Page images
PDF
EPUB

first making them put on their best suits and then ducking them in the river. Again, not much more than a century ago, the Empress Anna punished one of the Galitzins, a man of a lineage nobler than her own, by forcing him, amid ironical fêtes of studied insult, to marry a girl from the lowest dregs of the populace, and by nearly freezing both bride and bridegroom to death in a house of ice built expressly for their wedding banquet. Stories such as these enable us to sympathise with Evelyn's feelings, when returning to his house, after its occupancy by Peter, he found it turned into a stable; and we cease to wonder at the mingled dread and disgust with which the Margravine of Baireuth remembers the visit of Peter and Catherine to the Prussian Court. We will dwell no longer on the private annals of the Czars and Czarinas; indeed, until lately, they defy description; but, considering that there are men now living who can remember what a cesspool of corruption St. Petersburg was under Catherine II., the amount of decency, order, and refinement in the courts of her grandsons is certainly wonderful. True, every now and then, facts creep out reminding us of former days; such, for instance, as noble ladies punished for free speech, à la Princesse Sophie; and Constantine at least proved himself in Poland a true descendant of Peter; but, though the passions of the savage may still have lurked within their hearts, they have been concealed with the most studied dissimulation under the genteel comedy of Alexander and the stern dignity of Nicholas.

Yet in spite of the long series of revolting and incredible incidents which mark the annals of the Court of Russia, there is more wit than truth in the saying, that the régime of Russia is a despotism tempered by assassination;' at any rate it is a generalisation based upon very scanty evidence. The facts are these two Czars have been murdered *, - the foolish and drunken Peter III. by his wife, and the mad Paul by his courtiers. The first of these murders was the result of a family quarrel; the second only can be considered a national deposition. And even in the case of Paul, he was a madman as well as a tyrant; had he been the latter alone, judging by the analogy of his predecessors, he would have been safe. Again, a quarter of a century has been said to be the allotted reign of a Czar, and men wondered why his nobles allowed

*The assassination of the unfortunate Ivan VI. can scarcely be quoted against this assertion, seeing that he never was a Czar, except in name, and was deposed, when he was only ayear old, to make way for the Empress Elizabeth, the daughter of Peter the Great.

Nicholas to exceed it. The sole foundation of this story is the accident that Nicholas's immediate predecessor happened to reign for five and twenty years, while, on the other hand, the rule has been that the Russian sovereigns have been remarkable for long reigns. The two Ivans, the first Czar and his grandson, odious as they were to the nobles, ruled each of them above forty years; and Michael and Alexis Romanoff, Peter I., spite of his innovations, and Catherine II., spite of her extravagance and profligacy, all four held the sceptre for more than thirty years. There was, indeed, a plot against the life of Alexander, but it was discovered; and as to his brother, the late Czar, no contemporary monarch was less careful of his person, or had less reason to fear for his safety.

Thus looking back through the history of Russia, we find that despotism, instead of disappearing before the influences of civilisation, has steadily developed itself with the growth of the Empire. The first Princes, the Varangian chiefs of Novgorod and Kief, though reverenced as Demigods by their savage subjects, were conquerors rather than despots. Instead of amalgamating themselves with the Sclavonians, or raising them to their own standard, they degenerated, and quarrelling among themselves, the Tartars found them fighting over the spoils of oppression. These Tartars made slaves of both chiefs and people, and choosing the Grand Duke of Moscow to be their agent,-their steward as it were, over their conquest, they enabled him to destroy his rival princes. This agent and steward of the Tartar Khans turned against them, freed Russia from the Infidels, and stood before the Russians as at once the inheritor of the Tartar tyranny, and the deliverer from its hated rule. Patriotism, truth, honesty, all had become unknown in a nation trodden under food by an inferior race: when therefore the foreign taskmasters were driven out, a domestic despot was necessary, to give the country not only safety from foreign invasion, but order at home. The instinct of self-preservation told the people that the independent power of the nobles was unbearable, that even the independence of the Free Towns was dangerous. Ivan III. was the embodiment of this instinct. By adhering faithfully to it, he made himself the first acknowledged Autocrat, and notwithstanding his craft, cowardice, and cruelty, he is still Ivan the Great in the memory of the Russians, because he gave them the only rule which could secure such a people from conquest or anarchy. If once a sad conjuncture of circumstances causes a nation to hail the advent of a tyrant, and makes tyranny expedient, it needs but a slight change to cause them lose even the wish for freedom, and to worship tyranny,

not on account of the advantages which it offers, but of the force it wields. In a nation thus devoid of honour, thus possessed by the meanest sense of self-preservation, fear, the strongest of all the mere selfish instincts, quickly predominates. Hence the fourth Ivan, that most ferocious tyrant, was also in the minds of the Russians a great Monarch, because he was preeminently Ivan the Terrible. The first of these two Princes convinced the Russians that autocracy was expedient; the second of them fastened it upon their fears; the Romanoff dynasty, the elect of the nation, has wound it round their hearts; while the Czar Peter identified it with the feelings of their souls, by making himself the head of their Church — that is, of a Church which, by its constitution and associations, is of all corruptions of Christianity the one best calculated to train its members to unreasoning obedience to the powers that be.

But though thus appealing to the instincts and fears, thus absorbing the attachment and appropriating while corrupting the devotion of their subjects, yet even in Russia the Sovereigns are compelled to admit that there are other feelings which must be taken into account; - that there are desires and aspirations of patriotism or ambition, which are not satisfied by the mere reverence for arbitrary power. And this brings us to the consideration of the political effects of that form of Government which we have been attempting to trace to its origin. What autocracy means to those under its rule, we need not now endeavour to describe; but what it means to those without its rule, it does concern us to know. Autocracy at home becomes aggression abroad, autocracy in Russia means aggression out of Russia: first, because whatever there is of aspiring ambition among the people must be satisfied at the expense of foreign nations; and, secondly, because the Autocrat himself seeks in plots of foreign intrigue, in schemes of conquest and aggression, refuge or relief from the failure of his best-contrived plans of domestic reform.

The career of both Alexander and Nicholas illustrates this assertion. The life of Alexander is to us one of the most melancholy in history. The name of Romanoff and the title of Czar have of late acquired so much odium, that few of our readers may remember the interest and the hopes once excited by the philanthropic views, the enlightened disposition, and the amiable character of Alexander, though they were allied to consummate duplicity and habitual cunning. His father a passionate madman; his grandmother, by whom he was himself brought up, the vilest of women-the murderess of her husband, his grandfather; with all these wild memories of

[ocr errors]

guilt haunting his home, with madness and crime thus tainting his blood, the assassination of his father suddenly made him autocrat. We do not believe that he participated in this murder, though he knew the deposition was to take place; but he profited by it; the murderers of Paul and their descendants were not excluded from the favour of his sons, but to their last hour the dark shadow of that event hung over the throne. Alexander wished his country well; he professed a desire to teach his people to be free-to be himself the leader of the opposition-the head of the reform party in Russia; - but he was the sole member of it, and therefore he failed. His plans of reform were incomprehensible to his people; they were not even expressed to them in intelligible terms; for a Czar, though omnipotent to repress license, is powerless to teach freedom: he was speechless, for the organs by which he communicated with his people were his officers; and his officers either misinterpreted his message of mildness, or appropriating it to themselves, took advantage of it to amass greater plunder by their misdoings. The chief fault of Alexander was the absence of energy of will; for this want of force made him descend to craft and duplicity. Defeated and disheartened by the conflict with evil at home, he resorted to mystical schemes for the attack of evil abroad,-Holy Alliances and the like,-schemes mystical to him, but turned into mighty instruments of material evil. During the latter part of his reign, when he was most engaged in foreign affairs, the internal government of the Empire was given over to unworthy instruments, so that his rule became almost as oppressive as that of his worst predecessors. Conspiracies, the natural consequence, were framed, and his last hours were embittered by the discovery that the hopes of political amelioration which at one time he had himself fostered, had become transformed into a plot for his own assassination. Immediately after his death this conspiracy broke out. With a cool courage and a determined energy, which it is impossible not to admire, Nicholas crushed the revolt. He seemed possessed by some superhuman impulse, as he tore himself away from the Empress, half paralysed with fear,-advanced almost alone against the insurgent leaders, who were at the head of several thousand armed men, baffled by a look the design of an assassin who raised a poniard against him, and mastered the excited populace by the words, and by a gesture more expressive than words, On your knees, my children!' They obeyed, and Nicholas reigned. Almost at the same moment the artillery, under the Grand Duke Michael, which had remained faithful to the Imperial cause, opened upon the misguided troops, and ten rounds strewed the vast square before the Admiralty with the

wounded and the dead. Few escaped from the massacre which the night terminated. We are assured by an eye-witness that 15,000 persons were slain and were thrown by torchlight into the Neva. The next morning the pavement was already washed clean, and every vestige of slaughter removed. But the hand of the Czar hung heavy on the survivors to the day of their death, and amongst them Prince Troubetskoi, who had been one of the promoters of the liberal and philanthropic schemes of Alexander, was despatched to Siberia for life. The Emperor had given and had received a lesson which was never weakened or effaced. The assassins of Paul had haunted his cradle; the pretended partisans of Constantine inaugurated his reign. Those bloody and terrible scenes stamped his character and his life. 'What a commencement of my reign!' exclaimed he, as he rejoined the Empress; yet the reverses and the errors which closed his life in gloom and danger, left unshaken to the last the fabric of absolute power.

The Grand Duke Nicholas had been apparently excluded by his birth from the succession to the imperial throne. His elder brothers, Alexander (who was eighteen years his senior) and Constantine, preceded him in their rights to that inheritance, and there was no reason to suppose that a complete failure of their issue would leave the crown to the third son of Paul. In early life, and even in the great struggle between Russia and France, when Nicholas was emerging from boyhood, no man discerned in that reserved and taciturn young prince a future Czar, whose reign would fill more than a quarter of the 19th century. He had not the graceful manners and accomplishments of Alexander-he had not the fierce and brutal disposition of Constantine- and before he could ascend the throne of Russia, it was necessary that one of them should expire childless and the other be set aside. The causes which led to the abdication of Constantine are so curious and so little known, that at the risk of a digression from our main subject, we shall here pause to relate them.

It

The marriage of Nicholas with a daughter of King Frederic William III. of Prussia and the beautiful Queen Louise, to whose memory Alexander attached the fondest regard, was an event of no common importance to the imperial family of Russia and to the relations of that empire with the German courts. was the first time that a Princess of the House of Hohenzollern consented to renounce her faith and to leave her country for the stern grandeur of the Court of St. Petersburg. Frederic the Great used to say that he did sufficient honour to the Muscovite Princes when he allowed them to marry the daughters of

« PreviousContinue »