which naturally followed the terrific compression of the preceding reign. Without disrespect, the Russians of that time may be compared to schoolboys who have just escaped from the rigorous discipline of a severe schoolmaster. In the first moments of freedom it was supposed that there would be no more discipline or compulsion. The utmost respect was to be shown to "human dignity," and every Russian was to act spontaneously and zealously at the great work of national regeneration. All thirsted for reforming activity. The men in authority were inundated with projects of reform--some of them anonymous, and others from obscure individuals; some of them practical, and very many wildly fantastic. Even the grammarians showed their sympathy with the spirit of the time by proposing to expel summarily all redundant letters from the Russian alphabet!
The fact that very few people had clear, precise ideas as to what was to be done did not prevent, but rather tended to increase, the reform enthusiasm. All had at least one common feeling--dislike to what had previously existed. It was only when it became necessary to forsake pure negation, and to create something, that the conceptions became clearer, and a variety of opinions appeared. At the first moment there was merely unanimity in negation, and an impulsive enthusiasm for beneficent reforms in general.
The first specific proposals were direct deductions from the lessons taught by the war. The war had shown in a terrible way the disastrous consequences of having merely primitive means of communication; the Press and the public began, accordingly, to speak about the necessity of constructing railways, roads and river-steamers. The war had shown that a country which has not developed its natural resources very soon becomes exhausted if it has to make a great national effort; accordingly the public and the Press talked about the necessity of developing the natural resources, and about the means by which this desirable end might be attained. It had been shown by the war that a system of education which tends to make men mere apathetic automata cannot produce even a good army; accordingly the public and the Press began to discuss the different systems of education and the numerous questions of pedagogical science. It had been shown by the war that the best intentions of a Government will necessarily be frustrated if the majority of the officials are dishonest or incapable; accordingly the public and the Press began to speak about the paramount necessity of reforming the Administration in all its branches.
It must not, however, be supposed that in thus laying to heart the lessons taught by the war and endeavouring to profit by them, the Russians were actuated by warlike feelings, and desired to avenge themselves as soon as possible on their victorious enemies. On the contrary, the whole movement and the spirit which animated it were eminently pacific. Prince Gortchakof's saying, "La Russie ne boude pas, elle se recueille," was more than a diplomatic repartee--it was a true and graphic statement of the case. Though the Russians are very inflammable, and can be very violent when their patriotic feelings are aroused, they are, individually and as a nation, singularly free from rancour and the spirit of revenge. After the termination of hostilities they really bore little malice towards the Western Powers, except towards Austria, which was believed to have been treacherous and ungrateful to the country that had saved her in 1849. Their patriotism now took the form, not of revenge, but of a desire to raise their country to the level of the Western nations. If they thought of military matters at all, they assumed that military power would be obtained as a natural and inevitable result of high civilisation and good government.
As a first step towards the realisation of the vast schemes contemplated, voluntary associations began to be formed for industrial and commercial purposes, and a law was issued for the creation of limited liability companies. In the space of two years forty-seven companies of this kind were founded, with a combined capital of 358 millions of roubles. To understand the full significance of these figures, we must know that from the founding of the first joint-stock company in 1799 down to 1853 only twenty- six companies had been formed, and their united capital amounted only to thirty-two millions of roubles. Thus in the space of two years (1857-58) eleven times as much capital was subscribed to joint-stock companies as had been subscribed during half a century previous to the war. The most exaggerated expectations were entertained as to the national and private advantages which must necessarily result from these undertakings, and it became a patriotic duty to subscribe liberally. The periodical literature depicted in glowing terms the marvellous results that had been obtained in other countries by the principle of co-operation, and sanguine readers believed that they had discovered a patriotic way of speedily becoming rich.
These were, however, mere secondary matters, and the public were anxiously waiting for the Government to begin the grand reforming campaign. When the educated classes awoke to the necessity of great reforms, there was no clear conception as to how the great work should be undertaken. There was so much to be done that it was no easy matter to decide what should be done first. Administrative, judicial, social, economical, financial, and political reforms seemed all equally pressing. Gradually, however, it became evident that precedence must be given to the question of serfage. It was absurd to speak about progress, humanitarianism, education, self-government, equality in the eye of the law, and similar matters, so long as one half of the population was excluded from the enjoyment of ordinary civil rights. So long as serfage existed it was mere mockery to talk about re-organising Russia according to the latest results of political and social science. How could a system of even-handed justice be introduced when twenty millions of the peasantry were subject to the arbitrary will of the landed proprietors? How could agricultural or industrial progress be made without free labour? How could the Government take active measures for the spread of national education when it had no direct control over one-half of the peasantry? Above all, how could it be hoped that a great moral regeneration could take place, so long as the nation voluntarily retained the stigma of serfage and slavery?
All this was very generally felt by the educated classes, but no one ventured to raise the question until it should be known what were the views of the Emperor on the subject. How the question was gradually raised, how it was treated by the nobles, and how it was ultimately solved by the famous law of February 19th (March 3d), 1861,* I now propose to relate.
* February 19th according to the old style, which is still used in Russia, and March 3d according to our method of reckoning.