Part 6: Western Europe, Section 8

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Part 6: Western Europe, Section 8

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

Part Six


     IN Russia the struggle for freedom was taking on a and more acute character. Several political trials had been brought before high courts, -- the trial of "the hundred and ninety-three," of "the fifty," of "the Dolgúshin circle," and so on, -- and in all of them the same thing was apparent. The youth had gone to the peasants and the factory workers, preaching socialism to them; socialist pamphlets, printed abroad, had been distributed; appeals had been made to revolt -- in some vague, indeterminate way -- against the oppressive economical conditions. In short, nothing was done that does not occur in socialist agitations in every other country of the world. No traces of conspiracy against the Czar, or even of preparations for revolutionary action, were found; in fact, there were none. The great majority of our youth were at that time hostile to such action. Nay, looking now over that movement of the years 1870-78, I can say in full confidence that most of them would have felt satisfied if they bad been simply allowed to live by the side of the peasants and the workers, to teach them, to collaborate in any of the thousand capacities -- private or as a part of the local self-government -- in which an educated and earnest man or woman can be useful to the masses of the people. I knew the men, and say so with full knowledge of them.

     Yet the sentences were ferocious, -- stupidly ferocious,-- because the movement, which bad grown out of the previous state of Russia, was too deeply rooted to be crushed down by mere brutality. Hard labor for six, ten, twelve years in the mines, with subsequent exile to Siberia for life, was a common sentence. There were such cases as that of a girl who got nine years' hard labor and life exile to Siberia, for giving one socialist pamphlet to a worker; that was all her crime. Another girl of fourteen, Miss Guk&óvskaya, was transported for life to a remote village of Siberia, for having tried, like Goethe's Klürchen, to excite an indifferent crowd to deliver Koválsky and his friends when they were going to be hanged, -- an act the more natural in Russia, even from the authorities' standpoint, as there is no capital punishment in our country for common-law crimes, and the application of the death penalty to "politicals" was then a novelty, a return to almost forgotten traditions. Thrown into the wilderness, this young girl soon drowned herself in the Yeniséi. Even those who were acquitted by the courts were banished by the gendarmes to little hamlets in Siberia and Northeast Russia, where they had to starve on the government's monthly allowance, one dollar and fifty cents (three rubles). There are no industries in such hamlets, and the exiles were strictly prohibited from teaching.

     As if to exasperate the youth still more, their condemned friends were not sent direct to Siberia. They were locked up, first, for a number of years, in central prisons, which made them envy the convict's life in Siberia. These prisons were awful indeed. In one of them -- "a den of typhoid fever," as a priest of that particular jail said in a sermon-- the mortality reached twenty per cent in twelve months. In the central prisons, in the hard-labor prisons of Siberia, in the fortress, the prisoners had to resort to the strike of death, the famine strike, to protect themselves from the brutality of the warders, or to obtain conditions -- some sort of work, or reading, in their cells -- that would save them from being driven into insanity in a few months. The horror of such strikes, during which men and women refused to take any food for seven or eight days in succession, and then lay motionless, their minds wandering, seemed not to appeal to the gendarmes. At Khárkoff, the prostrated prisoners were tied up with ropes and fed by force, artificially.

     Information of these horrors leaked out from the prisons, crossed the boundless distances of Siberia, and spread far and wide among the youth. There was a time when not a week passed without disclosing some new infamy of that sort, or even worse.

     Sheer exasperation took hold of our young people. "In other countries," they began to say, "men have the courage to resist. An Englishman, a Frenchman, would not tolerate such outrages. How can we tolerate them? Let us resist, arms in hands, the nocturnal raids of the gendarmes; let them know, at least, that since arrest means a slow and infamous death at their hands, they will have to take us in a mortal struggle." At Odessa, Koválsky and his friends met with revolver shots the gendarmes who came one night to arrest them.

     The reply of Alexander II. to this new move was the proclamation of a state of siege. Russia was divided into a number of districts, each of them under a governor-general, who received the order to hang offenders pitilessly. Koválsky and his friends -- who, by the way, had killed no one by their shots -- were executed. Hanging became the order of the day. Twenty-three persons perished in two years, including a boy of nineteen, who was caught posting a revolutionary proclamation at a railway station; this act I say it deliberately -- was the only charge against him. He was a boy, but he died like a man.

     Then the watchword of the revolutionists became "self-defense:" self-defense against the spies who introduced themselves into the circles under the mask of friendship, and denounced members right and left, simply because they would not be paid if they did not accuse large numbers of persons; self-defense against those who ill-treated prisoners; self-defense against the omnipotent chiefs of the state police.

     Three functionaries of mark and two or three small spies fell in that new phase of the struggle. General Mézentsoff, who had induced the Czar to double the sentences after the trial of the hundred and ninety-three, was killed in broad daylight at St. Petersburg; a gendarme colonel, guilty of something worse than that, had the same fate at Kíeff ; and the governor-general of Khárkoff -- my cousin, Dmítri Krop&ótkin -- was shot as he was returning home from a theater. The central prison, in which the first famine strike and artificial feeding took place, was under his orders. In reality he was not a bad man, -- I know that his personal feelings were somewhat favorable to the political prisoners; but he was a weak man and a courtier, and he hesitated to interfere. One word from him would have stopped the ill-treatment of the prisoners. Alexander II. liked him so much, and his position at the court was so strong, that his interference very probably would have been approved. "Thank you; you have acted according to my own wishes," the Czar said to him, a couple of years before that date, when be came to St. Petersburg to report that he had taken a peaceful attitude in a riot of the poorer population of Khárkoff, and had treated the rioters very leniently. But this time he gave his approval to the jailers, and the young men of Khárkoff were so exasperated at the treatment of their friends that one of them shot him.

     However, the personality of the Emperor was kept out of the struggle, and down to the year 1879 no attempt was made on his life. The person of the Liberator of the serfs was surrounded by an aureole which protected him infinitely better than the swarms of police officials. If Alexander II. had shown at this juncture the least desire to improve the state of affairs in Russia if he had only called in one or two of those men with whom he had collaborated during the reform period, and had ordered them to make an inquiry into the conditions of the country, or merely of the peasantry; if he had shown any intention of limiting the powers of the secret police, his steps would have been hailed with enthusiasm. A word would have made him "the Liberator" again, and once more the youth would have repeated Hérzen's words: "Thou hast conquered, Galilean." But just as during the Polish insurrection the despot awoke in him, and, inspired by Katk&óff, he resorted to hanging, so now again, following the advice of his evil genius, Katk&óff, he found nothing to do but to nominate special military governors --for hanging.

     Then, and then only, a handful of revolutionists, --the Executive Committee,-- supported, I must say, by the growing discontent in the educated classes, and even in the Czar's immediate surroundings, declared that war against absolutism which, after several attempts, ended in 1881 in the death of Alexander II.

     Two men, I have said already, lived in Alexander II., and now the conflict between the two, which had grown during all his life, assumed a really tragic aspect. When he met Solovi&óff, who shot at him and missed the first shot, he had the presence of mind to run to the nearest door, not in a straight line, but in zigzags, while Solovi&óff continued to fire; and be thus escaped with but a slight tearing of his overcoat. On the day of his death, too, he gave a proof of his undoubted courage. In the face of real danger he was courageous; but he continually trembled before the phantasms of his own imagination. Once he shot at an aide-de-camp, when the latter had made an abrupt movement, and Alexander thought he was going to attempt his life. Merely to save his life, he surrendered entirely all his imperial powers into the hands of those who cared nothing for him, but only for their lucrative positions.

     He undoubtedly retained an attachment to the mother of his children, even though he was then with the Princess Yurievski-Dolgorúki, whom he married immediately after the death of the Empress. "Don't speak to me of the Empress; it makes me suffer too much," he more than once said to L&óris Mélikoff. And yet he entirely abandoned the Empress Marie, who had stood faithfully by his side while he was the Liberator; he let her die in the palace in neglect. A well-known Russian doctor, now dead, told his friends that he, a stranger, felt shocked at the neglect with which the Empress was treated during her last illness, -- deserted, of course, by the ladies of the court, having by her side but two ladies, deeply devoted to her, and receiving every day but a short official visit from her husband, who stayed in another palace in the meantime.

     When the Executive Committee made the daring attempt to blow up the Winter Palace itself, Alexander II. took a step which had no precedent. He created a sort of dictatorship, vesting unlimited powers in L&óris Mélikoff. This general was an Armenian, to whom Alexander II. had once before given similar dictatorial powers, when the bubonic plague broke out on the Lower Volga, and Germany threatened to mobilize her troops and put Russia under quarantine if the plague were not stopped. Now that Alexander II. saw that he could not have confidence in the vigilance of even the palace police, he gave dictatorial powers to L&óris Mélikoff, and as Mélikoff had the reputation of being a Liberal, this new move was interpreted as indicating that the convocation of a National Assembly would soon follow. As, however, no new attempts upon his life were made immediately after that explosion, the Czar regained confidence, and a few months later, before Mélikoff had been allowed to do anything, he was dictator no longer, but simply minister of the interior. The sudden attacks of sadness of which I have already spoken, during which Alexander II. reproached himself with the reactionary character that his reign had assumed, now took the shape of violent paroxysms of tears. He would sit weeping by the hour, bringing Mélikoff to despair. Then he would ask his minister, "When will your constitutional scheme be ready?" If, two days later, Mélikoff said that it was now ready, the Emperor seemed to have forgotten all about it. "Did I mention it?" he would ask. "What for? We had better leave it to my successor. That will be his gift to Russia."

     When rumors of a new plot reached him, he was ready to undertake something; but when everything seemed to be quiet among the revolutionists, he turned his ear again to his reactionary advisers, and let things go. Every moment Mélikoff expected dismissal.

     In February, 1881, Mélikoff reported that a new plot bad been laid by the Executive Committee, but its plan could not be discovered by any amount of searching. Thereupon Alexander II. decided that a sort of deliberative assembly of delegates from the provinces should be called. Always under the idea that be would share the fate of Louis XVI., he described this gathering as an Assemblée des Notables, like the one convoked by Louis XVI. before the National Assembly in 1789. The scheme had to be laid before the council of state, but then again he hesitated. It was only on the morning of March 1 (13), 1881, after a final warning by L&óris Mélikoff, that he ordered it to be brought before the council on the following Thursday. This was on Sunday, and he was asked by Mélikoff not to go out to the parade that day, there being danger of an attempt on his life. Nevertheless, he went. He wanted to see the Grand Duchess Catherine (daughter of his aunt, Hélène Pávlovna, who had been one of the leaders of the emancipation party in 1861), and to carry her the welcome news, perhaps as an expiatory offering to the memory of the Empress Marie. He is said to have told her, "Je me suis décidé à convoquer une Assemblée des Notables." However, this belated and half-hearted concession had not been announced, and on his way back to the Winter Palace he was killed.

     It is known how it happened. A bomb was thrown under his iron-clad carriage, to stop it. Several Circassians of the escort were wounded. Rysak&óff, who flung the bomb was arrested on the spot. Then, although the coachman of the Czar earnestly advised him not to get out, saying that he could drive him still in the slightly damaged carriage, he insisted upon alighting. He felt that his military dignity required him to see the wounded Circassians, to condole with them as he had done with the wounded during the Turkish war, when a mad storming of Plevna, doomed to end in a terrible disaster, was made on the day of his fête. He approached Rysakóff and asked him something; and as he passed close by another young man, Grinevétsky, the latter threw a bomb between himself and Alexander II., so that both of them should be killed. They both lived but a few hours.

     There Alexander II. lay upon the snow, profusely bleeding, abandoned by every one of his followers! All had disappeared. It was cadets, returning from the parade, who lifted the suffering Czar from the snow and put him in a sledge, covering his shivering body with a cadet mantle and his bare head with a cadet cap. And it was one of the terrorists, Emeliánoff, with a bomb wrapped in a paper under his arm, who, at the risk of being arrested on the spot and hanged, rushed with the cadets to the help of the wounded man. Human nature is full of these contrasts.

     Thus ended the tragedy of Alexander II.'s life. People could not understand how it was possible that a Czar who bad done so much for Russia should have met his death at the hands of revolutionists. To me, who had the chance of witnessing the first reactionary steps of Alexander II. and his gradual deterioration, who had caught a glimpse of his complex personality, -- that of a born autocrat, whose violence was but partially mitigated by education, of a man possessed of military gallantry, but devoid of the courage of the statesman, of a man of strong passions and weak will, -- it seemed that the tragedy developed with the unavoidable fatality of one of Shakespeare's dramas. Its last act was already written for me on the day when I heard him address us, the promoted officers, on June 13, 1862, immediately after he had ordered the first executions in Poland.

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January 21, 2017 17:38:59 :
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