Read CHAPTER XVI of The Land of Thor , free online book, by J. Ross Browne, on ReadCentral.com.

DESPOTISM VERSUS SERFDOM.

The reader has probably discovered by this time that I have no great affection for the political institutions of Europe, and am pretty strong in my prejudices against despotic governments of all sorts. The fact is, I believe our own, with all its faults, is the best system of government ever devised by man.

The Emperor Alexander II. is admitted on all hands to be a most estimable and enlightened sovereign. He possesses, in a greater degree, perhaps, than any of his predecessors, the confidence and affection of his people. All his labors since he ascended the throne in February, 1855, have been directed to the emancipation of the serfs and the general welfare of his country. No fault can be found with him by the most ardent advocate of human liberty. His sympathies are as far as it is practicable for those of an autocrat, clothed with absolute powers, to be in favor of freedom. Toward the people and the government of the United States he entertains the most kindly feeling, and would doubtless sincerely regret the overthrow of our republican system. He has, moreover, devoted himself with unceasing zeal to the abolition of many onerous and unnecessary restrictions upon the liberty of the press and the civil rights of his subjects; encouraged institutions of learning; prohibited to a considerable extent cruelty and oppression in the subordinate branches of the public service; and in all respects has proved himself equal to the great duty imposed upon him, and worthy the esteem and commendation of the civilized world. Yet I can not see what there is in a despotic form of government, under the very best circumstances, to enlist our admiration or win our sympathies. We may respect and appreciate a good ruler, but every autocrat is not good of his kind; nor is every country in a happy condition because it may be exempt from the horrors of commotion. But no sovereign power can ever attain a rank among the civilized nations of the earth beyond the respect to which its brute force may entitle it so long as the very germ of its existence is founded in the suppression of civil and political liberty among its subjects.

What, after all, does the emancipation of the serfs amount to? They are only to be nominally free. The same power that accords them the poor privilege of tilling the earth for their own subsistence may at any time withdraw it. They are not to be owned by individual proprietors, and bought and sold like cattle; but they possess none of the privileges of freemen; have no voice in the laws that govern them; must pay any taxes imposed upon them; may be ordered, at any time, to abandon their homes and sacrifice their lives in foolish and unnecessary wars in which they have no interest; in short, are just as much slaves as they were before, with the exception that during the pleasure of the emperor they can not be sold. But will every emperor be equally humane? There is nothing to prevent the successor of Alexander the Second from restoring the system of serfage, with all its concomitant horrors. It will not be difficult to find a predominating influence among the nobles to accomplish that object; for this has been a long and severe struggle against their influence, and owes its success entirely to the unremitting labors of the sovereign. The next autocrat may labor with equal earnestness to undo this good work; but it matters little, save in name. Despotism and freedom are antipodes, and can not be brought together. It may be said that it would be difficult to enslave a people who had once even partially tasted the sweets of liberty, but the history of Russia does not furnish testimony to that effect.

Since the publication of the ukase abolishing serfdom, there has been a great deal of trouble in the more remote districts between the serfs and their masters, arising chiefly from ignorance on the one side, and discontent and disaffection on the other. Every possible obstacle has been thrown in the way of a fair understanding of its terms. Some idea may be formed of the extreme ignorance and debased condition of the serfs when I mention that in many parts of the country, where the influence of the court is not so immediately felt by the proprietors, they have assumed such despotic powers over their dependents, and exercise to this day such an inexorable command over their lives, liberties, and persons, that the poor creatures have almost learned to regard them as demigods. When a nobleman of high position, owning large tracts of land and many serfs, visits his estates, it is not an uncommon thing to see the enslaved peasantry, who are taught to believe that they exist by his sufferance, cast themselves prostrate before him and kiss the ground, in the Oriental fashion, as he passes. It is a species of idolatry highly soothing to men in official position, who are themselves subjected to almost similar debasement before their imperial master. In some instances, especially at a distance from the capital, the acts of cruelty perpetrated by these cringing and venal nobles, as an offset to the arbitrary rule under which they themselves exist, are enough to make the blood curdle. The knout, a terrible instrument made of thick, heavy leather, and sometimes loaded with leaden balls, is freely used to punish the most trifling offense. Men and women, indiscriminately, are whipped at the pleasure of their masters, the only real restrictions being that if they die within twenty-four hours the owners are subjected to trial for murder; but even that is nearly always evaded. The present emperor has done much to meliorate these abuses; but his orders have to go a great way and through a great many unreliable hands, and it is very difficult to carry them into effect unless they accord with the views of a venal and corrupt bureaucracy and an unprincipled corps of subordinates.

In some of the districts where the serfs were purposely kept in ignorance of the true meaning and intention of the emperor’s ukase, a vague idea took possession of their minds that they were free, and that the proprietors had no right to compel them to labor, or in any way curtail their liberty. Many of them left the estates to which they were attached, and sought occupation elsewhere on their own account; others refused to obey the orders given them by their seigneurs, and a great deal of trouble and bloodshed ensued. In some instances it became necessary to call in the military forces of the district to subdue the mutinous serfs and preserve order. Protests and remonstrances innumerable were addressed to the emperor, pointing out the absolute impracticability of carrying his beneficent scheme into effect, based chiefly on the ground that the serfs themselves were opposed to emancipation. This, of course, occasioned a great deal of anxiety and trouble at head-quarters. It was rather a hard state of things that the very peasants whom he was striving with all his power to serve should, by their insubordination arising sometimes, it was true, from ignorance, but too often from willful misconduct do even more than their masters to frustrate his beneficent designs. These troubles went on from time to time, till eventually a deputation of three hundred serfs made their way to St. Petersburg and solicited an audience of the emperor. His majesty, probably in no very amiable mood, called the deputation before him, and demanded what they desired. They answered that they wished an explanation in regard to his order of emancipation, which many of their people did not understand. Some thought they were to be free in two years, but many thought they were free from the date of the order, with the simple condition that they were to pay sixty rubles to their masters the first year, and thirty the second; others, again, that they were free without any condition whatever. All they wanted to know was, were they free or not? If free, why were they forced to labor for other people; and if not free, was there any prospect that they ever would be? The emperor asked, “Can you read?” Some answered that they could read, others that they could not. “Have you read my order?” demanded the emperor of those who could read. “Yes, your majesty,” they replied, “we have read your order, but we don’t understand it.” All who could read and had read the order were removed on one side. “Now,” said the emperor, turning to the others, “has this order been read to you?” “Yes, your majesty,” they replied, “but we don’t understand it.” “Very well,” observed the emperor; “you seem to be an intelligent set of men, capable of learning, and we shall see that the order is made intelligible. We had supposed it was perfectly clear in its terms; but, since you do not or will not comprehend it, all you who can read must be whipped.” The literary portion of the deputation were then taken off by a file of soldiers, treated to a score or two of lashes each, and sent back to their people to explain the manifesto. “And all you,” said the emperor, turning to the unlearned members of the deputation, “must serve three years as soldiers, during which time we shall see that you are taught to read.” They were accordingly taken off, and furnished with a general outfit of uniforms, and are now serving their imperial master in a military capacity.

Summary justice, that, one might say. It seems, at all events, a pretty prompt method of explaining official documents, and could probably be adopted beneficially in other countries.