Andrew Dickson White.

Autobiography of Andrew Dickson White (Volume 2) online

. (page 11 of 54)
Online LibraryAndrew Dickson WhiteAutobiography of Andrew Dickson White (Volume 2) → online text (page 11 of 54)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

turies Russia has been coming slowly out of the middle
ages indeed, out of perhaps the most cruel phases of
mediaeval life. Her history is, in its details, discourag-
ing; her daily life disheartening. Even the aspects of
nature are to the last degree depressing : no mountains ; no
hills; no horizon; no variety in forests; a soil during a
large part of the year frozen or parched ; a people whose
upper classes are mainly given up to pleasure and whose
lower classes are sunk in fetishism; all their poetry and
music in the minor key ; old oppressions of every sort still
lingering; no help in sight; and, to use their own cry r
' ' God so high and the Czar so distant. ' '

When, then, a great man arises in Russia, if he gives
himself wholly to some well-defined purpose, looking to
one high aim and rigidly excluding sight or thought of the
ocean of sorrow about him, he may do great things. If he


be Suvaroff or Skobeleff or Gourko he may win great
battles ; if he be Mendeleieff he may reach some epoch-
making discovery in science; if he be Derjavine he may
write a poem like the * ' Ode to God "; if he be Antokolsky
he may carve statues like "Ivan the Terrible"; if he be
Nesselrode he may hold all Europe enchained to the ideas
of the autocrat ; if he be Miloutine or Samarine or Tcher-
kassky he may devise vast plans like those which enabled
Alexander II to free twenty millions of serfs and to se-
cure means of subsistence for each of them ; if he be Prince
Khilkoff he may push railway systems over Europe to the
extremes of Asia ; if he be De Witte he may reform a vast
financial system.

But when a strong genius in Russia throws himself into
philanthropic speculations of an abstract sort, with no
chance of discussing his theories until they are full-grown
and have taken fast hold upon him, if he be a man of
science like Prince Kropotkin, one of the most gifted sci-
entific thinkers of our time, the result may be a wild
revolt, not only against the whole system of his own coun-
try, but against civilization itself, and finally the adoption
of the theory and practice of anarchism, which logically
results in the destruction of the entire human race. Or, if
he be an accomplished statesman and theologian like Po-
bedonostzeff, he may reason himself back into mediaeval
methods, and endeavor to fetter all free thought and to
crush out all forms of Christianity except the Russo-Greek
creed and ritual. Or, if he be a man of the highest genius
in literature, like Tolstoi, whose native kindliness holds
him back from the extremes of nihilism, he may rear a
fabric heaven-high, in which truths, errors, and paradoxes
are piled up together until we have a new Tower of Babel.
Then we may see this man of genius denouncing all science
and commending what he calls ' i faith ' ' ; urging a return
to a state of nature, which is simply Rousseau modified by
misreadings of the New Testament; repudiating mar-
riage, yet himself most happily married and the father of
sixteen children; holding that JEschylus and Dante and


Shakspere were not great in literature, and making Adin
Ballon a literary idol; holding that Michelangelo and
Raphael were not great in sculpture and painting, yet in-
sisting on the greatness of sundry unknown artists who
have painted brutally; holding that Beethoven, Handel,
Mozart, Haydn, and Wagner were not great in music, but
that some unknown performer outside any healthful mu-
sical evolution has given us the music of the future; de-
claring Napoleon to have had no genius, but presenting
Koutousoff as a military ideal; loathing science that
organized knowledge which has done more than all else to
bring us out of mediaeval cruelty into a better world and
extolling a ' ' faith ' ' which has always been the most effec-
tive pretext for bloodshed and oppression.

The long, slow, every-day work of developing a better
future for his countrymen is to be done by others far less
gifted than Tolstoi. His paradoxes will be forgotten ; but
his devoted life, his noble thoughts, and his lofty ideals
will, as centuries roll on, more and more give life and light
to the new Russia.



THE difficulties of a stranger seeking information in
Russia seem at times insurmountable. First of
these is the government policy of suppressing news. For-
eign journals come to ordinary subscribers with para-
graphs and articles rubbed out with pumice or blotted out
with ink; consequently our Russian friends were wont to
visit the legation, seeking to read in our papers what had
been erased in their own, and making the most amusing
discoveries as to the stupidity of the official censorship:
paragraphs perfectly harmless being frequently blotted
out, and really serious attacks on the government un-

Very striking, as showing control over the newspaper
press, was an occurrence during my first summer at Hels-
ingfors. One day our family doctor came in, and reported
a rumor that an iron-clad monitor had sunk, the night be-
fore, on its way across the gulf from Reval. Soon the
story was found to be true. A squadron of three ships
had started; had encountered a squall; and in the morn-
ing one of them an old-fashioned iron-clad monitor
was nowhere to be seen. She had sunk with all on board.
Considerable speculation concerning the matter arose,
and sundry very guarded remarks were ventured to the
effect that the authorities at Cronstadt would have been
wiser had they not allowed the ship to go out in such a
condition that the first squall would send her to the bot-
tom. This discussion continued for about a week, when



suddenly the proper authorities served notice upon the
press that nothing more must be said on the subject.

This mandate was obeyed; the matter was instantly
dropped ; nothing more was said ; and, a year or two after-
ward, on my inquiring of Admiral Makharoff whether
anything had ever been discovered regarding the lost ship
and its crew, he answered in the negative.

But more serious efforts than these were made to con-
trol thought. The censorship of books was even more
strongly, and, if possible, more foolishly, exercised. At
any of the great bookshops one could obtain, at once, the
worst publications of the Paris press ; but the really sub-
stantial and thoughtful books were carefully held back.
The average Russian, in order to read most of these better
works, must be specially authorized to do so.

I had a practical opportunity to see the system in opera-
tion. Being engaged on the final chapters of my book, and
needing sundry scientific, philosophical, and religious
treatises, such as can be bought freely in every city of
Western Europe, I went to the principal bookseller in St.
Petersburg, and was told that, by virtue of my diplomatic
position, I could have them ; but that, in order to do so, I
must write an application, signing it with my own name,
and that then he would sell them to me within a few days.
This took place several times.

Still another difficulty is that, owing to lack of publicity,
the truth can rarely be found as regards any burning
question : in the prevailing atmosphere of secrecy and re-
pression the simplest facts are often completely shut from
the foreign observer.

Owing to the lack of public discussion, Russia is the
classic ground of myth and legend. One sees myths and
legends growing day by day. The legend regarding the
cure of the Archbishop of St. Petersburg by Father Ivan
of Cronstadt, which I have given in a previous chapter,
is an example. The same growth of legend is seen with
regard to every-day matters. For example, one meets
half a dozen people at five-o'clock tea in a Russian house,


and one of them says : ' * How badly the Emperor looked at
court last night. ' ' Another says : ' ' Yes ; his liver is evi-
dently out of order; he ought to go to Carlsbad. " An-
other says : * l 1 think that special pains ought to be taken
with his food," etc., etc. People then scatter from this
tea-table, and in a day or two one hears that sufficient
precaution is not taken with the Emperor's food; that it
would not be strange if some nihilist should seek to poison
him. A day or two afterward one hears that a nihilist
has endeavored to poison the Emperor. The legend
grows, details appear here and there, and finally there
come in the newspapers of Western Europe full and care-
ful particulars of a thwarted plot to poison his Majesty.

Not the least of the embarrassments which beset an
American minister in Russia is one which arose at vari-
ous times during my stay, its source being the generous
promptness of our people to take as gospel any story re-
garding Russian infringement of human rights. One or
two cases will illustrate this.

During my second winter, despatches by mail and wire
came to me thick and fast regarding the alleged banish-
ment of an American citizen to Siberia for political rea-
sons; and with these came petitions and remonstrances
signed by hundreds of Americans of light and leading;
also newspaper articles, many and bitter.

On making inquiries through the Russian departments
of foreign affairs and of justice, I found the fact to be that
this injured American had been, twenty years before, a
Russian police agent in Poland; that he had stolen funds
intrusted to him and had taken refuge in America; that,
relying on the amnesty proclaimed at the accession of the
late Emperor, he had returned to his old haunts ; that he
had been seized, because the amnesty did not apply to the
category of criminals to which he belonged; that he had
not been sent to Siberia; that there was no thought of
sending him there; but that the authorities proposed to
recover the money he had stolen if they could.

Another case was typical : One day an excellent English


clergyman came to me in great distress, stating that an
American citizen was imprisoned in the city. I immedi-
ately had the man brought before a justice, heard his tes-
timony and questioned him, publicly and privately. He
swore before the court., and insisted to me in private, that
he had never before been in Russia ; that he was an Ameri-
can citizen born of a Swedish father and an Alaskan mo-
ther upon one of the Alaskan islands; and he showed a
passport which he had obtained at Washington by making
oath to that effect. On the other hand appeared certain
officers of the Russian navy, in excellent standing, who
swore that they knew the man perfectly to be a former
employee of their engineering department and a deserter
from a Russian ship of war in the port of St. Petersburg.
It was also a somewhat significant fact that he spoke
Russian much better than English, and that he seemed
to have a knowledge of Russian affairs very remarkable
for a man who had never been in Russia ; but to account
for this he insisted upon the statement as to his birth
in Alaska. Appearances were certainly very strongly
against him, and he was remanded to await more testimony
in his favor; but the next thing I heard was that he had
escaped, had arrived in New York, was posing as a mar-
tyr, had graciously granted interviews to various repre-
sentatives of the press, and had thereby stimulated some
very lurid editorials against the Russian Government.

Another case was that of a Russian who, having reached
the United States, burdened the files of the State Depart-
ment and of the legation with complaints against the
American minister because that official did not send out
the man's wife to him. The minister had, indeed, for-
warded the necessary passports, but the difficulty was that
the German authorities would not allow the woman to
enter Germany without showing herself to be in posses-
sion of means sufficient to prevent her becoming a public
charge; and these her husband could not, or would not,
send, insisting that now that he was naturalized he had a
right to have his wife brought to America.


I have no apology to make for the Russian system far
from it ; but I would state, in the interest of international
comity, that it is best for Americans not to be too prompt
in believing all the stories of alleged sufferers from Rus-
sian despotism, and especially of those who wish to use
their American citizenship simply in order to return to
Russia and enjoy business advantages superior to those
of their neighbors.

That there are many meritorious refugees cannot be
denied; but any one who has looked over extradition pa-
pers, as I have been obliged to do, and seen people posing
as Russian martyrs who are comfortably carrying on in
New York the business of counterfeiting bank-notes, and
unctuously thanking God in their letters for their success
in the business, will be slow to join in the outcries of refu-
gees of doubtful standing claiming to be suffering perse-
cution on account of race, religion, or political opinion.

Nor are Russian- Americans the only persons who weary
an American representative. One morning a card was
brought in bearing an undoubted American name, and
presently there followed it a tall raw-boned man with long
flaxen hair, who began orating to me as follows: "Sir,
you are an ambassador from the President of the United
States; I am an ambassador from God Almighty. I am
sent here to save the Emperor. He is a good man ; he is
followed up by bad men who seek his life ; I can save him ;
I will be his cup-bearer; I ivill drive his team." This
latter conception of the Emperor's means of locomotion
struck me as naive, especially in view of the fact that near
my house was an immense structure filled with magnifi-
cent horses for the Emperor and court a veritable equine
palace. "Yes," said my visitor; "I will drive the Em-
peror's team. I want you to introduce me to him imme-
diately." My answer was that it was not so easy to secure
a presentation to the Emperor, offhand ; that considerable
time would be necessary in any case. To this my visitor
answered : " I must see him at once ; I am invited to come
by the Empress." On my asking when he received this


invitation, he said that it was given him on board the
steamer between New York and Hamburg, her Majesty
and her children being the only other passengers besides
himself in the second-class cabin. To this I said that
there must certainly be some mistake; that her Majesty
rarely, if ever, traveled on public lines of steamers ; that
if she had done so, she certainly would not have been a
passenger in the second cabin. To this he answered that
he was absolutely certain that it was the Empress who had
given him the invitation and urged him to come and save
the Emperor's life. On my asking him the date of this
invitation, he looked through his diary and found it. At
this, sending for a file of the official newspaper of St.
Petersburg, I showed him that on the day named her
Majesty was receiving certain officials at the palace in
St. Petersburg; whereat he made an answer which for
the moment threw me completely off my balance. He
said, ' * Sir, I have lived long enough not to believe every-
thing I see in the newspapers."

I quieted him as best I could, but on returning to his
hotel he indulged in some very boisterous conduct, one of
the minor features of which was throwing water in the
faces of the waiters ; so that, fearing lest actions like this
and his loud utterances regarding the Emperor and Em-
press might get him into trouble, I wrote a friendly letter
to the prefect of St. Petersburg, stating the case, and ask-
ing that, if it was thought best to arrest the man, he should
be placed in some comfortable retreat for the insane and
be well cared for until I could communicate with his
friends in America. Accordingly, a day or two after-
ward, a handsome carriage drove up to the door of his
hotel, bearing two kindly gentlemen, who invited him to
accompany them. Taking it for granted that he was to
be escorted to the palace to meet his Majesty, he went
without making any objections, and soon found himself
in commodious rooms and most kindly treated.

It being discovered that he was an excellent pianist, a
grand piano was supplied him; and he was very happy


in his musical practice, and in the thought that he was
lodged in the palace and would soon communicate his mes-
sage to the Emperor. At various times I called upon
him and found him convinced that his great mission would
soon be accomplished; but after a week or ten days he
began to have doubts, and said to me that he distrusted
the Russians and would prefer to go on and deliver a
message with which he was charged to the Emperor of
China. On my showing him sundry difficulties, he said
that at any rate there was one place where he would cer-
tainly be well received Marlborough House in London;
that he was sure the Prince of Wales would welcome him
heartily. At last, means having been obtained from his
friends, I sought to forward him from St. Petersburg;
but, as no steamers thence would take a lunatic, I sent my
private secretary with him to Helsingfors, and thence se-
cured his passage to America.

A very curious feature in the case, as told me afterward
by a gentleman who traveled in the same steamer, was
that this American delighted the company day after day
with his music, and that no one ever saw anything out of
the way in his utterances or conduct. He seemed to have
forgotten all about his great missions and to have become
absorbed in his piano.

Among the things to which special and continued atten-
tion had to be given by the legation was the Chicago Ex-
position. I was naturally desirous to see it a success;
indeed, it was my duty to do everything possible to pro-
mote it. The magnificent plans which the Chicago people
had developed and were carrying out with such wonderful
energy interested thinking Russians. But presently came
endeavors which might easily have brought the whole
enterprise into disrepute; for some of the crankish per-
sons who always hang on the skirts of such enterprises
had been allowed to use official stationery, and they had
begun writing letters, and even instructions, to American
diplomatic agents abroad.

The first of these which attracted my attention was one


requesting me to ask the Empress to write a book in the
shape of a " Report on Women 's Work in Russia, ' ' careful
instructions being given as to how and at what length she
must write it.

A letter also came from one of these quasi-officials at
Chicago, not requesting, but instructing, me to ask the
Emperor to report to his bureau on the condition of the
empire; funnily enough, this "instruction" was evidently
one of several, and they had been ground out so care-
lessly that the one which I was instructed to deliver to the
Emperor was addressed to the "King of Holland." It
was thus made clear that this important personage at
Chicago, who usurped the functions of the Secretary of
State, had not even taken the trouble to find out that there
was no such person as a "King of Holland," the person-
age whom he vaguely had in mind being, no doubt, the
Queen Regent of the Netherlands.

Soon there followed another of these quasi-instructions,
showing another type of crankishness. Beginning with
the weighty statement that ' t the school-boys of every coun-
try are the future men of that country," it went on with
a declaration that it had been decided to hold a convention
of the school-children of the world at Chicago, in con-
nection with the Exposition, and ended by instructing me
to invite to its deliberations the school-children of Russia.
Of course I took especial care not to communicate any of
these things to any Russian : to have done so would have
made the Exposition, instead of the admiration, the laugh-
ing-stock of the empire; but I wrote a letter to the as-
sistant secretary of state, Mr. Quincy, who presently put
an end to these vagaries.

One is greatly struck in Russia by the number of able
and gifted men and women scattered through Russian
society, and at the remarkable originality of some of
them. The causes of this originality I touch in my chap-
ter on Tolstoi.

It was a duty as well as a pleasure for me to keep up
my acquaintance with persons worth knowing ; and, while


many of the visits thus made were perfunctory and te-
dious, some were especially gratifying. My rule was,
after office hours in the afternoon, to get into the open
sledge; to make my visits; and as a result, of course, to
see and hear a vast deal of frivolity and futility, but, from
time to time, more important things.

The entertainments given by wealthy Russian nobles
to the diplomatic corps were by no means so frequent
or so lavish as of old. Two reasons were assigned for
this, one being the abolition of the serf system, which had
impoverished the nobility, and the other the fact that
the Emperor Alexander III had set the fashion of paying
less attention to foreigners than had formerly been the

The main hospitalities, so far as the Emperor and Em-
press were concerned, were the great festivities at the
Winter Palace, beginning on the Russian New Year's
day, which was twelve days later than ours. The scene
was most brilliant. The vast halls were filled with civil
and military officials from all parts of the empire, in the
most gorgeous costumes, an especially striking effect
being produced by the caftans, or long coats, of the
various Cossack regiments, the armor and helmets of the
Imperial Guards, and the old Russian costumes of the
ladies. All of the latter, on this occasion, from the Em-
press down, wore these costumes : there was great variety
in these ; but their main features were the kakoshniks, or
ornamental crowns, and the tunics in bright colors.

The next of these great ceremonies at the Winter Palace
was the blessing of the waters upon the 8th of January.
The diplomatic corps and other guests were allowed to
take their places at the palace windows looking out over
the Neva, and thence could see the entire procession,
which, having gone down the ambassadors' staircase, ap-
peared at a temple which had been erected over an open-
ing in the ice of the river. The Emperor, the grand
dukes, and the Archbishop of St. Petersburg, with his suf-
fragan bishops, all took part in this ceremonial ; and the


music, which was selected from the anthems of Bortnian-
sky, was very solemn and impressive.

During the winter came court balls, and, above all, the
"palm balls." The latter were, in point of brilliancy,
probably beyond anything in any court of modern times.
After a reception, during which the Emperor and Em-
press passed along the diplomatic circle, speaking to
the various members, dancing began, and was continued
until about midnight ; then the doors were flung open into
other vast halls, which had been changed into palm-
groves. The palms for this purpose are very large and
beautiful, four series of them being kept in the conserva-
tories for this special purpose, each series being used one
winter and then allowed to rest for three winters before
it is brought out again. Under these palms the supper-
tables are placed, and from fifteen hundred to two thou-
sand people sit at these as the guests of the Czar and Czar-
ina. These entertainments seem carried to the extreme
of luxury, their only defect being their splendid monot-
ony : only civil, military, and diplomatic officials are pres-
ent, and a new-comer finds much difficulty in remembering
their names. There are said to be four hundred Princes
Galitzin in the empire, and I personally knew three Counts
Tolstoi who did not know each other ; but the great draw-
back is the fact that all these entertainments are exactly
alike, always the same thing: merely civil and military
functionaries and their families; and for strangers no
occupation save to dance, play cards, talk futilities, or
simply stare.

The Berlin court, though by no means so brilliant at
first sight and far smaller, since the most I ever saw in
any gathering in the Imperial Schloss at the German
capital was about fifteen hundred, was really much more
attractive, its greater interest arising from the presence

Online LibraryAndrew Dickson WhiteAutobiography of Andrew Dickson White (Volume 2) → online text (page 11 of 54)