Stepniak and Russia

THE habit of publishing books with misleading titles is not to be commended. In the case of Stepniak’s latest volume,1 it has not even the justification of utility. Russia under the Tzars is certainly a sonorous and striking designation, yet a dozen other titles that might have been chosen would each have made an appeal to eye and imagination equally strong. The contents of the book, moreover, belie its name. Instead of an account of Russia under various monarchs and administrations ; instead of the days of centralization and of the empire being contrasted with the period of the appanages, or with the still earlier epoch of Slav government; instead, in fact, of all that such a title naturally led us to expect, we have, properly speaking, no general sketch of Russia at all, and certainly no treatment of the “ Tzars ” worthy of the subject, but mainly an account of the wickedness of Russian absolutism at the present time, that is to say, in the reign of Alexander III. Thirty-two chapters complete the volume, and of these no fewer than twentythree are devoted to a statement of contemporary events and conditions in Russia. Nine chapters are thus left to justify the description, Russia under the Tzars. How do they accomplish the task? For any connected story of Russian development, the whole nine will be perused in vain. What the author gives us in this part of his book is a chapter picturing the commune, a second on the Slav communal assembly, a third descriptive of the Novgorod republic, a fourth dealing with the survival of self-government in Russia, a fifth with “ the making of the despotism,” and a sixth chapter on the power of the church. So far, we have nothing about Russia under the Tzars. The communal subjects treated belong to old Russia ; the despotism referred to was " made ” prior to the appearance of the Tsars, while the church attained to power long before the advent of the empire. There thus remain only three chapters out of the thirty-two that can be said to deal in any way with the subject of Russia under the Tzars. And the only reference made in them to the Russian emperors is rounded off in the very general mention of the Tsars of the Rurik dynasty, and in some disconnected allusions to the Tsar Alexis, father of Peter the Great, to Peter the Great himself, to Ivan the Terrible, Paul I., and Peter III. The connection between the title and the contents of the work is therefore of the very slightest kind ; for all ordinary purposes, it may be said not to exist at all. Nor is the connection much closer between the chapters into which the volume is divided. It is true that many of them have first seen the light in newspapers, magazines, and other publications. Yet this fact cannot be pleaded in excuse of the want of coherence which makes itself so painfully felt in Russia under the Tzars. As the book was announced with its present title nearly eighteen months ago, it is at least reasonable to presume that the author has not been working blindly or without plan.

We should have been quite willing to overlook even these serious defects, had Stepniak offered anything like an intelligent treatment of the subject with which he claims it to be his special province to deal. As a gatherer of information concerning the domestic struggle in Russia, this author is without an equal ; as a collector of incidents and stories illustrating police and government aggression on the one hand, depicting the sufferings and resentments of conspirators and terrorists on the other, he has made the field conspicuously his own. His deft use of the sensational elements of the subject, his talent for drawing blood-curdling pictures, atone with certain classes of readers for many faults of style and repetition. But as an expositor of socalled Nihilism, he is signally unreliable. His account of its development is strikingly lame and inadequate. The great mystery of this movement for outsiders has always been its psychological side. Every thoughtful student of Russian conspiracy and terrorism feels instinctively that there must be something uncommon and special in the Russian life and character to favor the growth of phenomena so startling and unusual. The strange enthusiasms of Nihilism, its indomitable courage, its power of enlisting the sympathies of women, its nobilities of character, its sublime capacities for self-sacrifice, its saints, its martyrologies, its relics, its perplexing consciousness of a high morality even in the prosecution of tasks obviously unrighteous,— it is upon these characteristics of the movement that light would have been welcomed. Yet our exponent has none to give. He is either above or below the problem which he essays to solve. In reality, he pursues the dead level of those who have gone before him. He offers us an array of lifeless facts, without attempt to arrange them in their proper categories. His intellect is English, not Russian, for there is nothing of which he seems more afraid than a generalization. We see him oscillating continually between the two ideas of despotism and outraged human rights. Anything which illustrates the one, or supplies material for a moving picture of the other, serves the purpose of Stepniak. Beyond this our author does not trouble himself. Concerning all those great problems of Russian life and growth which, could they be grasped in their absolute as well as their relative importance for political ethnology, would turn all eyes to the east of Europe, the Nihilist writerleaves his readers in the dark.

So much for the general aspects of Russia under the Tzars. Let us now glance briefly at the work in detail.

The chapter on the Commune, with which it opens, is a very imperfect treatment of a subject with which Mr. Wallace and other writers have dealt exhaustively. Here, as in the succeeding chapter on the communal assembly, the book ignores the connection between the national discontent and the loss of the early forms of popular government. Of the gradual growth of the state, and the effect of that growth upon the individual, the author says practically nothing; he fails to note, or seems imperfectly aware of, the part played by Byzantine influences in preparing the way for Tsarism; the Tatar elements of Russian development he ignores altogether. The account given of “ the making of the despotism ” is highly unsatisfactory, in some respects inaccurate. It is sheer contradiction to say on page 5 that “ it was to the rivalry among the members of the princely caste that the ancient Russian republics chiefly owed the preservation of their liberty,” and then to assert on page 7 that “ the multiplication of royal families also contributed in no small degree to this outcome [the process of disintegration] ; for ambitious young princes, eager for power and place, were always at hand ready to encourage separation and stir up revolt.” Of the two statements, the latter will be found much nearer the truth. It was rivalry and quarrels among the princes that really favored centralization. But when we hear from Stepniak that “ at last the country, devastated by these eternal feuds, demanded peace at any price,” it may be well to point to the historical fact that the country did not demand peace at all, but went on fighting until the old organization had been broken up by force of arms; until the grand princes of Moscow had overcome all resistance, and the conquered land lay at their feet. The statement that “ old Russia . . . was constrained, like other peoples, to undergo the hard apprenticeship of despotic rule ” asserts a parallel between Russian and general history entirely without foundation. And when mention is made of the migratory movements of the agricultural classes as “ welding the population into a homogeneous whole,” and “ facilitating the unification of the country,” we are not told how it was that, in the end, these migrations led to the enslavement of the agricultural populations. Instead of facilitating unification and centralization, they were from the first formidable obstacles to the growth of the new state. Their utter incompatibility with the unifying tendency found its terrible and indelible record in the attachment of the working agriculturist to the glebe.

In the chapter on the Greek Church far too great an emphasis is laid on the popular conception of the Byzantine legacy as an exclusively national possession. As a solely Russian faith the monotheistic religion could not take rank ; borrowed from Byzantium it had then, as it has now, a foreign as well as a Russian habitat. The confusion of Tsarism with Deity in the popular mind was not, as Stepniak asserts, the work of the church and the Tsar: it was one of those mental acts of hero-worship common to all races on a low level of civilization. The so-named “ theocracy,” modified in the end by what the author calls “ the secularization of the state,” was nothing more than a theocracy of ignorance. His treatment of The Great Reformer is a mere compilation, badly wrought into the argument, and innocent of the slightest suspicion of originality. If it was only “after Peter’s time ” that “ the true slavery of the Russian people ” began, it is quite safe to aver that the Russian people were never enslaved at all. And when the author assures us that “ the Slav race,” thanks to European influence, has now not only permanent independence, but also “ a national culture most conformable to their social and intellectual genius,” he is making a grave blunder in ethnology, and prematurely closing a great national dispute that still has before it whole decades of vigorous polemic and vitality. The Slavophils of Russia remain as strongly opposed to western civilization as they have been at any time during the past twenty years ; they continue to maintain that no culture can “ conform ” to the genius of the Russian people that is not purely Slav and introspective in its character. The Nihilist editor’s confusion of the Slav race with the Slavs of the Russian Empire we attribute rather to great carelessness than to gross ignorance. But his limitation of the contest between the educated classes and the government to a period of only twentyfive years shows not only that he has failed to grasp the real character of the struggle, but that its earlier phases have wholly escaped his attention.

The more familiar the reader grows with the method and contents of this book, the more will the conviction be forced upon him that, as we have already more than suggested, its merit and significance stand wholly apart from the task of explaining Nihilism, or even of giving an intelligible and accurate account of the origin and growth of political discontent in Russia. As the historian of Nihilism, the present expounder of that movement is a conspicuous failure, not only in the work before us, but in all his previous writings on Russia; as the news-gatherer of the struggle, possessed of good powers of description, with a capacity for vivid picturing of the startling and tragical elements of the subject, the author of Russia under the Tzars has won an unquestionable reputation. His function as a writer is obviously and naturally that of illustrating the modern phase of the struggle between Russian absolutism and Russian democracy ; in this sense and field, but in no other, has he made a valuable contribution to our knowledge of modern Russia. And even here the merit of Russia under the Tzars is by no means unmixed. Its sources of information were practically inexhaustible. I hey embraced the immense stores of material that Russian refugees have been busy accumulating in Switzerland for more than two decades. The liberal, terroristic, and revolutionary organs of the “ underground ” press in Geneva were all accessible. If “ personal experiences ” were needed, no avowed Russian agitator is believed to have had a greater number of them, or to have had them in a more exciting form, than Stepniak himself. That the resultant indictment is a formidable one ought not to appear strange under the circumstances. We are not at all prepared to say that it is not true. Given the system, and scenes like those vouched for in Russia under the Tzars seem no more than its natural outcome. But it is a pity that an author should have so often brought a heated imagination, a tendency to exaggerate, and a sustained partisanship to the weakening of facts not at all in need of this kind of reinforcement. What bare statement could be more terribly eloquent, for example, than that of the story of the letter in blood sent out from the Trubetskoi Ravelin in St. Petersburg? “In the brick floors large holes have been left for the rats to pass through. . . . The rats enter by scores, try to climb upon the beds and to bite the prisoners. . . . At the present moment, among others, there is a woman with a little child at her breast. This is Yakimova. Night and day she watches over her babe lest he should be devoured by the rats.”

The most welcome chapters in the whole book are those on journalism and education in Russia, for here we have needed information at first hand. Had the whole volume merited like praise, it would have had our unqualified approval, even as a mere book of facts and information. It seems all too clear that the author was taken at a disadvantage near the completion of his task, in order that one more “ timely ” work might appear in the market prematurely. However this may be, he did not deserve the treatment meted out to him by his translator. A more numerous or more provoking collection of blunders in a volume of this kind it has seldom been our fortune to encounter. French transliterations of Russian names are bad enough in an English work ; but to vary them by German and even Italian varieties of spelling is still more trying to the reader’s patience. The clumsy syllable “ Tzar ” is used throughout, though there is no word of the same pronunciation in either Russian or English ; Novoye Vremia, incorrectly spelled, appears again, for the thousandth time, as “ New Times ” instead of “ Modern Times ; ” while a common newspaper blunder, the word “Czarina” (a pure invention), used instead of Tsaritsa, the wife of the Tsar, actually appears in this work written by a Russian. Unfortunately, this is only one example out of a hundred that could easily be cited of the gross carelessness and superficial scholarship that have presided at the preparation of this volume for the press.

  1. Russia under the Tzars. By STEPNIAK. Rendered into English by WILLIAM WESTAL. New York : Charles Scribner’s Sons and Harper’s Franklin Square Library. 1885.