The Atlantic Monthly, Volume 10, No. 61, November, 1862 online

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upon it. But it did its best to entangle his reason and thwart his

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.[I]

[Footnote I: For choice specimens of these reasonings, see Von Erman,
_Archiv für Wissenschaftliche Kunde von Russland_.]

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 class of
"contracting peasants." Masters and serfs were empowered to enter into
contracts, - the serf receiving freedom, the master receiving payment in

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 1848 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 he 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."[J]

[Footnote J: This sketch is given from notes taken at the audience.]

Strong as Alexander showed himself by these 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.[K]

[Footnote K: 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.]

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 better system, had made them
hard-working; 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

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 heard 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
serf-coachman 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

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 this 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

To defeat these comes a miracle.

There stands forth a successor of Saint Gregory and Saint Bavon, - one
who accepts that deep mediaeval 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
peasants, 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 serf-emancipation, - 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

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 had
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

[Footnote L: _Procès en Diffamation du Prince Simon Worontzoff contre le
Prince Pierre Dolgornokow_. Leipzig, 1862]

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 and 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

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

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

* * * * *



I said that the afternoon sunlight poured its rain into the church-yard.
It was four of the clock when Aaron left me.

The dream that I had received impression of still dwelt in active
remembrance, and a little fringe from the greater glory mine eyes had
seen went trailing in flows of light along the edge of earth, as if
saying unto it, "Arise and behold what I am!"

One child habiting earth dared to lift eyes into the awful arch of air,
wherein are laid the foundation-stones of the crystalline wall, and,
beholding drops of Infinite Love, garnered one, and, walking forth with
it in her heart, went into the church-yard, - a regret arising that the
graves that held the columns fallen from the family-corridor had found
so little of place within affection's realm. The regret, growing into
resolution, hastened her steps, that went unto the place devoted to
the dead Percivals. It was in a corner, - the corner wherein grew the
pine-tree of the hills.

"A peaceful spot of earth," I thought, as I went into the hedged
inclosure, and shut myself in with the gleaming marble, and the
low-hanging evergreens that waved their green arms to ward ill away from
those they had grown up among. "It is long since the ground has been
broken here," I thought, - "so long!" And I looked upon a monumental
stone to find there recorded the latest date of death. It was eighteen
hundred and forty-four, - my mother's, - and I looked about and sought

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Online LibraryVariousThe Atlantic Monthly, Volume 10, No. 61, November, 1862 → online text (page 6 of 22)