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The Cynosure

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This text was taken from the 1st edition of Memoirs of a Revolutionist, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York, 1899.





In the autumn of 1852 my brother Alexander was sent to the corps of cadets, and from that time we saw each other only during the holidays and occasionally on Sundays. The corps of cadets was five miles from our house, and although we had a dozen horses, it always happened that when the time came to send a sledge to the corps there was no horse free for that purpose. My eldest brother, Nicholas, came home very seldom. The relative freedom which Alexander found at school, and especially the influence of two of his teachers in literature, developed his intellect rapidly, and later on I shall have ample occasion to speak of the beneficial influence that he exercised upon my own development. It is a great privilege to have had a loving, intelligent elder brother.

In the meantime I remained at home. I had to wait till my turn to enter the corps of pages should come, and that did not happen until I was nearly fifteen years of age. M. Poulain was dismissed, and a German tutor was engaged instead. He was one of those idealistic men who are not uncommon among Germans, but I remember him chiefly on account of the enthusiastic way in which he used to recite Schiller's poetry, accompanying it by a most naïve kind of acting that delighted me. He stayed with us only one winter.

The next winter I was sent to attend the classes at a Moscow gymnasium; and finally I remained with our Russian teacher, Smirnóff. We soon became friends, especially after my father took both of us for a journey to his Ryazán estate. During this journey we indulged in all sorts of fun, and we used to invent humorous stories in connection with the men and the things that we saw; while the impression produced upon me by the hilly tracts we crossed added some new and fine touches to my growing love of nature. Under the impulse given me by Smirnóff, my literary tastes also began to grow, and during the years from 1854 to 1857 I had full opportunity to develop them. My teacher, who had by this time finished his studies at the university, obtained a small clerkship in a law court, and spent his mornings there. I was thus left to myself till dinner-time, and after having prepared my lessons and taken a walk, I had plenty of time to read, and especially to write. In the autumn, when my teacher returned to his office at Moscow, while we remained in the country, I was left again to myself, and though in continual intercourse with the family, and spending a good deal of time playing with my little sister Pauline, I could in fact dispose of my time as I liked for reading and writing.

Serfdom was then in the last years of its existence. It is recent history, -- it seems to be only of yesterday; and yet, even in Russia, few realize what serfdom was in reality. There is a dim conception that the conditions which it created were very bad; but those conditions, as they affected human beings bodily and mentally, are not generally understood. It is amazing, indeed, to see how quickly an institution has ceased to exist, and with what rapidity men and things change. I will try to recall the conditions of serfdom by telling, not what I heard, but what I saw.

Uliána, the housekeeper, stands in the passage leading to father's room, and crosses herself; she dares neither to advance nor to retreat. At last, after having recited a prayer, she enters the room, and reports, in a hardly audible voice, that the store of tea is nearly at an end, that there are only twenty pounds of sugar left, and that the other provisions will soon be exhausted.

"Thieves, robbers!" shouts my father. "And you, you are in league with them!" His voice thunders throughout the house. Our stepmother leaves Uliána to face the storm. But father cries, "Frol, call the princess! Where is she?" And when she enters, he receives her with the same reproaches.

"You also are in league with this progeny of Ham; you are standing up for them;" and so on, for half an hour or more.

Then he commences to verify the accounts. At the same time, he thinks about the hay. Frol is sent to weigh what is left of that, and our stepmother is sent to be present during the weighing, while father calculates how much of it ought to be in the barn. A considerable quantity of hay appears to be missing, and Uliána cannot account for several pounds of such and such provisions. Father's voice becomes more and more menacing; Uliána is trembling; but it is the coachman who now enter the room , and is stormed at by his master. Father springs at him, strikes him, but he keeps repeating, "Your highness must have made a mistake."

Father repeats his calculations, and this time it appears that there is more hay in the barn than there ought to be. That shouting continues; he now reproaches the coachman with not having given the horses their daily rations in full; but the coachman calls on all the saints to witness that he gave the animals their due., and Frol invokes the Virgin to confirm the coachman's appeal.

But father will not be appeased. He calls in Makár, the piano-tuner and sub-butler, and reminds him of all his recent sins. He was drunk last week, and must have been drunk yesterday, for he broke half a dozen plates. In fact, the breaking of these plates was the real cause of all the disturbances: our stepmother had reported the fact to father in the morning, and that was why Uliána was received with more scolding than was usually the case, why the verification of the hay was undertaken, and why father now continues to shout that "this progeny of Ham" deserve all the punishments on earth.

Of a sudden there is a lull in the storm. My father takes his seat at the table and writes a note. "Take Makár with this note to the police station, and let a hundred lashes with the birch rod be given to him."

Terror and absolute muteness reign in the house.

The clock strikes four, and we all go down to dinner; but no one has any appetite, and the soup remains in the plates untouched. We are ten at table, and behind each of us a violinist or a trombone-player stands, with a clean plate in his left hand; but Makár is not among them.

"Where is Makár?" our stepmother asks. "Call him in."

Makár does not appear, and the order is repeated. He enters at last, pale, with a distorted face, ashamed, his eyes cast down. Father looks into his plate, while our stepmother, seeing that no one has touched the soup, tries to encourage us.

"Don't you find, children," she says, "that the soup is delicious?"

Tears suffocate me, and immediately after dinner is over I run out, catch Makár in a dark passage, and try to kiss his hand; but he tears it away, and says, either as a reproach or as a question, "Let me alone; you, too, when you are grown up, will you not be just the same?"

"No, no, never!"

Yet father was not among the worst of landowners. On the contrary, the servants and the peasants considered him one of the best. What we saw in our house was going on everywhere, often in much more cruel forms. The flogging of the serfs was a regular part of the duties of the police and of the fire brigade.

A landowner once made the remark to another, "Why is it that the number of souls on your estate increases so slowly? You probably do not look after their marriages."

A few days later the general returned to his estate. He had a list of all the inhabitants of his village brought him, and picked out from it the names of the boys who had attained the age of eighteen, and the girls just past sixteen, -- these are the legal ages for marriage in Russia. Then he wrote, "John to marry Anna, Paul to marry Paráshka," and so on with five couples. "The five weddings," he added, "must take place in ten days, the next Sunday but one."

A general cry of despair rose from the village. Women, young and old, wept in every house. Anna had hoped to marry Gregory; Paul's parents had already had a talk with the Fedótoffs about their girl, who would soon be of age. Moreover, it was season for ploughing, not for weddings; and what wedding can be prepared in ten days? Dozens of peasants came to see the landowner; peasant women stood in groups at the back entrance of the estate, with pieces of fine linen for the landowner's spouse, to secure her intervention. All in vain. The master had said that the weddings should take place at such a date, and so it must be.

At the appointed time, the nuptial processions, in this case more like burial processions, went to the church. The women cried with loud voices, as they are wont to cry during burials. One of the house valets was sent to the church, to report to the master as soon as the wedding ceremonies were over; but soon he came running back, cap in hand, pale and distressed.

"Paráshka," he said, "makes a stand; she refuses to be married to Paul. Father" (that is, the priest) "asked her, 'Do you agree?' but she replied in a loud voice, 'No, I don't.'"

The landowner grew furious. "Go and tell that long-maned drunkard" (meaning the priest; the Russian clergy wear their hair long) "that if Paráshka is not married at once, I will report him as a drunkard to the archbishop. How dares he, clerical dirt, disobey me? Tell him he shall be sent to rot in a monastery, and I shall exile Paráshka's family to the steppes."

The valet transmitted the message. Paráshka's relatives and the priest surrounded the girl; her mother, weeping, fell on her knees before her, entreating her not to ruin the whole family. The girl continued to say "I won't," but in a weaker and weaker voice, then in a whisper, until at last she stood silent. The nuptial crown was put on her head; she made no resistance, and the valet ran full speed to the mansion to announce, "They are married."

Half an hour later, the small bells of the nuptial processions resounded at the gate of the mansion. The five couples alighted from the cars, crossed the yard, and entered the hall. The landlord received them, offering them glasses of wine, while the parents, standing behind the crying daughters, ordered them to bow to the earth before their lord.

Marriages by order were so common that amongst our servants, each time a young couple foresaw that they might be ordered to marry, although they had no mutual inclination for each other, they took the precaution of standing together as godfather and godmother at the christening of a child in one of the peasant families. This rendered marriage impossible, according to Russian Church law. The stratagem was usually successful, but once it ended in a tragedy. Andréi, the tailor, fell in love with a girl belonging to one of our neighbors. He hoped that my father would permit him to go free, as a tailor, in exchange for a certain yearly payment, and that by working hard at his trade he could manage to lay aside some money and to buy freedom for the girl. Otherwise, in marrying one of my father's serfs she would have become the serf of her husband's master. However, as Andréi and one of the maids of our household foresaw that they might be ordered to marry, they agreed to unite as god-parents in the christening of a child. What they had feared happened: one day they were called to the master, and the dreaded order was given.

"We are always obedient to your will," they replied, "but a few weeks ago we acted as godfather and godmother at a christening." Andréi also explained his wishes and intentions. The result was that he was sent to the recruiting board to become a soldier.

Under Nicholas I there was no obligatory military service for all, such as now exists. Nobles and merchants were exempt, and when a new levy of recruits was ordered, the landowners had to supply a certain number of men from their serfs. As a rule, the peasants, within their village communities, kept a roll amongst themselves; but the house servants were entirely at the mercy of their lord, and if he was dissatisfied with one of them, he sent him to the recruiting board and took a recruit acquittance, which had a considerable money value, as it could be sold to any one whose turn it was to become a soldier.

Military service in those times was terrible. A man was required to serve twenty-five years under the colors, and the life of a soldier was hard in the extreme. To become a soldier meant to be torn away forever from one's native village and surroundings, and to be at the mercy of officers like Timoféeff, whom I have already mentioned. Blows from the officers, flogging with birch rods and with sticks, for the slightest fault, were normal affairs. The cruelty that was displayed surpasses all imagination. Even in the corps of cadets, were only noblemen's sons were educated, a thousand blows with birch rods were sometimes administered, in the presence of all the corps, for a cigarette, -- the doctor standing by the tortured boy, and ordering the punishment to end only when he ascertained that the pulse was about to stop beating. The bleeding victim was carried away unconscious to the hospital. The commander of the military schools, the Grand Duke Mikhael, would quickly have removed the director of a corps who had not had one or two such cases every year. "No discipline," he would have said.

With common soldiers it was far worse. When one of them appeared before a court-martial, the sentence was that a thousand men should be placed in two ranks facing each other, every soldier armed with a stick of the thickness of the little finger (these sticks were known under their German name of Spitzruthen, and that the condemned man should be dragged three, four, five, and seven times between these two rows, each soldier administering a blow. Sergeants followed to see that full force was used. After one or two thousand blows had been given, the victim, spitting blood, was taken to the hospital and attended to, in order that the punishment might be finished as soon as he had more or less recovered from the effects of the first part of it. If he died under the torture, the execution of the sentence was completed upon the corpse. Nicholas I and his brother Mikhael were pitiless; no remittance of the punishment was ever possible. "I will send you through the ranks; you shall be skinned under the sticks," were threats which made part of the current language.

A gloomy terror used to spread through our house when it became known that one of the servants was to be sent to the recruiting board. The man was chained and placed under guard in the office, to prevent suicide. A peasant-cart was brought to the office door, and the doomed man was taken out between two watchmen. All the servants surrounded him. He made a deep bow, asking every one to pardon him his willing or unwilling offenses. If his father and mother lived in our village, they came to see him off. He bowed to the ground before them, and his mother and his other female relatives began loudly to sing out their lamentations, -- a sort of half-song and half-recitative: "To whom do you abandon us? Who will take care of you in strange lands? Who will protect you from cruel men?" - exactly in the same way in which they sang their lamentations at a burial, and with the same words.

Thus Andréi had now to face for twenty-five years the terrible fate of a soldier: all his schemes of happiness had come to a violent end.

The fate of one of the maids, Pauline, or Pólya, as she used to be called, was even more tragic. She had been apprenticed to make fine embroidery, and was an artist at the work. At Nikólskoye her embroidery frame stood in sister Hèléne's room, and she often took part in the conversations that went on between our sister and a sister of our stepmother who stayed with Hèléne. Altogether, by her behavior and talk Pólya was more like an educated young person than a housemaid.

A misfortune befell her: she realized that she would soon be a mother. She told all to our stepmother, who burst into reproaches: "I will not have that creature in my house any longer. I will not permit such a shame in my house! oh, the shameless creature!" and so on. The tears of Hèléne made no difference. Pólya had her hair cut short, and was exiled to the dairy; but as she was just embroidering an extraordinary skirt, she had to finish it at the dairy, in a dirty cottage, at a microscopical window. She finished it, and made many more fine embroideries all in the hope of obtaining her pardon. But pardon did not come.

The father of her child, a servant of one of our neighbors, implored permission to marry her; but as he had no money to offer, his request was refused. Pólya's "too gentlewoman-like manners" were taken as an offense, and a most bitter fate was kept in reserve for her. There was in our household a man employed as a postilion, on account of his small size; he went under the name of "bandy-legged Fílka." In his boyhood a horse had kicked him terribly, and he did not grow. His legs were crooked, his feet were turned inward, his nose was broken and turned to one side, his jaw was deformed. To this monster it was decided to marry Pólya, -- she was married by force. The couple were sent to become peasants at my father's estate in Ryazán.

Human feelings were not recognized, not even suspected, in serfs, and when Turguéneff published his little story "Mumú," and Grigoróvich began to issue his trilling novels, in which he made his readers weep over the misfortunes of the serfs, it was to a great number of persons a startling revelation. "They love just as we do; is it possible?" exclaimed the sentimental ladies who could not read a French novel without shedding tears over the troubles of the noble heroes and heroines.

The education which the owners occasionally gave to some of their serfs was only another source of misfortune for the latter. My father once picked out in a peasant house a clever boy, and sent him to be educated as a doctor's assistant. The boy was diligent, and after a few years' apprenticeship made a decided success. When he returned home, my father bought all that was required for a well-equipped dispensary, which was arranged very nicely in one of the side houses of Nikólskoye. In summer time, Sásha the Doctor - that was the familiar name under which this young man went in the household - was busy gathering and preparing all sorts of medical herbs, and in a short time he became most popular in the region round Nikólskoyde. The six people among the peasants came from the neighboring villages, and my father was proud of the success of his dispensary. But this condition of things did not last. One winter, my father came to Nikólskoye, stayed there for a few days, and left. That night Sásha the Doctor shot himself, -- by accident, it was reported; but there was a love-story at the bottom of it. He was in love with a girl whom he could not marry, as she belonged to another landowner.

The case of another young man, Gherásim Kruglóff, whom my father educated at the Moscow Agricultural Institute, was almost equally sad. He passed his examinations most brilliantly, getting a gold medal, and the director of the Institute made all possible endeavors to induce my father to give him freedom and to let him go to the university, -- serfs not being allowed to enter there. "He is sure to become a remarkable man," the director said, "perhaps one of the glories of Russia, and it will be an honor for you to have recognized his capacities and to have given such a man to Russian science."

"I need him for my own estate," my father replied to the many applications made on the young man's behalf. In reality, with the primitive methods of agriculture which were then in use, and from which my father would never have departed, Gherásim Kruglóff was absolutely useless. He made a survey of the estate, but when that was done he was ordered to sit in the servants' room and to stand with a plate at dinner time. Of course Gherásim resented it very much; his dreams carried him to the university, to scientific work. His looks betrayed his discontent, and our stepmother seemed to find an especial pleasure in offending him at every opportunity. One day in the autumn, a rush of wind having opened the entrance gate, she called out to him, "Garáska, go and shut the gate."

That was the last drop. He answered, "You have a porter for that," and went his way.

My stepmother ran into father's room, crying, "Your servants insult me in your house!"

Immediately Gherásim was put under house arrest and chained, to be sent away as a soldier. The parting of his old father and mother with him was one of the most heart-rending scenes I ever saw.

This time, however, fate took its revenge. Nicholas I died, and military service became more tolerable. Gherásim's great ability was soon remarked, and in a few years he was one of the chief clerks, and the real working force in one of the departments of the ministry of war. Meanwhile, my father, who was absolutely honest, and, at a time when almost every one was receiving brides and making fortunes, had never let himself be bribed, departed once from the strict rules of the service, in order to oblige the commander of the corps to which he belonged, and consented to allow an irregularity of some kind. It nearly cost him his promotion to the rank of general; the only object of his thirty-five years' service in the army seemed on the point of being lost. My stepmother went to St Petersburg to remove the difficulty, and one day, after many applications, she was told that the only way to obtain what she wanted was to address herself to a particular clerk in a certain department of the ministry. Although he was a mere clerk, he was the real head of his superiors and could do everything. This man's name was -- Gherásim Ivánovich Kruglóff!

"Imagine, our Garáska!" she said to me afterward. "I always knew that he had great capacity. I went to see him, and spoke to him about this affair, and he said, 'I have nothing against the old prince, and I will do all I can for him.'"

Gherásim kept his word: he made a favorable report, and my father got his promotion. At last he could put on the long-coveted red trousers and the red-lined overcoat, and could wear the plumage on his helmet.

These were the things which I myself saw in my childhood. If, however, I were to relate what I heard of in those years, it would be a much more gruesome narrative: stories of men and women torn from their families and their villages, and sold, or lost in gambling, or exchanged for a couple of hunting dogs, and then transported to some remote part of Russia for the sake of creating a new estate; of children taken from their parents and sold to cruel or dissolute masters; of flogging "in the stables," which occurred every day with unheard-of cruelty; of a girl who found her only salvation in drowning herself; of an old man who had grown gray-haired in his master's service, and at last hanged himself under his master's window; and of revolts of serfs, which were suppressed by Nicholas I's general by flogging to death each tenth of fifth man taken out of the ranks, and by laying waste the village, whose inhabitants, after a military execution, went begging for bread in the neighboring provinces. As to the poverty which I saw during our journeys in certain villages, especially in those which belonged to the imperial family, no words would be adequate to describe the misery to readers who have not seen it.

To become free was the constant dream of the serfs, -- a dream not easily realized, for a heavy sum of money was required to induce a landowner to part with a serf.

"Do you know," my father said to me once, "that your mother appeared to me after her death? You young people do not believe in these things, but it was so. I sat one night very late in this chair, at my writing-table, and slumbered, when I saw her enter from behind, all in white, quite pale, and with her eyes gleaming. When she was dying she begged me to promise that I would give liberty to her maid, Másha, and I did promise; but then, what with one thing and another, nearly a whole year passed without my having fulfilled my intention. Then she appeared, and said to me in a low voice, 'Alexis, you promised me to give liberty to Másha; have you forgotten it?' I was quite terrified; I jumped out of my chair, but she had vanished. I called the servants, but no one had seen anything. Next morning I went to her grave and had a litany sung, and immediately gave liberty to Másha."

When my father died, Másha came to his burial, and I spoke to her. She was married, and quite happy in her family life. My brother Alexander, in his jocose way, told her what my father had said, and we asked her what she knew of it.

"These things," she replied, "happened a long time ago, so I may tell you the truth. I saw that your father had quite forgotten his promise, so I dressed up in white and spoke like your mother. I recalled the promise he had made to her, -- you won't bear a grudge against me, will you?"

"Of course not!"

Ten or twelve years after the scenes described in the early part of this chapter, I sat one night in my father's room, and we talked of things past. Serfdom had been abolished, and my father complained of the new conditions, though not very severely; he had accepted them without much grumbling.

"You must agree, father," I said, "that you often punished your servants cruelly, and even without reason."

"With the people," he replied, "it was impossible to do other wise;" and, leaning back in his easy-chair, he remained plunged in thought. "But what I did was nothing worth speaking of," he said, after a long pause. "Take that same Sábleff: he looks so soft, and talks in such a thin voice; but he was really terrible with his serfs. How many times they plotted to kill him! I, at least, never took advantage of my maids, whereas that old devil T----- went on in such a way that the peasant women were going to inflict a terrible punishment upon him...Good-by bonne nuit!."


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