Page images
PDF
EPUB

men so superior to those over whom they ruled, that if the latter had really ascribed to them the divine attributes with which the Russian serf now invests the Czar, there would hardly be cause for wonder. The details which Nestor gives of the invasion of the Varangians, show that far from disowning their superiority, the Sclavonians hastened to acknowledge it, themselves inviting them to rule over them. Every mention of Russia in the Sagas leaves the impression that its Grand Dukes -kings as they are there called—had a more absolute authority, both de jure and de facto, than in either of the three Scandinavian kingdoms. No wonder, seeing that instead of assemblies (things) of independent bonders or peasant proprietors, to control or thwart them, they had merely a few followers to aid them to keep down a conquered people. Too few in number to raise this people to a level with themselves, they gradually lost their real superiority, though they retained all the authority it had conferred. Every year the heroic courage of their forefathers degenerated more and more into cruel ferocity, and they parcelled out their subjects with a reckless disregard of every consideration except that of their own pleasure or profit.

With no sympathy between the rulers and the ruled, with constant quarrels among the rulers themselves, every descendant of Ruric being at feud with his kinsmen, society in Russia was exactly in that condition in which it was least able to resist a foreign invasion, at the very crisis when there came upon it one of the most fearful invasions which any community ever had to endure. The Sclavonians under their Scandinavian leaders fulfilled their task of keeping the march between Europe and Asia until the end of the eleventh century. It was then, however, that a torrent broke in upon them which they were utterly unable to resist - no foray of their old foes tempted across the border, by some special opportunity for plander, or some extraordinary pressure from behind, but a countless host of men, savage indeed like the Avars, Chazars, or Magyars *, with the same uncouth features, broad faces, sunken cruel eyes, and tawny skins, but with the force of a disciplined obedience to chiefs endued with the genius of conquerors. The spirit of conquest has never burned more fiercely than in Genghis Khan and his successors. Alexander of Macedon may have believed it to be his destiny to civilize barbarians, and the Roman generals may have fancied themselves armed missionaries of law and order. The

* Nestor calls the Magyar, Ugre; whence the French, English and German word, Ogre — the trace left by the Magyar invasion on the languages of the West.

ancient Eastern dynasties, Assyrian or Egyptian, aimed at conquering those kingdoms with which they were brought in immediate contact ; and though the Arabs did indeed seek to subject the whole human race to the successors of Mahomet, yet they conquered in the name of Allah, and for the extermination of the infidel. But the idea in the minds of the first Tartar Khans was the conquest of the whole world, for the sake of their own glory; and so firmly were they possessed with this idea that it had in them and in their followers all the force of a faith. When the will of Heaven shall be ac

• complished, when the universe shall have acknowledged

me for its sovereign, then shall there be peace upon the earth, were the proud words of the Great Khan to the ambassadors of St. Louis, and in truth almost all the nations on the earth had reason to fear that until that time there would be war.

• Genghis Khan,' writes the Tanjier Moor, Ibn Batuta, who travelled in Tartary about a century after his death, was a libe

ral-minded, powerful, and corpulent person. His practice was * to assemble and feast the people, who in consequence joined • him in considerable numbers, and made him their leader;' a sufficiently material explanation of his influence,—but he led this people so successfully that they almost worshipped him as a god. All central Asia was conquered by bim, and the empire which he founded was extended by his grandsons, from the frontiers of Poland to the Chinese Sea, and from the frozen steppes of Siberia to the deserts of Arabia. Japan and Egypt were threatened by their arms, and on the shores of the Baltic nine sacks full of ears were the trophy of their defeat of the Teutonic Knights. The panic throughout Europe was intense: Gibbon records the fall of herrings in the English market, because the herring-boats did not venture to put off from Sweden and Norway; and at the mere name of the Tartars the inhabitants of Nice fled from their houses in groundless dread. Great efforts were made to form an alliance of all the kingdoms of Western Europe against the encroachments of the barbarians from the East; for even Germany then knew her danger and her duty, and was as forward as she is now backward in these exertions. The Emperor Frederick II. invited by letters all the nations to his aid; among others, rich England, strong in valorous

men, and guarded by its fleet;' but the first check to the Mongols was given in Austria, and by a German army.

Meantime Russia had not only been overrun and devastated, but conquered. Moscow and Kief were sacked and burnt; even the

* See Gibbon, cap. Ixiv.

old men and infants killed; and almost at the very time that the Norman Barons of England were wresting Magna Charta from their king, the Norman rulers of Russia found both their subjects and theniselves enslaved by a horde of heathen savages.

For more than two hundred years did this slavery continue. The Tartars might have permanently possessed themselves of Russia, as the Turks did of the Lower Empire, — they might have been admitted into the European commonwealth, as were the Magyars; or, if still infected with the devilish opinions of

Mahomet, as more agreeable unto their barbarous rudeness,'* we might have been now contending to rid half Europe of the Moslems, - had it not been that the Great Khan preferred issuing his mandates from his old haunts on the shores of the Caspian, to pitching his tent on the yet bleaker steppes of his new conquest. But though the foreign character of this servitude enabled the enslaved people eventually to cast it off, it increased their degradation while it lasted. No effort was made on the part of the conquerors to amalgamate themselves with the conquered, no attempt to fulfil the office of rulers, not even to keep order; their sole object was tribute, their sole means of obtaining it was terror. During their first incursions they levelled the walls of the cities, killed the able-bodied men, carried off the youths, and then forced the remnant thus deprived of both defence and defenders, to buy exemption from the murders and pillage of fresh inroads. So confident did they feel in the effect of these terrible visitations, that they even ventured to make the ancient leaders of their victims the instruments of their tyranny, and scrupled not to connive at the increasing authority of the Grand Dukes so long as they continued to exact for them their tribute.

Thus while we find the Grand Dukes tamely submitting to every insult, sometimes executed as rebels, often imprisoned, obliged at each accession to take a toilsome journey to the camp of the Golden Horde, to pay their homage to the Khan, who, sitting inside his tent of golden tapestry, called himself Prince of the Universe, saying, ‘God reigns in heaven, and I on earth,'-we also find them at the same time exercising a power more absolute than did any of their ancestors, and acquiring enormous wealth by the profit which they made out of the tribute they collected. They were in fact little better than farmers of Tartar revenue, or overseers of the property of these absentee proprietors, who allowed them to grow rich much in the same manner as a Russian noble now permits his serf to turn tradesman. As, however, the Grand,

[blocks in formation]

6

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

Dukes grew stronger, their masters became weaker: the force with which Genghis Khan had launched his hordes upon civilisation, could not but gradually die out; and, after a bloody struggle, in which Moscow was again burnt and its inhabitants massacred, the absentees were at length forced to allow their vassals to disown their authority. Yet, while becoming free themselves, they remained the overseers of slaves. The patriotic Karamsin dwells mournfully on the effect of these two centuries on the character of his countrymen. National pride,' he says, 'was extinguished amongst them; they had recourse to those artifices which supply the want of strength among men condemned to a servile • obedience. Skilful in deceiving the Tartars, they became • learned in the art of deceiving one another. Buying from the • barbarians their personal safety, they became more greedy of money, and less sensible to insult or to shame, exposed as they were incessantly to the insolence of foreign tyrants. .. Force • took the place of law; pillage, authorised by impunity, was exercised by the Russians as well as by the Tartars. There was no safety on the roads nor within the houses,— theft attacked all property as though it were a contagious malady.

After this time of stupor, when the law awoke • from its dream, it was necessary to have recourse to a severity "unknown to the ancient Russians.' * The Tartar rule had taught the Russian rulers how to use the knout, while their people had learnt from it the yet more terrible lesson that the knout was a necessity; that without tyranny order was impossible; that the price at which they had purchased the leave to live was not yet paid; and that in parting with their treasure they had lost with it their virtue, until they had no choice left but autocracy or anarchy. The hour of autocracy had come: Ivan III. was the man; and there are few instances in history more striking, than the subtle craft with which he made use of the last remnants of patriotism, or rather of serf-like hatred to the foreigner, to build up the fabric of his authority and to destroy all traces of independence.

This exaltation of the central authority in that age was by no means confined to Russia, although there, perhaps, carried to the greatest extent. The fifteenth century was one of those eras, the contemplation of which recalls us from the separate interests or characteristics of the European kingdoms, to remind us how much they are, after all, united in one commonwealth. The work of the barons was done ; this multitude of little rulers, each the sovereign of his own fief, had been necessary in order that the conquering

.

[ocr errors]

* Karamsin, vol. v. p. 447.

[ocr errors]

races should be enabled, while amalgamating with the old inhabitants of the soil, to retain their mastery over them ; but this amalgamation once effected, society demanded better order than could be kept by the jarring hierarchy of the feudal system. Louis XI., Ferdinand of Aragon, our own Henry VII., and we may add Maximilian of Austria,—all contemporaries of Ivan III., during his long reign of forty-three years, were in Western Europe the appointed destroyers of the old system, and the constructors of the new. Never did any age find men more fitted to perform its task. The three first and most distinguished of these princes were curiously alike; endowed with rare though unscrupulous subtlety ; carrying out their designs with persevering determination, and with a courage moral rather than physical, aided by a caution almost amounting to timidity. For the performance of their peculiar task, the vices of the men fitted them almost as much as did the virtues of the monarchs. Ivan III. was an exaggeration of both these vices and these virtues, and his success was therefore the more complete. He found Russia a conglomeration of oligarchies and republics, all writhing under the tyranny of a Mahommedan despot; he left it an independent empire ; not only freeing it from foreign rule, but enlarging its borders, and conquering territories both from the Tartars and the Lithuanians. After a long, fierce resistance to his assaults, Novgorod lost her liberty, soon to be followed by her wealth; and all that was left to her citizens of their Scandinavian freedom, was the proverb, which they must have felt as bitterly ironical as it had once been proudly presumptuous, Who can

resist God and Novgorod the Great ?' No less thoroughly did he humble the oligarchs. One after another, he first absorbed, as completely as Louis XI., the separate apanages of the princes of the blood; thus making the Grand Duke of Moscow not merely the Suzerain, but the actual ruler of all Russia ; and then appealing to the aid of the people, he succeeded in trampling down the Boyards, as Richelieu crushed the French nobles.

Thus far we trace a resemblance between Russia and the West, but here arises the difference. In both cases the monarch put down the aristocracy by help of the people ; but in the one the people were a tiers état the commons; in the other they were serfs, or, at best, freed rather than freemen. No sturdy yeomanry had been possible in a country always in terror of Tartar forays; and when Novgorod fell, hardly any burghers were left. The sole object of the Church was to keep the wealth which the Tartars had allowed it to acquire ; thus the centralisation was not only complete, but unchecked; that is, it was a

[ocr errors]
« PreviousContinue »