The Development and Overthrow of the Russian Serf-System

CLOSE upon the end of the fifteenth century, the Muscovite ideas of Right were subjected to the strong mind of Ivan the Great, and compressed into a code.

Therein were embodied the best processes known to his land and time: for discovering crime, torture and trial by battle ; for punishing crime, the knout and death.

But hidden in this tough mass was one law of greater import than all others. Thereby were all peasants forbidden to leave the lands they were then tilling, except during the eight days before and after Saint George’s day. This provision sprang from Ivan’s highest views of justice and broadest views of political economy; the nobles received it with plaudits, which have found echoes even in these days;1 the peasants received it with no murmurs which History has found any trouble in drowning.

Just one hundred years later, there sat upon the Muscovite throne, as nominal Tzar, the weakling Feodor I.; but behind the throne stood, as real Tzar, hard, strong Boris Godounoff.

Looking forward to Feodor’s death, Boris makes ready to mount the throne; and he sees—what all other “Mayors of the Palace,” climbing into the places of fainéant kings, have seen—that he must link to his fortunes the fortunes of some strong body in the nation; he breaks, however, from the general rule among usurpers,—bribing the Church,—and determines to bribe the nobility.

The greatest grief of the Muscovite nobles seemed to be that the peasants could escape from their oppression by the emigration allowed at Saint George's day.

Boris saw his opportunity: he cut off the privilege of Saint George’s day; the peasant was fixed to the soil forever. No Russian law ever directly enslaved the peasantry,2 but, through this decree of Boris, the lord who owned the soil came to own the peasants upon it, just as he owned its immovable boulders and ledges.

To this the peasants submitted, but over this wrong History has not been able to drown their sighs; their proverbs and ballads make Saint George’s day representative of all ill-luck and disappointment.

A few years later, Boris made another bid for oligarchic favor. He issued a rigorous fugitive-serf law, and even wrenched liberty from certain free peasants who had entered service for wages before his edicts. This completed the work, and Russia, which never had the benefits of feudalism, had now fastened upon her feudalism’s worst curse,—a serf-caste bound to the glebe.

The great waves of wrong which bore serfage into Russia seem to have moved with a kind of tidal regularity, and the distance between their crests in those earlier times appears to have been just a hundred years,—for, again, at die end of the next century, surge over the nation the ideas of Peter the Great.

The great good things done by Peter the world knows by heart. The world knows well how he tore his way out of the fetichism of his time,—how, despite ignorance and unreason, he dragged his nation after him,—how he dowered the nation with things and thoughts which transformed it from a petty Asiatic horde to a great European power.

And the praise due to this work can never be diminished. Time shall but increase it; for the world has yet to learn most of the wonderful details of his activity. We were present a few years since, when one of those lesser triumphs of his genius was first unfolded.

It was in that room at the Hermitage —adjoining the Winter Palace—set apart for the relics of Peter. Our companions were two men noted as leaders in American industry,—one famed as an inventor, the other famed as a champion of inventors’ rights.

Suddenly from the inventor,3 pulling over some old dust-covered machines in a corner, came loud cries of surprise. The cries were natural indeed. In that heap of rubbish he had found a lathe for turning irregular forms, and a screw-cutting engine once used by Peter himself: specimens of his unfinished work were still in them. They had lain there unheeded a hundred and fifty years; their principle had died with Peter and his workmen; and not many years since, they were reinvented in America, and gave their inventors fame and fortune. At the late Paris Universal Exposition crowds flocked about an American lathe for copying statuary; and that lathe was, in principle, identical with this old, forgotten machine of Peter’s.

Yet, though Peter fought so well, and thought so well, he made some mistakes which hang to this day over his country as bitter curses. For in all his plan and work to advance the mass of men was one supreme lack,—lack of any account of the worth and right of the individual man.

Lesser examples of this are seen in his grim jest at Westminster Hall,—“What use of so many lawyers? I have but two lawyers in Russia, and one of those I mean to hang as soon as I return”;— or when, at Berlin, having been shown a new gibbet, he ordered one of his servants to be hanged in order to test it;— or, in his reviews and parade-fights, when he ordered his men to use ball, and to take the buttons off their bayonets.

Greater examples are seen in his Battle of Narva, when he threw away an army to learn his opponent’s game,—in his building of St. Petersburg, where, in draining marshes, he sacrificed a hundred thousand men the first year.

But the greatest proof of this great lack was shown in his dealings with the serf-system.

Serfage was already recognized in Peter’s time as an evil. Peter himself once stormed forth in protestations and invectives against what he stigmatized as “selling men like beasts,—separating parents from children, husbands from wives,—which takes place nowhere else in the world, and which causes many tears to flow.” He declared that a law should be made against it. Yet it was by his misguided hand that serfage was compacted into its final black mass of foulness.

For Peter saw other nations spinning and weaving, and he determined that Russia should at once spin and weave; he saw other nations forging iron, and he determined that Russia should at once forge iron. He never stopped to consider that what might cost little in other lands, as a natural growth, might cost far too much in Russia, as a forced growth.

In lack, then, of quick brain and sturdy spine and strong arm of paid workmen, he forced into his manufactories the flaccid muscle of serfs. These, thus lifted from the earth, lost even the little force in the State they before had; great bodies of serfs thus became slaves; worse than that, the idea of a serf developed toward the idea of a slave.4

And Peter, misguided, dealt one blow more. Cold-blooded officials were set at taking the census. These adopted easy classifications; free peasants, serfs, and slaves were often huddled into the lists under a single denomination. So serfage became still more difficult to be distinguished from slavery.5

As this base of hideous wrong was thus widened and deepened, the nobles built higher and stronger their superstructure of arrogance and pretension. Not many years after Peter’s death, they so overawed the Empress Anne that she thrust into the codes of the Empire statutes which allowed the nobles to sell serfs apart from the soil. So did serfage bloom fully into slavery.

But in the latter half of the eighteenth century Russia gained a ruler from whom the world came to expect much.

To mount the throne, Catharine II. had murdered her husband; to keep the throne, she had murdered two claimants whose title was better than her own. She then became, with her agents in these horrors, a second Messalina.

To set herself right in the eyes of Europe, she paid eager court to that hierarchy of skepticism which in that age made or marred European reputations. She flattered the fierce Deists by owning fealty to “Le Roi Voltaire”; she flattered the mild Deists by calling in La Harpe as the tutor of her grandson ; she flattered the Atheists by calling in Diderot as a tutor for herself.

Her murders and orgies were soon forgotten in the new hopes for Russian regeneration. Her dealings with Russia strengthened these hopes. The official style required that all persons presenting petitions should subscribe themselves “Your Majesty’s humble serf.” This formula she abolished, and boasted that she had cast out the word serf from the Russian language. Poets and philosophers echoed this boast over Europe, —and the serfs waited.

The great Empress spurred hope by another movement. She proposed to an academy the question of serf-emancipation as a subject for their prize-essay. The essay was written and crowned. It was filled with beautiful things about liberty, practical things about moderation, flattering things about “the Great Catharine,” —and the serfs waited.

Again she aroused hope. It was given out that her most intense delight came from the sight of happy serfs and prosperous villages. Accordingly, in her journey to the Crimea, Potemkin squandered millions on millions in rearing pasteboard villages,—in dragging forth thousands of wretched peasants to fill them,—in costuming them to look thrifty,—in training them to look happy. Catharine was rejoiced,—Europe sang pæans,—the serfs waited.6

She seemed to go farther; she issued a decree prohibiting the enslavement of serfs. But, unfortunately, the palace-intrigues, and the correspondence with the philosophers, and the destruction of Polish nationality left her no time to see the edict carried out. But Europe applauded,—and the serfs waited.

Two years after this came a deed which put an end to all this uncertainty. An edict was prepared, ordering the peasants of Little Russia to remain forever on the estates where the day of publication should find them. This was vile; but what followed was diabolic. Court-pets were let into the secret. These, by good promises, enticed hosts of peasants to their estates. The edict was now sprung;—in an hour the courtiers were made rich, the peasants were made serfs, and Catharine II. was made infamous forever.

So, about a century after Peter, there rolled over Russia a wave of wrong which not only drowned honor in the nobility, but drowned hope in the people.

As Russia entered the nineteenth century, the hearts of earnest men must have sunk within them. For Paul I., Catharine’s son and successor, was infinitely more despotic than Catharine, and infinitely less restrained by public opinion. He had been born with savage instincts, and educated into ferocity. Tyranny was written on his features, in his childhood. If he remained in Russia, his mother sneered and showed hatred to him; if he journeyed in Western Europe, crowds gathered about his coach to jeer at his ugliness. Most of those who have seen Gillray’s caricature of him, issued in the height of English spite at Paul’s homage to Bonaparte, have thought it hideously overdrawn; but those who have seen the portrait of Paul in the CadetCorps at St. Petersburg know well that Gillray did not exaggerate Paul’s ugliness, for he could not.

And Paul’s face was but a mirror of his character. Tyranny was wrought into his every fibre. He insisted on an Oriental homage. As his carriage whirled by, it was held the duty of all others in carriages to stop, descend into the mud, and bow themselves. Himself threw his despotism into this formula,—“Know, Sir Ambassador, that in Russia there is no one noble or powerful except the man to whom I speak, and while I speak.”

And yet, within that hideous mass glowed some sparks of reverence for right. When the nobles tried to get Paul’s assent to more open arrangements for selling serfs apart from the soil, he utterly refused ; and when they overtasked their human chattels, Paul made a law that no serf should be required to give more than three days in the week to the tillage of his master’s domain.

But, within five years after his accession, Paul had developed into such a ravenous wild-beast that it became necessary to murder him. This duty done, there came a change in the spirit of Russian sovereignty as from March to May; but, sadly for humanity, there came, at the same time, a change in the spirit of European politics as from May to March.

For, although the new Tzar, Alexander I., was mild and liberal, the storm of French ideas and armies had generally destroyed in monarchs’ minds any poor germs of philanthropy which had ever found lodgment there. Still Alexander breasted this storm,—found time to plan for his serfs, and in 1803 put his hand to the work of helping them toward freedom. His first edict was for the creation of the class of “free laborers.” By this, masters and serfs were encouraged to enter into an arrangement which was to put the serf into immediate possession of himself, of a homestead, and of a few acres, —giving him time to indemnify his master by a series of payments. Alexander threw his heart into this scheme; in his kindliness he supposed that the pretended willingness of the nobles meant something; but the serf-owning caste, without openly opposing, twisted up had consequences with good, braided impossibilities into possibilities: the whole plan became a tangle, and was thrown aside.

The Tzar now sought to foster other good efforts, especially those made by some earnest nobles to free their serfs by will. But this plan, also, the serf-owning caste entangled and thwarted.

At last, the storm of war set in with such fury that all internal reforms must be lost sight of. Russia had to make ready for those campaigns in which Napoleon gained every battle. Then came that peaceful meeting on the raft at Tilsit,—worse for Russia than any warlike meeting; for thereby Napoleon seduced Alexander, for years, from plans of bettering his Empire into dreams of extending it.

Coming out of these dreams, Alexander had to deal with such realities as the burning of Moscow, the Battle of Leipsic, and the occupation of France; yet, in the midst of those fearful times,—when the grapple of the Emperors was at the fiercest,—in the very year of the burning of Moscow,— Alexander rose in calm statesmanship, and admitted Bessarabia into the Empire under a proviso which excluded serfage forever.

Hardly was the great European tragedy ended, when Alexander again turned sorrowfully toward the wronged millions of his Empire. He found that progress in civilization had but made the condition of the serfs worse. The newly ennobled parvenus were worse than the old boyars; they hugged the serf-system more lovingly and the serfs more hatefully.7

The sight of these wrongs roused him. He seized a cross, and swore upon it that the serf-system should be abolished.

Straightway a great and good plan was prepared. Its main features were, a period of transition from serfage to personal liberty, extending through twelve or fourteen years,—the arrival of the serf at personal freedom, with ownership of his cabin and the bit of land attached to it,— the gradual reimbursement of masters by serfs,—and after this advance to personal liberty, an advance by easy steps to a sort of political liberty.

Favorable as was this plan to the serfowners, they attacked it in various ways; but they could not kill it utterly. Esthonia, Livonia, and Courland became free.

Having failed to arrest the growth of freedom, the serf-holding caste made every effort to blast the good fruits of freedom. In Courland they were thwarted; in Esthonia and Livonia they succeeded during many years; but the eternal laws were too strong for them, and the fruitage of liberty has grown richer and better.

After these good efforts, Alexander stopped, discouraged. A few patriotic nobles stood apart from their caste, and strengthened his hands, as Lafayette and Liancourt strengthened Louis XVI.; they even drew up a plan of voluntary emancipation, formed an association for the purpose, gained many signatures; but the great weight of that besotted serfowning caste was thrown against them, and all came to nought. Alexander was at last walled in from the great object of his ambition. Pretended theologians built, between him and emancipation, walls of Scriptural interpretation,8—pretended philosophers built walls of false political economy,—pretended statesmen built walls of sham common-sense.

If the Tzar could but have mustered courage to cut the knot! Alas for Russia and for him, he wasted himself in efforts to untie it. His heart sickened at it; he welcomed death, which alone could remove him from it.

Alexander’s successor, Nicholas I., had been known before his accession as a mere martinet, a good colonel for paradedays, wonderful in detecting soiled uniforms, terrible in administering petty punishments. It seems like the story of stupid Brutus over again. Altered circumstances made a new man of him; and few things are more strange than the change wrought in his whole bearing and look by that week of agony and energy in climbing his brother’s throne. The portraits of Nicholas the Grand Duke and Nicholas the Autocrat seem portraits of two different persons. The first face is averted,suspicious, harsh, with little meaning and less grandeur; the second is direct, commanding, not unkind, every feature telling of will to crush opposition, every line marking sense of Russian supremacy.

The great article of Nicholas’s creed was a complete, downright faith in Despotism, and in himself as Despotism’s apostle.

Hence he hated, above all things, a limited monarchy. He told De Custine that a pure monarchy or pure republic he could understand; but that anything between these he could not understand. Of his former rule of Poland, as constitutional monarch, he spoke with loathing.

Of this hate which Nicholas felt for liberal forms of government there yet remain monuments in the great museum of the Kremlin.

That museum holds an immense number of interesting things, and masses of jewels and plate which make all other European collections mean. The visitor wanders among clumps of diamonds, and sacks of pearls, and a nauseating wealth of rubies and sapphires and emeralds. There rise row after row of jewelled scymitars, and vases and salvers of gold, ami old saddles studded with diamonds, and with stirrups of gold,—presents of frightened Asiatic satraps or fawning European allies.

There, too, are the crowns of Muscovy, of Russia, of Kazan, of Astrachan, of Siberia, of the Crimea, and, pity to say it, of Poland. And next this is an index of despotic hate,—for the Polish sceptre is broken and flung aside.

Near this stands the full-length portrait of the first Alexander; and at his feet are grouped captured flags of Hungary and Poland,—some with bloodmarks still upon them.

But below all,—far beneath the feet of the Emperor,—in dust and ignominy and on the floor, is flung the very Constitution of Poland — parchment for parchment, ink for ink, good promise for good promise—which Alexander gave with so many smiles, and which Nicholas took away with so much bloodshed.

And not far from this monument of the deathless hate Nicholas bore that liberty he had stung to death stands a monument of his admiration for straightforward tyranny, even in the most dreaded enemy his house ever knew. Standing there is a statue in the purest of marble, — the only statue in those vast halls. It has the place of honor. It looks proudly over all that glory, and keeps ward over all that treasure ; and that statue, in full majesty of imperial robes and bees and diadem and face, is of the first Napoleon. Admiration of his tyrannic will has at last made him peaceful sovereign of the Kremlin.

This spirit of absolutism took its most offensive form in Nicholas’s attitude toward Europe. He was the very incarnation of reaction against revolution, and he became the demigod of that horde of petty despots who infest Central Europe.

Whenever, then, any tyrant’s lie was to he baptized, he stood its godfather; whenever any God's truth was to be crucified, he led on those who passed by reviling and wagging their heads. Whenever these oppressors revived some old feudal wrong, Nicholas backed them in the name of Religion; whenever their nations struggled to preserve some great right, Nicholas crushed them in the name of Law and Order. With these pauper princes his children intermarried, and he fed them with his crumbs, and clothed them with scraps of his purple. The visitor can see to-day, in every one of their dwarf palaces, some of his malachite vases, or porcelain bowls, or porphyry columns.

But the people of Western Europe distrusted him as much as their rulers worshipped ; and some of these same presents to their rulers have become triflemonuments of no mean value in showing that popular idea of Bussian policy. Foremost among these stand those two bronze masses of statuary in front of the Royal Palace at Berlin, — representing fiery horses restrained by strong men. Pompous inscriptions proclaim these presents from Nicholas; but the people, knowing the man and his measures, have fastened forever upon one of these curbed steeds the name of “Progress Checked,” and on the other, “Retrogression Encouraged.”

And the people were right. Whether sending presents to gladden his Prussian pupil, or sending armies to crush Hungary, or sending sneering messages to plague Louis Philippe, he remained proud in his apostolate of Absolutism.

This pride Nicholas never relaxed. A few days before his self-will brought him to his death-bed, we saw him ride through the St. Petersburg streets with no pump and no attendants, yet in as great pride as ever Despotism gave a man. At his approach, nobles uncovered and looked docile, soldiers faced about and became statues, long-bearded peasants bowed to the ground with the air of men on whose vision a miracle flashes. For there was one who could make or mar all fortunes, — the absolute owner of street and houses and passers-by,— one who owned the patent and dispensed the right to tread that soil, to breathe that air, to be glorified in that sunlight and amid those snow-crystals. And he looked it all. Though at that moment his army was entrapped by military stratagem, and he himself was entrapped by diplomatic stratagem, that face and form were proud as ever and confident as ever.

There was, in this attitude toward Europe,—in this standing forth as the representative man of Absolutism, and breasting the nineteenth century,—something of greatness; but in his attitude toward Russia this greatness was wretchedly diminished.

For, as Alexander I. was a good man enticed out of goodness by the baits of Napoleon, Nicholas was a great man scared out of greatness by the ever-recurring phantom of the French Revolution.

In those first days of his reign, when he enforced loyalty with grape-shot and halter, Nicholas dared much and stood firm ; but his character soon showed another side.

Fearless as he was before bright bayonets, he was an utter coward before bright ideas. He laughed at the flash of cannon, but he trembled at the flash of a new living thought. Whenever, then, he attempted a great thing for his nation, he was sure to be scared back from its completion by fear of revolution. And so, to-day, he who looks through Russia for Nicholas’s works finds a number of great things he has done, but each is single, insulated, — not preceded logically, not followed effectively.

Take, as an example of this, his railway-building.

His own pride and Russian interest demanded railways. He scanned the world with that keen eye of his, — saw that American energy was the best supplement to Russian capital; his will darted quickly, struck afar, and Americans came to build his road from St. Petersburg to Moscow.

Nothing can be more Complete. It is an “air-line” road, and so perfect that the traveller finds few places where the rails do not meet on either side of him in the horizon. The track is double,—the rails very heavy and admirably ballasted,— station-houses and engine-houses are splendid in build, perfect in arrangement, and surrounded by neat gardens. The whole work is worthy of the Pyramid-builders. The traveller is whirled by culverts, abutments,, and walls of dressed granite,—through cuttings where the earth on either side is carefully paved or turfed to the summit. Ranges of Greek columns are reared as crossings in the midst of broad marshes,—lions’ heads bronzed iron stare out upon vast wastes where never rose even the smoke from serf’s kennel.

All this seems good; and a ride of four hundred miles through such glories rarely fails to set the traveller at chanting the praises of the Emperor who conceived them. But when the traveller notes that complete isolation of the work from all conditions necessary to its success, praises grow fainter. He sees that Nicholas held back from continuing the road Odessa, though half the money spent making the road an Imperial plaything would have built a good, solid extension to that most important seaport; he sees that Nicholas dared not untie police-regulations, and that commerce is wretchedly meagre. Contrary to what would obtain under a free system, this great public work found the country wretched and left it wretched. The traveller flies by no ranges of trim palings and tidy cottages; he sees the same dingy groups of huts here as elsewhere,—the same cultivation looking for no morrow,—the same tokens that the laborer is not thought worthy of his hire.

This same tendency to great single works, this same fear of great connected systems, this same timid isolation of great creations from principles essential to their growth is seen, too, in Nicholas’s church-building.

Foremost of all the edifices on which Nicholas lavished the wealth of the Empire stands the Isak Church in St. Petersburg. It is one of the largest, and certainly the richest cathedral in Christendom. All is polished pink granite and marble and bronze. On all sides are double rows of Titanic columns,—each a single block of polished granite with bronze capital. Colossal masses of bronze statuary are grouped over each front; high above the roof and surrounding the great drums of the domes are lines of giant columns in granite bearing giant statues in bronze; and crowning all rises the vast central dome, flanked by its four smaller domes, all heavily plated with gold.

The church within is one gorgeous mass of precious marbles and mosaics and silver and gold and jewels. On the tabernacle of the altar, in gold and malachite, on the screen of the altar, with its pilasters of lapis-lazuli and its range of malachite columns fifty feet high, were lavished millions on millions. Bulging from the ceilings are massy bosses of Siberian porphyry and jasper. To decorate the walls with unfading pictures, Nicholas founded an establishment for mosaic work, where sixty pictures were commanded, each demanding, after all artistic labor, the mechanical labor of two men for four years.

Yet this vast work is not so striking a monument of Nicholas’s luxury as of his timidity.

For this cathedral and some others almost as grand were, in part, at least, results of the deep wish of Nicholas to wean his people from their semi-idolatrous love for dark, confined, filthy sanctuaries, like those of Moscow; but here, again, is a timid purpose and half-result; Nicholas dared set no adequate enginery working at the popular religious training or moral training. There had been such an organization,—the Russian Bible Society,— favored by the first Alexander; but Nicholas swept it away at one pen-stroke. Evidently, he feared lest Scriptural denunciations of certain sins in ancient politics might be popularly interpreted against certain sins in modern politics.

It was this same vague fear at revolutionary remembrance which thwarted Nicholas in all his battling against official corruption.

The corruption-system in Russia is old, organized, and respectable. Stories told of Russian bribes and thefts exceed belief only until one has been on the ground.

Nicholas began well. He made an Imperial progress to Odessa,—was welcomed in the morning by the Governor in full pomp and robes and flow of smooth words; and at noon the same Governor was working in the streets, with ball and chain, as a convict.

But against such a chronic moral evil no government is so weak as your so-called “strong” government. Nicholas set out one day for the Cronstadt arsenals, to look into the accounts there; but before he reached them, stores, storehouses, and account-books were in ashes.

So, at last, Nicholas folded his arms and wrestled no more. For, apart from the trouble, there came ever in his dealings with thieves that old timid thought of his, that, if he examined too closely their thief-tenure, they might examine too closely his despot-tenure.

We have shown this vague fear in Nicholas's mind, thus at length and in different workings, because thereby alone can be grasped the master-key to his dealings with the serf-system.

Toward his toiling millions Nicholas always showed sympathy. Let news of a single wrong to a serf get through the hedges about the Russian majesty, and woe to the guilty master! Many of these wrongs came to Nicholas’s notice; and he came to hate the system, and tried to undermine it.

Opposition met him, of course,—not so much the ponderous laziness of Peter’s time as an opposition polite and elastic, which never ranted and never stood up, —for then Nicholas would have throttled it and stamped upon it. But it did its best, to entangle his reason and thwart his action.

He was told that the serfs were well fed, well housed, well clothed, well provided with religion,—were contented, and had no wish to leave their owners.

Now Nicholas was not strong at spinning sham reason nor subtle at weaving false conscience; but, to his mind, the very fact that the system had so degraded a man that he could laugh and dance and sing, while other men took his wages and wife and homestead, was the crowning argument against the system.

Then the political economists beset him, proving that without forced labor Russia must sink into sloth and poverty.9

Yet all this could not shut out from Nicholas’s sight the great black fact in the case. He saw, and winced as he saw. that, while other European nations, even under despots, were comparatively active and energetic, his own people were sluggish and stagnant, — that, although great thoughts and great acts were towering in the West, there were in Russia, after all his galvanizing, no great authors, or scholars, or builders, or inventors, but only those two main products of Russian civilization,—dissolute lords and abject serfs.

But what to do? Nicholas tried to help his Empire by setting right any individual wrongs whose reports broke their way to him.

Nearly twenty years went by in this timid dropping of grains of salt into a putrid sea.

But at last, in 1842, Nicholas issued his ukase creating the classof “contracting peasants.” Masters and serfs were empowered to enter into contracts, — the serf receiving freedom, the master receiving payment in instalments.

It was a moderate innovation, very moderate,—nothing more than the first failure of the first Alexander. Yet, even here, that old timidity of Nicholas nearly spoiled what little good was hidden in the ukase. Notice after notice was given to the serf-owners that they were not to be molested, that no emancipation was contemplated, and that the ukase “contained nothing new.”

The result was as feeble as the policy. A few serfs were emancipated, and Nicholas halted. The revolutions of 184S increased his fear of innovation; and, finally, the war in the Crimea took from him the power of innovation.

The great man died. We saw his cold, dead face, in the midst of crowns and crosses,—very pale then, very powerless then. One might stare at him then, as at a serf’s corpse; for he who had scared Europe during thirty years lay before us that day as a poor lump of chilled brain and withered muscle.

And we stood by, when, amid chanting, and flare of torches, and roll of cannon, his sons wrapped him in his shroud of gold-thread, and lowered him into the tomb of his fathers.

But there was shown in those days far greater tribute than the prayers of bishops or the reverence of ambassadors. Massed about the Winter Palace, and the Fortress of Peter and Paul, stood thousands on thousands who, in far-distant serf-huts, had put on their best, had toiled wearily to the capital, to give their last mute thanks to one who for years had stood between their welfare and their owners’ greed. Sad that he had not done more. Yet they knew that he had wished their freedom, — that he had loathed their wrongs: for that came up the tribute of millions.

The new Emperor, Alexander II., had never been hoped for as one who could light the nation from his brain : the only hope was that he might warm the nation, somewhat, from his heart. He was said to be of a weak, silken fibre. The strength of the family was said to be concentrated in his younger brother Constantine.

But soon came a day when the young Tzar revealed to Europe not merely kindliness, but strength.

While his father’s corpse was yet lying within his palace, he received the diplomatic body. As the Emperor entered the audience-room, he seemed feeble indeed for such a crisis. That fearful legacy of war seemed to weigh upon his heart; marks of plenteous tears were upon his face ; Nesselrode, though old and bent and shrunk in stature, seemed stronger than his young master.

But, as he began his speech, it was seen that a strong man had mounted the throne.

With earnestness he declared that he sorrowed over the existing war,—but that, if the Holy Alliance had been broken, it was not through the fault of Russia. With bitterness be turned toward the Austrian Minister, Esterhazy, and hinted at Russian services in 1848 and Austrian ingratitude. Calmly, then, not as one who spoke a part, but as one who announced a determination, he declared, — “I am anxious for peace; but if the terms at the approaching congress are incompatible with the honor of my nation, I will put myself at the head of my faithful Russia and die sooner than yield.”10

Strong as Alexander showed himself by those words, he showed himself stronger by acts. A policy properly mingling firmness and conciliation brought peace to Europe, and showed him equal to his father; a policy mingling love of liberty with love of order brought the dawn of prosperity to Russia, and showed him the superior of his father.

The reforms now begun were not stinted, as of old, but free and hearty. In rapid succession were swept away restrictions on telegraphic communication,—on printing,—on the use of the Imperial Library, — on strangers entering the country, — on Russians leaving the country. A policy in public works was adopted which made Nicholas’s greatest efforts seem petty: a vast net-work of railways was commenced. A policy in commercial dealings with Western Europe was adopted, in which Alexander, though not apparently so imposing as Nicholas, was really far greater: he dared advance toward freedom of trade.

But soon rose again that great problem of old, — that problem ever rising to meet a new Autocrat, and, at each appearance, more dire than before, — the serf-question.

The serfs in private hands now numbered more than twenty millions; above them stood more than a hundred thousand owners.

The princely strength of the largest owners was best represented by a few men possessing over a hundred thousand serfs each, and, above all, by Count Scheremetieff, who boasted three hundred thousand. The luxury of the large owners was best represented by about four thousand men possessing more than a thousand serfs each. The pinching propensities of the small owners were best represented by nearly fifty thousand men possessing less than twenty serfs each.11

The serfs might be divided into two great classes. The first comprised those working under the old, or corvée, system,—giving, generally, three days in the week to the tillage of the owner’s domain ; the second comprised those working under the new, or obrok, system,— receiving a payment fixed by the owner and assessed by the community to which the serfs belonged.

The character of the serfs has been moulded by the serf-system.

They have a simple shrewdness, which, under a better system, had made them enterprising; but this quality has degenerated into cunning and cheatery,—the weapons which the hopelessly oppressed always use.

They have a reverence for things sacred, which, under a better system, might have given the nation a strengthening religion; but they now stand among the most religious peoples on earth, and among the least moral. To the besmutted picture of Our Lady of Kazan they are ever ready to burn wax and oil ; to Truth and Justice they constantly omit the tribute of mere common honesty. They keep the Church fasts like saints; they keep the Church feasts like satyrs.

They have a curiosity, which, under a better system, had made them inventive; but their plough in common use is behind the plough described by Virgil.

They have a love of gain, which, under a hotter system, had made them hardworking; but it takes ten serfs to do languidly and poorly what two free men in America do quickly and well.

They are naturally a kind people; but let one example show how serfage can transmute kindness.

It is a rule well known in Russia, that, when an accident occurs, interference is to be left to the police. Hence you shall see a man lying in a fit, and the bystanders giving no aid, but waiting for the authorities.

Some years since, as all the world remembers, a theatre took fire in St. Petersburg, and crowds of people were burned or stifled. The whole story is not so well known. That theatre was but a great temporary wooden shed,— such as is run up every year at the holidays, in the public squares. When the fire burst forth, crowds of peasants hurried to the spot; but though they beard the shrieks of the dying,—separated from them only by a thin planking,—only one man, in all that multitude, dared cut through and rescue some of the sufferers.

The serfs, when standing for great ideas, will die rather than yield. The first Napoleon learned this at Eylau,— the third Napoleon learned it at Sevastopol; yet in daily life they are slavish beyond belief. On a certain day in the year 1855, the most embarrassed man in all the Russias was, doubtless, our excellent American Minister. The serfcoachman employed at wages was called up to receive his discharge for drunkenness. Coming into the presence of a sound-hearted American democrat, who had never dreamed of one mortal kneeling to another, Ivan throws himself on his knees, presses his forehead to the Minister’s feet, fawns like a tamed beast, and refuses to move until the Minister relieves himself from this nightmare of servility by a full pardon.

The whole working of the system has been fearful.

Time after time, we have entered the serf field and serf hut,— have seen the simple round of serf toils and sports,— have heard the simple chronicles of serf joys and sorrows. But whether his livery were filthy sheepskin or gold-laced caftan,—whether he lay on carpets at the door of his master, or in filth on the floor of his cabin,—whether he gave us cold, stupid stories of his wrongs, or flippant details of his joys,—whether he blessed his master or cursed him,—we have wondered at the power which a serf-system has to degrade and imbrute the image of God.

But astonishment was increased a thousand fold at study of the reflex influence for evil upon the serf-owners themselves, — upon the whole free community,— upon the very soil of the whole country.

On all those broad plains of Russia, on the daily life of that serf-owning aristocracy, on the whole class which is neither of serfs nor serf-owners, the curse of God is written in letters so big and so black that all mankind may read them.

Farms are untilled, enterprise deadened, invention crippled, education neglected; life is of little value; labor is the badge of servility,—laziness the very badge and passport of gentility.

Despite the most specious half-measures,—despite all efforts to galvanize it, to coax life into it, to sting life into it, the nation has remained stagnant. Not one traveller who does not know that the evils brought on that land by the despotism of the Autocrat are as nothing compared to that dark net-work of curses spread over it by a serf-owning aristocracy.

Into the conflict with this evil Alexander II. entered manfully.

Having been two years upon the throne, having made a plan, having stirred some thought through certain authorized journals, he inspires the nobility in three of the northwestern provinces to memorialize him in regard to emancipation.

Straightway an answer is sent, conveying the outlines of the Emperor’s plan. The period of transition from serfage to freedom is set at twelve years; at the end of that time the serf is to be fully free, and possessor of his cabin, with an adjoining piece of land. The provincial nobles are convoked to fill out these outlines with details as to the working out by the serfs of a fair indemnity to their masters.

The whole world is stirred; but that province in which the Tzar hoped most eagerly for a movement to meet him— the province where beats the old Muscovite heart, Moscow—is stirred least of all. Every earnest throb seems stifled there by that strong aristocracy.

Yet Moscow moves at last. Some nobles who have not yet arrived at the callous period, some Professors in the University who have not yet arrived at the heavy period, breathe life into the mass, drag on the timid, fight off the malignant.

The movement has soon a force which the retrograde party at Moscow dare not openly resist. So they send answers to St. Petersburg apparently favorable; but wrapped in their phrases are hints of difficulties, reservations, impossibilities.

All tins studied suggestion of difficulties profits the reactionists nothing. They are immediately informed that the Imperial mind is made up,—that the business of the Muscovite nobility is now to arrange that the serf be freed in twelve years, and put in possession of homestead and inclosure.

The next movement of the retrograde party is to misunderstand everything. The plainest things are found to need a world of debate,—the simplest things become entangled,—the noble assemblies play solemnly a ludicrous game at cross-purposes.

Straightway comes a notice from the Emperor, which, stripped of official verbiage, says that they must understand. This sets all in motion again. Imperial notices are sent to province after province, explanatory documents are issued, good men and strong are set to talk and work.

The nobility of Moscow now make another move. To scare back the advancing forces of emancipation, they elect as provincial leaders three nobles bearing the greatest names of old Russia, and haters of the new ideas.

To defeat these comes a miracle.

There stands forth a successor of Saint Gregory and Saint Bavon,—one who accepts that deep mediæval thought, that, when God advances great ideas, the Church must marshal them, or go under, — Philarete, Metropolitan of Moscow. The Church, as represented in him, is no longer scholastic, — it is become apostolic. He upholds emancipation,—condemns its foes; his earnest eloquence carries all.

The work having progressed unevenly,— nobles in different governments differing in plan and aim, — an assembly of delegates is brought together at St. Petersburg to combine and perfect a resultant plan under the eye of the Emperor.

The Grand Council of the Empire, too, is set at the work. It is a most unpromising body,—yet the Emperor’s will stirs it.

The opposition now make the most brilliant stroke of their campaign. Just as James II. of England prated toleration and planned the enslavement of all thought, so now the bigoted plotters against emancipation begin to prate of Constitutional Liberty.

Had they been fighting Nicholas, this would doubtless have accomplished its purpose. He would have become furious, and in his fury would have wrecked reform. But Alexander bears right on. It is even hinted that visions of a constitutional monarchy please him.

But then come tests of Alexander’s strength far more trying. Masses of p asants, hearing vague news of emancipation,—learning, doubtless, from their masters’ own spiteful lips that the Emperor is endeavoring to tear away property in serfs,—take the masters at their word, and determine to help the Emperor. They rise in insurrection.

To the bigoted serf-owners this is a godsend. They parade it in all lights; therewith they throw life into all the old commonplaces on the French Revolution; timid men of good intentions begin to waver. The Tzar will surely now be scared back.

Not so. Alexander now hurls his greatest weapon, and stuns reaction in a moment. He frees all the serfs on the Imperial estates without reserve. Now it is seen that he is in earnest; the opponents are disheartened; once more the plan moves and drags them on.

But there came other things to dishearten the Emperor; and not least of these was the attitude of those who moulded popular thought in England.

Be it said here to the credit of France, that from her came constant encouragement in the great work. Wolowski, Mazade, and other true-hearted men sent forth from leading reviews and journals words of sympathy, words of help, words of cheer.

Not so England. Just as, in the French Revolution of 1789, while yet that Revolution was noble and good, while yet Lafayette and Bailly held it, leaders in English thought who had quickened the opinions which had caused the Revolution sent malignant prophecies and prompted foul blows,—just as, in this our own struggle, leaders in English thought who have helped create the opinion which has brought on this struggle now deal treacherously with us,—so, in this battle of Alexander against a foul wrong, they seized this time of all times to show all the wrongs and absurdities of Which Russia ever had been or ever might be guilty,—criticized, carped, sent plentifully haughty advice, depressing sympathy, malignant prophecy.

Review-articles, based on no real knowledge of Russia, announced desire for serfemancipation,—and then, in the modern English way, with plentiful pyrotechnics of antithesis and paradox, threw a gloomy light into the skilfully pictured depths of Imperial despotism, official corruption, and national bankruptcy.

They revived Old-World objections, which, to one acquainted with the most every-day workings of serfage, were ridiculous.

It was said, that, if the serfs lost the protection of their owners, they might fall a prey to rapacious officials. As well might it have been argued that a mother should never loose her son from her apron-strings.

It was said that “serfism excludes pauperism,”—that, if the serf owes work to his owner in the prime of life, the owner owes support to his serf in the decline of life. No lie could be more absurd to one who bad seen Russian life. We were first greeted, on entering Russia, by a beggar who knelt in the mud; at Kovno eighteen beggars besieged the coach,— and Kovno was hardly worse than scores of other towns; within a day’s ride of St. Petersburg a woman begged piteously for means to keep soul and body together, and finished the refutation of that sonorous English theory,—for she had been discharged from her master's service in the metropolis as too feeble, and had been sent back to his domain, afar in the country, on foot and without money.

It was said that freed peasants would not work. But, despite volleys of predictions that they would not work if freed, despite volleys of assertions that they could not work if freed, the peasants, when set free, and not crushed by regulations, have sprung to their work with an earnestness, and continued it with a vigor, at which the philosophers of the old system stand aghast. The freed peasants of Wologda compare favorably with any in Europe.

And when the old tirades had grown stale, English writers drew copiously from a new source,—from “La Vérité sur la Russie,”—pleasingly indifferent to the fact that the author's praise in a previous work had notoriously been a thing of bargain and sale, and that there was in full process of development a train of facts which led the Parisian courts to find him guilty of demanding in one case a “blackmail” of fifty thousand roubles.12

All this argument outside the Empire helped the foes of emancipation inside the Empire.

But the Emperor met the whole body of his opponents with an argument overwhelming. On the 5th of March, 1861, he issued his manifesto making the serfs FREE. He had struggled long to make some satisfactory previous arrangement; his motto now became, Emancipation first, Arrangement afterward. Thus was the result of the great struggle decided ; but, to this day, the after-arrangement remains undecided. The Tzar offers gradual indemnity; the nobles seem to prefer fire and blood. Alexander stands firm ; the last declaration brought across the water was that he would persist in reforms.

But, whatever the after-process, THE SERFS ARE FREE.

The career before Russia is hopeful indeed; emancipation of her serfs has set her fully in that career. The vast mass of her inhabitants are of a noble breed, combining the sound mind of the Indo-Germanic races with the tough muscle of the northern plateaus of Asia. In no other country on earth is there such unity in language, in degree of cultivation, and in basis of ideas. Absolutely the same dialect is spoken by lord aud peasant, in capital and in province.

And, to an American thinker, more hopeful still for Russia is the patriarchal democratic system,—spreading a primary political education through the whole mass. Leaders of their hamlets and communities are voted for; bodies of peasants settle the partition of land and assessments in public meetings; discussions are held; votes are taken; and though Tzar’s right and nobles’ right are considered far above people’s right, yet this rude democratic schooling is sure to keep bright in the people some sparks of manliness and some glow of free thought.

In view, too, of many words and acts of the present Emperor, it is not too much to hope, that, ere many years, Russia will become a constitutional monarchy.

So shall Russia be made a power before which all other European powers shall be pigmies.

Before the close of the year in which we now stand, there is to be celebrated at Nijnii-Novogorod the thousandth anniversary of the founding of Russia. Then is to rise above the domes and spires of that famed old capital a monument to the heroes of Russian civilization.

Let the sculptor group about its base Rurik and his followers, who in rude might hewed out strongholds for the coming nation. Let goodly place be given to Minime and Pojarski, who drove forth barbarian invaders,—goodly place also to Platov and Kutusov, who drove forth civilized invaders. Let there be high-placed niches for Ivan the Great, who developed order,—for Peter the Great, who developed physical strength, —for Derjavine and Karamsin, who developed moral and mental strength. Let Philarete of Moscow stand forth as he stood confronting with Christ’s gospel the traffickers in flesh and blood. In loving care let there be wrought the face and form of Alexander the First,—the Kindly.

But, crowning all, let there lord it a noble statue to the greatest of Russian benefactors in all these thousand years, — to the Warrior who restored peace, — to the Monarch who had faith in God’s will to make order, and in man’s will to keep order, — to the Christian Patriot who made forty millions of serfs forty millions of men, — to Alexander the Second,—ALEXANDER THE EARNEST.

  1. See Gerebtzoff, Histoire de la Civilisation en Russie.
  2. Haxthausen.
  3. The late Samuel Colt.
  4. Haxthausen, Études sur la Situation Intérieure, etc., de la Russie.
  5. Gurowski,—also Wolowski in Revue des Deux Mondes.
  6. For further growth of the sentimental fashion thus set, see Memoirs of the Princess Daschkaw, Vol. I. p. 383.
  7. For proofs of this see Haxthausen.
  8. Gurowski says that they used brilliantly “Cursed be Canaan,” ete.
  9. For choice specimens of these reasonings, see Von Erman, Archiv für Wissenschaftliche Kunde von Russlund.
  10. This sketch is given from notes taken at the audience.
  11. Gerebtzoff, Histoire de la Civilisation en Russie,—Wolowski, in Revue des Deux Mondes, —and Tegoborski, Commentaries on the Productive Forces of Russia, Vol. I. p. 221.
  12. Procès en Diffamation du Prints Simon Worontzoff contre le Prince Pierre Dolgoronkow. Leipzig, 1862.