The easy triumph over the rebels failed to give the victors a sense of security. On the day Nicholas ascended the throne he is said to have addressed these words to his younger brother: 'The revolution is at Russia's gate, but I swear that it will not enter as long as there is breath in me. . . .' If necessary, he was ready to lock up half the population to save the other half from revolutionary infection. There was in him no trace of the duality that marked his predecessor's character. The history of his reign is one of coercion and reaction. Across it lay the shadow of the gallows.
The military settlements were abolished. For the rest, the system remained intact. The Czar was not unaware of the drawbacks of serfdom. On one official occasion he observed that it was 'an evil perceptible and obvious to all.' The police reported to him that it was a 'powder magazine under the State,' that the idea of freedom was spreading among the serfs, and that cases of violence against the masters were on the increase. Some measures were enacted to improve the lot of the peasants, but they were half-hearted and largely ineffectual. The Emperor lacked the courage to take a step that seemed to threaten a social revolution, since emancipation would not only do away with the gentry's rights to the 'souls' they owned but would also encroach upon their claim to their lands. He heeded those of his counsellors who held the institution to be the keystone of the arch, the deep-rooted tree that afforded shade to Church and Throne alike, as one of the ministers put it in arguing against laying the axe to serfdom. Nicholas thus threw away the opportunity for reform offered him by the long period of peace following the suppression of the Decembrist movement.
An innovation was a special department of political police, known as the Third Division of His Majesty's Chancery. Its avowed purpose was 'to guard the foundations of the Russian State.' Placed outside and above the network of administrative offices, it had a wide jurisdiction and was responsible solely to the Czar. It had at its disposal the Corps of Gendarmes and a force of undercover men. The Third Division was the predecessor of the incomparably more infamous and efficient security agency, which, under various names -- the earliest was the Cheka -- has been the watchdog of the Soviet Government.
The schools were subjected to rigid supervision, and an effort was made to confine education, particularly higher education, to the privileged classes. The underlying sentiment, expressed by the Chief of the Third Division, was that in Russia learning should be dispensed, like a poisonous drug, by government prescription only. The head of the educational system wished the schools to be 'intellectual dams,' barring the influx of new ideas. He considered it his duty to retard the nation's mental development, so as to prolong its youth. Control over the Church was tightened and the persecution of religious dissenters intensified. A network of committees kept watch over native publications as well as over imported printed matter.
Occasionally a censor would assume the role of critic and even seek to lead an author in the way he should go. In 1836 a writer was pronounced insane by the authorities for having published an essay which clashed with the official view, as set forth by the Minister of Education, to the effect that 'Russia's past is admirable, its present more than magnificent; as for its future, it is beyond anything that the boldest imagination can picture.' There is a familiar ring about this formula. It fairly epitomizes the Communist party line on Russian history. Yet, Nicholas's rule, while paternalistic and dictatorial, fell short of totalitarianism, certainly in the area of culture. The State made no systematic attempt to mobilize the artists in the service of its policies. They were allowed as a natural and unquestioned right the modicum of freedom without which the creative spirit cannot live.
The severity of the regime was, as usual, tempered by its inefficiency. Despite the stifling atmosphere, the intellectual life of the country made headway. Close contacts with the West were unavoidable. Russian students in the universities abroad were becoming less rare. Somehow or other, forbidden French and German books managed to get into the hands of eager readers in the capitals and even in the provinces. A remarkable body of native letters was growing apace, and a periodical press taking its rise. Literature offered one intellectual interest that could be cultivated in relative freedom by a leisured class cut off from all participation in public life. There was plenty of time for reading and philosophizing, for keeping diaries and writing letters.
Driven back upon themselves, unable to act, men thought and felt. It was an age of tender consciences and tenderer minds. The speculations of the German romantic philosophers, at second hand, enjoyed a great vogue, reaching even the half-educated. Circles were formed for the reading and discussion of Schelling, Fichte, Hegel. In the Moscow salons the talk often touched on abstruse points in metaphysics. Idealistic philosophy, exalting the inner life and the world of the spirit, was the fashion. Spurning ends of a material and transitory nature, such as social betterment, one aspired to what is eternally true and beautiful. One rapturously accepted the world as the incarnation of the Absolute. This 'metaphysical complacency,' as a contemporary called it, was a defense mechanism which enabled men to ignore evils against which they were powerless. A small group of intellectuals, alienated from the people, were chiefly busy searching their souls and comforting themselves the while with Utopian reveries.
Few mutterings and stirrings disturbed the torpor that paralysed the political life of the country in the first two decades of Nicholas's reign. The Marquis de Custine, who visited the country in the late 'thirties, remarked: 'Russia is a cauldron of boiling water, tightly closed and placed on a fire which is becoming hotter and hotter; I fear an explosion.' The cauldron was certainly covered, with officialdom sitting on the lid, but the water was hardly beginning to bubble. In the army the spirit of opposition was dead. It was in the schools that a ferment was beginning to work. A ferment of ideas.
The aristocracy still shunned the universities, and the student body, which was very small, came from groups on the middle rungs of the social ladder. In the 'thirties the University of Moscow, the oldest in the land, was attended by a handful of youths destined to leave their mark on Russian, and not only Russian, political thought. The majority, which included Vissarion Belinsky and Michael Bakunin, were wrapped up in German metapEysics. But there was also a more realistic set. These boys considered themselves heirs of the Decembrists, recited the forbidden verse of jtyleyev, and scarved their throats in the tricolore. They were supported by serf labour, but hated serfdom as they did autocracy.
The outstanding figure among these 'politicals' was Alexander Herzgn. Born of an irregular union between a wealthy Russian aristocrat and a German woman of humble birth, his childhood experiences predisposed him to rebellion. He early absorbed the radical ideas to which a precocious Russian boy, instructed by foreign tutors, one of them a former Jacobin, was exposed. He was thirteen when the Decembrist rising took place, and he was present at the thanksgiving service in the Kremlin after the hangings. The scene made a lasting impression on him. In time the Decembrists became for him the object of a cult.
Already in his early teens he felt himself dedicated to a high and hallowed cause. His enthusiasm was shared by his friend Nick, who was to be his lifelong comrade-in-arms. This Nikolay Ogarev, too, was the son of a wealthy landowner. One afternoon the boys -- they were in their middle teens -- found themselves on the Sparrow (now Lenin) Hills, the panorama of Moscow stretched out gloriously before them in the setting sun. In the exaltation of the moment, they embraced, swearing to devote their lives to the fight for freedom. They kept this vow.
Herzen entered the University in 1829 and applied himself to the study of the natural sciences. He readily became the leader of the small group of like-minded spirits that he found there. The news of fighting on the barricades in Paris in July 1830 and of the November uprising in Warsaw profoundly stirred them, and Herzen added the portrait of~Kosciuszko to his 'icon-case' containing pictures of the heroes of the French Revolution.
Along toward the end of his university years he and his friends discovered the writings of Saint-Simon and Fourier, or rather of their disciples. Socialist teachings were just beginning to gain currency in Russia. In a dramatic dialogue couched in execrable verse, Ogarev recalled how he and Herzen and a third comrade had gathered in a narrow room and sworn on the Bible to dedicate their lives to the people and the cause of liberty 'upon the basis of socialism,' and to that end form a secret society. Thereupon they had fallen on each others' necks and 'wept in young ecstasy.'
What impressed these youths most was Saint-Simon's vision of mankind totally regenerated by a new Christianity, a faith that exalted both the individual and the community. Nor could they fail to be fascinated by doctrines that boldly denounced the failings of the existing order and promised to abolish the exploitation of man by man. They were somewhat repelled by the emphasis Saint-Simonism placed on the role of the State and were inclined to favour Fourier's plan for phalansteries which relied on private initiative and the free co-operation of workers. The failure of the French revolution and of the Polish insurrection had made them question the efficacy of purely political overturns, and now the teachings of the socialists further strengthened their feeling that the time was ripe for more thoroughgoing changes.
Herzen completed his studies in 1833, but the circle over which he presided broke up only the following year, when both he and Ogarev were arrested. The charge against them was that they belonged to a group of young men who gathered to sing songs containing 'vile and ill-intentioned expressions directed against the oath of allegiance to the monarch.' Herzen was discovered by the official investigators to be 'a bold free- thinker, very dangerous to society.' He and Ogarev were under suspicion of having founded a secret organization aiming to overthrow the existing order through the propagation of 'revolutionary opinions permeated with Saint-Simon's pernicious doctrine.' Not that the prosecutor was clear as to whether this Saint-Simon was the socialist or the courtier of Louis XIV and author of the well-known memoirs.
The two friends were deported to the provinces. In the isolation of exile Herzen had moods of despair and of religious exaltation. Yet neither mysticism nor despondency over his own lot could take his mind off the oppression he saw around him, and he continued to be a Christian socialist. A play in verse which he wrote in 1839 exalts Quakerism as a kind of Gospel communism. It ends with a scene in which George Fox gives his blessing to William Penn who is setting out to America to found 'an evangelical commune.'
Toward the end of his enforced stay in the provinces Herzen came upon the works of Hegel, which he had previously known only at second hand. In Petersburg and particularly in Moscow, where he was permitted to spend much time during 1839-41 and where he settled in 1842 after finally regaining his freedom, he found the German thinker all the rage. It is on record that one night in February 1840 a group of young Moscow philosophers, after attending a charity ball, gathered around a supper table to toast all the categories of Hegelian logic, from Pure Being, through Essence, to Idea. Spurred on by the general interest in Hegel, Herzen delved deeper into his writings. The quietist interpretation of the master's teachings was the prevalent one. His maxim: 'All that is rational is real, and all that is real is rational' seemed to justify the acceptance of things as they were. Conservatism thus had the highest philosophical sanction. Both Bakunin and Belinsky unflinchingly adhered to this interpretation. 'To revolt against reality is to kill in oneself the living source of life,' the former wrote, blithely mixing his metaphors. And Belinsky, already an influential critic, did not hestitate to glorify the autocracy in print.
Herzen protested hotly against such a way of understanding Hegel's philosophy. To him the core of it was a sense of existence as an adventure opening up ever-widening horizons, a conception of the cosmos as an endless unfolding of the spirit, proceeding in stages of conflict and conciliation, and reaching in man the summit of self-knowledge and freedom. His instinctive aversion to quietism, his scientific training, his contacts with the seamy side of Russian life, all inclined him to a view of Hegel approximating that of his Leftist disciples in the West. While deploring the master's accent on contemplation and his neglect of action and 'creative reason,' i.e., the will, he perceived in the dialectical conception of history a sanction for political and social change. If everything real is rational, he argued, then rebellion against an order of things grown oppressive is also justified by reason. Herzen reached the conclusion that he later formulated thus: 'The philosophy of Hegel is the algebra of revolution. . . .'
Bakunin, who had been in Germany since the summer of 1840, had arrived independently at the same conclusion. In October, 1842, he published in the pages of a Left Hegelian German review an impassioned essay proclaiming Hegelianism a revolutionary tool and winding up with the dictum which was to become the motto of international anarchism: 'The passion for destruction is also a creative passion.' Belinsky too had undergone a change of heart partly under Herzen's influence. He revolted against an idealism that in concentrating on lofty abstractions ignored the concrete individual, the suffering man and woman, and he turned a jaundiced eye on the phenomenal world about him,
What added zest to the intellectual life in Moscow at this time was the war of words between Westernists and Slavophils. The latter were romantic doctrinaires who found in German philosophy sanction for their distrust of the intellect, their religiosity, their traditionalism. They believed that Russia possessed a culture distinct from and superior to that of the West. It rested on the adamant foundations of the Orthodox faith and on the love which bound the people to the czar. Hence it was destined to supersede European civilization, built as this was on the legalistic principle of the social contract and infected with materalism and unbelief. Hence, too, it behoved Russia to look to herself alone, refusing to borrow from other nations. Only by cultivating her own patrimony would she achieve her salvation and that of the world.
Slavophilism was the backward-looking philosophy of an upper class that had seen its day. Yet the Slavophils were not wholly reactionary. They detested the bureaucracy, and in fact the authorities regarded them with suspicion. Their adherence to the monarchy was tinged with a kind of anarchism. The Russian people, they held, had an inborn distaste for statehood, with its servitude and coercion. Indeed, in their eyes the autocracy was only justified because it allowed the people to shift the burden of political power from their shoulders to those of one individual and so, free of the guilt it entailed, devote themselves to the things of the spirit. The Slavophils abominated the prospect of the government invading the inner life of men. Nothing would have been more abhorrent to them than the modern totalitarian state.
All the early representatives of the school advocated civil liberties, particularly freedom of conscience. And they wished to see the serfs freed. Their thinking showed a strongly democratic, or rather populist, bias. They idealized the Russian folk at the expense of the privileged classes. While these had gone a-whoring after strange gods, the argument ran, the unspoiled peasantry alone had preserved intact the true Orthodox faith, with its living sense of equality and brotherhood. As a result, the daily life of the common people was permeated with a genuine and spontaneous collectivism, which was poles apart from the individualism of the West. The Slavophils made much of the fact -- or rather what they believed to be a fact -- that throughout the Great Russian area the land worked by the peasants had for centuries been held in common and periodically redistributed by the assembly of householders (mir) in each village according to the number of workers or family units (tyagla) in the household. They did not exactly discover the obshchina, as the rural commune was known, with its joint responsibility for the collection of the poll-tax and the fulfilment of the serf's obligations to his master. As far back as 1788 a book, printed in Petersburg had described the institution. But the Slavophils were the first to focus attention on it. Indeed, they exalted it as the very foundation of that authentically Russian way of life on which Peter the Great had laid violent hands and which they were anxious to restore. They saw in it the people's school of ethics, a safeguard against the pauperization of the masses which was going on in the West, a bulwark against the class struggle that was tearing Europe apart. The obshchina, with the native artel -- the guild of work-men sharing equally in the product of their labour -- was the clearest indication that the destiny and mission of Russia, of the Slavic world generally, differed radically from those of the West.
The Slavophil doctrine of the decisive importance of the collectivist elements in peasant life seems to have originated in the late 'thirties. Elaborated in the years that followed, it achieved an extraordinary career.
As for the Westernists -- the name, though thrust upon them by their opponents, was a fitting one -- they were committed to the proposition that Russia moved within the European orbit and that its progress was bound to follow the general lines of European development. Their minds ran in positivist rather than pietistic channels, and they were free from the messianic streak that marked Slavophil thinking. They pinned their faith to institutional reform, where their adversaries were inclined to expect social betterment from a change of heart wrought by divine grace. Both factions, it must be kept in mind, were schools of opinion, representing rival historico-philosophical trends. Neither had formulated a programme of action. Two groups of advanced thinkers, they existed in a political vacuum.
The Westernist school had a mighty champion in the person of Vissarion Belinsky. He was the first prominent man-of-letters in modern Russia who was not a gentleman with a manorial background. The son of a naval doctor, he had to struggle against poverty all his life. With literary criticism as his sole medium of expression, the man, born to 'howl like a jackal,' as he put it, could only coo about such seemingly innocuous subjects as Pushkin's verse or Gogol's prose. Nevertheless, it was to his articles in Otechestvennye zapiski (Fatherland Notes) and, after 1846, in Sovremennik (The Contemporary) that, on the twenty-fifth of each month, young people turned first. After he had repudiated conservative Hegelianism, he managed to insinuate into his prolix essays and reviews a libertarian, democratic outlook, an anguished concern for man's well-being here and now.
This concern was at the heart of what he called his socialism. The doctrine, he wrote to a friend in September, 1841, had become for him 'the idea of ideas . . . the alpha and omega of faith and knowledge.' Collective ownership of the means of production was apparently not an essential part of his new credo. Least of all did socialism mean to him the supremacy of the community over the individual. Society was for him a means of securing and enlarging the life of its members. Towards the end of his short life he came to the conclusion that Russia's hope lay in the development of an industrial middle class, and even at the height of his infatuation with 'sociality' he described the Government of the United States as 'ideal.' He was a political radical, not without a nationalistic bias, who held respect for the dignity of every human being to be the cornerstone of morality and who dreamed of a golden age to come in which men would live in perfect freedom and equality under the rule of reason. There were moments when 'fierce Vissarion' was prepared to bring the millennium about by fire and sword. And -- which was rather uncommon at this period among those who longed for a new social order -- he was possessed of a strong animus against religion.
Naturally such thoughts could only be expressed in talk and private correspondence. One letter of his, a lengthy communication written ten months before his untimely death in May, 1848, and addressed to Gogol, gained wide circulation in manuscript copies. It was an outburst against a book in which the novelist revealed his pietistic and obscurantist outlook.
Belinsky's letter was at once his testament and the manifesto of liberal Westernism. He described Russia as a country which had for a government 'huge corporations of official thieves and robbers,' and completely lacked guarantees protecting the person, the honour, the property of the citizenry. The Orthodox Church he denounced as 'a prop of the knout and a toady to despotism, an institution foreign to Christ, who was the first to teach mankind the principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity.' The Russians, Belinsky insisted, might be ridden by superstitions, but fundamentally they were a level-headed and deeply atheistic people. The country saw its salvation not in mysticism, asceticism, or quietism, but in the advance of civilization, enlightenment, humaneness; it required laws which would be in agreement not with the teachings of the Church, but with common sense and justice; its most pressing needs were emancipation of the serfs, abolition of corporal punishment, strict enforcement of the laws already in existence.
Another protagonist of Westernism was Herzen. As Moscow was the Slavophil stronghold, he took part in the endless disputations that raged in the literary salons there. Night after night he broke lances with Khomyakov, the formidable dialectician, with Konstantin Aksakov, the fighting fanatic, with the Kireyevsky brothers, twin pillars of Orthodoxy and nationalism. He found their theories absurd, chimerical, extremely dangerous, seeing in them, as he put it later, 'fresh oil for anointing the Czar, new chains laid upon thought.' And yet he was simultaneously repelled and attracted by 'the vile coterie.'
As time went on, the relations between the two groups worsened, and early in 1845 there was a complete break. Nevertheless, Herzen retained a certain affection for some of his adversaries, and that not only because their personal characteristics appealed to him. The fact is that at some points his own thinking came close to theirs. Years afterwards he wrote: 'Like Janus, or the two-headed eagle, we looked in opposite directions, but one heart beats in our breasts.' He shared the partiality of his Moscow opponents for everything Russian and their faith in the common people; he was stirred by their intimations of Slavdom's world mission; he was more deeply impressed than he knew by the Slavophil emphasis on the collectivist spirit of the Russian folk, as it was embodied in the obshchina.
His devotion to socialism remained steadfast. It involved an animus against 'capitalism.' An entry in his diary, dated 17 June, 1844, commends the Fourierists for condemning mercantilism and modern industrialism as 'a syphilitic sore infecting the blood and bone of society.' On the positive side, it was a commitment to a humane ideal, now free from supernaturalism. The goal was a secular, rationally organized society. Not that he was clear what form the organization ought to take. Certainly the available blueprints were far from satisfactory. In the writings of Saint-Simon and Fourier there were prophetic hints, he thought, but also des niaiseries. Proudhon's denunciation of private property appealed to him, but he was unable to rid himself of the feeling that private property was essential to a complete personality. As for communism, he could discover in it nothing but 'negation.' Before long he would describe it as 'Russian autocracy upside down.' In any event, socialism was not a subject one could deal with in print. As a writer, he inveighed against quietism in philosophy and indirectly advocated greater freedom in private life.
Some of the Westernists, like the Decembrists before them, assumed that if everyone were assured human rights and the opportunity to pursue his economic advantage, all would be well. Others found this view no longer acceptable. From the West came sinister rumours of the disastrous effects of the laissez-faire policy on the masses. These reports were echoed in the native literature. In a book of philosophic dialogues, published in Petersburg in 1844, one year before the appearance of Engels' The Condition of the Working Class in England, it was argued that unrestricted economic competition wreaks havoc on the health, the happiness, the morals of generations. In 1847 an instructor in the University of Petersburg published a study in which he commended 'the social school of economists' who would restrict freedom of competition, replace anarchy with order, and impose a just and rational organization on industry.
Socialism seemed to offer an escape from the prospect of falling from the frying-pan of quasi-feudalism into the fire of capitalism. It teased the imagination with the dream-like vision of a society where body and spirit were at ease. A contemporary notes that by 1843 the works of Proudhon, Cabet, Fourier, and Leroux were in the hands of everyone in Petersburg, forming 'the object of study, ardent discussion, questions, and all manner of hopes.' In Moscow Saint-Simon was popular. Herzen has it that there socialism went hand in hand with Hegelianism. Nor was the vogue restricted to the capitals. A young engineer, writing from a small town in the province of Yaroslavl, requested his brother to get him La Phalange or the works of Considerant, saying he would rather go without boots than without the books of one of Fourier's apostles. The importation of such literature was of course forbidden, but dealers were careful to stock up on the titles they found on the Index, and pedlars called at the homes of trusted customers, prepared either to lend or sell bootlegged books. Though Slavophilism had adumbrated a connexion between the European Utopias and such native realities as the obshchina and the artel, socialism was plainly an imported article.
As the 'forties wore on, signs of a change in the intellectual climate multiplied. The rise of Slavophilism and Westernism indicated that the contemplation and cultivation of the inner self were giving place to a sense of civic responsibility. Interest in metaphysics was beginning to be supplanted by a concern with the material conditions of life. Here and there young men were turning against the Church and transferring their affections from philosophy to economic theory and the natural sciences. The early stories of Dostoevsky and Turgenev, which belong to this period, carry an undertone of social protest, and occasionally one comes across a piece of fiction in which this note, in spite of the rigours of censorship, sounds clear. Dead Souls, as well as other writings of Gogol, who was a pietist and a religious humanist, were interpreted as satires directed against the system. Literary criticism, under the influence of Belinsky, was becoming a critique of life, hailing the realistic approach and emphasizing the author's duties as a citizen. The civic motif now appears for the first time in the visual arts, notably in the canvases of a group of genre painters. A leading Petersburg journal, in characterizing the spirit of the times, speaks of materialism and 'sociality.' The word was soon to be supplanted by its synonym, 'socialism.' [The term was apparently first used in a French Saint-Simonist review in 1832. Its earliest occurrence in English is dated 1835 in The Encyclopedia Britannica, 9th edition, and 1839 in the Shorter Oxford Dictionary. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, 'socialist' first occurred in 1833, but E. H. Carr (Studies in Revolution, p. 10) traces the word back to 1827, when it appeared in an Owenite publication.]
Although men did no more than read and talk, their interest in social theories and civic affairs drew them together. In Kiev a number of intellectuals marked the twentieth anniversary of the Decembrist uprising by forming a secret brotherhood, which in some respects resembled the Society of the United Slavs. It was inspired by a devotion to evangelical Christianity and a belief in the innate democratic virtues of the Slavic race. The programme called for the emancipation of the serfs and for other radical reforms. A distant objective was the overthrow of the autocracy and the establishment of a federation of Slav republics patterned on the United States of America. The Society, which chose Cyril and Methodius, the apostles to the Slavs, as patron saints, produced some propaganda pieces, which failed, however, to circulate, and after a year's existence it was wiped out by arrests.
A more noteworthy circle existed in Petersburg. Here, from 1845 on, a group of young men gathered once a week to spend a long evening together in the shabby drawing-room of a certain Mikhail Butashevich-Petrashevsky, hereafter referred to as Petrashevsky, a clerk in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
He was a man of unconventional and strongly-held convictions, not without a touch of the crank about him. 'Finding no one worthy of my attachment,' he wrote, 'I have devoted myself to the service of mankind . . . striving for the common good has supplanted in me egoism and the instinct of self-preservation, and respect for truth has freed me from every trace of self-regard.' From the first he had a sense of election, a feeling that he was destined, like Atlas, as he put it, to carry the world on his shoulders. With boundless faith in man's progress under the tutelage of reason, he looked forward to the day when words like 'poverty, suffering, bitterness, coercion, punishment, injustice, vice, and crime' would be mere reminders of past ages like skeletons of antediluvian animals.
In 1841, at the age of twenty, he planned to publish a political review, but went no further than to jot down notes for articles. Several years later he attempted to spread his ideas through the unlikely medium of a dictionary of borrowed words, which he helped to compile. Here he found a way to expound briefly the doctrines of Robert Owen, Saint-Simon, Fourier, and even of the obscure seventeenth-century Utopian, James Harrington. The word 'opposition' gave him a chance to defend civil liberties and the jury system; 'nepotism' allowed him to set forth the advantages of elective government; under 'odalisque' he championed women's rights, under 'Negrophil' he attacked serfdom. The copies of the book, which had somehow slipped by the censors, were of course seized by the police. Petrashevsky now concentrated on the weekly gatherings he had started in his rooms. In connexion with these meetings he ran a co-operative lending library consisting chiefly of forbidden French and German books. He did not, however, confine his efforts to the educated. A born proselytizer, he is said to have joined an artisans' dancing class in order to make converts there. He estimated his acquaintances at eight hundred.
In good time his Fridays became something of an institution, a social and debating club, rather than a secret society. The gatherings were attended by at least a score of men: small officials, army officers, school teachers, several students, writers, including the young Dostoevsky. The company included no women, though they would have been welcome, for 'through women ideas spread faster,' as one visitor put it. It was a group of a lower social status than that of the Decembrists. The talk was not exactly of the kind that befitted sons of the Orthodox Church and loyal subjects of the Czar. Political and literary news was retailed, the moves of the Government were discussed, high officials freely gossiped about, the latest abuses hotly denounced, the necessity for reforms urged. Republican, pacifist, abolitionist, internationalist sentiments were freely voiced; religion, and even the family, were questioned. Here were the first manifestations of the spirit of nihilism, which was to assert itself in the next generation.
The revolution of 1848 made a great stir in the circle. A more formal and serious note crept into the gatherings. It was decided to devote each evening to the study of a definite social problem. Sometimes a speech would be made or a manuscript read. There might be a chairman provided with a bell in the form of a hemisphere surmounted by the figure of Liberty. One evening Petrashevsky spoke on how men of letters could spread their ideas. Again, he argued the need for freedom of the press and discoursed on the difference between social and political liberty, insisting on the necessity for economic change. On one occasion there was a lecture on political economy. On another an instructor in a military college quoted Feuerbach on the harmfulness of religion. A man must know, not believe, and all things are subject to the test of reason -- such was the tenor of a talk which led one visitor, a fervent Christian, to lose his faith. Petrashevsky himself was a freethinker. He once characterized Christ as 'a well-known demagogue who ended his career somewhat unsuccessfully.' But his guests included men who combined radicalism with deep religious feeling.
Often the conversation at the Friday meetings turned to socialism. While to some it was an object of intellectual curiosity, other embraced it as a faith. The core of it, Petrashevsky held, was organization, 'the reaction of the human spirit against the influence of liberalism, an influence which is anarchic and destructive of social life.' By liberalism he meant, of course, laissez-faire policy. He bracketed liberals and bankers as the masters of Western Europe. On another occasion, however, this unbeliever described socialism as 'the dogma of Christian love seeking realization in practical life.'
The particular variety of socialism that commanded the allegiance of many was Fourierism. Just at the time when the Fourierist colonies set up in the United States were falling apart, the French Utopian's doctrines were gaining enthusiastic adherents in Russia. While the Americans had a chance to test out his theories, the Russians had to content themselves with talk, and as a result there was no limit to the extravagance of their daydreams. One Friday Konstantin Timkovsky, a government official, proposed that some country, perhaps the world, be divided into halves, one to be turned over to the Fourierists, the other to the communists, for social experiments. 'Let them live in friendly neighbourliness,' he is reported to have said, 'and borrow from one another the good things each has.'
The host took offence at this concession to communism, a doctrine that neither he nor most of his guests favoured. In their minds it was associated with violence. The fewest shared the attitude of the visitor who looked forward to the time when people would own everything in common, 'just as reason which unites them is common to all men.' Petrashevsky wrote to Timkovsky that the communists had nothing but atheism to offer the Fourierists. The latter, he pointed out, sought to achieve 'gradually and naturally' the aims which the communists would accomplish by force. A square mile of land, he argued, and two thousand men and women were sufficient 'to turn the most fantastic dream of paradisal bliss into reality.' His enthusiasm for the master's teachings was unlimited. When he had first discovered them, he felt as though he had been 'born anew.' It is reported that he had attempted to set up a phalanstery on his own estate, but gave up the idea after his forty serfs had set fire to their paradise. He did not, however, give up the hope of living in a phalanstery himself.
Petrashevsky was resolutely opposed to violence and undemocratic methods. When one of his visitors argued that the transition to the new order might require a temporary dictatorship, he exclaimed that he would kill the dictator with his own hands. His conviction that socialism offered a painless way of solving the social problem and one that was possible under the existing regime was shared by many of his guests. As one habitue had it, Fourierism repudiated 'liberalism, demogagy, mutiny, and rebellion.' Among the frequenters of the Friday meetings there were, however, a few who were less unrealistic and, moreover, temperamentally impatient with Fabian policies. The hard facts of Russian life intruded upon Utopian fantasies. The French reformers' condemnation of capitalist society could not but sharpen the opposition of their Russian followers to the semi-feudal order under which they lived. Certainly not all of Item shared Fourier's political indifferentism. As a matter of fact, Petrashevsky himself favoured the gradual transformation of the Russian Empire into a federated republic like the United States of America. There were intimations of using force against the Czar's Government, and he himself came in for a good deal of obloquy at the gatherings. An army officer was the author of an essay in which he described Nicholas as the anti-Christ spoken of in the Apocalpyse and suggested that the Emperor be put for a few days on the diet of the Vitebsk peasants -- their bread looked like dried horse-dung mixed with straw.
Of course, abolition of serfdom was a general desideratum. And there were those who believed that only a peasant uprising would bring it about. Unlike the Decembrists, some of Petrashevsky's visitors came close to seeing the masses as an active political force. He himself attributed peasant poverty to collective land tenure, but at least one of his guests held that the obshchina was potentially an important national asset.
It has been indicated that the Petrashevsky coterie was in no sense a formal association. Late in 1848 an army officer and another frequenter of the Fridays proposed to set up such an organized body. They spoke of it as 'a brotherhood of mutual aid,' but were vague about its real purpose. Several men met privately to discuss the idea. One of them was Nikolay Speshnev, a substantial young landowner who had travelled abroad and there fallen under the influence of socialist theories. He advocated nationalization of land and government control of the country's entire economy. During the talks about 'the Brotherhood' he expressed the desire to see it organized as a 'purely political society' planning for propaganda and 'insurrection.' Afterwards he explained that he had spoken so boldly in order to bring the discussion to an end by frightening the participants. If that was his purpose, he achieved it, for the matter was dropped.
It is doubtful, however, if he gave up the idea of a secret society. Unlike Petrashevsky, he seems to have believed that a revolution would occur in the near future. The police found among his papers a statement to the effect that 'the undersigned' had joined 'the Russian Society,' and had obligated himself 'to participate openly and fully in the uprising and fight, when the Committee has decided that the time for the insurrection has arrived,' also to enrol other members and have each sign a similar pledge.
Speshnev was not the only one to entertain the thought of an armed uprising. Early in 1849 he had a talk with one, Chernosvitov, who had attended a few Fridays. Imagining that the man -- a former police official who had turned to gold mining in Siberia -- belonged to a secret society, Speshnev, to draw him out, passed himself off as a member of an imaginary underground organization. Thereupon Chernosvitov developed a plan for engineering the revolution: it was to start in Siberia, spread to the Urals, where four hundred thousand men with easy access to arms were waiting for the first sign of revolt, finally reaching the capitals. One of Petrashevsky's numerous acquaintances kept a tobacco shop, which was frequented by young men with whom the proprietor discussed liberty and equality and the chances of a republican regime in Russia. One of these youths, a student by the name of Tolstoy, spoke of surveying the capital with a view to finding sites for barricades. Another, when in his cups, volunteered to kill the Czar.
During the winter of 1848-49 some of the men who had attended the gatherings at Petrashevsky's also formed a more intimate 'salon,' so as to be safe from the secret service agents who, they suspected, not without reason, were mingling with the guests at the Fridays. At a meeting of this group, which included young Dostoevsky in addition to several other men of letters, Speshnev offered to have the writings of the authors present printed abroad and smuggled into the country. At another gathering Filippov. a student, proposed that the members write essays on various aspects of Russian life and reproduce them secretly by lithography. Speshnev's offer was not taken up, nor did the essays or the lithographing materialize. But it appears that a clandestine printing-press was actually set up, though not used. The enterprise, which was a capital offence, was concealed from Petrashevsky. It was carried out by Speshnev and Filippov, aided by half a dozen others, including Dostoevsky.
If the press remained idle, it was not for lack of appropriate copy. Several of the manuscripts which were read aloud at the gatherings were apparently intended for circulation. Such was a story from the pen of a Lieutenant of the Guards, in which a veteran of the Napoleonic wars advised the soldiery to follow the example of the French who had recently got rid of their king. Filippov himself was the author of a propagandist piece in the form of a commentary on the Ten Commandments. It applauded violence against brutal masters on the part of serfs, and described a czar who did not side with the people as 'a ruler whose authority was not from the Lord but from Satan.' Another manuscript that fairly begged to be printed was Belinsky's letter to Gogol, which was mentioned previously. Dostoevsky received a copy of it from Moscow and read it at Petrashevsky's and elsewhere, arousing 'universal rapture.'
On 7 April, 1849, [In ignoring the fact that Fourier was born on 7 April according to the Western calendar, the Russians were twelve days late marking the occasion.], Fourier's birthday was celebrated with a dinner. Eleven men met in a room decorated with a portrait of the master imported from Paris for the occasion. The first speaker pointed out that the event they were commemorating was destined to bring about the transformation of the planet and of the human beings inhabiting it. He held forth in exalted language on some of the more extreme and abstruse aspects of Fourier's teachings, but did not omit to refer to matters nearer home. 'My fatherland,' he exclaimed, 'is in chains, my fatherland is enslaved; religion, ignorance -- the companion of despotism -- have obscured, have stifled its natural inclinations. There is no room, however, for despair. Transfiguration is at hand!' the speaker cried; and it would be brought about by 'pure science.' All applauded; two enthusiasts embraced him.
Then Petrashevsky rose. He referred to himself as one of the oldest 'propagators of socialism.' This doctrine, he explained, sought to harmonize the organization of society with the needs of man's nature. He urged his hearers not to try to invent a new social system, but merely to apply the principle of Fourierism. The difficulties that confronted its Russian adherents should, however, not be minimized, for an unhappy accident had made them representatives of socialism on 'the savage soil' of an ignorant country, and faced them with conditions that neither Fourier himself nor his Western disciples could have foreseen.
The next speaker, after a grandiloquent opening, painted a black picture of the life around him: 'We live in a vast, hideous capital, amidst a monstrous conglomeration of human beings languishing in the grip of monotonous drudgery, soiled by dirty toil, smitten by disease and depravity, a conglomeration broken up into families which injure each other, waste time and energy, and join together to perform useless labours. And yonder the provincial cities strive to imitate the capital, their only aim and highest ambition being to become populous, depraved, monstrous like the capital! Still lower, tens of millions of labourers toil all day long, in sunshine and rain, tilling the soil which is not theirs that it may give them of its scanty fruit. Not for this has man laboured so long, and this is not the crown of his labours; it awaits him, he deserves it, and he will soon take it and cover his tormented head with it, and arise, king of the earth.'
From this point on, the note of exultation dominated his speech. 'We are celebrating the coming redemption of mankind,' he went on. 'To turn this life of torture, disaster, poverty, shame and disgrace into a life harmonious and abundant with joy, wealth, and happiness, and to cover all this poverty-ridden earth with palaces and flowers -- this is our great task, than which there is no greater on earth. . . . We here in our land,' he concluded, with messianic pride, 'will begin the transformation, and the whole earth will accomplish it.'
The practical outcome of the dinner, the first political banquet in Russia, was a decision to undertake a translation of the master's Theorie de Vunite universelle. The plan was not carried out. Some two weeks later the banqueters found themselves behind bars.
The existence of the circle had long been an open secret. In March 1848, Petrashevsky was placed under surveillance. Early in the next year a secret service agent managed to gain his confidence and in March began to frequent the Friday meetings. The result was that on the night of 23 April, 1849, Petrashevsky and some thirty of his visitors were rounded up and imprisoned in the Fortress of Peter arid Paul. Other arrests followed shortly. Altogether over a hundred men were examined. (When the conversation at the gatherings had touched on the question of the total number of 'socialists' in Russia, the estimates -- probably over-generous -- would range from four to eight hundred.)
Many of the prisoners behaved in much the same way as had the Decembrists under arrest. They recanted and pleaded for mercy. Tolstoy declared in a written deposition: 'I am guilty not only of the crimes with which I am charged, but of much greater ones. . . . And I would be a scoundrel if I dared to beg the Czar to spare me. All the mercy I crave is that he should forgive me in his heart, or else life will be poison for me. I can only say, like the prodigal son: "Father, I have sinned against Heaven and in thy sight."'
Petrashevsky was among the few who bore themselves with dignity. He was deeply concerned over the fate of his comrades. He pleaded that if punishment was to be meted out, he alone should receive it: if he could not serve mankind as he had hoped, he wished to serve his country by such an act of self-sacrifice. He did not feel that he or his fellow prisoners had done anything unlawful. They were, he told his judges, not fanatics and monsters, but thinkers, cherishing the truth above all. Let them be shown that they erred and they would give up their convictions. He lectured and upbraided the court. In his memoranda he offered, among other things, to advise the Government on matters of public policy. One of his suggestions was that the Czar finance a phalanstery near Paris. He would thereby end the dangerous hostility between rich and poor in Western Europe, thus earning for himself a fame far above 'Napoleon's ruinous glory.' Believing that he was at the point of death, he bequeathed a third of his possessions to Considerant for the establishment of a phalanstery, and his body to an anatomical theatre.
For a long time Petrashevsky consistently denied any subversive designs. By the seventh month of his incarceration he was reduced to such a state that he declared himself willing to sign any confession presented to him. Solitary confinement, which all the prisoners had to endure, eventually affected his mind.
The Investigating Commission established the fact that a handful of young men met at Petrashevsky's and elsewhere to discuss socialist theories, air pernicious opinions of a liberal nature, and read revolting manuscripts. Nothing was discovered to indicate that they had formed anything like a secret organization with a programme of revolutionary action. At most, theirs was 'a conspiracy of ideas.' Credence was given to Speshnev's statement that 'the Russian Society' mentioned in the pledge found among his papers did not exist and that the pledge itself had neither been seen nor signed by anyone. No trace was found of the press which he and Filippov had confessed to having attempted to set up: it must have been removed from Speshnev's quarters after his arrest. Nevertheless twenty-three men were court-martialled and fifteen of them condemned to death by shooting. The verdict was reviewed by the Auditoriat General, the highest judicial body in the land. It handed down the decision that fully twenty-one of the defendants were liable to capital punishment, but recommended clemency. Accordingly, the Emperor commuted the death sentence to terms of hard labour of varying lengths. The men, including Dostoevsky, were taken to a public square, and there, in the presence of massed troops and a gaping crowd, they heard their death sentences and went through all the preparations for execution. At the last moment they were informed that the Czar in his mercy had made them a gift of their lives.
Petrashevsky and some of his fellow convicts died in Siberian exile. Others returned to European Russia alter having served their terms.
The severity of the punishment meted out to the group which was to become known as the Petrashevists was due to the fact that the upheaval of 1848, like the events of 30 July in Paris and the revolution of 1789, had caused a spasm of reaction in the empire. Russia, a contemporary observed, was Europe's whipping boy. The news of the establishment of the second French republic produced a panic at court. The Czar's first thought was to march his troops to the Rhine. A month later he issued a hysterical manifesto bristling with threats against the revolutionaries and concluding with the words: 'Heed ye, nations, and submit, for God is with us!' He contented himself with assisting the anti-democratic forces in Prussia and putting down the Hungarian insurrection. In conservative circles the growth of the Russian working-class had long been regarded with apprehension. The February revolution enhanced the fear that such a development might lead to a repetition of what was happening in the West. The Governor-General of Moscow ordered that no more factories be built in that city, and it took a good deal of special pleading to overrule him. A high official, writing about those days in his memoirs, noted the appearance of 'a party of Reds who dreamed of a republic even for Russia.' The party was a figment of the dignitary's imagination. The spectre of communism that, according to Marx and Engels, was haunting Europe was seen in the palaces of Russia as well.
While intervening abroad, the Government tightened the bonds at home. The chief of the gendarmerie suggested a war to embitter the people against the French and their teachings. The authorities contented themselves with a campaign against the press. It was forbidden to publish anything 'about working people in France and in other states where political disturbances occurred or could occur.' Never before had censorship been so strict. It was during these years that several authors, including Turgenev, made their acquaintance with jail. Death alone had saved Belinsky from arrest.
The schools too were subjected to new stringencies. The universities were ordered to base their teachings not on rational but on religious truths, and the rectors and deans were enjoined to see to it that nothing in the instruction favoured socialism or communism. The chair of philosophy was abolished on the ground that the subject, while not demonstrably useless, was possibly harmful. All thought of reform, particularly the freeing of the serfs, was abandoned. The country breathed an intolerably oppressive air.
Herzen was spared the experience of living through that period of white terror. He had gone abroad with his family in 1847, to escape the fruitless discussions, the choking atmosphere of despotism. His first contacts with life in Western Europe were disheartening. He discovered that France was dominated by the section of the population that had appropriated all the gains of the Revolution: meshchanstvo (bourgeoisie) . Basically this was to him not so much a social class, but an ethical and aesthetic phenomenon: a spirit hopelessly crass, shallow, ignoble, the tyranny of the mindless mob, the twilight of the soul, the death of culture. The bourgeois, he wrote, had all the vices of the nobleman and the plebeian, and none of their virtues. Herzen was given to changes of heart, but he hardly ever wavered in his dislike of the European middle-class. As he did not put his light under a bushel, he contributed no little to the discrediting of the bourgeoisie in the eyes of his compatriots.
The February revolution found him in Rome and his friend Bakunin in Brussels. Bakunin immediately rushed to Paris and attached himself to the Republican Guard. 'The revolutionary movement,' he wrote, 'will only cease when all of Europe, including Russia, is transformed into a federated democratic republic' And he went off to rouse the Germans and the Poles, only to be arrested in Berlin. By April, when Herzen arrived in the French capital, the political skies were already overcast. With deep interest and growing apprehension, he watched the course of events. During the June massacres he and his wife sat with their Russian friends in a candle-lit room, since the light of a lamp would have seemed too garish, talking in whispers like mourners. He wished he had died on a barricade so that he could have taken some beliefs with him to the grave. Ogarev was then in Russia, but kept abreast of developments abroad. His advice, given in verse, was that those who had not committed suicide flee to America. As, indeed, many Europeans did.
The thought of emigrating to America occurred to Herzen too, but he rejected it. Weren't the United States but an extension of Europe, a revised edition of a familiar text? Furthermore, although the French Republic was becoming a police state, not unlike Nicholas's empire, it still had freedom of the press. He stayed on, spending part of the time in France, part in Italy, his mind furiously at work trying to make out the meaning of the cruel events, to learn the lessons of 1848, 'a pedagogical year.' Chief among them was the failure of political democracy. Universal suffrage, he wrote to friends at home, had given a controlling voice to orang-utans. The omnipotent middle-class was interested not in liberty, but in protecting its property. Except for 'a holy minority,' the masses were incapable of sustained protest. The liberals did not understand them and could offer them no guidance. Paris had become an extinct volcano, its crater filled with mud. Europe had reached an impasse. 'Repent, gentlemen, repent,' Herzen cried, 'the judgment day of your world is here!'
Well, perhaps the doomsday of the old order was not at hand. But the revolution would rise from its ashes, and its objective would be not a 'political revolution' -- the masses would have learned to expect nothing from that -- but socialism. This was what Europe would bequeath to the future as 'the fruit of its efforts, the summit of its development.' Herzen envisaged a vast and violent upheaval, which was bound to wipe out Western civilization. He mourned its end, but hailed 'the chaos and destruction' that would sweep into discard the exploitative society and the centralized state, sacrificing freedom to order, the individual to the collective. Exalting reason as 'the guillotine within man,' he momentarily favoured Blanqui's programme of dictatorship and, with characteristic inconsistency, Proudhon's anarchism. Indeed, he wrote for the latter's shortlived organ, La Voix du Peuple, and backed it financially.
The coup d'etat of 2 December, 1851, and the subsequent establishment of the Second Empire distressed but did not surprise Herzen. Events bore out his blackest anticipations. In his headlong fashion he decided that darkness had descended on Europe. Indeed, he concluded that the old world lay dying. Would the end come through 'the barbarism of the sceptre,' or 'the barbarism of communism,' that 'socialism of vengeance'? In any event, the conflict was inevitable. It might break out anywhere, in Paris or New York, and it would spread far and wide. Reaction having done its worst and wars having changed the face of Europe, the 'have-nots' would rise against the 'haves,' and communism, tempestuous, iniquitous, bloody, would sweep across the earth. Then, he prophesied, amid the ruins of palaces, factories and government offices, there would appear the new tables of the law: a socialist decalogue.
Herzen did not rule out the possibility of Socialism being defeated. He also conceded that the masses, having achieved victory, might become infected with the middle-class spirit. On an earlier occasion he had prophesied that in the fulness of time a new revolution would destroy Socialism. Meanwhile he remained committed to it. Not that the concept lost its vagueness for him. He described or was to describe it variously as embodied Christianity, a stomach problem, man's coming of age, the application of reason to public economy, as imminent, as far-off. He was satisfied that it had the highest moral sanction. Yet he felt the need of finding some guarantee that the socialist ideal was not an insubstantial dream. He believed that he had found such a guarantee at home.
As his disillusionment with the West deepened, his own country appeared to him in a different light. 'Faith in Russia saved me,' he wrote, 'when I was on the brink of moral death.' The Slavophils were right: Russia was different. Unlike effete Europe, it was full of vigour, self-confidence, audacity. In later years he was to speak of the Russians' lack of pieties, their readiness to utter 'with a kind of joy those ultimate, extreme words' which their Western teachers 'barely whisper, blanching and glancing about.' The dead hand of the past did not weigh on this virgin land. Like most Slavs, Russians 'belonged to geography, rather than to history.' Peter had forced Western civilization on his subjects with the help of the knout, so there was little in it that they cherished, surely not the principles of property and authority. Above all, Russia possessed the obshchina.
This institution had its drawbacks: it did not make for the most productive agricultural economy and, which was more deplorable, it submerged the individual. Yet potentially it was of immense value. It was 'the life-giving principle of the Russian people.' With its immemorial tradition of equality, collective ownership of land, and communal self-government, Herzen argued, the obshchina was in effect the seed of a socialist society. Under its aegis the simple villagers practised in their daily living what the noblest minds of Europe only dreamed of. The muzhik was the man of destiny. Herzen had been haunted by the thought that just as Christianity had undone the Roman Empire, so socialism was destined to overwhelm and renew modern civilization. He now decided that since the muzhik's whole being was keyed to a collective mode of existence, not the West but Russia, or rather Slavdom, was in a position to assure the triumph of the new faith. Certainly a purely political change could not tempt the Russians. Taking advantage of her backwardness and of Europe's experience, she might indeed bypass the morass of capitalism and middle-class culture on her way to Socialism. There was no historic necessity for her to follow in the footsteps of other countries.
During the early years of his stay abroad Herzen poured out these ideas in a succession of brilliant, if brittle and somewhat hysterical essays, published in German and French and before long brought out in Russian. Later on he kept returning to these speculations. They had the greatest resonance in intellectual circles at home.
Herzen's thesis regarding the socialist potentialities of the obshchina was corroborated by Baron August von Haxthausen, a Prussian sociologist of archconservative views, who spent most of the year 1843 in Russia investigating conditions there under semi-official auspices. He presented his findings in an imposing two-volume opus published simultaneously in German and French in 1847. In his foreword to this work the author mentions the obshchina and goes on to say: 'In all other countries muffled rumblings announce the approach of a social revolution directed against property. . . . In Russia such an overturn is impossible. There the Utopia of European revolutionaries is already realized.' In his third volume, brought out in 1853, the Baron treated the subject of the peasant commune at some length. Like others before him, he saw its main advantage in that it assured the Empire against the two evils that threatened the other nations with ruin: the proletariat and pauperism. His views on the subject were to play an important part in the controversy centring around the institution of the obshchina. A generation later Anatole Leroy-Beaulieu, another foreign student of Russia, was to write: 'A kind of virtual and latent Socialism, a vague and naive Communism is current among the Russian people. . . . Russia is the only country in the civilized world where one can attempt to abolish private property by decree.'
As an ideologue Herzen had come home, but only in spirit. When the French police informed their Petersburg confreres that he had taken part in an anti-Government street demonstration, he was ordered to return to Russia. But he refused, thus burning his bridges. In 1851 he naturalized himself in Switzerland. But this citizen of the canton of Uri felt himself more profoundly a Russian than ever, with his life work cut out for him. On the one hand, he would acquaint foreigners with his country, which they feared but did not know. On the other, he would make himself the voice of those at home who were tongueless. Although at this time he put his faith in revolution, he knew that his weapon was not the pistol or the bomb, but the printed word.
He had arrived in London, the city of refuge for radicals from the Continent, in 1852, a bereaved and heart-broken man. One of his small sons and his mother had been drowned, and his wife had died in childbirth shortly afterwards. He urgently needed work into which he could throw himself body and soul. Having inherited a considerable fortune, he had an annual income of fifty to sixty thousand francs. He used some of his money to set up, in 1853, the Free Russian Press.
The first sheets to come off it were an appeal to the gentry to take the initiative in liberating the serfs. Otherwise, Herzen asserted, they would be emancipated by the Czar, which would strengthen his despotism, or else abolition would come as the result of a popular rising. The latter alternative meant a blood bath, but this was not too high a price to pay for freedom. Rather tactlessly he went on to tell the landlords that the country was on the eve of an overturn, which would be close to the heart of people living out their lives within the obshchina and that kind of mobile obshchina, the artel. 'Russia will have its rendezvous with revolution,' he concluded, 'in Socialism.' Before long Herzen returned to the subject of emancipation in a pamphlet entitled Baptized Property.
Shortly after the birth of the Second Republic, Fyodor Tyutchev, a diplomat who was also a poet, wrote to the Czar that only two opposing forces remained in Europe: Russia and Revolution, the Christian and the anti-Christian principle. And he pictured the sacred Ark of Empire riding the revolutionary flood which was to overwhelm the Western world. Far from collapsing, the West, coming to the aid of Turkey, dealt Russia a humiliating blow in the Crimean campaign.
The regime was unable to stand the test of war. The shell was splendid, the core rotten, as a contemporary observed. Since no initiative on the part of the public had been tolerated, the administration had to bear the blame for the debacle alone. Its corruption was exposed to plain view and its general incompetence demonstrated with finality. There were patriots who welcomed the fall of Sebastopol, in the hope that national defeat would mean the doom of the regime.
To a degree Herzen shared this defeatism. In a leaflet addressed to the troops stationed in Poland he told them that this was an unjust war, brought on by the Czar's stubbornness and pride, and he urged them not to lift a hand against the Poles, should they start an insurrection. Several incendiary appeals to the peasantry, composed by another expatriate, were run off the Free Press. In addressing his foreign audience, Herzen emphasized the fact that the Russian people were the victims, not the accomplices of their government, and he took every occasion to affirm his faith in Russia as the land peculiarly fitted to assure the victory of Socialism. At least in the beginning he felt that this war was not an ordinary military contest, but a 'fateful' clash destined to usher the Slavic world into the arena of universal history and to sound the knell of the old order.
On New Year's Eve, at a party welcoming 1855, he presented his son, then fifteen years old, with a flamboyant dedication of the Russian edition of his book, From the Other Shore. Herein he told the boy that the only religion he was bequeathing to him was that of revolution, enjoined him to go and preach it in good time to their people at home, and added his blessing, in the name of human reason, personal liberty, and brotherly love.
The boy did not become a revolutionary. The peasants did not rise. The soldiers did not mutiny. The Poles did not rebel -- not yet. But at the close of the winter something occurred to spur Herzen's hopes. On the morning of 4 March (N.S.) he dashed into the children's room waving a copy of The Times. It carried a headline announcing the death of Nicholas I. Later in the morning he celebrated the event in champagne with other emigres, Russian and Polish. The autocrat was dead, perhaps the system would not long outlive him. This end might mean a new beginning.