The Autobiography of a Revolutionist: The Corps of Pages
THE years 1857-61 were years of rich growth in the intellectual forces of Russia. All that had been whispered for the last decade, in the secrecy of friendly meetings, by the generation represented in Russian literature by Turguéneff, Tolstoy, Hérzen, Bakúnin, Ogaróff, Kavélin, Dostoévsky, Grigoróvich, Ostróvsky, and Nekrásoff, began now to leak out in the press. Censorship was still very rigorous; but what could not be said openly in political articles was smuggled in under the form of novels, humorous sketches, or veiled comments on west European events, and every one read between the lines and understood.
Having no acquaintances at St. Petersburg apart from the school and a narrow circle of relatives, I stood outside the radical movement of those years, — miles, in fact, away from it. And yet, this was, perhaps, the main feature of the movement, — that it had the power to penetrate into so “ well meaning ” a school as our corps was, and to find an echo in such a circle as that of my Moscow relatives.
I used at that time to spend my Sundays and holidays at the house of my aunt, mentioned in a previous chapter under the name of Princess Mírski. Prince Mírski thought only of extraordinary lunches and dinners, while his wife and their young daughter led a very gay life. My cousin was a beautiful girl of nineteen, of a most amiable disposition, and nearly all her male cousins were madly in love with her. She, in turn, fell in love with one of them, and wanted to marry him. But to marry a cousin is considered a great sin by the Russian Church, and the old princess tried in vain to obtain a special permission from the high ecclesiastical dignitaries. Now she brought her daughter to St. Petersburg, hoping that she might choose among her many admirers a more suitable husband than her own cousin. It was labor lost, I must add ; but their fashionable apartment was full of brilliant young men from the Guards and from the diplomatic service.
Such a house would be the last to be thought of in connection with revolutionary ideas ; and yet it was in that house that I made my first acquaintance with the revolutionary literature of the times. The great refugee, Hérzen, had just begun to issue at London his review, The Polar Star, which made a commotion in Russia, even in the palace circles, and was widely circulated secretly at St. Petersburg. My cousin got it in some way, and we used to read it together. Her heart revolted against the obstacles which were put in the way of her happiness, and her mind was the more open to the powerful criticisms which the great writer launched against the Russian autocracy and all the rotten system of misgovernment. With a feeling near to worship I used to look on the medallion which was printed on the paper cover of The Polar Star, and which represented the noble heads of the five “ Decembrists ” whom Nicholas I. had hanged after the rebellion of December 14, 1825, — Bestúzheff, Kahóvskiy, Péstel, Ryléeff, and Muravióv-Apóstol.
The beauty of the style of Herzen, — of whom Turguéneff has truly said that he wrote in tears and blood, and that no other Russian had ever so written, — the breadth of his ideas, and his deep love of Russia took possession of me, and I used to read and re-read those pages, even more full of heart than of brain. In 1859, or early in 1860, I began to edit my first revolutionary paper. At that age, what could I be but a constitutionalist ? — and my paper advocated the necessity of a constitution for Russia. I wrote about the foolish expenses of the court, the sums of money which were spent at Nice to keep quite a squadron of the navy in attendance on the dowager Empress, who died in 1860; I mentioned the misdeeds of the functionaries which I continually heard spoken of, and I urged the necessity of constitutional rule. I wrote three copies of my paper, and slipped them into the desks of three comrades of the higher forms, who, I thought, might be interested in public affairs. I asked my readers to put their remarks behind the Scotch grandfather clock in our library.
With a throbbing heart, I went next day to see if there was something for me behind the clock. Two notes were there, indeed. Two comrades wrote that they fully sympathized with my paper, and only advised me not to risk too much. I wrote my second number, still more vigorously insisting upon the necessity of uniting all forces in the name of liberty. But this time there was no reply behind the clock. Instead the two comrades came to me.
“ We are sure,” they said, “ that it is you who edit the paper, and we want to talk about it. We are quite agreed with you, and we are here to say, ‘ Let us be friends.’ Your paper has done its work, — it has brought us together; but there is no need to continue it. In all the school there are only two more who would take any interest in such matters, while if it becomes known that there is a paper of this kind the consequences will be terrible for all of us. Let us constitute a circle and talk about everything ; perhaps we shall put something into the heads of a few others.”
This was so sensible that I had to agree, and we sealed our union by a hearty shaking of hands. From that time we three became firm friends, and used to read a great deal together and discuss all sorts of things.
The abolition of serfdom was the question which then engrossed the attention of all thinking men.
The revolution of 1848 had had its distant echo in the hearts of the Russian peasant folk, and from the year 1850 the insurrections of revolted serfs began to take serious proportions. When the Crimean war broke out, and militia was levied all over Russia, these revolts spread with a violence never before heard of. Several serf-owners were killed by their serfs, and the peasant uprisings became so serious that whole regiments, with artillery, were sent to quell them, whereas in former times small detachments of soldiers would have been sufficient to terrorize the peasants into obedience.
These outbreaks on the one side, and the profound aversion to serfdom which had grown up in the generation which came to the front with the advent of Alexander II. to the throne, rendered the emancipation of the peasants more and more imperative. The Emperor, himself averse to serfdom, and supported, or rather influenced, in his own family by his wife, his brother Constantine, and the Grand Duchess Hélène Pávlovna, took the first steps in that direction. His intention was that the initiative of the reform should come from the nobility, the serf-owners themselves. But in no province of Russia could the nobility be induced to send a petition to the Tsar to that effect. In March, 1856, he himself addressed the Moscow nobility on the necessity of such a step ; but a stubborn silence was all their reply to his speech, so that Alexander II., growing quite angry, concluded with those memorable words of Hérzen : “It is better, gentlemen, that it should come from above than to wait till it comes from beneath.” Even these words had no effect, and it was to the provinces of Old Poland, — Gródno, Wílno, and Kóvno,— where Napoleon I. had abolished serfdom (on paper) in 1812, that recourse was had. The governor-general of those provinces, Nazímoff, managed to obtain the desired address from the Polish nobility. In November, 1857, the famous “ rescript ” to the governor-general of the Lithuanian provinces, announcing the intention of the Emperor to abolish serfdom, was launched, and we read, with tears in our eyes, the beautiful article of Hérzen, “ Thou hast conquered, Galilean,” in which the refugees at London declared that they would no more look upon Alexander II. as an enemy, but would support him in the great work of emancipation.
The attitude of the peasants was extraordinary. No sooner had the news spread that the long-sighed-for liberation was coming than the insurrections nearly stopped. The peasants waited now, and during a journey which Alexander made in Middle Russia they flocked around him as he passed, beseeching him to grant them liberty, — a petition, however, which Alexander received with great repugnance. It is most remarkable — so strong is the force of tradition — that the rumor went among the peasants that it was Napoleon III. who had required of the Tsar, in the treaty of peace, that the peasants should be freed. I frequently heard this rumor ; and on the very eve of the emancipation they seemed to doubt that it would be done without pressure from abroad. “ Nothing will be done unless Garibaldi comes,” was the reply which a peasant made at St. Petersburg to a comrade of mine who talked to him about “ freedom coming.”
But after these moments of general rejoicing years of incertitude and disquiet followed. Specially appointed committees in the provinces and at St. Petersburg discussed the proposed liberation of the serfs, but the intentions of Alexander II. seemed unsettled. A check was continually put upon the press, in order to prevent it from discussing details. Sinister rumors circulated at St. Petersburg and reached our corps.
There was no lack of young men amongst the nobility who earnestly worked for a frank abolition of the old servitude; but the serfdom party drew closer and closer round the Emperor, and got power over his mind. They whispered into his ears that, the day serfdom was abolished, the peasants would begin to kill the landlords wholesale, and Russia would witness a new Pugachóff uprising, far more terrible than that of 1773. Alexander, who was a man of weak character and not overcourageous, — he always lived in the fear of sharing the fate of Louis XVI., — only too readily lent his ear to such predictions. But the huge machine for working out the emancipation law had been set to work. The committees had their sittings ; scores of schemes of emancipation, addressed to the Emperor, circulated in manuscript or were printed at London. Hérzen, seconded by Turguéneff, who kept him well informed about all that was going on in government circles, presented in his Bell and Polar Star the details of the various schemes, and Chernyshévsky in the Contemporary. The Slavophiles, especially Aksákoff and Bélyáeff, had taken advantage of the first moments of relative freedom allowed the press to give the matter a wide publicity in Russia, and to discuss the features of the emancipation with a thorough understanding of its technical aspects. All intellectual St. Petersburg was with Hérzen, and particularly with Chernyshévsky, and I remember how the officers of the Horse Guards, whom I saw on Sundays, after the church parade, at the home of my cousin (Dmitri Nikoláevich Kropótkin, who was aide-de-camp of that regiment and aide-de-camp of the Emperor), used to side with Chernyshévsky, the leader of the most advanced party in the emancipation struggle. The whole disposition of St. Petersburg, in the drawing-rooms and in the street, was such that it was impossible to go back. The liberation of the serfs had to be accomplished ; and another important point was won, — the liberated serfs would receive, besides their homesteads, the land that they had hitherto cultivated for themselves.
However, the party of the old nobility were not discouraged. They centred their efforts on obtaining a postponement of the reform, on reducing the size of the allotments, and on imposing upon the emancipated serfs so high a redemption tax for the land that it would render their economical freedom illusory ; and in this they fully succeeded. Alexander II. dismissed the real soul of the whole business, Nicholas Milútin (brother of the minister of war), saying to him, “I am so sorry to part with you, but I must: the nobility describe you as one of the Reds.” The first committees, which had worked out the scheme of emancipation, were dismissed, too, and new committees revised the whole work in the interest of the serf-owners ; the press was muzzled once more.
Things assumed a very gloomy aspect. The question whether the liberation would take place at all was now asked. I feverishly followed the struggle, and every Sunday, when my comrades returned from their homes, I asked them what their parents said. By the end of 1860 the news became worse and worse. “ The Valúeff party has taken the upper hand.” “ They intend to revise the whole work.” “ The relatives of the Princess X. [a friend of the Tsar] work hard upon him.” “The liberation will be postponed : they fear a revolution.”
In January, 1861, slightly better rumors began to circulate, and it was generally hoped that something would be heard of the emancipation on the day of the Emperor’s accession to the throne, the 19th of February.
The 19th came, but it brought nothing with it. I was on that day at the palace. There was no grand levee, only a small one ; and pages of the second form were sent to such levees in order to get accustomed to the palace ways. It was my turn that day ; and as I was seeing off one of the grand duchesses who came to the palace to assist at the mass, her husband did not appear, and I went to fetch him. He was called out of the Emperor’s study, and I told him, in a half jocose way, of the perplexity of his wife, without having the slightest suspicion of the important matters that may have been talked of in the study at that time. Apart from a few of the initiated, no one in the palace suspected that the manifesto had been signed on the 19th of February, and was kept back for a fortnight only because the next Sunday, the 26th, was the beginning of the carnival week, and it was feared that, owing to the drinking which goes on in the villages during the carnival, peasant insurrections might break out. Even the carnival fair, which used to be held at St. Petersburg, on the square near the winter palace, was removed that year to another square, from fear of a popular insurrection in the capital ; and most terrible instructions had been issued to the army as to the ways of repressing peasant uprisings.
A fortnight later, on the last Sunday of the carnival (March 5, or rather March 17, new style), I was at the corps, having to take part in the military parade at the riding-school. I was still in bed, when my soldier servant, Ivánoff, dashed in with the tea tray, exclaiming, “ Prince, freedom ! The manifesto is posted on the Gostínoi Dvor” (the shops opposite the corps).
“ Did you see it yourself ? ”
“Yes. People stand round; one reads, the others listen. It is freedom ! ”
In a couple of minutes I was dressed, and out. A comrade was coming in.
“ Kropótkin, freedom ! ” he shouted. “ Here is the manifesto. My uncle learned last night that it would be read at the early mass at the Isaac Cathedral; so we went. There were not many people there ; peasants only. The manifesto was read and distributed after the mass. When I came out of the church, two peasants, who stood in the gateway, said to me in such a droll way, ‘ Well, sir ? now — gone ? ’ ” And he mimicked how they had shown him the way out. Years of expectation were in that gesture of sending away the master.
I read and re-read the manifesto. It was written in an elevated style by the old Metropolitan of Moscow, Philarète, but with a useless mixture of Russian and Old Slavonian which obscured the sense. It was liberty ; but it was not liberty yet, the peasants having to remain serfs for two years more, till the 19th of February, 1863. Despite all that, one thing was evident: serfdom was abolished, and the liberated serfs would get the land and their homesteads. They would have to pay for it, but the old stain of slavery was removed. They would be slaves no more; the reaction had not got the upper hand.
We went to the parade ; and when all the military performances were over, Alexander II., remaining on horseback, loudly called out, “ The gentlemen officers to me ! ” They gathered round him, and he began, in a loud voice, a speech about the great event of the day.
“ The gentlemen officers . . . the representatives of the nobility in the army ” — these scraps of sentences reached our ears — “ an end has been put to centuries of injustice ... I expect sacrifices from the nobility . . . the loyal nobility will gather round the throne ”... and so on. Enthusiastic hurrahs resounded amongst the officers as he ended, and all at once — against all discipline — the hurrahs broke out from the ranks of the military schools and the soldiers.
We ran rather than marched back on our way to the corps, — hurrying to be in time for the Italian opera, of which the last performance in the season was to be given that afternoon ; some manifestation was sure to take place then. Our military attire was flung off with great haste, and several of us dashed, light-footed, to the sixth-story gallery. The house was crowded.
During the first entr’acte the smoking-room of the opera filled with excited youth, who all talked to one another, whether acquainted or not. We planned at once to return to the hall, and to sing, with the whole public in a mass choir, the hymn God Save the Tsar.
Sounds of music reached our ears, and we all hurried back to the hall. The band of the opera was already playing the hymn, which was drowned immediately in enthusiastic hurrahs coming from all parts of the hall. I saw Bavéri, the conductor of the band, waving his stick, but not a sound could be heard from the powerful band. Then Bavéri stopped, but the hurrahs continued. I saw the stick waived again in the air ; I saw the fiddle bows moving, and musicians blowing the brass instruments, but again the sound of voices overwhelmed the band. Bavéri began conducting the hymn once more, and it was only by the end of that third repetition that isolated sounds of the brass instruments pierced through the clamor of human voices.
The same enthusiasm was in the streets. Crowds of peasants and educated men stood in front of the palace, shouting hurrahs, and the Tsar could not appear without being followed by demonstrative crowds running after his carriage. Hérzen was right when, two years later, as Alexander was drowning the Polish insurrection in blood, and “ Muravióff the Hanger ” was strangling it on the scaffold, he wrote, “ Alexander Nikoláevich, why did you not die on that day ? Your name would have been transmitted in history as that of a hero.”
Where were the uprisings which had been predicted by the champions of slavery ? Conditions more indefinite than those which had been created by Polozhénie (the emancipation law) could not have been invented. If anything could have provoked revolts, it was precisely the perplexing vagueness of the conditions created by the new law. And yet, except in two places where there were insurrections, and a very few other spots where small disturbances, entirely due to misunderstandings and immediately appeased, took place, Russia remained quiet, — more quiet than ever. With their usual good sense, the peasants had understood that serfdom was done away with, that “ freedom had come,” and they accepted the conditions imposed upon them, although these conditions were very heavy.
I was in Nikólskoye in August, 1861, and again in the summer of 1862, and I was struck with the quiet, intelligent way in which the peasants had accepted the new conditions. They knew perfectly well how difficult it would be to pay the redemption tax for the land, which was in reality an indemnity to the nobles in lieu of the obligations of serfdom. But they so much valued the abolition of their personal enslavement that they accepted the ruinous charges — not without murmuring, but as a hard necessity — the moment that personal freedom was obtained. For the first months they kept two holidays a week, saying that it was a sin to work on Friday ; but when the summer came they resumed work with even more energy than before.
When I saw our Nikólskoye peasants, fifteen months after the liberation, I could not but admire them. Their inborn good nature and softness remained with them, but all traces of servility had disappeared. They talked to their masters as equals talk to equals, as if they never had stood in different relations. Besides, such men came out from among them as could make a stand for their rights. The Polozhénie was a large and difficult book, which it took me a good deal of time to understand ; but when Vasíli Ivánoff, the elder of Nikólskoye, came one day to ask me to explain to him some obscurity in it, I saw that he, who was not even a fluent reader, had admirably found his way amongst the intricacies of the chapters and paragraphs of the law.
The “ household people ” — that is, the servants — came out the worst of all. They got no land, and would hardly have known what to do with it if they had. They got freedom, and nothing besides. In our neighborhood nearly all of them left their masters ; none, for example, remained in the household of my father. They went in search of positions elsewhere, and a number of them found employment at once with the merchant class, who were proud of having the coachman of Prince So and So, or the cook of General So and So. Those who knew a trade found work in the towns : for instance, my father’s band remained a band, and made a good living at Kalúga, retaining amiable relations with us. But those who had no trade had hard times before them ; and yet, the majority preferred to live anyhow, rather than remain with their old masters.
As to the landlords, while the larger ones made all possible efforts at St. Petersburg to reintroduce the old conditions under one name or another (they succeeded in them to some extent under Alexander III.), by far the greater number submitted to the abolition of serfdom as to a sort of necessary calamity. The young generation gave to Russia that remarkable staff of “ peace mediators ” and justices of the peace who contributed so much to the peaceful issue of the emancipation. As to the old generation, most of them had already discounted the considerable sums of money they were to receive from the peasants for the land which was granted to the liberated serfs, and was valued much above its market price ; they made schemes as to how they would squander that money in the restaurants of the capitals, or at the green tables in gambling. And they did squander it, almost all of them, as soon as they got it.
For many landlords, the liberation of the serfs was an excellent money transaction. Thus, land which my father, in anticipation of the emancipation, sold in parcels at the rate of eleven rubles the Russian acre, was now estimated at forty rubles in the peasants’ allotments, — that is, three and a half times above its market value, — and this was the rule in all our neighborhood ; while in my father’s Tambóv estate, on the prairies, the mir — that is, the village community — rented all his land for twelve years, at a price which represented twice as much as he used to get from that land by cultivating it with servile labor.
Eleven years after that memorable time I came to the Tambóv estate, which I had inherited from my father. I stayed there for a few weeks, and on the evening of my departure our village priest — an intelligent man of independent opinions, such as one meets occasionally in our southern provinces — went out for a walk round the village. The sunset was glorious ; a balmy air came from the prairies. He found a middle-aged peasant — Antón Savélieff — sitting on a small eminence outside the village and reading a book of psalms. The peasant hardly knew how to spell, in Old Slavonic, and often he would read a book from the last page, turning the pages backward ; it was the process of reading which he liked most, and then a word would strike him, and its repetition pleased him. He was reading now a psalm of which each verse began with the word “rejoice.”
“ What are you reading ? ” he was asked.
“ Well, father, I will tell you,” was his reply. “ Fourteen years ago the old prince came here. It was in the winter.
I had just returned home, quite frozen. A snowstorm was raging. I had scarcely begun undressing, when we heard a knock at the window: it was the elder, who was shouting, ‘ Go to the prince ! He wants you ! ’ We all — my wife and our children — were thunderstricken. ‘What can he want of you?’ my wife cried in alarm. I signed myself with the cross and went; the snowstorm almost blinded me as I crossed the bridge. Well, it ended all right. The old prince was taking his afternoon sleep, and when he woke up he asked me if I knew plastering work, and only told me, ‘ Come to-morrow to repair the plaster in that room.’ So I went home quite happy, and when I came to the bridge I found my wife standing there. She had stood there all the time in the snowstorm, with the baby in her arms, waiting for me. ‘ What has happened, Savélich ? ’ she cried. ‘ Well,’ I said, ‘ no harm; he only asked me to make some repairs.’ That, father, was under the old prince. And now, the young prince came here the other day. I went to see him, and found him in the garden, at the tea table, in the shadow of the house ; you, father, sat with him, and the elder of the canton, with his mayor’s chain upon his breast. ‘ Will you have tea, Savélich? ’ he asks me. ‘ Take a chair. Petr Grigórieff,’ — he says that to the old one, — ‘ give us one more chair.’ And Petr Grigórieff — you know what a terror for us he was when he was the manager of the old prince — brought the chair, and we all sat round the tea table, talking, and he poured tea for all of us. Well, now, father, the evening is so beautiful, the balm comes from the prairies, and I sit and read, ‘ Rejoice ! Rejoice ! ’ ”
This is what the abolition of serfdom meant for the peasants.
In June, 1861, I was nominated sergeant of the corps of pages. Some of our officers, I must say, did not like the idea of it, saying that there would be no “ discipline ” with me acting as a sergeant; but it could not be helped; it was usually the first pupil of the upper form who was nominated sergeant, and I had been at the top of our form for several years in succession. This appointment was considered very enviable, not only because the sergeant occupied a privileged position in the school and was treated like an officer, but especially because he was also the page de chambre of the Emperor for the time being; and to be personally known to the Emperor was of course considered as a stepping-stone to further distinctions. The most important point to me was, however, that it freed me from all the drudgery of the inner service of the school, which fell on the pages de chambre, and that I should have for my studies a separate room where I could isolate myself from the bustle of the school. True, there was also an important drawback to it: I had always found it tedious to pace up and down, many times a day, the whole length of our rooms, and used therefore to run the distance full speed, which was severely prohibited ; and now I should have to walk very solemnly, with the service book under my arm, instead of running ! A consultation was even held among a few friends of mine upon this serious matter, and it was decided that from time to time I could still find opportunities to take my favorite runs ; as to my relations with all the others, it depended upon myself to put them on a new comrade-like footing, and I did so.
The pages de chambre had to be at the palace frequently, in attendance at the great and small levees, the balls, the receptions, the gala dinners, and so on. During Christmas, New Year, and Easter weeks we were summoned to the palace almost every day, and sometimes twice a day. Moreover, in my military capacity of sergeant I had to report to the Emperor every Sunday, at the parade in the riding-school, that “ all was well at the company of the corps of pages,” even when one third of the school was ill of some contagious disease. “ Shall I not report to-day that all is not quite well ? ” I asked the colonel on this occasion. “ God bless you,” was his reply, “ you ought to say so only if there were an insurrection ! ”
Court life has undoubtedly much that is picturesque about it. With its elegant refinement of manners, — superficial though it may be, — its strict etiquette, and its brilliant surroundings, it is certainly meant to be impressive. A great levee is a fine pageant, and even the simple reception of a few ladies by the Empress becomes quite different from a common call, when it takes place in a richly decorated drawing-room of the palace, — the guests ushered by chamberlains in gold-embroidered uniforms, the hostess followed by brilliantly dressed pages and a suite of ladies, and everything conducted with striking solemnity. To be an actor in the court ceremonies, in attendance upon the chief personages, offered something more than the mere interest of curiosity for a boy of my age. Besides, I then looked upon Alexander II. as a sort of hero ; a man who attached no importance to the court ceremonies, but who, at this period of his reign, began his working day at six in the morning, and was engaged in a hard struggle with a powerful reactionary party in order to carry through a series of reforms, in which the abolition of serfdom was only the first step.
But gradually, as I saw more of the spectacular side of court life, and caught now and then a glimpse of what was going on behind the scenes, I realized, not only the futility of these shows and the things they were intended to conceal, but also that these small things so much absorbed the court as to prevent consideration of matters of far greater importance. The realities were often lost in the acting. And then from Alexander II. himself slowly faded the aureole with which my imagination had surrounded him; so that by the end of the year, even if at the outset I had cherished some illusions as to useful activity in the spheres nearest to the palace, I should have retained none.
On every important holiday, as also on the birthdays and name days of the Emperor and Empress, on the coronation day, and on other similar occasions, a great levee was held at the palace. Thousands of generals and officers of all ranks, down to that of captain, as well as the high functionaries of the civil service, were arranged in lines in the immense halls of the palace, to bow at the passage of the Emperor and his family, as they solemnly proceeded to the church. All the members of the imperial family came on those days to the palace, meeting together in a drawing-room and merrily chatting till the moment arrived for putting on the mask of solemnity. Then the column was formed. The Emperor, giving his hand to the Empress, opened the march. He was followed by his page de chambre, and he in turn by the general aide-decamp, the aide-de-camp on duty that day, and the minister of the imperial household ; while the Empress, or rather the immense train of her dress, was attended by her two pages de chambre, who had to support the train at the turnings and to spread it out again in all its beauty. The heir apparent, who was a young man of eighteen, and all the other grand dukes and duchesses came next, in the order of their right of succession to the throne, — each of the grand duchesses followed by her page de chambre ; then there was a long procession of the ladies in attendance, old and young, all wearing the so-called Russian costume, — that is, an evening dress which was supposed to resemble the costume worn by the women of Old Russia.
As the procession passed, I could see how each of the eldest military and civil functionaries, before making his bow, would try to catch the eye of the Emperor, and if he had his bow acknowledged by a smiling look of the Tsar, or by a hardly perceptible nod of the head, or perchance by a word or two, he would look round upon his neighbors, full of pride, in the expectation of their congratulations.
From the church the procession returned in the same way, and then every one hurried back to his own affairs. Apart from a few devotees and some young ladies, not one in ten present at these levees regarded them otherwise than as a tedious duty.
Twice or thrice during the winter great balls were given at the palace, and thousands of people were invited to them. After the Emperor had opened the dances with a polonaise, full liberty was left to every one to enjoy the time as he liked. There was plenty of room in the immense brightly illuminated halls, where young girls were easily lost to the watchful eyes of their parents and aunts, and many thoroughly enjoyed the dances and the supper, during which the young people managed often to be left to themselves.
My duties at these balls were rather difficult. Alexander II. did not dance, nor did he sit down, but he moved all the time amongst his guests, his page de chambre having to follow him at a distance, so as to be within easy call, and yet not inconveniently near. This combination of presence with absence was not easy to attain, nor did the Emperor require it: he would have preferred to be left entirely to himself ; but such was the tradition, and he had to submit to it. The worst was when he entered a dense crowd of ladies who stood round the circle in which the grand dukes danced, and slowly circulated among them. It was not at all easy to make a way through this living garden which opened to give passage to the Emperor, but closed in immediately behind him. Instead of dancing themselves, hundreds of ladies and girls stood there, closely packed, each in the expectation that one of the grand dukes would perhaps notice her and invite her to dance a waltz or a polka. Such was the influence of the court upon St. Petersburg society that if one of the grand dukes cast his eye upon a girl, her parents would do all in their power to make their child fall madly in love with the great personage, even though they knew well that no marriage could result from it, — the Russian grand dukes not being allowed to marry “ subjects ” of the Tsar. The conversations which I once heard in a “ respectable ” family, connected with the court, after the heir apparent had danced twice or thrice with a girl of seventeen, and the hopes which were expressed by her parents surpassed all that I could possibly have imagined.
Every time that we were at the palace we had lunch or dinner there, and the footmen would whisper to us bits of news from the scandalous chronicle of the place, whether we cared for it or not. They knew everything that was going on in the different palaces,—that was their domain. For truth’s sake, I must say that during the year which I speak of, that sort of chronicle was not as rich in events as it became in the seventies. The brothers of the Tsar were only recently married, and his sons were all very young. But the relations of the Emperor himself with the Princess X., whom Turguéneff has so admirably depicted in Smoke under the name of Irène, were even more freely spoken of by the servants than by St. Petersburg society. One day, however, when we entered the room where we used to dress, we were told, “The X. has to-day got her dismissal, — a complete one this time.” Half an hour later, we saw the lady in question coming to assist at mass, with eyes swollen from weeping, and swallowing her tears during the mass, while the other ladies managed so to stand at a distance from her as to put her in evidence. The footmen were already informed about the incident, and commented upon it in their own way. There was something truly repulsive in the talk of these men, who the day before would have crouched down before the same lady.
The system of espionage which is exercised in the palace, especially around the Emperor himself, would seem almost incredible to the uninitiated. The following incident will give some idea of it. One of the grand dukes received a severe lesson from a St. Petersburg gentleman. The latter had forbidden the grand duke his house, but, returning home unexpectedly, he found him in his drawingroom, and rushed upon him with his lifted stick. The young man dashed down the staircase, and was already jumping into his carriage when the pursuer caught him, and dealt him a blow with his stick. The policeman who stood at the door saw the adventure and ran to report it to the chief of the police, General Trépoff, who, in his turn, jumped into his carriage and hastened to the Emperor, to be the first to report the “ sad incident.” The Emperor summoned the grand duke and had a talk with him. A couple of days later, an old functionary who belonged to the Third Section of the Emperor’s Chancery, — that is, to the state police, — and who was a friend at the house of one of my comrades, related the whole conversation. “ The Emperor,” he informed us, “ was very angry, and said to the grand duke in conclusion, ‘You should know better how to manage your little affairs.’ ” He was asked, of course, how he could know anything about a private conversation, but the reply was very characteristic : “ The words and the opinions of his Majesty must be known to our department. How otherwise could such a delicate institution as the state police be managed ? Be sure that the Emperor is the most closely watched person in all St. Petersburg.”
There was no boasting in these words. Every minister, every governor-general, before entering the Emperor’s study with his reports, had a talk with the private valet of the Emperor, to know what was the mood of the master that day; and, according to that mood, he either laid before him some knotty affair, or let it lie at the bottom of his portfolio in hope of a more lucky day. The governor-general of East Siberia, when he came to St. Petersburg, always sent his private aide-de-camp with a handsome gift to the private valet of the Emperor. “There are days,” he used to say, “ when the Emperor would get into a rage, and order a searching inquest upon every one and myself, if I should lay before him on such a day certain reports ; whereas there are other days when all will go off quite smoothly. A precious man that valet is.” To know from day to day the frame of mind of the Emperor was a substantial part of the art of retaining a high position — an art which later on Count Shuváloff and General Trépoff understood to perfection ; also Count Ignátieff. who, I suppose from what I saw of him, possessed that art even without the help of the valet.
At the beginning of my service I felt a great admiration for Alexander II., the liberator of the serfs. Imagination often carries a boy beyond the realities of the moment, and my frame of mind at that time was such that if an attempt had been made in my presence upon the Tsar, I should have covered him with my body. One day, at the beginning of January, 1862, I saw him leave the procession and rapidly walk alone toward the halls where parts of all the regiments of the St. Petersburg garrison were aligned for a parade. This parade usually took place outdoors, but this year, on account of the frost, it was held indoors, and Alexander II., who generally galloped at full speed in front of the troops at the reviews, had now to march in front of the regiments. I knew that my court duties ended as soon as the Emperor appeared in his capacity of military commander of the troops, and that I had to follow him to this spot, but no further. Looking round, I saw that he was quite alone. The two aidesde-camp had disappeared, and there was with him not a single man of his suite. “ I will not leave him alone ! ” I said to myself, and followed him.
Whether Alexander II. was in a great hurry that day, or had other reasons to wish that the review should be over as soon as possible, I cannot say, but he dashed in front of the troops, and marched along their rows at such a speed, making such big and rapid steps, — he was very tall, — that I had the greatest difficulty in following him at my most rapid pace, and in places had almost to run in order to keep close behind him. He hurried as if he ran away from a danger. His excitement communicated itself to me, and every moment I was ready to jump in front of him, regretting only that I had on my ordnance sword and not my own sword, with a Toledo blade, which pierced copper and was a far better weapon. It was only after he had passed in front of the last battalion that he slackened his pace, and, on entering another hall,looked round, to meet my eyes glittering with the excitement of that mad march. The younger aidede-camp was running at full speed, two halls behind. I was prepared to get a severe scolding, instead of which the Emperor said to me, perhaps betraying his own inner thoughts : “ You here ? Brave boy! ” and as he slowly walked away he turned into space his problematic, absent-minded look, which I had begun often to notice.
Such was then the frame of my mind. However, various small incidents, as well as the reactionary character which the policy of Alexander II. was decidedly taking, instilled, more and more doubts into my heart. Every year, on January 6, a half Christian and half pagan ceremony of sanctifying the waters is performed in Russia. It is also performed at the palace. A pavilion is built on the Neva River, opposite the palace, and the imperial family, headed by the clergy, proceed from the palace, across the superb quay, to the pavilion, where a Te Deum is sung and the cross is plunged into the water of the river. Thousands of people stand on the quay and on the ice of the Neva to witness the ceremony from a distance. All have to stand bareheaded during the service. On one Occasion, as the frost was rather sharp, an old general had put on a wig, and in the hurry of drawing on his cape, his wig had been dislodged and now lay across his head, without his noticing it. The Grand Duke Constantine, having caught sight of it, laughed the whole time the Te Deum was being sung, with the younger grand dukes, looking in the direction of the unhappy general, who smiled stupidly without knowing why he was the cause of so much hilarity. Constantine finally whispered to the Emperor, who also looked at the general and laughed.
A few minutes later, as the procession once more crossed the quay, on its way back to the palace, an old peasant, bareheaded too, pushed himself through the double hedge of soldiers who lined the path of the procession, and fell on his knees just at the feet of the Emperor, holding out a petition, and crying with tears in his eyes, “ Father, defend us ! ” Ages of oppression of the Russian peasantry was in this exclamation ; but Alexander II., who a few minutes before laughed during the church service at a wig lying the wrong way, now passed by the peasant without taking the slightest notice of him. I was close behind him, and only saw in him a shudder of fear at the sudden appearance of the peasant, after which he went on without deigning even to cast a glance on the human figure at his feet. I looked round. The aides-de-camp were not there ; the Grand Duke Constantine, who followed, took no more notice of the peasant than his brother did ; there was nobody even to take the petition, so that I took it, although I knew that I should get a scolding for doing so. It was not my business to receive petitions, but I remembered what it must have cost the peasant before he could make his way to the capital, and then through the lines of police and soldiers who surrounded the procession. Like all peasants who hand petitions to the Tsar, he was going to be put under arrest, for no one knows how long.
On the day of the emancipation of the serfs, Alexander II. was worshiped at St. Petersburg; but it is most remarkable that, apart from that moment of general enthusiasm, he had not the love of the city. His brother Nicholas — no one could say why — was at least very popular among the small tradespeople and the cabmen ; but neither Alexander II., nor his brother Constantine, the leader of the reform party, nor his third brother, Michael, had won the hearts of any class of people in St. Petersburg. Alexander II. had retained too much of the despotic character of his father, which pierced now and then through his usually good-natured manners. He easily lost his temper, and often treated his courtiers in the most contemptuous way. He was not what one would describe as a truly reliable man, either in his policy or in his personal sympathies, and he was vindictive. I doubt whether he was sincerely attached to any one. Some of the men in his nearest surroundings were of the worst description, — Count Adlerberg, for instance, who made him pay over and over again his enormous debts, and others renowned for their colossal thefts. From the beginning of 1862 he commenced to show himself capable of reviving the worst practices of his father’s reign. It was known that he still wanted to carry through a series of important reforms in the judicial organization and in the army ; that the terrible corporal punishments were about to be abolished, and that a sort of local self - government, and perhaps a constitution of some sort, would be granted. But the slightest disturbance was repressed under his orders with a stern severity : he took each movement as a personal offense, so that at any moment one might expect from him the most reactionary measures. The disorders which broke out at the universities of St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Kazán, in October, 1861, were repressed with a growing strictness. The University of St. Petersburg was closed, and although free courses were opened by most of the professors at the Town Hall, they also were soon closed. Immediately after the abolition of serfdom, a great movement began for the opening of Sunday-schools ; they were opened everywhere by private persons and corporations, — all the teachers being volunteers, — and the peasants and workers, old and young, flocked to these schools. Officers, students, even a few pages, became teachers ; and such excellent methods were worked out that (Russian having a phonetic spelling) we succeeded in teaching a peasant to read in nine or ten lessons. But suddenly all Sunday - schools, in which the mass of the peasantry would have learned to read in a few years, without any expenditure by the state, were closed. In Poland, where a series of patriotic manifestations had begun, the Cossacks were sent out to disperse the schools with their whips, and to arrest hundreds of people in the churches with their usual brutality. Men were shot in the streets of Warsaw by the end of 1861, and for the suppression of the few peasant insurrections which broke out, the horrible flogging through the double line of soldiers — that favorite punishment of Nicholas I. — was applied. The despot that Alexander II. became in the years 1870—81 was foreshadowed in 1862.
Of all the imperial family, undoubtedly the most sympathetic was the Empress Marie Alexándrovna. She was sincere, and when she said something pleasant she meant it. The way in which she once thanked me for a little courtesy (it was after her reception of the ambassador of the United States, who had just come to St. Petersburg) deeply impressed me : it was not the way of a lady spoiled by courtesies, as an empress is supposed to be. She certainly was not happy in her home life ; nor was she liked by the ladies of the court, who found her too severe, and could not understand why she should take so much to heart the étourderies of her husband. It is now known that she played a by no means unimportant part in bringing about the abolition of serfdom. But at that time her influence in this direction seems to have been little known, the Grand Duke Constantine and the Grand Duchess Hélène Pávlovna, who was the main support of Nicholas Milútin at the court, being considered the two leaders of the reform party in the palace spheres. The Empress was better known for the decisive part she had taken in the creation of girls’ gymnasia (high schools), which received from the outset a high standard of organization and a truly democratic character. Her friendly relations with Ushínsky, a great pedagogist, saved him from sharing the fate of all men of mark of that time, — that is, exile.
Being very well educated herself, Marie Alexándrovna did her best to give a good education to her eldest son. The best men in all branches of knowledge were sought as teachers, and she even invited for that purpose Kavélin, although she knew well his friendly relations with Hérzen. When he mentioned to her that friendship, she replied that she had no grudge against Hérzen, except for his violent language about the Empress dowager.
The heir apparent was extremely handsome, — perhaps, even too femininely handsome. He was not proud in the least, and during the levees he used to chatter in the most comradelike way with the pages de chambre. (I even remember, at the reception of the diplomatic corps on New Year’s Day, trying to make him appreciate the simplicity of the uniform of the ambassador of the United States as compared with the parrot-colored uniforms of the other ambassadors.) However, those who knew him well described him as profoundly egoistic, a man absolutely incapable of contracting an attachment to any one. This feature was prominent in him, even more than it was in his father. All the pains taken by his mother were of no avail. In August, 1861, his examinations, which were made in the presence of his father, proved to be a dead failure, and I remember Alexander II., at a parade of which the heir apparent was the commander, and during which he made some mistake, loudly shouting out, so that every one would hear it, “ Even that you could not learn ! ” He died, as is known, at the age of twenty-one, from some disease of the spinal cord.
His brother, Alexander, who became the heir apparent in 1865, and later on was Alexander III., was a decided contrast to Nicholas Alexándrovich. He reminded me so much of Paul I., by his face, his figure, and his contemplation of his own grandeur, that I used to say, “ If he ever reigns, he will be another Paul I. in the Gátchina palace, and will have the same end as his great-grandfather had at the hands of his own courtiers.” He obstinately refused to learn. It was rumored that Alexander II., having had so many difficulties with his brother Constantine, who was better educated than himself, adopted the policy of concentrating all his attention on the heir apparent, and neglecting the education of his other sons ; however, I doubt if such was the case : Alexander Alexándrovich must have been averse to any education from childhood ; in fact, his spelling, which I saw in the telegrams he addressed to his bride at Copenhagen, was unimaginably bad. I cannot render here his Russian spelling, but in French he wrote, “ Ecri à oncle à propos parade . . . les nouvelles sont mauvaisent,” and so on.
He is said to have improved in his manners toward the end of his life, but in 1870, and also much later, he was a true descendant of Paul I. I knew at St. Petersburg an officer, of Swedish origin (from Finland), who had been sent to the United States to order rifles for the Russian army. On his return he had to report about his mission to Alexander Alexándrovich, who had been appointed to superintend the re-arming of the army. During this interview, the Tsarevich, giving full vent to his violent temper, began to scold the officer, who probably replied hastily, whereupon the prince fell into a real fit of rage, insulting the officer in bad language. The officer, who belonged to that type of very loyal but self-respecting men who are frequently met with amongst the Swedish nobility in Russia, left at once, and wrote a letter in which he asked the heir apparent to apologize within twenty-four hours, adding that if the apology did not come he would shoot himself. It was a sort of Japanese duel. Alexander Alexándrovich sent no excuses, and the officer kept his word. I saw him at the house of a warm friend of mine, his intimate friend, when he was expecting every minute to receive the apology. Next morning he was dead. The Tsar was very angry with his son, and ordered him to follow the hearse of the officer to the grave. But even this terrible lesson did not cure the young man of his Románoff haughtiness and impetuosity.