Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/A Constantine czarowicz in Warsaw - Part 2



Savage and ferocious, however, as he was on ordinary occasions, an unbuttoned coat, or a collar an inch too high, would make the General-in-Chief bellow with rage, and strike, condemn to the casemates, to the rods, or to instant death, every one that came in his way. His favourite officers, of course, exaggerated, if possible, the fury of their master. One soldier returning drunk to barracks, caused, perhaps, four divisions to be punished, or the whole infantry corps to be sent to expiate the crime by forced marches through the sands of the Vola. So strictly was discipline maintained, that on one occasion, when a non-commissioned officer ventured to send in a petition to the Czarowicz, knowing the hopelessness of obtaining redress from his own officers, the insubordination was punished in the following manner. He was bound to a truck, and so dragged through the ranks of five battalions, each man in them striking his back with a rod; long before the sentence was completed, the blows fell upon a senseless, macerated corpse. This was the usual punishment for a breach of discipline. Nor was the brutality of Constantine confined to the rank and file of his army. We will but cite one instance of the treatment to which officers of the most honoured families in the country were alike subjected. The Czarowicz in his rounds one day found a young Polish lieutenant absent from his post—it was within the town—the lad having left for a moment to procure a sheet of paper from a shop close at hand, on which to draw up the report he had to give in at head-quarters. Constantine had scarely arrived when he returned; he explained his absence, but to no purpose; the Romanoff tore the epaulets from the lieutenant’s shoulders, and made the Russian soldiers on duty beat him “bez pozadi” (without mercy), until at the end of half-an-hour he lost all consciousness, and was carried to the hospital. Strange to say, the Czarowicz repented the next morning of this proceeding, and summoning the regimental surgeons, charged them to cure the young man under pain of being sent to Siberia. They, doubtless, tried to obey; but the poor boy died within a few days. His mother, who all that time watched at the hospital door, was not allowed to see him until he no longer lived, when Constantine sent for her, expressed his regret that the affair should have terminated so unpleasantly, and by another strange freak of what he doubtless thought was generosity, offered her 5000 Polish florins (121l.).

“Do you think, barbarian, I will make a bargain with you for my child’s tortures? His blood be upon your head!” was the only reply she gave.

Constantine soon found it necessary to change the military system he found existing in the remnant of the Polish army: promotion by merit was neither profitable nor politic. He immediately consulted with his brother upon the subject, and the result was the gradual introduction of the Russian system, by which a military hierarchy was secured, bound alike by interest and common infamy to the Russian dynasty. Colonelcies and generalships were put up to sale; in an infantry regiment the latter was found a profitable investment to the buyer at 26,000 florins, in a cavalry regiment it usually went for 5000 less. The dress and food of the men became a business speculation of their officers, and the poor wretches perished of cold and hunger to enrich those who preyed on their misery. With rare exceptions the old generals who had served under Napoleon, held aloof, as much as possible, from their new master; and though few among them threw up their commands, their opposition, though silent, made them not less hateful to him. One of the number was a man whose bravery, shown in a hundred battles, and personal character, had made him so popular with the troops, that even the Czarowicz dared not insult him without some pretence. At length the opportunity, so long desired, came: on a grand field-day, a certain trooper in the general’s division appeared with his breast padding somewhat unsymmetrical: the Czarowicz’s hawk’s-eye at once detected the abomination, and the Imperial hand the next instant dragged the man out of his saddle, unbuttoned his coat, pulled from it we know not what soiled linen, and threw it in the general’s face. The white-haired veteran instinctively grasped at his sword-hilt; then, as the miserable character of the insult rushed on his mind, he turned pale, and fell insensible into the arms of his friends. Constantine succeeded in his aim—the general resigned.

Even the most favoured of the Commander-in-chief’s officers, those who held a high position in his secret police system, were scarcely less exposed to his rage than honest men. One of them, General Gendre, was thrice degraded to the ranks, and thrice restored to his generalship, finally obtaining besides a high appointment in the civil service.

Constantine took great pains in organising military colleges; they were eagerly attended by the youth of the noblest and most patriotic families, and in his blindness he thought he thus secured an infallible means of subjecting the country by the arms of its own children. The year 1831 was strangely to undeceive him. All the subaltern officers were soon supplied from these colleges, and the men for years before the revolution was spoken of as a definite necessity, felt it coming, and more and more attached themselves to their young leaders. The first years after 1815 passed quite quietly; the country, paralysed by its previous sufferings, gazed with a helpless wonder at the changes going on.

In 1819, some signs of discontent appeared, and the government was greatly alarmed. Arrests, courts-martial and tortures followed; but these were kept as quiet as possible, and no one condemned to the horrors of Constantine’s dungeons was allowed to speak of them to living man.

The Emperor visited Poland in 1821, and was received with enthusiasm: the people knew nothing of him but from the “Constitution” to which he had sworn in 1815; and as the amnesties and pardons he had since frequently issued, were most discreetly worded, his brother had little trouble in evading their apparent intention. Possibly Alexander felt some compunction at the policy on which he had entered; at any rate, he promised the country a regeneration based on the union of all the Russian provinces once included under the Polish crown. The people were too grateful, too overjoyed, to doubt his sincerity; and were resigned to the abuses of Constantine’s rule, in the hope of a future when Poland would no longer be bound to Russia as a petty dependent State, but as a great kingdom, whose superior wealth, and infinitely superior intelligence, must give it equality, if not a preponderance, in the councils of the Crown. Thus, as long as Alexander lived, servitude was not quite hopeless; and only at his death did Poland awake to the full horror of her position.

Constantine, who had married a beautiful and virtuous Polish girl, immediately dismissed his seraglio, and gave up his debauched habits: for a little while the country hoped to find a protector from its tyrant in her; but though on every opportunity she never failed to intercede on the side of mercy with her husband, and he rarely refused her anything, she was permitted to know so little of all that was passing in the country, that her power for good was scarcely felt. Day after day she might sit in the silent, curtainless rooms of the Belvedere—for Constantine could endure no shadows or dark corners where he lived—and no echo reached her of the horrors he was perpetrating in the city and the camp.

Alexander died, and Constantine, to the astonishment of the world, declined the throne in favour of his younger brother, Nicholas—a brother who, totally devoid of moral qualities, and but very meagrely endowed with intellectual ones, was destined by mere force of will so to impose on the world, that his monstrous egotism should pass for genius, his brutal recklessness for power. This Old Man of the Sea, who so long crushed down in awful reverence some of the proudest crowns of Europe, was then scarce thirty years of age, and quite unknown to his own empire or to Europe. His real character was shown after Pestal’s conspiracy in 1825, by the wholesale hanging and torturing of those concerned in it, and condemning them in scores and hundreds to the mines of Siberia. The plot had large ramifications in Warsaw, and many Polish officers, and great part of the garrisons, were implicated in it.

Everything was prepared for the outbreak, when the wretched spy, Krasinski, who had wormed himself into the confidence of the patriots, denounced their projects to the Grand Duke. The chief leaders were arrested, and brought before the Senate for judgment. Constantine, by bribery and intimidation, felt confident of bending the high tribunal to his will, and his astonishment was scarcely less than his fury, when, of all the members, not one but his minion Krasinski voted for the condemnation of the prisoners. He swore that no others should so escape again; and in the meantime consoled himself with their suffering during the three years spent in the examinations, and by the death of the intrepid Bielniski, who defended the accused, but, worn out by the mental excitement and fatigue of the trial, scarcely survived its close. His burial almost caused an insurrection, and furnished a rich harvest of arrests.

Zaionek shortly afterwards died, the vice-royalty was abolished, and was Constantine invested with absolute power. His first care was to purge the Administrative Council, which still contained many honest, if not very courageous men; thenceforth every moment he could spare from the army, was given to perfecting his police system. A secret police had long since been organised by the Grand Duke, but its power had not been greatly felt until after Alexander’s death.

But from the date of Pestal’s conspiracy, scarcely a day went by without arrests; suicides were of constant occurrence; and over the smooth granite pavement of the bestrewed city, the kibitka bore its nightly victims to the mines or the fortresses of Siberia.

Poland grew impatient under this unendurable tyranny, and silently prepared for the coming struggle. The Emperor was engaged in war with Turkey for the deliverance of Greece; and the Poles, with ill-considered generosity perhaps, resolved to wait, rather than hinder the deliverance of another oppressed people; though, had they risen then, the chances were immensely in their favour. The Czar, tired of his Asiatic triumphs, now turned his attention to Europe; the bear entered into solemn league with the fox; the Romanoff and the Hohenzollern embraced each other at Berlin, and the latter was promised all the offal left by his still hungrier companion in the chase they proposed together. The wolf at that time was fitting on a new sheep-skin, and as he had plenty of troublesome flocks in the home-farm, he declined joining his friend; at least, until he saw how the sport was likely to turn out. Nicholas now felt the wisdom of conciliating the Poles, as Poland must be the basis of his future operations; and therefore he gave them the pleasure of seeing him crowned king in Warsaw. All went well at the grand ceremony: the new king was affability itself, walked unattended in the public promenades with his family, met with enthusiastic vivas and respectful deference everywhere; but when, on convening the Diet, instead of healing the heartburnings inflicted by constant prorogations, he answered the constitutional demands of the deputies by talking only of his prerogative, the hopes excited by his first appearance vanished; the vivas sunk into silence. The oppressor and the oppressed looked each other calmly in the face, and made their resolve. Nicholas felt that such favours as he was disposed to offer must be scorned by the country, so he determined to govern by terror. He cared little for this; his system would soon overcome all ill-conditioned discontent. He shortly left, to make the famous convention with the King of Prussia, and returned, for a few days, to Warsaw, to scatter stars and cordons among the venal aristocracy who crowded the antechambers of the Belvedere.

Lubeckoi, the Minister of Finance, was a man completely after the Emperor’s heart, loving nothing on earth, and fearing nothing but his imperial master, cruel as he was passionless, without prejudices as without principles, believing in no one, and false alike to friends and enemies; yet highly talented, full of expedients, never elated by success, nor depressed by evil fortune. He soon acquired complete ascendency over the new Administrative Council; and even the wild Czarowicz was obliged in some degree to curry favour with the minister who held the purse-strings. This little suited the eldest of the Romanoffs; but his soldiers, and still more his spies, must be paid, and he found himself obliged to submit.

The Council quickly became the market for all offices in the State—for bishops’ mitres, chamberlains’ wands, and even all the higher appointments in the army. Lubeckoi resigned to Constantine the duty of carrying out its decrees; but the Grand Duke found these duties insufficient for his civic ardour, and with the same mad energy with which he drilled a regiment of recruits, he now set about reorganising the secret police. He soon established through this means a tribunal completely devoted to his will, immediately under his favourite, General Roznicski, as president, assisted by various other generals, three favourite jailers, His Highness’s late tutor, General Karouta, a confidential valet de chambre, a Jew (broker and poisoner to the tribunal), gendarmes of peculiar acumen, and one or two other villains. The decrees of this council were carried out by a legion of Thugs, composed of pick-pockets, Jew usurers, pimps, dismissed galley-slaves, and other vile instruments, such as can always be found to carry out the will of iniquity in high places.

The tribunal held its sittings at Warsaw, generally in a vault of the Belvedere, and its dread power was soon felt to the farthest limits of the kingdom: its spies contrived to introduce themselves into every family. The attention of the secret police was no longer confined to persons in government employments; barracks, colleges, cafés, public gardens, the boudoirs of courtesans, monks’ cells, Jewish synagogues, and freemasons’ lodges were alike the field of their operations. They were no longer a gang of insignificant scoundrels, but a great State institution, with their own system of administration, their esprit de corps, and peculiar privileges. No person employed in the secret police could be charged with felony or theft, nor could any civil action be brought against its agents but by their immediate superiors; no one had such facilities of travelling as they: the services of the gendarmes were absolutely at their disposition, and they could always demand an escort of Cossacks if necessary. It must not be supposed all this was earned without some trouble. After the Revolution, no less than fifty-nine large volumes of manuscript reports were found in General Karouta’s office alone, all drawn up by his own hand. He was chief paymaster of the force, and a man of untiring devotion; he frequently received as many as 107 agents in one morning; those who had a more than usually interesting conspiracy, or piquant bit of household scandal, were sent on to the Grand Duke; the rest left their reports with him. This indefatigable ex-pedagogue had some human weaknesses: he was bitterly annoyed that Constantine would not grant the secret police a distinguishing uniform to be worn at court balls and levées. General Roznicski was a man of less ambition but far more practical than the Greek; he used to place the greater number of his private creditors on the lists of the secret service, and send them to Karouta with their bills; being, moreover, of an economical disposition, when he acted as his own paymaster he managed to save a good deal of money by receiving his spies in a chamber whilst another agent listened behind the door; after the first man had told his story, Roznicski would storm at him as a lazy rascal, then call in the eaves-dropper, who repeated the same declarations, declaring he had long since furnished them. But this manœuvre could only occasionally be put in practice.

Nor was this institution spoken or written of by its authors with any touch of cynicism: no, it was “a means employed by the Government for the better preservation of public morality, and of guarding the innocent from evil-doers.” We have not space to quote the oath taken by the police agents in full, but here are some extracts:—

I swear to God the Omnipotent in the Holy Trinity, and in the presence of the Holy Virgin, all the saints, and my own blessed patron saint, that I will fulfil the public trust placed in my hands with my best power and ability, and pay the strictest regard to all the instructions communicated to me; that I will neither communicate the duty with which I am charged either to persons of my own family, to persons serving in another section of the Police Administration, nor to the superiors of the latter; that I will faithfully report all I learn in the discharge of my functions to my own superiors, that I will not deceive them on any occasion, nor conceal anything from them; that I will report everything with strict veracity, and betray nothing of the work with which I am charged, so long as I live, etc., etc.

The oath concluded with:

May the one only God in the Holy Trinity, and all the saints, help me to keep this oath, in its fullest and strictest meaning.

Roznicski, who had acquired complete ascendency over the Grand Duke, soon became omnipotent through this army of spies, of whom there were 8000 employed in the capital alone. As the Grand Duke paid so much per head for arrests, without reference to quality, and as victims were absolutely necessary, Tartars, Jews, Hungarian herdsmen, Wirtemburg tailors, or gipsy tinkers, were all made to furnish the quota when no better subjects could be found. They heeded very little whom they seized; indeed, the bigot kneeling at his confessional, the drunkard shouting over his cups, the laughing rattlepate, the careless school-boy, were in far more danger that the silent conspirator preparing his arms in secrecy, content to stifle his indignation and wait. The spies loved especially to haunt the long corridors of the colleges, the cafés where lights were fewest, and the shady promenades of the public gardens; it was there the young officer, the student, advocate, the old soldier of Koskiusco, now hidden in the cowl of a Capuchin friar, and enthusiasts of all classes, met to talk together of their country’s wrongs and hopes, or to devour by the uncertain light of a flickering oil lamp, a scrap of some French newspaper that by strange chance had escaped the searchers at the Customs in a box of Provençe oranges or case of champagne. It was enough to find men together and pre-occupied, to prove their treason. In a quarter of an hour the decree was pronounced, and the next morning the antechambers of the President of Police, or those of Constantine’s aides-de-camp, were crowded with victims waiting to learn their sentence. In vain the distracted mother might entreat to bid her child adieu: the sentinel drove her away with his bayonet, whilst the well-brushed, tight-laced officer gracefully saluted her as he rode off to learn the will of His Highness Constantine.

General Roznicski established a servants’ registration office in Warsaw, whence every one was required to take their domestics; and, as the servants were thus brought completely into the power of the police, family secrets were soon as fully at its mercy.

The most trifling incident in the life of every person who held any position in society was carefully reported by the spies. From papers found in the police bureau at the Revolution, it appeared that multitudes of the citizens had been watched from the moment they rose in the morning until they retired to rest. One gentleman was reported to Constantine as “having taken a walk into the country, there looked through a telescope, and walked home again without speaking;” on another occasion as “having passed a full half-hour at a confectioner’s, though he scarcely ate anything.” Nothing was too insignificant for their gleaning.

After the Pestal Conspiracy, Senator Count Soltik, then upwards of eighty years of age, one of the most respected men in Warsaw, was seized upon suspicion, thrown into a noisome dungeon, left without trial for three years, and, when apparently at the point of death, was set at liberty on condition of sending twice a day a minute report of his proceedings to the police. Those who were so fortunate as to be released from prison, could only be set free on taking a solemn oath to reveal nothing they had suffered or seen during confinement, nor were they ever after allowed to leave the country, even though they were not Russian subjects; this at least held good where Prussians were concerned. Prisoners were further required, when no trial had taken place, to sign an acknowledgment of their culpable indiscretion. Papers were delivered to all householders with blanks for the number of the persons under their roofs, their professions, &c.; these had to be sent daily to the police. Constantine set spies upon his spies, who again set spies upon him; he even had the Emperor and Empress watched by his agents during their stay at Warsaw. The graves of the famous writer, Staszic, and Colonel Godelski, one of Napoleon’s bravest officers, offered a rich harvest for the Grand Duke’s underlings. The name of every person visiting them was marked down, especially of such as stopped to pray, or to place a few flowers in honour of the dead. When the Grand Duke was leniently disposed, the perpetrators of such crimes as these were made to work chained to a barrow or a roller in his pleasure gardens, or sweep the streets and market-places of Warsaw in fetters. Often an enthusiastic exclamation, the refrain of an old Polish song, a thoughtless word, or the possession of some book distasteful to Czarism, was sufficient to furnish the denouncers with material from which to fabricate a deadly conspiracy. The victim was nearly always arrested at midnight. Before he had time to recover the terror of the first moment, he was hurried away before the secret tribunal, though not before the usual garotte-collar had been secured round his throat. His conductor, bound to silence, led him through a secret door into the Belvedere, then descended with him down the dark stairs and long vaulted passages, in which no sound was heard but the dull echo of their own footsteps. At length their destination was reached. The prisoner stood in the judgment-hall. It was large, and seemed still larger, for the darkness was but faintly dispelled by the few candles that burnt sickly and dimly in the damp unwholesome atmosphere. The silence was unbroken for some minutes, save by the grating of a pen over the leaves of the “black book,” as the name of the prisoner was registered.

In the chief seat at the central table (there was no other furniture in the place) sat the president Roznicski, with cadaverous wrinkled face, blanched hair, and hands trembling from age and debauchery; near him, Karouta, the keen-eyed, eager Greek; Kochanowski, the Grand Duke’s valet, perfumed and dressed to perfection; Birmbaum, the Jew, gloating with fierce delight on the misery of the Polish noble, whose fathers had doubtless, a thousand times, given bitter insult to his own, even whilst granting them protection. If the prisoner was of importance, all the members of the tribunal would have been summoned; but we need not recapitulate their names.

The scene in the subterranean chamber of death was well fitted to wring from the victim some sign of terror or hesitation. If he replied with self-command and dignity, he was condemned for contumacy; if he hesitated, he was suspect; if silent, then clearly guilty. The informer never, or very rarely, appeared; he had but to furnish his report and proceed to other business. Witnesses were easily obtained. The cheapest and most effectual plan was to seize some poor Jew, who, though he might never have seen the prisoner in his life, was soon taught, under threat of the knout, to swear whatever was required against him. At midnight the Kibitka arrived; the condemned was carried out loaded with chains; the doors turned heavily and noiselessly on their well-worn hinges; he was borne away never to return; his name perished from among the living, or could be whispered only at the risk of sharing his fate.

As Constantine carried his system ever wider, the prisons in Warsaw soon proved insufficient to contain all the accused; so that hospitals and convents and monasteries had to be employed in the service. The vaults below the Czarowicz’s own palaces were retained for those whose tortures he wished to superintend personally.

When a prisoner could not or would not implicate his friends, he was generally consigned to certain dungeons thirty feet below the surface of the earth; there, a prey to deadly miasma and the horrors of perpetual darkness and hunger, he was left to writhe in hopeless misery. General Karouta discovered a rapid way of making the most obstinate break silence. He allowed him no other nourishment than salt herrings; the torments of thirst soon drove the poor wretch to the verge of insanity, and he vainly sought relief by licking the moisture impregnated with saltpetre from the walls of his dungeon. Then, when burning with the fever and delirium of approaching death, if he unconsciously pronounced some beloved name, his words were a death warrant: his door was immediately opened, and one or other of the members of the tribunal, motionless hitherto, listening for the important syllables, entered, and said carelessly, “You would have saved yourself much inconvenience by confessing the names of your accomplices sooner.”

Often, however, even hunger, thirst, hot braziers, pincers, and the lash were all applied in vain, and the heroic sufferer kept silence amid the worst tortures that even Constantine and his favourites could devise. When a person was compromised who could pay well for indemnity, the conspiracy was frequently hushed up; but every means were set on foot to track out the author of a seditious pamphlet, or the wearer of a tricolour cockade. The perusal of national poetry or history, Catholic observances, a square cap, moustaches of a particular fashion, and chivalrous manners, were all signs of rank treason, and led to torture or Siberia. To establish schools for the peasantry, or in any way to ameliorate their condition, was a still more deadly sin.

As an aid to his secret service, the Grand Duke established a certain “perlustration” bureau in the Warsaw Post-office, presided over by General Karouta, who, we have forgotten to say, was “chevalier of many foreign and all the Russian and Polish orders, and decorated with the Cross of Honour for distinguished services,” and Colonel Legtynski. The latter did all the work, and business enough he had on the Petersburg post day, when scores of letters were sent copied in full to the Czar, and as many used for extracts. Constantine allowed no letters to be excepted from this inquisition except those of his wife.

Perhaps of all classes the men of higher education and literary attainments were the most exposed in this reign of universal suspicion. Intellectual acquirements were above all things a protest against Russia, unless those acquirements were restrained within the calm regions of the exact sciences, or the harmless fancies of romance. For any one to speak or write of modern progress, of the endeavours of France for liberty, or of the heroic struggles by which it had been gained in England, was to challenge ruin. All men who loved their safety avoided such a mad enthusiast; and those who loved him and truth still better, soon had bitter cause to learn the price that it cost them. If a person persisted, and escaped arrest, he might perhaps secure his safety in the woods until it was possible to cross the frontier; but he was far more likely to die of hunger and exposure, or to be seized to wear out life chained in a casemate, or in the still more degrading misery of a soldier in the Siberian army.

Next in the detestation of the Czarowicz was the National Church. Alexander had taken great trouble to secure its good will, built churches and monasteries, and kissed the Primate’s ring with exemplary reverence; but, though by bribery and terrorism many of the higher dignitaries had been gained over, they formed but an insignificant minority, and by their very subserviency soon lost all power of aiding their masters, who learned to despise them as much as the people did.