Part 2: The Corps of Pages, Section 8

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Part 2: The Corps of Pages, Section 8

This text was taken from the 1st edition of Memoirs of a Revolutionist, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York, 1899.


The years 1857-61 were years of rich growth in the intellectual forces of Russia. Al that had been whispered for the last decade, in the secrecy of friendly meetings, by the generation represented in Russian literature by Turguéneff, Tolstóy, Hérzen, Bakúnin, Ogaryóff, 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, feel 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 that time. 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 hapiness, and her mind was the more open to the powerful criticism 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 Hérzen, -- 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 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 could only 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 Hèléne 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 nobility be induced to send a petition to the Czar 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 province, 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 very remarkable. No sooner had the news spread that the liberation long sighed for 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 Czar, 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 among 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, 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 of were printed at London. Hérzen, seconded by Turguéneff, who kept him well informed about all that was going on in government circles, discussed in his "Bell" and his "Polar Star" the details of the various schemes, and Chernyshévsky in the "Contemporary" (Sovreménnik). 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 (Dmítri Nikoláevich Kropótkin, who was aide-de-camp of the Emperor), used to side with Chernyshévsky, the leader of the 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 centered 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 got the upper hand." "They intend to revise the whole work." "The relatives of the Princess X [a friend of the Czar] 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 19 th of February.

The 19 th 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 myu 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 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 19 th of February, and was kept back for a fortnight only becuase the next Sunday, the 26 th, 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. 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 other 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 Issac Cathedral; so we went. There were not many people there; peasants only. The manifesto was read and distributed after the mass. They well understood what it meant. 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 - all 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, Philaréte, 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 19 th of February, 1863. Notwithstanding all this, 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 gotten 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 officers to me!" They gathered round him, and he began, in a loud voice, a speech about the great event of the day.

"The 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 among the officers as he ended.

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, lightfooted, to the sixth-story gallery. The house was crowded.

During the first entr'acte the smoking-room of the opera filled with excited young men, 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 Czar."

However, 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 waved 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 Czar 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 "Muravióoff 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 the 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 were 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 admirable found his way among 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 doing so 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 which was valued much above its market price; they schemed 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 went 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, almost 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 thunderstruck. ' 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 out 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 peasant.

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