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THE EMPEROR NICHOLAS, HIS NOBLES, SERFS, AND
It is surprising how little the social and political condition of the Russian empire is known, comprising as it does the largest portion of the habitable globe ever united under one dominion, and giving umbrage as it does to so many interests by the shadow of its still increasing greatness.
There are, no doubt, many causes which may partially account for this lack of information on a theme so interesting ; into these it is not our present purpose to enter, but we content ourselves with the observation which no resident in the Russian empire we feel confident will gainsay, that until within the last two years no traveller had given any account from which the faintest idea of her modern condition could be gathered.
We have had since then an admirably written book from a female pen, which only leads us to lament that the fair authoress who has so charmingly described the little she has seen, should have seen so very little. For instance, she professes to describe the Baltic provinces of which she imbibed her notions in the society of the family of the chief of the secret police; and as she seems impartially to have described all that she saw and learned, we must conclude from her silence that she was ignorant of two of the most interesting facts connected with the very provinces which she describes; viz., that the peasantry recently emancipated from slavery, and still held practically in bondage by their nobility, are a totally distinct race from these latter, the descendants of the Teutonic knights who conquered them, or the Swedish conquerors of these feudal nobles—that they bear to them a sullen and unmitigated hatred, which absorbs their natural aversion to the Muscovites, and that it is by playing off the hatred of the conquered people, and the fears of their feudal masters,'against each other, that the cabinet of St. Petersburg considers itself safe in the possession of these provinces.
Secondly, that in pursuance of this policy, the very year in which our authoress visited this part of the world it was the scene of a sanguinary “ Jacquerie,” excited by a Russian bishop, but carried too far by the excited peasantry. Hundreds of lives were lost in this insurrection; the insurgents burning the estates and massacring the families of their masters, and being only put down by a military force.
These scenes must have taken place a few miles from the spot which appeared to the writer in question so smiling and so happy, without her hearing of them; and those who have been in Russia can alone understand how bold any casual visiter to the family in which she was domesticated must have been who would have ventured to have breathed a syllable on such topics in the atmosphere which she inhaled.
Kohl, the German traveller, has also, since the period just referred to, continued his Russian sketches. The style of his writings gives one no means of judging whether he possesses the sagacity required for a profound, though he is evidently a minute observer ;-his work is an admirable daguerreotype of all that externally meets the eye; but this happens to be precisely what is least interesting in Russia.
Indeed it is futile to expect any vigorous description of the Russian empire, and the condition of its people, from a German pen, because no German dares to publish it; or if he did so, it would be excluded both from Austria and Prussia :—from Austria because the censure which, to be sincere, he must heap on a despotic government would be displeasing to her; from Prussia because the censorship will allow nothing to be published more severe than an occasional diatribe against Russia on the question of frontier regulations, and because she is too much under the influence of Russia to allow the publication of any serious writing which might form a ground of complaint from her cabinet,
With this apology we propose to give a kind of elementary account of the present condition of the Russian empire. If it were not for the avowed and unlimited despotism of the Russian government, her civil institutions, her written laws, the provident regulations of the Russian empire, the official accounts giving the minutest details of her progress and prosperity, which seem in the most triumphant manner to justify the wisdom of these, would make the country appear, on paper, the realization of a modern Utopia. Unfortunately, however, these official accounts, both with regard to the prosperity and happiness of the Russian people, and her political power, are as far from the reality as is the value of her bank-notes from the metallic currency which they nominally represent. It is however by such papers that the Russian government deceives, and is deceived. No country ever existed which was ever administered by such ridiculously copious and complex written details, without which the most insignificant act of public business cannot be carried on.
This system, originally devised as a check on those employed, by placing on record, in black and white, the minutest details of every thing connected with their duty, has had the contrary effect of insuring impunity, by burying every transaction in such an inextricably voluminous mass of documents, as to prove an effectual shelter for every species of fraud, which is protected, not here and there, or occasionally, but by high and low, and with a nefarious order and regula. rity, similar to that with which the most forbidden avocations of great capitals are conducted.
Russia possesses wise laws and excellent regulations, which are in fact a dead letter ; she has thousands of troops which have never existed, but upon paper; she has fleets and manufactories which, like the scenery of a stage, excepting for theatrical effect, are of no more use or value to the nation than if they too existed only on paper.
The real elements of power and greatness which she possesses are, notwithstanding all this, immense; though there are countervailing causes which have hitherto prevented, and probably will continue to prevent, their ever coming into such active operation as to contribute much to her prosperity, or to render formidable her preponderance.
Though innumerable tribes and nations live beneath the rule of Russia, differing as much in language and in habits as any of the human race, the great bulk of her population is Muscovite, speaking the same tongue, professing the same religion, and animated by the same feelings of nationality. In the immense extent of country through which this population is scattered, and which industrious cultivation would render prodigiously fertile, it cannot fail to increase into countless millions, as it has been increasing since it has enjoyed the common pro
tection of a somewhat civilized government. Without however anticipating what this population may become, to take it as it is, these millions of peasants, contented in their ignorance, and devoted with a blind and superstitious attachment to a sovereign who unites in his person, as head of the church, its spiritual authority, to that of the temporal chief and czar, and who possesses besides all the mechanism of centralization and the science of civilization at his command, to render this force available,-let us ask, was there ever a power more formidable centered in the hands of man than that which at the present day thus lies at the unlimited and uncontrolled command of an emperor of Russia ? till this moment his people have been poor, the soil of his country contains in profusion every requisite to constitute agricultural wealth, to furnish a superabundance of every valuable European production. The riches are there, and within reach. The arms are there to work them out. In his European possessions, inhabited by the purely Muscovite race, there are tracts of land many times larger than France and England, where the soil is as rich as in those parts of Brabant and Flanders wherein the population seems to cluster like bees about a hive. There are pastures which with a little industry might feed all the flocks and cattle in Europe. Nature, by means of winter sledge roads and immense navigable rivers, has opened many communications, and singularly facilitated others. The climate over two-thirds of her European empire is, taken all in all, more favourable than otherwise to her prosperity; and she possesses outlets to two of the great inland seas of Europe: the Russian flag floats over nearly a thousand miles of the shores of the Baltic, and a considerable part of the coast of the Euxine.
No aristocracy interferes, no public opinion raises its voice to check or cramp the exercise of imperial authority. The nobles of Russia, proprietors of the soil, though they hold the peasantry in a servitude as complete as was that of the West Indian negroes, though still wealthy, are yet not only without a shadow of political power, but are themselves deprived of many of the common rights of humanity. Too often the oppressors of their peasantry, they constitute, notwithstanding, the class on whom the yoke of despotism presses most gallingly, if not most heavily. It has been the policy of the crown, particularly in the two last and in the present reign, to redeem the serf from the vassalage of his baron, and render him an imperial instead of a private slave—a servitude which is in most cases merely nominal—that is to say, when he is not forced to work in the government manufactories. He pays a fixed and trifling poll-tax to the emperor, instead of the heavy and optional one imposed on him by his former master, and he is practically almost as free as his late lord can possibly be.
The service of the crown, whether civil or military, for which every proprietor of land must furnish an annual contingent of men, at the expiration of its duration, exempts those who have performed it, as well as their descendants, from private servitude. Thus, in the eyes of the peasantry, the emperor, whose authority is always stepping in to release them from a bondage often very oppressive, appears in so favourable a light, that the rooted subserviency of long habit to their masters, unmixed with any sympathy or affection, would constitute no motive to divert them from a blind obedience to the being they look upon as scarce inferior to God; and between their duty to their baron, and their emperor, the latter would, in every case, be the more popular as well as the more sacred.
The emperors of Russia seek to invest themselves with this sacred character, in the eyes of the vulgar, by every imaginable means. The peasant and the soldier are taught always to associate the name of God and of the emperor, and the latter, in the regulation prayers, is made to call the emperor “Our God upon earth.”
It is a common prejudice in other countries, to imagine that the fear of the nobility operates as a check on the conduct of the Sovereign of Russia, and that the summary process of assassination would be the meed of any very oppressive or obnoxious measures. This notion is utterly erroneous. In a country like Russia, where habits and feelings are pervaded more by an oriental than a European spirit, as in every unenlightened despotism (if we may be allowed to use the term in contradistinction to the self-styled enlightened despotism of another European state*), the sword of assassination must hang perpetually suspended over the good sovereign as well as the wicked ; he has to dread, not like a constitutional king, the fanaticism of a jacobinical club, or a street assassin, but those whom he has raised to power, whether from the class of nobility or peasantry. It is perfectly immaterial what their original rank may have been, though it is true that whilst in office, they constitute a kind of aristocracy-the only one which has any political existence in Russia, any more than in Persia or in Turkey, where slaves and camel drivers rise to the highest offices, and where the favour of the sovereign confers the only distinction.
A gloomy and mistrustful tyrant, like Paul, must sometimes be strangled by his immediate confidants, in self-defence, when these become the objects of his suspicion ; a weak-minded but benevolent emperor, like Alexander, may have perished at the hands of those who have not the justification of necessity's stern law; and the best of monarchs may fall a victim to the despair of those to whom he has intrusted his power, when the detection of their misdeeds becomes inevitable, or even when their ambitious views render a change advantageous.
The veil of mystery and secrecy which is habitually thrown over every thing, renders the concealment and impunity of crimes practicable, which, in the rest of Europe, must meet with immediate publicity and execration. The public mind is so impressed with the facility of hiding every dark transaction from its view, that no personage of importance dies without some rumour of poison or foul play. In the present reign, we may instance the deaths of the Grand Duke Constantine and General Diebitch.
There was a certain personage, on whom the public' rumour, and no doubt the public calumny, affixed the stigma of being the instrument of these dark deeds. His visit to any public character, or his arrival at the place where they were, has, in so many instances, been the forerunner of their sudden dissolution, that in such a country, however improbable, the report can excite no surprise. A little before
the respective deaths of Alexander, of Constantine, and of Diebitch, this bird of ill omen made his appearance, and four or five other similar instances are cited in corroboration of this tale.
The prevalence of these rumours on every occasion, is not a little fostered by the absurdly mysterious policy of government, which will not allow the introduction of, or at least previously causes the obnox. ious pages to be cut out of, any works mentioning any of the murders which have taken place in the imperial family since the time of Peter, even to the assassination of Paul, although the latter is known in all its details, as well as any other public event.
If the nobility are thus utterly powerless, the clergy, at one time equally formidable to the czar, and whose influence might still be imagined to be so with a people blindly superstitious, has been converted by the wise and resolute policy of succeeding reigns, from an object of terror into a means of power.
Deprived of the remotest political weight, its sole effect is to propagate and strengthen those religious feelings amongst the people which can but render them more subservient to the emperor, who is head of the church, and whose authority is not looked upon in the same light in which the members of the church of England regard the supremacy of the British sovereign-as a mere nominal title-but rather with the implicit belief of a direct delegation of power from heaven, of the same nature as, in the eyes of the Roman Catholic, invested even the most ambitious and martial pontiffs with so sacred a character.
The Russian people may most naturally be divided into three great classes; viz., first, the landed aristocracy: second, all those who have been or are employed by government; third, the peasantry, whether private serfs, crown serfs, or freedmen.
The first of these classes, more polished than civilized, generally given to licentiousness and extravagance, and crushed by a sense of its humiliating condition, is insignificant by its want of spirit and numbers, and, by the fact of a paramount influence which destroys that which it once possessed over its serfs, and which it has not even the means of counteracting by the dissemination amongst them of such enlarged and liberal ideas, as its own comparative civilization might suggest, and which might weaken the power of that arbitrary tyranny which is weighing it down, though without strengthening its own. Its members must therefore naturally bear in their hearts a bitter enmity to the oriental despotism which crushes them in the dust. At the close of the late Emperor Alexander's reign, they made a final effort to shake off this galling tyranny, and the numerous secret societies, which were conspiring against the imperial authority, included in their ranks some scion of every noble family in the empire, and with each were the hearts and wishes of the stock to which he belonged. These efforts terminated in a hasty and pusillanimously conducted attempt at rebellion on the accession of the present emperor, but he overturned it by his energy, and has since kept his heel throats of the helplessly prostrate aristocracy which attempted to subvert his autocratic power.
This hatred is not, however, perceptible to the casual observations of the traveller ; and few lips dare utter it in a state where, VeniceApril.-VOL. LXX. NO. CCLXXX.