Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/The tribulation of Russia




Probably the question which is just now asked oftenest in every country in Europe is—“Who lights up all these fires all over Russia?” I very much doubt whether anybody knows, and whether there are any means of knowing. To those of us who have friends in Russia, and who have read all that has been written about the country for many years past, the mystery is more confounding than to the most careless. What purpose can be answered to anybody by this terrific and useless destruction of property and of public order? Among the lowest order of serfs there are millions who would do anything that came into their puzzled heads and angry hearts. One of the most dreadful blows that the late Czar ever received was when the news reached him of what had been done by the serfs on an estate on the Volga, in consequence of some words of his. A deputation of serfs had sought him, and told him their griefs; he said to them, “I sympathise with you,” and promised not to forget them. They made sure of immediate freedom, went home, and spread their news; and the next tidings were that the officers of the estate had been taken into the woods, and there burnt alive, flayed alive, crucified, subjected to nameless horrors. The Czar was long in getting over the shock, if he ever did get over it. One of the most eulogistic of English describers of Russian society told us, not long ago, of what happened when she was on one of the estates much further to the south. A young lady, walking in her father’s garden, observed an odd appearance on the walls of the house (which were of wood); she called her father’s attention to it; and it proved to be a coating of phosphorus, which would have ignited in an hour or two of noon sunshine. One of the house-servants, a young man, confessed that he had done it, and that he meant to burn the mansion, on account of some personal grudge which possessed his mind. That people like these should burn houses is less wonderful than that the Norfolk labourers of thirty years ago should burn stacks; but the late Russian fires are not of this character. Public offices in the chief cities, churches, market-houses, and whole streets of shops are not likely to be attacked by domestic or agricultural serfs. There is even less concert among the widely scattered class of thralls in Russia than among the negroes in America; and the recent fires have broken out all over the empire,—in Odessa as well as St. Petersburg,—near the European frontier, and far eastwards towards Siberia. The higher order of thralls, the traders and artisans in the towns, know too much of life to be likely to follow so ruinous a policy, even if there were any conceivable purpose to be answered by such incendiarism. Such fires as have happened in the rural communes might be the work of serfs; but there must be other mischief-makers at St. Petersburg and Moscow, Novgorod and Odessa.

It cannot be the Old Russian party. They are under discouragement at present; but such a course would be simply their own destruction. The modern German party have every inducement to promote the prosperity of the country in every way. The Secret Societies which are the constant bugbear of all Russian governments are less and less believed in from generation to generation, as they never do anything, and can never be found; but, if they did exist and work, this is about the very last thing they would do, as it would place out of reach every object they can be supposed to desire. It is not supposed that Government knows—and no one class, more than any other, seems to be thought able to throw any light on the mystery. So the old remedy is called in—repression by military force; and the mischief is kept under for the moment.

The most careless may now have some idea and feeling of what it must be to live in Russia. While, in the chief cities, the great merchants are failing every day, and the insurance offices are bankrupt; and while, in the country, the families of nobles do not know which way to turn to obtain the luxuries of life, which have become necessaries to them, or even to get clothes to wear, the outside world at last learns to pity them; and it is enough to make anybody shudder to think of living in a groping panic from day to day, not knowing whom to trust, and afraid to let anybody in, for fear of fire-balls and lucifer-matches. While it is quite true, however, that society there is in a state of fearful suspense, awaiting a hurricane, without knowing to what quarter to look for it, or how to make preparation against it, it is also true that this state of mind is so far from being anything new, that Russians may suffer less from it than we should. The gentry of South Carolina declare that they enjoy life under conditions which would spoil our pleasure in everything,—under dread of fire, dread of being out after dark, dread of country rambles, dread of poor whites in the woods, and of poor blacks in their own houses; and in the same way, the Russian gentry think themselves the gayest people in the world, in their life of social precariousness, and of restriction on personal action. No doubt they suffer under the increased panic and helplessness of this terrible year; but it cannot be to them by any means so intolerable as it would be to us who have never known what it was to fear our government, or our neighbours, or our own households.

Let us see what we know of the character of ordinary Russian life, and of that of to-day. Such a survey, however brief, may help us to sympathise now, and prepare us for whatever we may next witness.

We cannot too carefully remember that, however we may talk about Russian society, we know nothing of the life of any part of it but the aristocracy. There is nothing else that we can know; for there is nothing there equivalent to our middle class. English residents and travellers in Russia describe to us the dress and appearance of everybody who appears in the streets and passes along the roads; they tell us what the shops and markets are like, and how people work in the fields, and the mines, and the factories, and the great charity-schools, and asylums; but there is nobody to report what is thought, and said, and felt by nine-tenths of the people. Remembering, then, how narrow our range of observation is, this is what we may be said to know.

The Russians consider themselves the most light-hearted people in the world,—the very gayest,—those who have the easiest life of it: and the common run of foreign observers fall into the belief that it is so. The citizens have no onerous cares, no arduous enterprises, no political duties, no social responsibilities. Government undertakes everything for them, and only begs them not to trouble themselves about anything. This gives them leisure to gratify their likings, and pursue their amusements, without any danger of reproach from any quarter; and they claim that Russia is the same sort of paradise for men that Belgravia and Washington are for women. An Englishman’s comment on this is that such a life would not satisfy him; and I need not dwell on that plain fact: but I must point out that the bright gaiety of aristocratic life in Russia is only one side of it. The Czars and their counsellors have steadily desired that life should be essentially monotonous to the citizens, while the irksomeness was duly relieved by superficial excitements. A perpetual round of entertainments was to preclude all dulness, while no absorbing interests were to find entrance. But it is not for Czars and councils to decree what men shall do with their lives, and at the same time save them from the consequences of any abuse of life. As it has turned out, nowhere are there so many catastrophes as in Russian life, where nothing remarkable is to be allowed to happen: nowhere are there so many thunderclaps as in that gay realm where everybody is to be always dancing in the sunshine. The element of uncertainty is most striking,—whether we study native or foreign pictures of Russian society. Throughout the vast mountain pile of Russian life, there are not only deep hidden caverns where misery groans, and gloomy ravines where men’s hearts fail them for fear, but also chasms in the flowery uplands, into which somebody or other is for ever falling, to the horror of the bystanders. The Government is vexed that it should be so,—declares that it is the fault of the sufferers,—complains of men’s perverseness, that they will think and desire, and aspire, and do anything but amuse themselves, and go deftly through their easy work in the public offices: but not the less is the thing for ever happening; and this perpetual experience of shocks must have done something towards either deadening men’s feelings, or inuring their minds to such a state of things as the present.

As for the ladies,—their life is easily understood and imagined. They are all hospitable,—it being the habit of their order to keep open house in the country, and something very like it in town. They read in several modern languages, they cultivate music and drawing, they dress themselves and their houses prettily, they amuse themselves and other people, all their lives long. In a state of society in which due scope is not allowed to the best human energies, there is sure to be a prevalence of two tendencies,—of scepticism and of sentimentality; and the women are sure to have their full share of the one or the other. Among Russian ladies, there is, accordingly, a knowing turn and a sentimental turn; and if we would find a ripe wisdom, the fruit of knowledge, sensibility, thought, and experience, we must look for it among those who are far from being gay and light-hearted.

But I must be more rapid in my survey. What is the life of the men of Russia, as it was before the opening of the present crisis?

There was the Czar; a man as far from happy as any one in his dominions. He believed—from Peter the Great to the second Alexander—that conspiracy was always dogging his steps, and boring mines under his throne. He was a god to the nation; but he had the work of a Providence to do in a polity which charged him with every man’s business and every man’s fate; and thus, between his dignity and his task, his pride and his mortal limitations, his brain was in danger, and a sound and serene life was out of the question. As for any possible aid in his work,—an autocrat can have no friend, in the best sense; and the late Czar only said what every Czar thinks when he declared that his officials would steal his very breeches if they could. Then come the officials. They are the worst class in society, unless it be the Jew dram-sellers, who are the locusts of the country districts as the political functionaries are of their own department. They are nominally underpaid, and therefore provide for themselves by corruption and oppression. We all know so much of this, and the Russian bureaucracy is so established as the type of a curse in high places, that I need say no more of it. But the military part of the public service is no longer to be described, as it once was, in the same terms with the civil. Since the last war, if the soldiery are not more miserable than before, their misery has become better known. The case has been taken to heart by the Imperial family; thieves and oppressors in high places have been punished: frauds have been stopped; and, above all, the conscription has been largely remitted. Yet, the military class has, all this while, been quite as miserable as any civilians are now. The soldiery loathe their fate: the administration of their department is completely disorganised, and from the most depressed private serving on the Asiatic frontier to the princely commander who levies homage in St. Petersburg, every soldier knows that the army is in a desperate state, and the world is saying every day that Russia is no longer, practically considered, a great military power. After all the filching of the soldier’s bread and dram, and warm coats, and straw and fuel and medicine, and the starving of his horse, and the stopping of his pay, there come the shame and grief of the world’s compassion, and the fearlessness of Europe. The discontent of the army is known to be so great that a wide-spread suspicion exists in Russia that the matches which have kindled flames from the Black Sea to the Gulf of Finland, have come out of the pockets of long grey coats.

There are persons yet more aware than the soldiery of the decline of their country in European estimation. The nobles have, for a whole generation, been learning more of what the world is like beyond their frontier; and they find their position in strong contrast to that of a genuine aristocracy. They are not of ancient stock; they are not of natural growth; they were till lately liable to the knout; and, as I need not add, they have no sacred heritage of personal honour as a ground of prestige. There are many and great advantages in being a noble in Russia; but it is not a thing to be proud of. The more these nobles travel, the more keenly they feel their inferiority to every primitive aristocracy; and they learn at the same time that while the dignity of their order has somewhat improved at home, the repute and influence of their country have, in a much greater proportion, declined abroad. With no political career open to them, and their territorial prospects spoiled by the curse of serfage, which could neither go on nor be got rid of, the class of nobles was far from happy before their Emperor called upon them to deal with that curse of serfage. At present we see some of them glad that the hour has come, and loyally devoted to work out the scheme, while more are reluctant, angry, sullen, or immovable; and all are in difficulties about land and money.

That part of their order which constitutes the bureaucracy is in the direst confusion. For years they have fought, tooth and nail, against the reform of their insufferable official vices; and they have made the Emperor and all his subjects their victims. If he had been resolute enough to stake everything on a reform of his administration throughout the empire, he and his people might have got safely through their crisis; the serfs might have been freed without serious mischief, and a foundation would have been laid for the growth of a middle class. But the Emperor vacillated: he let incorrigible functionaries remain, and take the charge of his reforms: he dismissed them and appointed better; and now again he has turned back to the old system. The functionaries, meantime, are grasping what they can of wealth and power, venturing the most desperate frauds, tyrannies, and open defiance, aware that they must overrule the Emperor or perish.

The clergy are the lowest in the world out of Thibet. The bishops are the most slavish of courtiers before the nobles, and the most vulgar of tyrants among their clergy. The clergy are a very suffering class,—not only ignorant and oppressed, but painfully abased. In a Protestant country, where the clergy of all sects deal with ideas as the basis of sentiments, it is scarcely possible to conceive of the way in which the ministers of a purely ritual religion are regarded, as in the Greek Church or in Buddhist society. Perhaps the clergy in Russia are less affected by recent events than any other class. Nobody thinks of raising them: they can hardly sink lower in fortunes and repute. It must, however, make some difference to them whether the landowners are keeping open house, or shutting up and going away; or whether the peasants are in their ordinary mood, or mutinous and menacing; and whether the commune is prosperous and merry, or full of gloom and strife. The clergy, therefore, are not much happier than other people just now.

Next to the nobles, the most miserable class would seem to be the traders. We cannot call them the middle class, because there is nothing in Russia which corresponds to our conception of that broad, rich, all important element of modern society. There are a few wealthy traders who may be serfs or free, as may happen. The freest and richest have no social or political function or interest. They have no objects in common with their neighbours, and are not included in any organisation whatever. In their one object,—of making their fortunes, they are now baffled. It was bad enough formerly, while making their fortunes, to be subject to the intolerable extortions and insults of the whole body of public functionaries; but there was always the hope of a time when abuses would come to an end, and law become a real safeguard to the citizen; and there was a commerce going on by which traders could compensate themselves for their losses by official oppression: but now there is nothing doing. There is no money; there is no credit; whole streetsful of traders are bankrupt; and those who have not yet failed see nothing before them but a state of barter. In many places it is a complete deadlock about money; and if the townspeople want food, and the landed gentry want clothes, they must manage to exchange the one for the other. Moreover, the merchant is afraid to see any customer enter, lest he should leave a trail of fire behind him: every one who comes in is watched and followed, at the risk of mortal offence; and if the day is got through without arrest, bad debts, incendiarism, pillage, or other hardship, the night may sweep away everything. Flames break out in a dozen places in a bazaar or market; and by the morning, one, two, or three hundred shops and warehouses may be mere smouldering ruins.

There remain the two opposed social elements,—the free intellectual order and the peasants.

Careless observers might suppose the latter to be the happiest class in Russia now. We may hope that they will be; but they are not very lighthearted at present. What their misery was in former reigns will hardly be known for some time yet. A debased class has to learn to speak the language, and even to realise the ideas of manhood, before it can convey any true impression of its experience in slavery. Our grandchildren will know more than we can by any means learn of the troubles of serf life in Russia: but, if there had been no prior revelations of restless misery, we should perceive something of it now by the discontents with which the Czar is struggling. The people find themselves practically still bound to their proprietors; and they rage and storm, or throw themselves down heartbroken,—sure that they are betrayed, and only hoping that the Czar cannot know of it. How much these poor people have to do with the conflagrations, time may show. As I have said, it does not seem probable that the mischief should be their work; but there is no doubt about their being in a wild state of discontent. There is intelligence enough among them, and there was a sufficiently steady expectation of freedom to have rendered the transition to a system of free labour safe and practicable, if not easy: but the enterprise was unsteadily proposed, begun at the wrong end, rendered dangerous to the proprietors, and disappointing to the peasants; and the consequence is that in some regions the woods are swarming with hungry outlaws, or the peasants and the soldiery are fighting, or fraternising against the nobles; or there are long rows of mutineers suffering as malefactors. One would like to know more of the brighter side. There must be estates, and we would fain hope whole provinces, where the proprietors have succeeded in making the people understand their own case, and in inducing them to work heartily, in discharge of their obligations: but we are still kept waiting for this better news, though we may reasonably look to have it any day.

The free intellectual order of citizens are now regarded with respectful compassion by the best citizens of all countries. Some of them have been driven along the roads to Siberia. Some are already there, sentenced never more to see home and friends: some are sunk into the hopelessness of frontier military service; and many more are suffering under enforced silence and stagnation in their own towns and homes. The University is closed; the school is broken up; the key is carried away from the lecture-room or club-house door. Precious books are seized and burnt; and spies and informers are everywhere. Two men cannot converse about the stars,—one man cannot work the multiplication table, without being suspected of punishable sedition. In the days of the former Alexander the members of the Schelling society were indulged with liberty of discussion, because, as the Emperor remarked, they would thus be occupied, without any danger of anybody reaching any practical conclusion: and even now the School of Arts is kept open at Warsaw,—the authorities saying: “Let them paint, and then they won’t think:” but in the great Russian cities, everything of the sort is superseded. Yet, I cannot but believe that the intellectual class is the least miserable. No doubt the highest order of citizen suffers from a throng of bitter emotions; his friends are in prison or in exile; his own pursuits are stopped, and his bread with them; a generation of promising young men are turned away from a nobler to a lower order of occupations; but still, these are signs and tokens that the hour, long prayed for, is at hand. These must be the incidents of the time whenever freedom does arrive; and the man who finds himself wading and struggling in the midst of them may hope to get a footing on the high and dry land of liberty before he dies.

Such has been the progress of Russian experience from the time of Nicholas to that of Alexander II. The point is now reached when every department of the empire seems to be in disorder, and every interest in a state of ruin. It must be so, sooner or later; and it is our fortune to see it. There must be many men now living who will see what comes of it,—whether Russia is capable of remaining a European empire on European terms. If not, it must betake itself to Asia, where, by its comparative enlightenment, it deserves a great career.

But the European career must be also possible where there is a Head of the empire who has, however fitfully, encouraged aspirations after liberty, and where the suspicions of the authorities take the direction of constitutional organisation. Something must be done with the higher element which sometimes blazes out and sometimes is hidden, but which has never yet been extinguished. At present, there is no corn in the granaries of the Southern ports, because the nobles have little to send, and nobody to trust it to; and nobody has any money with which to buy it. There is no traffic on the Steppe roads; no echo of axe or wain in the woods; no buzz of bargaining in the bazaars; no harvest singing in the fields. There is instead the roar of the flames in the market-place, and the clang when the church bells fall from the steeple. The peasant stands idle in his weedy plot, refusing to strike his spade in while rent is demanded for it: and if he and his household are out late under the summer twilight, it is not to load the last sheaves, but to watch the red glare on the horizon, which tells what is doing in a distant commune. In some places people gather to see the rarity of a small coin,—such as their pockets used to be full of: in others, shippers are laying up their vessels, dreading to find them riddled by “the worm” next season; and elsewhere, the contractors are stopping the railway works, because there is no money to be had. Everybody seems to be turned idle except the soldiers; and they are marching and clattering their arms everywhere; yet every soldier is looked at with misgiving by the Government. The citizens are silent in their own homes; their wives look wistfully in their faces, while praising their country and social ways to all strangers, to governess, visitors, and every one who may be a spy. The children are under a chill of terror, and have hobgoblin notions of Secret Societies. Amidst all these miseries there is something stirring which must be liberty in some form or other; and we catch glimpses here and there of the shape of constitutionalism. Is there anything that we or anybody can do towards clearing away the miseries, and establishing the good which they are ushering in?

We can only give our sympathy and our testimony. We can show the Czar that we are watching his intercourses with France, and anxious for a good deliverance for him and his people from their revolution. When asked, we can give our opinion that nothing is so safe in politics as frank speech about an avowed object. If Russia is to remain an autocracy, let the Czar say so, and learn whether it is possible. If the people are to become a nation, with a middle class and representative institutions, let the proposal be openly made. When frank discussion shames conspiracy, it may turn out that the fires are the work of mere thieves, and the horrors those of frightened people running after each other in the dark. Matters can hardly be worse; and there is no saying how much better they may be, when men appear who are worthy of their day. Meantime, there may be more immediate bloodshed elsewhere, but there can scarcely be a more fearful spectacle than the Tribulation of Russia.

From the Mountain.