THE STATE OF RUSSIA
(From a Correspondent)
[The Pioneer, Allâhâbâd, May 4, 1881]
[In H.P.B.’s Scrapbook, Vol. XI, pp. 81-83, now in the Adyar Archives, there is a pen-and-ink notation at the end of this article which says: “H.P.B.’s article.”]
“Heaven save us from beholding a Russian insurrection, senseless and merciless. Those who in our country would bring about all manner of violent revolutions, are either very young men who do not know our people, or they are hardhearted men who value their own necks at a grosh (pie), and other people’s at less”; so wrote the great poet Alexander Pushkin fifty years ago, though the words are new, being taken from a fragment of a novel, lately discovered among his unpublished papers.
Letters from the most widely separated regions of Russia, dated during the last days of March, show that a period of three weeks had done but little towards even blunting the impression of March 1st (13th). The national wound gapes as wide, and the feelings of horror and consternation are as acute as on the very day of the crime. If public opinion as to the socialists was divided before, it has now become unanimous, and the Nihilists are doomed by their own people. Thus one correspondent writes:—
Russia is hit to the very depths of her soul. To this day we are unable to familiarize ourselves with the terrible reality! The Czar is killed!! and by whom, great God! By the lowest and the meanest of his empire, by the most dishonourable set of ruffians that ever trod
the earth, and in comparison with whom the bloodthirsty Robespierre and Marat appear as the noblest knights, the souls of honour. . . . Never before did Russia groan under such opprobrium and infamy. There have been “palace regicides” before now—as in the case Peter III and Paul—committed secretly and within the four walls. But the killing of a Czar in full daylight, in his own metropolis, amidst his guards and under the very eyes of a population entirely devoted to him, is a crime hitherto unknown in the annals of Russian history—a crime which covers the whole land with disgrace. Had he died his natural death, then perhaps but few would have sincerely regretted him; for immense as were his benefactions to Russia, great also were his wrongs before his people. . . . It is to his weakness and misplaced indulgence that Russia owes the origin and development of that band of madmen. . . . Instead of destroying them as venomous reptiles, he encouraged them, and forgave them as if they were so many mischievous schoolboys, who had to be brought to repentance by kindness and caresses instead of by severe punishment. And when these favoured children began to murder right and left and ended by stealthily approaching his own person then, hoping that the example of a few would prove a sufficient and a salutary warning to all others, these few were hanged, and every one around the Emperor rested on his laurels. Even those of the Nihilists who had been sentenced to Siberia, were nearly all pardoned and allowed to return, for which act of mercy Europe sent us her high approval. Well, it is they who have now thanked the Czar. Grinevitsky, who threw the second bomb which killed him, and Zhelyabov are both ex-convicts, who, upon being pardoned, had returned but recently from Siberia. Luckily for him the Emperor did not suffer. The nervous system was entirely killed by the shock of the explosion, and he bled to death before they had even reached the palace. But if so happily saved from physical torture, what must have been his mental agony, if but for a few seconds! . . . Two witnesses are there to tell the story. One, Colonel Dvorzhitzky, who was at his heels when he approached Rissakoff, and one of the cadets who lifted up his shattered body into the sleigh. Looking the murderer between the eyes, the Emperor was heard to pronounce in a half-audible whisper . . . “A Russian. . . . Oh God! Again a Russian!” . . . And repeated the words to the Grand Duke Michael when expressing his desire to be taken to die in his own palace.*
* [The individuals referred to in this excerpt are: Nikolay Ivanovich Rissakov (1861-81) who threw the first bomb; I. I. Grinevizky (1856-1881), who threw the second bomb; and Andrey Ivanovich Zhelyabov (1850-81). The latter and Rissakov were executed, while Grinevizky died as a result of the explosion.—Compiler.]
Did the poor victim think at that moment of the terrible secret divulged during the last trial of the sixteen Nihilists—Nov. 6th (Oct. 25th, 1880), known as the Kropotkine murder trial? There was a Pole, one Kobilyansky, among the young criminals; and he had been baffled by his brother conspirators in his ambition to be chosen as the one who would lay low the exalted Imperial head—his nationality alone having been judged a sufficient objection, as the Nihilists did not wish the crime to be attributed to national animosity. And there was the Jew—Goldenberg—Kropotkine’s murderer, who had vainly offered himself as a substitute for Solovioff. But they would not have him on account of his Hebrew nationality and religion. They feared that so desperate a deed might throw too great an odium upon his whole race, which had been held by Christians but too often responsible for crimes committed by individual members belonging to it. “None but a Russian hand should be raised against the head of the Russian people, that the world, well aware how deeply the almost religious feeling of loyalty is rooted in every Russian heart, might, from the enormity of the deed, judge of the magnitude of the provocation and the deadliness of the resolve”. . . . And so he who so loved his people perished by the hand of one of his children.
The other letter is from a high military official attached to the Emperor’s staff. He writes:—
Dreadful and ignominious for all Russia was the end of the defunct Sovereign, yet it seems like one marked by destiny itself, and bears evident signs of fatality upon its face. Those near the late Czar have been quite struck by it, as it is one of those events which impresses a forcible conviction on one’s mind, that each of us has his last hour marked out beforehand, and that come it will, whatever we may do to avert it. . . . Three days previous to the tragic event, the chief leaders of all the previous conspiracies—those who had guided the recent attempts in the mining works and explosions on the Moscow railway and other places—had been discovered and secured, at the same time the plan of a new attempt was divulged. The arrests had led to the fear that the runaway “servant-executioners,” as they are termed, deprived of their chiefs and already armed with dynamite, might hurry on to the achievement of their nefarious object upon their own responsibility: hence it was considered absolutely necessary that the police should be allowed a few more days for the apprehension of
the last criminals. Loris-Melikoff supplicated the Emperor to refrain from quitting the palace for four or five days; he represented the great danger to the Princess Yurievsky (Dolgoroukov), and she in her turn conjured the Czar not to risk his life. Strange to say, even the prayers of the latter were rejected: the Emperor refused. Besides the general sketch of the danger, minute details of the Nihilists’ plan were reported by Count Loris-Melikoff to the Czar as already divulged by one of the chiefs. He learnt that it had been decided to stop his carriage by bringing on some accident which would compel him to alight from it, and then to make the last attempt to murder the Czar, the regicide giving up his own life in it of course. All that and much more he knew before leaving the palace. Aware of these details, and warned as he was, how easy, it now seems, to have avoided the catastrophe and frustrated the plot partially, if not wholly. But it so happened that the Emperor went of his own free will to meet, as it were, every step in the premeditated murderous programme; hence his fate. Not only did he drive to the Riding School, but when the first bomb exploded, injuring the carriage, though not disabling it from proceeding further, notwithstanding the supplications of the coachman and the Police Master, who had received beforehand their instructions from Loris-Melikoff to drive, in case of any accident, at full speed to the Palace, and disregarding their remarks that the conspirators were probably numerous, not only did the Czar alight, but he actually walked the distance of about 25 steps from the carriage, mixing with the crowd which had apprehended and surrounded Rissakoff. It was then that the second conspirator, who had already offered his own life in sacrifice to the terrible deed, had a chance of approaching him, and threw the second bomb at his feet. The only neglect that Loris is charged with is, that upon finding the Emperor inexorable in his determination to drive out, he should have insisted upon His Majesty taking not six, but no less than fifty Cossacks in his escort, so as to prevent anyone from approaching the carriage too close, these bombs having to be thrown at a very small distance on account of their weight. But who knew then anything of their nature? And fate does seem unavoidable. The greatest pressure is now being brought on the new Emperor to induce him to shift his headquarters for next Summer, if not for ever, to one of the Moscow suburb palaces. During that time, and when once the new Czar’s safety is ensured, Loris-Melikoff hopes to completely rid Russia of that troop of murderous beasts.
It is significant that the people of Moscow and the adjoining provinces, having sent through their representatives their humble supplications to Alexander III to place himself under their protection, are now thronging the churches of “Moscow the Holy,” and, blessed and led by the priests, come by thousands to pledge their solemn vows before the
holy ikons of their patron saints never to rest so long as there will remain in the Empire one Socialist. And that means an inexorable chase to everyone suspected—death and immediate “Lynch Law” at the hands of the infuriated crowd. Yet the professed object of the Russian Nihilists, as constantly brought forward by the arrested leaders of the deadly secret organization called “the terrorizing faction,” is the salvation of the Russian people. “The idol we sacrifice to is not self, not personal passion, nor profit,” says Goldenberg in his confessions, alleged to have been written prior to his committing suicide in the Petropavlovskaya Fortress (November 1880), but “the good of society in our beloved Russia.” Often, and unjustly indeed, has the Russian populace been suspected of secret sympathy with their would-be benefactors and redeemers; whereas the truth is that these modern Sardanapali, who, prior to perishing themselves, never fail to destroy dozens of innocent victims, were ever abhorred by the lower classes. For long years have many of these educated young men and women, masqueraded in the garb of working people or peasants, and adopting the ways and language of the working classes of Russia, mixed with their “younger brethren.” By sowing dissatisfaction and filling their heads with revolutionary ideas, they hoped to bring about the much desired result—a revival of the days of terror in our own century—but with no effect. That they have signally failed to convert to, or even impress the lower classes with, their own ideas, is no fault of theirs, but is owing to reasons which Europe does not seem to have well realized yet. The mutual relations between the Czars of Russia and the people are unparalleled in history French Bretagne alone, in its undeviating loyalty and devotion to the Bourbon family throughout the great revolution—nay, even now, amidst Republican France—can afford us a point of comparison. But in neither country does that loyalty rest on the individual merits of the sovereign or the personal affection he inspires. Its cause is to be sought for in their religious fanaticism with which that feeling of loyalty is so deeply intermingled, that to weaken the one is to kill the other. Coronation was in France, and is still in Russia, one
of the chief Church Sacraments, and the Czar in the people’s sight is more even than any of the Kings of France ever was—“a Lord’s Elect and His Anointed:” he is thrice sacred. Religion is the Czar’s chief stronghold, without which he would have but a poor chance of security. And that perhaps is the secret of so much outward piety, but too often combined with the greatest moral depravity in the Imperial families. The Russian people were as devoted to Ivan the Terrible, the Russian Nero, and to the half-insane and cruel Paul, as they were to Alexander II, the “Blessed.” The infuriated masses sought after and demanded the life of Dr. Mandt, who, as they erroneously supposed, had poisoned Nicholas I; and in the same manner, if only permitted, they will seek now, and pitilessly take the life of every man or woman suspected of Socialism. Only, in the present case, their fury against the sacrilegious regicides is tenfold intensified by the sincere devotion and personal gratitude they feel for him who was their liberator and benefactor. There have been, Russian enthusiasts who, though shuddering at the thought of crime, have not hesitated to regard the criminals as great heroes.
Russia, says Mme. Z. Ragozhin, “has been visited by a virulent paroxysm of that form of political aberration which made so great a patriot and so pure a man as Mazzini an advocate of political murder, and armed the gentle hand of the romantic, tender-souled boy, Sand, with the political dagger.” (The last trial of the Nihilists.) The comparison is not a happy one. The murder of Kotzebue involved the death but of one isolated victim, and that of the murderer. But the Russian Nihilists with their last bomb have thrown the spark into the very heart of Russia. They have aroused the sleeping monster—the blind vengeance of the unreasoning masses, and thousands of innocent victims may perish yet. Already two men have been beaten to death in the streets of Moscow for tearing the Emperor’s photograph; and the house of Rissakoff’s father, in a small provincial town near Moscow, has to be surrounded night and day by a battalion of armed soldiers to protect it from being razed to the ground, and his parents and household from being
killed, though the poor old man is on the verge of insanity, and has several times attempted to commit suicide. The following scene from the preliminary examination of Sophia Perovsky (Hartman’s paramour and confederate at the railway attempt at Moscow and the chief conspirator now involved), taken from the St. Petersburg Official Gazette, will illustrate both the national feeling and the broken hopes of the Nihilists.* Owing to the unprecedented nature of the case, the judges appointed are armed with unlimited powers.
The young lady [says the Gazette] showed herself extremely insolent and daring before her judges. Their attempts to elucidate from her some details of the crime with which she is connected, proved utterly useless. Looking them fearlessly in the face, she burst out laughing. When pressed to explain the cause of her hilarity, she exclaimed, “I laugh at your tribunal! You will remain as blind now as your police, before whose very nose I waved my pocket handkerchief while giving the signal to my friends to throw the bomb on the day of Emperor’s execution. . . . Having done my work, I quietly retired, and went home without their ever remarking my participation in the final scene. . . . I laugh at you and your police.” . . .
“But think of what lies in prospect before you!” . . .
“Gallows? I know that well, and am prepared for it from the first. I laugh at your gallows as I do at you! “
“But think of God. . . . He. . . .”
“I laugh at your God likewise . . . I do not believe in God.”
“Woman”!—sternly remarked the Judge—“hold you nothing sacred in the world! What is there, then, you do not laugh at?”
She became suddenly serious. “My people”—she said—“The Russian people—is the only object I do not laugh at; it is my sole divinity and idol!”
* * * * * *
The judges after consulting returned—“Prisoner! We will now act according to your own desires. We will put an end to your examination and will not sentence you to any punishment—neither gallows nor even simple exile. We will exempt you altogether from our tribunal; but, taking you to the Palace Square, we will deliver you into the hands
* [Sophia Lvovna Perovsky (1853-81) was the daughter of the Governor of the St. Petersburg Province. She was executed as a result of the trial of the Nihilists.
Official Gazette, later spoken of as Government Gazette, was the Pravitelstvennaya Gazeta which was the official Journal of the Government at the time.—Compiler.]
and justice of your idol—the Russian people. Let it be your only judge. . . . Gendarmes! Lead the prisoner away.”
A quarter of an hour later, Sophia Perovsky was writhing at the feet of the Imperial Procureur. Outside, near the gates of the Tribunal, the agitated masses of populace were howling, cursing, and threatening, at the prison van which brought the political prisoners for their examination, the soldiers vainly trying to keep the threatening crowds at a distance. “Yes! Yes!” she cried ringing her hands—“I will tell you all, all. . . . Sentence me to whatever torture and death you will. . . . But do, oh, do not deliver me unto the people! . . .”
“What a fearful irony in that popular fury directed against their would-be saviours”—remarks the Gazette. “What a mockery in the presence of these unasked-for, self-constituted patriots and leaders of the people. What a depth of Satanic lying in their high ringing phrases about the people being their only ‘idol,’ and of idiotic credulity in those who believe in such like phrases!”