Of this hate which Nicholas felt for liberal forms of government there yet remain monuments in the great museum of the Kremlin.
Continuing Russian Serfs Freed,
with a selection from The Development and Overthrow of the Russian Serf System in The Atlantic Monthly Magazine, Volume X by Andrew D. White published in 1862. This selection is presented in 8 installments, each one 5 minutes long. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Previously in Russian Serfs Freed.
For, although the new Czar, Alexander I, was mild and liberal, the storm of French ideas and armies had generally destroyed in monarchs’ minds any poor germs of philanthropy which had ever found lodgement there. Still Alexander breasted this storm; found time to plan for his serfs, and in 1803 put his hand to the work of helping them toward freedom. His first edict was for the creation of the class of “free laborers.” By this, masters and serfs were encouraged to enter into an arrangement which was to put the serf into immediate possession of himself, of a homestead and of a few acres, giving him time to indemnify his master by a series of payments. Alexander threw his heart into this scheme; and in his kindliness he supposed that the pretended willingness of the nobles meant something; but the serf-owning caste, without openly opposing, twisted up bad consequences with good, braided impossibilities into possibilities; the whole plan became a tangle, and was thrown aside.
The Czar now sought to foster other good efforts, especially those made by some earnest nobles to free their serfs by will. But this plan also the serf-owning caste entangled and thwarted. At last the storm of war set in with such fury that all internal reforms must be lost sight of. Russia had to make ready for those campaigns in which Napoleon gained every battle. Then came that peaceful meeting on the raft at Tilsit — worse for Russia than any warlike meeting; for thereby Napoleon seduced Alexander, for years, from plans of bettering his empire into dreams of extending it.
Coming out of these dreams, Alexander had to deal with such realities as the burning of Moscow, the Battle of Leipsic, and the occupation of France; yet, in the midst of those fearful times — when the grapple of the emperors was at the fiercest; in the very year of the burning of Moscow — Alexander rose in calm statesmanship, and admitted Bessarabia into the empire under a proviso which excluded serfage forever. Hardly was the great European tragedy ended, when Alexander again turned sorrowfully toward the wronged millions of his empire. He found that progress in civilization had but made the condition of the serfs worse. The newly ennobled parvenus were worse than the old boyars; they hugged the serf system more lovingly and the serfs more hatefully. The sight of these wrongs roused him. He seized a cross, and swore that the serf system should be abolished.
Straightway a great and good plan was prepared. Its main features were: a period of transition from serfage to personal liberty, extending through twelve or fourteen years; the arrival of the serf at personal freedom, with ownership of his cabin and the bit of land attached to it; the gradual reimbursement of masters by serfs; and after this advance to personal liberty, an advance by easy steps to a sort of political liberty. Favorable as was this plan to the serf-owners, they attacked it in various ways; but they could not kill it utterly. Esthonia, Livonia, and Courland became free. Having failed to arrest the growth of freedom, the serf-holding caste made every effort to blast the good fruits of freedom. In Courland they were thwarted; in Esthonia and Livonia they succeeded during many years; but the eternal laws were too strong for them, and the fruitage of liberty had grown richer and better.
After these good efforts, Alexander stopped, discouraged. A few patriotic nobles stood apart from their caste, and strengthened his hands, as Lafayette and Lincourt strengthened Louis XVI. They even drew up a plan of voluntary emancipation; formed an association for the purpose and gained many signatures; but the great weight of that besotted serf-owning caste was thrown against them, and all came to naught. Alexander was at last walled in from the great object of his ambition. Pretended theologians built, between him and emancipation, walls of Scriptural interpretation; pretended philosophers built walls of false political economy; pretended statesmen built walls of sham common-sense. If the Czar could but have mustered courage to cut the knot! Alas for Russia and for him, he wasted himself in efforts to untie it. His heart sickened at it; he welcomed death, which alone could remove him from it.
Alexander’s successor, Nicholas I, had been known before his accession as a mere martinet, a good colonel for parade days, wonderful in detecting soiled uniforms, terrible in administering petty punishments. It seems like the story of stupid Brutus over again. Altered circumstances made a new man of him; and few things are more strange than the change wrought in his whole bearing and look by that week of energy in climbing his brother’s throne. The great article in Nicholas’s creed was a complete, downright faith in despotism, and in himself as despotism’s apostle. Hence he hated, above all things, a limited monarchy. He told De Custine that a pure monarchy or pure republic he could understand; but that anything between these he could not understand. Of his former rule of Poland, as constitutional monarch, he spoke with loathing.
Of this hate which Nicholas felt for liberal forms of government there yet remain monuments in the great museum of the Kremlin. That museum holds an immense number of interesting things, and masses of jewels and plate which make all other European collections mean. The visitor wanders among clumps of diamonds and sacks of pearls and a nauseating wealth of rubies and sapphires and emeralds. There rise rows upon rows of jewelled cimeters, and vases and salvers of gold, and old saddles studded with diamonds and with stirrups of gold — presents of frightened Asiatic satraps or fawning European allies. There too are the crowns of Muscovy, of Russia, of Kazan, of Astrakhan, of Siberia, of the Crimea, and, pity to say it, of Poland. And next this is an index of despotic hate — for the Polish sceptre is broken and flung aside. Near this stands the full-length portrait of Alexander I, and at his feet are grouped captured flags of Hungary and Poland — some with blood-marks still upon them. But below all, far beneath the feet of the Emperor, in dust and ignominy and on the floor, is flung the very Constitution of Poland — parchment for parchment, ink for ink, good promise for good promise — which Alexander gave with so many smiles, and which Nicholas took away with so much bloodshed.
We want to take this site to the next level but we need money to do that. Please contribute directly by signing up at https://www.patreon.com/history