"RUSSIA UNDER THE CZARS."*
A BOOK about Russia, by a Russian who has been in the thick of the revolutionary movement, who has edited a clandestine journal, and while objecting to the name, frankly avows himself a Nihilist, is rare enough to render its publication a literary and political event. In Russia under the Czars, moreover, " St,epniak " speaks directly to the English public; for albeit, as he tells us in his preface, he writes in a foreign language, he is by no means ignorant of ours ; and having had the benefit of the author's revision, and received doubtless its final touches from his hand, the book is fresher, and therefore more valuable, than if it were a mere translation from some existing work.
It may be defined as being at once a history, a description, and an apology,—a history of the rise of the Russian despotism, a description of the Russian revolationary movement, and a Nihilist apologia pro vitcl sud. The first part of the book, which the author calls " The Evolution of the Autocracy," opens with an account of the lair, the Russian commune. Most people have heard something about the lair, but few know what an ultra-democratic institution it is, how passionately attached to it are the peasants, and that all their decisions are taken by unanimity. In a Russian village Assembly there can be no such thing as a discontented minority.
" The Assembly does not force on the minority resolutions with which the latter is unable to agree. Everybody must make concessions for the general good and the peace and welfare of the community. The majority are too generous to take advantage of their numerical strength. The Mir is not a master, but a loving parent, equally compassionate to all its children. It is this quality of our village self-government that explains the high sense of humanity which forms so marked a feature of our rural customs—the mutual help in field labour, the help given to the poor, the fatherless, and the afflicted—which have elicited the warm admiration of every observer of our village life. To the same cause mast be ascribed the un
swerving loyalty of Russian peasants to their Whatever the tnir decides is ordained of God,' says a popular proverb. There are many other sayings, as, for instance, 'Nobody but God dare judge the tzar ;" Who is greater than the mir Who can dispute with it 2' 'The mir receives no bribes;' ' Where the mir's hand is, there my head is;' ' Although last in the mit., a man is always one of the flock ; but once separated from the mir, he is but an orphan;' ' Every member of the niir is as a member of the same family.' In indispensable corollary to the integrity of the ntir—and, seeing how the country is raled,one of its most surprising peculiarities—is the fall liberty of speech and debate enjoyed by our rural assemblies. Indispensable, for how could business be done and justice enforced if, instead of speaking their minds freely, members of a commune were to fear giving offence to Peter or John, and resort to subterfuge and falsehood ? Rough frankness of manner and unrestrained liberty of speech being adopted as a rule and sanctioned by tradition, they are not abandoned when by chance there comes under discussion some subject outside the modest sphere of peasant life. It is a fact admitted by all observers that, while in the cities words implying 'disrespect of existing institutions are uttered even in private with bated breath and heard with trembling, the peasants in their public meetings talk as they list, criticise the very institutions which others are permitted only to admire, censure with easy impartiality the most illustrious members of the administrative oligarchy, treat boldly the burning agrarian question, and often express opinions concerning the sacred imperial presence itself which would make the hair of a well-bred townsman stand on end."
The vetche, which " Stepniak " describes at length, was the 'wh
oa a larger scale. It stood in pretty much the same relation to the village Assembly as that in which the Legislature of a Swiss
Canton stands to the Commune. The vetche, in fact, was the /air of the city ; and the city, in some instances, ruled a region as extensive as that which once belonged to Novgorod the Great. True, the chief magistrate was always a prince of the race of Rurik; but he owed his elevation to the unanimous vote of the citizens, who surrendered to him none of their privileges, and dismissed him, on occasion, with as little ceremony as they would dismiss a common collector of taxes. As to the process by which from this state of things the autocracy was evolved, and how it came to pass that the vetche perished and the lair survived, we must refer the reader to" Stepniak's " chapter on the vetche,
which students of history will find to be one of the mostinteresting parts of the book. In giving this preliminary historical sketch, the author has evidently had in view a double object—to show how the despotism came into being, and prove that, contrary to the general belief, the Russian people are quite ripe for self
government. Of this there can be as little question as that, when Russia obtains representative institutions, the peasants,—
after they have hanged a few tchinovniks and policemen, whom as " Stepniak " assures us, they cordially detest, —will be found almost too conservative, and will vote as sturdily against innovations, the utility of which is not made abundantly clear to them, as the peasants of Switzerland and France.
But, unlike the peasants of those countries, the peasants of Russia are still greatly under the influence of the clergy; and the clergy, as they have been for ages, are still the chief prop-of despotic power, devout believers in the divine right of kings, and advocates of passive obedience in its most ultra form. The power of the Russian Church dates from the time of the Tartar invasion. It was the clergy who encouraged the people in the hour of defeat and animated them with promises of victory in the sacred warfare against their infidel conquerors :—
" Their two strongest passions were religious fanaticism and patriotic ardour, and of these passions the Church was at once the personification and the expression'. It was the monks, again, who roused the too timorous princes to rebellion against the Tartar
oppressors ; and stories of saintly and fearless anchorites, who themselves took up the sword to combat the enemies of Christ, still live in legend and song And now the all-powerful clergy, who bold in their hands the ingenuous and confiding seal of the nation, have become the faithful servitors of the despot and ardent supporters of the despotism."
The education of their clergy being based exclusively on the literature and history of the Byzantine despotism,—
" They bad and could have no other political ideal than an unlimited monarchy. And when John III. took to wife Sophia Paleologns, the last scion of the imperial Greek dynasty, the Russian clergy imputed to their Czar the heirship of the Sacro-sanct Eastern Emperors, and of all their glory and authority. The exaltation and culte of absolutism became thenceforth their historic mission —a mission which, in season and out of season, and among every class of the people, they have faithfully and zealously performed."
In the end Russia became a complete theocracy ; and so long as the Czar observed old customs and went regularly to church, he might do whatever seemed to him good,—lay waste a province, impale his nobles, and violate their wives, without a single voice being raised in remonstrance or opposition. But, under the influence of the Church, which imputed to every old observance a sacred character, Russia sank into a veritable Chinese torpor, which was only prevented from becoming as permanent as that of the Flowery Land itself by the reforms of Peter the Great; and though the effect of his measures was to lessen the merely personal power of the Czars, it vastly increased their political power, which, up to the present moment, remains practically unbroken.
But not all this interesting book is devoted to historical 'research and political discussion. The author's principal aim is to show how great an anomaly the despotism is and how cruel a tyranny it has become,—cruel not alone to actual and potential rebels, but to the entire nation. He exposes the hideous police system, tells us the secrets of the House of Preventive Detention, of the central prisons, and the Troubetzkoi raveliu, and gives us graphic sketches of exile life on the shores of the White .Sea and in the ba,g,nios of Siberia.
The Troubetzkoi ravelin is a department of the fortress of St. Peter and St. Paul at St. Petersburg, the Russian Bastille; and though the prisoners are kept in the strictest solitary confine.ment, and every precaution is taken to prevent them from exchanging communications with the outer world, they contrive to smuggle-out an occasional letter. Last year three letters were smuggled-out. One, the longest and most important, was written with blood, which the writer, in the absence of a knife, obtained by biting his own flesh. It was straightway printed in the clandestine press of the Narodnaia Vo/io, and some extracts from it appeared in the Times a few months ago. The authenticity of these letters has never been disputed. " Stepniak " has had them in his own hands, and cites from these blood-written pages the following thrilling description of the horrors of this terrible prison-house :— " Prisoners are generally transferred to the Troubetzkoi ravelin a few weeks after their conviction. You are told one fine morning, at a time perhaps when you are in daily expectation of being sent to Siberia, that you must change your cell. You are ordered to don a regular convict suit, the principal garment of which is a grey coat, ornamented with a yellow ali. Preceded by one gendarme and followed by another, you are then led through a maze of passages, corridors, and vaults, until a door, which seems to open into the wall, is reached. Here your conductor stops, the door is opened, and you are told to enter. For a minute or two you can see nothing, so deep is the gloom. The coldness of the place chills you to the bone; and there is a damp, mouldy smell, like that of a charnel-house or an ill-ventilated cellar. The only light comes from a little dormer-window, looking towards the counterscarp of the bastion. The panes are dark-grey, being overlaid with a thick coating of dust that seems to have lain there for ages. When your eyes have become accustomed to the obscurity, you perceive that you are the tenant of a cell a few paces wide and long. In one corner is a bed of straw, with a woollen counterpane—as thin as paper—nothing else. At the foot of the bed stands a high wooden pail with a cover. This is the parashka, which later on will poison you with foul stenches. For the prisoners of the Troubetzkoi bastion are not allowed to leave their cells for any purpose whatever, either night or day (except for the regulation exercise), and the parashka is often left unemptied for days together. You are thus obliged to live, sleep, eat, and drink in an atmosphere reeking with corruption and fatal to health. In your other cell you had a few requisites, generally considered indispensable for all men above the level of savages, such as a comb, a hair-brush, and a piece of soap. You were also allowed to have a few books, and a little tea and sugar, obtained, of course, at your own expense. Here you are denied even these poor luxuries, for by the rules of the Troubetzkoi ravelin, prisoners are forbidden the possession of any object whatever; not given to them by the administration, and as the administration gives neither tea nor sugar, neither brash, nor comb, nor soap, you cannot have them. Worse still is the deprivation of books. In no part of the fortress may books be brought from without Ordinary prisoners must content them
selves during all the years of their solitary confinement with such as are contained in the prison library, a few hundred volumes, consisting, for the most part, of magazines dating from the first quarter of the century. But to the doomed captive of the Troubetzkoi—doomed to a fate worse than death—are interdicted books of every sort. They may not read even the Bible,' says the letter. No occupation, either mental or manual, beguiles the wretched monotony of their lives. The least distraction, the most trifling amusement, is forbidden as strictly to them as if it were an attempt to rob their gaolers, who exact from their victims all the suffering which it is in the power of the latter to give. A prisoner, named Zoubkovski, having made some cubes of bread crumbs wherewith to construct geometric figures, they were taken from him by the gendarmes on the ground that a prison was not a place of amusement. According to the regulations, the prisoners of the Troubetzkoi should have precisely the same amount of walking exercise as any other prisoners of the fortress. In point of fact, however, they are taken out only every forty-eight hours, to breathe the fresh air for ten minutes —never longer—and it sometimes happens to them to be left three and four consecutive days in the fetid atmosphere without break, as would appear, for no other cause but the neglect of the warders.
The mortality among the prisoners is frightful. While their bodies lose flesh their faces become swollen and blotched, and the extremities, especially the hands, are in a continual nervous tremble. It might be supposed that the deprivation of books and the gloom of their cells would tend to preserve their eyesight. But it is the very reverse. Their eyes become inflamed, the lids swell and are opened only with great difficulty. But the maladies most fatal and frequent—which cause the greatest mortality and entail the most cruel suffering—are dysentery and scurvy, both caused solely by the insufficient and unsuitable dietary of the prison. Yet the sick are treated in exactly the same way as the whole ; get the same food, same sodden black bread, same sham tea, even the same sour soup, which, in their condition, is nothing less than poison. No wonder that, under such a regimen and without proper care—without any care at all—patients suffering from these disorders die quickly. They lose the use of their legs, they cannot reach the perashke, the warders refuse to change the straw of their wretched beds, and they aro left to perish and rot in their own corruption. But these are horrors that defy description, that only the pen of a Dante could adequately portray. 'Oh, if you could see our sick !' exclaims the writer of the blood-written letter. A year ago they were young, healthy, and robust ; now they are bowed and decrepit old men, hardly able to walk. Several of them cannot rise from their beds. Covered with vermin, and eaten up with scurvy, they emit an odour like that of a Corpse.'"
And the Nihilists are by no means the only victims of the Russian police. When they enter the lists against the Government they risk liberty and life ; they know what to expect, and, to do them justice, they do not complain.
They ask for no pity, and bear their sufferings with a heroic fortitude of which only men of the Slav race are capable. Those most to be pitied are the thousands of men and women who, for no overt act or even expression, but merely because they have incurred the suspicion of the police, are imprisoned or exiled by administrative order,—that is to say, without trial. The merest trifle, the denunciation of a professional spy, a dissatisfied servant, or a secret enemy, is quite enough to cause a man's arrest; and once arrested, he may be thankful if he escape exile, and what a terrible punishment exile is the chapter on "Life in Exile" abundantly shows. Outside the class of tehinovnik and the higher nobility there is hardly a member of the educated classes throughout Russia who is not liable at any moment to be sent for an indefinite period to some remote Siberian town, to some wretched village on the shores of the White Sea, or to live as best he may among the wild and filthy Yakuts of the Far North.
What is to be the end of it all is a question more easily asked than answered, and none can say bow soon the end may come. " Stepniak " does not believe in the possibility of a pacific revolution, or that a wide measure of reform will ever be spontaneously granted by a Czar. The Czar is in the hands of his advisers, and so bound in fetters of red-tapesigning every day hundreds of orders, ukases, and decrees, which he has not time to read, much less to consider—
that he is practically powerless. Power is with those to whom he gives his confidence ; and as the initiatory step in reform
would be the dismissal of his present councillors, and all who
depend on them, they naturally strain every nerve to keep things as they are. English papers talk of a war-party and the opinion of the Russian Press. There is neither war-party nor Press. Russia is just now virtually governed by a triumvirate consisting of Tolstoi, Pobobodnetzeff, and Katkoff, and what ever these men advise is sure to be done. If they think their interests will be served by a war with England, war there will be; and it is quite possible that, in view of the deep and ever growing discontent which prevails among the officers of the army, they may look upon war as the only means of preventing a mutiny or a Palace revolution, and postponing for awhile the inevitable crash.
Etussia Usulee the Czars is so discursive, and treats of so many subjects, that it is impossible, in the space at our disposal, to touch upon them all, or to do the book that full justice which its extraordinary character demands. There are, of course, two sides to this as to every other question, and it is more than likely some of the author's statements will be challenged; yet it is a significant fact that nothing he has written in the Times on the Universities, the Press, primary education, and the rest, has been seriously impugned, and his contributions to the leading journal on these subjects are, as we perceive, included in the present work. Some of his opinions are unquestionably open to dispute—he seems, for instance, to think that a despotism is necessarily a tyranny, which is far from being the case—but we see no reason to doubt his good faith ; and for all who would form an adequate idea of the present condition of Russia, gauge its capacity for war, or attempt to forecast its future, " Stepniak's " book is indispensable.