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Russia page 2

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Under the rule of his successor the despotic system of Nicholas was to an important extent departed from. The newspaper press experienced sudden enlargement. So urgent was the demand for political discussion, that within a year or two from the close of the war seventy new journals were founded in St. Petersburg and Moscow alone. The government censors discharged their functions with the mildness which the liberal impulses of the time demanded. For a brief space the press enjoyed a virtual freedom from restraint, and availed itself boldly of the unprecedented opportunity. Western Europe had been shut out by the Emperor Nicholas. Its liberal ideas, the history of its recent political revolutions, its marvellous progress in science and the arts - all were unknown to the Russian people. Educated Russians were eager to acquaint themselves with this long-forbidden knowledge, and a crowd of journalists, burning with a love of liberal ideas, hastened to gratify the desire. An enfranchised press began to call loudly for the education of the people, for their participation in political power; for many other needful reforms. Chief among these, not merely in its urgency, but also in its popularity, was the emancipation of the serfs.

"Forty-eight million Russian peasants were in bondage - subject to the arbitrary will of an owner-bought and sold with the properties on which they laboured. This unhappy system was of no great antiquity, for it was not till the close of the sixteenth century that the Russian peasant became a serf (The Russian word which we translate serf carries merely the idea of being fixed to one locality. Their Tartar instinct impelled the peasants to roam about, to the ruinous neglect of agriculture. They were made serfs with no worse purpose than that of restraining this wasteful indulgence, and obliging them to stay at home and till their fields. Even now the emancipated peasant may not go from home without permission of the elder - the chief whom the villagers elect). The evil institution had begun to die out in the west before it was legalized in Russia. Its abolition had long been looked forward to. Catherine II. had contemplated this great reform, and so also had her grandson. Alexander I.; but the wars in which they spent their days forbade progress in any useful direction. Nicholas very early in his reign appointed a secret committee to consider the question; but the Polish insurrection of 1830 marred his design. Another fruitless effort was made in 1836. In 1838 a third committee was appointed, but its work was suspended by "a bad harvest," and never resumed. Finally, it was asserted that the dying emperor bequeathed to his son the task which he himself had not been permitted to accomplish.

And thus it came to pass that when Alexander ascended the throne the general expectation of his people pointed to the emancipation of the serfs. The emperor shared in the national desire. At his coronation he prepared the somewhat reluctant nobles for the change which to many of them was so unwelcome. A little later he nominated a committee chosen from the proprietors, whose duty it was to frame, in accordance with certain principles laid down for their guidance, the details of this great revolution. Three years followed of discussion, adjustment, revision, and then the decree was published which conferred freedom upon nearly fifty million Russian peasants (This decree applied only to the twenty-two million common serfs. The twenty-six million crown and appanage serfs were emancipated by a separate act).

The position of the Russian serf, although it had much to degrade, was without the repulsive features of ordinary slavery. The estate of the Russian land-owner was divided into two portions. The smaller of the two - usually not more than one-third - was retained for the use of the proprietor. The larger was made over to the village community, by whom it was cultivated, and to whom its fruits belonged. The members of that community were all serfs, owned by the great lord and subject to his will. He could punish them by stripes when they displeased him; when he sold his lands he sold also the population. He could make or enforce such claims upon their labour as seemed good to him. Custom, however, had imposed reasonable limitations on such claims. He selected a portion of his serfs to cultivate his fields and form his retinue. The remainder divided their time equally between his fields and their own: three days in each week belonged to their master, and three days belonged to themselves. Many of them purchased for a moderate payment the privilege of entire exemption from the work of their owner. It was customary for these enterprising bondmen to settle in the nearest city, where occasionally they attained to wealth and consideration. Instances have occurred of wealthy bankers and merchants who still remained the property of a master, to whom a humiliating recognition of their servile estate was periodically offered.

The lands which were in possession of the villagers were divided by lot among the separate families. As the number of claimants fluctuated, a fresh division was made every ninth year. A villager never lost his right to participate in the common inheritance. He might be absent for years, seeking his fortune in the city, but when it pleased him to return and claim his interest in the lands of his native village, the claim could not be resisted.

The law of emancipation bestowed personal freedom on the serfs For two years those who were household servants must abide in their service; receiving, however, wages for their work.

Those who had purchased exemption from the obligation to labour for their lord were to continue for two years the annual payment. At the end of that time all serfs entered on possession of unqualified freedom.

The villagers continued in occupation of the lands which they had heretofore possessed; but they became bound to pay a purchase-price or a sufficient equivalent in rent or in labour. The continued occupation was not voluntary, but compulsory; and no peasant may withdraw without consent of the whole community, which, in the northern parts of the empire, is gained only by purchase. The lands thus acquired are not owned by individuals, but by the community. All obligations to the former proprietor or to the state are obligations of the associated villagers. The land-system of the greater portion of Russia is thus a system of communism. The industrious-villager is the coobligant of the idle and vicious. The motive which impels a man to the careful cultivation of his land is weakened by the knowledge that in a short time he will have to change fields with his neighbour. The peasant is assured of a maintenance which no misconduct on his part can. alienate, but he is left almost without hope of rising to a better position. The portion of land assigned to him furnishes only partial employment. Recent changes in the excise laws bring stimulants within easy reach of all. Promoted by idleness, ignorance, and abundant opportunity, drunkenness has fearfully increased since the abolition of serfdom (Nearly one-half of the national revenue is obtained from duties on liquor, and the government will not suffer this important source of income to be trifled with. The consumption of vodki, the great intoxicant of the peasant, is deliberately promoted by officials, civil and ecclesiastical. Any attempt to propagate temperance opinions is Sternly repressed.). The indolent peasant works reluctantly for hire to his' former lord. Notwithstanding an abundance of labourers, there is a serious insufficiency in the supply of labour. It is believed that over much of the country the productions of agriculture are diminishing.

In 1862 Russia completed a thousand years of national existence, and the anniversary, occurring as it did while the liberal tendencies and hopes of the educated classes were in the full vigour of youth, was joyfully held to mark the opening of a new era. Some demanded complete religious liberty; others persuaded themselves that the emperor was about to bestow upon his people the boon of a free press. Others yet more ambitious expected that the second millennium of Russian life would be inaugurated by the establishment of constitutional government in a broadly democratic form. In lands where men are free political hopes compel their own fulfilment. In Russia it is not so. The widespread desire of the people was calmly disregarded by the little group of men whose prerogative it was to give or to withhold.

But Alexander's love of reform, although narrow, was sincere, and he honoured the great anniversary by enacting certain measures which soothed the disappointed feelings of his subjects.

Hitherto the administration of justice had been incredibly corrupt. All judicial proceedings were secret. Government officers could at pleasure arrest or modify the course of justice. A favourable judgment could almost always be obtained by purchase. Appeals were so numerous, that a wealthy litigant could avert almost indefinitely a judgment which was unacceptable to him. The judges were ignorant; the forms and precedents by which they ought to be guided were cumbrous and inaccessible. The people had, with reason, utterly lost confidence in the courts of justice.

Suddenly the emperor applied a remedy to these disorders. In future competent judges were to be appointed by the state: all judicial transactions were to be public; government interposition was excluded; trial by jury in criminal cases was established, and a wholesome limit to the right of appeal was imposed. These reforms have proved to be of the highest value; and the newly appointed tribunals soon began to gain the confidence of the people.

Hitherto there had been no shadow of self-government even in municipal or provincial affairs. All depended on the arbitrary pleasure of the sovereign and his ministers. Outside the circle of individual interests there was no will but that of the executive. The peasant ploughed his field, the merchant directed his commercial affairs; but all beyond, whether local or imperial, was under the irresponsible control of the government.

This unhappy condition of public affairs was now to experience a certain measure of amelioration. A system of district and provincial assemblies was organized. The district assembly was chosen by all classes of the community - proprietors, citizens, and peasants. These assemblies elected certain of their own members to form the provincial assemblies. The interests confided to the new organizations were wholly local. They were empowered to maintain highways, to make arrangements for the welfare of local trade and industry, to levy those taxes which government had imposed. With politics they might not intermeddle, and the government watched jealously any disposition to stray into this forbidden field. The ignorant peasant class preponderates in these assemblies, and their action thus far has not been attended with any notable advantage to the community. The Russian peasant manifests little desire for the possession of self-government and no aptitude for its exercise. His performance of public duty does not therefore tend to educate and elevate his character. He seems to be contented with autocratic rule rather than those popular institutions which are the glory of the enlightened western nations.

Nor were these the only reforms which Alexander bestowed upon his people. Flogging in the army was discontinued. Some measure of toleration was extended to the strange and fanatical sects who by their irrepressible dissent had long troubled the orthodox church. Considerable pains have been taken to improve the church herself, and raise the standard of intelligence in the priesthood. An amnesty permitted the return of many of those who had suffered banishment under the savage rule of Nicholas. The construction of railways was promoted. The cost of a passport - heretofore eighty pounds - was reduced to a trifle which no longer restrained persons of moderate income from travelling. A milder and more liberal spirit pervaded all departments of administration.

The progress of Russian reform was, however, seriously interrupted by the Polish revolt of 1863. The liberal party befriended the discontented Poles, but a powerful sentiment sprang up in favour of maintaining unimpaired the national unity and dignity. Under its influence the Poles were ruthlessly suppressed, and liberalism was discredited. Since that time the short-lived ardour of the Russian government and people in the cause of reform has not regained its former power.

The Russian peasantry remain almost without education. In most country districts not more than one in fifty of the population attends school (Finland which has an educational system peculiar to itself, is greatly in advance of the rest of the empire. Nearly the whole population of Finland can read Recently certain advantages have been offered to those soldiers who learn to read and write. A marked success has attended this scheme, and an increasing proportion of Russian soldiers are now able to read). Until recently only eleven in every hundred soldiers could read. Even in towns the artisan who can read and write is exceptionally cultivated. Only the children of the rich receive education. In the early part of Alexander's reign it was usual for the newspapers to deplore the uneducated condition of the poor. The liberal tendencies of that time expressed themselves by a spasmodic attempt to establish voluntary schools in the large towns. Some progress had been made in this work, when the schools fell under suspicion of government as diffusing revolutionary influences. They were first discouraged, and then destroyed. The church is the only channel by which any measure of education can reach the people. Government, recognizing this truth, bestows considerable care upon the education of the priests. But the system followed is miserably unenlightened. That the young priest may not be tempted to interfere in politics, he is not allowed to see any newspaper; he is debarred from all secular literature, and his instruction is confined to the theology which has been handed down by the Greek Church of the Middle Ages (In the Russian Church the marriage of priests is compulsory. The sacred office may not be filled by an unmarried man or by a widower. Nor is the bereaved priest allowed to marry again; he quits his charge and retires into a convent).

It does not appear that agencies are at work which tend in any important measure to the elevation of the Russian peasant. The church does little for him; indeed, it may very well happen that his clergyman is scarcely less ignorant and drunken than he himself is. Of the schoolmaster he knows nothing. The village in which he lives is a collection of miserable wooden huts, ordinarily of a single apartment, in which the whole family sleep on the bare floor. In a large portion of the empire his food and climate impose upon him an imperfect physical and mental development. He can no longer be beaten or sold by a master, but his fellow-villagers may assemble in public meeting and decree that he shall be flogged - a sentence from which there is no appeal. His attitude to the great lord of his district is still utterly slavish. He can be moulded into a soldier of exceptional excellence. He endures without complaint extreme privation and fatigue, and in the ranks he encounters danger without shrinking; but he is without natural daring, and when alone is a prey to childish terrors.

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