Part 4: St. Petersburg; First Journey to Western Europe, Section 5

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Part 4: St. Petersburg; First Journey to Western Europe, Section 5

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

MEMOIRS OF A REVOLUTIONIST

PART FOURTH

ST. PETERSBURG; FIRST JOURNEY TO WESTERN EUROPE

V

    WHEN we were leaving Siberia, we often talked, my brother and I, of the intellectual life which we should find at St. Petersburg, and of the interesting acquaintances we should make in the literary circles. We made such acquaintances, indeed, both among the radicals and among the moderate Slavophiles; but I must confess that they were rather disappointing. We found plenty of excellent men, - Russia is full of excellent men, - but they did not quite correspond to our ideal of political writers. The best writers - Chernyshévsky, Mikháiloff, Lavróff - were in exile, or were kept in the fortress of St. Peter and St. Paul, like Písareff. Others, taking a gloomy view of the situation, had changed their ideas, and were now leaning toward a sort of paternal absolutism; while the greater number, though holding still to their beliefs, had become so cautious in expressing them that their prudence was almost equal to desertion.

     At the height of the reform period nearly every one in the advanced literary circles had had some relations either with Hérzen or with Turguéneff and his friends, or with the Great Russian or the Land and Freedom secret societies which had had at that period an ephemeral existence. Now, these same men were only the more anxious to bury their former sympathies as deep as possible, so as to appear above political suspicion.

    One or two of the liberal reviews which were tolerated at that time, owing chiefly to the superior diplomatic talents of their editors, contained excellent material, showing the ever growing misery and the desperate conditions of the great mass of the peasants, and making clear enough the obstacles that were put in the way of every progressive worker. The amount of such facts was enough to drive one to despair. But no one dared to suggest any remedy, or to hint at any field of action, at any outcome from a position which was represented as hopeless. Some writers still cherished the hope that Alexander II. would once more assume the character of reformer; but with the majority the fear of seeing their reviews suppressed, and both editors and contributors marched "to some more or less remote part of the empire," dominated all other feelings. Fear and hope equally paralyzed them.

    The more radical they had been ten years before, the greater were their fears. My brother and I were very well received in one or two literary circles, and we went occasionally to their friendly gatherings; but the moment the conversation began to lose its frivolous character, or my brother, who had a great talent for raising serious questions, directed it toward home affairs, or toward the state of France, where Napoleon III. was hastening to his fall in 1870, some sort of interruption was sure to occur. "What do you think, gentlemen, of the latest performance of 'La Belle Hélène'?" or "What is your opinion of that cured fish?" was loudly asked by one of the elder guests,- and the conversation was brought to an end.

    Outside the literary circles, things were even worse. In the sixties, Russia, and especially St. Petersburg, was full of men of advanced opinions, who seemed ready at that time to make any sacrifices for their ideas. "What has become of them?" I asked myself. I looked up some of them; but, "Prudence, young man!" was all they had to say. "Iron is stronger than straw," or "One cannot break a stone wall with his forehead," and similar proverbs, unfortunately too numerous in the Russian language, constituted now their code of practical philosophy. "We have done something in our life: ask no more from us;" or "Have patience: this sort of thing will not last," they told us, while we, the youth, were ready to resume the struggle, to act, to risk, to sacrifice everything, if necessary, and only asked them to give us advice, some guidance, and some intellectual support.

    Turguéneff has depicted in "Smoke" some of the ex-reformers from the upper layers of society, and his picture is disheartening. But it is especially in the heart-rending novels and sketches of Madame Kohanóvsky, who wrote under the pseudonym of "V. Krestóvskiy" (she must not be confounded with another novel-writer, Vsévolod Krestóvskiy), that one can follow the many aspects which the degradation of the "liberals of the sixties" took at that time. "The joy of living" - perhaps the joy of having survived - became their goddess, as soon as the nameless crowd which ten years before made the force of the reform movement refused to hear any more of "all that sentimentalism." They hastened to enjoy the riches which poured into the hands of "practical" men.

     Many new ways to fortune had been opened since serfdom had been abolished, and the crowd rushed with eagerness into these channels. Railways were feverishly built in Russia; to the lately opened private banks the landlords went in numbers to mortgage their estates; the newly established private notaries and lawyers at the courts were in possession of large incomes; the shareholders' companies multiplied with an appalling rapidity and the promoters flourished. A class of men who formerly would have lived in the country on the modest income of a small estate cultivated by a hundred serfs, or on the still more modest salary of a functionary in a law court, now made fortunes, or had such yearly incomes as in the times of serfdom were possible only for the land magnates.

    The very tastes of "society" sunk lower and lower. The Italian opera, formerly a forum for radical demonstrations, was now deserted; the Russian opera, timidly asserting the rights of its great composers, was frequented by a few enthusiasts only. Both were found "tedious," and the cream of St. Petersburg society crowded to a vulgar theater where the second-rate stars of the Paris small theaters won easy laurels from their Horse Guard admirers, or went to see "La Belle Hélène," which was played on the Russian stage, while our great dramatists were forgotten. Offenbach's music reigned supreme.


     It must be said that the political atmosphere was such that the best men had reasons, or had at least weighty excuses, for keeping quiet. After Karakózoff had shot at Alexander II. in April, 1866, the state police had become omnipotent. Every one suspected of "radicalism," no matter what he had done or what he had not done, had to live under the fear of being arrested any night, for the sympathy he might have shown to some one involved in this or that political affair, or for an innocent letter intercepted in a midnight search, or simply for his "dangerous" opinions; and arrest for political reasons might mean anything: years of seclusion in the fortress of St. Peter and St. Paul, transportation to Siberia, or even torture in the casemates of the fortress.

     This movement of the circles of Karakózoff remains up to this date very imperfectly known, even in Russia. I was at that time in Siberia, and know of it only by hearsay. It appears, however, that two different currents combined in it. One of them was the beginning of that great movement "toward the people," which later took on such formidable dimensions; while the other current was mainly political. Groups of young men, some of whom were on the road to become brilliant university professors, or men of mark as historians and ethnographers, had come together about 1864, with the intention of carrying to the people education and knowledge in spite of the opposition of the government. They went as mere artisans to great industrial towns, and started there coöperative associations, as well as informal schools, hoping that by the exercise of much tact and patience they might be able to educate the people, and thus to create the first centers from which better and higher conceptions would gradually radiate among the masses. Their zeal was great; considerable fortunes were brought into the service of the cause; and I am inclined to think that, compared with all similar movements which took place later on, this one stood perhaps on the most practical basis. Its initiators certainly were very near to the working-people

     On the other side, with some of the members of these circles - Karakózoff, Ishútin, and their nearest friends - the movement took a political direction. During the years from 1862 to 1866 the policy of Alexander II. had assumed a decidedly reactionary character; he had surrounded himself with men of the most reactionary type, taking them as his nearest advisers; the very reforms which made the glory of the beginning of his reign were now wrecked wholesale by means of by-laws and ministerial circulars; a return to manorial justice and serfdom in a disguised form was openly expected in the old camp; while no one could hope at that time that the main reform - the abolition of serfdom - could withstand the assaults directed against it from the Winter Palace itself. All this must have brought Karakózoff and his friends to the idea that a further continuance of Alexander II.'s reign would be a menace even to the little that had been won; that Russia would have to return to the horrors of Nicholas I., if Alexander continued to rule. Great hopes were felt at the same time - this is "an often repeated story, but always new "- as to the liberal inclinations of the heir to the throne and his uncle Constantine. I must also say that before 1866 such fears and such considerations were not unfrequently expressed in much higher circles than those with which Karakózoff seems to have been in contact. At any rate, Karakózoff shot at Alexander II. one day, as he was coming out of the summer garden to take his carriage. The shot missed, and Karakózoff was arrested on the spot.

    Katkóff, the leader of the Moscow reactionary party, and a great master for extracting pecuniary profits out of every political disturbance, at once accused of complicity with Karakózoff all radicals and liberals, - which was certainly untrue, - arid insinuated in his paper, making all Moscow believe it, that Karakózoff was a mere instrument in the hands of the Grand Duke Constantine, the leader of the reform party in the highest circles. One can imagine to what an extent the two rulers, Shuváloff and Trépoff, exploited these accusations, and the consequent fears of Alexander II.

    Mikhael Muravióff, who had won during the Polish insurrection his nickname "the hangman," received orders to make a most searching inquiry, and to discover by every possible means the plot which was supposed to exist. He made arrests in all classes of society, ordered hundreds of searches, and boasted that he "would find the means to render the prisoners more talkative." He certainly was not the man to recoil even before torture, - and public opinion in St. Petersburg was almost unanimous in saying that Karakózoff was tortured to obtain avowals, but made none.

    State secrets are well kept in fortresses, especially in that huge mass of stone opposite the Winter Palace, which has seen so many horrors, only in recent times disclosed by historians. It still keeps Muravióff's secrets. However, the following may perhaps throw some light on this matter.

    In 1866 I was in Siberia. One of our Siberian officers, who traveled from Russia to Irkútsk toward the end of that year, met at a post station two gendarmes. They had accompanied to Siberia a functionary exiled for theft, and were now returning home. Our Irkútsk officer, who was a very amiable man, finding the gendarmes at the tea table on a cold winter night, joined them and chatted with them, while the horses were being changed. One of the men knew Karakózoff.

    "He was cunning, he was," he said. "When he was in the fortress, we were ordered, two of us, --we were relieved every two hours,-- not to let him sleep. So we kept him sitting on a small stool, and as soon as he began to doze, we shook him to keep him awake.... What will you? -- we were ordered to do so!... Well, see how cunning he was: he would sit with crossed legs, swinging one of his legs to make us believe that he was awake, and himself, in the meantime, would get a nap, continuing to swing his leg. But we soon made it out and told those who relieved us, so that he was shaken and waked up every few minutes, whether he swung his leg or not." "And how long did that last?" my friend asked. "Oh, many days, more than one week."

    The naïve character of this description is in itself a proof of veracity: it could not have been invented; and that Karakózoff was tortured to this degree may be taken for granted.

    When Karakózoff Was hanged, one of my comrades from the corps of pages was present at the execution with his regiment of curassiers. "When he was taken out of the fortress," my comrade told me, "sitting on the high platform of the cart which was jolting on the rough glacis of the fortress, my first impression was that they were bringing out an india-rubber doll to be hanged; that Karakózoff was already dead. Imagine that the head, the hands, the whole body were absolutely loose, as if there were no bones in the body, or as if the bones had all been broken. It was a terrible thing to see, and to think what it meant.

    However, when two soldiers took him down from the cart, I saw that he moved his legs and made strenuous endeavors to walk by himself and to ascend the steps of the scaffold. So it was not a doll, nor could he have been in a swoon. All the officers were very much puzzled at the circumstance and could not explain it." When, however, I suggested to my comrade that perhaps Karakózoff had been tortured, the color came into his face and he replied, "So we all thought."

    Absence of sleep for weeks would alone be sufficient to explain the state in which that morally very strong man was at the time of the execution. I may add that I am absolutely certain that - at least in one case - drugs were administered to a prisoner in the fortress, namely, Adrián Sabúroff, in 1879. Did Muravióff limit the torture to this only? Was he prevented from going any further, or not? I do not know. But this much I know: that I often heard from high officials at St. Petersburg that torture had been resorted to in this case.

    Muravióff had promised to root out all radical elements in St. Petersburg, and all those who had had in any degree a radical past now lived under the fear of falling into the despot's clutches. Above all, they kept aloof from the younger people, from fear of being involved with them in some perilous political associations. In this way a chasm was opened not only between the "fathers" and the "sons," as Turguéneff described it in his novel, - not only between the two generations, but also between all men who had passed the age of thirty and those who were in their early twenties. Russian youth stood consequently in the position not only of having to fight in their fathers the defenders of serfdom, but of being left entirely to themselves by their elder brothers, who were unwilling to join them in their leanings toward Socialism, and were afraid to give them support even in their struggle for more political freedom. Was there ever before in history, I ask myself, a youthful band engaging in a fight against so formidable a foe, so deserted by fathers and even by elder brothers, although those young men had merely taken to heart, and had tried to realize in life, the intellectual inheritance of these same fathers and brothers? Was there ever a struggle undertaken in more tragical conditions than these?

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January 21, 2017 17:25:58 :
Part 4: St. Petersburg; First Journey to Western Europe, Section 5 -- Added to http://www.RevoltLib.com.

September 23, 2017 17:39:29 :
Part 4: St. Petersburg; First Journey to Western Europe, Section 5 -- Last Updated on http://www.RevoltLib.com.

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