Amazing articles on just about every subject...


The Tsar

( Originally Published 1907 )

I WAS sitting in my room one day in March last year when Miss Clementina Black and Madame Stepniak called on me with a young man dressed in the garb of a workman. He was very fair, and his light blue eyes had that look of childlike simplicity and frankness that goes straight to the heart. It was a look that seemed to leave nothing to be told. A decent, sober, industrious young artisan, you would have said, and passed on. But he was indeed the most significant figure I have ever met : when I think of Russia I see it through those mild blue eyes.

He was a Lithuanian workman, Peter Pridrikson his name. He had been a member of a political organisation and had been arrested with others in the midst of the Riga horrors, had been flogged and tortured, and finally sentenced to be shot. He was detained for the night in a village near Riga, in a wooden shanty, for the prisons were so full that accommodation had to be extemporised. In the darkness he was taken outside by the gaolers to the lavatory. The irons were on his leg and the gaolers carried rifles. Escape seemed impossible. But tomorrow he was to die. When to-morrow means death, men do not shrink from the risk of a rifle shot. The drowning man snatched at the last straw of life. In the lavatory he managed with a stone to loosen the nut of one of the irons. Then, bursting through the door, he made one wild rush for liberty. The gaolers fired, but the night was dark and they missed their aim. And the time they gave to firing should have been given to pursuit, for the forest was close at hand. Perhaps, too, they had mercy ; felt, like Hubert, some touch of pity for those trustful, appealing eyes. However that may be, the youth, dragging his irons with him, reached the cover of the woods and safety. He freed himself from the irons, wandered for two days and nights in the forest, then, hidden in a hay cart by a friendly driver, reached the home of a friend, where he remained in hiding for three weeks before escaping across the frontier, and here he was in Bouverie Street telling his thrilling story quietly and simply through the mouth of Madame Stepniak.

His back still bore the cruel marks of the lash, and he unlaced his boots and showed me his toe-nails broken in the torture. What was he going to do? He was going to Switzerland to join other refugees for a short time.

" And then?

" Then I am going back."

" Back? But you are sentenced to death." " I must take my chance."

He spoke with the calmness of that fatalism that is so deeply rooted in the Russian character. I have never seen him since; but three months ago I received a letter from Madame Stepniak. " You remember," she said, " the young Lithuanian I brought to see you some time ago. I have just heard of his death. He returned to Russia, was recaptured, and shot."

Multiply that pathetic figure by thousands and tens of thousands, see in it the symbol of a system controlling a hundred and twenty million lives, and you have the Russia of the Tsar. What of the Tsar?

Mr. Heath, the English tutor of the Tsar, relates that one day he and his pupil were reading together The Lady of the Lake. They came to that spirited description of the scene in Stirling when the castle gates were flung wide open and King James rode out amid the shouts of the populace, Long live the Commons' King, King James!" " The Commons' King," exclaimed the boy, with sparkling eyes, " that is what I should like to be." The emotion was sincere. For Nicholas II. is one of those unhappy figures in whom emotion is divorced from conduct, an idealist faithless to his ideals, a visionary doomed to violate his visions. He has a feminine shrinking from war and plunges his country into the bloodiest war in history. He looks towards England and yearns for its free air and its free institutions, its Commons' King and its happy people, and every day throughout his wide realm the hangman's noose is round the politician's neck and the gaoler's key is turned upon the cry of liberty.

What is the mystery behind this perplexing personality that seems at once so humane and so merciless, that expresses itself now in a Peace Rescript, now in approval of the infamous doings of the Black Hundreds, that is compact of the shyness of a girl and the intense fanatical spirit of Philip II., that would be " a Commons' King " and yet a despot ? There is no need to question the sincerity of his moods on the ground that they are mutually destructive. Even the best of men are conscious of that duality which Leighton referred to in one of his letters to his sister, in which he said, " for, together with, and, as it were, behind, so much pleasurable emotion, there is always that other strange second man in me, calm, observant, critical, unmoved, blasť, odious." There is that other self, too, in the Tsar, fanatical, terrible and, alas, triumphant. Perhaps the wonder is that, with such an ancestry and such a tutelage, there should be any generous human emotion at all. For the history of his house is like a nightmare of blood. His father was as superstitious as a medieval warrior. He would cross himself and even fall on his knees in prayer if a cloud obscured the sun while he was looking through the window, and he died in the arms of that miracle-monger, Father John of Cronstadt. His grandfather was assassinated in the public street; his great-grandfather is supposed to have committed suicide under the pressure of the disasters in the Crimea; the Emperor Paul was murdered in i8of; and the vices of Paul's mother, Catherine II., place her among the greatest criminals in Royal history. Her husband was " removed." Ivan VI. was buried in a dungeon for twenty-four years and then murdered. But why pursue the story? It is stained with blood right back to that pagan author of the Romanoffs, the chieftain Kobyla, who was driven from Lithuania into Russia in the fourteenth century for refusing to adopt Christianity. The contemplation of such a family history would shadow any life. It ought also to have taught the lesson of the futility of despotism.

It did, in fact, teach it, as we see in that emotion of the boy stirred by the cry of the " Commons' King." But it was the emotion of a mind ungoverned by character and subject to fanatical obsession. Had his impressionable temperament been moulded by generous influences the course of Russian history would have been happier; but he fell at the beginning under the medieval spirit of Pobiedonostseff, the Procurator of the Holy Synod, the Torquemada of modern times, who instilled into him his doctrines of Oriental despotism, chilled by the frost of his bloodless philosophy. Under the baleful guidance of Pobiedonostseff and Prince Meshkershtsky, he became imbued, as the writer of an article in the Quarterly Review pointed out long before his character was realised, with the conviction that he was God's lieutenant, the earthly counterpart of his Divine Master. That obsession, working on a mind naturally occult and timorous, has driven, as it were, the disease of despotism inward, withering the feeble intimations of a more humane emotion, isolating him from his people, and converting every expression of popular thought into revolt against the divine will embodied in his own person.

This perverted intensity is the natural product of a superstitious mind in a febrile body. For he has none of the animalism and physical ebullience of his race. His tastes are domestic and simple. He is devoted to his wife and his children, the last refuge of his solitary life, and loves to sit and read to the Empress from the English authors while she is engaged in her embroidery in the evening. He has a passion for cycling; but for sport he has neither the taste nor the nerve. In the language of the old keeper who was in attendance on him when he was the guest of Lord Lonsdale in Westmorland, the Tsar " did not know enough to hold a gun straight nor to hit a bird." His lack of physical daring was exhibited in the attack made on him by an assassin when, as the Tsarevitch, he was touring in japan with the Crown Prince of Greece. The latter wrote to his father a letter describing the incident, and in it used the phrase, " Then Nickie ran." By some indiscretion that phrase leaked out, and all Russian society went about shrugging its shoulders and murmuring, " Then Nickie ran."

Perhaps it was this timidity that was the cause of the most fatal act in his career. No monarch in history was ever faced with a more splendid occasion than that which offered itself to Nicholas on the 22nd of January 1905. The war was ending in disaster, the country was in revolt against its own misery and wrong and against the corruption and incompetence of the bureaucracy. But it still had a remnant of faith in the Little Father. It would go to him at his Palace with a petition to him to make its cause his own against the tyranny that oppressed it. The people gathered in tens of thousands before the Palace. It was the moment for a hero. It was the moment to win the love of a people or to lose it for ever. And Nicholas was not there! He had fled overnight to Tsarskoe Selo, and left the Duke Vladimir with his Cossacks to greet his subjects with sword and musket. The streets ran with blood. More people fell that day than in any battle of the Boer War. And Nicholas fell for ever with them.

The lack of physical courage is companioned by the infirmity of will, illustrated by the story of a conversation between the Tsar and the Empress which delighted Russia last year, and which ran as follows :

The Empress: My dear Nicholas, you must not always agree with everybody. Now, this morning M. Stolypin made a report, and after he had finished you said, " M. Stolypin, you are quite right. I quite agree with you." Five minutes later Durnovo came. What he told you was absolutely opposed to what Stolypin had said, but again you remarked, " My dear Durnovo, you are quite right. I quite agree with you." Finally, M. Schwanenbach came and told you something different from what the other two gentlemen had said, and again you replied, " M. Schwanenbach, you are quite right. 1 quite agree with you."

The Tsar (after a moment's reflection) : My dear Alexandra, you are quite right. I quite agree with you.

This infirmity of purpose gives that sense of con-fusion that pervades all his actions. He yields and withdraws, creates a Constitution and destroys it, sets up a Duma and throws it down, yearns for universal peace and blunders into war. He is always under hypnotic suggestion, now faltering between the rival feminine influences of his Court, now subject to the cold, inhuman philosophy of a Meshkershtsky, now dominated by the mystical charlatanry of M. Philippe, with his miracles and spirit messages.

For superstition is the essential atmosphere of his mind, and he dwells in the realm of wonder-working relics. One of the saints, Seraphim of Saroff, he ordered to be canonised, in spite of the disconcerting fact that though he had been buried only seventy years the saint's body was decomposed. The Orthodox Bishop Dmitry of Tamboff protested on this ground against the beatification as contrary to Church traditions; but he was deprived of his see and sent to Vyatka for venturing to disagree with the Tsar. For his Majesty holds that the preservation of the bones, the hair, and the teeth is a sufficient qualification for saintship.

With these views it follows that his devotion to the Orthodox faith is as intense as it is narrow. It has resulted not only in the merciless suppression of the Armenian Church and of the Dissenters, but even in the harrying of the Old Believers, who are an important branch of the State Church, and the bodies of whose saints have been disinterred and burned. The cruellest episode of the persecution of the Old Believers was that of Bishop Methodius, who administered the sacraments to a man who, born in the State Church, had joined the Old Believers. Methodius, a man of seventy-eight, was arrested for his " crime," and condemned to banishment to Siberia, whither, with irons on his feet, and penned up with criminals, he was dispatched. At Yakutsk he remained some time, but a dignitary of the State Church intervened and he was ordered to be sent on to Vilyuisk, in North-Eastern Siberia, a place inhabited by savages.

The aged Bishop was set astride a horse to which he was tied, and told that he must ride thus to his new place of exile, about 700 miles distant. " This sentence is death by torture," said Methodius' flock. They were not mistaken. The old man gave up the ghost on the road (1898), but when, where, and how he was buried has never been made known. This and other persecutions, says the writer of the Quarterly Review article to which I have referred, " were brought to the notice of his Majesty without eliciting even an expression of regret."

It is the tragedy of the infirm will, always to become the prey of the most virile influences. It treads the path of least resistance. And in turn the fanatical obsession inculcated by those influences sanctifies every action with the divine imprimatur. From this vicious sequence we have the phenomenon of merciless oppression emerging from a personally shy and timid source. In the field of such a mind the victory is always to the most intense and ruthless and subtle. Weakness takes refuge in strength and timidity in terrorism. The boyish emotion that cried out, " A Commons' King: that is what I should like to be," ends in a political gospel founded on the maxim of de Plehve " Severity, served up cold, is the only way with Empire wreckers." Everywhere the Autocracy takes on the aspect of vengeance and repression. " The massacre of Jews, the banishment of Finns, the spoliation of Armenians, the persecution of Poles, the exile of Russian nobles, the flogging of peasants, the imprisonment and butchery of Russian working men, the establishment of a widespread system of espionage, and the abolition of law are all measures which the Minister suggests and the Tsar heartily sanctions." That was written before the mockery of a Constitution was granted; but the spirit of the Government is the same today. The de Plehves and the Bobrikoffs have gone to their doom, but their successors are like unto them. The hand that conferred a star upon Prince Obolensky for his energy in flogging the peasants of the Government of Kharkoff until many of them died is the same hand that decorates the Tsarevitch with the badge of the Black Hundreds, that terrible instrument of venge-ance, formed almost at the moment that the Constitution was granted, and already drenched in a sea of innocent blood.

Nor is it only the fierce, barbaric spirits to which he is subject. He has the credulity that makes him the easy instrument of the impostor and the visionary, whether of the spiritualistic type of Philippe or of the type of the eccentric adventurer Bezobrazoff, whose vast speculative scheme for developing the Yalu forests fascinated first the Grand Dukes, eager for plunder, and then the Tsar, who became an investor, gave him plenipotentiary powers, subordinated Kuropatkin and Lamsdorff to him, allowed him to make the incompetent Alexeieff Viceroy of Manchuria, and so drifted into the catastrophe of the war.

He will live as the man who made the great refusal of history. He might have been the founder of a new and happier Russia the Commons' King of his youthful vision. He has chosen to be an Autocrat and a prisoner in his forty palaces. In ten years his rule has exiled 78,000 of his subjects and driven all the best of the nation's sons that have escaped Siberia to take refuge in other lands. But he himself is the saddest exile of all, for he is exiled from the domain of our common humanity a prisoner in body and in spirit, hedged round by his guards, suspecting the cup that he drinks, forbidden to dine anywhere save in his own palace, receiving his guests at sea, for he dare not receive them ashore, a hapless, pitiful figure that sits

perked up on a glist'ring grief
And wears a golden sorrow.

Which would one rather be the prisoner of the palace, or that young Lithuanian carpenter with the blue appealing eyes and the toe-nails broken in the torture, who gave his blood in the sacred cause of human liberty?

Home | More Articles | Email: info@oldandsold.com