Fearless as he was before bright bayonets, he was an utter coward before bright ideas. He laughed at the flash of cannon, but he trembled at the flash of a new living thought.
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.
And not far from this monument of the deathless hate Nicholas bore that liberty he had stung to death stands a monument of his admiration for straightforward tyranny, even in the most dreaded enemy his house ever knew. Standing there is a statue in the purest of marble, the only statue in those vast halls. It has the place of honor. It looks proudly over all that glory and keeps ward over all that treasure; and that statue, in full majesty of imperial robes, and bees, and diadem, and face, is of the First Napoleon. Admiration of his tyrannic will has at last made him peaceful sovereign of the Kremlin.
This spirit of absolutism took its most offensive form in Nicholas’s attitude toward Europe. He was the very incarnation of reaction against revolution, and he became the demigod of that horde of petty despots who infest Central Europe. Whenever, then, any tyrant’s lie was to be baptized, he stood its godfather; whenever any God’s truth was to be crucified, he led on those who passed by, reviling and wagging their heads. Whenever these oppressors revived some old feudal wrong, Nicholas backed them in the name of religion; whenever their nations struggled to preserve some great right, Nicholas crushed them in the name of law and order. With these pauper princes his children intermarried, and he fed them with his crumbs and clothed them with scraps of his purple. The visitor can see today, in every one of their dwarf palaces, some of his malachite vases or porcelain bowls or porphyry columns.
But the people of Western Europe distrusted him as much as their rulers worshipped; and some of these same presents to their rulers have become trifle-monuments of no mean value in showing that popular idea of Russian policy. Foremost among these stand those two bronze masses of statuary in front of the Royal Palace at Berlin, representing fiery horses restrained by strong men. Pompous inscriptions proclaim these presents from Nicholas; but the people, knowing the man and his measures, have fastened upon one of these curbed steeds the name of “Progress Checked,” and on the other “Retrogression Encouraged.”
A few days before Nicholas’s self-will brought him to his deathbed we saw him ride through the St. Petersburg streets with no pomp and no attendants, yet in as great pride as ever despotism gave a man. At his approach, nobles uncovered and looked docile, soldiers faced about and became statues, long-bearded peasants bowed to the ground with the air of men on whose vision a miracle flashes. For there was one who could make or mar all fortunes — the absolute owner of street and houses and passers-by — one who owned the patent and dispensed the right to tread that soil, to breathe that air, to be glorified in that sunlight and amid those snow crystals. And he looked it all. Though at that moment his army was entrapped by military stratagem, and he himself was entrapped by diplomatic stratagem, that face and form were proud and confident as ever.
There was in this attitude toward Europe — in this standing forth as the representative man of absolutism, and breasting the nineteenth century — something of greatness; but in his attitude toward Russia this greatness was wretchedly diminished. For, as Alexander I was a good man enticed out of goodness by the baits of Napoleon, Nicholas was a great man scared out of greatness by the ever-recurring phantom of the French Revolution.
In those first days of his reign, when he enforced loyalty with grape-shot and halter, Nicholas dared much and stood firm; but his character soon showed another side. Fearless as he was before bright bayonets, he was an utter coward before bright ideas. He laughed at the flash of cannon, but he trembled at the flash of a new living thought. Whenever, then, he attempted a great thing for his nation, he was sure to be scared back from its completion by fear of revolution. And so, today, he who looks through Russia for Nicholas’s works finds a number of great things he had done, but each is single, insulated, not preceded logically, not followed effectively. Take, as an example of this, his railway-building.
His own pride and Russian interest demanded railways. He scanned the world with that keen eye of his, saw that American energy was the best supplement to Russian capital; his will darted quickly, struck afar, and Americans came to build his road from St. Petersburg to Moscow. Nothing can be more complete. It is an air-line road, and so perfect that the traveler finds few places where the rails do not meet, before and behind him, in the horizon. The track is double, the rails very heavy and admirably ballasted; station-houses and engine-houses are splendid in build, perfect in arrangement, and surrounded by neat gardens. The whole work is worthy of the Pyramid builders. The traveler is whirled by culverts, abutments, and walls of dressed granite, through cuttings where the earth on either side is carefully paved or turfed to the summit. Ranges of Greek columns are reared as crossings in the midst of broad marshes, lions’ heads in bronzed iron stare out upon vast wastes where never rose even the smoke from a serf’s kennel.
All this seems good; and a ride of four hundred miles through such glories rarely fails to set the traveler at chanting the praises of the Emperor who conceived them. But when the traveler notes that complete isolation of the work from all conditions necessary to its success, his praises grow fainter. He sees that Nicholas held back from continuing the road to Odessa, though half the money spent in making the road an imperial plaything would have built a good, solid extension to that most important seaport; he sees that Nicholas dared not untie police regulations, and that commerce is wretchedly meagre. Contrary to what would obtain under a free system, this great public work found the country wretched and left it wretched. The traveler flies by no ranges of trim palings and tidy cottages; he sees the same dingy groups of huts here as elsewhere, the same cultivation looking for no morrow, the same tokens that the laborer is not thought worthy of his hire. This same tendency to great single works, this same fear of great connected systems, this same timid isolation of great creations from principles essential to their growth, is seen, too, in Nicholas’s church-building.
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