WHEN I joined the Circle of Tchaykóvsky, I found its members hotly discussing the direction to be given to their activity. Some were in favor of continuing to carry on radical and socialistic propaganda among the educated youth; but others thought that the sole aim of this work should be to prepare men who would be capable of arousing the great inert laboring masses, and that their chief activity ought to be among the peasants and workmen in the towns. In all the circles and groups which were formed at that time by the hundred, at St. Petersburg and in the provinces, the same discussions went on; and everywhere the second programme prevailed over the first.
If our youth had merely taken to socialism in the abstract, they might have felt satisfied with a simple declaration of socialist principles, including as a distant aim "the communistic possession of the instruments of production," and in the meantime they might have carried on some sort of political agitation. Many middle-class socialist politicians in Western Europe and America really take this course. But our youth had been drawn to socialism in quite another way. They were not theorists about socialism, but had become socialists by living no better than the workers live, by making no distinction between "mine and thine" in their circles, and by refusing to enjoy for their own satisfaction the riches they had inherited from their fathers. They had done with regard to capitalism what Tolstóy urges should be done with regard to war, when he calls upon the people, instead of criticising war and continuing to wear the military uniform, to refuse, each one for himself, to be a soldier and to bear arms. In this same way our Russian youth, each one for himself or herself, refused to take personal advantage of the revenues of their fathers. It was, of course, necessary that they should identify themselves with the people. Thousands and thousands of young men and women had already left their houses, and now they tried to live in the villages and the industrial towns in all possible capacities. This was not an organized movement: it was one of those mass movements which occur at certain periods of sudden awakening of human conscience. Now that small organized groups were formed ready to try a systematic effort for spreading ideas of freedom and revolt in Russia, they were forced to carry on that propaganda among the masses of the peasants and of the workers in the towns. Various writers have tried to explain this movement "to the people" by influences from abroad: "foreign agitators are everywhere," was a favorite explanation. It is certainly true that our youth listened to the mighty voice of Bakúnin, and that the agitation of the International Workingmen's Association had a fascinating effect upon us. But the movement had a far deeper origin: it began before "foreign agitators" had spoken to the Russian youth, and even before the International Association had been founded. It was beginning in the groups of Karakózoff in 1866; Turguéneff saw it coming, and already in 1859 faintly indicated it. I did my best to promote that movement in the Circle of Tchaykóvsky; but I was only working with the tide which was infinitely more powerful than any individual efforts.
We often spoke, of course, of the necessity of a political agitation against our absolute government. We saw already that the mass of the peasants were being driven to unavoidable and irremediable ruin by foolish taxation, and by still more foolish selling off of their cattle to cover the arrears of taxes. We "visionaries" saw coming that complete ruin of a whole population which by this time, alas, has been accomplished to an appalling extent in Central Russia, and is confessed by the government itself. We knew how, in every direction, Russia was being plundered in a most scandalous manner. We knew, and we learned more every day, of the lawlessness of the functionaries, and the almost incredible bestiality of many among them. We heard continually of friends whose houses were raided at night by the police, who disappeared in prisons, and who--we ascertained later on--had been transported without judgment to hamlets in some remote province of Russia. We felt, therefore, the necessity of a political struggle against this terrible power, which was crushing the best intellectual forces of the nation. But we saw no possible ground, legal or semi-legal, for such a struggle.
Our elder brothers did not want our socialistic aspirations, and we could not part with them. Nay, even if some of us had done so, it would have been of no avail. The young generation, as a whole, were treated as "suspects," and the elder generation feared to have anything to do with them. Every young man of democratic tastes, every young woman following a course of higher education, was a suspect in the eyes of the state police, and was denounced by Katkóff as an enemy of the state. Cropped hair and blue spectacles worn by a girl, a Scotch plaid worn in winter by a student, instead of an overcoat, which were evidences of nihilist simplicity and democracy, were denounced as tokens of "political unreliability." If any student's lodging came to be frequently visited by other students, it was periodically invaded by the state police and searched. So common were the night raids in certain students' lodgings that Kelnitz once said, in his mildly humorous way, to the police officer who was searching the rooms: "Why should you go through all our books, each time you come to make a search? You might as well have a list of them, and then come once a month to see if they are all on the shelves; and you might, from time to time, add the titles of the new ones." The slightest suspicion of political unreliability was sufficient ground upon which to take a young man from a high school, to imprison him for several months, and finally to send him to some remote province of the Uráls,--"for an undetermined term," as they used to say in their bureaucratic slang. Even at the time when the Circle of Tchaykóvsky did nothing but distribute books, all of which had been printed with the censor's approval, Tchaykóvsky was twice arrested and kept some four or six months in prison; on the second occasion at a critical time of his career as a chemist. His researches had recently been published in the "Bulletin of the Academy of Sciences," and he had come up for his final university examinations. He was released at last, because the police could not discover sufficient evidence against him to warrant his transportation to the Uráls! "But if we arrest you once more," he was told, "we shall send you to Siberia." In fact, it was a favorite dream of Alexander II. to have somewhere in the steppes a special town, guarded night and day by patrols of Cossacks, where all suspected young people could be sent, so as to make of them a city of ten or twenty thousand inhabitants. Only the menace which such a city might some day offer prevented him from carrying out this truly Asiatic scheme.
One of our members, an officer, had belonged to a group of young men whose ambition was to serve in the provincial Zémstvos (district and county councils). They regarded work in this direction as a high mission, and prepared themselves for it by serious studies of the economical conditions of Central Russia. Many young people cherished for a time the same hopes; but all these hopes vanished at the first contact with the actual government machinery.
Having granted a very limited form of self-government to certain provinces of Russia, the government immediately directed all its efforts to reducing that reform to nothing by depriving it of all its meaning and vitality. The provincial "self-government" had to content itself with the mere function of state officials who would collect additional local taxes and spend them for the local needs of the state. Every attempt of the county councils to take the initiative in any improvement--schools, teachers' colleges, sanitary measures, agricultural improvements, etc.--was met by the central government with suspicion, with hostility,--and denounced by the "Moscow Gazette" as "separatism," as the creation of "a state within the state," as rebellion against autocracy.
If any one were to tell the true history, for example, of the teachers' college of Tver, or of any similar undertaking of a Zémstvo in those years, with all the petty persecutions, the prohibitions, the suspensions, and what not with which the institution was harassed, no West European, and especially no American reader, would believe it. He would throw the book aside, saying, "It cannot be true; it is too stupid to be true." And yet it was so. Whole groups of the elected representatives of several Zémstvos were deprived of their functions, ordered to leave their province and their estates, or were simply exiled, for having dared to petition the Emperor in the most loyal manner concerning such rights as belonged to the Zémstvos by law. "The elected members of the provincial councils must be simple ministerial functionaries, and obey the minister of the interior:" such was the theory of the St. Petersburg government. As to the less prominent people,--teachers, doctors, and the like, in the service of the local councils,--they were removed and exiled by the state police in twenty-four hours, without further ceremony than an order of the omnipotent Third Section of the imperial chancery. No longer ago than last year, a lady whose husband is a rich landowner and occupies a prominent position in one of the Zémstvos, and who is herself interested in education, invited eight schoolmasters to her birthday party. "Poor men," she said to herself, "they never have the opportunity of seeing any one but the peasants." The day after the party, the village policeman called at the mansion and insisted upon having the names of the eight teachers, in order to report them to the police authorities. The lady refused to give the names. "Very well," he replied, "I will find them out, nevertheless, and make my report. Teachers must not come together, and I am bound to report if they do." The high position of the lady sheltered the teachers, in this case; but if they had met in the lodgings of one of their own number, they would have received a visit from the state police, and half of them would have been dismissed by the ministry of education; and if, moreover, an angry word had escaped from one of them during the police raid, he or she would have been sent to some province of the Uráls. This is what happens to-day, thirty-three years after the opening of the county and district councils; but it was far worse in the seventies. What sort of basis for a political struggle could such institutions offer?
When I inherited from my father his Tambóv estate, I thought very seriously for a time of settling on that estate, and devoting my energy to work in the local Zémstvo. Some peasants and the poorer priests of the neighborhood asked me to do so. As for myself, I should have been content with anything I could do, no matter how small it might be, if only it would help to raise the intellectual level and the well-being of the peasants. But one day, when several of my advisers were together, I asked them: "Supposing I were to try to start a school, an experimental farm, a cooperative enterprise, and, at the same time, also took upon myself the defense of that peasant from our village who has lately been wronged,--would the authorities let me do it?" "Never!" was the unanimous reply.
An old gray-haired priest, a man who was held in great esteem in our neighborhood, came to me, a few days later, with two influential dissenting leaders, and said: "Talk with these two men. If you can manage it, go with them and, Bible in hand, preach to the peasants....Well, you know what to preach....No police in the world will find you, if they conceal you....There's nothing to be done besides; that's what I, an old man, advise you."
I told them frankly why I could not assume the part of Wiclif. But the old man was right. A movement similar to that of the Lollards is rapidly growing now amongst the Russian peasants. Such tortures as have been inflicted on the peace-loving Dukhobórs, and such raids upon the peasant dissenters in South Russia as were made in 1897, when children were kidnapped so that they might be educated in orthodox monasteries, will only give to that movement a force that it could not have attained five-and-twenty years ago.
As the question of agitation for a constitution was continually being raised in our discussions, I once proposed to our circle to take it up seriously, and to choose an appropriate plan of action. I was always of the opinion that when the circle decided anything unanimously, each member ought to put aside his personal feeling and give all his strength to the task. "If you decide to agitate for a constitution," I said, "this is my plan: I will separate myself from you, for appearance' sake, and maintain relations with only one member of the circle,--for instance, Tchaykóvsky,--through whom I shall be kept informed how you succeed in your work, and can communicate to you in a general way what I am doing. My work will be among the courtiers and the higher functionaries. I have among them many acquaintances, and know a number of persons who are disgusted with the present conditions. I will bring them together and unite them, if possible, into a sort of organization; and then, some day, there is sure to be an opportunity to direct all these forces toward compelling Alexander II. to give Russia a constitution. There certainly will come a time when all these people, feeling that they are compromised, will in their own interest take a decisive step. If it is necessary, some of us, who have been officers, might be very helpful in extending the propaganda amongst the officers in the army; but this action must be quite separate from yours, though parallel with it. I have seriously thought of it. I know what connections I have and who can be trusted, and I believe some of the discontented already look upon me as a possible centre for some action of this sort. This course is not the one I should take of my own choice; but if you think that it is best, I will give myself to it with might and main."
The circle did not accept that proposal. Knowing one another as well as they did, my comrades probably thought that if I went in this direction I should cease to be true to myself. For my own personal happiness, for my own personal life, I cannot feel too grateful now that my proposal was not accepted. I should have gone in a direction which was not the one dictated by my own nature, and I should not have found in it the personal happiness which I have found in other paths. But when, six or seven years later, the terrorists were engaged in their terrible struggle against Alexander II., I regretted that there had not been somebody else to do the sort of work I had proposed to do in the higher circles at St. Petersburg With some understanding there beforehand, and with the ramifications which such an understanding probably would have taken all over the empire, the holocausts of victims would not have been made in vain. At any rate, the underground work of the executive committee ought by all means to have been supported by a parallel agitation at the Winter Palace.
Over and over again the necessity of a political effort thus came under discussion in our little group, with no result. The apathy and the indifference of the wealthier classes were hopeless, and the irritation among the persecuted youth had not yet been brought to that high pitch which ended, six years later, in the struggle of the terrorists under the executive committee. Nay,--and this is one of the most tragical ironies of history,--it was the same youth whom Alexander II., in his blind fear and fury, ordered to be sent by the hundred to hard labor and condemned to slow death in exile; it was the same youth who protected him in 1871-78. The very teachings of the socialist circles were such as to prevent the repetition of a Karakózoff attempt on the Tsar's life. "Prepare in Russia a great socialist mass movement amongst the workers and the peasants," was the watchword in those times. "Don't trouble about the Tsar and his counselors. If such a movement begins, if the peasants join in the mass movement to claim the land and to abolish the serfdom redemption taxes, the imperial power will be the first to seek support in the moneyed classes and the landlords and to convoke a Parliament,--just as the peasant insurrection in France, in 1789, compelled the royal power to convoke the National Assembly; so it will be in Russia."
But there was more than that. Separate men and groups, seeing that the reign of Alexander II. was hopelessly doomed to sink deeper and deeper in reaction, and entertaining at the same time vague hopes as to the supposed "liberalism" of the heir apparent,--all young heirs to thrones are supposed to be liberal,--persistently reverted to the idea that the example of Karakózoff ought to be followed. The organized circles, however, strenuously opposed such an idea, and urged their comrades not to resort to that course of action. I may now divulge the following fact which has never before been made public. When a young man came to St. Petersburg from one of the southern provinces with the firm intention of killing Alexander II., and some members of the Tchaykóvsky circle learned of his plan, they not only applied all the weight of their arguments to dissuade the young man, but, when he would not be dissuaded, they informed him that they would keep a watch over him and prevent him by force from making any such attempt Knowing well how loosely guarded the Winter Palace was at that time, I can positively say that they saved the life of Alexander II. So firmly were the youth opposed at that time to the war in which later, when the cup of their sufferings was filled to overflowing, they took part.