Chapter XXXIV - Revolutionary Nihilism And The Reaction
The rapidly increasing enthusiasm for reform did not confine itself to practical measures such as the emancipation of the serfs, the creation of local self-government, and the thorough reorganisation of the law-courts and legal procedure. In the younger section of the educated classes, and especially among the students of the universities and technical colleges, it produced a feverish intellectual excitement and wild aspirations which culminated in what is commonly known as Nihilism.
In a preceding chapter I pointed out that during the last two centuries all the important intellectual movements in Western Europe have been reflected in Russia, and that these reflections have generally been what may fairly be termed exaggerated and distorted reproductions of the originals.* Roughly speaking, the Nihilist movement in Russia may be described as the exaggerated, distorted reflection of the earlier Socialist movements of the West; but it has local peculiarities and local colouring which deserve attention.
* See Chapter XXVI.
The Russian educated classes had been well prepared by their past history for the reception and rapid development of the Socialist virus. For a century and a half the country had been subjected to a series of drastic changes, administrative and social, by the energetic action of the Autocratic Power, with little spontaneous co-operation on the part of the people. In a nation with such a history, Socialistic ideas naturally found favour, because all Socialist systems until quite recent times were founded on the assumption that political and social progress must be the result not of slow natural development, but rather of philosophic speculation, legislative wisdom, and administrative energy.
This assumption lay at the bottom of the reform enthusiasm in St. Petersburg at the commencement of Alexander II.'s reign. Russia might be radically transformed, it was thought, politically and socially, according to abstract scientific principles, in the space of a few years, and be thereby raised to the level of West-European civilisation, or even higher. The older nations had for centuries groped in darkness, or stumbled along in the faint light of practical experience, and consequently their progress had been slow and uncertain. For Russia there was no necessity to follow such devious, unexplored paths. She ought to profit by the experience of her elder sisters, and avoid the errors into which they had fallen. Nor was it difficult to ascertain what these errors were, because they had been discovered, examined and explained by the most eminent thinkers of France and England, and efficient remedies had been prescribed. Russian reformers had merely to study and apply the conclusions at which these eminent authorities had arrived, and their task would be greatly facilitated by the fact that they could operate on virgin soil, untrammelled by the feudal traditions, religious superstitions, metaphysical conceptions, romantic illusions, aristocratic prejudices, and similar obstacles to social and political progress which existed in Western Europe.
Such was the extraordinary intellectual atmosphere in which the Russian educated classes lived during the early years of the sixties. On the "men with aspirations," who had longed in vain for more light and more public activity under the obscurantist, repressive regime of the preceding reign, it had an intoxicating effect. The more excitable and sanguine amongst them now believed seriously that they had discovered a convenient short-cut to national prosperity, and that for Russia a grandiose social and political millennium was at hand.*
* I was not myself in St. Petersburg at that period, but on arriving a few years afterwards I became intimately acquainted with men and women who had lived through it, and who still retained much of their early enthusiasm.
In these circumstances it is not surprising that one of the most prominent characteristics of the time was a boundless, child-like faith in the so-called "latest results of science." Infallible science was supposed to have found the solution of all political and social problems. What a reformer had to do--and who was not a would-be reformer in those days?--was merely to study the best authorities. Their works had been long rigidly excluded by the Press censure, but now that it was possible to obtain them, they were read with avidity. Chief among the new, infallible prophets whose works were profoundly venerated was Auguste Comte, the inventor of Positivism. In his classification of the sciences the crowning of the edifice was sociology, which taught how to organise human society on scientific principles. Russia had merely to adopt the principles laid down and expounded at great length in the Cours de Philosophie Positive. There Comte explained that humanity had to pass through three stages of intellectual development--the religious, the metaphysical, and the positive--and that the most advanced nations, after spending centuries in the two first, were entering on the third. Russia must endeavour, therefore, to get into the positive stage as quickly as possible, and there was reason to believe that, in consequence of certain ethnographical and historical peculiarities, she could make the transition more quickly than other nations. After Comte's works, the book which found, for a time, most favour was Buckle's "History of Civilisation," which seemed to reduce history and progress to a matter of statistics, and which laid down the principle that progress is always in the inverse ratio of the influence of theological conceptions. This principle was regarded as of great practical importance, and the conclusion drawn from it was that rapid national progress was certain if only the influence of religion and theology could be destroyed. Very popular, too, was John Stuart Mill, because he was "imbued with enthusiasm for humanity and female emancipation"; and in his tract on Utilitarianism he showed that morality was simply the crystallised experience of many generations as to what was most conducive to the greatest good of the greatest number. The minor prophets of the time, among whom Buchner occupied a prominent place, are too numerous to mention.
Strange to say, the newest and most advanced doctrines appeared regularly, under a very thin and transparent veil, in the St. Petersburg daily Press, and especially in the thick monthly magazines, which were as big as, or bigger than, our venerable quarterlies. The art of writing and reading "between the lines," not altogether unknown under the Draconian regime of Nicholas I., was now developed to such a marvellous extent that almost any thing could be written clearly enough to be understood by the initiated without calling for the thunderbolts of the Press censors, which was now only intermittently severe. Indeed, the Press censors themselves were sometimes carried away by the reform enthusiasm. One of them long afterwards related to me that during "the mad time," as he called it, in the course of a single year he had received from his superiors no less than seventeen reprimands for passing objectionable articles without remark.
The movement found its warmest partisans among the students and young literary men, but not a few grey-beards were to be found among the youthful apostles. All who read the periodical literature became more or less imbued with the new spirit; but it must be presumed that many of those who discoursed most eloquently had no clear idea of what they were talking about; for even at a later date, when the novices had had time to acquaint themselves with the doctrines they professed, I often encountered the most astounding ignorance. Let me give one instance by way of illustration:
A young gentleman who was in the habit of talking glibly about the necessity of scientifically reorganising human society, declared to me one day that not only sociology, but also biology should be taken into consideration. Confessing my complete ignorance of the latter science, I requested him to enlighten me by giving me an instance of a biological principle which could be applied to social regeneration. He looked confused, and tried to ride out of the difficulty on vague general phrases; but I persistently kept him to the point, and maliciously suggested that as an alternative he might cite to me a biological principle which could NOT be used for such a purpose. Again he failed, and it became evident to all present that of biology, about which he talked so often, he knew absolutely nothing but the name! After this I frequently employed the same pseudo-Socratic method of discussion, and very often with a similar result. Not one in fifty, perhaps, ever attempted to reduce the current hazy conceptions to a concrete form. The enthusiasm was not the less intense, however, on that account.
At first the partisans of the movement seemed desirous of assisting, rather than of opposing or undermining the Government, and so long as they merely talked academically about scientific principles and similar vague entities, the Government felt no necessity for energetic interference; but as early as 1861 symptoms of a change in the character of the movement became apparent. A secret society of officers organised a small printing-press in the building of the Headquarters Staff and issued clandestinely three numbers of a periodical called the Velikoruss (Great Russian), which advocated administrative reform, the convocation of a constituent assembly, and the emancipation of Poland from Russian rule. A few months later (April, 1862) a seditious proclamation appeared, professing to emanate from a central revolutionary committee, and declaring that the Romanoffs must expiate with their blood the misery of the people.
These symptoms of an underground revolutionary agitation caused alarm in the official world, and repressive measures were at once adopted. Sunday schools for the working classes, reading-rooms, students' clubs, and similar institutions which might be used for purposes of revolutionary propaganda were closed; several trials for political offences took place; the most popular of the monthly periodicals (Sovremennik) was suspended, and its editor, Tchernishevski, arrested. There was nothing to show that Tchernishevski was implicated in any treasonable designs, but he was undoubtedly the leader of a group of youthful writers whose aspirations went far beyond the intentions of the Government, and it was thought desirable to counteract his influence by shutting him up in prison. Here he wrote and published, with the permission of the authorities and the imprimatur of the Press censure, a novel called "Shto delat'?" (" What is to be Done?"), which was regarded at first as a most harmless production, but which is now considered one of the most influential and baneful works in the whole range of Nihilist literature. As a novel it had no pretensions to artistic merit, and in ordinary times it would have attracted little or no attention, but it put into concrete shape many of the vague Socialist and Communist notions that were at the moment floating about in the intellectual atmosphere, and it came to be looked upon by the young enthusiasts as a sort of informal manifesto of their new-born faith. It was divided into two parts; in the first was described a group of students living according to the new ideas in open defiance of traditional conventionalities, and in the second was depicted a village organised on the communistic principles recommended by Fourier. The first was supposed to represent the dawn of the new era; the second, the goal to be ultimately attained. When the authorities discovered the mistake they had committed in allowing the book to be published, it was at once confiscated and withdrawn from circulation, whilst the author, after being tried by the Senate, was exiled to Northeastern Siberia and kept there for nearly twenty years.*
* Tchernishevski was a man of encyclopaedic knowledge and specially conversant with political economy. According to the testimony of those who knew him intimately, he was one of the ablest and most sympathetic men of his generation. During his exile a bold attempt was made to rescue him, and very nearly succeeded. A daring youth, disguised as an officer of gendarmes and provided with forged official papers, reached the place where he was confined and procured his release, but the officer in charge had vague suspicions, and insisted on the two travellers being escorted to the next post-station by a couple of Cossacks. The rescuer tried to get rid of the escort by means of his revolver, but he failed in the attempt, and the fugitives were arrested. In 1883 Tchernishevski was transferred to the milder climate of Astrakhan, and in 1889 he was allowed to return to his native town, Saratof, where he died a few months afterwards.
With the arrest and exile of Tchernishevski the young would-be reformers were constrained to recognise that they had no chance of carrying the Government with them in their endeavours to realise their patriotic aspirations. Police supervision over the young generation was increased, and all kinds of association, whether for mutual instruction, mutual aid, or any other purpose, were discouraged or positively forbidden. And it was not merely in the mind of the police that suspicion was aroused. In the opinion of the great majority of moderate, respectable people the young enthusiasts were becoming discredited. The violently seditious proclamations with which they were supposed to sympathise, and a series of destructive fires in St. Petersburg, erroneously attributed to them, frightened timid Liberals and gave the Reactionaries, who had hitherto remained silent, an opportunity of preaching their doctrines with telling effect. The celebrated novelist, Turgeneif, long the idol of the young generation, had inadvertently in "Fathers and Children" invented the term Nihilist, and it at once came to be applied as an opprobrious epithet, notwithstanding the efforts of Pissaref, a popular writer of remarkable talent, to prove to the public that it ought to be regarded as a term of honour.
Pissaref's attempt at rehabilitation made no impression outside of his own small circle. According to popular opinion the Nihilists were a band of fanatical young men and women, mostly medical students, who had determined to turn the world upside down and to introduce a new kind of social order, founded on the most advanced principles of social equality and Communism. As a first step towards the great transformation they had reversed the traditional order of things in the matter of coiffure: the males allowed their hair to grow long, and the female adepts cut their hair short, adding occasionally the additional badge of blue spectacles. Their unkempt appearance naturally shocked the aesthetic feelings of ordinary people, but to this they were indifferent. They had raised themselves above the level of popular notions, took no account of so-called public opinion, gloried in Bohemianism, despised Philistine respectability, and rather liked to scandalise old-fashioned people imbued with antiquated prejudices.
This was the ridiculous side of the movement, but underneath the absurdities there was something serious. These young men and women, who were themselves terribly in earnest, were systematically hostile not only to accepted conventionalities in the matter of dress, but to all manner of shams, hypocrisy, and cant in the broad Carlylean sense of those terms. To the "beautiful souls" of the older generation, who had habitually, in conversation and literature, shed pathetic tears over the defects of Russian social and political organisation without ever moving a finger to correct them--especially the landed proprietors who talked and wrote about civilisation, culture, and justice while living comfortably on the revenues provided for them by their unfortunate serfs--these had the strongest aversion; and this naturally led them to condemn in strong language the worship of aesthetic culture. But here again they fell into exaggeration. Professing extreme utilitarianism, they explained that the humble shoemaker who practises his craft diligently is, in the true sense, a greater man than a Shakespeare, or a Goethe, because humanity has more need of shoes than of dramas and poetry.
Such silly paradoxes provoked, of course, merely a smile of compassion; what alarmed the sensible, respectable "Philistine" was the method of cleansing the Augean stable recommended by these enthusiasts. Having discovered in the course of their desultory reading that most of the ills that flesh is heir to proceed directly or indirectly from uncontrolled sexual passion and the lust of gain, they proposed to seal hermetically these two great sources of crime and misery by abolishing the old-fashioned institutions of marriage and private property. When society, they argued, should be so organised that all the healthy instincts of human nature could find complete and untrammelled satisfaction, there would be no motive or inducement for committing crimes or misdemeanours. For thousands of years humanity had been sailing on a wrong tack. The great law-givers of the world, religious and civil, in their ignorance of physical science and positivist methods, had created institutions, commonly known as law and morality, which were utterly unfitted to human nature, and then the magistrate and the moralist had endeavoured to compel or persuade men and women to conform to them, but their efforts had failed most signally. In vain the police had threatened and punished and the priests had preached and admonished. Human nature had systematically and obstinately rebelled, and still rebels, against the unnatural constraint. It is time, therefore, to try a new system. Instead of continuing, as has been done for thousands of years, to force men and women, as it were, into badly fitting, unelastic clothes which cause intense discomfort and prevent all healthy muscular action, why not adapt the costume to the anatomy and physiology of the human frame? Then the clothes will no longer be rent, and those who wear them will be contented and happy.
Unfortunately for the progress of humanity there are serious obstacles in the way of this radical change of system. The absurd, antiquated and pernicious institutions and customs are supported by abstruse metaphysical reasons and enshrined in mystical romantic sentiment, and in this way they may still be preserved for generations unless the axe be laid to the root of the tree. Now is the critical moment. Russia must be made to rise at once from the metaphysical to the positivist stage of intellectual development; metaphysical reasoning and romantic sentiment must be rigorously discarded; and everything must be brought to the touchstone of naked practical utility.
One might naturally suppose that men holding such opinions must be materialists of the grossest type--and, indeed, many of them gloried in the name of materialist and atheist--but such an inference would be erroneous. While denouncing metaphysics, they were themselves metaphysicians in so far as they were constantly juggling with abstract conceptions, and letting themselves be guided in their walk and conversation by a priori deductions; while ridiculing romanticism, they had romantic sentiment enough to make them sacrifice their time, their property, and sometimes even their life, to the attainment of an unrealisable ideal; and while congratulating themselves on having passed from the religious to the positivist stage of intellectual development, they frequently showed themselves animated with the spirit of the early martyrs! Rarely have the strange inconsistencies of human nature been so strikingly exemplified as in these unpractical, anti-religious fanatics. In dealing with them I might easily, without very great exaggeration, produce a most amusing caricature, but I prefer describing them as they really were. A few years after the period here referred to I knew some of them intimately, and I must say that, without at all sharing or sympathising with their opinions, I could not help respecting them as honourable, upright, quixotic men and women who had made great sacrifices for their convictions. One of them whom I have specially in view at this moment suffered patiently for years from the utter shipwreck of his generous illusions, and when he could no longer hope to see the dawn of a brighter day, he ended by committing suicide. Yet that man believed himself to be a Realist, a Materialist, and a Utilitarian of the purest water, and habitually professed a scathing contempt for every form of romantic sentiment! In reality he was one of the best and most sympathetic men I have ever known.
To return from this digression. So long as the subversive opinions were veiled in abstract language they raised misgivings in only a comparative small circle; but when school-teachers put them into a form suited to the juvenile mind, they were apt to produce startling effects. In a satirical novel of the time a little girl is represented as coming to her mother and saying, "Little mamma! Maria Ivan'na (our new school-mistress) says there is no God and no Tsar, and that it is wrong to marry!" Whether such incidents actually occurred in real life, as several friends assured me, I am not prepared to say, but certainly people believed that they might occur in their own families, and that was quite sufficient to produce alarm even in the ranks of the Liberals, to say nothing of the rapidly increasing army of the Reactionaries.
To illustrate the general uneasiness produced in St. Petersburg, I may quote here a letter written in October, 1861, by a man who occupied one of the highest positions in the Administration. As he had the reputation of being an ultra-Liberal who sympathised overmuch with Young Russia, we may assume that he did not take an exceptionally alarmist view of the situation.
"You have not been long absent--merely a few months; but if you returned now, you would be astonished by the progress which the Opposition, one might say the Revolutionary Party, has already made. The disorders in the university do not concern merely the students. I see in the affair the beginning of serious dangers for public tranquillity and the existing order of things. Young people, without distinction of costume, uniform and origin, take part in the street demonstrations. Besides the students of the university, there are the students of other institutions, and a mass of people who are students only in name. Among these last are certain gentlemen in long beards and a number of revolutionnaires in crinoline, who are of all the most fanatical. Blue collars--the distinguishing mark of the students' uniform--have become the signe de ralliement. Almost all the professors and many officers take the part of the students. The newspaper critics openly defend their colleagues. Mikhailof has been convicted of writing, printing and circulating one of the most violent proclamations that ever existed, under the heading, 'To the young generation!' Among the students and the men of letters there is unquestionably an organised conspiracy, which has perhaps leaders outside the literary circle. . . . The police are powerless. They arrest any one they can lay hands on. About eighty people have already been sent to the fortress and examined, but all this leads to no practical result, because the revolutionary ideas have taken possession of all classes, all ages, all professions, and are publicly expressed in the streets, in the barracks, and in the Ministries. I believe the police itself is carried away by them! What this will lead to, it is difficult to predict. I am very much afraid of some bloody catastrophe. Even if it should not go to such a length immediately, the position of the Government will he extremely difficult. Its authority is shaken, and all are convinced that it is powerless, stupid and incapable. On that point there is the most perfect unanimity among all parties of all colours, even the most opposite. The most desperate 'planter'* agrees in that respect with the most desperate socialist. Meanwhile those who have the direction of affairs do almost nothing and have no plan or definite aim in view. At present the Emperor is not in the Capital, and now, more than at any other time, there is complete anarchy in the absence of the master of the house. There is a great deal of bustle and talk, and all blame they know not whom."**
* An epithet commonly applied, at the time of the Emancipation, to the partisans of serfage and the defenders of the proprietors' rights.
** I found this interesting letter (which might have been written today) thirty years ago among the private papers of Nicholas Milutin, who played a leading part as an official in the reforms of the time. It was first published in an article on "Secret Societies in Russia," which I contributed to the Fortnightly Review of 1st August, 1877.
The expected revolution did not take place, but timid people had no difficulty in perceiving signs of its approach. The Press continued to disseminate, under a more or less disguised form, ideas which were considered dangerous. The Kolokol, a Russian revolutionary paper published in London by Herzen and strictly prohibited by the Press-censure, found its way in large quantities into the country, and, as is recorded in an earlier chapter, was read by thousands, including the higher officials and the Emperor himself, who found it regularly on his writing-table, laid there by some unknown hand. In St. Petersburg the arrest of Tchernishevski and the suspension of his magazine, The Contemporary, made the writers a little more cautious in their mode of expression, but the spirit of the articles remained unchanged. These energetic intolerant leaders of public opinion were novi homines not personally connected with the social strata in which moderate views and retrograde tenderness had begun to prevail. Mostly sons of priests or of petty officials, they belonged to a recently created literary proletariat composed of young men with boundless aspirations and meagre national resources, who earned a precarious subsistence by journalism or by giving lessons in private families. Living habitually in a world of theories and unrestrained by practical acquaintance with public life, they were ready, from the purest and most disinterested motives to destroy ruthlessly the existing order of things in order to realise their crude notions of social regeneration. Their heated imagination showed them in the near future a New Russia, composed of independent federated Communes, without any bureaucracy or any central power--a happy land in which everybody virtuously and automatically fulfilled his public and private duties, and in which the policeman and all other embodiments of material constraint were wholly superfluous.
Governments are not easily converted to Utopian schemes of that idyllic type, and it is not surprising that even a Government with liberal humanitarian aspirations like that of Alexander II. should have become alarmed and should have attempted to stem the current. What is to be regretted is that the repressive measures adopted were a little too Oriental in their character. Scores of young students of both sexes--for the Nihilist army included a strong female contingent--were secretly arrested and confined for months in unwholesome prisons, and many of them were finally exiled, without any regular trial, to distant provinces in European Russia or to Siberia. Their exile, it is true, was not at all so terrible as is commonly supposed, because political exiles are not usually confined in prisons or compelled to labour in the mines, but are obliged merely to reside at a given place under police supervision. Still, such punishment was severe enough for educated young men and women, especially when their lot was cast among a population composed exclusively of peasants and small shop-keepers or of Siberian aborigines, and when there were no means of satisfying the most elementary intellectual wants. For those who had no private resources the punishment was particularly severe, because the Government granted merely a miserable monthly pittance, hardly sufficient to purchase food of the coarsest kind, and there was rarely an opportunity of adding to the meagre official allowance by intellectual or manual labour. In all cases the treatment accorded to the exiles wounded their sense of justice and increased the existing discontent among their friends and acquaintances. Instead of acting as a deterrent, the system produced a feeling of profound indignation, and ultimately transformed not a few sentimental dreamers into active conspirators.
At first there was no conspiracy or regularly organised secret society and nothing of which the criminal law in Western Europe could have taken cognisance. Students met in each other's rooms to discuss prohibited books on political and social science, and occasionally short essays on the subjects discussed were written in a revolutionary spirit by members of the coterie. This was called mutual instruction. Between the various coteries or groups there were private personal relations, not only in the capital, but also in the provinces, so that manuscripts and printed papers could be transmitted from one group to another. From time to time the police captured these academic disquisitions, and made raids on the meetings of students who had come together merely for conversation and discussion; and the fresh arrests caused by these incidents increased the hostility to the Government.
In the letter above quoted it is said that the revolutionary ideas had taken possession of all classes, all ages, and all professions. This may have been true with regard to St. Petersburg, but it could not have been said of the provinces. There the landed proprietors were in a very different frame of mind. They had to struggle with a multitude of urgent practical affairs which left them little time for idyllic dreaming about an imaginary millennium. Their serfs had been emancipated, and what remained to them of their estates had to be reorganised on the basis of free labour. Into the semi- chaotic state of things created by such far-reaching changes, legal and economic, they did not wish to see any more confusion introduced, and they did not at all feel that they could dispense with the Central Government and the policeman. On the contrary, the Central Government was urgently needed in order to obtain a little ready money wherewith to reorganise the estates in the new conditions, and the police organisation required to be strengthened in order to compel the emancipated serfs to fulfil their legal obligations. These men and their families were, therefore, much more conservative than the class commonly designated "the young generation," and they naturally sympathised with the "Philistines" in St. Petersburg, who had been alarmed by the exaggerations of the Nihilists.
Even the landed proprietors, however, were not so entirely free from discontent and troublesome political aspirations as the Government would have desired. They had not forgotten the autocratic and bureaucratic way in which the Emancipation had been prepared, and their indignation had been only partially appeased by their being allowed to carry out the provisions of the law without much bureaucratic interference. So much for the discontent. As for the reform aspirations, they thought that, as a compensation for having consented to the liberation of their serfs and for having been expropriated from about a half of their land, they ought to receive extensive political rights, and be admitted, like the upper classes in Western Europe, to a fair share in the government of the country. Unlike the fiery young Nihilists of St. Petersburg, they did not want to abolish or paralyse the central power; what they wanted was to co-operate with it loyally and to give their advice on important questions by means of representative institutions. They formed a constitutional group which exists still at the present day, as we shall see in the sequel, but which has never been allowed to develop into an organised political party. Its aims were so moderate that its programme might have been used as a convenient safety-valve for the explosive forces which were steadily accumulating under the surface of Society, but it never found favour in the official world. When some of its leading members ventured to hint in the Press and in loyal addresses to the Emperor that the Government would do well to consult the country on important questions, their respectful suggestions were coldly received or bluntly rejected by the bureaucracy and the Autocratic Power.
The more the revolutionary and constitutional groups sought to strengthen their position, the more pronounced became the reactionary tendencies in the official world, and these received in 1863 an immense impetus from the Polish insurrection, with which the Nihilists and even some of the Liberals sympathised.* That ill-advised attempt on the part of the Poles to recover their independence had a curious effect on Russian public opinion. Alexander II., with the warm approval of the more Liberal section of the educated classes, was in the course of creating for Poland almost complete administrative autonomy under the viceroyalty of a Russian Grand Duke; and the Emperor's brother Constantine was preparing to carry out the scheme in a generous spirit. Soon it became evident that what the Poles wanted was not administrative autonomy, but political independence, with the frontiers which existed before the first partition! Trusting to the expected assistance of the Western Powers and the secret connivance of Austria, they raised the standard of insurrection, and some trifling successes were magnified by the pro-Polish Press into important victories. As the news of the rising spread over Russia, there was a moment of hesitation. Those who had been for some years habitually extolling liberty and self-government as the normal conditions of progress, who had been sympathising warmly with every Liberal movement, whether at home or abroad, and who had put forward a voluntary federation of independent Communes as the ideal State organism, could not well frown on the political aspirations of the Polish patriots. The Liberal sentiment of that time was so extremely philosophical and cosmopolitan that it hardly distinguished between Poles and Russians, and liberty was supposed to be the birthright of every man and woman to whatever nationality they might happen to belong. But underneath these beautiful artificial clouds of cosmopolitan Liberal sentiment lay the volcano of national patriotism, dormant for the moment, but by no means extinct. Though the Russians are in some respects the most cosmopolitan of European nations, they are at the same time capable of indulging in violent outbursts of patriotic fanaticism; and events in Warsaw brought into hostile contact these two contradictory elements in the national character. The struggle was only momentary. Ere long the patriotic feelings gained the upper hand and crushed all cosmopolitan sympathy with political freedom. The Moscow Gazette, the first of the papers to recover its mental equilibrium, thundered against the pseudo-Liberal sentimentalism, which would, if unchecked, necessarily lead to the dismemberment of the Empire, and its editor, Katkoff, became for a time the most influential private individual in the country. A few, indeed, remained true to their convictions. Herzen, for instance, wrote in the Kolokol a glowing panegyric on two Russian officers who had refused to fire on the insurgents; and here and there a good Orthodox Russian might be found who confessed that he was ashamed of Muravieff's extreme severity in Lithuania. But such men were few, and were commonly regarded as traitors, especially after the ill-advised diplomatic intervention of the Western Powers. Even Herzen, by his publicly expressed sympathy with the insurgents, lost entirely his popularity and influence among his fellow- countrymen. The great majority of the public thoroughly approved of the severe energetic measures adopted by the Government, and when the insurrection was suppressed, men who had a few months previously spoken and written in magniloquent terms about humanitarian Liberalism joined in the ovations offered to Muravieff! At a great dinner given in his honour, that ruthless administrator of the old Muscovite type, who had systematically opposed the emancipation of the serfs and had never concealed his contempt for the Liberal ideas in fashion, could ironically express his satisfaction at seeing around him so many "new friends"!** This revulsion of public feeling gave the Moscow Slavophils an opportunity of again preaching their doctrine that the safety and prosperity of Russia were to be found, not in the Liberalism and Constitutionalism of Western Europe, but in patriarchal autocracy, Eastern Orthodoxy, and other peculiarities of Russian nationality. Thus the reactionary tendencies gained ground; but Alexander II., while causing all political agitation to be repressed, did not at once abandon his policy of introducing radical reforms by means of the Autocratic Power. On the contrary, he gave orders that the preparatory work for creating local self-government and reorganising the Law Courts should be pushed on energetically. The important laws for the establishment of the Zemstvo and for the great judicial reforms, which I have described in previous chapters, both date from the year 1864.
* The students of the St. Petersburg University scandalised their more patriotic fellow-countrymen by making a pro-Polish demonstration.
** In fairness to Count Muravieff I must say that he was not quite so black as he was painted in the Polish and West-European Press. He left an interesting autobiographical fragment relating to the history of this time, but it is not likely to be printed for some years. As an historical document it is valuable, but must be used with caution by the future historian. A copy of it was for some time in my possession, but I was bound by a promise not to make extracts.
These and other reforms of a less important kind made no impression on the young irreconcilables. A small group of them, under the leadership of a certain Ishutin, formed in Moscow a small secret society, and conceived the design of assassinating the Emperor, in the hope that his son and successor, who was erroneously supposed to be imbued with ultra-Liberal ideas, might continue the work which his father had begun and had not the courage to complete. In April, 1866, the attempt on the life of the Emperor was made by a youth called Karakozof as his Majesty was leaving a public garden in St. Petersburg, but the bullet happily missed its mark, and the culprit was executed.
This incident formed a turning-point in the policy of the Government. Alexander II. began to fear that he had gone too far, or, at least, too quickly, in his policy of radical reform. An Imperial rescript announced that law, property, and religion were in danger, and that the Government would lean on the Noblesse and other conservative elements of Society. The two periodicals which advocated the most advanced views (Sovremennik and Russkoye Slovo) were suppressed permanently, and precautions were taken to prevent the annual assemblies of the Zemstvo from giving public expression to the aspirations of the moderate Liberals.
A secret official inquiry showed that the revolutionary agitation proceeded in all cases from young men who were studying, or had recently studied, in the universities, the seminaries, or the technical schools, such as the Medical Academy and the Agricultural Institute. Plainly, therefore, the system of education was at fault. The semi-military system of the time of Nicholas had been supplanted by one in which discipline was reduced to a minimum and the study of natural science formed a prominent element. Here it was thought, lay the chief root of the evil. Englishmen may have some difficulty in imagining a possible connection between natural science and revolutionary agitation. To them the two things must seem wide as the poles asunder. Surely mathematics, chemistry, physiology, and similar subjects have nothing to do with politics. When a young Englishman takes to studying any branch of natural science he gets up his subject by means of lectures, text-books, and museums or laboratories, and when he has mastered it he probably puts his knowledge to some practical use. In Russia it is otherwise. Few students confine themselves to their speciality. The majority of them dislike the laborious work of mastering dry details, and, with the presumption which is often found in conjunction with youth and a smattering of knowledge, they aspire to become social reformers and imagine themselves specially qualified for such activity.
But what, it may he asked, has social reform to do with natural science? I have already indicated the connection in the Russian mind. Though very few of the students of that time had ever read the voluminous works of Auguste Comte, they were all more or less imbued with the spirit of the Positive Philosophy, in which all the sciences are subsidiary to sociology, and social reorganisation is the ultimate object of scientific research. The imaginative Positivist can see with prophetic eye humanity reorganised on strictly scientific principles. Cool-headed people who have had a little experience of the world, if they ever indulge in such delightful dreams, recognise clearly that this ultimate goal of human intellectual activity, if it is ever to be reached, is still a long way off in the misty distance of the future; but the would- be social reformers among the Russian students of the sixties were too young, too inexperienced, and too presumptuously self-confident to recognise this plain, simple truth. They felt that too much valuable time had been already lost, and they were madly impatient to begin the great work without further delay. As soon as they had acquired a smattering of chemistry, physiology, and biology they imagined themselves capable of reorganising human society from top to bottom, and when they had acquired this conviction they were of course unfitted for the patient, plodding study of details.
To remedy these evils, Count Dimitri Tolstoy, who was regarded as a pillar of Conservatism, was appointed Minister of Public Instruction, with the mission of protecting the young generation against pernicious ideas, and eradicating from the schools, colleges, and universities all revolutionary tendencies. He determined to introduce more discipline into all the educational establishments and to supplant to a certain extent the superficial study of natural science by the thorough study of the classics-- that is to say, Latin and Greek. This scheme, which became known before it was actually put into execution, produced a storm of discontent in the young generation. Discipline at that time was regarded as an antiquated and useless remnant of patriarchal tyranny, and young men who were impatient to take part in social reorganisation resented being treated as naughty schoolboys. To them it seemed that the Latin grammar was an ingenious instrument for stultifying youthful intelligence, destroying intellectual development, and checking political progress. Ingenious speculations about the possible organisation of the working classes and grandiose views of the future of humanity are so much more interesting and agreeable than the rules of Latin syntax and the Greek irregular verbs!
Count Tolstoy could congratulate himself on the efficacy of his administration, for from the time of his appointment there was a lull in the political excitement. During three or four years there was only one political trial, and that an insignificant one; whereas there had been twenty between 1861 and 1864, and all more or less important. I am not at all sure, however, that the educational reform which created much momentary irritation and discontent had anything to do with the improvement in the situation. In any case, there were other and more potent causes at work. The excitement was too intense to be long-lived, and the fashionable theories too fanciful to stand the wear and tear of everyday life. They evaporated, therefore, with amazing rapidity when the leaders of the movement had disappeared--Tchernishevski and others by exile, and Dobrolubof and Pissaref by death--and when among the less prominent representatives of the younger generation many succumbed to the sobering influences of time and experience or drifted into lucrative professions. Besides this, the reactionary currents were making themselves felt, especially since the attempt on the life of the Emperor. So long as these had been confined to the official world they had not much affected the literature, except externally through the Press-censure, but when they permeated the reading public their influence was much stronger. Whatever the cause, there is no doubt that, in the last years of the sixties, there was a subsidence of excitement and enthusiasm and the peculiar intellectual phenomenon which had been nicknamed Nihilism was supposed to be a thing of the past. In reality the movement of which Nihilism was a prominent manifestation had merely lost something of its academic character and was entering on a new stage of development.