The Book of the Homeless/The Russian Bogyman


The devastating war in Europe has robbed the United States of one familiar figure, of one cherished illusion. In the stage setting of the nations, we have long expected Russia to play the villain's rôle. We have depended on her for dark deeds, we have owed to her our finest thrills of virtuous indignation. From the days when Mr. George Kennan worked the prolific Siberian prison vein (our own prison system was not then calculated to make us unduly proud), down to the summer of 1914, we have never failed to respond to any outcry against a nation about which we were reliably misinformed. It was quite the fashion, when I was young, for some thousands, or perhaps some millions of modest American citizens to sign a protest to the Czar, whenever we disapproved of the imperial policy. What became of these protests, nobody knew; the chance of the Czar's reading the millions of names seemed, even to us, unlikely; but it was our nearest approach to intimacy with the great and wicked ones of earth, and we felt we were doing our best to stem the tide of tyranny.

A great deal of this popular sentiment came to us from England, where hostility to Russia was bred of national fear. A great deal of it was fostered by Jewish immigrants in the United States. But the dislike of democracy for autocracy was responsible for our most cherished illusions.

Some god this severance rules.

A well-told story like Mr. Kipling's "The Man Who Was" seemed to us an indictment of a nation. Popular magazines cultivated a school of fiction in which Russian nobles were portrayed as living the unfettered lives, and enjoying the unfettered pastimes, of Dahomey chiefs. Popular melodrama showed us the heads of the Russian police department devoting themselves unreservedly to the persecution of innocent maidenhood. The only good Russian ever presented to us was the nihilist, some one who, like Mademoiselle Ixe, spent her time in pursuit of a nameless official, and shot him for a nameless crime. Even our admiration for Count Tolstoy was founded on his revolt from the established order of things in his own country. It seldom occurred to us that the established order of things in any other country would have been equally obnoxious to this thorough-paced reformer. New York would have been as little to his taste as was St. Petersburg.

The exigencies of a political alliance have impelled England to lay aside her former animosities, and bury them in oblivion. For many months she has tried hard to reinstate Russia in popular opinion, chiefly by means of serious papers in serious periodicals, which the populace never reads. Mr. Bernard Shaw is perhaps the only in an left in the United Kingdom who clings desperately to the good old Russian bogy man, as we cling to the ogre of our infancy, and the pirate of our tender youth. Mr. Shaw's Russia is not merely a land where pure-minded, noble-hearted disturbers of the peace are subject to shameful captivity. It is a land where "people whose worst crime is to find the Daily News a congenial newspaper are hanged, flogged, or sent to Siberia, as a matter of daily routine." This is worse than Dahomey, where the perils of the press are happily unknown. Most of us would change our morning paper rather than be hanged. Few of us would find any journal "congenial," which paved the long way to Siberia.

England sympathized with Japan in the Japanese-Russian war from interested motives. We did the same out of pure unadulterated sentiment. Japan was an unfriendly power, given to hostile mutterings. Russia was a friendly power, which had done us more than one good turn. But Japan was little, and Russia was big. "How," asks the experienced Mr. Vincent Crummies, "are you to get up the sympathies of an audience in a legitimate manner, if there isn't a little man contending against a big one?" Japan, moreover, was the innocent land of cherry blossoms, and Russia was the land of knouts, and spies, and Cossacks. Russia worshipped God with rites and ceremonies, displeasing to pious Americans. Japan belonged to Heathendom, and merited enlightened tolerance.

A fresh deal in international policy may at any time sever and re-unite the troubled powers of Europe. Their boundary lines are hostages to fortune. But we, with two oceans sweeping our shores, have lost our bogyman beyond all hope of recovery. It is not with us a question of altered interests, but of altered values. Germany's campaign in Belgium has changed forever our standards of perfidy and of frightfulness. We can never go back to the old ones. Once we spoke of Russia as a nation

Which to the good old maxim clings,
That treaties are the pawns of Kings.

Now we know that Germany outstrips her far in faithlessness. Once we called Russia oppressive, cruel, unjust. Now the devastated homes of Flanders teach us the meaning of those words. Once we reproached Russia for being the least civilized of Christian nations. Now we have seen a potent civilization crash down into pure savagery, its flimsy restraints of no avail before the loosened passions of men.

And for our own share of injury and insult? Is it possible that a few years ago we deeply resented Russia's disrespect for American passports; that we abrogated a treaty because she dared to turn back from her frontiers American citizens armed with these sacred guarantees? To-day our dead lie under the ocean; and Germany, who sent them there, sings comic songs in her music halls to celebrate the rare jest of their drowning. Our sensitive pride which could brook no slight from the friendly hand of Russia, is now humbled to the dust by Germany's mailed fist. She has spared us no hurt, and she has spared us no jibe. Bleeding and bewildered, we have come to a realization of things as they are, we have seen the naked truth, and we can never go back to our illusions. We enjoyed our old bogyman, our shivers of horror, our exalted sentiments, our comfortable conviction of superiority. Now nothing is left but sorrow for our dead, and shame for the wrongs which have been done us. As long as history is taught, the tale of this terrible year will silence all other tales of horror. Not for us only, but for the listening world, the standard of uttermost evil has been forever changed.