22 APRIL 1882, Page 5


THERE have been few episodes in history so exciting, so. continuously dramatic, as this duel between the Russian Czars and the Nihilist Secret Committee, which has now lasted

three years, and involved two generations of Sovereigns. The struggle between the Hohenstauffen and the Popes, though resembling it in the apparent inequality of the combatants, was an open one, and was waged on definite principles, for comprehended ends. The Popes, though wielding spiritual power, were as visible as their adversaries, and nearly, though not quite, as responsible for their acts. The Nihilist Com- mittee is invisible, irresponsible, and offers no conditions which can be considered. It is like the bad hero of a fairy-tale, whose strength, naturally above that of humanity, is quadrupled bi the gift from some evil spirit of invisibility to be assumed at will. Though one of the strongest and most unscrupulous of human agencies, the Russian Secret Police, with the resources of a first-class State at its disposal, has been engaged in the search for years, the governing power of the terrible Secret Society has not been detected, far less rendered powerless. It was thought that it had been paralysed by some of Count Ignatieff's arrests, and indeed the Committee seemed for an instant to hesitate ; but recently, within the month, it has again burst into furious and most menacing activity. It has never, it is understood, relaxed its policy of terrorism, as is sufficiently proved by the precautions taken by the Czar, precautions almost of despair, and recently it has given terrible proof that these precautions were not unneeded. The Committee habitually uses two resources never before available on such a scale, and- armed with these, sets at defiance the most elaborate and far-reaching precautions. It knows how to utilize that strange peculiarity of the Russian character, the existence in it of the spirit of self- sacrifice dissociated from moral rectitude ; and finds every- where agents who are ready to threaten, torture, or kill, and to involve the innocent in the doom of the hated, yet who are also profoundly indifferent to their own lives or liberties, and risk death or life-long imprisonment in Siberia with a courage which, if they were not murderers, the world would pronounce admirable. In Russia, and Russia only, assassins have the martyr spirit. They prepare for flight, because they wish to economise resources ; but if desperate risk must be run, it is run, as recently in Odessa, when the murderers of General Slrelnikoff, though they provided a carriage in the distance, gave themselves no serious chance at all. Controlling agents who will face death, the Committee can take any life not protected by material agencies, such as guards and battle- ments, and, by calling in the aid of science, they make even these seem useless. Guards are of little value against assassins who send presents of eggs full of dynamite, and buildings can never be so strong as to be impenetrable to miners. A tent would be safer than Gatschina, if it could be reached from below. The last attempt, as described in reports admitted to be partially true, shows at once the inventiveness, the power, and the consciencelessness of the Secret Committee in their most startling forms. It is affirmed that they have not only attempted to run several mines under the railway between St. Petersburg and Moscow, but that they have attempted to mine the Cathedral in Moscow in which the coronation was to have been performed, and so destroy all the governing personages of Russia at one stroke. Such a plot, we know from our own English history, is not beyond the limits of evil imagination, and need not have been en- trusted to the large numbers whom the fears or zeal of the Police have induced them to arrest. It must, however, have been confided to more than the two or three Agents whom the 'Committee usually employs, and, as purposeless wickedness is almost inconceivable, it must have been designed to follow the explosion by some sort of rising, that is, a warning must have been given, or have been intended to be given, to much larger associations than the Secret Committee itself, which has hitherto directed its energy to terrorising persons, not to arousing popular or military movements against the State. The Committee, it is clear, thinks it has the means of repeating and succeeding in a Guy Fawkes' Plot.

We are not sure that the recent attempts do not place the attitude assumed by the Czar, which is regarded all over Europe as so strange, in a somewhat more honourable light. He may be wiser than some politicians imagine. He has been con- demned for his seclusion, for shrinking unduly from danger, for not coming out to face the risks incidental at a critical time to his immense position among his people. He is not accused of ordinary cowardice, which, indeed, is inconsistent with his whole conduct in the Turkish War, but of selfish weakness. It may, however, be that he is following out a well-considered and by no means hopeless course of action. Suppose, what may very well be the case, that he knows, from the mass of information before him, much of which must have necessarily been kept secret from the world, that his appearance abroad would involve not, merely danger, but a moral certainty of his own assassination ; that the plan resolved on by the enemy is to kill Czar after Czar until certain concessions have been granted, concessions which he deems unwise, or thinks it an imperative duty to refuse to terror, because if granted no Sove- reign would be safe. His one policy, under those circumstances, would be to baffle his adversaries by preserving his own life. The Ministry clearly are in no danger, or they would be assas- sinated. It is his death alone which would be victory to the Nihilists. His life is the citadel which must be defended, if they are to be defeated. 113 accordingly defends it, by the only method which can be successful against the means em- ployed, viz., by rigid seclusion, in a palace so situated that the Sovereign cannot be approached except by known persons, cannot be involved in a crowd, and cannot be blown up ;by a mine, unless it be run from a distance practically impossible to any band of workmen compelled to keep themselves concealed. This plan is precisely the one outside observers would recom- mend, and it has so far succeeded, that the Nihilists have, since the accession of Alexander LEL, accomplished very little. They have " imprisoned" the Czar, but they have not re- duced his power, or seriously modified his regime. His order is still fatal to any Russian. His decree is still law. He still decides, in the last resort, if it shall be peace or war. A, great officer may be struck down here or there, but the autocracy subsists, and is still exercised by its legitimate possessor. The terrible Committee is in fact defeated, by a process which may continue for an indefinite length of time. That such a system should last for ever is impossible, though it might, in the case of a King who was a cripple, endure for a life-time, without much notice from the world ; but it may endure long enough, it being quite conceivable that time is in favour of the Czars. That possibility, which has hardly been considered abroad, depends entirely upon the question at the root of the whole matter, the constitution of the Power—for it is a Power, though of an abnormal and evil kind—which is attacking the Russian Throne, the very fact no one can dis- cover or explain. The Power is assumed to be a Committee, self-appointed and self-recruiting ; but the proof that it is one is admitted by the Russians to be incomplete. They suppose it, and even report, we see, that it consists of three persons, but they do not affect to know this as a fact past dispute. It may be an individual, and if so he must die, and may lose his reason. If it is a Committee, it is liable to the effects of dissension, of treachery, and of those changes of purpose which in almost all Committees follow the disappearance of indi- viduals. Even an organisation like a monastery, or a race like the Jews, or a sect like one of the many secret sects of Russia—and all these explanations have been offered—cannot hope to maintain secrecy for ever ; and the secret once known, the vitality of the Society would speedily disappear. One can hardly imagine a Society of the kind remaining active through a long period, continually offending the instinctive con- science, yet never detected, and never betrayed by itself, under the secret promise of pardon with which the Russian Government would undoubtedly buy exemption from the attacks of its terrible foe. Time, if one reflects coolly about it, can hardly, in such a conflict, be against the Czars ; and if it is not, then, so long as the Czar averts death, and keeps his reason and his authority, he wins. It is a poor kind of vic- tory which leaves a Sovereign such a prisoner, that for him to attend his own coronation is next to an impossibility, and that Easter ceremonies in his own palace must be postponed, lest he should be put to death in the middle of them ; •but still, it is victory, none the less. The Nihilists do not gain a step, for it is no gain to them to make the reigning Romanoff miserable, and as yet that is all they have secured. If they achieved anything by merely keeping up commotion, they might be pronounced more successful ; but on no probable theory of their objects can the diffusion of mere gloom and misery be one of them. They want to overthrow existing insti- tutions, and especially autocracy ; and in spite of the immense impact on European opinion caused by their blows, they are not overthrowing it. The invisible Czar is as much master as the Czar who used to stroll along the quays unattended, and almost un watched.